Monthly Archives: May 2014

It’s Not You; It’s Not Me; It Just Is

For the past five weeks, three of us from MCC NoVA have been part of an online class, Renewal 2.0 taught by The Center for Progressive Renewal. The  primary instructor, Rev. Michael Piazza, has a successful history of renewing and growing Protestant churches. One of our webinars also featured another United Church of Christ pastor who has led a successful church renewal, taking the church from an average weekly attendance of 25 to about 150 over a five-year period.

I’ve heard several of the suggestions for renewal offered in this course. Heck, I’ve tried more than a few of them, too. The research regarding the rise of the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation), and the overall decline of the mainline church wasn’t new, either. Still, I’ve learned some things; and I’ve really appreciated the honesty of both pastors and our course book Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline regarding the challenges of church renewal–especially in progressive communities of faith like ours.

The weekly discussion postings have given me a lot of food for thought, too. These postings also confirmed I’m not alone when it comes to the overload of mind-boggling information out there on the subject of church renewal. Use Facebook and Twitter! Don’t use Facebook and Twitter! Hang a huge rainbow flag on your building to let folks know all are welcome! No, the rainbow is SO overdone and can be seen as exclusive of straight people! Use artwork and non-religious music! Young people today want more ancient liturgy and order–the praise band days are on their way out!

So I guess there’s more than a little truth in Rev. Piazza’s statement: “One size fits some.”

After reading all this information and our weekly class discussion posts, I posted some of my own thoughts and decided to build on those thoughts here. First, I think its fair to say people have experiences of the Divine/Holy/God outside of religious gatherings of all types. Many people also know they can be good, moral and ethical without setting a foot inside any of these communities. Beyond that, most people know they can find healthy community outside of religious community, too.

These realities are challenging enough for most communities of faith. Still, for progressive/liberal communities the challenge is even greater than for far more conservative faith communities. See, unlike many conservative communities, we don’t tie service attendance, financial support and the adherence to specific doctrines or dogmas to the promise of a blessed afterlife or the threat of eternal damnation. While these positions provide people with great theological and spiritual freedom, they also give folks the freedom to “experience God” and make a positive impact in their communities in a variety of ways–all without setting a foot inside a church, synagogue or temple.

This information isn’t new to progressive and liberal people of faith–or at least it shouldn’t be. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fearlessly examine the governance structures of our communities of faith (both local and denominational); re-evaluate our preaching, worship and programming (both internal and external) in order to remain relevant and provide safe spaces for spiritual growth and transformation. If we really believe we have “good news” that can transform lives and bring hope to people, then it is up to us do to our best to share that good news in ways which will encourage people to both embrace it and share that good news and hope with others.

At the same time, I think its fair to say that the fact so many people no longer regularly attend and/or support communities of faith in general sometimes has nothing at all to do with them OR us. That is, not everyone who doesn’t attend church is hostile toward religion. And sometimes their lack of presence and support has nothing at all to do with our preaching, music, worship or programs. They know who we are. They know where we are. Heck, they probably see us out serving in the community, too. They just aren’t interested in what we have to offer.

In other words, it’s not you; it’s not me; it’s not them; it just is.

While I believe there will always be a place for progressive faith and liberal religion, I think it’s past time for us to consider the possibility that our future might be smaller than our past. Sure, there will always be some large progressive/liberal congregations of all faiths–and that’s great. At the same time, for most of the rest of us, I think its time to stop obsessing about the size of our communities. Indeed, maybe its time to stop obsessing about our survival. After all, isn’t Jesus quoted in the bible as saying those who are willing to lose their lives are the ones who will find them?

Instead, why not focus on doing our best to offer relevant and relational communities that are safe places for people to explore their faith and spirituality–places where people can experience transformation in their lives–as well as communities that reach beyond themselves to positively impact the world around them? Sure, it may require “losing our old lives;” still, if we’re willing to do so, can you imagine what we might become?

Blessings on your journeys!

Polite or Welcoming? Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry in which I shared my thoughts regarding the difference between being polite and welcoming. I based this entry on an experience Richard and I had with a social club here in D.C. where the group was indeed polite, yet when it came time to make room for us, no one seemed especially moved to do so. They already had their internal groups of close friends; and we formed the impression that, if we wanted to join this group, that was fine; we would just have to find our own way. Again, the head of the group and the social director were very nice–just what you would expect. At the same time, we felt rather invisible. So our search for a non-church related social group continues.

I compared this experience to church world. Often we are very polite to newcomers–and that’s how it should be. Pastors and other leaders try to make sure new people don’t feel invisible–just what you would expect from church leadership. At the same time, throughout my 40-plus years of church history–the last 13 as a clergy person–I’ve noticed many of our communities (whether we realize it or not) operate much like this social club. That is, we have our close friends; so when church is over we tend to hang out together–or we leave very soon after worship to eat lunch together or simply go our separate ways.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, either. In fact, it’s quite normal. We hang out with the people with whom we feel most comfortable. Sunday tends to be one of those days we like to be alone, too–especially if we’ve had a rough week. We come to church, receive some spiritual nourishment and go home and relax. And let’s be honest; not everyone has that extrovert gene which enables them to approach complete strangers and invite them into the group. So my intention with that post was not to beat up on church folk; it was to simply draw attention to this behavior in hopes that a few folks would notice that behavior in themselves and then make a sincere effort to go beyond “polite” to “welcoming” when they see new people in their midst.

There is, however, another side to this coin…

Sometimes new people like to fly under the radar. These are the people who are polite during the hug fest we call “Passing the Peace;” they listen intently to the music and the sermons; many even come forward for communion. And then, without speaking a word to anyone, they rush out the door as soon as the last “amen” is uttered. And while at MCC NoVA we don’t have an official “reception line” where people must greet the pastor, I do stand at the door between the sanctuary and social hall in order to greet anyone who desires that greeting. Even with a low-key approach, sometimes new people have purposely avoided making eye contact with me as they head for the door as quickly as possible–again not speaking a word to anyone.

I can’t tell you how many times that when I’ve witnessed this behavior I’ve rehearsed the entire service over and over in my mind. Was it the sermon? Was it the music? Did someone cross a personal space boundary during Passing the Peace by hugging the person when they didn’t want a hug? Was it something else?

What I’ve learned is you will drive yourself crazy if you obsess on why a new person bolted for the door immediately following a service. The truth is, while it could be any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, some people don’t come to church for close  human contact. They prefer to observe, hopefully receive a blessing of some type from the service and then leave. Some people have social anxiety challenges, which means it probably took every ounce of strength they had to walk through our doors.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of our own behaviors. That is, let’s try to move beyond politeness to offering a sincere welcome. At the same time, if people don’t respond to our welcome, that’s O.K., too. Respect that choice, let it go and be at peace.

Blessings on your journeys!






Polite or Welcoming?

If you are anywhere near the leadership of a place I like to call “church world,” you’ve heard about the unwelcoming attitudes of many of our communities of faith. And this attitude isn’t limited to the intolerance of theologically conservative groups toward LGBT or other liberally minded folk; nor is it limited to the intolerance of theologically liberal groups toward conservative folks, either. Sometimes, apparently, we just plain aren’t welcoming–regardless of our theological persuasion.

Now, people like me take these criticisms seriously. After all, I’m considered a leader in this place called “church world.” And since the church I pastor is far left of traditional Christianity and just oh-so-slightly right of Unitarian Universalism, we really want to make sure everyone knows they are welcome in our community–whether you are a “believer” or not. I take care to make sure new people are introduced to at least one other person–preferably a board member–who in turn knows I expect them to introduce new folks to other congregants. Still, we aren’t perfect; and I’ve heard comments about the cliquishness of our church (apparently we’re a lesbian feminist congregation who just happened to call a middle-aged white guy as their pastor). Like many leaders in church world, I just didn’t get why people thought we’re not welcoming.

Until tonight, that is…

When I moved to Virginia, Richard and I made the conscious decision to develop friendships outside of our church. Of course we love the folks at MCC NoVA; at the same time, there are times when I don’t want to be seen as “Pastor;” and for that to happen, we have to develop friendships where I’m not seen in that role.

With that goal in mind, we found a social group for middle-aged (and beyond) gay and bisexual men in the D.C. area. There are special activities for members; yet there are weekly dinner gatherings at a neighborhood bar and restaurant that are open to everyone. Just before Lent, Richard and I attended one of these weekly gatherings. Because we were too early, however, we decided to have dinner at the bar area and join the group for drinks before they headed to the dining room. The president of the group was very friendly and introduced us to a couple of men. The rest of the group, however, was focused on their own internal smaller groups. We returned later in the month for a Sunday afternoon gathering, which was much smaller. The two or three nice men we met before were there, and we enjoyed a good conversation with them.

Lent meant our Wednesday nights were taken; and the two most recent Wednesday nights included stormy weather. So tonight was our first night back in D.C. The president of the group was out; yet the social director was present and–as always–was very welcoming. When it came time for everyone to move to the dining room, however, it was every man for himself. Members selected their seats and saved others for their partners and friends. By the time I made it into the dining room, there was one seat left, which meant Richard and I had nowhere to sit together.

No one offered to move. No one said, “Let’s ask the waiter for another few chairs and make some room.” The attitude was more or less, “Sorry, there’s no room for you.” I quietly left the dining room and explained to Richard (who was at the bar ordering a drink) that the room was full. We sat alone at a table just outside the dining room and enjoyed a great dinner before heading home. And even though a few men came out to order drinks to take back into the dining room, no one invited us to join them. After all, the dining room doors were now closed–literally.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear here: Not one person was rude to us.

That said, however, I had an epiphany. Perhaps we in church world are equating being polite with being welcoming. I can tell you that tonight Richard and I felt anything but welcome at this public gathering. Again, no one was rude. A few people spoke to us. Yet when it was time to come together around the table–so to speak–there was no room at the inn. Not only that, no one seemed especially concerned with making room (and this is a group whose mission it is to provide welcome and social opportunities for older gay and bisexual men).

We aren’t angry at anyone, either. We have no reason to be angry; after all, no one was rude to us or otherwise mistreated us. We just felt invisible. And when you’re new to a group and wanting to make friends, invisible is not a good feeling.

Oh, and while no one was rude to us, we don’t plan on joining this group, either. Not only that, we don’t plan on making time in our schedules for their weekly or monthly open gatherings. If we have nothing better to do, perhaps. Then again, we’re blessed to live in the D.C. metro area. Chances are we’ll find something better to do.

Now, what ever could this have to do with church world?

Blessings on your journeys!