You, Inc.

Stephen Pressfield gushes a little bit in The War of Art about screenwriters who have incorporated themselves as companies, so that writing jobs come, for example, to “Joe Smitch, Inc.” instead of to Joe Smith himself. He thinks this is a terrific indicator that a writer has distanced her Self from her Work in a healthy way.

Your Self is you, the person you have to live with and look in the mirror every day, who’s contentment rests upon some brew of fulfilling work, financial security, health, and loving personal relationships. Your Work is your brand. It’s your Thing: what you show the world about the thing that you do.

So what is your brand? What is your Thing? Don’t say, “I’m a Pastor,” or “I’m a Writer,” or “I’m a Teacher.” Instead, describe the contribution to the world that your job title allows you to make but that you would still want to make if all the jobs with that title were gone tomorrow.

“I share the gospel.”

“I help people get healthy.”

“I make music.”

“I uncover the truth.”

Many of us are fortunate to have jobs with titles that permit us to do our Thing, but so many of the job titles that used to define for us who we are and what our Things is are either gone or disappearing that now seems a really good time for us to practice telling the world what our Thing is apart from a job title.

So, You Inc.: what’s your Thing?

Collaboration Is The Perfect Cover for Learning

In ministry, it’s important to have relationships with colleagues for support. A year into my present call, one of the associate pastors in town called several people she knew to put together an “accountability” group of pastors. We met monthly for a couple of years over lunch for no other reason than to share the victories and defeats of our work.

But it’s also important to have relationships with colleagues for learning. We need a network of peers (not all pastors!) with whom we work on projects, so that we can learn from them and they from us. This article wants you to think of that network as your new mentor.

I can’t tell you how much I have learned from people in this way. I’ve started inventing reasons to collaborate with people just so I can watch them work and incorporate their habits, expertise, and skills into my own work. Tapestry is the most obvious example, but there are more.

When my colleague suggested we rethink our early morning Easter worship service as a community outreach opportunity, I pitched the idea first to the owner of my gym, because he’s a mad entrepreneur who’s really good at community outreach. A partnership with him would allow me to watch him work.

Another one. We’re trying to incorporate some artwork into our Lenten worship series on The Stations of The Cross. It’s the perfect excuse to work with my photographer friend in town. I know that if I buy him a coffee and spell out the idea, he’ll go to work. Sure enough, the wheels are spinning and he’s presenting us with an idea next week.

Learning, getting better, enhancing your skill set and knowledge base: these are perfectly sound reasons to create working collaborations with people in your network, as sound as the stated purpose of the work itself.

Of course, if you don’t have a network, building one is as easy as a single email or phone call to someone who’s work you’ve noticed.

The Right(ish) Tool

The world is full of imperfect tools. If we insist on perfect tools as a condition for doing work, we will leave a lot of work on the table.

The podcast I’ve started is valuable to me, and it utilizes a bundle of flawed tools, namely online recording and editing software that must frustrate the ears off an audiophile. But it’s what I have, and it does what I need it to do. Plus, the work I put into it compensates for some of the tools’ flaws.

There are lots of tools available to churches to do lots of things, from discerning a new way forward to planning a vacation Bible school, and every single one of those tools is flawed. By all means, let’s make our own tools–better tools that are more responsive to our context, more theologically sound, more flexible.

But if the choice is between using an imperfect instrument and doing nothing. Please let’s use the imperfect instrument.

“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

I’m Pro Project

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Yesterday I met the director of an art gallery for adults with developmental abilities and discussed potential projects for the gallery and my church. I also spent 45 minutes on the phone with a friend at a church in Louisiana about a delegation from that church visiting us this summer and the projects we would work on. Then there were some emails about the Joke Night project a group of us at the church are working on, and some tweets with a potential MC.

Projects, Projects, Projects.

Is it just me, or does ministry these days feature more projects and fewer set pieces? Even the set pieces–worship, education, service–feel like projects: the seasonal worship series, the multi-week adult education class. Is this new, or has it always been like this? More importantly, is this a constructive development?

It feels constructive to me. For one thing, projects are far more amenable to team leadership than the set pieces. The Lenten worship series on The Stations of The Cross is something you can participate in without committing to joining the worship committee, so it’s easier to recruit a team of leaders well-suited to it.

The team changes, too. I’ve worked for several years on our community’s interfaith Baccalaureate worship service for high school graduates, and every year there’s a different team of us doing the work–including different graduates. It’s an engaging project because of the team.

Also, there’s a clear end date. Some projects last two weeks and others two years, but either way you know when it’s done.

And objectives are more clear with projects, aren’t they? What’s the objective of mission? That’s a long answer with lots of nuance and multiple caveats. But what’s the objective of our mission project in Peru? To support local churches installing water filtration systems in as many communities as possible.

I’m a fan of the master project list, a constantly updated compilation of all the projects you’re working on at a given time. More and more, I’m finding that if something’s not on my master project list, it’s not really a thing I’m doing.

Am I devaluing the set pieces here?

Monday Morning Quarterback

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Stuff we learned on Sunday.

What does your community need musically and artistically for young people? What does your context already provide for children and youth in music and the arts?

The community I live in has a Community School of Music, abundant kids’ musical theater offerings, and an academy for music, voice, and dance. In addition, there’s a youth symphony, and private instrument-specific tutors are everywhere. There’s music–good music–for youth all over this place.

I recently asked a group of teenagers, though, what their town lacks for youth, and their answer was music. There’s no performance venue for teens. There’s no recording studio. There’s no place to go hear live music in you’re underage.

Yesterday our program staff discussed the future of our Director of Music for Children and Youth position, since we recently learned that our Director of five years will be moving on. “Director” in this case has traditionally meant of choirs, up to three at a time at one point in the church’s history.

But it has slowly ceased to mean that; children, their parents, and youth, have gradually stopped participating in the church’s choral programming. It has become more flexible in response, more experimental. Students conceived of an Ash Wednesday service, for example, that was structured around contemporary pop music (Bastille’s “Pompeii” and Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire”). The Director helped the students clarify and perfect that conception so that they could carry it out well. And they did.

It seems to me that the resource our church can uniquely provide the community isn’t a choir director anymore. There are lots of those around. But kids and teens here don’t have access to musicians to take the artistic interests and aspirations of young people seriously and to accompany them in learning, playing, and performing.

Could this place be served by a musician who is an entry point and guide to the life of faith as expressed through music. A Musician in Residence? For Children and Youth?

Does this exist anywhere?

Sunday Game Plan

How we win the day.

Phase 1: sleep in.

Phase 2: enjoy the mistobox coffee I got Wife for Valentine’s Day. Leisurely like.

Phase 3: hit the Farmers’ Market

Phase 4: brunching

Phase 5: end vacation several hours early for an important meeting.

Phase 6: second important meeting scheduled for the last day of vacation.

Phase 7: avoid tweets and Facebook posts from the Oscars.

Phase 8: schedule fitness class for the morning.

Phase 9: Harry Potter, Goblet of Fire style.

For All To See

Writing publicly is a great way to keep yourself honest, because you will write things badly–or you will write bad things–for everyone to see. If you’re lucky, some readers will tell you where you’ve missed the mark. And then you get better.

I’ve spent much of life trying to avoid making mistakes or, at least, making the kinds of mistakes that only a few people will see. But I’ve been blogging five times a week for months now, and now I’ve started recording a podcast–both unrestrained public communication platforms. For what it’s worth, I’ve been preaching for a decade, and I have a public SoundCloud page with a dozen or so of my sermons on it.

I’m defaulting to public with the work I produce. When you do that, you make your mistakes in front of large crowds. Many in those crowds will be generous friends and colleagues and partners who will neither torch you nor flatter you but push you to improve, either because they care or because your work bears on their work too. Criticism of both those types is better than the silence that comes from keeping your work to yourself.

Make mistakes. In public. Then fix them. Apologize when you should. And keep at it. Improve.

For. All. To. See.

Progressive Youth Ministry Is Not Safe

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Progressive Christians are kidding themselves in believing that their youth are somehow insulated from the influence of the more aggressive forms of conservative cultural Christianity (like this).

Teens’ disillusionment with Christianity will include its inclusive expressions too.

I know youth who have grown up in churches that have long welcomed LGBT persons into membership and leadership who nonetheless feel alienated from Christianity as an exclusive thing. These youth have been schooled in social justice in their Sunday school classes, and yet see the church as something that is at odds with their emerging sense of injustice in the world.

I wonder if our talk has come up short. I wonder if we’ve failed these youth in explaining how our church is different from the ones their friends go to, where you can’t be out and every word of the Bible is preached literally, while not demanding of them the kind of giving of themselves that characterizes Christian discipleship.

Faith, conservative or progressive, has to be lived in ways that stretch us to experience God’s heart for the poor and suffering and God’s thirst for justice in the world. Absent that, it won’t matter to anyone.

The Main Line

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An experiment in news and analysis for Presbyterians

After a year and a half of negotiations with the Session of Crestwood Presbyterian Church (CPC) over its request to be dismissed to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), an Administrative Commission of the Presbytery of The James is recommending this weekend that the presbytery’s trustees–and not the AC–pursue agreement with the church regarding its property.

CPC is bringing a motion to the same meeting for its dismissal to ECO. Both reports are in the packet for the meeting.

What’s going on here?

There are three aspects of this that reflect changes in the denomination that are worth understanding.

The Tom and McGee cases are forcing presbyteries to consider property value, but what “consider” means is fuzzy.

What these two General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission decisions have done almost immediately is make explicit the presbytery’s responsibility to “fulfill its fiduciary duty under the trust clause” and consider the value of property when dismissing churches to another denomination, as well as to consider each case on an individual basis (not applying a formula for all churches).

The AC for the Presbytery of The James clearly acted out of that duty when it proposed (not demanded) a settlement with CPC in excess of $5 million (later adjusted to $3.5 million). CPC is not disputing that appraisal.

CPC is instead disputing that the settlement terms should be dictated by the property value. Their motion reads, “Crestwood . . . could find no evidence nationally that dismissal settlements since the Tom decision have resulted in congregations paying amounts approaching the appraised value of church property.”

So the AC appraised the property accurately and proposed the church pay that amount to the presbytery upon its dismissal. CPC is disputing that the former necessitates the latter.

Churches seeking dismissal want to be treated identically. 

Despite the assertion of McGee that presbyteries cannot apply a uniform formula to all church dismissals, that’s what congregations want, regardless of size. CPC’s motion includes a chart showing the amounts that four churches previously dismissed by POJ were asked to pay. The highest amount is $400,000, which is probably why their counter offer to the AC is in that same amount. They’re characterizing the AC’s terms as “astronomical.” Their motion continues:

Seven of the approximately 450+ churches dismissed from the PC(USA) in the past 10+ years had settlement terms of $1 million or more, and only two churches – Menlo Park with 4,125 members and multiple sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Highland Park with 4,896 members in Dallas had settlements of greater than $2 million. These two mega-churches possess the financial resources to meet multi-million dollar terms; Crestwood does not.

The AC doubts CPC’s claim that the church lacks the financial resources to meet their proposed terms. But the comparison with other dismissals is the real problem. Their report to the presbytery describes their response to the Session’s counteroffer:

CPC continued to use ‘comparison’ as a metric, despite the AC’s prior explanation as to why comparisons with other settlement amounts was inherently flawed and unsound, and its statement that use of this factor was illegitimate in negotiations.

Neither what a presbytery has previously done nor what churches across the denomination have paid out in dismissal settlements can serve as a basis for determining the terms of a particular dismissal, according to the AC.

The old ways don’t always work. Neither do the new ones. 

This is the second case in a month in which a presbytery’s appointed process for dismissing churches failed. In January, The Presbytery of San Gabriel heard a recommendation from its Council that 18 months of work undertaken by a Pastoral Engagement Team per the presbytery’s Gracious Dismissal Policy be handed over to an Administrative Commission (that recommendation was postponed). This after their policy had been successfully implemented in four previous cases.

POJ has likewise dismissed four previous congregations with its “Guidelines for Churches Considering a Request to the Presbytery of the James to be Dismissed to another Denomination.” But CPC presents unique circumstances, including uncovered irregularities in membership reporting, the presbytery’s New Church Development Committee’s missional interest in the church’s location, and the unrestricted and fully saleable nature of undeveloped property owned by the congregation, in contrast to the Session’s assertions about restrictions placed on that property.

The AC is recommending that the presbytery’s trustees deal with all of these details, however, as their negotiations with the Session have stalled.

Trust is in the eye of the beholder

Both the San Gabriel case in January and the POJ case feature congregations casting doubt upon their presbyteries character. The final section of CPC’s motion is titled, “How presbytery exercises power will reveal its true character.”

This is despite both presbyteries’ documentation of misleading and inaccurate information provided by the congregations seeking dismissal regarding such things as their membership statistics and financial position.

Presbytery of The James will vote this Saturday, February 21st, on both the AC’s recommendations and CPC’s dismissal motion.

Grow Up (Or Don’t?)

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In the past month I’ve had conversations with friends who are professors, pastors, and physicians, and who all feel crushed by the state of their work. My Godin-fueled optimism for the opportunities our era affords us to do our work in new ways hits a real barrier in these conversations, because people are up against serious and systemic constraints that can’t be overcome with an attitude adjustment.

The tension in all of their situations is between the desire to make change and the responsibility to endure difficulty for the sake of stability and providing for one’s family. My pastor friend calls it “Being a grownup.” She has tattoos that her congregants don’t know about, and she separates most of her interests and tastes from her pastoral work. She’s miserable, but, she says, this is part of being a grownup. Is she right?

Or take my professor friends. As tenure track positions fade into the professional sunset and colleges and universities employ more and more adjunct faculty as cheap labor, they’re scrambling all over the place trying to make a living by piecing together various temporary, adjunct appointments. There’s got to be a way to break out of that cycle and to do your work in a way that adds value to people, value they will pay you for, but I can’t imagine what that is. So my friends act as grown ups. They’re killing themselves to follow these new rules.

How much of doing meaningful work today amounts to working within the conditions set by your profession, or how much of it, in the “connection economy,” amounts to establishing your own conditions to make your work work for you?

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