What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-28-21

“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.

Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.

Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.

This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.

Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-23-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-21-21

This week I was describing our First Church South Church consolidation work to a colleague. He commented that in his therapy practice, he has been noticing that the competitive “divide-and-conquer” mentality we see on display in our politics is seeping into everyday the interactions and relationships of his clients. He continued, “In your church consolidation work you’re trying to build a culture of unity, and unity is in short supply these days.” Two implications of this observation: 1) If we’re finding consolidation work difficult, it’s because we’re going against the wider culture in some important ways, 2) The work of consolidation itself is important work for the wider culture. We’re demonstrating to Granby and beyond that “e pluribus unum” (our national motto: “out of many, one”) is still possible. 

The competitive mindset is everywhere. It’s a basic component of our economy, for example. And I admit I can be an incredibly competitive person. I enjoy the feeling of “winning.” Which is why I found Pastor Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast this week so helpful. Listen to it here.

Carey Nieuwhof’s guest is Simon Sinek. You remember him! He is the “Start With Why” guy. We watched part of his TED talk during our “What is Your Why?” workshops last year.  If you need a refresher on Sinek and his teaching on “Starting with Why,” you can find his TED talk here

In his interview with Nieuwhof, Sinek applies his insights directly to congregational life. One that I found helpful is the distinction between “finite” and “infinite” games. Sinek got this idea from the book Finite and Infinite Games by theologian James P. Carse. A finite game has a definite beginning, a definite end, clearly defined rules, and is played to win. Think of chess, pretty much any sport, etc. An infinite game has no particular beginning, no end, and no clearly defined rules. The goal of the infinite game is to perpetuate itself. Think of “life,” for example, or “marriage,” or “parenting.” How does one “win” at life? Who decides? 

The problem, Sinek argues, is that we confuse infinite games for finite ones, which leads to suffering. Current politics, for example, is played as a series of battles between political parties with winners and losers. If one approaches “marriage” as a finite game, for example, I wouldn’t think it would last long. I can’t imagine many people would want to live in a continual battle for domination with their intimate partner.

How would our consolidation work change if we viewed it as an “infinite game?” A colleague of mine uses improv theater exercises in working with congregations. Improv is a wonderful example of an infinite game. The point of improv is to keep the scene alive. The principle of improv is “Yes, and . . .” The audience or your scene partner offers a line, the improv artist accepts what’s offered and builds on it. It requires trust. The scene could completely bomb. The players risk losing their audience. Players are willing to risk and willing to trust because the point of an infinite game is the joy of playing. This simple process takes the scene into fresh, unexplored–pehaps infinite–territory. Some might call it Promised Land.

Pastoral Prayer 1-10-21

Pastoral Prayer 1-10-21

Holy God,

It has been a week. Together we bear witness to historic events in the life of our nation. On Wednesday the first African American from Georgia was elected to the Senate, a pastor who serves the same congregation Martin Luther King, Jr. once did. Dr. King gave his life for a Biblical vision of beloved community. This week we saw evidence that Dr. King’s vision continues to bear the fruit of love and justice in our nation.

That same day, Wednesday Jan. 6, we witnessed an armed attack on our nation’s Capitol. Four people lost their lives. Our nation’s leaders were forced to shelter in place. On Jan. 6 a mob incited by our President was able to do what all the armies of the Confederacy failed to do 150 years ago. They paraded the Confederate battle flag–a symbol of slavery, racism, and hate–through the halls of congress. It was a chiling reminder that the evil of racism and white supremacy continues to eat away at the soul of our country. Like Dr. King’s dream our nation is resilient but fragile. We pray that you will send your spirit to heal our land.

Also on Wednesday we gathered in the evening to record the professions of faith of three Confirmands. We celebrate with joy their honesty, their curiosity, their love, and their commitment to the way of Jesus. We ask that you bless and protect them. We ask that you make all of us instruments of your peace in this time of unrest. We ask that as a congregation you give us the courage to find a way toward your future. Give us a heart for future generations so that they, too, can learn of Dr. King’s dream and find new ways to embody it.

In this time of conflict and mass delusion, we may at times feel helpless to heal the divides of our nation. Give us a baptism of your Spirit that we may all be one. Renew our commitment to the way of Jesus, who received a baptism of the Spirit in order to bring justice and peace among all people.

Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water that by it we may be reminded of our baptism into Jesus Christ and that by the power of your Holy Spirit we may fulfill what we have promised.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20

Handling anger is difficult to do well. Buddhism, for example, identifies anger (along with greed and ignorance) as one of the “three poisons.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “everyone who becomes angry with his brother is liable to judgment.” Anger is a human emotion. We feel it, often before we’re consciously aware of it. Anger “overcomes” us, floods our neurotransmitters, narrows our vision, sets our hearts racing, “boils” in our guts. It activates the “fight or flight” response in the most primitive parts of our brain. Anger can be incredibly destructive whether we express it outwardly in hurtful words and actions or turn it inward where it manifests as depression, bitterness, and physical ailments. So how do we handle it?

Although I doubt they intended to, my family taught me that anger was scary and shameful. They didn’t teach me this explicitly. Like all children, I learned my lessons on anger by watching my caregivers (who, in turn, learned how to handle anger from their caregivers.) We were a Dutch immigrant family that tended toward emotional reserve. As an adult I can see that there was a lot of anger under the surface. I’m grateful I didn’t witness any physical violence or verbal abuse. Instead rage seethed underneath and manifested as physical absence, cutting remarks, alcoholism, infidelity, lying, and other passive-agressive behaviors. This disconnect between how we as a family presented ourselves publicly as happy and healthy and the chaos churning behind closed doors created its own challenges for me as I became an adult.

As an adult I’m still very much learning how best to handle my anger. For me, meeting the reality of anger begins and ends with awareness. It was a huge shift for me simply to admit that I’m incredibly angry . . . for all kinds of reasons. These days most of my anger is in the form of “moral outrage.” I anger myself when I notice my own failings as a Christian. I notice loving churches that have so much to offer their communities “hiding their light under a bushel” while mean, vengeful, and bigoted Christians spread their message far and wide and I get very, very angry. Mostly I’m exhausted by the moral outrages of our current politics, but when our government puts children in cages or when 26 first-graders are gunned down in their classroom and politicians cry “2nd amendment” or when I notice the casual, day-to-day violence and racism that implicate all of us who vote, pay taxes, and work for the improvement of our communities, my anger flares up, and I say something.

Just creating the psychic space where anger can come into view increases the likelihood that I can engage it productively. It’s become a joke around our house when I’m moping and acting out of sorts for my wife to say to me, “Now Todd, use your words.” Just saying “I’m angry” opens the door for conversation that can create the conditions whereby anger, which is simply a form of psychic energy, can be directed toward fixing a situation that is not as good as it could be.

Anger arises in the context of love. Mr. Rogers put it this way, “It’s the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest and the maddest! Love and anger are such a puzzle!” Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the context for his teaching on anger. This week at First Congregational Church of Granby we will stand close enough to the flame of anger to benefit from its warmth and energy yet at a respectful enough distance that none gets burned.