Examining Confirmands Is Good for Elders Too

Our session examines Confirmation students at its meeting tonight. This is always a beneficial exercise for Elders and youth alike, and it works best if it’s given clear focus: the conversation is about “the meaning and responsibilities of membership” (Book of Order).

One of the things I suggest Elders do is share with students their own experience of church membership. What is different about your life because you’re a church member? What was your experience of professing faith, and what does membership mean to you?

It’s good for young people to hear that kind of reflection from adults, and it’s good for adults to do it.



Losing Is More Interesting Than Winning: A Theory

Losing teams are more interesting than winning ones. That’s my theory, based entirely on the personal experience of rooting for a historically bad baseball team for sixteen years before it got really, really good, and now is bad again.

What I find is that when the team is bad, debating and theorizing about how it might get better is fun. The team I follow has a surprisingly talented pool of professional and amateur experts that fans engage with about potential trades, minor league prospects, and the amateur draft.

Yet when the team was winning all the time, nobody was talking about those things. It was all, “Hey, these guys are great!” And the readers are like, “Yeah, aren’t they though?!”


Isn’t there something about failure that attracts a potent kind of creativity?

Neutrality Is Not The Point

Neutrality is good for a start, but by itself it’s no good to anyone.

Knowledge is useful. Understanding, insight, wisdom: these are gifts in times of confusion and conflict, and they are available to you whether you’re in the fight or standing by. Remaining neutral does not guarantee a clear view of things.

I lived in Northern Ireland for nine months in 1998-99. I was a neutral American observer to a complex, longstanding conflict. I had friends on both sides of it, and I strenuously protected a neutral point of view. That was a good way for a young, ignorant, outsider to form short-term relationships of good will. Had I stayed there longer and invested in meaningful work, though, my impact would have required some choices that, to someone, would have appeared less-than-neutral.

“Seeing both sides” of an issue is the beginning of resolution, not the end. Shoulder shrugging solves nothing.

Neutrality is a means, not an end. It’s less valuable than truth or compassion. By all means, listen to everyone and try your damndest to understand the range of claims and counterclaims at play, but when the time comes for you to loosen your grip on the safety railing of neutrality, fear not.

Three Ways of Responding When A Bad Leader Wins A Good Outcome

  1. The cause I care about is winning, but I loathe the person in charge, so I must act like it’s not actually winning and continue to fight.
  2. The cause I care about is winning, and even though I loathe the person in charge, I can give credit where credit is due and stop fighting.
  3. The cause I care about is winning, and while I can give proper credit to the person in charge, I also recognize how badly he is damaging all the other causes I care about, so credit will be short-lived and specific. I will continue to fight.

Where are you today?

Kindness Comes in Threes

The barista asked if I wanted my double espresso hot or cold, and I looked at him like he’d asked if I wanted it over mayonnaise. Cold? People drink espresso–straight espresso–cold?

Yeah, he told me. Over ice. You should try it.

Yeah, okay.

When he gave it to me he said, “It’s on me. If you don’t like it you can buy a hot one.”

I liked it.

I went outside and crossed the street, where I spotted a friend enjoying the sunny Chicago afternoon on a restaurant patio. She called me over to share that she’d heard someone say something kind about me, which is both kind of them to say and kind of her to share.

Turning to leave that brief surprise interaction, I was stopped by a woman on the same patio with her young daughter, a woman I recognized as a parent from my young daughter’s school, a mom I have heard on more than one after-school walk home imploring her kindergartner to stop: stop hitting his sister, stop dawdling, stop crying. I’ve taken note because he has the same name as me. I cringe whenever I hear her scold him, and it takes me several minutes to stop feeling ashamed for crying in the street.

Anyway, she stops me to ask me it the name she heard my friend use to address me is really my name, and by the time she gets to the part where she tells me that’s also her son’s name I’m already there. “Oh, you know because you’ve heard me yelling at him?” A laugh laced with understanding passes between us and we shake hands.

Any one of those encounters would have made my day. But for all three of them to cascade into one another like that on a beautiful May afternoon in the city? Come on, nobody’s life is this charmed.

Curriculum Is A Road

Curriculum is a road. The best curricula conduct students to a destination effectively and creatively–effectively in that potholes and roadblocks are removed in advance, and creatively in that fun little twists and turns, climbs and descents, are engineered into the experience. Detours, even fun ones, are not allowed to take students too far from the main road.

When I write curricula, or when I review curricula written by others, these are the things I care about:

Is the destination clearly stated in terms of learning objectives or outcomes? Is the road marked with clear signage about where we’re going and how we’ll get there?

Is it interesting, both in terms of ideas and activities? Nothing turns me off curriculum faster than the verb “discuss” as an activity description.

Is it clear? So many curricula contain very interesting materials like videos and info-graphics that are attractive but unnecessarily complex. I view these as the median of the road, or the shoulder. They should enhance the journey but not block the way.

Life is a highway. So is curriculum

Three Thoughts From A Conversation with Colleagues About Youth Ministry

Yesterday I engaged some colleagues in a conversation about the need for youth ministry to engage students in the life of the congregation as active participants, and not to sequester them in a program of programs and activities only for teenagers. Where is this already happening? I asked. What are the barriers to it?

My colleagues are smart. And experienced. And astute. They offered thoughts that I’ll be chewing on for awhile. Like:

We should do more than simply invite youth to take part in things as they already are, but should look for ways in which students can impact the thing they’re participating in. For example, when youth lead worship, do they simply read from a script they’re not allowed to change, or do they get to choose their own words?

Inter-generational trips are terrific opportunities for youth ministry done this way, because the default youth-as-participants, adults-as-leaders dynamic isn’t operative. Instead, adults and youth are co-participants. Everything is new and shared for everyone.

Engagement in congregational life is more than a youth ministry imperative. Congregations need to invite the participation of everyone in some new ways. Standard church programs like choirs remain vital connecting points for people, but lots of the things churches offer are unfamiliar to new people; I’ve repeatedly heard people say they don’t want to go on a retreat because they have no idea what that is. Youth ministry is a part of a larger congregational culture. It can influence that culture for good.

My colleagues are the best.


Why Does The Church Care About Lists?

They left you off their list. It’s a full list, full of smiling faces lauded for their skill in the thing you toil at day in and day out. The list says they’re good at it. Oh sure you’re good at it too, just not list good, just not “40 Under 40” good, not “10 Preachers You Should Know About” good. You’re good, though. Good enough.

Look, their list is stupid. It’s skews white and male and old. Take comfort in the observation that the people who pronounce upon talent value the same things today as they did half a century ago, and that’s not your era. You’re more 2020 than 1950. Also take comfort in the wry observation that nobody asked them; their list is an unbidden ego massage for the people everybody is already hyping.

But why take that comfort anyway? Who needs their list? Who needs any list? The work you do is not for anybody’s list. It’s for the people in the pews; theirs is the list you should care about.

Quote for Thursday

Returning home from the library late yesterday morning I read what the neighbor children have been persistently scribbling in chalk on the sidewalk since the sun came out on Sunday.

“It’s not that I’m so smart. I just stay with it longer.”

BrainyQuote attributes a variation of it to Einstein. What kind of elementary school kid quotes Einstein in sidewalk chalk?

The “it’s” we’re up against are many and vexing. Stay with it.


Why I Don’t Get Overly Excited About All The Youth Who Join Through Confirmation

Most of the students who do Confirmation at my church become Active Members by profession of faith at the end of the process. Good for them. And good for us; if Confirmation is meant to prepare young people to profess faith, then any 8th grader who does is a feather in our cap.

And yet . . .

None of us are satisfied with a youth ministry that checks a membership box in the 8th or 9th grade and leaves it at that. Confirmation is not an achievement for youth ministry. It is merely one marker among many of growth in faith and belonging to the covenant community.

In addition to the number of 8th graders who say “yes” at the end of Confirmation, we¬† need to care about how many 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders are saying “yes” in ways that aren’t met with a brunch and smiling families.