What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-28-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-27-19

Part of transition work is working with staff transitions. In congregational life, staff, including clergy, come and go for all kinds of reasons. What is true for us on a personal level is also true on a professional level: none of us is permanent. Everyone, no matter what their title or role, is temporary. Staff relocate. They take other jobs. They resign to attend to personal or family matters. Sometimes the congregation has to reduce its staff because of finances. Sometimes the staffing needs of the congregation have changed because the congregation has changed. Sometimes staff that were hired to “maintain” the congregation “as it is” do not have the skills to engage in a transition process. Sometimes there are performance issues. Sometimes staff retire. These transitions are almost always messy, but they create opportunities for congregations to reflect on mission, vision, and values. What do we really want? Is what we’re doing now actually going to get us there? 

At FCC Granby we are navigating two staff transitions. In December 2018, Rev. Dr. Ginny McDaniel retired after serving seven years as Senior Minister. This past Sunday, Rev. Rebecca Brown retired after serving four years as Minister for Children and Youth. Each minister has been honored by the congregation for her service. Each minister has made a lasting difference for the good of the congregation. We are grateful for who they are and what they’ve done. Ginny has gone through a process of leave-taking following the United Church of Christ “Ethical Guidelines for Ministers Departing from Congregations.” Rebecca is currently in that process. It is a multi-layered process that involves public liturgy, compiling and handing over work product (such as lists of pastoral needs, event calendars, contact information, meeting notes, etc), participating in an exit interview, dealing with the administrative details of changing employment status with the denomination. All of these are steps in a larger transition that involves a change in identity: from pastor to former pastor. This change in identity is attended by a shift in how former pastor and former congregation relate to each other. The “Ethical Guidelines” are intended to ensure that this transition happens and that it happens in a healthy way.

Here’s a refresher on transition and change: transition and change are different. Change is situational. Transition is psychological. Change is some new guy is doing the preaching now. Transition is letting go of one pastoral relationship and building another. William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions writes, “It’s not the change that will do you in, it’s the transition.” Transition “is a three-phase process (letting go, chaos, new beginning) that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” As a congregation, we are definitely still “internalizing” and “coming to terms with the details” of shifting from a settled minister to transitional minister, from a minister for youth and children to a new staffing configuration for Christian Education which may, at some point, involve a partnership with South Church. 

On some level, for each of us, transition involves building a new identity. For example, I am no longer the Transitional Senior Minister of FCC Stamford. As much as I love the people there, I’ve had to let those relationships go so that I can be fully present to my new call as Transitional Senior Minister of FCC Granby. Without letting go, there is no new beginning. In a similar way the members of FCC Granby are no longer Ginny’s or Rebecca’s parishioners and Ginny and Rebecca are no longer FCC Granby’s pastors. It’s not that those relationships are ended. Cut off is rarely helpful. But there needs to be a release. I’m a Gen-Xer, so my popular culture reference for this is Sting’s song, “If you love somebody, set them free.”

It’s natural for this shift in identity to generate resistance, but that’s the reality of congregational life. Identity shifts also generate grief to which we all need to tend carefully. Ginny’s circumstance is special given her health circumstance. Linda Betsch will be coordinating care for her. But the fact remains: none of us is permanent; everyone is temporary. Which makes our time together all the more precious. Now, for better or for worse, we belong together–transitional minister and congregation. Let’s make the most of the time we have. Time passes swiftly. Opportunity is lost. And God has big plans for us.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-19-18

Liv (wearing her Occidental College hat) and me cheering on the Hartford Yardgoats

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-19-18

We’ve been preparing all summer. Perhaps even longer than that: since high school graduation, or maybe a year ago when Olivia and I flew to LA to visit Occidental College. We could dial it back even further: to the moment I first met newborn Olivia, held her, and knew in my heart that one day life would ask me to let her go. 

Tomorrow Nicole–my wife, Olivia’s mom–will fly with Liv to LA and move her into her freshman dorm. A couple weeks from now Nicole and I will move Liv’s older sister, Fiona, to Williams’ College for her senior year. Though it’s been happening in stages, the nest continues to empty.

Moving one’s youngest to LA to begin college is both a “change” and a “transition.” Transition and change are related but different concepts. In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.” Bridges defines “change” as “situational” and “transition” as “psychological.”

Change is starting a new job, moving to a new location, receiving a new diagnosis, welcoming a new family member, saying goodbye. Change can be big or small, welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant. Change is the nature of reality. Change just is.

Transition, according to Bridges, “is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” Change is moving Olivia to LA. Transition is coming to terms with a new identity: empty nester. The three phase process is 1) ending/losing/letting go, 2) “the neutral zone (chaos),” and 3) new beginning.

Change and transition happen on a personal level. They also happen in organizations. As your transitional minister, it is my job to help FCC Granby identify the kinds of changes our situation is calling for and then lead a transition through the three phases: ending, chaos, new beginning. 

The distinction between change and transition is key because without that understanding, what most churches do is rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. They change their by-laws so that “committees” are now called “ministry teams.” They use different words for Communion or change the words of familiar hymns. They develop new programs that focus on the same people. They may even merge with another congregation but because there is no process of transition, the newly merged congregation just ends up being a dying, mashed up, grumpy repeat of the old ones. In dying churches there is often a ton of change but none that leads to a fundamentally new sense of purpose and identity. For that, one needs to go through transition.

As your transitional minister, I am not particularly focused on surface level change. Is whether we sing the Doxology following the offering or some other reponse really going to turn this church around? Is focusing on food insecurity instead of homelessness really going to be the key to a sustainable future? Is changing the words to Communion suddenly going to bring in the crowds? Usually when someone gives me permission to change something, it’s surface change. However, when I change something and the congregation says, “Change back,” then I know we’re into transition territory because what we resist is not “change” per se, but change that results in loss of some kind, exactly the kind of loss that is the beginning of transition.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-12-19

It’s not often that I get a request to write to a topic, but church member Aurelle Locke has asked that I write about the difference between treating newcomers to church as “visitors” versus treating newcomers as “guests.”  In short, a “visitor” tends to be unexpected. Someone shows up during office hours wanting to see me. Our office manager, Sue, walks down the hall, knocks on my door, and says, “Pastor Todd, you have a visitor.” A “guest” is someone you’ve invited, so you’re prepared to welcome them. Nicole and I love to host parties. We have our process of preparation to receive guests down to a science. She cooks. I clean. Cleaning for guests is a spiritual discipline for me. I prepare my heart to receive our guests as I prepare the space.

Here’s the context: Aurelle had noticed that I started doing weekly children’s sermons. At some point before my arrival, the church had stopped including children’s sermons in worship, I was told, because so few children were showing up for Sunday worship. Too often there were no children in worship.

I understand that having a children’s sermon when there are no children in worship calls attention to the fact that we don’t have a critical mass of children in the congregation. There are people in the congregation who remember a time not too long ago when we had many children. I understand that some might feel bad to be reminded of this. But it makes no sense to hide the fact. People are going to notice anyway and wonder what, if anything, we are doing about it. Also, not having a children’s sermon when families with children do show up sends the message that they are “visitors.” We were not expecting them and, therefore, not prepared for them. This is the attitude I call, “You’re welcome if you come (but you probably won’t).”

Instead, we want people–especially newcomers–to feel like “guests.” That is, you are invited, we are expecting you, and we have prepared this experience with you in mind. This is the attitude I call, “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you.” 

This attitude change is a key for shifting from a declining congregation to a growing one. It holds not only for children’s sermon but also for every aspect of a church’s life. That’s why, for example, I turn on the entryway lights when I enter the church. For some reason, that doesn’t seem to be the practice here. But think about it, How does that feel when you walk into a building and all the lights are off? If it were my first time in that building, I would assume no one is home.

Another example: make sure there are signs to indicate where in the building the meeting or event is. Better yet, have someone stationed at the door to greet and give people directions. 

I’ll never forget the time I led community Bible study. We had triple the normal attendance because we made personal invitations. The newcomers appreciated the Bible study, but they went out of their way to comment on the wonderful, clear signs that told them where to find the Bible study. They got the message: “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you.”

So much of this stuff is not expensive, not difficult, and definitely not rocket science. It’s just a matter of awareness. And awareness is the fundamental spiritual practice. Everything communicates, so everything counts. Are we communicating, “You’re welcome if you come (but you probably won’t)?” How do people in Granby view us, really?

Here’s an example of, “We want you here, and we’re serious enough to have prepared for you”: What if as a requirement to attend a “Thank Goodness it’s Friday” social supper, everyone is expected to bring a guest? And we brought food and beverage enough for everyone? And we made it a special point to focus our attention less on the people we already know and more on the people we have yet to meet? Our church would grow so fast we would have a whole new set of problems. Good problems. Problems like, “How are we going to fit all these kids in our Sunday school classrooms . . . ?” 

Worship Resources for Hymn Sing Sunday

*Call to Worship  (Psalm 150)

Praise the LORD! Praise God the sanctuary. Praise God in the mighty firmament. 

Praise God for mighty deeds. Remember God’s surpassing greatness and praise God that much.

Praise God with trumpet sounds. Praise God with lute and harp.

Praise God with tambourine and dance. Praise God with strings and pipe.

Praise God with clanging cymbals. Praise God with loud clashing cymbals. 

Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!

ALL: Praise the LORD!

*Prayer of Dedication

God, we offer our hearts as we raise our voices in song. We thank you for accepting and blessing all our gifts. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-6-19

Mourners gather for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Multiple people in Ohio were killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-6-19

Three days ago, Saturday morning, August 3, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing at least 20 and injuring many more. A manifesto thought to be written by the killer declared his intention to kill as many Latinos as possible. The Cielo Vista Mall Walmart is one of the busiest in the country. It is near the border with Mexico. It welcomes customers from both El Paso and Cuidad Juarez, which lies just across the border in Mexico. El Paso is a majority Latino city and one of the safest cities in the U.S. The gunman drove 9 hours from his residence in the Dallas suburbs to commit this heinous act of violence. Echoing hateful language that is poisoning our political discourse, the gunman wrote that he was responding to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

13 hours later a gunman in body armor opened fire at a bar in the Oregon District of Dayton, OH, killing 9 including his sister–this carnage despite the fact that police were able to respond and kill the shooter in 30 seconds. The amount of death he was able to inflict was likely due in part to the fact that he was armed with an automatic rifle and a 100 round barrel magazine. 

An El Paso leader summed up the situation well: “We have a gun problem, and we have a hate problem.”

I know that at FCC Granby we have a diversity of opinion on these issues. This much was evident in the conversation at the “Thank Goodness it’s Friday” social supper just hours before the first shooting. It so happened that the topics of both race and guns came up, and there was disagreement on both issues. This was also evident Sunday morning during the sharing of joys and concerns. Some prayed for a change in gun laws. Some prayed for access to mental health services and social “connection.” I suppose in this way we are simply a microcosm of the country as a whole.

While any and all of these may or may not be helpful responses, it seems to me that as followers of Jesus we are called to respond to acts of violence and the trauma they cause. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” As a follower of Jesus, it seems to me the height of immorality to turn away from the suffering we are inflicting upon each other with these repeated mass shootings. We must face who we are and what we are doing because what we are doing has to change. I can’t believe that this is the world God would want us to create.

We have a gun problem. So fix it. Stop blaming others. Start taking action. I’m not a legislator. I’m not a policy expert. I’m not interested in excuses. I’m interested in results. Don’t tell me what won’t work. Show me something that will. I stand with the people of Dayton who are calling on their governor to “do something.”

We have a hate problem. This goes much deeper. It goes to the heart of our history as a nation that has committed genocide against Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Our ancestors laid the groundwork for hate based on the Doctrine of Discovery and the false ideology of white supremacy. It is what theologian Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sin.” 

Both of these shooters were not only white but also men. Why are the perpetrators of mass shootings predominantly men? I wonder whether patriarchy–the idea that men are entitled to priviledged status–could also be a factor. I do not believe that men are inherently more violent than women. I believe that men in our country are socialized in such a way that for too many, violence is seen as a legitimate form of resolving differences and expressing feelings.

  Pinning all of this on “mental health” is not helpful. Yes, by all means provide better access to mental health care. By all means enact red flag laws. But many factors make treating mental illness difficult. A big challenge is stigmatization. And putting the blame for mass shootings on mental illness, only further stigmatizes those who already feel the stigma of their mental health status. It also allows us to dismiss those who commit violence as somehow fundamentally unlike us “sane” people. In this way we are conviently let off the hook from examining the roots of hatred and violence in our own hearts. 

While I am not a legislator or a policy expert, I am a Christian who has, despite spectacular and ongoing failures, committed himself to the way of love. And I believe you, my fellow members of FCC Granby, despite our differences of life experience, political opinion, social location, economic class, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, country of origin, race, ethinicity, etc., are also committed to the way of love. We can do something about this hate problem right here and right now. We can extend love. We can have honest conversations about difficult things. We can repent. We can mourn. We can be instruments of peace. Remember what Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot overcome hate. Only love can do that.”