Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Reality, Presbyterian style?

I don't watch much Reality TV--or much TV at all for that matter. But my sister is into it. Once when she visited I watched the final segment of The Bachelor with her. The premise of this show is that dozens of lovely single women compete to be chosen by the handsome Bachelor who proposes to one of them on the final night of the show. So I'm watching this and I'm thinking, "How degrading! How awful! How---OH. MY. GOD. ---How exactly like the call process in the Presbyterian Church. "

Now stay with me on this. The Bachelor starts off with dozens of women meeting the bachelor of the season at a large party. After this party, he narrows the group down to around a dozen ladies he'd like to know more about. This group then goes out on group dates--boating, bowling, etc. after a few of which events he further narrows the list to five or so chicks he really digs. He goes on individual dates with each of these girls, then cuts the list down to two he thinks he could have a real future with. He spends an entire weekend with each of them and then we watch breathlessly as he goes through the agonizing task of deciding which one he will pop the question to on stage the last big night.

Consider. In the official PCUSA call process, a congregation's Pastor Nominating Committee receives dossiers from dozens of pastors. They read through these and narrow their list to a dozen or so they feel have real possibility. They may send these pastors a series of questions to answer, or have a committee member give them a call to "get a feel" for how the real person compares to the person on paper. At this point, the committee will cut the list to maybe five or six serious contenders. These folks will do a phone interview, send sermon tapes, and submit references. As the excitement mounts, two or three of these candidates will fly/drive in for a whole weekend of interviews, preaching in a neutral pulpit and psuedo social events with the committee. Then, finally, the committee meets to decide to whom they will issue a call to serve as their pastor.

Coincidence? You tell me........

Monday, May 30, 2005

On the Market

Whatever my little church decides to do next one thing seems pretty clear. They can't afford to pay me for more than another couple of months. Which means ..............Yippy Skippy! I'm out in the job market again. Not that I'm totally devestaed, mind you. Even if the church's finances weren't in Toiletsville, I was beginning to feel those little stirrings that hint maybe it's time to move on. Actually several good, long-time friends and colleagues whose judgement I trust a great deal have been practically screaming this at me for months. However, things have gotten manifestly more complicated than they were the last time I was "out there" seven years ago.

1. Back them my husband was in a job he didn't mind walking away from. Now he is in a job he likes a lot and in which he is valued by the higher ups who are hinting at greater things. We need to be within a daily commute of this job--or be willing to set up two households and commute between them. Ick.

2. Seven years ago I had one child, a toddler, who didn't care where we lived. Hey, when you're a baby every day is a new adventure, right? Now I have two school-age kids with social connections that are important to them. I moved frequently as a child so I'm ultra-hyper sensetive to the impact of relocation on kids. I contemplate it only with fear and trembling.

3. I'm forty instead of 33. I'm acutely aware that I don't get as many "do-overs" at this stage of life. It seems like there is a lot more a stake this time.

Combine this with the reality that, in spite of all the social changes of the past 25 years, the call system in the Presbyterian Church still pretty much assumes a one career household willing and able to move anywhere in the country. If you are a pastor in a two career household needing to stay in a particular metro area, you are at a huge disadvantage.

So, I don't know. Maybe God has something wonderful in mind--or maybe I'll end up selling sweaters at Target. We'll just have to see.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Memorial Daze

Okay. I'm back. More or less. Spent most of the week in sort of a funk about what's up with my church. Finally, as the long weekend approached I started to lift a little. I think I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and help my folks think creatively about what comes next. I think there are a few things we could do rather than simply close in defeat and despair. The danger right now is that folks are discouraged and mad and seeking to cast blame somewhere so there is the big chance they won't pull together to look at possibilities. Some of the options I see, (cooperative venture with a larger church, closing but using assets to start fund for community ministry, use our location as base for developing a new kind of congregation) are options I've held out to them before the situation got this critical. However they are fiercely independent folks and prefered to pursue options that held out the hope of continued autonomy. Maybe now that this is truly and obviously impossible, they'll be able to be more open to these alternatives.

My parish associate and I are preaching on the Genesis lections this summer. I'm going to point out that many scholars agree that Genesis went through its final edit during the exile--during the time when the children of Israel were struggling to cope with the loss of their land and temple and everything that had given them their identity. Examining their beginnings was a way of trying to find meaning and a way forward. Maybe this can help us as we look to a very different future.

Okay--different subject. I know I'm not the most tech savy person in the universe, but I can usually figure computer things out if I apply myself. However, after repeated attempts, I can't figure out how to make the links part of this blog thing work. I think I'm following the directions correctly, but still no dice. Any advice or instructions from veteran bloggers?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

So what's with the name

Pure Christian I Think is one possible interpretation of my full name. My first name means "pure", my middle name means Christian, my last name is Latin for "I think", (or so I've been told--I took German). I've always thought it was the perfect name for a sort of quirky, half Jewish Presbyterian. (The Italian last name is really an Italianization of the Jewish last name my grandmother was eager to jettison upon arrival in the US following WWII). Probably the reason I hung onto the last name after marriage--even more than wanting to make some big feminist point. My husband's last name is Becker, which means either Baker or Beeker,(as in a one of those big beer mugs), depending upon which name book you look in. Pure Christian Beer Mug has sort of a ring to it, but .............

Monday, May 23, 2005

Whiney Pastor Comes to Visit

Every so often, I run out for coffee and return to discover that Whiney Pastor has dropped by in my absence. Sometimes she even turns on my computer and starts blogging. . . . .

My little church is running out of money. We've gained members in the six years I've been there, but not quite enough members and mostly folks with limited means-- single moms, retirees, etc. Our century old building is a veritable cash vacuum; the sewers are old, the wiring is antique, there are oddly positioned stairs and landings all over the place making handicapped accessibility an astoundingly expensive prospect. The denomination keeps upping dues for participation in medical benefits. I understand they don't have much choice on this, with the cost of healthcare blazing out of control as it is, but it's still a huge burden on small churches. The upshot is that, despite the fact that we do, in my humble opinion, amazingly strong and creative ministry for a church as small as we are, we are probably facing closure in the near future.

There's more tragedy to this than injustice. The truth is that most of our creativity and energies are inward focused. Sunday School, liturgical arts, wonderful fellowship events, music. The passion for outreach and deep change that would need to be present for dramtic growth just aren't there. And we are living in times when, for tiny struggling churches, nothing but dramtic growth really helps. Modest growth, or simply replacing members who die or move away can't keep up with the bills and the cultural pressures working against you. There is a great deal of optimistic church literature out there saying that any church can transform itself if certain principles are applied--but you know, I'm just not sure that's true. I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit--but somehow the Spirit does not make command performances.

Most of the little neighborhood churches in Portland were founded just before the rise of the automobile. The assumption was that everyone needed a church they could walk to. The error of this assumption was masked for a few decades at mid century by the great flowering of post-war church attendance. There were still enough active church goers and kids hanging around to mostly fill all the neighborhood churches and Sunday schools. And churches in good locations with a decent percentage of affluent members and the good fortune to avoid any major pastoral leadership debacles did really well. But somewhere around the late 70's folks began to realize there was a problem. Not as many folks were coming to church and the ones who were could hop in their car and go to any church they wanted. There was no compelling reason for them to go to the little church in their neighborhood with their limited programs and turn of the century buildings that were beginning to show their wear.

Maybe at this point someone should have shouted, "Hey! Strategy change, everybody! We have to rethink this whole business of trying to run a traditional church in each and every neighborhood. The world has changed, big time!"' Maybe someone did. I was too young to be paying attention, and anyway my family was busy hopping in the car every Sunday to leave our neighborhood amd drive the bigger church five miles down the road.

Instead, we started publishing these books promising every small church that it could grow if it just tried hard enough; that if they weren't growing there was something wrong with them. So now we have hundreds of tenacious, faithful folks in struggling churches feeling guilty as all get out. And of course they were not as adaptive, innovative, passionate and bold as they should have been. But you know what? Most churches aren't. Most Christians aren't. It's just that in small, urban churches this is a more immediate disaster than in larger congregations.

Can you say "Canary in the Coal Mine?"

Monday, May 16, 2005

Sad Pentecost

I spent the afternoon of Pentecost at the dissolution service for congregation in my presbytery. Everyone was putting on their bravest possible face for the occassion. We read the lections for the day. We talked about how the Holy Spirit is always on the move, always creating the church anew so that, when one particular manifestation of the church passes from the scene, we can be sure that something new and wonderful is taking shape somewhere else. We talked about how this congregation is not dead--it lives on in the places all over the world where former members live faithful lives and tell the story of Jesus to their children and grandchildren. We gave thanks for nearly one hundred years of ministry. But mostly it just sucked.

The congregation in question is like thousands of small, struggling congregations in cities all over the place--including the one I serve. These folks were not unfaithful. They were not a bunch of ridiculous church ladies sipping tea and knitting doilies for the bazzar. These folks fought the good fight: they tutored neighborhood kids, they stood up to city hall when something threatened the well-being of their community, the experiemented with new forms of worship, they shared their sanctuary with an African-American congregation--they really tried. But in the end it wasn't enough. Financial difficulties, member burnout and some serious crises in the life of their Pastor were enough to tip the ship.

For presbytery it was like an ecclessial re-enactment of the Terry Shaivo case. When do you decide there's no hope? When do you pull the plug? When do you say that to hang on is just causing more suffering?

In a moment of dark humor, another small church pastor and I tucked our bulletins from the service into our coat pockets. "We may need to know how to put together a service like this." we mused ruefully.

What a wierd Pentecost.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Pentecost Lists

One of my favorite things about Pentecost is watching the poor hapless soul who has signed up to be liturgist that day crash and burn on the list of nationalities present in Jerusalem when the fire came down from heaven. How is it that we each hear in our own language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, and Phyrgia and Pamphylia......" Even brave little engines that chug along through the Medes and the Elamites are completely undone by Phyrgia and Pamphylia. If I were a really good pastor, I would sit down with these folks before church or write the whole reading out for them phoenetically. But normally I only mention the week before that they might want to read through next week's lessons beforehand for real this time. Then I sit back and watch the fun.

Am I the meanest pastor on earth? Possibly. But here's the thing. There is something so true and holy in hearing the miracle of Pentecost proclaimed by someone who is so obviously not speaking in tongues, who's getting it all screwed up and mispronouncing everything. It's like an auditory icon. Hear that? That's what we sound like on our own. That's what happens when we wing it with our own resources. For the gospel to sound like wind and flame, we need something more.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mother's Day Ascension

Mother's Day began for me a few minutes past mid-night when my husband woke up, ran to the bathroom and barfed up everything he'd eaten the previous day. There's a stomach flu making the rounds in Portland--no big mystery there. He was up several more times before the night was over, so by morning I was groggy, feeling guilty for being the healthy one, and also faced with the prospect of taking the kids with me to church right off, rather than going early by myself and having T. breeze in with them just in time for Sunday school.

They were not delighted. Last Sunday T. was at a trade show in Seattle, so they had to endure tagging along for my pre-church routine that day too. On my list this morning was making copies of a hymn we were singing that is not in they hymnal. Hmmm, I considered. Which is the safer bet? Cranky kids in the room with the expensive copying equipment or cranky kids temporarily left to their own devices in the fellowship hall? I chose door number two. When I returned ten minutes later my seven year old son was lobbing his space shuttle flying disc at his five year old sister. She was sobbing, he was unrepentant. I confiscated the disc and put it on top of the refrigerator in our church's little kitchen, way at the back and out of kid reach. The phone rang and I went into the next room to answer it. Wrong number. Meanwhile the scene in the kitchen had deteriorated. In my absense my son had pushed a stool up to the fridge in an attempt to liberate his flying disc toy. Instead of retrieving it, he had managed to knock it off the side of the refrigerator where it was now lodged in the quarter inch space between the fridge and the wall. He was wild with anxiety that the toy was now lost forever and it was ALL MY FAULT!!!!!!! Funny how that works.

Through diligent efforts involving a wad of masking tape on the end of a yard stick, we angled the thing out by the time the rest of the gang arrived for Sunday School. Alls well that ends well, I guess. Let's just say that I wasn't in the most centered of places spiritually when I climbed into the pulpit to proclaim the Ascension of our Lord.

The language associated with Ascension can get to be a bit much, if you ask me. It's all heavenly thrones and celestial realms and divine majesty and crowns and dominions and clouds of glory. This can get on your last nerve, especially if you happen to be having a really shitty week. This is when it is a gift of pure grace to me to remember that in German the Ascension is called Die Himmelfahrt. I'm sure this doesn't sound a bit funny if you are actually a native German speaker. But if you are a barely post-adolescent American seminarian, as I was when I first made this discovery, it's just about enough to make your day.

Twenty years later, it still helps. It helps because it reminds me that the Ascension is the last scene of the last act of the Incarnation. This miraculous and mysterious event through which the presence of Christ becomes available to everyone across time and space is still clothed in the awkwardness of humanity. Just review thefamous paintings of the Ascension scene. Even the great ones can't disguise the magnificent ungainliness of a fully grown man floating heavenward leaving his disciples flat-footed and slack-jawed. In the Ascension the awkward messiness of humanity is somehow drawn into the life of God--made sacred and transformed. And that's the gospel truth.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Rebel Without A Pew

I'm not a rebel, really. If you're forty years old and still in the same denomination you started out with you pretty much disqualify yourself from that category. I have been without a pew, though, since I trotted off to seminary a few weeks after my twenty-first birthday. After that I never got to be a regular pew sitter again. Always at church in some official capacity, don'tcha know. So I have no clue what it's like to be a grown-up church member. There was youth group, then academia, then ordination. Sometimes I fantasize about sneaking off to some nice church where they don't know me and pretending to be a regular person. I think it would be good for me. But I don't have the time. Hey, I'm a working mother of two. I can barely get to my own services on time and without peanut butter on my stole. Oh well. I do know I'm not the only one out there suffering from this strange malady. So--in honor of all of us unlikely souls who've viewed the world from the perspective of the pulpit all their adult lives--a blog for us and anyone else who want to chime in.