Tony Jones, a person who I am familiar with yet don’t know a lot about, has been part of a discussion about the future of seminary. His post can be found here.

The tentmaking idea is not new. It is as old as Paul and probably even older than that. The idea is that pastors serve a church but they also get a ‘real’ job. In theory this keeps them from being a burden on their congregation and a part of the greater society, not cloistered within their church office. Sounds great.

I have often thought about what I would do if I needed to become a tentmaker. The two ‘dream jobs’ are open a pub or open a game store. Not a video game store, but one that sells board games, card games and miniatures. The Game store would be called ‘God Games’ and the pub would be named Proverbs.

I know absolutely nothing about running a business though. Seminary did not teach me anything about it. If I had known that tent making was what I would be getting into maybe I would have majored in business in college. As it is now at the church I have to rely on business people within the congregation to walk me through a budget and a stewardship campaign.

But, even aside from my own failings as a businessman (I get bored during Monopoly, even the McDonald’s version) the church I serve is not keen on a part time anything. They see it as a downgrade, that they are not faithful enough to support a full time pastor. Even though currently there is a deadline on my call (it keeps moving farther out, but it is there) they feel like they need to contribute half of their budget to paying for me. I don’t like it, but that is what they feel called to have.

I have to say that I can see where they are coming from. At Presbytery meetings people look to leadership from the pastors who have been there a while. Big churches with lots of staff are seen as being better in some way, at least they are looked to for guidance by many of the smaller churches. Congregations without a pastor are seen as dwindling or non-vital. They do not seem to get a lot of respect at any level in the denomination.

Really, the church does need to change. Churches at the small end of the spectrum do need to begin looking into other ways of staffing. Whether that means we put more of an effort into yoking congregations and bring back some sort of circuit riding or whether it means making part of seminary a trade school for tentmakers, I am not entirely sure. What I do know is this: we will have to educate not just clergy but all members of the church as to why things are changing. Many will embrace the new opportunities, some will kick and scream and claw so that they can stay right where they are. This is not a seminary or a professional clergy issue, it is a church issue.


Small Church Enemy Number #1: NUMBERS

Wanted: A pastor who will lead good, God centered worship and increase attendance. Needed: Pastor will assist session with growing the church. Panic: Our denomination has lost half of its membership in the last 60 years!!!!!!

Those first two sentences come from some Church Information Forms that I was reading the other day (I like to browse them from time to time, not feeling the call to leave my current position). The last seems to be the response to a report from Louisville about the declining membership of the church.

Why do we get so caught up about numbers? This is a question that I have had to ask my session two or three times a year when they begin to talk about membership. It seems that in this culture of church that we are currently saddled with the only measure of success is how full the pews are or how many names are on the membership roll.

For small churches it makes a bit of sense I suppose. Each member lost is truly noticeable. Not only has part of the family gone, but once you have less than 100 members the countdown ensues. Marge died-99. Sam passed-98. The Monroe family moved-92.

Sure, numbers matter but why are they the be all and end all? Every few months I have to remind my church that we are doing great local mission, keeping the doors open and fully participating with Presbytery and the denomination through per capita and mission giving even though most of the membership is retired, and none of them were the usual doctors and lawyers with big tithes. Yet my congregation in some ways see themselves as failures because that line on the statistical graph is trending downwards.

And there it is: the statistical graph. Every year we fill out our little statistic report and send them in to the denomination headquarters. Numbers are crunched, trends noted and a report issued on the state of the church. That report is released and wails and teeth gnashing go up at all that has been lost.

Sure the census works for the government and I can understand that Louisville needs to find out what the numbers are, but is there not a better way to look at the state of the church? Why are we stuck in a corporate model? Where is God in those numbers?

For all the time that we spend on compiling the report on the state of the church, can we not also compile stories, lists, anecdotes and quotes about where God is moving in the church? Why can’t we at least see some statistics on how many new mission projects were started? From the smallest community garden to the largest denominational project there had to have been at least a hundred new efforts, if not more.

But even that would look at numbers as the goal of the church when the church’s only goal should be to spread the Word and love of God wherever the Spirit leads us.

I don’t have any answers, but maybe if well all put our heads together we can come up with a better measuring stick or just decide to through the stick out and just do what we are called to do: be the church.

Less Reading, More Discussing.

“Oh dear God, please tell me that we will not have to have recently graduated pastor’s for the rest of our existence.”

Those words came to me from a very dear friend in my congregation as we were talking about the strengths of this church. I said that Westminster has been a wonderful place to get a feel for my ministry because they had such good leadership from within the congregation and had a sense of their identity. I then said that perhaps the next time they begin looking for someone to be their pastor they should look for a recent seminary graduate (like I had been).

I was a little disappointed that my friend did not see where I was coming from. She was worried that recent seminary graduates filling the pulpit would mean that Westminster had hit the bottom of the barrel. Always having to teach new pastors meant that they would never get to the big important things.

Recently an open letter was sent out from the Committee on Theological Education highlighting ways that churches, seminaries, the denomination and students could move forward into new patterns and models of ministry. I am excited about the letter, I think a lot of the ideas are great, but I wonder: who has read it? (You can read it here)

Are Presbyteries forming discussion groups? Are churches talking about it after worship? Are seminary presidents going to be coming and speaking at Synods or Presbyteries? Besides the few people that blog and tweet about these things where is the conversation happening? Most of the people that I know who have read the thing are already convinced of the things in it, but what about my friend or the rest of my church?

Recently Westminster has begun a conversation about changing some things that we do (more on this later) . People get discouraged and say how what we are planning wont work. It is at this point that I find myself saying over and over that we can’t just change a structure, we have to change the culture of Westminster.

This denomination does not just need to change the structure of how ministers are trained, we need to change the culture within our churches. We have to begin having serious discussions about what churches think about pastors. We need to begin working within individual congregations to talk about what values they place in those they call and why they want those values. Do want someone who is young but with 4 years of experience and who you will pay the presbytery minimum? Well, that is not going to happen but there are churches out there that think that works.

I love the PCUSA, I loved seminary and I love my church. We need to do more than just send out e-mails with ideas, we need to come up with ways to spread and discuss and refine those ideas. I will be asking our CPM or whatever committee my presbyter directs me to to serious talk about this and to hopefully talk with the rest of the presbytery. I encourage you to begin discussion of your own.

Conference Crunch

My first year at Westminster I attended the Wee Kirk conference. My second year I attended that Festival of Homiletics. This year I have attended no conferences and I do not see anything on the horizon that I will be going to either.

Even with the Big Tent going on practically next door (Indianapolis, 4 hours away) I can’t see a good reason to get out there. The main problem is stewardship. I get a very small allowance for continuing ed and an even smaller one for books. Going to Cokesbury and getting three or four books wipes out my book allowance, going to one conference wipes out my continuing ed. Thinking about adding travel costs makes me curl into the fetal position.

So this year I made a decision, I put the continuing ed money into books and figured that conferences were not going to be a big part of my ministry here. I am pretty happy with the decision, after all most conferences I went to I enjoyed, but they did not change my life or faith. However, there is a part of me that feels like I am missing out. Things go on at those conferences behind the scenes. Conversations are had that help to shape the national discussion of what the church is. Stories are shared and friendships are made.

There are lots of great things out there that help small church pastors get to conferences, but it can still be prohibitively expensive, particularly if interstate travel is involved. Now though there are new ideas being spread around. Ideas like holding conferences on line. Webinars and twitter conversations. Blogs that are linked together with back and forth conversations.

Some of us who work within small churches feel the crunch when it comes to being involved on a national or even regional level. I hope that we will be able to keep looking for new ways to continue the discussion. One of those ways is going on right now with the We Are Presbyterian project. Check it out!

Let’s Talk About Choirs

Beautiful organ music, robed singers, harmonies. These are all things that come to my mind when I think about worship music. Anthems and arias sung by a choir while the congregation looks on, blissfully listening to the music being provided by these semi-professionals who practice weekly to provide something special for Sunday.

What happens then when your choir takes a nosedive?

That is the problem facing my church. We don’t have enough people to sing on Sunday. Those that have the talent don’t have the time and though I am trying hard to remind people that you don’t have to have perfect pitch to sing praise, it just isn’t working.

Thankfully though, this is one problem that we are working through with some success. Instead of twisting arms and threatening the end of days if no one sings, we let that time sit empty when we need to. Or, even better we have filled it with something different.

Our worship committee has invited people to share whatever they want as an offering to God on Sunday morning. We have had people come up and share stories or poem that they or someone else has written. We have people singing solos. Our music leader sometime fills in.

I think this has made our worship more authentic. We are letting those who would have nothing to do with music know that they still have something to give. Sure, on Sundays when the choir does sing we have people who sit and wistfully wish that they would come back next Sunday, but I am not sure I would want them too.

When did an anthem become the only acceptable way to give praise on Sunday? How do you deal with this in your church?

Vacation Bible School: How does yours work?

Like many of you, Westminster is gearing up for Vacation Bible School (VBS from here on out). This is always an exciting time for us because it is a huge outreach to our neighborhood. It is probably the one time of the year when there are more children than adults in the building and it always blesses those who participate.
I wonder though why this joy only lasts for a week. Our church does our VBS from 6 to 8:30 PM so that we can involve members who work and allow families to not have to rearrange summer day schedules. We have a success with bringing in kids and they all seem to get something out of the experience. I believe that we touch lives and we have great fun. But once it is over and we clean up no one comes back unless they were already coming to the church and we develop a see you next summer attitude to outreach.
Does VBS work then as a ministry of the church? I have to say that it depends on your goals and where you are from. If you are just trying to provide a quality program for kids then yes I think what we are doing works. If we are trying to teach biblical lessons and provide some spiritual experiences then I think we are doing alright. If we are trying to grow the church then I am not sure that it is working at least not here.
Now, I have never been a numbers=success kind of guy. I think that thinking is crippling the PC(USA) right now. But at the same time I would not cry if one family came to church on Sunday because their child had a good experience at VBS. A lot of this comes back to what I was talking about last time with Sunday School, a church this size may not be able to sustain a youth population for more than a week, but I don’t want to give up yet.
So Internet, I ask you: How can we make VBS last for more than a week? How can we turn it into a really valuable ministry? Or, like mission trips is it more about providing something for someone while the deep spiritual effects are mostly felt by those that go on the trip? Is VBS for the kids of the community or for the volunteers and the congregation? What are your thoughts, let’s talk.

Let’s Talk About Youth

Well hello again everyone. I hope that you all had a great weekend. Today, I am thinking about Youth Groups and Sunday School in small congregations. The church I grew up in had three youth, my two bothers and I, so Sunday school and youth group looked quite similar to every day at the Adams house.

The church I am serving now has a decent sized group of kids. I would say somewhere right around ten. However, they are spread out in different grade levels and some brothers and sisters all have to be together. Some of our classes have only siblings in them, or they have a kindergartner and a fifth grader.

Members of the church come up to me and to our C.E. Chair all the time to discuss how they feel like we are letting the youth down. I try to tell them that the amount of youth we have in our congregation is a gift, after all something like 10% of our membership is under the age of 18. Now though I am beginning to see that our Sunday morning offerings are sort of dead in the water. We have more Sunday School teachers than kids on some mornings and the curriculum is not really working out.

Youth Group is a slightly easier fix. We have been able to get them involved in Presbytery retreats and things. Yet there is still a problem with trying to offer them something weekly or even monthly. We are slowly rebuilding the Middle School youth and doing a good job of it, but once again it feels like we can’t really get things to where the parents, kids and outside observers are excited about it.

So let’s talk. How do you do Youth Group or Sunday school in your churches? How do you deal with a small budget and high expectations? Should we just stop doing Sunday school for kids and find something else? In a world where we are competing with all sorts of other things how do we make this time something special and meaningful for our youth?