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.

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.

Small shots

Yesterday (Thursday) we finally bought a new computer for the office. After setting it up I got onto the internet to set up my homepage/bookmarks etc… Part of that was getting on (a site I do not frequently visit, shame on me) and I just happened to click on the news/announcements section.

To my surprise there was an announcement for a conference that I was immediately intrigued with. Maybe you all have seen this We Are Presbyterian thing going around the internet, or heard about the Small Shots conference. While I think the name needs a little bit of tweaking, the idea is really fascinating: Make an eight minute video answering a few questions and then post it. On June 22 all the videos will be streamed and the conference part will take place on the internet through Twitter, chats and apparently small groups.

I think the ball on the announcement was dropped somewhere, but that is neither here nor there. What I am excited about is that this type of conference is being created. My congregation can only set aside so much for books and continuing ed so this year I spent most of my con. ed. money on books. Part of this was because I needed some nice heavy books, part of it was because the conferences that looked interesting would have blown my budget immediately, not the registration so much, but all of the supplemental stuff.

Events like this are exciting to me because it will allow those of us who can’t make it to the big stuff still be a part of the conversation. If the event goes over well this year hopefully it can become an annual thing. The other exciting thing is that if things like this are going on, perhaps it will get some of the pastor’s who are scared of the internet (if GA can finally get my dad to use a laptop and sites other than MSNBC then I am convinced anyone can eventually move to be slightly more tech savvy) to get online and join the conversation.

I hope that as the event gets closer more and more people will hear about it, post videos and join in. I am really looking forward to it, I hope you are too.

Here is the invitation video:

Here is the video I made. Enjoy staring at my big ol’ head:

Hey Internet, Let’s Talk

About half of the churches in the presbytery I serve have a membership of 150 or less. The membership of those churches make up about a third of the presbytery’s membership. Most of these small churches are rural or village  churches. Some of them (like my own) are in suburbs that the economy has left behind. Many of them are served by certified lay pastors or by interim  or designated pastors.

My question is:  Do these churches not matter? In our denomination it seems that they don’t. I may be wrong, but I do not hear very much about small church ministry from Louisville. The only conference I know of is the Wee Kirk, and when I attended that I got strong support from other pastors, but not a lot of guidance or affirmation on what the small church was  doing well or where we were going.

Lately I have been feeling nudged by God into doing something  about all of this. I have ignored those nudges in the past so before the nudges become shoves or  the holy 2×4 comes out, I am taking my first baby steps toward something.

That is where you come in. As the church we know that power or ideas shouldn’t rest with one person. In the small church we learn quickly that many hands make lighter work. As a middle child and a pastor I have learned that my talents lie in moderating discussions rather than coming up with all of the great ideas.

So, I will nominate myself moderator and I invite the rest of you to start sharing ideas, plans, things that your church has done or is doing.

Let’s start with this easy question to test the waters:
Does the small church still matter?

Grace and peace,