What’s Not Working? What’s Working?

I’m thinking of organizing my annual report around only two headings:

What’s not working.

What’s working.

There are stories to be told underneath each heading, stories with numbers that show how many students attended (or didn’t), but those numbers don’t tell the whole story. There is growth and transformation in those stories, also missed opportunities and bumbled organization. Most importantly, there is learning in those stories, and that is what I want to forward in my assessment of how our work has gone.

Asking what we’re learning keeps us from getting too wrecked about what’s not working and too complacent about what is.


Voting On Tuesday Felt Like Picking Up Dry Cleaning Or Something Like That

I voted on Tuesday in the Illinois primary. I picked up my car from the shop, stopped by the pet supply store for cat litter, drove to the polling place, picked up Kiddo from gymnastics, then went home and made dinner.

Voting was on my Tuesday to-do list.

I only knew a few of the names on the ballot, and I don’t have strong feelings about the water board or the county commissioner. Still, I went to the polling place and turned in a ballot.

I don’t think I voted for a midterm or any other non-Presidential election the whole time I lived in California, from 2007-2016. The outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections gave me a false sense of achievement that bred complacency. Of course, what I now see–what everyone can see–is that the active participation of men and women in those elections for state legislatures and city councils and water boards during that period gave a definitive shape to a politics and a culture that was not irrelevant to the result of the 2016 Presidential election. My shock at the outcome was hollow, because I’d been sitting on the sidelines for a decade.

The truth is that two, or perhaps even one, more pressing errand on Tuesday would have kept me from voting again. The whole experience felt perfunctory and annoying, like mailing a package at the post office, with a much shorter wait. But where did I get the idea that participating in democracy was dramatic? From CNN, probably.

Maybe if we don’t spend time on the boring bits of democracy, we shouldn’t complain when the dramatic parts don’t go our way.



Now I Know What Happens If You’re Hit By A Fire Truck

For many a thing that can happen on any given day there are plans and processes, contingencies which belong to some person or team to handle should they arise. Take what happens should you be involved, while returning from the grocery store, in a traffic accident with a fire truck.

The truck stops. About this there is no question, though you should protest to the firefighters, “I don’t want to keep you from where you’re going.” The sirens were sounding. The lights were flashing. That’s why you pulled over. How could you have known that the corner you rolled to a stop at would be the very corner the truck needed to take? How could you know any of what would happen when the truck cut the corner too sharply and rode up on your front left bumper?

The truck stops, though you and every firefighter inside can see the emergency they were responding to about a half a mile up the block. It’s all process from here. A traffic officer is called, a report is taken and you’re given a link to a website where you can view that police report. Then the fire chief shows up and takes your statement, followed by a department photographer who snaps some pictures.

You go home and initiate a claim with your insurance. You take the car in to the shop they tell you, wait a week, pay the deductible, and you have your car back. Then you submit a claim of liability to the city to get that deductible reimbursed. Then you wait. It’s like any other accident.

Most of what happens most days fits this pattern. Things happen. Processes and plans kick in. That’s good and stable and predictable. The real test is when something happens that nobody has yet considered and for which no plans or processes have been devised.

Today I’m glad to know that a traffic accident with a fire truck is more like the former than the latter.

I Ordered A Book About Phone Addiction And A New Phone On The Same Day

Yesterday I spent my day off cooking while listening to last week’s “Political Gabfest”podcast in which John Dickerson cocktail chattered about Catherine Price’s new book, How To Break Up With Your Phone. I remembered that I read an excerpt from the book in February.  

Dickerson said the book has “some useful solutions which are better than the, like, ‘turn your phone to greyscale,’ and other things that are frustrating and not helpful.” He’s throwing a little shade there at Tristan Harris and his “Time Well Spent” movement. I know that because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Harris and reading about what he’s doing–and eagerly adopting his tech-restrictive prescriptions–over the last several months My phone is currently in greyscale.

So I walked down to my local bookstore and ordered the book. It should be in Friday.

A couple of hours later I walked into T-Mobile and ordered a new smartphone.

I contain multitudes.

Don’t Run Out The Clock on Apocalyptic

I preached Mark 13 yesterday, not, I don’t think, for the first time in my preaching career. It’s the “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus’ last discourse in the temple before his arrest in which he holds forth about “wars and rumors of wars,” the “desolating sacrilege,” and the “coming of the Son of Man in clouds.”

I grew up in a church that took apocalyptic texts literally and that combed the days headlines for evidence of its appearing. But I’ve never preached in one. The challenge of preaching apocalyptic in progressive Protestant churches is to take all the imagery and urgency more seriously, not less so. I have spent my adult life creating space between my own faith and the day-to-day pertinence of End Times speculation, so being called upon to preach on such predictions is challenging in a funny way.

Don’t run out the clock. That’s the rule I set for myself this time. Don’t use up more than half the sermon academically explaining the conventions of apocalyptic texts and then talking the congregation off a literalist ledge it’s not really on. Actually speak to the earthquakes. Contend with the falling stars. Suggest what it all means for us, today, and in constructive language, not a litany of negations.

The preacher is never the right person to ask how the sermon went, but at least I can say I did the thing I set out to do.

Enlisting People Is Leadership

Enlisting people is leadership, and there are no “right” people. Do the people we enlist share our vision and our values, and are they qualified and skilled enough to carry them out? Do they enjoy what we’re working on? Are they professionals, even if they’re not paid? Do they want to learn? Do they want to work with us? Do they like us?

Then they’re right.

Enlisting the first person we can find to fill a slot is a mistake, but so is carrying more than we ought to while we wait for the “right” person.


Leading A Confirmation Retreat with Strep? Check.

Of course, I didn’t know it until after, only a couple of hours after. I went straight from the church to the urgent care clinic. The bus had barely pulled away. One of the dedicated volunteers stayed with the last student awaiting pickup as I hailed a Lyft to make the 3:20 appointment my wife made for me when I texted her my symptoms on the way home.

As I waited for the “provider” to return to the exam room with my prescription, I texted those dedicated leaders that I had exposed them to Strep all weekend. Then I used the Remind app–the one we send travel updates to parents with–to warn them that their kids had been exposed.

That is some post-retreat work I hope to never do again.

Are The Traditional Membership Questions Outputs?

Last week I thumbed through the sample book for the new Presbyterian Confirmation curriculum. It’s built around the traditional membership questions both youth and adults answer when they profess faith and join the church:

  • Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
  • Who is your Lord and Savior?
  • Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple obeying his word and showing his love?
  • Will you devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?

I like this approach. I’m about to lead my third Confirmation retreat structured around the first three of these questions. I think they are the appropriate focus for Confirmation.

I also spent some time last week with the new “Cultivated Ministry” field guide produced by a team of NEXT Church leaders. It’s a simple tool for thinking about assessment in terms that are broader than budgets and worship attendance. It makes a clear distinction between outputs, the programs we run and the people who participate in them, and outcomes, the impact that participation has on peoples’ lives. It is a critical distinction.

My mind is mashing these two things together.

Maybe the traditional membership questions are outputs. Maybe we can measure the impact of youth group and worship and Confirmation by the measurable ways in which the people who come to those things renounce evil, obey Christ’s word, show his love, and devote themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Two Views on Texts

For some, a text is a telegram: composed by a particular person at a particular time, the text’s meaning is clear and doesn’t change. The contemporary reader has direct access to author’s mind in the matter.

To others, a text is a conversation, not only between the author and the reader, but also with all the other readers and hearers in the room, all the editors and redactors who have come before, all the people who carried the text before it was put to paper. The contemporary reader does not have direct access to the author’s mind and wouldn’t want it even if she had it. Those other voices are as much a part of the text’s meaning as the letters initially inked on parchment.

I think the second view is the one that takes a text more seriously.

Where’s Your Cohort?

Cohorts are having a moment. Most of the circles I run in have at the very least experimented with some cohort-based initiatives for continuing education and professional development. I’ve participated in some. I’ve organized others.

I’m kind of a fan of the cohort.

It’s not a class. There is no teacher up front delivering lectures while you scribble (or type) notes. You will not be tested. Check that. You won’t be tested on course material. You will be tested on the value you add to the group, measured in attention and questions.

Though there’s no teacher, a good cohort has a strong leader, and the leader even teaches some. Mostly, though, she sets up and guards processes for exploration. She makes sure the cohort is accomplishing what its participants need it to accomplish.

The curriculum for a cohort is what the participants bring with them. The cohort I was in required each of us to make two presentations about an issue we were dealing with or a question we were working out. Tell us what the issue is, then tell us what kind of help you need. Help us help you.

It is a very helpful combination of democratic, user-driven structure and expert leadership. The two things a cohorts needs to succeed are curious participants and a skilled leader. That’s it.

Where’s your cohort? Want to start one?

Note: Presbyterian youth workers in Illinois and Indiana can sign up now for the cohort I’m organizing. It’s a Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort, the one I did, led by Mark Oestreicher of the Youth Cartel. It’s starting next fall. Half the cost for each participant is covered by a generous grant from the Synod of Lincoln Trails. Click here to sign up.