“Will You Come Out and Play?”

Work and PlayDid you know that Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Slack, and Groupon were created as side projects by Google employees? Google allows 20% of their employees’ time (one full day every week) to be dedicated to side projects—anything that feeds the creativity, innovation, and fun new ideas that their individual employees might have. No approval by the higher ups is necessary to start working on a project on company time. (Note: Google has also faced an employee revolt in recent months over their alleged cooperation with federal agencies to crack down on immigration. Just because they may have something to teach us doesn’t mean we don’t have something to teach them!).

But, their creative work environment got me thinking. Our churches typically have a number of committees—Mission and Evangelism, Stewardship and Budget, Worship and Music, Justice and Peace, Education and Fellowship, and Building and Grounds. But I have never seen an actual Research and Development Committee in the church. Of course, if doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t happening within the present ecclesiastical structures of our churches, but it does reveal that innovation is not so important that it gets its own special committee!

bubblesRecently our presbytery has adopted an increased emphasis on creativity and “trying new things” in something I am delightfully calling our Innovation Playground. We are encouraging a culture of innovation by shifting our presbytery away from the role of gatekeepers and more toward being permission-givers. It doesn’t mean anything and everything goes, but it does mean that we want our congregations and our leaders to think more about what might be possible than about what might be too far-fetched and outside the bounds of acceptability.

In a quick search of this topic I discovered an article that stated that for-profit companies assume that R & D has to be part of their business plan if they are to remain competitive in the market. That same article stated that non-profits and churches rarely placed the same emphasis on R & D. Phil Cooke, a Christian consultant and TV producer said it well when he stated:

If the marketplace feels innovation is important for something as trivial as laundry detergent, shouldn’t we experiment when so much more is at stake?”

I can imagine the arguments against innovation. “If we already have the perfect product, isn’t it more about marketing our product better than it is about changing our product?” If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8) then why would we need a Research and Development committee? Would we not be better served by a Public Relations Committee.

But I would suggest that while “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” the structure that has been privileged with bringing Jesus Christ to the world must change. Jesus Christ is the same; the form of church can’t be.

lute
Ancient lute

We no longer speak in Greek or Latin or German or even in King James’ English. We went from depending on priests to read God’s Word for us to being able to read it for ourselves. At one time, we worshiped God with “lute and lyre” and now we worship God with organ and guitar. Our musical offerings have shifted from Gregorian chants to hymns to contemporary praise music to Taize. We have gone from paying our pastors with pigs, pies and parsonages to pledges in the plate and now to PayPal.

In other words, without innovation, Jesus Christ would be the same and so would the church. Without innovation, the gospel of Jesus Christ would remain locked in our 2,000 year-old buildings and in our ancient tradition as the world’s best kept secret. Without innovation, a remnant people would still have Jesus Christ and the world wouldn’t.

  • Where is research and development placed in your congregation?
  • Where is innovation honored and nurtured?
  • Do you make room in your congregation for your most creative, out-of-the-box, far-fetched, radical idea people?
  • Do you have an Innovation Playground where your members are allowed to just go out play, dream and imagine?

Google, one of the world’s most successful technology companies, allows their employees to dedicate 20% of their time to side projects.

I am sure Google doesn’t get everything right as recent media reports suggest. But on this issue, they just might have something to teach us.

Side projects, Innovation Playground, and R and D committees.

Is God inviting us to come out and play?

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Gratitude is a Way of Life

Ok. Here is the deal. Three weeks ago my car was stolen. From the presbytery parking lot. During work hours. Geez! (Not quite what I said, actually).

GMC
In Memoriam, 2017-2019

It has rattled my world. Not because my car was stolen, but because this particular car was stolen. I have always bought cars based on what I could afford and never purchased a new car. This was the first time I bought a car because it had everything I wanted—enough horsepower to pull a 16’ camper, drove like a car, room for two grandchildren and all their goodies, and AWD for those trips over the mountains in the middle of winter to visit churches or stomp through the forest on snowshoes. And it was new! How fun.

After four decades of living with what I could afford I finally claimed my place in the world and said, “This is what I want!” And the Universe shot back, “Too bad! You don’t get what you want.” I will admit that this minor injustice stung.

runningBut a surprising thing has been happening. I am becoming strangely grateful for this cruel interruption to my life. At the time of the violation I was in the midst of considering whether I would drop out of my DMin program with Portland Seminary. My life was flying along at a pace that was clearly unsustainable. I was showing signs of mental and emotional fatigue.

The lyrics to Dan Fogelberg’s song Better Change kept traveling across my mind. I found the words nagging me like a divine voice trying to get my attention:

I can see you in the distance

And you’re heading for a fall

Sinking deeper by the minute

You’re about to lose it all…

I was already starting to heed the voice when my “dream car” got stolen. It was like the last straw or the final nail in the coffin to get me to admit that I was racing along at a pace that could only lead to one eventual outcome—an emotional crash and burn.

Was the stolen car a bad event? I don’t know for sure. It certainly has been a disruptive event. It has been troubling and unsettling. But was it bad? I can’t say that it has been bad. In fact, in many ways it has been good. It may have been the one startling, shock-and-awe moment that I needed to wake up to how hard I had been pushing myself. I haven’t liked having my car stolen, but I can also say that I am becoming strangely grateful for this sudden needed rupture in my life. I did drop out of the DMin program and am slowing things down considerably.

TurkeyI realize that this is not your typical Thanksgiving message about being grateful for all the blessings God has bestowed upon you this year. Gratitude for children and grandchildren and marriages and graduations and new jobs and a bumper year for grapes or hops or hemp or whatever you grow.

We often split the world into good things and bad things giving thanks for the good things and hoping that next year will have fewer of the bad things. We think of some things as good events and other things as bad events and pray that God knows the difference between the two when God hands out annual blessings.

winter and red treesBut I wonder if it isn’t quite that simple. I wonder if the actual reality is that there are some things that we prefer more than others; there are things we like and dislike; there are things that bring us more satisfaction and less satisfaction. But to actually call those same things good and bad may be trampling on God’s territory. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” begins Ecclesiastes 3 before running through a list of apparent opposites and calling them all good in the seasons of God’s life. To prefer something is just plain human. To call it good or bad is to make a divine judgment.

I will apologize if you were hoping for a more traditional Happy Thanksgiving blog. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t wish you Happy Thanksgiving for all the “good” things in your life while at the same time resenting this moment when I am still a little pissed off that God gave me a blessing I didn’t ask for.

I really do mean it. I want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what you have experienced this year—new life and births, deaths and losses, new possibilities and dying dreams, buying your first new car or losing your first new car, enjoying your first kiss or lingering over your last kiss—I wish for you a grateful heart.

Gratitude is a way of life. We can’t control what happens to us or doesn’t happen to us. But we can control how much gratitude we feel for it.

Happy Thanksgiving, my good people.

Life is good. All of it.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Endure or Enjoy?

The Reverend Michelle Olson made a well-planned slip during her sermon to the commissioners of the presbytery this past weekend. Preaching on Isaiah 65: 17-25 about God creating “a new heavens and a new earth” she was quoting the 22nd verse regarding God’s chosen ones “enjoying the work of their hands.” Instead, what came out was “My chosen ones shall long endure…oops!” Whether it is was planned or not the message was crystal clear—how often do we endure the unfinished work of our lives rather than enjoy the journey of working and creating?

“Endure or enjoy,” that is the question.

ASUS 4 282
Entering the 450-mile Nevada desert, 2011

I smile when I think of this revealing dichotomy. Those who know me best will tell you that I have an unusual capacity for endurance (I crossed the Nevada desert in the heat of August on my bicycle eight years ago and cycled up to Everest Base Camp two years ago). But, I am a neophyte when it comes to simply enjoying what is right in front of me.

Strangely enough, I do recall when I was crossing the Nevada desert that the first answer in the Shorter Catechism kept showing up in my brain—“The chief end of man is to glorify God and ENJOY Him forever.” It seemed like while I was proving my remarkable endurance to the world my soul was needling me saying, “Any chance you are going to just enjoy the ride too?”

My children often pressure me to not take life so seriously and just enjoy more. I reassure them, “That’s one of my goals this year–to work at having more fun!” I am a lost cause, I know.

But I think this issue of “enjoying God” or “enjoying the work of our hands” is more than just a reminder to not work too hard or approach every challenge as if it is something to be endured. I think there is a deeper God-thing going on here.

Buechner quoteI am reminded of my favorite Frederick Buechner quote about vocation where he writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” He uses the word gladness, but I wonder if the words delight, joy and even enjoyment are worthy synonyms.

I write this because many of us have fallen into the belief and practice that ministry in this time is about working harder and enduring longer. “If we can just hang in there a little longer God will turn this ship around,” we unconsciously say to ourselves. The Bible tells us that patience is a virtue and with patience often comes the belief that endurance must follow. In tough times we tend to turn toward endurance rather than fun.

DelightBut what if patience and enjoyment lived as comfortably with each other as patience and endurance? What if living with the “not yet” of life actually frees us up to have more fun along the way rather than feeling like we need to buckle in and buckle down for the long haul? What if doing those things that bring us delight and enjoyment are exactly the things that God wants for us when things are toughest?

I will be honest with you. I am a worker. I have an unusual capacity for endurance. If I believe that a problem just needs a little more effort and determination that is what I am going to do. I don’t have a problem working harder to solve life challenges. It’s in my psychological DNA.

But, as I have repeated to our staff and our presbytery leadership many times, “I don’t believe we are going to get through this time simply by working harder.” We need to think differently, act differently and believe differently.

That’s what I heard in Rev. Olson’s lovely and wise sermon.

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” states the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession.

“Endure or enjoy?” Rev. Olson asked us.

We Presbyterians know how to work hard. Maybe our growing edge is learning how to play, have fun and just enjoy simply for enjoyment’s sake.

Or maybe I am just preaching to myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

In Christ We Meet

Dear Friends,

Cannon beach
Arriving at Cannon Beach for October doctoral intensive retreat

More than two months ago I reported that I had enrolled in and begun a Doctor of Ministry program at the Quaker-based, George Fox University. In that blog post I invited you on a transformational journey. I said that I expected that in order to lead and walk with our presbytery in this time I could not expect the presbytery to take a transformational journey unless I was also willing to open myself to transformation as a leader as well.

After a month of many conversations, prayer and reflection I have decided not to continue the program. I have reinforced in the presbytery that we live in a time of experimentation and innovation. My stepping into the program was based on the belief that I needed to invest in a structured and disciplined transformational program. As with all experiments one steps out boldly in faith and then trusts the process of unfolding. All decisions teach us something in this process.

It quickly became clear to me that committing an extra fifteen hours a week to reading and study was not going to serve my goals toward spiritual transformation. It became clear that my investment did not need to be in more study, but in more relational contact with presbytery leadership and churches and more self-care (read as more time with my grandchildren!)

Cannon Beach hike
View from cliff at Cannon Beach during a Mary Oliver silent meditation hike

I am sure there will be more to share down the road about this decision and what it means for me and our presbytery. But for now I just wanted to share the poem that I wrote the night before I reported this news to the other fourteen colleagues who had become close companions on this journey. For more than two months, we have shared ourselves in raw and vulnerable ways and I needed some way to reflect on what these fourteen loving souls meant to me. Here is my parting poem written to them (slightly edited):

In Christ We Meet

In Christ we meet
Our lives are but a moment
Our love is but a gift
Our time is God’s alone

The thread long or short
The window clear or foggy
The path unknown or revealed

Like waves we come and we go
We share our truth and we listen
We open our hearts and we trust

We were together before we met
We knew each other before we spoke
Our destinies were already colliding

In Christ we meet
In Christ we shall remain

 

 

 

The “Seven to Ten-Year Rule”

In the last month I have had a couple of conversations with pastors who have asked, “Is it really as bad as some prognosticators have made it out to be?” Of course, they were referring to predictions that mainline Protestant churches across the nation are in an unstoppable downward spiral that seems to have no hopeful end.

I am a person who approaches this from two lenses—one of which mirrors the prognosticators of gloom and doom and one of which sees God’s resurrection story being lived out in our own backyard.

Religious declineIf one simply looks at the numbers the projections do not look good. The PCUSA continues to lose an average of a little more than 60,000 members every year. This has gone on for fifty straight years—meaning that if this numerical pattern continues there will be no more Presbyterians by the year 2042. That, quite honestly, is shocking! But maybe it should just be more sobering.

On the other hand, my whole adult life has been steeped in the language of and the vocation of transformation and I am struck by how often God takes that which appears to resemble death and transforms it into new life. I saw it in my work in hospice and probation and as a pastor of churches facing organizational grief and loss. I have been struck by how closely new life often follows a period of loss, and how, without loss, new life would not have been possible.

tree budsMy experience is that if your church is going to live the more hopeful narrative of death and resurrection rather than the hopeless narrative of ongoing and unstoppable numerical decline, it is important that you are honest with yourself about your congregation’s actual energy, resources and future possibility. Honesty is the first step. Without honesty any possibility of new life will just be pushed off down the road.

This is where I want to introduce you to the “Seven to Ten-Year Rule.” Consultants who specialize in church redevelopment and transformation tell us that the average time that it takes to shift a church culture so that it can be open to a transformational narrative is seven to ten years. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule. I am sure there are stories of churches that did it faster than seven years and even more stories of churches who took much longer than ten years.

But I can also tell you that my own experience bears this out. When I worked with Eastminster in NE Portland I went in knowing that closure was a real possibility. But rather than assuming that we were going to close we decided to approach it as a redevelopment project.

eastminster gardenHere is what I can tell you: After about four years we had transformed our ministry enough to begin building around a new sense of mission. However, before we hit the sixth year the energy dried up and we needed to put in place a legacy model. If Eastminster had been able to continue I think they would have needed another three years to come out the other side. That would have put their redevelopment efforts at about nine years, right in that seven to ten-year window.

Over twenty years ago I was serving another congregation where we were moving through a transformation/redevelopment. In that case I pushed the congregation too hard cramming the cultural shift into a more narrow four-year window rather than the more healthy seven to ten-year window. At four years the model exploded and we had to abandon the work and the pastoral relationship. Had I had the patience to give the congregation seven years to make the shift I believe the redevelopment experiment would have been successful and I might have still been there! Who knows?

All I really want from you today is to take seriously this accepted norm that successful attempts at congregational redevelopment or transformation generally follow a “Seven to Ten-Year Rule.”

This would be my advice to you:

When you look around your congregation, do you believe that the people who are there will still be there or have the energy to support the ministry ten years from now?

  • If SO, your question is, “Who should we become as a congregation in order to be viable and vital ten years from now?”
  • If NOT, then your question is, “To whom should we pass the keys to our church and ministry so that our mission will live on ten years from now?”

The “Seven to Ten-Year Rule” is not a hard and fast rule. But people who do this work tell us that it seems to be a good rule of thumb for churches wanting (or needing) to shift their congregational culture. It has also been my experience. In one congregation, I wished we had had another three years to make the shift. In another congregation, I wished I had given them another three years to make the shift. In both cases, successful redevelopment seemed to follow the “Seven to Ten-Year Rule.”

Just something to think about…

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

“Just As I Am”

Recently I had two church leaders tell me, “You are

Be Brave

brave.” Both were responding to one of my blogs where I shared more of the story of my child who has transitioned from female to trans-masculine after negotiating an exploratory period as “non-binary.” If you are not aware of the transgender world, I am sure all of this information and language may be a little puzzling to you.

But my blog is not about my amazing child who has led their (preferred pronoun) family on a wonderful, difficult and liberating journey around essential identity. No, this blog is about why, when both of these individuals called me brave, I said, “Thank you, but I don’t feel very brave.”

To me bravery is associated with taking risks. And long ago I discovered that the greater risk was to keep an important part of my life hidden (as if I should be ashamed of it) than it was to risk ridicule, cold shoulders, the silent treatment, or even a 21st century version of excommunication.

The Different DrumAuthor, M. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace speaks of three distinct and revolving stages of community-making: pseudo-community, chaos and authentic community. He also says that the most common way that an organization moves from pseudo-community to authentic community is through truth-telling.

In pseudo-community, he writes, everyone knows what is safe to talk about and what isn’t. On the surface it appears that everyone gets along, there are no (or few) fights, and the group usually describes itself as a close-knit family. That all remains true until one person (or a few) “comes out” with a truth about themselves that challenges the assumed boundaries of who is in and who is out. What ensues is a period of chaos as the status quo is disrupted.

Not my secretIt reminds me of the saying that is built off John 8: 32: “The truth shall set you free, but first it will make you mad as hell.” That line captures M. Scott Peck’s theory around community-making. We move from pseudo-community to a “mad as hell” chaotic period and to authentic community. Eventually, of course, authentic community will settle back into pseudo-community until the next “coming out” disruption occurs. And the cycle repeats itself over and over again.

I said at the beginning that I responded to the two gracious church leaders who called me brave with, “Thank you, but I don’t feel very brave.”

I don’t feel brave because the greater risk for me is to hide myself in order to prop up the presence of a pseudo-community. If I have to choose between being a fake version of myself in order to keep us from chaos and the risks of throwing us into disruptive chaos I will almost always (eventually) choose to reveal my true self in service of moving us toward authentic community.

Love who you areI write this because every church finds itself somewhere on the continuum between being a pseudo-community and authentic community. In fact, some of you might even be in the “mad as hell” in-between chaotic time. This is the natural order of things to swing back and forth on the pendulum between the safety of a shallow in-authenticity and potential risks of a vulnerable authenticity.

I believe the future of the presbytery and the health of our congregations will be dependent on continually moving toward being “authentic community.”

Is your church an authentic community, as M. Scott Peck describes? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have personal beliefs that you dare not share among your fellow church members?
  • Are there parts of your story (divorces, family dysfunction, financial failures, gender issues) that you prefer to keep to yourself for fear of rejection?
  • Has your church nurtured an environment where people can be honest with each other even when it hurts?
  • Do you feel that you have to put on your “Sunday face” before arriving at church?
  • Do you feel as welcome in the church when you don’t have your life together as you do when you are on top of things?
  • Is it just as safe to speak the language of doubt as it is the language of faith?
  • Does your church take literally the hymn, “Just as I am, without one plea”?

Am I brave for sharing the journey of my trans-masculine child? No, not really.

I just like how it feels to be accepted for who I am rather than who I am not.

Thank you for loving me “just as I am.”

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Inviting the Presbytery to God’s Party!

I just returned from an eight-day doctoral intensive at the coast. It’s hard to believe that anything in Cannon Beach could be called “intensive” but it was. Free from distractions the Portland Seminary faculty created a space where we could intensively and gracefully explore our gifts, our blind spots, and our unique leadership styles that make us who we are.

Abstract
What things look like in my “abstract-thinking” brain

One of the gifts that emerged from this time was a reinforcement that God uniquely shaped me for visionary work. In testing, it was clear that on the continuum between being grounded and abstract I was far to the right in the abstract column. On a continuum being between being traditional and open to change I was also far to the right toward being open to change.

This combination, I was told, was typical for visionary leaders. On the other hand, I was reminded that my task is to learn how to how to deal with the reality that is right before me right now. People like me often have our heads two, three, five or ten years into the future!

It was no surprise to me that the same day that this was pointed out I also found myself engrossed in the most recent findings of the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life (your Session or visioning team might want to explore this). While I was trying to decide whether to have turkey or roast beef for lunch, I was also thinking about the latest trends and ten-year projections regarding religious affiliation.

I want to share this with you so that you are aware of what is happening in our communities with regard to religious affiliation. I want to share it with you so you understand a little better what life looks like inside my office and in my head. I want to share it with you because hidden somewhere between the lines of the report is the message that God must be doing an “old new thing.”

We should not dismiss the fact that in the last decade those who call themselves Christian in America has dropped from 77% to 65% (a 15.6% decline). And those who answer the religious identity question as “nothing in particular” has shot up from 17% to 26% (a 53% increase). If trends continue, in one generation Christianity in America will be just one among many minority religions and the non-affiliated WILL be the largest group!

Tree in exileI do not write this to alarm you or to scare you into taking some specific action. I write this simply to say, “this is the water that we swim in.” God is up to something and we have the data to prove it. Increasingly, we are a religious community in exile. And exile is just one of God’s many seasons (just read the book of Daniel to see how rich the season of exile can be).

In the coming months I will be working with the Presbytery Leadership Commission to lay out a comprehensive vision for the presbytery. One thing I want to be clear about, however, is this. Any vision that we come up with will not minimize the reality that Christianity, as we know it, is experiencing a monumental shift in form. Any vision that emerges from this process will not suffer from the illusion that if we just improve our music or the comfort of our pews or the size of our parking spaces that we will reverse what has now become a 50-year trend in religious dis-affiliation.

We cannot reverse history. We can only travel this season of increasing exile with grace, courage and faith. We have been through this before. And God has always been faithful.

Those who know me best know that I am a very hopeful person. But my hope does not rest in things like winning the lottery or pushing against the tides of history. My hope is not built on wishful thinking.

resurrection crossMy hope lies in our most basic Christian narrative—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe in resurrection. I also believe that resurrection without death is like eating spiritual junk food—all sweetness and no substance.

It was confirmed for me again this past week that my head tends to be a few years down the road (I am often clearer about the future than I am about what I will eat tonight!). But we need people like me who seem to have their heads in the clouds. Because the trends are telling us something:

God is on the move. God is doing an old, new thing.

And I don’t want this presbytery to be late to the party!

Making Room for God

What does one write when the inspiration just isn’t there?

Quite honestly this is rarely a problem for me. After I complete a blog and set the timing for its publication my mind and heart immediately start honing in what needs to be said, what needs to be heard, and what is foremost on our hearts as I prepare for the next week’s blog.

But this week I just haven’t had the same space to let a particular topic ferment in my soul. As you know I spent the first few days of October making a move to an apartment closer to my grandchildren (and nearly $1,000 less in rent). I hadn’t quite finished moving in when I flew down to San Francisco for the three-day synod meeting. I got back just in time for a night of sleep before heading the next morning to Corvallis to represent the presbytery at the memorial service of the Rev. John Dennis who had served at Corvallis, First for thirty-two years. The current congregation and leadership did a lovely job honoring his legacy.

After a wonderful evening celebrating my 60th birthday with family I returned to my apartment for one more day where I emptied a few more boxes, did a load of wash, and prepared to leave for another nine-day retreat at the coast for my DMin intensive. Upon my return from the coast I will have a mere 36 hours to make another turn around before leaving for some work and preaching in Southern Oregon. October has been and continues to be a whirlwind month!

I started this blog simply asking, “What does one write when the inspiration just isn’t there?”

After listing my overly packed schedule during this, the month of October, it seems the message is writing itself. Inspiration generally doesn’t just happen. It requires a certain amount of space and emptiness. I remember years ago when my life was overly scheduled as a pastor and a parent of young children. Sermons never got written until Saturday. But quite often I found myself trying to write the sermon in a small window of time squeezed in between church activities and family responsibilities. I would sit down with two hours just to write and find myself praying, “Okay, inspiration you have two hours to do your thing!” Putting pressure on my inspiration muscle rarely worked. On numerous occasions I remember that I retreated to my home to rake the leaves, mow the grass, or do some gardening. And voila! Once I gave myself some space the inspiration found its way from my soul to my head and eventually to the written page.

I admit that I am scraping the barrel this week for a blog topic. I am writing this late in the evening on the Sunday before leaving for my nine-day doctoral retreat. We were encouraged not to bring any work during this period so that we could fully be present to the work and to each other. But despite looking for a little inspiration where there really is none in the short hour I have to crank something out, I think there still is a message here.

I am sure all of you have heard or said at one time or another the phrase, “Don’t just sit there. Do something.” It might have been the Buddhists who first changed that around to make a point when they said, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I appreciate this. The truth is most of my blogs are the result of intentionally taking some time every day just to sit. I have a morning practice of nearly ninety minutes where I don’t allow any other agenda except for the Spirit to show up in some form. I know at times I have expressed my delight that I am in a profession that pays me to “look out the window.” The ease with my blogs usually come is directly related, I believe, to the amount of time I carve out every day just to sit.

It’s no wonder that inspiration wasn’t showing up this week. I fit everything into my calendar including a move, an out-of-state synod meeting, an out-of-town memorial, a 60th birthday party celebration, and another upcoming thirteen days out of the office. I crammed everything in but a little space for inspiration to show up.

It’s as if I had stuffed so much into my life and my schedule this month that even God finally said, “Any room for me in there?”

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Uncolas, unchurched and unenlightened…

Black and White and color“There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who see the world in black and white and those who don’t.”

I am not sure if I found this quote somewhere long ago or if I made it up myself from the variety of “two kinds of people” quotes that often get tossed around for fun. But I thought of this line when I was pondering the subject matter for this week’s blog post.

Over the years I have heard those of us in Christian circles occasionally split people into two distinct categories—the churched and the unchurched. I heard it again this week and I cringed just a little because I have friends and family who would fit the “unchurched” category. Of course, if I asked them how they would identify themselves they would not say proudly, “Oh, I am unchurched!”

girl tattooed
“Who am I?”

This post is just a reminder that if we want to have conversations with people and build relationships with them it is always better to identify them by who they ARE than by who they are NOT.

This came home to me a few years ago when I was speaking to some acquaintances who identified themselves as part of the New Age movement. As I talked with them more I heard this same cringe-worthy statement when they referred to themselves as “the enlightened” and people who still went to churches as “the unenlightened.” Funny thing, though, in all my years as a pastor I have never heard a church member say, “I am unenlightened.” Yet that is how we are referred to by some people who have split the world into two distinct camps. It seems the world is made up of two kinds of people–the unchurched and the unenlightened!

Love who you areI have received an education on this the past three years as my second child, Jules, has been working through their (formerly her) gender identity. It was a rough few years as Jules was in a female body and didn’t identify as either female or male. It wasn’t until Jules was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and adopted the label “non-binary” that Jules’ movement toward identity liberation took off.

But notice the first step in Jules’ process. Liberation first came by discovering that he and she were not the only alternatives. One could also be “non-binary,” that is, neither he nor she. But Jules was describing themselves in terms of who they were NOT rather than who they WERE. This still wasn’t quite right and today Jules describes themselves by who they ARE rather than who they aren’t—trans-masculine. “Non-binary” provided some initial freedom from our usual binary thinking, but it was still a negative descriptor (“non”). “Trans-masculine” has become the affirmative positive descriptor. “This is who I am, not this is who I am not,” has become Jules’ saving identifier.

fall colorsToday’s blog is just a simple reminder that if we want to have relationships with others it is better to take the time to get to know them on their terms. Terms such as churched and unchurched are easier and more convenient. Thinking in easy binary terms such as believer and unbeliever is cleaner and less complicated. But it is also lazy. The world is a little more complex than just who is in and who is out. There really are more than two types of people in the world! Purple is not just non-white. It’s purple!

People outside our church doors are not just NON-Christians or the UNchurched. They ARE Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic, spiritual, humanist, and Muslim. They are parents and children, sisters and brothers. They are the hopeful, the suffering, the joyous, and the depressed. They are the needy and desperate and the satisfied and content. They are he’s, she’s and they.

Thanks for listening. Time for my usual lunch of an un-sandwich and an Uncola! Sounds delicious, I know!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the “Unenlightened”

On the move… (part 2)

On vacation this week, but here is a follow up to last week’s post:

I love it when I post something and it strikes a nerve—whether positive or negative. It tells me I am pondering and putting out the right stuff. My post last week titled, “On the move…” struck such a nerve.

Two comments—one on the website and the other privately—clearly told me that I didn’t get the whole story. I have been accused by those who know me best of too easily falling into either/or thinking and this is one of those cases where I fell into that old habit.

tent citiesOne commenter, who first described his family commitments while wrestling with his next call to ministry, asked, “What are your thoughts for pastors with young families along these lines?” Another person reminded me that my post made no mention of the possibility of “tent-making” ministries. Both were referring to my oversimplified assessment that we have reached a point where one must choose to either stay on the move in order to do ministry or stay put and cobble together a livelihood out of many sources—ministry and non-ministry positions.

It is interesting that I neglected to mention that there are other options, epecially since I have had personal experience with both. I also had a young family at one time and when faced with having to balance family and ministry I had a period where family came first. I spent nine years working in juvenile probation and hospice that allowed me to stay put and support a family. Later I re-entered pastoral ministry and found my way back as a tent-maker working half time as the pastor of a church. The other half time I consulted and contracted with social service agencies. Cobbling together these positions allowed me to live in one area while my children finished up school.

The unspoken assumption in my former post that I didn’t articulate was “If full-time pastoral ministry is what you feel called to you have to be open to moving to follow the work.” My head was thinking about full-time professional ministry, but my words came out as a generalization about all ministry. Of course, my blog post was not really about making hard professional ministry choices. I was using my most current move as an opportunity to say, “Ministry in this time takes a certain amount of nimbleness, flexibility, and following the winds of God’s spirit.”

moving 1
On the move…..literally!

But my two readers who pushed me on this issue reminded me that often God IS calling us to remain rooted in one place. And when that happens we need to be open to the different configurations and lenses that we use to do and see ministry. Tent-making (blending pastoral ministry with other work) is a way to serve God in the church and serve God in other kinds of work. Choosing to remain rooted in one place for the sake of family is as faithful (and often more so) than choosing to uproot family to follow full-time pastoral ministry. I know that was the case for me. When I worked as a juvenile probation officer and hospice bereavement coordinator I still felt like I was doing ministry—just not in an ecclesiastical setting.

I am going to back off my earlier approach to this issue. I framed it in language that was too either/or-ish for a few readers and, after reflection, for myself.

But my basic point is still the same: We who are ministers are finding today that we have to be open to moving, tent-making, validated ministries, serving in non-ecclesiastical positions, volunteering, reframing ministry definitions, etc. And if it is true for those of us who entered professional ministry how much more is it also true for our churches?

I appreciated my readers challenging me and deepening my approach to this topic. My analogy was too narrow, but my main point is still the same: The world is changing. Professional ministry is changing. The church is changing.

God is clearly on the move. Therefore, as people of faith, it’s no surprise that we find ourselves also on the move.

By Rev.  Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades