From Sue is a bi-weekly blog thought written by our Executive Presbyter, Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue), and published in our e-newsletter, Presbytery Connect.

“Bob Ross” Preachers

Do you know who Bob Ross was? Does it help if I say “Happy little trees”?  He had a painting show on PBS for many years until his untimely death at the age of 52. I saw a news report about a place where you can go to have a “Bob Ross Experience” and it made me think about our approaches to preaching.
I have been making public speeches since I was in elementary school — I have the “Declamation” winning pins to prove it! It must be genetic. When I spoke as a young pastor at the 150th anniversary of my home church in 1985, I sat down afterward next to a retired judge who had taught an adult Sunday School class in this big church for decades. He leaned over and said, “You remind me of your grandfather when you speak.”
I never heard my grandpa make a speech; he died when I was a freshman in high school. I took that as a high compliment. My undergraduate degree is in Speech Communications. I competed in speech events in high school. I have thought a lot about public speaking and about the difference between a speech and a sermon.
Perhaps like me, you have heard numerous people preach on your computer screen or phone over the last year. It has reminded me that I think there are three ways to approach scripture in a sermon, all of which have their place. One is as if it is a specimen that has to be examined only by experts who will then tell those who are not experts about this. If a preacher says a word in Hebrew or Greek or tells you what the Hebrew or Greek means, they are doing this. A second is to use the research that has been done in the pastor’s study to tell the story in a compelling way. “And then Paul wrote to Corinth where he knew the church was in disarray. . .” A third way is to preach the life-saving, life-changing, convicting truth of the passage in a way that changes the listener’s hearts. Sometimes we do this by simply reminding them that they are beloved children of God. Most preachers get to this third level only occasionally.
Now here is where Bob Ross comes in. The person reporting the story went through the “Bob Ross Experience” where people watch a show and, with the help of artists in the room, complete a painting in the 30 minutes of the show. One of those who run the experience said that it is not so much about helping you to see that you can be a painter. It is to help you see that you can do anything. It makes painting accessible in a way that they hope — as did Mr. Ross — will change people’s lives even if only in a very small way.
If we make this analogy with preaching from the world of art, perhaps it would be like this. Some preachers are like a professor teaching a graduate class in art history. They make scripture seem lofty and set apart, only to be understood by trained professionals. That is certainly a part of the truth about scripture. They let us in on a secret or two each time they preach. Others are like docents in a museum, pointing to the beauty or challenge of a work of art and inviting us to see those qualities as well. Then there are those preachers — or maybe all preachers on occasion — who, like Bob Ross, help us to experience the awe or the humor or the flash of insight that the artist has conveyed in such a way that our lives are changed, if only a little bit.

Perhaps you preach or sing or teach a Bible study or encourage others to join you in tending directly to the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. I hope that every once in a while we can all be like Bob Ross, helping our friends to see the simple truth that the good news in our lives calls us to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Rethinking Stewardship Approaches

I am not usually a fan of a pastor or someone in my position using themselves as a good example. If pastors tell a story from their lives in a sermon, I think it should be a story about how they learned something about their faith because of a failing or a shortcoming, or a story about something funny that happened to them. I also think pastors should never use their children as examples, especially if the child is in worship. The last thing preacher’s kids need is to have more attention drawn to them. 
I realize that my approach to pastors not using themselves as an example may come from my baby boomer sensibilities formed long before our current culture in which people share far more of their personal lives. You can “Okay, Boomer” me about this. Just saying that what I am about to write is outside of my comfort zone, but I thought it might be instructive. 
One of the areas of a congregation’s life about which pastors and other leaders are worrying right now is stewardship. The way we encourage people to give to congregations has been the norm for about 120 years. Before our current system of pledging and giving, members of congregations paid pew tax for the right to sit in a particular pew. In some European countries, churches are funded through taxes. All of this is to say that there are lots of ways to fund churches.
We can learn much from other not-for-profits when it comes to stewardship. For instance, I have been to workshops where people remind us that when the zoo asks us for money, they send us a picture of a baby giraffe. When the church asks us for money, they send us a line-item budget.
Churches are also notoriously bad at saying “thank you.” There is a mistaken idea that no one should know what a member gives to the church. Directors of other not-for-profits know exactly who their donors are and what they give. I had a member of a church where I was pastor tell me that she was not really comfortable having me know what she gave. I told her that if she was uncomfortable, she could give more.
So, here is the story about my family. We received our stimulus check in the last few weeks. We do not need it since we are doing fine meeting our needs. We were watching the nightly news with a story about how many people are hungry. The Midwest Food Bank in Peoria is an organization that we know very well and we know that they do good work. We sent them a check for the whole amount of our stimulus check and my husband wrote a note to the director, whom he knows. We got back a handwritten note thanking us for our $1200 check and telling us that this amount provides $36,000 worth of food through the food bank. Very specific; very impactful; very helpful as we consider further gifts.
As you work at making sure your stewardship program at church is robust and that it is truly encouraging members to be generous, what might you do to be specific, impactful, and helpful? Can you tell people exactly what their $1000 or $10,000 contribution accomplishes? Can you tell them a story about how worship and companionship in the lives of your members helps to mold them into Christians who change untold numbers of lives as they go about their work and leisure? What have you thought about that might change the way you encourage stewardship?
It takes dedication and faith and the love of God to do our work. It also takes money to continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Storing Up for the Long Haul

When I started in ministry, my husband and I were pastors of two small rural churches in West Central Illinois. We are both natives of Central Illinois, but neither of us grew up on farms. We knew a little about farming, though, because you cannot drive out of a city without passing through corn and soybean fields. Our fathers both had huge gardens and his mom and my grandma did all kinds of canning and preserving. We were kind of “farm adjacent.”
But we had to learn a new language and learn the kinds of folk wisdom that arises in any culture when we worked with farmers as their pastors. Learning that folk wisdom is very important in any culture since people will think that you don’t know anything if you don’t know the very basics. For instance, during the first few months we were there, someone invited us to dinner on Sunday. I asked what time. The person just stared at me for a minute and then said, “Right after church.” I was still learning that dinner is a midday meal; lunch is a snack any time of the day; and supper happens in the evening when the chores are done.
We were also reminded of an expression that lots of our new friends used. While we were being driven around to see the territory (on a hot August day) the smell of a feedlot drifted into the car. The woman sitting in the back seat with me said to me, “You know what that smell is?” I told her I was pretty sure. She said. “That’s the smell of money.”
Another piece of folk wisdom that I learned there seems relevant in the circumstance in which we find ourselves right now with regard to the pandemic. Apparently, this is a fact that every farmer knows. One must have at least half of the hay or fodder that you have stored up for the winter still available in February to make it through until the spring. When the days get a little longer and the sun is a little warmer in February, we are mistaken if we think we are near the end of the hard days of winter. A farmer cannot replace the hay and fodder until well into the spring months when the alfalfa or grass has grown long enough to mow and bale. February may make it seem like the worst is almost over but there is a long road ahead.
We may feel like the end is so near that we can feel it approaching when we think about the pandemic. But we need to have at least half of our stores of resilience and patience and creativity left in the barn for the months that lie ahead. There will be starts and stops to returning. There will be people who never come back to church. There will be funerals and weddings that have been put on hold that may or may not satisfy the spiritual needs of those involved. Every congregation needs to be rethinking its call to ministry and finding what is essential and what can be set aside.
Do you have enough left in your barn for the months that lie ahead? How will you replenish your physical stamina, your spiritual well, your resilient abilities? Support one another in the times that lie ahead as we continue to find ways to bring hope in the name of Jesus—even to ourselves.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Preparing for Change

By the end of March this year, my grandchildren will be 9, 10, 10 (there is a set of twins in there), 12, 13, and 14. These are the ages where children grow and change quickly. What a year to be away from them so much!
For instance, the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds both have birthdays later in the year. They live in Iowa where the age for a learner’s permit for a driver’s license is 14. That means that both of them will be eligible to drive with an adult sitting beside them in the front seat during 2021. Of course, their parents will have to identify an adult who is brave enough to sit beside them. . . . When our daughters were that age, we lived in Iowa. Our older daughter was hesitant about taking up this privilege and waited. Our younger daughter got her permit on her fourteenth birthday and from that day until she left for college, I rarely drove if she was in the car. 
Like all of the developmental leaps that the children in your life make, the one to sitting behind the steering wheel is kind of a shock. You look over there (sometimes from behind the hands with which you are covering your eyes or while you are pressing your foot against the non-existent brake on your side of the car) and think, “Isn’t this the person who just a moment ago was trying to learn to walk or was putting the classic sign “I hat mom” (she couldn’t spell “hate” yet) on the outside of her bedroom door? And now I am entrusting my life and my car to her! 
We have mostly been apart from each other in our congregations for almost a year. For some of the members of our congregations, it has been even longer because they were at their “Snowbird” escapes when the pandemic hit and had already been there for a few months. It has been a momentous year for all of us with so many changes. What will be the biggest changes that you will notice when we finally come back together in large numbers of people? 
Let’s imagine that by Reformation Sunday of 2021 (the last Sunday of October) that we are back to something that approximates worship on that Sunday in 2019. What will be different where you worship? 
  • Some people who were there two years earlier will not be there. The median age of members of the PCUSA is around 65. That means there are as many people older than 65 as there are younger than 65. Your church might have an even higher median age. Just looking at actuarial tables will tell you that some people will have died or “aged out” of being in person for worship, even without considering the devastation of COVID. Some people will have found other things to do on Sundays or will have realized that church was not really a priority for them. For whatever reason, there may be fewer people when we come back. (Some experts are predicting our numbers will have shrunk by 30%.) 
  • Your building may seem different to you. You may have created an idealized view of your church building because you remember it in its glory days and have not noticed that it is looking a little worn or that it is not really accessible. Or, perhaps, the Building and Grounds committee has used this time to make some repairs or to update some things since it was easier to do them without people in the building regularly. You may walk in and find something that is not familiar to you in one way or another. 
  • The program of your church may change. The session may have taken this time to really examine all of the activities of the congregation to try to decide what is essential and what has outlived its effectiveness. Almost every church continues to sponsor an activity or a group that is only reaching a handful of people or that has lost its original purpose but is lingering because of the fond memories a few people have of it. Maybe the session has taken the time to make some hard decisions to end some programs so that the essential work of the congregation can flourish and room is provided for new things to grow.

Before the pandemic, they were all still children with no one having gone through a dramatic growth spurt. By the time we gather, I may not be taller than all of them; two of them may be able to drive; other dramatic changes will have happened in some of their lives. We will need to find a new way of relating to each other. That new way will still be based on our love for one another nurtured over all of these years. 

When we re-gather in large numbers for worship we will also have to prepare ourselves for changes. We will need to find ways to re-invent our congregations after all of the changes we have been through. Those ways will be new but they will also be based in our call to respond to the good news. In whatever form it takes, we will still be bringing hope in the name of Jesus through all we do.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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What, Then, Can We Do?

Members of the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the Vice President of the United States, all of their staff members, those who work in the U.S. Capitol building – all of them could easily have lost their lives on January 6 while doing the work before them. One police officer and several others died. Their lives were threatened, not by a plane flown by a foreigner who hates the United States, not by a spy who had infiltrated the government to such an extent that they could make such a credible threat. No, their lives were threatened by a mob of insurrectionists led astray and enraged by those who have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, which is the founding and enduring document that created and sustains our fragile union as a country. 
Pastors and other leaders in congregations are often admonished to avoid reference to politics so as not to disturb those with whom they might personally disagree. This is not a time to be silent about those who threatened the lives of these public servants nor to be silent about the rage and the lies that fueled their actions. It is especially not a time for church leaders to be silent because of the way the seditionists have conflated their desire to overthrow democracy with the Christian faith. Carrying a cross or a sign about Jesus while calling for the Vice President to be hanged cannot be ignored. 
Addressing the events of January 6 and all that preceded it, and will continue for the months and years to come, is also a delicate path for religious leaders.
  • We cannot present ourselves as wise and others as gullible.
  • We cannot claim that these actions do not represent the American people when there are those among us who have felt this anger and level of violence directed at them for generations because they have been seen as different or un-American.
  • We cannot call people back to the “Christian principles on which this nation was founded” when that founding meant the slaughter and removal of the people who first lived here and the enslavement and degradation of the people whose toil created wealth we enjoy.
  • We cannot imagine that we are all treated according to the equality with which we were created when we have seen with our own eyes that this is not the case.

What, then, can we do?

  • Psalm 146:3. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Remind people that no politician is a savior. There is only one Savior who called us to love one another with servant love.
  • James 3:5a “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell.” Guard your own speech. Be sure that what you say is true. Call out falsehood when you hear it.
  • I Corinthians 13:4-7 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Practice this love to which we are called. Expect this love from those with whom you serve.
  • Philippians 4:8-9a “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard.” The problem with being a Christian is not that it is confusing or opaque. The problem is that it is so hard to do.
This will be another momentous week-and-a-half in the life of the United States of America. There will surely be at least the attempt of more violence and the propagation of more lies and hatred and venom. Guard your own energy and soul so that you can continue to lead. Call out hypocrisy and evil when you see it. Our call always has been and remains this: to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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A Pandemic Greets the Holidays

Everyone here in church-ville knows what to expect
When the calendar turns, fall and winter connect.
It’s that crunch time of parties and turkey and wreaths.
The time when we all feel just buried beneath
Cookie baking, gift wrapping and tree trimming time.
But this year the mountain is harder to climb.
We know how to manage on three hours’ sleep.
We know how the tree looks, traditions to keep.
We know how to dress in our red and green.
We know how to fit in our families between.
We know people count on us, making the season.
But this year we wonder, just what is the reason?
For this year we huddle in groups less than ten.
This year we muddle around our own dens.
Will we really give thanks with just cats by our side?
Will we watch our team triumph without a high five?
Will we light advent candles alone in the dark?
Will we only remember the carols in the park?
Can we have our Thanksgiving without all the trappings?
Can we welcome the savior without all the wrappings?
Consider the lilies, we once were told.
Remember our faith does not come wrapped in gold.
The worries of this day will be quite sufficient.
The people who pay you to be so proficient
At preaching and singing and leading the throng
Will not think that you have done anything wrong.
Make sure that you have a most thankful heart.
Welcome the savior alone in the dark.
This year is not gone to a Grinchy pandemic.
This year is a gift; it’s just more pathogenic.
So find your own joy; weep a tear if you must.
Remember this year hasn’t stolen our trust.
The promise of faith is the same now as always.
God loves you, and cares for you, in big and small ways.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Confidence and Humility

I am reading a new book by Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite authors. It is the fourth in a series that began with Gilead. Each book tells the stories of the same characters from the point of view of a different one of the characters. I think I first read Gilead because at the time of its publication I was a pastor in Iowa. Two of the main characters are also pastors in Iowa. I also spent a lot of time in Iowa City because the Presbytery of East Iowa office was there and I was the Stated Clerk of the presbytery at the time. Robinson lives in Iowa City. Once I read the first book, I was hooked. The writing is beautiful and she evokes scenes of places that I could very easily imagine whether at a church or in a pastor’s home or in the garden.
I am a few pages into the new book which is called Jack. So far, I have been reading a conversation between Jack, the prodigal son in the story, and his friend who is a different race than Jack but is also the child of a pastor. They find that they have a lot in common because of that. Especially in former decades, the manse was often the site of weddings, impromptu pastoral counseling, people in need showing up unannounced at the door, and so on. Children had to be taught to be discreet and spent more time hearing the gospel and eating fried chicken and jello at church than most of their contemporaries.
I ran across a line that made me stop and chuckle. Jack’s father is a Presbyterian minister. His friend’s father is Baptist. They begin to talk about theology a little and the subject of predestination comes up. She says to him that she does not want to dive into the depths of Presbyterianism with him. Ah, the depths of Presbyterianism. What would you say that they are?
I was working with a presbytery in Ohio in a former job that I had. Actually, it was the presbytery that Debbie Rundlett was leaving as she came to Chicago. She asked me to work with the leadership team of the presbytery to help them plan for her departure. I started reminding them about the history and theology of the PCUSA and then realized I was getting some blank stares. So I asked the dozen people in the room how many of them had grown up in the Presbyterian Church. Only four of us in the room had. That is a pretty typical percentage in any PCUSA group. I then asked them what brought them to us. Why did they choose to be a part of the PCUSA? None of them in that room came from no Christian background. Many were from an episcopal background; that is they came from a tradition that has a bishop. Every one of them said they came and stayed because of our polity. 
That was a surprise to me. But then we started talking about how they understood the polity and we were right back to theology. We do not have a bishop because we do not believe that any one human being can as clearly discern the mind of Christ as we can in a group. We have what would in other Christian groups be considered to be members of the laity who have answered the exact same ordination questions as ministers. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. We believe that we are the church reformed and always being reformed according to the leading of the Holy Spirit because we believe that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We do our very best when we gather together to do the will of God. We also admit that we are fallible and sometimes get it wrong and need to change. What this group of people liked about our polity was rooted in our theology but they had never put the two things together.
Confidence and humility may be a way to characterize our theology: we believe that we have been called by God and we believe that we often miss the mark of living out that call. In the tumultuous weeks ahead, let us call on our confidence and humility to continue to share hope in the name of Jesus in a world that desperately needs it.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Change from Within

What is the best way to change someone else’s behavior? That is an age-old question, isn’t it?
I remember when I was in seminary the issue of inclusive language was a very hot topic. There were all kinds of studies and resources that showed the image that came to mind when people used terms like “man” or “mankind” to refer to all of humanity. Overwhelmingly, people thought of male human beings. We worked hard to encourage students and faculty alike to be inclusive in their language. In some places in the intervening years, rules have been made for language used in worship or in formal communication in the church so that people were required to use inclusive language. In my experience, it is pretty much the norm now in terms of gender.
There are many other ways, though, that language continues to exclude. The work here is not done. My attitude about all of this when I was in seminary and in the next decade or so when language about gender was a subject for debate was this: I don’t really care whether you think gender neutral language is a good idea or not, I just want you to use it. Some psychologists believe that this is a good way to change people’s attitudes. When their behavior is required to change, then, over time, their attitudes may change as well.
I was reminded about this when I got a cold drink from a coffee shop and was handed a sippy cup. I imagine they have another term for the new lids they use, but this is the only one that comes to my mind. If you have youngsters in your life or if you have been to the Shedd Aquarium in the last few years, then you have probably been told (several times) that you should not use straws. They are a prime example of single use plastic that is choking the oceans and the life that lives in them.
Maybe you carry a metal straw with you. Maybe you have had to force yourself to actually put your lips on a glass in a restaurant (remember going to restaurants??) since we had been trained by them to use straws. The particular coffee shop I went to has, apparently, given up on us making the right decision. They just hand us a cup with a lid on it that does not accommodate a straw and that delivers the beverage in another way. They don’t care what we believe about straws, they are just forcing us to change our behavior. Maybe it will lead us to rethink our attitudes about other single use plastic (like, for instance, the sippy cup lid and the cup to which it is attached!)
We have all observed behavior in the last few months that needs to change whether it involves something as simple as wearing a mask or as deadly as encounters between people who stand on either side of the racial divide in this country. What do you think is the best way to change misguided behavior? Convincing arguments; legislated change; no options except the behavior you favor? All of those work from time and time.
Where does scripture direct us to begin when we know that change is needed? With ourselves. In these troubled and troubling times, when we love to point out the fault in others, fault that is often dangerous and short-sighted, let us also remember the words of the psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” As we strive to bring hope in the name of Jesus, let us do it with humility.
The Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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