What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-11-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 9-11-20

This coming Sunday is known by many names in the church world: Homecoming Sunday, Rally Day, Christian Education Sunday, or–more recently–Faith Formation Sunday. It’s the Sunday in American churches that marks the beginning of the program year, the return of children to school, the return of families from summer vacation, the fall season of sports, holidays, harvest. 

I’m not sure which of the terms for this coming Sunday I prefer. The UCC, our denomination, calls it Faith Formation Sunday now, so I’ll go with that. In any case, Faith Formation Sunday 2020 is unlike any other I’ve planned and led in my entire career. Kids are going back to school–sort of. Many of our young ones are on a “hybrid schedule,” which means both days distance learning at home and days in the classroom. My college-age daughter, who should be in Los Angeles right now, spends her class time sitting in front of her laptop on our three season porch here in Windsor, CT. 

At First Congregational Church of Granby this Sunday marks the next stage in our gradual reopen process. We are inviting the public to pre-register online to observe the worship livestream in person in the Sanctuary. COVID protocols will be followed to ensure that everyone who chooses to be together in person can do so safely. Last Sunday we successfully celebrated our second outdoor in person worship service. I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it possible to be together safely. It was moving to see the faces of friends again.

Confirmation class, which was disrupted by the pandemic, will resume on Zoom this Sunday. I will be working together with the Explore Team to figure out our programming for the young ones. I don’t know about you, but I have moments when all of this feels very difficult, stressful, and depressing, but I’ve noticed that those moments, like all moments, pass, and a new thought, feeling, or experience arises. Remaining spiritually grounded through the changes gives me the energy I need to forge ahead. 

Last Sunday after worshipping outside under the trees, feeling the breeze on my skin, seeing the sun above and familiar faces around me, I realized that the sadness I had been carrying with me was gone. In its place was joy. This experience reminds me of a favorite song, one I’ve shared before: Richard Smallwood’s “The Center of My Joy.” I leave you with links to a couple of versions: one from the composer himself, and another . . . well, check it out for yourself. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-21-20

Reusable sandwich bag on our baggie drying rack.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-21-20

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans. I chose the Scripture text for the coming Sunday because we’re planning an outdoor pet blessing, safely physically distanced, no congregational singing. This weekend will be our first attempts at in person public events since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in March. 

Saturday we’ll be hosting an outdoor funeral for long time church member Shirley Young. (We had a “private” baptism last Sunday, originally planned for outdoors, but then quickly moved inside because of rain.) Prior to COVID, these would be familiar events and rituals. Now they are more complicated, more demanding, and–on the positive side of the ledger–an opportunity for our church to come together to do the “normal” things we do. Today (Tuesday) a group of us met at the church to set up a large tent to accommodate our funeral guests. It was good to work together on a task, chat, and look each other in the eyes.

Pet blessing is a great opportunity to remember our emotional and spiritual connection to non-human life on this planet. Many of us know the joy of greeting our pets when we wake up in the morning or when we come home from being away for any length of time. We have known sorrow when a pet dies. Or the contentment of snuggling with something furry. We talk to our pets, feed them, mourn them. They are family.

It is important to remember our intimate connection to non-human life for two reasons: 1) our faith, 2) our continued existence as a species on this planet. Caring for creation is an essential expression of our Christian faith. In our text for this Sunday, St. Paul writes that the whole creation “groans” waiting for humanity to get its act together. God created Earth and humanity as one organic whole. When we harm the planet, we’re harming ourselves. Which leads to reason #2: Scientists have been warning for decades about the devastating impacts of climate change. Life on this planet will continue despite anthropogenic climate change. The question is, Will this transformed planet still be habitable for humans? We have a shrinking window to make the changes necessary to minimize the impacts that are already happening. The time for humanity to get its act together is now.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Nicole, Fiona, and Olivia at Raye’s Mustard ca. 2010??

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Founded in 1900, Raye’s Mustard, located in Lubec, ME, is the oldest, continuously operated stoneground mustard producer in North America. My wife, Nicole, grew up on Raye’s mustard, which she introduced me to when we met many years ago. As a family we’ve been to Raye’s Mustard and toured the facility. It’s amazing to me that they can continue to operate as a profitable business using century-old technology. Inside you can see the giant stones that still turn on the old wooden band and pulley system. I’m a mustard fan, and I’m convinced: Raye’s mustard is the best.

Raye’s Mustard was founded just as the Maine sardine industry was taking off. Mustard was used as a preservative in the canning process, which allowed the perishable fish to be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. During WWI, the U.S. government needed a storable source of protein for the troops overseas, so it contracted with Maine sardine producers to provide for the troops. Maine sardines packed in Raye’s mustard were shipped all over the world making the cannery owners rich. Nicole’s great-grandfather was one of those cannery owners. For a time, Lubec, ME was a thriving town. Until the war ended and the sardines were fished out. Today, the sardine canneries are gone. In fact, Washington County, where Lubec is located, is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. But Raye’s Mustard has been able to adapt and survive. 

The Scripture for this coming Sunday is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The parable starts off ordinary enough: someone plants a mustard seed. What would Jesus’ first hearers expect to follow? From the mustard seed a mustard plant grows. Mustard is a garden plant. It isn’t a shrub; it isn’t a tree, despite the attempts of later interpreters to fit Jesus’ words into modern categories that “make sense.” The point of the parable is precisely that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t always “make sense”; it doesn’t always follow the “natural order” of things. Sometimes in the kingdom of heaven you plant a mustard seed that becomes “the greatest of shrubs” and then, miraculously, becomes a tree! 

It’s the difference between incremental change and discontinuous change. We tend to like incremental change. With incremental change the mustard plant follows from the mustard seed. With incremental change one thing follows logically from the next. We can know what to expect. We can imagine we’re in control. The kingdom of heaven isn’t always like that. The kingdom of heaven is often more like discontinuous change. One plants a mustard seed; one gets a tree. We tend not to like discontinuous change. But are there blessings to be found even in discontinuity? We wanted mustard but we got a tree. And what a beautiful tree! The birds of the air have found a home in it, and their song is beautiful. Discontinuous change isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just unexpected. 

The invitation of the parable is to accept the gifts of the kingdom of heaven even if they are unexpected. The collapse of the sardine industry was an economic and environmental disaster brought on by human greed, not divine will. Nevertheless, Raye’s accepted the gifts of the moment, such as they were, adapted, and grew. We find ourselves in a similar moment of disruption, and I can see how we’re adapting and growing: particularly through the Vitality Team and the Tech Team. While no one wants the disruption of a pandemic, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to expect big, unexpected, beneficial things to grow out of what is currently a time of disruption and loss. 

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-12-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-12-20

I recently heard on a news podcast that something like 70% of Americans think our country is “out of control.” I don’t know where you’re at, but this statistic points to a feeling we’ve been noticing around us and perhaps feeling ourselves for some months now. The recent protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery just add to the generalized feelings of chaos, uncertainty, and grief that we’ve all been facing.

Recently I was invited to join a cohort of clergy and lay people to receive training on hwo to coach individuals and congregations through the COVID pandemic. Training began this week and will continue (online, of course) through the first half of July. We’ve been learning to identify and contextualize the component parts of the circumstances we’re facing in order to more effectively address them and help people through this time.

There are some practices I’d like to suggest that may be helpful in dealing with feelings of grief and feelings of being “out of control.” When circumstances feel out of control, it’s helpful to find ways to “stay grounded.” Staying grounded is a big reason why I spend an hour every morning sitting still and silent, minding my breath. Literally sitting “on the ground” is an incredibly effective way for me to feel “grounded.” Circumstances can be swirling about me, but I know there is a stable place of rest that is always present–literally beneath my feet. 

How will you “stay grounded?” Another technique for when you feel out of control is to identify and describe in detail five things near you. For me, it’s the IKEA couch supporting my back, the Sisal trunk that I’m resting my feet on, the roar of a motorcycle engine on the street, the sigh of the breeze through the trees, now the sound and smell of rain. Is the world really coming apart? Yes, in some ways the world is coming apart. In others it’s coming together. And through it all like the finest of thread the rhythms of the universe continue completely unbothered by our small concerns. While some things are out of our control, other things are in our control. Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on the things we can control beginning with where we place our attention.

Many of you are probably familiar with the five stages of grief originally identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross some decades ago: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. Perhaps you weren’t aware that later in her career she identified a sixth stage: meaning-making. Meaning-making is the stage of grief that produces creative new life out of death. For example, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims creating the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Or Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, who was recently killed in an encounter with police, testifying before congress in support of police reform. 

In the context of our congregational life and our individual lives, I’d like to suggest a powerful question as a tool for meaning-making: “In this time, what are you discovering is ‘essential’ as opposed to merely ‘traditional’?” In other words, what things were we doing before COVID out of mere habit that we’ve found we can do without moving forward? What things have we found we can’t do without that we want to give extra time and attention to moving forward? Loss without a sense of meaning is unbearable. Loss that leads to a simpler, happier, more productive life offers each of us an invaluable opportunity.

Revitalization, Redevelopment, Restart

Recently a colleague asked if there is a resource that deals with the topics of church redevelopment, church revitalization, and church restart. I’m not aware of any that bring all of these interventions together in one place, so here is my attempt at a (very) quick summary with references for further reading.


1. Church revitalization, church redevelopment, turnaround are all terms used for interventions with congregations on the decline side of the congregational life-cycle. The level of intervention depends upon how far along the decline path the congregation is. As the congregation moves further along the decline path the options for shifting to a growth trajectory become fewer and more dramatic. The lesson: don’t wait to make the changes needed for growth. The avoidance of a little discomfort now only means you’re compounding pain in the future. For more details on these dynamics see:


Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline by Alice Mann

Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Congregation Around by Todd Grant Yonkman

2. Church Restart. At a certain point on the decline-side of the church lifecycle a congregation reaches a “point of no return” where the financial and human resources are depleted to the point that turning the church around is no longer possible. The good news is that resurrection is still possible. Death is inevitable, but depending on local circumstances and how the dying process is managed, a range of rebirth possibilities is available. For more details on different models of church restart see:


Dying to Restart by Weins and Turner

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-24-20

“The Road to Emmaus” by Daniel Bonnell

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-24-20

It’s difficult to know what the lessons of the week will be on Monday morning. This is always true. Human beings have a notoriously mixed record in the future-predicting business. Last week was a great example. The first part of the week was what has become “normal schedule.” Monday: get “to do” list from Sue, start at the top with creating Zoom links for the week’s program schedule, write “What’s Up with Pastor Todd,” do the Monday “Daily Devotional,” create staff meeting agenda, write worship for the coming Sunday, and so on. 

By Thursday all my plans for the weekend had been blown out of the water. My oldest daughter, Fiona, got a message from her boyfriend, Riku, that his building was under emergency evacuation. Within 30 minutes Fiona and I were driving to Chicago to pick him up and bring him to Connecticut. This circumstance changed meeting plans, worship plans, sleeping and eating plans. What was up with Pastor Todd on Friday was very different from What was up with Pastor Todd on Monday. Here I am today facing yet another Monday and asking, “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?”

I suppose one solution would be to wait until Friday to write my column, but I’ve found it a helpful discipline to begin the week with a self check-in. And the truth is, even in an unusually disrupted week like the last one, parts of what I had written on Monday were still relevant when it came time to preach the following Sunday. My Monday self check-in ended up being a gift to my very different reality seven days later. 

There’s a common principle of spiritual practice that encourages us to “be here now.” Mindfulness teaches us to “stay in the present moment.” But I find that this doesn’t exclude looking forward and looking back. Rather, it includes both and gives a stable place from which to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-23-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-23-20

The above video is from church planter and consultant, Neil Cole. He is talking about a distinction between “movement” and “institution” that I first encountered in a talk by pastor, author, and activist Brian McLaren when my wife, Nicole, and I were church planters in Indiana.

I forget the details of McLaren’s talk, so I will give you my version of it. A social movement is a “loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values” (Encyclopedia Brittanica).  An institution is a set of rules, norms, patterned behaviors, and organizational structures designed to sustain the social gains of movements and pass them on to the next generation. 

McLaren argued a dynamic relationship between movements and institutions. Each needs the other. Social movements without institutional structures cannot sustain themselves. Institutions that are not periodically disrupted by social movements eventually lose their vitality and die. A powerful recent example of this dynamic in America is the Civil Rights Movement. 

McLaren’s point is that Christianity can be understood in terms of movements and institutions. The Gospels tell us that Jesus started a movement. It was only many years later when the early Christians came to understand that Jesus wouldn’t be returning within theirs or their children’s lifetimes that the instituional forms of the church began to emerge. And since that time the movement-institution dynamic has been at play in Christian cultures.

Congregational transition engages this movement-institution dynamic in a complex, improvisational way. Often congregations in transition are dealing with institutional structures that are falling apart because they just don’t “work” anymore. Instead of working harder and faster to patch up what is no longer functional, transition work allows much of that structure to fall away. Some of it, however, may have value for the church that is emerging. So we sort through what we’ve inherited and decide what to keep and what to let go of. 

Meanwhile we shift into “movement” mode. We focus on relationships and vision: that is, we build authentic relationships with people who are not yet members of the church, and we share a vision of changing the town of Granby for the better.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-26-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-25-19

A print of bricolage artwork that hangs on the wall of my church office speaks to my understanding of hope. It shows two sparrows with twigs in their beaks flying above a jumble of houses and buildings, some tipped over. The landscape is jagged clump of fragments above which float fluffy green-gray clouds and an orange sun that looks a bit like a basketball. (I don’t know what the weird, brown, rock-looking things in the sky are. Giant meteors?) It’s not a particularly attractive piece. I bought it primarily for the quotation at the top: “. . . We are not in the least afraid of ruins . . . We carry a new world here in our hearts . . . .”

The quote is from Buenaventura Durruti. I didn’t know who Durruti was when I purchased the print from a funky little craft store in downtown Providence. At the time I was pastoring a dying congregation through a major transition, and the words along with the image resonated with me. The congregation knew that things were falling apart. They saw all the empty pews every Sunday. And they were afraid. Their fear, however, just made things worse. The more they tried to control the situation, the faster things deteriorated. Part of my job was to help the congregation calm down, step back, and accept that things would never be the way they were. The spiritual practice of simply sitting in the ruins of what once was creates a space in which a new world can arise. Later I learned that Durruti died fighting Facists during the Spanish Civil War. Key to Durruti’s struggle for a more just world was the ability to courageously face the ruins while carrying a new world in his heart.

The sparrows in the bricolage remind me of Jesus’ teachings on fear. In the Gospel of Matthew he says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father . . . So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (10:29, 31). Durruti also found courage in Jesus’ words, specifically the promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Durruti could face the ruins because he trusted the promises.

Once in a while as I work with a church in transition a member uncomfortable with change will say, “You are ruining my church.” That is 100% untrue. All I am doing is facing the falling apart that is already underway and inviting others to do the same. Why? Because I am committed to living not some fantasy world where nothing ever changes but in the reality that a new world is possible if we get out of the way long enough to let God bring it forth.

A new world is absolutely possible. It can’t be controlled. It can’t be manufactured. It emerges on it’s own timetable and in it’s own form. Our job as Christians is to observe and nurture it. That is difficult to do if we allow either despair or anxiety to take over. 

Hope is the theme for the first Sunday in Advent. The difference between Biblical hope and false hope is that Biblical hope courageously faces the impermance of every human endeavor. There are always ruins to face because always somewhere something is falling apart. Biblical hope as opposed to false hope trusts not humanity’s ability to create the world we long for but in God’s ability to keep God’s promises and our ability to cooperate with God’s work in our world. In the immortal words of songwriter Leonard Cohen: 

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything 

That’s how the light gets in

Maybe your new world isn’t in some far off place at some far off time. What if it’s shining through the ruins right now? Will you notice it? Will you nurture it? Will you, even now, celebrate the abundance to come?