Thoughts on Parenting on The First Day of Second Grade

Daughter started second grade today. A fellow parent standing next to me at the classroom door as our kids filed in under the watchful eye of our cameras muttered to me, “Once more to the breach.” For the second graders, of course. But also for us, their parents.

Never trust anyone who says that a fundamental human activity is harder now than it’s ever been. That’s not true of carpentry or adolescence or marriage, and it’s not true of parenting. As hard as parenting feels in this day and age, I’m not called upon to fend off bears. Parenting will be taxing on the body and spirit everywhere and anywhere. Always has been.

Our difficulty is particular, that’s all–particular to our era and our socio-economic strata. We expect an awful lot of ourselves as parents, and we’re sure we’re failing most of the time. Kid’s grades are below average; kid’s not in enough activities; kid is impolite. All of these indicators condemn us in our own minds (and–let’s be honest–in the minds of some fellow parents).

So we do more. Drive to more activities. Take more pictures. Arrange more tutors. Buy more enrichment materials. This is our particular brand of hard parenting; we are driven to be the best, and our definition of “best” aligns very closely with “more.”

Last night, on the eve of her first day of school, Daughter and I sat in beach chairs in the park listening to a concert and sending a GIF of Toonces The Driving Cat to her mom, who was working late in the urgent care clinic. “Ooh,” Daughter said without prompting, “This is very enjoyable.”

This is enough.

There Is No Such Thing As “Teen Social Media Use”

There are “Teen Social Media Uses.” Plural.

The teenagers I work with use a variety of social media platforms to communicate with one another and, by extension, adults. There’s no single tool that works for all of them, and the character of the group of teens both influences and is influenced by the digital communication tools it uses.

I meet with a group of 10th graders after school once a week. Today is our first get-together of the new school year, and Facebook Messenger was how we organized it. No problem. But the group of 12th graders who come to the church once a week don’t use Messenger–they’re not even on Facebook. I have to send group text messages to them. I don’t even have the phone numbers of the kids in the 10th grade group.

Is it that seniors don’t use Facebook and sophomores do? Of course not. These are just groups of peers who have their preferred vehicles for communicating; you might just as easily find a group of 10th graders as allergic to Messenger as these 12th graders are. Also, each of these youth are likely embedded in other peer groups that uses different tools for talking to each other. They use Messenger or texting for the church youth group, and Whatsapp for their friends from the soccer team.

Yet I’m not about to go chasing kids all over the digital landscape. I’m still working mostly on group communication for the purpose of organization–not one-on-one messages to teens, which need to default to the most public vehicle possible, in my opinion. You won’t find me Snapchatting with teenagers (or anyone, for that matter).

All this diversity requires adults to ask groups of students, “How do you guys prefer to be contacted? How would you like me to interact with you?” Their autonomy in this area requires adults to relate to them in a way we never have before, right?

Once More Unto The Breach

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit.

After almost four full years of spending one afternoon per week with a group of junior high, and then high school, guys, we gathered yesterday afternoon for the beginning of their senior year of high school, and our last year of work together. My feelings on this are mixed.

This group has been a source of great fulfillment for me, because these youth are so eager. They don’t require multiple email reminders; they troll me with texts and tweets, and on weeks when I’m away and can’t do the youth group, they complain. They like each other. They play hard and laugh hard and keep coming back for more.

But I’ve never felt completely up-to-snuff with this group, because it is so lacking in any kind of “spiritual” direction from me. I get the spirituality of hospitality and play and all of that, but I have wondered from the very beginning with these guys if I wasn’t failing them in some way by not confronting them with Big Questions or teaching them the Bible and by defaulting so much of the time to Scatterball and The Game of Things. 

So yesterday I prepared a kind of meditative exercise for them as a way of owning their senior year of high school. I gave them paper for jotting down notes, and I asked them questions like, “What word or image captures your posture towards this school year? Excitement? Fear?”

“What’s something you’re hoping will happen this year that will disappoint you if it doesn’t?”

“Who do you need to be for this year to matter in the way you want it to?”

The exercised devolved into giggling fairly quickly, which didn’t surprise or upset me. But it showed me how anxious these guys are about their senior year. They’re more stressed than excited.

They’re stressed about what comes after high school. They’re stressed about their parents’ expectations (one kid is stressed about prom: “If I don’t go to prom this year my mom’s going to be really mad.”).

Then in the middle of it, one kid walked in and reported that he’d just been in a fender bender. They’re stressed, man.

Here’s to the school year. Here’s to holding space for stressed teenagers in whatever form that takes and for being grateful for the time while we have it.

“A Note on How We Keep Score”

Today’s post is a cut-and-paste job. At last night’s meeting of Claremont Presbyterian Church’s session, the Clerk, Charles Kerchner, appended to following “homily” to his standard report of membership and worship statistics and correspondence. I was so impressed with it that I thought I would share it here, with permission. My hope is that Charles’ framing of this “scorekeeping” question will help you and your church think through it as well.


Recording our membership, communion, milestones, and attendance are the traditional ways our congregation keeps track of itself. In some ways it’s our scorecard. But as a reflection of who we are and what kind of church we aspire to be, they are badly outdated indicators..

So, this fall, I will be inviting a discussion about what we ought to be counting, metrics that better reflects our New Beginnings commitments.

It is not as if the decline in attendance in worship is a trivial matter. That decline, the parallel decline in pledging, and the aging congregation present serious challenges to the continued existence of Claremont Presbyterian Church. However, just looking at these data don’t help us very much.

The church attendance figures are a bit like raising the question of climate change. And as Rev.Sapio’s sermon from last Sunday illustrates, just presenting climate change as a problem does not provide us with a concrete issue we can address. I’m going to suggest that we try to identify those issues we can address and keep track of how we do. And I’m going to suggest that we start with the five areas that our New Beginnings small groups reported as aspirations for our future:

1. Reaching in: increasing the depth of spiritual practice and knowledge among our members and those who wish to join us.

2. Reaching out: consciously working to know people outside our congregation, understand their lives and needs, and attract new, young and old members to our congregation.

3. Building stronger relationships with the congregations and other organizations that use our facilities, especially the GPIB congregation and the Children’s Center.

4. Direct outreach, particularly to the homeless and hungry.

5. Building a firm financial base for the future and the capacity to undertake new missions.

It’s reasonable for Session to ask, for us all to ask, “If these are our aspirations for the future, how do we measure how well we’re doing in getting there?”

Over the next few months, I will be asking us to take some time to think about what we ought to count to hold ourselves accountable.

Professionalism Isn’t The Problem

I talked with someone yesterday who is starting a new worshiping community and who is doing some serious spade work on a collaborative leadership structure to create a climate for “organic” forms of community to emerge and grow. It sounds exciting.

A word popped up in our conversation that represents what this new worshiping community does NOT want to be: professional. That’s mostly about the leader. He doesn’t want this community to just be his job, but rather something that integrates the whole of his, his family’s, and the community participants’ lives. Nobody will be punching a clock.

There’s a yearning here for life in community striving after a purpose. I love that.

But I wonder if the opposite of this is necessarily professionalism. Isn’t professionalism–and its attendant concern for boundaries–an asset in the pursuit of authentic, life-encompassing, community. Don’t communities need leaders who approach their work with standards of ethics and excellence?

I think we’re reacting instead to a certain kind of professionalism, that of the mid-20th century company or organization, where the leaders sit in offices and produce products for members to consume, and where participants are drawn by the quality of those products, which, in the church, means sermons, choir anthems, and youth programs.

Maybe we don’t need to ditch professionalism in ministry but to swap it out for professionalism of another sort, like that of a community organizer, who diligently connects with a broad-base of people and groups in an “organic” relational way in order to live toward shared purposes.

Let’s not tar professionalism in church leadership. Let’s redeem it instead.

The Most Powerful Question You Can Ask Someone

How are you doing?

That simple question can open up vistas in a person’s experience. We work and parent and neighbor mostly unaware of how we’re doing until some saint stops to ask. Mostly we’re unprepared to answer, or afraid to.

A retired school administrator describes how he used to sit down with principals and teachers after a crisis. After debriefing all of the why’s and what’s of the matter, the administrator would pause for a moment and ask, “Okay, now, how are you doing?”

“Oh fine.”

“No, really. How are you doing? Do you need a day off? Do you need to talk to someone? How are you doing?”

Even if “fine” is the honest answer, the question is still powerful. Because it’s humanizing. It says, “I care about you” and “I want to help you.” But, more importantly, it says, “I see you,” and masses of people living unseen and unnoticed is the bloody epidemic of our time.

Ask someone today, “How are you doing?”

Thinking About Church in Castles

Two weeks of vacation in France is awesome. But even on vacation I’m thinking about church stuff, like I know you do too. Even strolling through castles, I’m wondering, “What does this historical artifact suggest for my vocation?” I’m sure you can relate.

Check this out. Most of the castles on the Loire Valley are immersive experiences of a history long since passed. Amboise, Chenonceau, Chambord–these are massive stone monuments to the people who built them and reigned in them, and visitors get an up close look at life in another time. It’s easy for your imagination to wander as you climb a spiral tower staircase: what part of this castle might I have roamed? Would I have run up these steps? I bet it was cold.

Then you realize that you never would have set foot in that castle. You would have gazed at it from the stables in a nearby village.

Still, they’re impressive, and the curators who have preserved them through the years have done impressive work indeed.

But then there other castles, like this one, that are smaller and lack the grandeur of the heavy hitters that draw the big crowds. The stewards of these sites have opted less for preservation and have instead chosen to make something new in their castles. The rooms and adjoining gardens don’t just boast old paintings and tapestries. They also have quirky little artifacts like geese in glasses. The curators have opted for partnership with local artists to create something that speaks to today as much as yesterday. These were my favorite sites.

Church leaders are stewards of a tradition. Are we preserving it so that people can come in and see it as it has always been? Or are we sharing it with our neighbors so that something new might be made from it?

Learn This from Genesis (No, Not That Genesis)

When a partner in creative work asks you to take a back seat or to keep your exciting idea in your pocket or to shelve the thing you’ve made for the sake of the project’s larger, longer-term aims, you can either say “No” and press ahead at the risk of your partnership or say “Yes” and burn with resentment.

Or . . .

You can say both.

You can say, “Yes” to your partners’ request for restraint and “No” to shelving your thing, as long as it’s clear that your thing is yours and yours alone, and as long as you’re confident that your partners and the project you’re building together won’t be tarnished if your thing goes down in flames.

Let’s collaborate, yes. But let’s also leave each other some space to do work we care about independently. Remember, Genesis made records in-between the solo projects of Tony BanksMike Rutherford and Phil Collins, and over its history utilized 11 different musicians.

To Challenge Or Protect?

Mission trips challenge teens, and that’s good. But is challenging teenagers the most important function of youth ministry, or are tasks like nurturing and guiding more critical?

The question becomes pressing when, for example, the mission trip confronts youth a person who abuses drugs or alcohol, or with the first transgender person they’ve ever seen in their life, or someone who swears a lot. My default youth minister posture is to let my teenagers experience the disruption and discomfort that comes from those encounters and to accompany them through the experience. But I know that’s not everyone’s posture.

Some youth ministers I know would rather keep their youth away from those experiences and protect them from encounters with people that might be “bad examples” to them. They feel a need on the mission trip to reinforce the church’s convictions about drugs and alcohol, sexuality, and cursing. Their posture is one of steering youth toward the path the church would have them follow.

This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but among the many things that I’m questioning after this year’s mission trip (which really was a great experience, despite my critical posts this week) is the default posture of youth leaders on mission trips, and, by extension, in all of our ministry with teenagers.

So what’s more important: challenging teenagers to see challenging and uncomfortable things, or guarding them against exposure to them?

Why I Still Go on Mission Trips

Mission trips push teenagers physically, socially, and emotionally, as they do intense work the likes of which many of them have never attempted with people they may have never met, and all of it far away from home, which, for some younger teenagers, is a big challenge.

Yet mission trips also push teenagers intellectually and theologically by confronting them with people whose stories challenge childhood assumptions. We leaders from their churches have precious little control over this, and we’re doing this assumption-challenging work at the same time.

This becomes a question of scale for me. We clearly can’t expect the 12th graders indignation about urban homelessness and “systems of oppression” to scale down to the incoming 9th grader who is just completely disoriented by meeting people who live on the streets for the first time. Neither can we expect the nuanced view a 40 year-old pastor has worked out on it to scale down to that railing 12th grader.

Everybody feels this challenge differently, and nobody on the mission trip, from the youngest youth to the oldest adult, arrives at a final resolution of the challenge.

That’s why I still go.


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