Aug 29, 2016

Post-Labor Day Church: 5 Ways to Welcome Newcomers

One of the things churches take very seriously is the Sunday morning welcome. We have ushers and greeters and newcomers’ packets and welcome tables during coffee hour and signs proclaiming "All Are Welcome!" posted everywhere. Recognizing that walking into a church for the first time can be intimidating, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making visitors feel welcome.

Now some parishes do this better than others. I’ve personally had every experience from being completely and utterly ignored to being treated like a minor celebrity. There’s a fine line between genuinely feeling as if people are glad you’re there and feeling as if the congregation is simply desperate for new blood — in a vampire, blood-sucking kind of way. 

But this whole idea of welcome isn’t simply a veneer of good manners. And hopefully it’s not just the adoption of certain best practices from the hospitality industry, as passed on through the filter of church growth consultants. 

Rather, if it’s authentic and not just self-serving, welcoming the stranger is a spiritual endeavor. It’s the whole idea of treating one another as if we are encountering Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed when he says, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” So welcoming the stranger is not just about being polite, it’s about being a Christian. 

Never is this as apparent as that first Sunday after Labor Day. In many parishes, this is the great dividing line between the loose-goosey, informal summer time and the get-back-to-the-fall-routine that begins the Program Year. Other than, say, the Christmas and Easter services that draw many people who have no intention of attending church more than twice a year, September has a different vibe. This time of year, in addition to welcoming back parishioners who have drifted away but want to be more intentional about regular worship, we welcome many newcomers searching for a church home, intent on finding a community of faith. 

In other words, September offers us a unique opportunity to welcome the stranger. And it begs the question, are you ready and willing to do so?

While there are many strategies to an effective newcomer program, here's a quick and dirty fall checklist:

1. Update the Website. Is the fall worship schedule posted? Have you removed references to Holy Week 2014? Remember, the website is your parish's "virtual usher" -- it's the first place all visitors go before entering the worship space.

2. Update Newcomer Packets. You do have these, right? A simple folder with (at a minimum), a welcome letter, contact information sheet (and what to do with it), general info about Sunday School and upcoming programs and events.

3. Schedule Ushers and Greeters. As the crowds (hopefully) show up, there's often general, if holy, confusion as many enter the doors for the first time. Are there people on hand to direct people to the worship space? To walk new families to the nursery or Sunday School area rather than just passively pointing the way?

4. Social Media Strategy. Be intentional about what's posted on the parish public pages. Let people know about service times and other upcoming special events. This may not be the time to wade into controversies over liturgical minutia. If you've ever considered purchasing a Facebook ad, this would be the time to try it out. Encourage parishioners to invite friends to try out your parish!

5. Don't Just Talk About Welcoming, Be Welcoming. At the announcements, don't talk about how welcoming your parish is, simply be welcoming. Help people who look confused during the liturgy, invite people to attend coffee hour, resist the temptation to catch up with all your friends -- talk to newcomers first, then catch up.

The upshot is that when we get to that post-Labor Day crush and people scramble to return to the fall routine, be intentional about your welcoming (yes, even if someone you don’t recognize sits in your pew). It’s not just the responsibility of the ushers or the clergy to welcome strangers. It’s up to you. Even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to reach across the aisle and offer words of introduction and encouragement. 

This is what building up the Body of Christ looks like. And we're all invited to do our part.

Aug 15, 2016

6 Ways to Make the Olympics...Awesomer

I've been watching a lot of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio the past week. There are several reasons for this: 1) I like sports 2) I'm on vacation and 3) I'm a big fan of live Tweeting events like this.

Having seen a decent amount of coverage gives me the authority to make a few suggestions to the International Olympic Committee. Take my ideas and the Olympics will be even awesomer. And, while "awesomer" is not actually a word, I think it conveys the true Olympic spirit of overcoming adversity -- in this case the limitations of linguistic constraints.

The Clergy Confidential Suggestions to Make the Olympics Awesomer

1. Bigger Medals. Medals are nice but they're too small to convey athletic greatness. Unlike the
Stanley Cup you can't drink out of them. And unlike the Heisman Trophy you can't put it on your mantle as the crowning achievement of your life. Frankly, anything that could slip under the seat of your car never to be seen again, is inadequate to the achievement. I suggest the IOC quadruple the size of the medals. Thus making all the winners -- regardless of whether they won gold, silver, or bronze -- look like Flavor Flav standing on the podium.

2. Force Athletes to Sing. One of the beautiful things about watching the medal ceremonies is hearing the various anthems of all the different countries. Who knew Fiji even had a national anthem (congrats to their rugby team, by the way). Actually, if you watched NBC's Olympic coverage, you rarely heard any anthem besides the American National Anthem -- why would we watch anything where an American lost?

But in order to encourage athletes to sing when they're on the medal stand, I suggest stripping the medal from any athlete who just stands there. What's wrong? Do you not even know the words to your country's national anthem?! Unless the athlete is crying, the anthem stops and the second place finisher gets to hear his/her anthem. This continues until someone is awarded the gold medal who actually knows the words to their country's respective anthem.

3. Add Average Person for Perspective. It's inspiring to watch athletes from around the world compete in their respective sports. The beauty is that the best athletes make their strivings look effortless. Think about American gymnast Simone Biles, flying through the air on her gold-medal winning vault. It's amazing! But still, it's hard for the average person to relate to such athletic prowess.

For the sake of comparison, I suggest that for each event one middle-aged person in reasonable shape first show what they could do. For instance, the winning female shot put (congrats Michelle Carter!) went nearly 68 feet. That sounds great but how far could I throw a shot put? Five feet? 20 feet? I have no idea. Let's put this all into perspective!

4. Allow Pets. Before the Winter Olympics in Socchi, there were reports that the Russian authorities went around killing stray dogs -- something about an eyesore. But what if we encouraged athletes to compete with their pets? What if they were given extra points for having their dog or pet turtle or whatever join them in the competition?

Who wouldn't want to see Usain Bolt's greyhound (puma?) race alongside him during the 100 meter dash? Or why wouldn't Katie Ladecky bring along her clown fish to swim with her? Think of the visuals, NBC!

5. See Athletes in Other Sports. It's amazing to see top athletes competing in their chosen sports. The single-minded dedication to, say, sculling is inspiring even if it does border on OCD. What the public would love to see, though, is how these athletes would compete in other disciplines.

Sure, Michael Phelps dominates in the pool. But can he throw a javelin? How would the greatest swimmer of all time fare in the modern pentathlon? We want to know. And I suggest a random drawing. If the 4'8" Biles ends up on the men's basketball team, so be it.

6. Make Tweeting an Olympic Event. Live snarking the Opening Ceremony on Twitter should be an Olympic event. With medals awarded. And a podium involved (it can be a virtual one). A true Olympic sport that transcends barriers of age, gender, and fitness level. Winners gain new followers; losers are blocked.

You see, there's great potential to make the Olympics Great Again! So to speak. I hope the IOC is listening. I don't even need any credit for these ideas -- just implement them no questions asked. It's my gift to the international athletic community. Though a medal received in the mail wouldn't be returned...

Aug 10, 2016

In Good Faith: Let the Games Begin

Since deadlines don't respect vacations, I've filed the August edition of my In Good Faith column from an undisclosed coffee shop somewhere in the world. I write about that thing that's on many of our minds this week -- the Olympics in Rio. Enjoy. If you can pull yourself away from the TV long enough to read it...

Let the Games Begin

As I write this, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio are in full swing. Like much of the world, I
have tuned in to a few events so far — some biking and swimming and a touch of women’s soccer. Also, like much of the world, I lounged on the couch and stuffed my face with food as I watched these world-class athletes put their bodies to the test. 

Sure, there’s a certain incongruity to it all. But then again, we’re Americans! We’re world champion arm chair athletes who can eat heroic quantities of junk food while watching the fittest among us exert themselves. Thanksgiving Day has nothing on Super Bowl Sunday for sheer gluttony of spirit. And anyway, I’m sure there was no shortage of baclava as the ancient Greeks followed the flight of their heroes’ discuss tosses.

But my point isn’t shame and guilt — there’s enough of that floating around the atmosphere. It’s the difficulty the average person has of relating to Olympic events. And I don’t just mean the obscure ones. Sure, most of us don't throw spears around for purposes of self-preservation. Thus the javelin toss seems an odd endeavor. We may have tried our hand at archery during summer camp when we were eleven, but chances are no one would accuse us of being a modern-day Robin Hood.

It’s the whole notion of elite-level competition that feels remote. Yes, we hear commentators wax eloquent about the purity of competition and the human spirit, but most of us are just trying to make it through the day. No one’s competing for prizes when it comes to getting dinner on the table or paying for this year’s family vacation or tending to an ailing parent. There’s no medal for walking the dog or calling a friend who seems depressed or taking a child with an ear infection to the hospital in the middle of the night. 

Competition is, in many ways, a luxury item. Something we can do when all our other needs are being met. In suburbia, this might mean training for the local five-mile road race. Maybe this year, if we train really hard and get our speed work in up at the high school track, we can finally beat our next door neighbor. 

But for much of the world, competition simply means survival. It means finding enough food and clean water to keep loved ones alive. It means not being crushed by the economic and environmental effects of globalization. It means keeping one’s self and family safe from forces of terror and disease.

It’s the reason, whatever your country of origin, you can’t help but pull for the Refugee Olympic Team. These 10 individuals, talented athletes across several disciplines, were literally pulled from misery and given a chance to compete in Rio. Their presence doesn’t solve the larger global refugee crisis, but it does offer visibility to a difficult and untenable situation. It also puts a human face on the often faceless plight of this particular brand of global human suffering.

As the games go on, I encourage you to listen to their stories. Not just in the NBC, ratings-boost, feel-good way, but the stories that connect these athletes to the larger crisis of human pain and suffering. The ultimate goal isn’t athletic victory but the inspiration of hope. 

You can always find the divine at work in this life if you open your heart and soul to the stories that lurk beneath the often over-produced surface. Even if you can’t relate to, or even name, the five events that comprise the “modern pentathlon.” 

Aug 8, 2016

Liturgical Olympics

Admit it. You're slightly obsessed with the Olympics. That's not a bad thing, of course. Competition and the human spirit...blah, blah, blah. 

But what if these events were a bit more relatable to church life? What if we had events in which clergy and lay people could compete and receive that "crown of glory that never fades away?"

Fortunately, I've given this some thought. Here's an excerpt from my 2015 book Father Tim's Church Survival Guide. If you have other ideas for events, let me know. Then, collectively, we can "go for the gold!" Or at least the Golden Chalice...

Liturgical Olympics 

It happens every two years -- people become obsessed with sports they never give a second thought to in the intervening four years. I don’t know too many people who are huge luge fanatics outside the friendly competitive confines of the Olympic Games or who could name all the members of the Brazilian relay team in non-Olympic years.

Anyway, it’s made me think that we should institute an every-four-years Liturgical Olympics. Each diocese could field teams in church-specific events. Instead of the ugly jackets worn by many of the delegations, the “athletes” could wear hideous vestments during the Opening Ceremonies at the Washington National Cathedral. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We first need to come up with comparable events. 

Here are some suggestions based on the winter Olympics.

Freestyle Skiing — Thurible Twirling
Everybody loves the daring, gravity-defying thrills of freestyle skiing. Why not transfer this to the skills of our best thurifers? The possibility of setting things on fire adds to the danger of this exciting event. Thurifers show off their skills with 360s, around the worlds, figure eights, and even the newest move called the spinning nautilus. Extra points gained for smoking out any Protestant spectators.

Speed Skating — Speed Mass
After the starting gun/sanctus bell, Celebrants compete to say the Eucharistic prayer and distribute communion as quickly as possible. Everyone begins with the altar set for communion, 100 communicants in (mostly) good standing, and one deacon. The giant running digital clock behind the altar allows spectators to track each competitor’s time. While this event is Rite II, the Liturgical Olympic Committee (LOC) is considering a switch to Rite I to watch Celebrants trip over the words “innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”

Pairs Figure Skating — Acolyte Choreography
Acolytes must serve at a high mass without extraneous movements or fainting while using perfect form and correct manual acts. Additional points are awarded for singing the hymns and not falling asleep during the sermon. Points are subtracted for unruly hair, wearing sneakers, and getting wax on the cassock.

Ski Jumping — Changing the Worship Space
Participants are challenged to make a substantial change to the worship space and then suffer the wrath of parishioners. The losers either give in and change it back or go home and curl up in the fetal position. “Substantial change” may refer to the removal  of flags from the sanctuary, repositioning the altar, or removing anything — no matter how ugly — donated by a current parishioner (i.e. the modern baptismal font, 1970s-style altar hangings, etc).

Cross Country Skiing — Endurance Preaching
The ultimate liturgical endurance test, preachers are set up in a pulpit and asked to preach extemporaneously on a surprise text for as long as possible. There are two ways to get disqualified. 1) Uttering the words “um,” “er,” “ah,” or  any other vocal placeholder or extra long pause (judges’ discretion) 2) When the first spectator falls asleep. This is the least popular event to attend especially because smart phones and knitting are not allowed.

Hockey — Coffee Hour
Participating clergy are thrown into a loud, crowded room with people drinking bad coffee out of styrofoam cups. They have 20 minutes to remember everyone’s name, have heart-felt pastoral conversations with long-time parishioners, identify and talk to all newcomers, answer passive aggressive questions about the hymn selection, and suck down two cups of coffee.

And a few more based on the summer Olympics.

Beach Volleyball -- Pine Needle Pickup
Like trying to get all the sand off your body, out of your hair, and away from your clothes after a trip to the beach, this event is about ridding the church of pine needles after Christmas. Contestants are given a broom, vacuum cleaner, and a pair of tweezers. The first one to get up all the needles before the next Olympiad wins.

Diving -- Sacred Cow Tipping
Bravery and derring-do are the traits that earn gold in this event. Each participant is given a sacred cow to skewer such as switching to the contemporary language version of the Lord’s Prayer or changing the Sunday service times and told to dive right in. The one to live to tell about it is declared the winner.

Synchronized Swimming -- Three Sacred Ministers
Similar to the Acolyte Choreography event in the Winter Liturgical Olympics, this tests the mettle of teams consisting of a Celebrant, Deacon, and Sub-Deacon. Points are deducted for each misstep or out-of-synch bowing at the name of Jesus. Unfortunately for the judges, this is difficult to score since they cannot see into the massive cloud of incense.

Table Tennis -- Call and Response
This event takes great concentration and anticipation. Teams of five are assembled
consisting of an officiant and four “parishioners.” The officiant says a phrase such as “The Lord be with you” and his/her teammates must correctly respond with “And also with you” in the shortest amount of elapsed time. If they speak too soon they are disqualified and the Lord isn’t, in fact, with them.

Fencing -- Sermon Dialogue
In this event, preachers must spend five minutes immediately following the sermon to engage the congregation in dialogue. No longer able to hide behind the built-in authority of a gigantic pulpit, they must answer pointed questions about their theology from the chair of the religion department at the local university. The winners successfully navigate this exercise without either weeping or proclaiming “because I said so, that’s why.”

Boxing -- Worship Committee Meeting
Contestants are placed into one large Worship Committee and asked to come to consensus on whether or not to use incense when the bishop visits even though it’s not a major feast day on the liturgical calendar. There are no medals awarded in this event.

Jul 20, 2016

The Trump Bible

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Bible. Sure this sounds presumptuous but it was actually published as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and is known today as the Jefferson Bible.

Jefferson spent his twilight years literally cutting out passages he either didn't agree with or felt were "supernatural." The Resurrection? Didn't make the cut. Passages referring to Jesus as divine? Into the ash can. Anything smacking of the Trinity? Nope.

While Jefferson took this to the extreme, it was consistent with his overall religious outlook. He was a Deist; Deism being generally defined as belief in the existence of God based on reason and nature alone.

As I've read about Donald Trump's dance with Christianity and listened to words that feel counter to the Christianity I've experienced, I'm convinced he should go and do likewise. Trump should just adapt the Bible to his own purposes. With the Jefferson Bible, there's precedent! Plus any charges of plagiarism can easily be blamed on a speechwriter.

So, while I've already written a Trump-inspired Eucharistic prayer or Trumpcharist, the Trump Bible seems the logical next step.

With a little tweaking, some of the best known passages of Scripture can simply be repurposed to better support the Republican nominee for president. And anyway, what's a bit of a Messiah-Complex among friends?
"The first shall be first and the first shall be first. Being last is for losers." 
"The only thing the meek will inherit is being pathetic." 
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in my awesomeness.” 
"Trump is impatient; Trump is unkind; Trump is envious and boastful and arrogant and rude. Trump insists on his own way; he is irritable and resentful. And now these three abide: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is...Trump." 
"Seek first the election of Trump and all these walls will be built around you." 
"Therefore put on the full armor of Trump, so that you may be able to withstand the Democrats on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truthiness around your waist, and put on the breastplate of self-righteousness. With all of these, take the shield of defensiveness, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil Hillary." 
"This is the day Trump was nominated. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Unless you're from Mexico or a Muslim-American."
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Trump."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Donald, so that everyone who votes for him may not perish but may have eternal greatness."
"O taste and see that Trump Wine is the greatest." 
Of course I could go on and on. But I have a GOP Convention to live-tweet (@FatherTim). But fear not! Others have gone where I haven't had the time to go. There's even a website called not to mention an entire #TrumpBible hashtag on Twitter.