I spent 90 minutes with a congregant yesterday plotting an adult education unit on race. We’re pretty sure what we don’t want.

We don’t want people to say, “Ugh. Are we still talking about this?”

We don’t want white self-flagellation (my congregant is African-American).

We don’t want abstract theorizing about problems “out there.”

Instead, we want candid conversation about who we are as a congregation that both acknowledges the barriers to racial diversity our worship and fellowship erect but that also is grounded in the reality of who, really, is likely to participate in a Presbyterian church in a community that is 3/4 white.

We want a space where stories are shared: stories of struggle, stories of endurance, stories of faithfulness.

We want to raise awareness about the discrepancy between the racial composition of our community and the ones to our south and east.

We want to be transformed by the gospel:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

And we want all that in three 45 minute increments.

As thought bait, watch this Vox video on race and tell me what you think.

You Don’t Get To Choose What Your People Are Excited About

You might want your people–your congregation, your family, your readers–to be excited about the things that excite you. Cultural critique; synth pop; public school reform. They might be. Or they might not.

Maybe they’re into urban farming and video gaming and scrapbooking.

It’s much better to be with people who are excited about something and have an ample supply of energy to do that thing than it is to persuade disinterested people to like the thing you like. For sure, be clear on what energizes you and find ways to do that; some of your people may be as excited about Karl Barth or single origin estate coffee as you are. But also listen carefully for what your people thrive on, and hang around kicking the dirt til someone invites you to try it.

You might like it.

The Virtues of The Office

This New York Magazine piece offers a caution against the rush to make everyone entrepreneurs. It’s worth the read. Here’s a money quote:

Offices are fundamentally social ­places, and in an age of dwindling social capital, in which Americans are less and less apt to visit with neighbors, join civic organizations, or have their friends over to dinner, having a community of professional peers is no small thing.

My friend and colleague MaryAnn announced this week she’s venturing out on her own, launching herself into full-time freelance writing, editing, speaking, and consulting. She’s going to kill that gig (she’s already got a book and an appearance on PBS under her belt).

I’ll be wishing her well as I goof around with the Church Custodian and shout questions to my Head of Staff across the hall.

I fear I’m an office creature.

Tell Me A Story

Laura started the first Harry Potter book two nights ago and begged me not to stop reading. Against my better judgment I yielded, and again last night it was the same; we’ve plowed through 75 pages in two sessions, and she’s pleading–“Pleasepleaseplease!”–with me to read on. One more chapter. Five more minutes. I relish the role of storyteller. She will be sleepy in the morning.

Do we tell our stories so that eager listeners press us to continue? Is this how we tell the gospel stories?

I think it’s more about loving the role of storyteller than it is any particular technique. My friend Angel eats up this up more than anyone I know. A couple years ago he did a YouTube video where he read Happy Potter–just read the book on camera, with all these surprising voices and everything (listen below). He was responsible for one of the readings in our Christmas Eve service, and beforehand he asked me, “How do you want me to read this?”

Most of us don’t consider there’s more than one way to tell the story. The storyteller knows there are as many ways as she wants there to be.

Everything Is Flawed

Every system is flawed.

Look long enough at a diet plan and fuzzy scientific claims emerge. Spend a few days in the local high school, and weaknesses in the curriculum can’t hide. Attend a worship service with a local faith community and flaws are inevitable: coldness, perhaps, or even just a bad sound system.

It seems to me that we have three options when navigating flawed systems that we should care about. We can walk away from the flaws in search of a version with fewer (of just different) flaws. Change schools. Change churches. Change streaming music services.

We could also dig into the flawed system to fix it. Join the PTA. Volunteer. Send letters and emails.

But there’s a third option beyond ditching it and working to fix it. We can always embrace the flaws. We can always choose to leave the flaws alone and commit to the diet plan or the bed time routine anyway, without straining to fix what’s wrong.

Which is better, then? Adopting a system in order to change what’s wrong with it, or with eyes wide open about its shortcomings and committed all the same?

The Year I Live Into What It Would Look Like To Not Wonder What It Would Look Like

I hereby resolve to use the expressions “live into” and “what would it look like” exactly zero times in 2015.

In their place I will employ speech that will commit me and the people I’m working with to specific, measurable aims that pursue outcomes we state at the start and for which we can be held accountable should we fail.

How’s that for a New Years Resolution?

Which Community?

Here’s a thought to start the year:

“The community” doesn’t exist. It’s an abstraction. Let’s drop it in the service of people and groups of people in need of something more durable than what most of us mean when we say “community.”

This thought has been brewing since I heard a church consultant state the obvious to a room full of pastors and elders, that the church ought to serve “the community” rather than its own members. “Ought” is where the weight falls in that sentiment. I’ve never met a church leader who said the opposite, that the church ought to serve those already in it and that we ought to leave the community to its own devices.

We may act that way out of instinct, but nobody is proclaiming that God so loved the church . . . .

Maybe this is the problem: maybe “the community” is too vague a thing to serve in a concrete way. Maybe churches remain inward-focused because we don’t know “the community” well enough anymore. If that’s the case, then there’s a cacophony of consultants and demographic studies we can pore over to learn all about our . . . “community.”

But we still won’t know it. Because it’s not a thing.

Our cities, neighborhoods, and zip codes are populated by countless (and frequently overlapping) networks–communities–of relationships: schools and their students’ families; youth soccer leagues; colleges; adult softball teams; the chamber of commerce; groups of teenagers who play video games at one anothers’ houses; panhandlers outside the downtown shops; homeless encampments under freeway bridges. The community–such as it is–comes about from the interactions among all of these networks of relationships, which means that the community is always changing as those relational networks change.

What if a church tried to serve one of those relational networks instead of “the community?” What if, when we said we were serving “the community,” we could narrate the people and relationships we mean?

The next time somebody makes mention of “the community” where you live, ask them, “Which one?”

What’s In Your Bag?

I have this amazing orange Osprey messenger bag that can hold a bunch of books, a laptop, noise cancelling headphones, a glasses case, and a whole lot more. I got it three years ago, and though I’ve picked up newer bags since then, it’s the one I come back to again and again. I’ve started dismissing my other bags with a remorseful look at the Osprey that says, “I know and I’m sorry. You were always more than enough.”

But for the past several Sundays, though, I have left my beautiful orange messenger bag with the padded shoulder strap and sturdy side mesh pockets perfect for a water bottle, keys, or even pens at home and commuted to church with nothing by my keys, phone, and wallet. The laptop awaits me in the office already. The books? What? Am I going to breeze through a couple of chapters in between the Introit and the Call to Worship? I don’t need all that stuff I tote around during the week on Sunday morning (truthfully, I don’t need most of it during the week, either). On Sunday morning I can travel light. I should travel light.

I’m starting to believe that I’m sufficient with what I’ve got in my pockets to do the work I’m called to do. All the books in all the bags are tossed in there on the way out of the office at the end of a day that feels less-than-productive and with the guilty thought, “Well, maybe if I can read some Barth before bed I will have earned my ordination for the day.” The bag is a gimmick meant to fool myself more than my congregants or my peers in other professions that I’m really working at this and deserve to be taken seriously. I am and I do, but not because of the bag or what’s in it.

Travel light, my friends.

“Nice Is Different Than Good”

Revoke my thespian card, but I’ve only just seen Into The Woods, and that on film, not stage.

This line from Little Red Riding Hood struck me all the same: “Nice is different than good.” It has a ring of truth. Is it true?

I try to be nice all the time, so that the thought of being considered not nice by someone, anyone makes me sick. I have placed a premium on niceness in my work and my character and my relationships since forever. I want to be thought of as smart, yes. Hard working, sure. But please think me nice above all.

The problem with this fixation with niceness is obvious: effectiveness sometimes requires, if not outright meanness, then a firmness that cares more for outcomes than it does for the impression of one’s niceness. Nice work is different than good work, because good work may require meanness.

But is niceness ever the work? In a stingy world, is the person who is genuinely and authentically nice uniquely valuable? Does niceness add something effectiveness can’t?

Don’t Bail

Among the countless tweets and Facebook status updates reacting to last night’s announcement that a grand jury would not indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, I found one particularly frustrating, and not for its viewpoint.

One friend posted, “Is there anyone or any evidence that disputes the testimony that the officer was assaulted as a part of this tragedy?” A comment thread now 36 replies long ensued, but my friend is nowhere to be seen. It gets ugly and out of control, and the person responsible for it disappears. This is a failure of responsibility.

Social media allows everyone to have their say, but that’s not the real value of Facebook and Twitter. These tools allow all of us to facilitate constructive conversations with people we know and people we don’t, and when something like Ferguson happens that opportunity is huge. But you do more harm than good when you throw a thought onto your wall and then hide while people fight over it. Have your say, sure. But then stay engaged. Do the hard work of leading your people in a constructive conversation. Don’t bail.

If you need guidance, Landon Whitsitt does this better than anyone I know.