Cheering for Church

Last night I was at a baseball game. It’s helpful for me to go to games in September it kind of extends the summer and staves off the pain of what I know is coming as the month’s progress into the ugliness of winter.

The game last night was interesting because though it was a very nice evening there were very few people in the ballpark and the majority of people who were there were fans of the visiting team. So the cheers for the positive things that occurred for the visiting team outshined the cheers for the good play of the home team. It was weird! And I suppose it paid off because the visitors absolutely killed the home team. When we left during the top of the eighth inning it was 14 – 5.

As I contemplated this experience I got to thinking about the church. And the fact that in most churches this is never the case. The “home team” is always represented very well in most of our churches. In the vast majority of our settings there are lots of folks cheering on “our team.” In worship committee meetings we are striving to make sure that the things that we have always done, the things that work best for the people who are already here, are the things we continue to do.

  • At the Trustees meetings we talk about what we need to do to the property to make it work best for, again, the things that affect us (the home team).
  • In the SPRC gatherings we make sure that the pastor is all about the home team, spending all of her or his energy relating to and caring for “our players.”

But I dream of a church that would look something like the game the other night. A church that has a majority of people cheering for and looking out for the “visiting team.” Where the focus is much more about how to reach out to those who aren’t here yet than on the players who regularly make that field their home. I dream of churches whose focus is well beyond the manicured outfields and contoured infields of their space. They look for all kinds of opportunities to invest their money, their time and their energies over the fences into their communities. Their values continue to reflect an investment in the people who aren’t there yet.

I enjoyed the game the other night. It is always fun to be at the ballpark.  But I enjoy even more seeing churches engage in the kind of ministry that cheers on the visiting team in their community. May we be the kind of churches that reflect those values in all we do.


Fall Busyness

FallThe fall season is upon us and for most of us in the church that means the programs ramp up and the busyness begins.

I talk to people all the time who tell me how busy they are. Pastor’s I meet with tell me about all they are doing. Lay people talk about why they can’t serve in various roles because they have so much happening.

I am writing this article on Wednesday morning when it is due at noon because I haven’t yet had time to write it until now!

Doing ministry is a good thing. Giving ourselves to the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of the word is vital as we seek to follow the God of grace and love. But the balance that enables rest as well as busyness is crucial both for our physical and spiritual wellbeing and the effectiveness of our work.

So…right now….right in this moment….…pause with me………………take a breath……….breathe in God’s Spirit……………….allow God to tell you how much God loves you………………how pleased God is with you, not because of what you do or what you have accomplished today, but simply because of who you are.

Let that sink into your soul right now, in this moment.


Handling Conflict

I’m an “S” on the DISC profile which means among other things that I like everybody to get along. I am so much of an “S” that I’ve often said that I wish they would make movies where everything that happened to the characters was good and positive. I have advocated for movies without conflict and struggle, ones where everybody “just got along.”

My wife is a retired English teacher and she assures me that such a story would not work. She has responded to my utopian movie dreams by insisting that conflict is a necessary part of story. She has maintained that such a story would be boring and no one would watch it or read it. I have continued to argue with her, but I know she’s right. Conflict is a necessary part of story because it is an inevitable part of life.

It’s what we do with it however that is so troubling. It’s how we handle the conflicts of life that create such pain and difficulty. As I write this, there is new bombing and further complications in Syria all of which will affect thousands of people and create more and more refugees. There continues to be significant intractability among political parties here in the United States creating greater and greater divide. And the process of dealing with conflict and difference in too many of our local congregations is no picnic either!

I have observed first-hand the level of inappropriate action directed towards those who don’t agree with a given action or perspective. I have seen the church reduced to just short of an angry mob when stirred up by disagreement and conflict. I have witnessed friends, long time fellow congregants, separated over sometimes the smallest of issues in the life of a church. And all this plays out so often in the public arena of a community in which the church’s mission is supposed to be lived out. Sad.

Learning to deal with conflict in effective and helpful ways, ways that take seriously our differences while at the same time offering genuine love and care for one another is what the Church has the opportunity to display. What a witness we could be to a world caught up in consistently vilifying those with whom it doesn’t agree, if we chose to live out a process of dealing with one another that honored differences, and in the face of even stark disagreement always offering love and grace. While my “S” continues to wish for the impossible goal of life without conflict, I do believe that we who know God’s grace have the opportunity and in fact the calling to teach by example a different way of response when the inevitable occurs. May we choose to live our faith in just such a manner.


Seeing Other Perspectives

I am afraid I am getting old. The evidence I would cite is not my more frequent visits to the doctor. The evidence does not arise out of my inability to sleep the night through, or the fact that I have to make some kind of grunting sound whenever I get in or out of a chair! It comes from the fact that I so much want some things to go back to the way they used to be! While I try to embrace change as much as anybody, valuing both the need and benefit change brings, sometimes I just don’t understand the way people think!

Let me give you just one example of the many I could name. I remember well a time when one of the key things any politician seeking to be elected would highlight was their ability to “work across the aisle.” They would tout all the ways that they had been able to accomplish legislation by building coalitions and agreements with members of the other party. That no longer seems to be valued at all.

In fact, during the last mid-year elections I actually heard a candidate being ripped apart by an opponent because they had dared to say that they would work with members of the other party on a given piece of legislation. I was amazed. How could that be a bad thing?? And the problem is it’s not seemingly getting any better.

And while I might be able to deal with that in politics, (though it certainly makes no sense at all), I see the same thing, too often, in the church culture as well. While some are seeking conversations across “party lines,” too often, we just hang out with people who think like we do, understand God the same way we do, and who fall in line with our side on pretty much every issue, decrying the perspective of anyone who doesn’t see it our way.

This is particularly distressing when the breadth of our theology and willingness to engage a variety of understandings of Scripture and God have been so much a part of our history. It is painful to see the lack of willingness to hear one another and to affirm the sacred worth of everyone in the conversation.

I pray for our government leaders that they might move beyond their partisan positioning and genuinely work together to get things done for the good of everyone.

But I pray—especially for our church—that all of us might move in intentional ways, beyond our common spheres of fellowship, where everyone thinks like we do, and intentionally seek out and engage conversations and dialogue with those at the other end of whatever issue we debate. Perhaps if we do, through Christ and the empowerment of God’s Spirit, we might just find ourselves modeling behavior that could help to change all the conversations around us.

Or…..maybe I’m just getting old!



I am now about a week away from completing half of the Church Conferences for this year and I have noticed some trends. Overall I have seen some wonderful ministries being accomplished, some good plans in place. I have heard stories of lives being changed in significant ways. Many churches have had at least one Profession of Faith this year and some have had a significant number of folks making that commitment of their lives their local congregations. Some however continue to report zero Professions of Faith, which is a concern.

Most churches are engaged in some ministry in their community, reaching out to those who are in need and those who don’t have a church home. The ministries are wide and varied and it has been exciting to hear about the people who have been affected in positive ways by the ministry our churches provide. I have especially appreciated the stories of new innovative ministry that folks are discovering as they become more and more passionate about the mission to reach out in effective ways with God’s love. Sadly, there are some churches that not taken any risks this year to engage the need around them or help new people discover the joy of new life in Christ.

The most common areas of struggle were identified in two areas: Leadership and Finances. While some congregations are experiencing strong energized leaders and at least adequate if not abundant giving, many are dealing with self-described “tired leaders,” an inability to recruit new leaders, and inadequate funds. These things do bring about a sense of frustration and weariness. The GR District Leadership Council is looking at who we might bring to our District Conference next spring to speak to us about the struggles around leadership development and stewardship in these changing times. Again, though while these two areas were common places of difficulty for many, there are those congregations that exhibit high energy and real excitement about their future, about where their congregation is going and all that is ahead. I believe that the most important factor in identifying those in that latter category is a clear sense of mission that is identified, known, and is guiding all that is occurring in those congregations. Clearly understanding and claiming the mission helps congregations not only know what to do, but to know what not to do.

The other factor I see in those thriving congregations is a general willingness on the part of the majority of congregants to be a part of carrying out the mission and vision regardless of the personal cost. In other words, a willingness to put themselves and their particular preferences aside for the sake of others, wherever that may be necessary, in order to fulfill the mission.

It’s been a good month and a half of being in congregations across the Grand Rapids and Heartland Districts. I look forward to the rest of the journey this fall.


Worrying about Tomorrow

I have talked with several people lately who have expressed their love for this time of the year. They love the beautiful color, the crisp mornings, and the elimination of many allergens with the first freeze. I like fall as well….kinda. I like fall as an entity unto itself. As a self-contained season it’s fine, but for me fall is the gateway to that next season. The one I have come to despise more and more every year that I live here where cold and snow mark this longest season of the year. For me fall is always viewed through the lens of the huge mountain of winter that follows closely on its heels, and so I struggle with the anticipation of what is to come.

When our daughter was young she had this need to always know what was coming next. We could be at King’s Island or some other annual kid haven having a wonderful time, having just a great day, and Sarah would always need to know what we were doing next. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy the day we were having, but at some point she would always turn her attention to the next thing, she had to be sure that what we were doing tomorrow would be OK too.

As I think about my limited enjoyment of fall due to the pending onslaught of winter and my daughters need to always know what is coming next, it reminds me of those wonderful words of Jesus that I go to so often:

“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?” What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
(Matthew 6:25-34 The Message)

I’m trying to enjoy fall, in the moment! I’m trying not to anticipate the worst in winter but instead remember that winter gives way, one day, to spring! And more than any of that, I am trying to remember that giving my attention to what God is doing now, refusing to get worked up about what might happen tomorrow, because I know that whatever tomorrow brings, good or bad, is manageable through God’s Spirit at work in and through me is the best way to live every day. May that be so for all of us.


Successful Churches

A couple of weeks ago here in Castings, I made some observations about what I have been seeing in congregations as I’ve moved through this church conference season. I would like to continue with another one here today.

While any church can do what I am addressing today I would point especially to churches that are in the Vital Church Initiative (VCI) as the most successful at the moment. While there are many positive aspects I see in churches engaging the VCI, the one that I celebrate perhaps more than any other is what is often described as Mission Alignment.

Mission alignment first involves a clear mission and vision for the church. The mission of The United Methodist Church as a whole often provides the framework for the local churches. “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” When this becomes the mission, then mission alignment means as Bob Farr puts it, “every ministry in the congregation must demonstrate how it will accomplish the mission, and new ministries need to have as their primary purpose, the making of new disciples.”

I see so many of our congregations kind of dabbling. We do a little bit of this, we offer a little bit of that. We do a Bible study here and maybe a fellowship event there. We do a mission trip here and open up our church to a support group there. Not bad things, but there’s often no understanding of how any of these are connected to the mission. It is a ministry stew, if you will, with no real direction.

Mission alignment clarifies this for everyone in the congregation. It enables the creation of linked paths that build upon one another and develop a cohesive growing missional outreach that coordinates everything a church does. It also identifies the things a church needs to stop doing in order to focus all their energy upon the mission. This can be some of the hardest but most important work in the process.

I have been to some churches lately that are really getting this into place in some meaningful ways. My challenge to all of us today is that we strive for a clearer, more effective mission alignment in the places where we serve together. And if you’re not in VCI and need a resource to help, I would recommend Bob Farr and Kay Kotan’s book “10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church.”


Driving Prayers

It is about a seven-mile drive from my house to my office in the Conference Center. The journey takes me north on the East Beatline to Cascade over to Fulton and down to the Conference Center. Most mornings it is about a 20 – 25 minute journey depending upon the lights I make and the traffic.

Over the last several months I have been listening via my iPhone to a daily web cast called Pray-As-You-Go. It is a wonderful British production that begins with music—a very eclectic selection from monastic chants, to African hymns, or American guitar. Next is a Scripture reading followed by questions to ponder. Then some brief music followed by a repeat of the Scripture passage and ultimately a closing Gloria Patri. The whole thing is between 8 and 10 minutes long. I have found it a wonderful way to start the day.

But the contrast of what is playing inside my car and what is going on outside my vehicle on my way into work has caused something of a disconnect for me on too many mornings. As I am listening to the Scripture and trying to take in the beauty and the challenge of the day’s reading, often someone cuts into the traffic in front of me. Other times as I am listening to the worship music, I am trying to maneuver into a better position so that I can move more quickly through the traffic myself. And so on too many mornings as I travel to the office listening to the monks sing and contemplating the Scripture reading, I find myself shifting instantly from meditation into yelling at the idiot who just cut me off! And as I was going through this ritual the other morning, I just started laughing at myself. I had to shake my head in amazement at how easy it was for me to move instantly from contemplating the depth of grace, to the condemnation of the other driver who dared to get in my way!

What a long way I have to go on this journey towards holiness. The evidence is clear, in so many ways, that I have only just begun. I am so grateful for the grace God continues to offer me, God’s forgiving and empowering love that I do not deserve. Maybe someday I will learn how to really offer that incredible grace that I have received in abundance to everyone around me. Maybe even to those driving on the East Beltline in the morning.


10% in Ten Years

circles-logo-300x97I don’t often write about specific ministry programs in this Castings space, but I want to highlight a particular need this week because I truly believe that some of you are called to share in this task and will find it extremely fulfilling.

The ministry is called Circles.  You may have seen and/or read some things recently about this ministry in the Connection E-news or perhaps you have attended one of the information session that have been held.  If you don’t have any awareness of it let me share just a bit of information.  Circles is a ministry that is taking place in a number of cities across the country and now through the initiative of Metro Ministry, is coming to Grand Rapids.

The goal of Circles is to reduce poverty in our city by 10% in ten years.  I like that because it is a reasonable goal.  While I understand the attraction of goals like ending homelessness completely (a goal of one agency whose information meeting I attended when I first came to Grand Rapids), it is really not practical.  And while I am all for Big, Harry, Audacious Goals, I also believe we can get discouraged if we are unrealistic.  So 10% in ten years seems like a pretty significant, yet attainable goal.

Circles seeks to accomplish this task by creating a team (a circle if you will), that works with individuals living in poverty to address the various components of life that put them in that situation.  The goals of Circles are:

  • Empowering people in poverty with skills, knowledge, and support to achieve their goals to become self-sufficient
  • Mobilizing volunteers, community leaders, and organizations
  • Developing leadership
  • Fostering community-level change by raising the community’s poverty IQ
  • Addressing systemic barriers faced by families trying to move out of poverty

The main change agent is the Circle, which consists of a Circles Leader (the person moving out of poverty), the Ally (the person who teams with the Leader to help them accomplish their goals), as well as a team of other support persons providing resources, skills, and hope.  Circles’ unique contribution of long-term relationships (18 month minimum), peer to peer support and accountability, ongoing soft skills training, job competency reinforcement, and the simple presence of a reliable support system has shown proven positive results for those moving out of poverty, and for the communities in which they live and serve.

What I am inviting you to consider is becoming an Ally for someone who is choosing to follow the difficult road out of poverty into a self-sustaining life.  Circles needs some 40 such Allies who are willing to walk this journey alongside a person choosing to change their circumstances.  I believe that in Grand Rapids and the surrounding areas there are 40 United Methodists who might step into this challenge to make a difference in the life of one person, one family, and the community in which we live.

If God is nudging you.  If you are saying to yourself I would love to do that.  If you have said I’m too busy….but God won’t seem to let you go, then I would invite you to follow up and give Circles Director Julie Liske a call.  She can be reached at 616.719.4510.  The web site for Circles is

Pastors, please think about persons in your congregation who might be allies.  Resist the temptation to keep them to yourself!!

I believe this ministry is truly a win/win for the “leader” and the “ally.” As one person put it:

It is impossible to stay passive or quiet after walking alongside someone as they actively work to improve their lives. Circles brings all of us to the table, we all share our gifts and talents, we all listen and learn, and we all take action.  And the world shifts.” 


Being Hospitable

I have begun working with a personal trainer who I am hopeful, will help get me back into some better level of physical shape.  I do far too much sitting and late night eating and I just decided that something had to be done.

I arrived at the fitness center the first day and walked through the door.  I didn’t know where to go or what the protocol was for new clients.  But immediately upon my entry I was greeted by Josh and shown to the room where I could put my things and change into my workout clothes.

Shortly after getting changed, I was shown the workout area and introduced to my trainer.  He was about 6 foot 4 and in wonderful shape.  Feeling inadequate and out of place I made several comments about my lack of ability and the length of time it had been since I had been in the gym.  My trainer listened but always provided positive responses.  He praised the things I was able to do fairly well and in those activities that were particularly lacking he told me we would work on those things. He explained everything he asked me to do and showed me the correct form, teaching and helping me all along the way.

As I left this initial session I got to thinking about my experience and how it might relate to people who come to our churches for the first time.  How often do they have to find their way through the maze (almost literally sometimes!) of our convoluted building looking for the sanctuary or the nursery?  Often even when there are pleasant greeters, folks are welcomed at the door but are then set free to wander on their own.  And when they do find their way into the sanctuary, there is still a labyrinth of words and traditions and activities to navigate.  Here are just a few I encounter in churches as I visit.

  • The ten minutes of announcements about things that rarely relate to visitors
  • A “greeting time” which often feels like a family reunion and is often very awkward for visitors
  • Inside language that is not explained leaving the visitor again to feel on the outside (at the gym every exercise and piece of equipment was explained to me and I never felt as though I was supposed to know it)

On the whole churches are getting better at hospitality. We are learning and growing and committing ourselves to it in new ways.  But there are still opportunities to grow in this important area.  I am looking forward to Jim Ozier’s presence with us at the GR District “Creating a Culture of Hospitality” Event on Saturday, February 27, 2016.  Jim has done extensive work in the area of hospitality and will bring some helpful fresh perspectives.  He along with the other facilitators will provide skills and encouragement to all of us as we seek to grow in our ministries.

Please be sure to get this date on your calendar and plan to bring your leadership to this important day. Registration and additional details coming soon!