Monthly Archives: April 2015

Not all Millenials Want to Take Over the Church: A Letter to “Elderly” Churches

Dear “Elderly” Churches,

I know a lot has been said as of late about you needing to accept Millenials – those people 35 and younger – into your church.  You’ve been told about how fabulous and smart they are, and how they can smell the BS of your old ways of being and doing church that are disconnected from the world around you.  You’ve been told they crave authentic community and find it hard to find it in your inauthentic church club.  You’ve been told that Millenials are the future of the church – your church – and it’s a looming reality that the sooner you accept, the better.

However, all those labels like “Boomer,” “Silent,” “GenX” don’t mean a whole heck of a lot to me – titles mean nothing; the authenticity and the integrity of the person do.  And I certainly don’t care about a bunch of people who call themselves “Millenials” and think they’re entitled to something and demand you at the very least pay attention to them.  I’ve learned to mistrust such people, those who seem at the core of their integrity is this desire to “change the world” or “make their mark” on it.

I think most of us, regardless of age or generation, simply are trying to keep up with life.  Life is busy, life is uncertain, life is chaotic…and life is lonely.  So young or old, we come searching….and certainly in this present day, young people simply come searching, looking for a place where they don’t seem so alone – so distant from something that feels like home or life family.  You’d think the world is dominated by these Millenials who want to reform the church and change the world…but really, these Millenials are simply searching for something that feels like home.

An example:  The other day we had one of those “young people” meetings I’m supposed to have to get more young people involved in the church, and we introduced ourselves, including how we came to be part of the congregation. I heard this beautiful story from a “Millenial” in one of my congregations. She had grown up in the church, left like so many, and decided she needed to starting going again. So she went church shopping, and happened upon this congregation because it was nearby and she grew up “Lutheran.”  As she came up that day, she was met by an elderly lady and the pastor (at that time) sitting on a bench outside the church.  They greeted her, asked her what brought her by to which she replied, “I guess I was looking around for a church, and thought I’d check this one out.”  The elderly lady replied,

“Well girl, you just sit your butt down right here next to me, because this is your new church home.”

That was the start of something…..this elderly lady took her and her husband in, constantly telling them and everyone that they were her “spiritual” and “church” children.  And this elderly women had doted on them as such.

That was years ago….and as this “Millenial” told me this story, it was in the shadow of this elderly women’s death a week before, and funeral the next day.

I share this story with you because I want you to know there are young people out there – a lot of them, in fact – that don’t want to change your church.  They don’t want to reform it or “blow it up.”  They don’t want to demand and force their way in.  What they simply are looking for is a place to rest, a place from the chaos of life, a place where they are known and loved – a place to call home.

And I think, perhaps you feel like you have so little to offer, the thing you have to offer that you regard as simplistic is really the most important thing of all.  Beyond the popular, idealistic Millenial cry for “meaningful everything” is the need for a home.  You can provide that; in fact, you might be the best group to offer that because as the years wane on and everything seems to disappear around you, your years of experience tell you to be known and to be loved in the end is really the most important thing. Experience has taught you the great lie about human achievement. You have learned through years of experience of a God in Christ who knows you and loves you….and the humble act of living that out is really the one thing that draws us and all people closer to God.

God gives us the gift of each other, so that we might know we’re not alone.  You know that, and you can offer that to the mass of other Millenials who simply want, and need, a home.

Sincerely,
A concerned “30-something” pastor

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Filed under Children, Youth, Family & Young Adult Ministry, Culture & Social Issues/Ethics

You’ve been drafted, now what? 5 Tips for Navigating First Call

You got the envelope or phone call this winter with your Region assignment.  You then got the phone call from a Bishop, and now you know what Synod you’re going to.  And now here you are, on the home stretch of your final semester of classes in seminary, with graduation on the horizon.

Oh yeah, you have to navigate the whole first call process too.

For some of you in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you may already have your first-call in your back pocket – you know what congregation you’re going to.  But for all of you who fall outside that category, the whole first-call process can be confusing and anxious.  And unlike pro sports rookies we don’t hire agents upon being drafted…..although maybe Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras may be more helpful in alleviating your anxiety than the Holy Spirit right now.  Heck, maybe you’re so desperate you’d take Jerry Maguire at this point.

Or, perhaps I can offer a few things for you, having been through this process about two years ago.  There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for me as well – moving halfway across the country to a Synod, although I was familiar with it, I wasn’t really expecting to go to.   I hope you find these helpful!

1.  Chuck the “pastor/spiritual/theological” language.  I found in conversation that phrases like “Let’s prayerfully consider where the Spirit’s leading” or “we just have to trust God here” or “I really get a sense of God speaking” in this way or that, while nice, sometimes isn’t very helpful.  I think it’s a given that we all trust the Spirit’s guidance and that God is moving in this process.  However, God also gifted us with rational brains.  You’re out of the seminary world now, and honesty, direct communication is going to become more effective for you in the long run.  It can be more assuring to hear “be patient, because there isn’t anything that’s right for you (or anything at all) at this time.”

1a.  You are interviewing your Synod and prospective congregations just as much as they are interviewing you.  This goes along with the comment about honest, direct communication.  First call interviews can feel a lot like dating – both sides want to put their best foot forward, which means downplaying any of the growing edges or challenges (almost every congregation has them).  You should be honest and direct about who you are, but also in your questions about who they are. This is where the Synod can help; ask them about frequency and nature of pastoral transitions in certain congregations, or what challenges exist.  It’s a telling sign if your Synod can’t (or won’t) name anything they know about the congregation, particularly around challenges.

2.  Ask about areas of involvement for pastors within the Synod.  You likely developed passions for particular ministry or issues while at seminary.  I know for me, Navy Chaplaincy and bi-vocational ministry that reaches out to young adults and youth were areas of ministry that today, still energize and drive me.  Yet, rare is the first call that will align perfectly with your passions for social justice or global missions.  Ask the Synod you’re assigned to what groups or focus there is for you to feed those passions.  It helps connect not just you, but your congregations to the larger expression of church, can be a real asset to both the ministry of the Synod and the congregation, and will be a means of self-care for you as well.

3.  Consider the areas you’re looking at from a personal, social perspective too.  I chose my first call not just on the congregation, I really considered the location from a standpoint of how it would be for my wife and I socially and emotionally.  There were opportunities for meaningful work and professional networking for my wife.  There was a wrestling team I could coach, and has become great community of support and friendship for both of us.  We live 3 blocks from the beach.  (Yes, you read that right!)  For me, I know I cannot be a good, healthy pastor unless my personal life is reasonably healthy.  In those moments your calls get challenging – and they will – you’ll need something away from the congregations and that community to refresh you.

4.  Be prepared to say “no.”  John Elway considered it.  Bo Jackson played baseball instead of football.  They don’t tell you this, but if you’ve been reasonably faithful to the assignment process, and it doesn’t feel right, you do have the right to say no.  It can be frustrating when your life is put on hold because others drag their feet or blow you off.  That’s not trusting the Holy Spirit; that’s being disrespectful and taking advantage of you.  Sometimes you have to switch gears a bit, and that will come with some consequences, but in the end if you’re being told to wait in a way that drastically throws your life in flux, then have courage that you can say no, and there are places that need and want a pastor like you.  (Note: if you find yourself in that situation, I advise you to find advocates who will speak on your behalf – experienced pastors, mentors, bishops and synod staff from other synods.  Find a few folks who know you well and in that case you do find yourself in a tough situation, they can make calls on your behalf.)

5.  While challenging, this process should be exciting.  I’ll be the first person to say that the process, while challenging, does work the majority of the time.  I believe there are good, faithful people who take the task of matching first-call pastors with good congregations so that God’s grace might be proclaimed and God’s work in the world be done.  That might mean a little discomfort on your end, embrace that.  However, the process should feel exciting to you overall.  If it feels anything other than that, and you know those feelings are outside of who you typically are and how you experience transition and uncertainty, then it’s time to ask why and consider #4 above.

But remember that – this is your first go around, and that is exciting.  I can tell you this, my call now is nothing like I thought it would be two years ago.  There have been ups and downs, and this IS A FIRST CALL – there will likely be more calls to come.  We live between two tensions – an established church culture that values obligation versus a contemporary life that values personal choice.  You will feel the tension of that from time to time, but if you honor both without sacrificing one or the other – you’ll be satisfied with the process.

God be with you all in your discernment and “post-draft” negotiations!  Oh, and if you do need an agent, I might be available….

 

I’m sure there are other very helpful suggestions out there as well.  Feel free to comment and offer them here for folks to read!

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Filed under Leadership, Wrestling Devotions & Reflections

An Easter Sermon for the Cynic

Text: Matthew 28:1-10.  

So, I have a question for you: What did you expect when you showed up here this morning?  When you woke up this morning, maybe earlier than normal, put on nice clothes that you don’t typically wear, you came here and are still a bit sleepy and groggy ……but, what did you expect?

Today is Easter, and I suppose it’s a day of happiness…one of those few days during the year when we can shove all our problems and all the tough stuff happening around us into a closet in our minds and for one day, forget about it and pretend none of it exists.  It’s Easter – lilies and a brightly decorated sanctuary, traditional hymns, a breakfast, maybe an Easter egg hunt, everyone all dressed up – let’s be over the top happy this morning!  And that’s the problem I have with Easter.  All of it just seems a little too artificial. What happens when we wake up tomorrow morning?  What happens to all that stuff we shoved in the closet?

Ok, this is probably NOT what you expected this morning – a downer of a message.  But, for those that don’t know me so well, I am a pretty big cynic.  And sometimes, it gets the best of me.

But when I think about all that stuff we shoved in the closet….we still have problems.  Violence in our country and world caused by hatred and prejudice of race, sexual orientation, social class; a sense of entitlement that somehow we deserve more and more, even if it comes at the expense of others….I think about how the ways that church and people who call themselves Christian will act totally opposite of what the church and Christian faith is about – it gets ugly sometimes.  I think about recent deaths, some of them coming well before the person’s time.  I think about these things and I’ve come to expect well, nothing.

That’s just how life is.  I take it at face value and all the stuff that weighs on my mind and that there is nothing that will change any of it – that’s what I expect.  Maybe you feel that way too and in that way, you’re just as much the cynic as I am.

I wonder if we really expect anything out of the Easter story of Christ’s resurrection.  Oh, we say that we believe the whole thing’s true…..but I wonder if we really believe up and against the things that weigh on our minds, events that shake our very core that news of an empty tomb actually holds any real power to change things.  Maybe the whole story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has just simply become background noise in favor of our Easter celebration of happiness.  Secretly, we’re just as cynical to the notion of a God who does anything to change the world as we are cynical to the way the world is.

Yet it’s this story of Christ’s death and resurrection – the Good Friday and Easter story – that the cynic in us needs.  Because the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection is God did this because the world needed saving – we need saving.  We need a savior, not a personal one to pay off the balance owed on my bad behavior account, not a savior who magically erases all the bad things in the world so we can be perpetually and delusional happy.  We need a savior who will proclaim to us that our self-righteous piety, denial of ugliness in the world, justification of attitudes and actions out of fear and a need to self-preserve doesn’t win the day – rather, they get put to death on a cross. Weakness, vulnerability, brokenness, honesty – our very humanity, what makes us truly beautiful – is resurrected.  That is what is saved.  We need a savior who removes the cloud of cynicism around our hearts and minds so that we can see something good in the world.  The Easter message is that our cynicism is put to death….so that we not only see beauty in our lives, but expect it.  We can expect beauty to show up……because God shows up.

Yesterday, I went to the memorial service for a sailor who I served with in USS JACKSONVILLE, about 10 years ago.  He had made his journey the hard way, growing up in the rough part of Atlanta, starting as an enlisted sailor and was currently an officer.  But now, here he was, dead at 38 years old, collapsing suddenly…leaving behind a wife and three young boys.  There were tributes to his life, people giving stories about Daniel that I had never known.  Two of them were from a brother and sister in their 20’s.  Daniel had taken on the role of surrogate father for them when they were teenagers, caring for them, pushing them to go to college, keeping the on a positive course.  Here they were, giving tribute to how Daniel had done all these things, and then they each turned to his wife and boys and said, “I promise you….in the ways Daniel was a part of our life, always there for us, I promise I will be there for you too.  You’re our family, and I promise to take care of you and be in your life the way Daniel was in ours.”

And there it was….just this beautiful moment.  A moment made beautiful because not even the sadness and finality of Daniel’s death could stop the love he had for others from being lived out.  It wasn’t Daniel’s death that made this moment beautiful, but his life.  It was a life and legacy that will live on in the love he shared in his life….and I believe with all my heart that in that beautiful moment – God showed up.

The women who came to the tomb weren’t expecting a whole lot that first Easter morning.  They expected to see a closed tomb with Jesus cold dead body laying inside.  Death and disappointment was their expectation.  But oh what a morning….the earth shook, their worlds turned upside down, the tomb was empty. When they heard the announcement that Jesus had been raised they ran from that tomb in both fear and wonder to tell the disciples that death was defeated, life had won the day and Jesus had risen from the dead, and on their way Jesus appeared before them – he showed up.   And nothing was ever the same.

And oh, what a morning it is for us today….Christ is risen and in that is a power big enough to save us from our cynical selves.  God’s Easter reality puts to death our fear and prejudice and hate that clouds how we see humanity…..and we are left to see nothing but beauty and goodness in each other and in ourselves.  Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.  God is among us, God has shown up…and you can expect….expect nothing will be the same.  Amen.

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Filed under Missional Thinking & The Church

Good Friday for the Cynic

“Aaron Fuller you are a ball of positivity, as always.”

That’s a comment from a friend of mine & fellow pastor.  She knows me well.

I’m a cynic.

As I look at the world around me, it’s hard not to be.

It’s been a hard week for me.  And not because of all the Holy Week preps that pastors have to make.  I hate that; I hate when people assume when I say “I’m tired” or I mention I’m anything but 100% chipper, the ball of positivity that people expect out of the pastor, they assume it’s because I’m doing too much.  I hate it when people, expecting me to convey this sort of sentimental, pious, reverent seriousness to Good Friday, seem to sour when I give them the rawness of emotion that comes out of my cynicism.  Makes you uncomfortable?  Well heck, if you only knew what was weighing on my mind.

That is what saps my energy. That is what keeps me from being the ball of positivity.  The weight of the personal – those things that shake our humanity – are what keep me from acting as if the crucifixion was this touching, sentimental act of love and that God intended solely for my personal salvation.  It’s the glaring contradiction of people who profess themselves to be Christ’s church and followers, yet can then turn around and act completely opposite of that – and then justify those acts as somehow being “loving.”   It’s the weight of being part of a community that does not confess the crucified or risen Christ, yet the very action and integrity of that community embodies it completely.  It’s the graciousness and humility displayed by a group of people broken by addiction…..marginalized and excluded by the very church that gives lip service to being a place for the broken.  It’s the weight of the reality of death and struggle that touches all of us, expressing that, and the best response churchgoers can offer is an awkward, “meh.”

Yes, I’m cynical.  And I think I have good reason to be so.  Because the world is one big glaring contradiction – proclaiming a desire for peace, justice, and grace for others out of one side of its mouth and then pulling its knife out and stabbing those same people in the back.  If this is the world Jesus died to save, then God has got to be pretty damn disappointed.  I wish I could preach that this coming Sunday…..”Easter folks: God’s doing a take back on that.  Because God’s re-thought that whole Good Friday and Easter thing and is instituting a re-evaluation period.”  I wish I could just lock the doors of the church on Sunday, and bar everyone because really, none of us are worthy and that’s the only thing that’ll drive that point home to the self-righteous and pious.  But people just wanna be happy….so, the upbeat pastor will be there.  The positive, feel good sermon will get preached.  The bad pastor jokes will flow….the show must go on.

As I sit here, caught in my own words this morning, I realize that this is exactly why Good Friday is for people like me.  My cynicism tells me a great lie: “The whole world is ugly.  Blow it up.  Flood it again.”  But such a notion needs to be put to death. The whole world isn’t ugly; contradiction is only a small fraction among the majority of humble, honest, and vulnerable “salt of the earth” people who live in it.  The world has beauty and meaning.  The world is worth saving.

Good Friday reminds the cynic that we indeed need saving – from ourselves.

There are some things in this life that I just cannot save myself from.  No matter how hard I try, the weight of all that’s on my mind becomes too heavy to lift.  I do need a savior, not a personal one to pay off the balance owed on my bad behavior account, but one who removes the cloud of cynicism so that I can see beauty and goodness in the world.  I need a savior who will save me from my self-induced darkness and shed light on the fact that the real gift are those salt of the earth people who most of us are.  Self-righteous piety, denial of ugliness, justification of self-preservation doesn’t win the day – rather, they get put to death on a Cross.  Humility, vulnerability, honesty – our very humanity – is raised up from death.  That is what is saved.

In a couple of hours, I go to lead worship services at my churches.  Rather than do a sermon, I’ve chosen to simply have the Good Friday story read by those in my congregation, with hymns and chants in between.  I’ll just be playing piano for the hymns.  Maybe that is exactly all this cynical pastor needs to do on this day – hear this story about a God who saves the cynics – and saves all of us – from ourselves.

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