A Ministry of Interest

I try to make one-on-one meetings a regular part of my work. They’re a thing I’ve learned about through exposure to the broad-based community organizing philosophy of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and have practiced mostly as part of formal IAF-style “listening campaigns” in churches.

I want one-on-ones to be a kind of default mode for my ministry work.

The practical benefits of regularly conducting one-on-ones in your community are explained in organizing parlance clearly enough. You learn a lot about what your people are experiencing and what they care about, and you can begin to see common threads, which can foster stronger relationships within your community around shared concerns. It’s kind of how you drag the lake bed.

I’ve heard the ministerial impact of this organizing strategy articulated through the lens of listening, typically with reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s line from Life Together about the first responsibility we owe a fellow member of the Christian community being to listen to her. But I think I’m finding a more primary ministry benefit to doing lots of one-on-ones than listening, and that is interest.

Before we can listen to a person we have to take an interest in them. That feels more and more to me like a primary ministerial action in a context in which most people, most of the time, are leaving one another alone. A one-on-one communicates interest in another person as a person. It’s not an interview. It’s not a survey. It is a public human connection that affirms the value of an individual apart from what they know or can give.

To be interested in a person as a person and not as a source of information, and to express interest in a one-on-one meeting, is ministry.



What you call things and where you put them in your budget matters on both a micro and a macro level. Naming the account that pays for coffee hour donuts “meals” could give you a misleading sense that you’re doing a kind of work that you’re actually not. Accounting for Confirmation retreats under the “Confirmation” line and not the “Retreats” line means that those retreats are different in character from the other retreats you’re doing. Are they?

It’s fluid, of course, and rigidity in budgeting and accounting can be just as unhelpful as thoughtlessness. Maybe it’s a good rule of thumb that if you can’t explain it in a couple of sentences (to someone who isn’t on the staff), your budget is too complicated. Maybe it’s also a good rule of thumb that if you’re not eager to explain it, your budget is too loose and ill-defined. A budget is a plan, and plans should be exciting.



There’s a thing you’re responsible for, a presentation or a product of some kind, and every time you think of it you get a shot of discomfort in your stomach and you spend a couple seconds wishing it were finished or even gone altogether. There is a momentary certainty that you will fail and that this failure will furnish definitive proof to all who see it that you’re over your head and unqualified, that you’ve been faking it.

Let’s just call this feeling dread.

I’ve been responsible for certain types of work regularly over the past 15 years, and I still dread them every time. Sermons. Retreats. Weddings. Funerals. The approach of every one of these commitments features this kind of dread. It doesn’t go away. And yet the spectacular disqualifying failure the dread portends has not yet materialized.

I’m starting to accept that dread will always be a part of work. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s even good. Maybe dread is an indicator that we’re working on something meaningful.



I arrived early for the wedding. I’m early by nature and always nervous if I’m not present for a commitment at least an hour beforehand. But on Saturday I didn’t have anything else to do in the intervening time; daughter had been dropped off at Cheer Camp, and the family car was out of town, so I rode the Blue Line into downtown and walked the mile-or-so to the church, picking up my second coffee of the day on the way.

Two hours early.

I only learned that the wedding started an hour later than I thought it did after I’d been there for an hour. It was like daylight savings time.

Two hours early. Again.

I arrived early for the wedding. This one is not at the church but a hot wedding venue in the West Loop, but it’s on the same day. I want to be there in time to check out the space and robe up, but not so long that I need to dress well. I’ve got on slacks and a tie, and my shirt sleeves are scrunched up past my elbows. No worry, my happy hour look will be concealed by my robe shortly after I get there.

I learn that the wedding starts 30 minutes later than I thought it did almost immediately after I arrive, when the wedding coordinator raises her eyebrow at me and says, “Oh, you have plenty of time.” Now I have half an hour more than I thought I did to stand around with a gathering crowd of smartly dressed people (think tie clips and loud mismatched suit jackets) 20 years younger than me. I cling to the wall and face the window, sipping cup after cup of water.

Yes, better early than late. But twice on the same day?


Read The George Packer Essay in This Month’s Atlantic

An essay by George Packer in this month’s Atlantic absorbed most of my commute yesterday. It’s titled, “When The Culture War Comes for The Kids,” and it relates Packer’s and his wife’s struggles to honor their values and do right by their kids in New York City schools, both public and private. That struggle is mostly centered on values of racial and ethnic diversity, as well as a belief in the importance of public education for democracy. It feels like an acute struggle in New York, but it’s present everywhere. The essay is troubling, engrossing, and deeply personal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here are two quotes from it that I’ll be chewing on for awhile:

“Identity alone should neither uphold or invalidate an idea, or we’ve lost the Enlightenment to pure tribalism.” And . . .

“Constantly checking your privilege is one way of not having to give it up.”



One more reflection on the Apple event.

We are all paying a price, financially and otherwise, for this annual ritual in which technology companies reveal the newest enhancements to their products. Everything must improve. Everyone must innovate. Persistence and maintenance matter far less than breakthroughs.

Imagine if Tim Cook had announced yesterday, “Apple has made 10 different iterations of iPhone, an amazing device that has created heretofore unimaginable connectivity and and productivity and entertainment for millions of people worldwide, not only through iPhone itself but also through the generations of devices made by other companies that have copied its features. I’m here today to announce that we’re still doing it!”

The room would have been silent.

It’s consumer capitalism, I know. But it’s amped up to such a degree and made into such an anticipated ritual that I wonder how we work our way back from it. Can we?


One More Thing

The Apple event was today, and it was every bit the spectacle of consumerism the world has come to expect. As soon as I could I fired up YouTube to watch Dieter Bohn’s Hands On video with the new iPhone(s). Then I watched Tech Insider’s 12 minute recap of the whole event.

I’m not an Apple fanboy. I use an iPhone you can’t even buy anymore, and the only other Apple product I use was a gift. But I’m drawn to the spectacle of what Apple makes and how it talks about those things. As a culture, we have a badly disordered relationship with technology, I’m certain, and we don’t think nearly enough or carefully enough about how our phones and computers are made and at whose expense. Neither are we mindful enough about the economic model undergirding the industry. We need to listen well to writers like Franklin Foer and Shoshana Zuboff, who are pointing out clearly and compellingly what Apple and co. are doing to the marketplace, to the planet, and to us.

And yet, I wonder if there isn’t a corollary risk of failing to be impressed enough at the artifacts Apple parades on stage once a year. The aesthetics these products embody and their functionality were simply unimaginable even a decade ago. If you showed them to the most technologically sophisticated person from an earlier generation, she would have no idea what they were or were meant to do. If we’re not gobsmacked by the iPhone and Apple Watch, then maybe our senses are too dulled.

These tools are not primarily for us, of course. They are for Apple and Apple’s shareholders, and if they don’t make Cupertino money they will be gone (note the obsolete 4-inch iPhone SE in my pocket). But awareness need not prohibit delight. Maybe being so suspicious of technology and the corporations making it as to be incapable of marveling at something like a retina display is just the opposite error of the uncritical fawn.



One of the great gifts of youth ministry is years-long relationships with young people during a time of great maturation. I saw several students yesterday whom I’d not seen since May, and the gains in height alone were a marvel.

We are witnesses to growth, both the kind that parents measure with a pencil on a wall and the less obvious kind. It occurs to me that an important task of youth ministry is to scout for growth, and then to point it out: to the church, to young people themselves, to their parents.


Bike Ride

I spent a week in Amsterdam this summer and, like I suppose every American who visits that city, was bowled over (nearly literally) by the bike traffic. Everybody is on a bike all the time everywhere. Pedestrians must watch out more for two wheels than four. It’s an old city built on a series of canals and so not super friendly to cars, yet super friendly to bikes.

The bike riders in Amsterdam are merely commuters. They’re riding upright on these Dutch style cycles with the handlebars curved back toward the rider, and nobody seems to be doing anything but going from point A to point B as they’re pedaling. Nobody save for a few small children wears a helmet.

This is a dramatic contrast from the bike commuters in my city, most of whom are helmeted and hunched over racing style or mountain style (or a hybrid thereof) bikes and probably outfitted with racing gear. They’re focused and breathing hard. They’re using fitness trackers.

It’s the difference between cycling as a practicality and cycling as a tool of physical fitness. I’d like to use mine for the former, but that feels impossible when everyone doing the latter is whizzing past me in brightly colored tops, legs a pumping. Yesterday somebody on one of those bike share units showed me up on Lawrence Avenue.

It’s not a race, I keep telling myself. I don’t have a personal best to beat. It’s just a commute.

I’m not very convincing.


What Am I Forgetting?

I hit snooze once. Just once. Then I weighed myself, put the kettle on, took the dog out to the back yard, climbed back up the stairs and made myself a cup of the Guatemalan coffee Meredith picked up at Bru Coffeeworks yesterday.

I sipped my coffee while listening to a daily liturgy podcast I found on Spotify this week, produced by a church in Omaha.

Daughter was up, so I stirred myself from my corner chair to prepare Meredith’s and my breakfast, as well as to assemble our lunch salads.

It was a calm, routine, pleasant morning, in which I completely forgot to write a blog post.

Have a nice day!