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.

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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Going Back

There is a house in my hometown that has always had an owner named Davis. My grandparents were the first occupants of the house. They moved into it as newlyweds in the mid-1920’s. It was then at the edge of town. They both lived there for the rest of their lives. During that time they made very few changes to the house. When my grandmother died in 1985, my brother bought the house from my dad. My brother has lived there ever since. Because of this long association with this one house, I have very vivid memories of all of its nooks and crannies.

Inside the back door of the house (one of those back doors where your choice is to go up about eight steps to the kitchen or down eight steps to the basement) there was built into the wall something like looked very much like the accompanying picture. (The original no longer exists since my brother removed it soon after he moved in.) Do you know what it is? It is an icebox. Now, you may have grown up calling your refrigerator the “icebox” but these doors and the insulted compartments behind them are not connected to electricity. They are literally “ice boxes.” When my grandparents bought their brand new house, this was quite an innovation. On a regular schedule, ice would be delivered to their house and placed in this convenience to keep food cold. By the time I first remember this house, there was no longer a use for these compartments except for storage. There was a humming refrigerator in the kitchen and a huge deep freeze in the basement, both powered by electricity.

There were companies that delivered ice to homes in every town and city in the first decades of the 20th century. At first there were horse drawn wagons and then trucks that would make deliveries. When refrigeration became widespread, many of these companies went out of business. They believed that their mission was to deliver ice. When huge blocks of ice were no longer needed, the companies lost their mission and closed down. But, a few ice delivery companies realized that their mission was not to deliver ice. It was to keep food cold. Their wise managers moved them into the refrigeration business. This is the essence of resilience, to know your core mission and to adjust to changing times in order to meet it.

Churches often confuse their core mission. They think their purpose is to have worship in the sanctuary at 10 a.m.; or to host a huge Vacation Bible School every summer; or to continue a mission to people who are different from most of the members of the congregation in a way that may now seem more toxic than it once did. But none of those are the purpose of the church. We are not in the worship at a certain time in a certain way or VBS the second week of June or give them mittens whether they need them or not business. We are in the gospel delivery business.
You will hear lots of talk in your congregation in the weeks ahead about going “back.” If we think only of going back to what we were, we will have wasted all of the suffering of the last few months and ignored the revelations about the way inequity around race is not only the original sin of this country, but its continuing besetting sin. We are not going back. We are going forward. Forward into a world where those with whom we share the gospel may never enter our buildings. Forward to a time when sharing the gospel with children will be accomplished in myriad ways. Forward to a time when we look for partnerships with people who need material assistance so that we listen to them before we decide what we should do. Our business is not to be the church as we have known it. It is to share the gospel so that we are bringing hope in the name of Jesus.
Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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Middle School Track Meets

Middle School track meets–just the phrase strikes fear into all those who have ever attended in the Upper Midwest as a spectator. Somehow they rarely occur on a lovely spring afternoon. You either need to wear every heavy piece of clothing you have and take a sleeping bag for your competitor to use between races. Or you get your first real sunburn while trying to find one piece of shade.
Then there is the competition itself. Coaches are often volunteers or the math teacher who is earning a little extra cash by working with nascent runners and participants in field events. They have had to leave their job a little early or race from school to the track to be ready to coach their team. There is often no one particularly in charge of the meet until one of the coaches decides they have a bull horn with them and can help organize the competitors while another pulls spectators out of the stands to be timers and the like. Rarely does the event start at the advertised start time.
Then there are the competitors themselves. They often try one event at one meet and another at the next, looking for an event in which they can excel. Many middle schools have a “no cut” policy so everyone who wants to compete can do so. This leads to some pretty short “long jumps”; some shots that are “put” in the wrong direction; and some distance races that become, from time to time, distance walks.

My best advice: take a meal for yourself and your competitor; be sure you hydrate early in the day because you never know if there will be a porta-potty or not; do not plan anything for later that evening because they will keep going until they are done or it is too dark, whichever comes first.

But, here is the glimpse of grace about which I had forgotten until I was at a meet this spring. The crowd cheers until the last competitor crosses the line. Whether it is the hurdler who has knocked over every hurdle or the sprinter who is more of a plodder or the distance runner who is a little dot on the far side of the track when their nearest competitor crosses the finish line–no matter how long it takes, the crowd of parents and grandparents and siblings and friends cheers until everyone is done. No competitor is treated like a failure. We clap and cheer for you no matter when and how you finish the race.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We are cheered on by the cloud of witnesses and by God not because we are the best at showing forth our faith, but because we are in the race. We are to run with perseverance, even when we are the little dot on the far side of the track.

If anything characterizes the last year of doing ministry in a way none of us could have imagined, perhaps it is perseverance. Can’t meet in person for worship? Let’s see what the internet might provide. Can’t conduct pastoral care at the bedside? Let’s see if a nurse might hold up an iPad for us. Can’t hold an in-person ordination service with a full sanctuary? Let’s have a zoom meeting/worship service and create a red stole that is 12 feet long for the laying on of hands by only two socially distanced people. Can’t have a presbytery meeting in a crowded sanctuary? Let’s see if we can achieve at least a semblance of a meeting on our screens.

The crowd at a middle school track meet is a symbol of grace. It does not matter when you finish or whether you have the right technique. We will cheer for you because we love the idea of you; you each represent the child we have come here to support. Just so, the cloud of witnesses who have experienced God’s grace before us is cheering us on, not because we have been perfect in the last year. They cheer for us because we have persevered, because we have sought ways to share God’s love in spite of the obstacles, because they love us as God’s own children. Who knows what the next weeks and months will hold! The content of our race does not change. We are to continue to share hope in the name of Jesus on the race course that lies ahead of us, no matter how rocky or smooth.
Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago

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“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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