Everything Is Conventional

The vows a couple composes for their wedding are not all that unique to them and their story, just as the daring political jab inserted into my last sermon was not without ample homiletical precedent and the final scene of The Leftovers series finale was not completely unlike anything seen on television before.

Everything is conventional, thankfully. The strident atheist is as conventional as the most devoted fundamentalist. The bandana-faced protester follows convention just as easily as does the flag-waving patriot. All of us express our convictions and seek to make our mark through the conventions of the communities we yearn to belong to.

That’s a good thing. Conventions are a kind of constraint–the protest chant should rhyme; you should stand for the anthem–, and without constraints no real creativity is possible. Altering a convention makes an impact. Proceeding as if there are no conventions does not.

Owning the conventions we’re choosing is the better way to make a mark. That way, when we feel the need to make a change and to shed a convention that used to fit but doesn’t anymore, we’re not stepping out into nothing, just to a different convention.

200 words is my blog post convention.

Who Is Your Risky Co-Conspirator?

The person you’re working with matters more than the organization they represent, right? I mean, if you’re building something important that meets a real need, something that might not work and carries some risk for all involved, isn’t character what really counts? If you like your co-conspirator, if you trust her and learn from her, does it matter all that much who she works for?

The community I volunteered with in Northern Ireland often hosted meetings between people from warring sides of The Troubles. Neither of the meeting’s participants could safely tell their own that they were meeting with this other. The trust and respect that undergirded the meeting was threatened by affiliation at every moment. Yet the only reason meaningful change took place there was that some people were willing to risk their own lives to work with people who were affiliated with the wrong group.

I don’t minimize this. People died. Lots of people. The risks were real, and not just to one’s safety, in sitting down across the table from someone whose cause had murdered your friends, as your cause had murdered his. The risk of dishonoring the loss of your own is as real–and as grave–as the other risk, the deadly risk.

I met again yesterday with someone from an organization that doesn’t believe what I and my people do and that some of my peers say I should avoid. But I like him. I trust him. And the things we’re thinking about doing feel important.

The Problem with Conspiracy Theories

I heard someone say yesterday, “The existence of an actual conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiratorial thinking.”

“Yes,” I thought.

Nefarious actors may be conspiring to deceive, cheat, steal, and murder. Just as likely not, though. Just as likely, incompetence and ambitious fumble around to breed calamity. Even so, what is gained through our furious dot-connecting and eyebrow-raising, our breathlessly-muttered certainty that there’s more at work than they are letting on? Nothing.

There is a lot to lose, however, and conspiratorial thinking is a great way to lose it. It is one of the best ways, in fact, of frittering away the moment’s opportunity in superstition and fantasy, more effective at that end than even a marathon viewing of The Lord of The Rings trilogy. “If only this can be proved,” it promises, “That will change everything.” But it can’t be. And if it were, the world would not fundamentally change. The conspiracy theory is the louse whispering in the dark that he’s about to leave his wife so that the two of you can live happily ever after. But he won’t. And if he did, you would not live happily ever after. He is still a louse.

Let’s keep this in view, then: thinking and acting as if the things that matter are still up to us is the better way. Assigning agency for things to undisclosed plots is a grave forfeiture of the agency we actually have to work out in the open for things that matter, like welcoming strangers and feeding the hungry and preserving health care.

Let’s not waste the day searching for evidence of the other shoe about to drop.

Youth Ministry Is Brush-Clearing

The important work of recruiting and equipping youth ministry volunteers, the work that makes the biggest impact on their experience, is brush-clearing. Handling the van reservations, collecting all the consent forms, producing a detailed schedule: when these things are done ahead of time, volunteers can relax into their work of relating to students and getting to know them.

Some youth ministry volunteers are brush clearers. Anxious about a one-on-one conversation with a teenager, they will eagerly make a snack run instead. Handle the snacks ahead of time.

The longer I’m at it, the more it feels like the most important parts of professional youth ministry work involve clearing the field so that the volunteers can do their work freely.

One Hour Feels More Valuable Than It Used To

Maybe church doesn’t have to be the most important thing for people. Maybe making the most of the sliver of commitment some people are able to give church participation is as defensible an approach to ministry as continually looking for ways to deepen peoples’ their commitment, measured mostly in the number of church activities they attend.

This is accommodation.

Ever since I was a hair-on-fire seminarian I have been sermonizing against the fragmentation of contemporary life and the sinister ways a cult of “busy-ness” tears at Christian community and discipleship. It’s really hard to grow in relationships of mutuality and accountability in one hour per week.

That is not less true than it used to be, but I’ve gone from pronouncing “one hour” with an irritated gasp–“one hour?”–to pronouncing it with a fully-formed breath approaching admiration: “One hour!”

This is adaptation.

The reality of our schedules is a constraint upon ministry in our context. Kicking against constraints leads to frustration. Embracing them can lead to creative breakthroughs.

What can we do in an hour?

My Ki(n)d of Town

One of the advantages of living in a major city like Chicago is that it’s a place people come to visit. Sometimes on the same day.

Over the course of today’s lunch and dinner, I will spend time with four distant friends and their nine (that’s right: nine) combined children.

Book your trips now, people. The weather is amazing.

My kind of town indeed.

Advance Planning for Youth Ministry

Advance planning is not the whole of ministry work, but if you don’t do it there are entire avenues of ministry that will be closed off to you.

I started this past program year with nary a plan for most of what would happen, and I can say that that approach cut off certain possibilities right from the start: the possibility of investing significant time in volunteers; the possibility of connecting with most of our parents; the possibility of spontaneous interactions with students. Not that those things didn’t happen at all, only that they would have happened a lot more had the ground been cleared of all the pressing weekly planning details in advance.

You know, like curriculum writing.

So I’m building an advance planning document. I have it open all the time as I work these days, and every time something occurs to me that needs planned, I put it in there for a particular month. I’m planning a year out; September is not just for finalizing details for this year’s Confirmation retreat but also for booking next year’s.

Do you use something like this? How far in advance do you plan things? I took Mark DeVries’s advice and started recruiting fall youth group volunteers in the spring, and I’m pleased with how that’s gone. Do you do that?

Holding Pattern

The ushers were so late coming down the aisle with the offering that there was no way they would make it to the table with the plates before the sung Offertory Response ended. That meant the congregation would stand and wait for the plates to be shunted from usher-to-usher and onto the table before taking up the Prayer of Dedication. The ushers would feel the stress of that silence, for sure. Everyone would.

So they stopped. The response’s final note died out just as the first usher reached the front pew, a calm stop sign hand went up behind the table, and eight ushers in two single file lines of four stopped and held their position to the end of the unison Prayer of Dedication. The finished their work during the opening chords of the subsequent hymn.

Nobody died.

Sometimes a holding pattern really is the thing.

Rock Climbing Teams?

What if “overscheduled” was “committed?”

What if “busy” was “engaged?”

What if “decline” was “cooperation?”

One way to look at all the activities that vie for people’s time (and mostly get it) is as competition. Soccer competes with Confirmation. The debate tournament competes with the youth retreat. Church activities rarely come out ahead in the competitive view, and church leaders can become bitter.

Another way to look at all that lacrosse, theater, and family vacationing is as engagement in things that matter, as teenagers and their parents choosing physically and mentally difficult, very often team-based, activities that demand high levels of commitment, and to choose cheering over crying about it.

But they’re not coming to church things because of all those other things! Right. It used to be that church was a main driver of young peoples’ social engagement, but that was at a time when the options for young people to engage in things was far more limited than it is today, especially for girls. My students are on rock climbing teams. Rock climbing teams? There were no such things when I was a teenager.

The increase of options for young people in their communities is a good thing. Those of us who work with them have a chance to enhance young peoples’ lives in ways most of those other options aren’t doing, but we can do that with appreciation for them instead of competition.


Pictures Of My 9th Grade Classmates Don’t Look Like 9th Graders

I ran into a school classmate at a wedding last weekend, and the encounter launched me onto a three day trip down Blurred Memory Lane, destination 1991 high school yearbook.

Here’s what I realized: I will never relate–mentally, emotionally, or socially–to the peers of my youth as anything but peers. Looking at yearbook portraits of 14 year-olds, I don’t see 14 year-olds. I see 41 year-olds. These people do not appear to me the way that contemporary 9th graders appear. They strike me as full-fledged adults.

I recall with stunning precision the way I felt about many of them, because a brief glance at their photo 26 years on makes me feel the exact same way. This one intimidates me, because he’s so effortlessly cool. This one angers me; he’s so full of himself. Nowhere in my appraisal of the kids in these pictures is the kind of conditional appraisal of character and motive that marks my view of the high school students I work with today, people who are still developing and trying on identities and forming convictions. Instead, I size them up as contemporaries and slot them into a category that is no less rigid for its age: friend, potential friend, foe, crush, bully, nerd.

The picture that receives the least charitable assessment is the one bearing my own name. Still, today, that little black and white box appears to hold a person whom every other coiffed-hair 9th grader on the page is looking at in judgment. It’s not true, of course, but try telling that to pimply, lanky adolescents.

Hardly less difficult: try telling it to those adolescents grown up counterparts.