Lessons Learned

My flowerpots do not usually look like this. As you can see, there is a little bench in the pot, part of a former “fairy garden” that I still use in various flowerpots. There used to be a little fairy sitting on the bench. She has disappeared in the last few weeks. I am not exactly sure where she is, but if history repeats herself, I will probably find her in the spring. I will most likely find her buried in a pot—maybe this one, maybe another one. She does not do this herself, of course. Instead, the squirrels in my backyard round up the fairies from time to time and bury them in pots along with the acorns that they are saving for the winter.

That is why there is a deep hole, and the roots of the plant are exposed. Squirrels have been digging in all my flowerpots, planning for the winter. But here’s the thing. Those pots will not be on my back deck much longer. As soon as I have a few hours when I don’t have to be on zoom and it is not raining, they are going in my potting shed until the spring. The squirrels will not have access to their carefully buried acorns (and the collaterally included fairies.) All this work, all this planning—all for naught.

Now, you would think that they would learn from year to year that this is not a good plan. (I just googled the lifespan of a squirrel—usually a couple of years, maybe a little longer.) So at least some of the current squirrels should remember from last year that the pots are going away. This is not a good plan. It will not work. They are spending all this energy to no avail.

Why do they do it? Here is my assumption. It is easy. The soil in the pots is much looser than the soil in the lawn. They have found an easy target for the work that they have been taught and that is part of their genetic urging. They take the path of least resistance, even though it will not have the desired outcome. In the spring, I will find either rotted acorns or little, tiny sprouts to be removed from the pots. But those acorns will not provide food for the cold months ahead.

How often do we take the easy way out in our work in our congregations? I served a congregation once that ran like a machine—there were certain programs that were done on the same Sundays every year since they had always done them that way. It was easy. They knew the schedule. They knew what cookies to serve and what banners to hang. The problem was that the programs had existed for 30 years. They were designed for a church that no longer existed. Once they brought people into the church; once they brought joy; once they shared the gospel in a way that changed peoples’ lives. No more. But the congregation just kept doing what it had always done.

When it comes to the big issues that we have been addressing about race, we also often take the easy path. Pretend you did not hear the offensive comment; look away from the way someone is shunned; tell the joke just to your friends where it cannot do any harm. Just keep burying those acorns in a place where they will never feed you when you need it.

Our call is not to follow old patterns because they are easy or once made sense. Our call is to share the gospel in a way that it changes peoples’ lives in 2021 so that they might also know hope in Jesus Christ.
Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter

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Presbyterians in Illinois

I have served two presbyteries in the state of Illinois as Executive Presbyter. Illinois is my home state; I grew up in the 1960s in the city of Peoria in which redlining had created a culture in which I knew very few African American people. I did not attend the same schools or the same church as African American Peorians did. I watched my parents interact with people of color as they interacted with anyone else in their lives, but we did not share a table or a schoolroom or a pew in the way our lives were lived.

I also did not know the history of the intersection of races even within the two presbyteries I served. I was in a neighborhood just east of downtown Springfield at a very small church of European Americans that was about to close. I learned that it was in this neighborhood that the events that led to the founding of the NAACP occurred.

As it says on the website of the NAACP: “In 1908, a deadly race riot rocked the city of Springfield, eruptions of anti-black violence—particularly lynching—were horrifically commonplace, but the Springfield riot was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP.” You read that correctly: Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Springfield, Illinois, a city that was never below the Mason-Dixon line, whose children went off to war to fight for the North in the 1860s; a city in which slavery was never legal. But is it also a city in which the Presbyterians formed two churches located close by each other? In one the worshipers were sympathetic to the planters’ “need” for slaves in the south. In the other, abolitionists held sway on session and in every other position of power. I knew none of that before I heard a few conversations and began to ask questions. And then there is Chicago.

I did not know about the race riot of July 27, 1919 and following days. From the book “1919: Poems” by Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing: On July 27, 1919, a race riot erupted in Chicago. (This followed the drowning of a young Black man on a beach and its aftermath.) “Twenty-three Black people were killed, fifteen White people were killed, 537 people were injured, 1,000 were made homeless by attacks and arson, and between 5,000 and 6,000 members of the Illinois National Guard were deployed. . .Much of the violence was blamed on “athletic clubs,” organized street gangs of White youth that had powerful political sponsors.” One of those youth would grow up to be the first Mayor Daley.

Did you know that history? Perhaps, like me, you are also a native Illinoisan and did not know either of these stories, having never heard them mentioned in your study of the history of Illinois.

When we study the New Testament, we can take a passage of scripture and study it on its plain meaning. But think how much deeper our understanding is when we set it in the context not only of the setting into which the writers of the gospel or letter have set it but also as we know its context in relationship to the Old Testament. Then we begin to see how it is connected to the history of our ancestors in the faith and understand its richer and fuller meaning.

Just so, it is important to look at the way we interact across the created lines of race in the current day in the light of our shared history.

The history of Chicago Presbytery can be told in buildings and pastors and ecumenical statements and trials and tribulations. It needs to be set in the wider history of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois as well as the history of the United States itself regarding the issues of race. Until we acknowledge the past and strive to repent of the way the trauma that still cries out from the ground, we walk on influences the decisions of today, we can never fully carry out our call to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Rev. Sue Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Encouraging Regular Spiritual Practices

I took my three youngest grandchildren to the zoo in Peoria, a zoo that I have literally visited my whole life since it was opened the year I was born. Zoos are not the same as they were in the 1950’s, thankfully. Sometimes I show the grandchildren the very small interior enclosure where there is now a fox or sometimes a porcupine and tell them that this is where the lion stalked back and forth when I was a child. As I remember it, the poor cat could only take about four steps in one direction and then paced back the other way. It did not seem odd then—that is the way zoos operated. About a dozen years the zoo in Peoria underwent a huge expansion and added an Africa section. Now the rhinos and zebras and giraffes and lions are in large open air areas and we are confined behind protective barriers. ( I always wonder what the squirrels in Glen Oak Park thought when their home also became the home of African lions. . . )

As these three girls born in 2011 walked around with me, they would from time to time say “I remember that statue” or “ Isn’t this where the giraffes are?” They had not been to the zoo in two years. Two years is a long time when it is 20% of your life. Everything seemed smaller to them and not nearly as fascinating as it did when they were younger. I paid the money to renew my grandparents’ pass, but I am not sure that I will need it very often. They have  moved on from just walking around the zoo. They might want to go to special events or zoo camp, but the regular kind of visit may be done.

On our circuit around the zoo, we ran into the Director of Children’s Ministry from the church where my husband served for 14 years. I asked her how things were going. She said a little slow and that attendance on Sunday mornings is still small. But, she said, when there are special events, people show up. So, for instance, a junior high event to which one of grandsons is going, has 20 people signed up to attend. I said to her, offhandedly, maybe that is what churches will need to start planning. Maybe weekly or habitual attendance will become even more a thing of the past than it was before the pandemic. We already knew that planning a sermon series or worship elements that built on each other from week to week did not really make sense. “Regular” church attendees before the pandemic were those who came about once a month. What will it be now?

Do you think that weekend attendance will remain low, at least for some time? If so, how will we encourage regular spiritual practices if they do not include weekly attendance (online or in person) in worship? What special gatherings might fill the spiritual longing that we all have? If we have found other ways to fill our weekends that do not include “going to church” how will we continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus?

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Performing Weddings

As I prepare for retirement this fall, I am thinking back over my 42 years of ministry. One of the parts of being a parish minister that I have missed in Mid Council work is performing weddings. I enjoy seeing the dresses and flowers and managing the tension. I had also gotten pretty good at putting the fear of God into wedding parties at the rehearsal so that we did not end up with incidents during the wedding. “If anyone in the wedding party shows up drunk or under the influence of drugs tomorrow, I will not perform the wedding.” You could always tell who they thought the offender would have been because they all turned and looked at one person.

Every pastor has funny stories about weddings. Here are a few of mine.

My husband and I were co-pastors of two rural churches when we started out. Churches like this were not air-conditioned in those days. We did a wedding in July. It was the hottest I think I have ever been. After the wedding, I told someone at the reception in the church basement that I needed iced tea intravenously. I turned to my husband and said, “Your shirt doesn’t even look sweaty. Aren’t you hot?” He said, “Touch my shirt.” He was so sweaty that his entire shirt had turned a different shade of blue.

A few years later I was the supply pastor at the United Church of Deep River, Iowa. A couple who owned a bar in the nearby county seat town wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day. Their relatives drove through the snow to get there from Chicago. I don’t think any of them were churchgoing people. As the bride started down the aisle, her brother blurted out an expletive followed by “I forgot my camera.” Then when the bride was trying to light the unity candle, I noticed that she kept trying to light it with the bell end of the candlelighter instead of the wick end. I looked at her more closely, saw that she was kind of weaving around, and realized she was really drunk. (Hence the rules above.) I finally just put my hand over hers and turned it the right way and finished things up quickly.

When I was the interim head of staff at Westminster Church in Cedar Rapids, I had eight weddings in nine weeks. Whew! This was in the days of wedding dresses with big, poofy sleeves and big hairdos with lots of hairspray. The church had a very small chancel area where there were always lots of candles. I never had to do it, but I had a plan if the bride caught on fire. I was going to turn the groom around, whip off his tuxedo jacket, and smother the flames!

But my favorite wedding story is this one. My husband and I were co-pastors at First Church, Burlington, Iowa. We had lots of weird things—like a dog who was part of the wedding party—but this time we had a very nervous groom. At the rehearsal, he asked me how long the service would take. I told him that from the time the bride appeared at the top of the aisle to the end of the service, a guaranteed 20 minutes. The day of the wedding, two little sisters started down the aisle as the flower girls, the older sister leading the way. She was dropping petals just as she had been told to do. Halfway down that long aisle, the littler sister noticed the petals on the floor and said, “Oh, Katie, you are dropping your flowers.” She bent to pick them up. She then looked back up the long aisle and saw flowers all over the place. She turned around and very slowly starting picking them all up. No one was looking at the front of the sanctuary. I stepped down off the chancel and whispered to the groom that I now had no idea how long the whole thing would take.

Those weddings were all in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Wedding customs have changed so rapidly in the last few years that I wonder how much longer pastors will have wedding stories to tell. Many couples are having weddings that are officiated by a friend who received their credentials online. A few years ago my husband and I attended such a wedding. There we sat, two experienced pastors who could have gotten the couple through the ceremony more smoothly than their friend did. The clincher for me was when the officiant—who had not prayed or read scripture or mentioned God—said the couple, “May your marriage be blessed with joy.” I whispered to my husband, “Blessed by whom?”

So many aspects of “normal” church life are changing rapidly. The pandemic has only speeded up those changes. Will churches still see “non-member” weddings as a way to attract new members? Will those who were raised in the church still want to come “home” for this momentous event? We cannot predict that. But what has not changed is what the church is called to do. No matter how our beloved traditions change, we are still called to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

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Good Stewardship Practices

A few weeks ago, Ken Hockenberry and I hosted a gathering online of Church Treasurers and others who have responsibility for the finances of a local congregation. (If you missed it, you can ask Dennis Cobb for the recording or watch for a date for another gathering in the late summer.) My part of the evening was to talk about Stewardship in the local congregation.

As I shared these thoughts, I imagined that I was reiterating for people what they already knew—just reinforcing for them some good stewardship practices. But I saw that people were furiously writing, so I decided to share the ideas here as well. I hope you will find them helpful as you plan for your year round efforts at stewardship that often culminate in a yearly emphasis on pledges and other offerings.

  • Set an expectation. Have you ever been to an auction? I used to go to auctions when I lived in a rural area. I noticed a piece of behavioral economics at these events. The auctioneer would hold up an item and say, “Who will give me $100 (or another amount) for this?” No one ever opened with the amount named. But, the auctioneer was setting an expectation of what this item is worth. It helped the crowd to know about what they should pay. Just so, we need to set expectations for church members when it comes to their contributions to congregations. Many church members have no idea what they should be giving. Churches can name a percentage of income that the church encourages members to give. Remember, a tithe is the Biblical standard, and that means 10%. Most Presbyterians give somewhere in the neighborhood of 2%. Or, you can publish a list of what people give to your congregation. You can do this not by name, but by amount. For instance, “three giving units give $10,000 annually; 10 giving units give $5000 annually” and so on. Or, you can ask people to increase what they gave last year by a certain percentage. Set an expectation.
  • Sell the benefits not the features. I guess this is what car salespersons are taught to do. Think about an ad you have seen for a car. It does not go into the details of the engine. It shows you what you will feel like if you own this car. Just so, when you contribute to a not for profit besides the church, they tell you a moving story. The zoo does not send you their budget to encourage you to give. They send you a picture of a baby giraffe. Tell people how lives are changed because of the contributions they make to the church.
  • Use the offering time during worship well. Two things to think about here. This is the perfect place to tell the kinds of stories we talked about above. Have a child talk about why they love Sunday School. Have a member of the mission committee talk about how their heart was moved by hosting people experiencing homelessness. Have a longtime member tell a story about how they made a different decision about something at work because of their deep faith. (The organist and choir will be the hardest to convince that they should give up this time J) Secondly, have a way for everyone who is present to give. When I sit next to my daughter and son-in-law in church and the offering plate comes by, I realize they have nothing to put in it. They do not carry cash and they have no idea when they last wrote a check. Have a QR-code in the bulletin or on a paper in the pew so that someone can scan and go immediately to a “donate here” button.
  • Write thank you notes. These are most impactful if they come from the pastor and if they include the actual amount. “Thank you for your pledge of $10,000 for 2021. Countless lives will be changed and many people’s faith will be deepened because of your generosity.” Or, at the end of the year, a similar thank you for money contributed. Yes, this means that the pastor will know this information. I have never understood why people do not want their pastor to know what they give. The pastor knows how often you are in church, whether you ever show up for Bible study, etc. This is part of your spiritual life. And, if you contribute at a certain level for the zoo, your name is on a brick for all to see. Or if you do so to the symphony, your name appears in the program as a certain level of donor. I once had a woman who was an elder and close to my age tell me she was not sure she was comfortable with me knowing what she gave. I told her that the only suggestion I had was that she could give more. Jesus talks more about money in the gospels than he does about prayer. We need to be brave in doing the same.

As we discover what the church is in this new world into which we are moving, there will be many challenges. Money will not solve them all. But having adequate funds removes some of the barriers for your session so that they can be creative in their response to the call to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

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