Consider the Lilies

Being a leader in any setting in these days is harder than any of us might have imagined. I thought about this while I was in a car listening to the news and some commentary about the president. Every presidency is probably harder than the person serving in that office might have expected. But the last few weeks have certainly brought the kind of challenges for all of the political leaders in our country that, if taken by themselves, would have been enough to keep the leader and their staff busy around the clock. That is one of the reasons we are encouraged to pray for our leaders—whether we voted for them or not—since their decisions affect all of us.

Of course, leaders of congregations have also been facing challenges that we could not have imagined. Like the Facebook meme that I saw said, “I did not know that I was going to be the chaplain for the apocalypse.” When we picked up our purses and briefcases and computers and fled our offices and church buildings in March of 2020, did we think that we would be where we are today?

Now some of you are having to engage in a heated debate about the wearing of masks again. Some of you are readying yourselves and your congregations for the beginning of the “program year” but what will that be like this year? Some of you are using your best pastoral skills with people who are as divided as we can remember in our lifetimes over the direction our country should take.

I was on the faculty of Transitional Ministry Education last week. We did a word cloud at the end and asked these pastors to say how they are feeling. The most-used word was “tired” with “sad” not far behind. How can we as leaders possibly find the wherewithal to keep going, especially if we are expected to be cheerful and upbeat and optimistic? For surely it sometimes feels like the weight of the world is on our shoulders.

But perhaps you will remember these words: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to their span of life? . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

I invite you to just sit quietly for a few seconds and watch the video that accompanies this note (click here or on the image to go to the video), taken in my garden in May. Remember these words from the Sermon on the Mount. And remember this: those daisies finished blooming soon after this video was taken and then were not visible for all of these months. But the plants that produced this beauty in the spring are blooming again—not in the same way they did, but blooming nonetheless. And, they have scattered so many seeds in my garden that I have to remove some of the seedlings lest I have a garden that is only daisies next year. They will be back, just like this in the spring. They are surely a sign of hope, the same kind of hope that we are called to bring into the world in Jesus’ name.
The 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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While We Wait

I use a book for morning devotions that I  have used for some time. It is one in a series of books that were put together by Norman Shawchuck, Reuben Job, and John Mogabgab. The particular one I am using now was put together after Norm Shawchuck passed away. I was first drawn to these books by him when he taught a DMin class from McCormick of which I was a part in the 1990’s. At the same time, Reuben Job was the United Methodist bishop of the state of Iowa. It happened that I was serving a small church in the very small town of Deep River, Iowa, that was a united PCUSA and UMC congregation. I knew Rev. Job’s name as well.

The books are set up by the week. For every day of the week, the first reading is an Affirmation, then there is a Psalm reading followed by a Psalm prayer. These three sections are the same for every day of the week. There is then a scripture reading for each day, followed by a series of short reflections written by Shawchuck or Job, or excerpts from other works. The user can follow them in order or choose a reading. The devotion ends with time for prayer as well as an Offering of Self to God and a Blessing that are the same for the whole week.

One day recently I was kind of speeding through the readings and prayers. We had a granddaughter visiting and she had already gone downstairs to look around for breakfast. I came to an excerpt that I had chosen for that day. It is from a work called “While We Wait” by Mary Lou Redding. In my hurry, I read the first line of the excerpt as saying, “When we anchor our hope in God’s ‘already’ love and good plans for us, hope becomes a permanent part of us.” Just as I was thinking that this was kind of an odd way to phrase this truth, I realized that the reading actually says, “When we anchor our hope in God’s ‘steady’ love. . .” That sounds more like a normal way to put these words together. The way I had first read it, though,  resonates with the way I understand a Reformed approach to the Christian faith. It puts the emphasis on God’s prior act. We love because God first loved us. We are always and only saved because of who God is, not because of who we are.  

All of us have been tested in the last few months by learning about who our fellow citizens are and who we are in the face of continuing racism; continuing challenges to the democracy on which we depend for our relationships in this country; and in the face of a disease that has taken so many lives and about which we cannot seem to agree on the simplest facts. As we continue to learn about who we are in the face of all of these challenges, let us not forget the truth of my misreading of this quote. It is the “already” love of God, the love that comes before and in spite of anything we do or say or become, that is the ground on which we stand. It is from that love alone that we have hope. By it we can continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

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