What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-16-21

Our transition coach, Claire Bamberg, recommended everyone from First Church and South Church read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Paul Nixon and Beth Ann Estock as a resource for envisioning what the new church God is birthing among us as a result of our collaboration might be. In chapter 5, Nixon and Estock write about “shame-based systematic theology” (p. 51), which has been a feature of many Christian churches for centuries. The authors propose a shift away from “shame-based theology” toward an approach to doing church based on love and letting go.

While this may sound a bit abstract mystical, it is not in the least. Some researchers argue that shame is the most powerful force in human psychological, social, and spiritual life. Shame is an emotion. Emotions are made up of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Here I think it’s important to distinguish between what some researchers call “healthy shame” and “toxic” or “chronic” shame. In it’s benign or “healthy” form, shame simply lets us know when we are out of alignment socially. It might be that feeling of “dis-ease” when we enter a room of strangers or that feeling of embarrassment when we make an inappropriate comment. Internally it could arise as a sense that we are not living in alignment with our values. 

Healthy shame can prevent us from doing socially harmful things. This is the kind of shame the Prophet Jeremiah writes about: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush” (6:14). For an in depth study see Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattinson.

When Nixon and Estock are writing about “shame-based theology,” they are referring to “toxic” or “chronic” shame. Toxic/chronic shame is the sense that “there is something fundamentally wrong with me.” Whereas guilt is the sense that “I’ve done bad,” toxic shame is the sense that “I am bad.” Author Brene Brown talks about this as the difference between “feeling shame” and “being shamed.” Listen to her podcast “Shame and Accountability.”

When I moved from my church of origin to the “liberal” UCC I thought I was leaving shame-based theology behind. I discovered that we have our own version. Some call it “toxic wokeness” or “cancel culture.” All of it–whether it’s from the “right” or the “left,” conservative or liberal, “blue,” or “orange,” or “green” stages of spiral dynamics (to use Estock and Nixon’s terminology) arises from a deep-seated desire for purity. It’s a belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with reality and if we could just eliminate it or “them” everything would be “good.” It’s a worry or a sense or a fear that the declaration of Genesis that “God saw all that God had made and behold it was very good,” no longer applies. 

Toxic shame is a tool of oppression. In her podcast, Brene Brown quotes author and activist Audre Lorde: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” A “weird church” won’t abandon working for justice, but it will avoid using the master’s tools to do so. 

The vision of a theology oriented toward loving and letting go is grounded in a practice of radical acceptance. It looks more like a “yellow” or “turquoise” stage in spiral dynamics. Loving and letting go means letting go of our dreams of purity and meeting the world as it is. Filled with deep faith in the ongoing goodness of creation, we can meet each moment whether pleasant or unpleasant, each person whether loveable or hateful, each situation whether harmful or healing, with fierce tenderness and longsuffering patience because everything we encounter is woven into the seamless fabric of God’s boundless love.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21

Our transition coach Claire Bamberg has recommended we read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. Nixon and Estock are United Methodist ministers and consultants to churches of many different denominations. 

The theoretical framework of the book is called “spiral dynamics,” “a particular theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen, rooted in the work of Clare Graves” (p. ix). The gist of the theory, as I understand it from the brief sketch in the introduction to Weird Church, is that human history and culture has evolved through a number of stages beginning 250,000 years ago with the stone age, which in human terms was characterized by a “survival mentality.” 10,000 years ago humanity evolved to a tribal stage of “mutual reciprocity.”  As we transition from ancient to modern times we see the development of an ego-centric stage, a “code of conduct” stage, a stage of “achievement and personal success.” The contemporary moment has given rise to a shift away from the individual toward a concern for the larger community characterized by various justice movements and concern about climate change. Evidence for further evolutionary stages include a stage characterized by a “value system that can respect all perspectives,” and a stage that “experiences the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit with mystical and intuitive sensibilities” (pp. x-xiii). What makes this evolution a spiral is that each succeeding stage includes the one before. The survival mentality persists even in the stage of “mystical wholeness.” 

This framework–“color coded” for convenience–allows the authors to analyze how gaps between congregational cultures and changes in mainstream Western cultural assumptions have resulted in church decline. I had an “aha” moment many years ago when I realized that I had been taught that people don’t attend church because they’re “bad,” when, in fact, many–if not most–don’t attend church because they’re good and they just don’t see church as having any relevance whatsoever to their spiritual lives.

Much of what the authors describe resonates with my experience. The book was published in 2016. I find myself wondering what changes they might make to a 2021 edition. My guess is that they–along with pretty much every other thinker I’ve been reading/listening to over the past 13 months–would say that the pandemic has only greatly accelerated the changes they describe. I encourage everyone to get a copy of the book and read it. 

A word of caution. Predicting the future is a tricky business. Organizations that endure go through periods of expansion and contraction. Darwin’s evolutionary insight about “the survival of the fittest” might be better phrased as “the survival of the adaptable.” While much of our work will inevitably be focused on what changes are needed for our congregations to survive, a more powerful set of questions might be, “How can we build our organization’s capacity for change? What behaviors, structures, values can we weave into the fabric of this new project that will keep the “change muscles” of the congregation strong for generations to come?”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-2-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-2-21

In light of the February 14 decision by First Church and South Church to pursue a path of collaboration, I met with leadership to revise the addendum to my transitional call agreement. This addendum spells out “micro-plans” and “big picture goals” for our ministry together. One of the things that makes transitional ministry different from settled ministry is the inclusion of specific ministry goals in the contracting process.

Our assistant moderator, Lisa Reinhardt, is writing a piece this week on the updated goals for the transitional minister. The first of the updated “micro-plans” is to “remind people of the role of the transition pastor to the congregation.” 

After nearly two years of serving together, my guess is most of us have a pretty good sense of the role of the transition pastor in the congregation. A transitional minister contracts with a congregation for a certain period of time in order to get a certain piece of work done, which the transitional minister and congregation define together. In our case, the piece of work was to find a sustainable future.

For about 18 months we explored a number of options. Six weeks ago we decided to pursue consolidation. The reason for updating the addendum at this point was so that it reflected a focus on the consolidation path. In terms of worship, this will mean more energy focused on worshipping together with South Church and developing a common worship liturgy. In terms of program, it will mean focusing more energy on developing collaborative projects with South Church. In terms of pastoral care, it will mean focusing more energy on working through whatever grief may arise as certain familiar aspects of what it means to be First Congregational Church are let go so that new, vital ministries have the space to sprout and grow.

Years ago in one of our conversations my spiritual director refered to a poem by Richard Wilbur entitled “Seed Leaves.” I keep a copy of it pinned to bulletin boards in both my home and my church offices. To me the poem speaks about the hard choices the path to maturity demands of each of us. When we try to be everything to everyone we often end up being of no use to anyone. Wilbur writes:

“This plant would like to grow 

And yet be embryo; 

Increase, and yet escape 

The doom of taking shape;”

Yet the “stubborn” life force demands the plant take shape. A maple tree becomes a maple tree with its distinct characteristics. It can’t be an oak. Like a tree if we are to grow we can’t escape the doom of taking shape.

The great blessing of transitional ministry is the opportunity it creates for new, distinctive, and focused ministry to take shape.

Worship Resource: Easter Sunday

Opening Prayer                                                                                                                                

Holy God, on this Easter morning we welcome the sunrise. We welcome the birdsong. We welcome the branches swaying above our heads. We welcome the opportunity to greet familiar faces and meet new ones. We welcome the energy and joy and promise of a new day, new beginnings, and new challenges to face. We welcome the chance to hear with new ears the old story of Jesus: how he died at the hands of violent people and was raised by the unstoppable power of your boundless love. Renew our faith in resurrection. Renew our commitment to the Jesus way. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-26-21

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-26-21

“To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself” is the title of a 2019 Harvard Business Review article that caught my attention this week. This concept is the foundation of my approach to ministry for the past 25 years. It is the bedrock on which family systems theory is built. Family systems theory, first developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen and adapted for congregations by Rabbi Ed Friedman, has had a huge influence on generations of clergy. This includes my counterpart in the First Church/South Church consolidation effort, Rev. Denny Moon, and our consolidation coach, Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg. I encourage you to check out the short article both for your own personal edification and as a springboard for conversation as First Church and South Church move into our next stage of work together.

GUCCI, the steering team for the First Church and South Church consolidation effort, is organizing work groups to lead the next stage of our work. The work groups are: 1) “Getting to Know Each Other,” 2) “Nuts and Bolts,” 3) “Properties and Memorial Gardens,” 4) “Staffing, Technology, and Communications,” 5) “History,” and 6) “Program.” 

Considerable thought is being put into the size and composition of these work groups as well as how to build a culture of healthy communication in the work groups so that our time together is productive and to build a healthy foundation for a future congregation.

Which brings me back to the Harvard Business Review article. The author recommends teams master three “foundational capabilities” to improve their functioning: “internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal accountability.”

Internal self-awareness involves understanding your feelings, beliefs, and values — your inner narrative.” The article goes on to give examples of how increasing internal self-awareness affects interactions. For more details on building self-awareness see this HBR article. I have found maintaining a daily meditation practice key to building self-awareness. Coaching and therapy are also incredibly effective modalties for increasing this “foundational capability.”

“External self-awareness involves understanding how our words and actions impact others.” How do we understand how our words and actions impact others? Ask! I have observed the most effective leaders, including Claire, pause a meeting to ask about body language: “You just scrunched up your face. What was happening in you then?” Or repeating what was said and asking, “Did I get that right?” Or “Are you getting what you need out of this conversation?” It can feel risky to ask for feedback, but all of the best leaders do it.

As for accountability: “When we think of accountability, we typically think of holding others accountable. But the most effective leaders and teammates are more focused on holding themselves accountable.”

Years ago I was meeting with a group of church leaders. We were trying to revitalize a dying downtown congregation that had once been the largest in the state. The team had been attempting to engage the wider congregation in the turnaround effort with little success. The meeting devolved into a complaint session about how we had a congregation of freeloaders who needed an attitude adjustment. By some miracle the conversation shifted to looking at our own attitudes and behaviors as leaders. Finally the light bulb went on and the team leader said with conviction: “Nothing will change until we change.” Long story short: after seven years of hard effort, the congregation was completely transformed. Moral of the story: “If you want to improve your team, first work on yourself.” 

Worship Resource for Palm Sunday

Prayer of Confession                                                                                                                                      

Holy God, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Scripture tells us that resurrection is assured. Yet we live in fear. We’re afraid of losing our loved ones. We’re afraid of the unknown. We’re afraid people won’t like us or our children will forget us. We know we’re not the church we once were and afraid of what that might mean. We’re afraid that if people knew who we really are, they wouldn’t love us anymore. While we long for abundant life, we’re afraid of what it might demand from us. Disrupt our addiction to fear. Open our lives to true boldness. Give us confidence not in what we can achieve, but in the power of what you are doing in and through us. Amen.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-19-21

Marvel Superhero “Vision”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 3-19-21

Part of our discussion at GUCCI (Granby UCC Initiative) this week was the formation of work groups that will be tasked with visioning a new, unified UCC congregation in Granby.

One of the points we emphasized was that the work groups should be led by visionaries who are clear that their job isn’t to recreate the past but to imagine something new. This can be trickier than it sounds. It is a natural human tendency to stick with what we know. We all want to be experts. None of us wants to fail or look foolish. As the old saying goes, the safest place for the sailboat is in the harbor, but that’s not what it’s made for. That’s not what the church is made for.

In their research of hundreds of church consolidations, Tomberlin and Warren have found that a–perhaps the–key to success of any consolidation is a forward looking, outward facing vision (Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work). What does it take to discover God’s vision for our future?

I suggest we start with some study, reflection, prayer, and conversation. Start with study of vision passages in Scripture. Some that come to mind are God’s promise to Abraham to make of him and Sarah “a great nation.” God showed Abraham a vision of the stars. God says, “Look toward the heavens, so shall your descendants be (Gen. 15). In Isaiah. 43:19 God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Or Jer. 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

A key question for developing an outward focused vision is asking NOT what kind of church do I prefer, but what kind of church does this town need? There are many resources for this. Please check out the detailed demographic data for the town of Granby from MissionInsight and posted to http://www.firstchurchgranby.org. Also important is developing a survey and interviewing leaders, neighbors, and friends. YOU CAN HELP. Just say to your neighbor, “If you were to go to church, what kind of church would you go to?” Or some such similar question. You will find that many folks will be eager to share their opinions with you. Please document your findings and share with GUCCI. 

Finally, gather a prayer group, dedicate time to pray personally, or make a prayer request during worship for God’s vision. The Bible promises that if we humble ourselves, pray, and “seek God’s face,” God will hear our prayers, provide healing and hope. 

Worship Resource Lent 5A

Prayer of Confession                                                                                                                                    

We confess, Holy God, our impatience. We confess our boredom, our preference for stimulation–those little dopamine hits that excite the brain’s pleasure centers. The waiting is the hardest part. We wander the garden wondering where and when and if the spring shoots will sprout. Forgive our distraction. Give us faith in a seed. Give us rising hope. Amen.