We Can, If . . .

Home ownership can be challenging! I had a simple plumbing problem in my kitchen sink. The water became a dripping trickle instead of a steady flow. And I tried everything to solve the problem. I called Culligan (we have a water filter system underneath the sink), but they couldn’t help me. So, I went to Home Depot for answers. After twisting and turning knobs, taking apart the faucet handle to access the filter, taking apart the faucet head, three more trips to Home Depot, one trip to Ace Hardware, two trips to the Plumbing Supply Co., still no water. I was finally given a possible solution by the manufacturer of the faucet (on YouTube!). I disconnected the sprinkler head and discovered a filter less than ¼ of an inch wide. This filter had become clogged by residue in the flex-pipe. I cleaned and replaced the filter, and the water flowed like Niagara Falls!
And I thought, “How many churches and institutions have a filter like this somewhere in their system? How many places in our organizations get clogged up and then ministry cannot flow, decisions cannot be made, and vital mission grinds to a halt?” Then, I did a self-examination: How many times are others waiting on me to read and sign a document, respond to an email, make a phone call, or submit a proposal?
Sometimes, finding the place of obstruction that is preventing the flow can be daunting. In our Leadership Summit on Friday, we will learn and practice a simple technique called, “We can, if.”
In their book, A Beautiful Constraint, Morgan and Barden talk about trying to solve a problem for a company. As consultants, they attempt to have a hopeful and optimistic conversation. However, to every possible solution, they are met with the statement, “We can’t do this because . . .” They write, “Every time someone introduced a ‘we can’t because,’ the conversation reached a dead end. The flow had stopped. The solution? We didn’t let people start with ‘we can’t because.’ We forced them to start with “we can if.”
“We can, if” at the beginning of a sentence unclogs the filters of doubt and resistance that create inertia and slows our ability to act. When we begin a conversation with what is possible, problem-solving momentum is maintained. As Morgan and Barden write, “It forces everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers. It doesn’t allow someone to identify obstacles, without looking for a solution to that obstacle in the same sentence.”
Can we be a relevant and valued voice in the Chicagoland area? Can we become an anti-racist presbytery? Can we attract the pastors and leaders God is calling us to have? Can we strengthen our larger congregations and support of our challenged churches? Can we be a platform for innovative New Worshiping Communities? Can we partner in mission and ministry with other organizations and build communities of justice, peace, and righteousness?

We can, if . . .

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Transforming Traditions

Yesterday I was privileged to partake in the installation service of Rev. Stuart Barnes Jamieson at Carter-Westminster United Presbytery Church in Skokie. The installation service reflected the diversity of the membership and the community. The congregation describes itself as “a rich tapestry woven out of the ministry of three congregations.” These three congregations– Westminster, Carter Memorial (an Assyrian congregation which began in the chapel of Fourth Presbyterian) and Irving Park–make up the colorful tapestry of race, ethnicity, language, and culture that was on full display on Sunday. It was summed up in the Lord’s Prayer which was spoken in four languages! (Not all at the same time!!)

Maintaining this type of diversity takes commitment. It is part of the foundation and DNA which Carter-Westminster continues to live into. In his monograph entitled, Jacob’s Bones, Gil Rendle writes about the value of carrying forward the identity and mission of previous generations. He sees this exemplified in the patriarch Jacob requesting his bones be carried into the new land. Rendle writes, “Futures are not disconnected from the past. We can carry with us the critical gifts from the past, limited in number but well chosen, that will remind us of who we are. What we choose to carry forward will be used to sustain our identity and purpose in the changed conditions that will be faced.”

Since diversity is in the fabric and DNA of Carter-Westminster, it continues to have a strong Assyrian membership. Their future reflects their past. This membership reflects the community. Often congregations lose touch with changing demographics in the community in which they reside. They become “the hole in the donut”- a solid center surrounded by a different flavor of diversity.

What is the past your congregation is carrying forward? What rich history is your institution reflecting in this current time? These are questions we should reflect upon. As congregations, seminaries, hospitals, and other institutions served by leaders in the presbytery of Chicago, we should constantly ask the questions, “Who is God calling us to be?” “What is God calling us to do?” And, “Who is our neighbor?” Carter-Westminster is a model for this continual engagement with history, tradition, community, and mission.
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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Hope for 2022

I’m a Bears fan. I’ve been one since my early youth as I watched the Chicago defense led by Dick Butkus playing linebacker. Nothing is like seeing Walter Payton punish the tackler as the tackler is trying to make a play. I took the heat of being a Bears fan while in Wisconsin surrounded by Packers followers. I wear my Bears sweatshirt in St. Louis, even though they don’t have a football team and expect everyone to bleed Cardinal red. 
But I’m not a fan because the Bears win. Following the Bears is an experience in hope. Hope doesn’t depend upon victory but is committed to the struggle. Hope doesn’t count the score but looks for movement, direction, and a path opened by the Holy Spirit.
Although it might be a leap to jump from hope as a Bears fan to the hope I have in the life and future of the church, there are helpful similarities. We are living in difficult times. We are in the shadow of the pandemic, while still struggling to be an antiracist church. The political world appears to be turning against the climate, the poor, the immigrant, and people of color, just when small success was so close. Many pastors and leaders are exhausted from exceeding the limits of their emotional bandwidth. Meanwhile the decades-old denominational decline persists as the faithful members are being outnumbered by those who struggle to find meaning in the traditional and historic church.

Yet, I have hope in the future of the church. It is a hope not dependent upon immediate results. We are engaged in a long-term moral struggle for what is just and right. In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes Václav Havel saying, “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

It is okay to keep a scorecard, but it is more important to invest in long term results. Hope is what allows us to stay in the current struggle and take the blows of this fight because we know there is something greater coming. We are in the business of faithfully planting seeds of hope for a harvest we may not live to see.
Creativity is needed to mine this hope. We are challenged to imagine new ways of thinking and different ways of being the church. The presbytery is challenged to lead and model this type of hopeful and creative ministry.
A first step is the Leadership Summit we are convening on Friday, January 28th via Zoom for all moderators and co-moderators of entities in the presbytery. Rev. Mathame Sanders will be the keynote speaker and will spark our imaginations through improvisation, opening us to creative ways of thinking toward a hopeful future. I’m asking all moderators and co-moderators to join me, the presbyterian council, and staff in this Leadership Summit. You will receive an invitation this week, along with the book, A Beautiful Constraint.
May this year be one of faith, hope, and love. May we rejoice and be happy together; may we grieve and hold one another in sorrow. May we live this year in hope, believing beyond results as we live from our Christ-centered hearts. Amen.
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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Reading and Learning During Advent

Advent is a time for active waiting on the God who comes to us. It is a time to reflect in hope, joy, and love as we continue to examine our hearts and make ourselves ready for Christ’s presence at Christmas. Some years ago, I began what has become a personal tradition of reading one book a week during Advent and Lent. This comes to four books for Advent and six books for Lent.
Reading during Advent and Lent prepares me for the work and ministry as your presbytery executive. I believe the challenges we will face in a post-pandemic church are unique and without precedent. To become the future church, we must learn our way forward.
In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky talk about distinguishing technical problems from problems that demand an adaptive solution. Simply put, when a problem can be defined and a solution calculated, it is a technical problem. But when we are faced with a challenge that we can hardly define and the solution involves deep change, we are dealing with an adaptive challenge.
They write, “Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires . . . shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.”
The pandemic has helped us to see that we can change. We can adapt to new circumstances and environments, learn new technologies, and be the church that serves the community, all while wearing a mask and keeping social distance.
Reading and learning continue to expand our minds and make us pliable for the continued changes that will be demanded of us. We can learn to do things differently. We can be a different church for a different age. We can be a church that stands for justice, experiences vitality, and makes a difference in the world. Walk with me as we journey into God’s future together.

The following are the four books I’m reading during Advent:

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Laurence Gonzales

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Jane Goodall, Douglas Abrams

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Ijeoma Oluo

Look For Me and I’ll Be Gone: John Edgar Wideman
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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I am beginning my call as your presbytery executive in the season of advent. Advent is the season of waiting. During advent, we light the candles of hope, faith, joy, and peace on the advent wreath, and we end with the lighting of the Christ candle.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect on our calling in Christ. As Presbyterians, we believe everyone is called to a particular vocation. This calling challenges each of us to serve our society and the world. In her book, The Spirit of Advent: The Meaning is in the Waiting, Paula Gooder reflects on the calling of Abraham and Sarah and how their lives can guide us in our sense of call and vocation. She writes, “With God the command is both to go and to come. The ‘go’ element involves leaving behind many things; the command to ‘come’ involves knowing that God will accompany us on the journey.”

Many believe a great change of vocation is happening in the church because of the pandemic. Pastors are changing congregations, and many are leaving the ministry. I am learning that experiencing the change that comes with a call includes both grasping and letting go. What may God be calling you to let go of?

Advent is a time to believe that the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ is the God who calls us to wait. We are called to wait for the seeds of faith that have been planted in our spirit to sprout into new life. For me, as I pray about the future of the Presbytery of Chicago, I wait in anxious anticipation for fruitful congregations, chaplains, teachers, ministry partnerships, new worshiping communities, and other specialized ministries to bud, blossom, and bloom, all in God’s time. What do you find yourself waiting for during this Advent season?

Advent is a time for change. God’s change in God’s time. Change may mean letting go. It often means loss and grief. Gooder writes, “God’s call to us remains a call to change: to leaving and accompanying, to moving and changing, to growing and flourishing. It is part of human nature to yearn for stability, to put down roots, and to stay put; but it is also a rule of nature that things that do not move do not live.” What changes are you welcoming into your life this Advent? 

Advent is a call to life. As we embrace the core elements of our life in Christ – hope, faith, joy, and peace–we enjoy the happiness of God through the fruit of the Spirit. Blessings to all during this Advent season as we engage the Triune God and find new life together. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

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