Church Care

The joy we find in the broken, the backward and less-than-successful things

I need a show of hands. How many of you out there are deeply entrenched in something that’s quite less-than-successful?

Is your church struggling with leadership, finances, or sharing the gospel with the world?

Does your marriage feel like long-running drudgery, full of low-grade despair or outright hostility?

Is your parenting a loosely cobbled together collection of decisions, aimed at hopefully producing a decent adult one day?

How about your career, your health, or your finances? If one or all of them are a wreck, then you’re reading the right blog post.

I’m right there with you.

It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that I’ve been called to some things that may never be shiny, fancy, or awe-inspiring.

I have recently counted up an offering at church and been somewhat dumbfounded at the low deposit total I saw on the spreadsheet.

Our small group, once a large, bustling, thriving evening each week, suddenly evaporated this month. This place of ministry was near and dear to my heart but, abruptly, it ended.

When friends share stories of churches they attend with special offerings of tens of thousands of dollars, or dozens of baptisms in one night, or the thriving ministries of the church, I get really anxious and teeter on the brink of despair.

What are we doing wrong? Are we not faithful enough for God’s blessing?

I’ve recently had some parenting struggles that I shall keep private, due to the fact that my children are no longer babies and don’t appreciate their junk being spewed all over the internet, but suffice it to say that I had to wonder if I’ve done anything worthwhile with my offspring the last fourteen years. It feels entirely possible that I’m just the tall woman with access to the checking account in the house, and they’re counting down the days until my rule of tyranny is over in their lives.

What am I doing wrong? Have I not prayed enough? Been strict enough? Been too strict?

And even though I’m on the very cusp of releasing my third book, a privilege other writers would eat a sock to experience, my writing career is so less-than-spectacular that I struggle monthly with whether to continue.

Other writers sell more books, get more blog stats, and gain more social media followers in the next twenty minutes than I’ve done in the last eight years.

Am I hearing God wrong? Should I focus on my spectacular career as an administrative assistant and let the writing go?

I tell you all these things not because I’m seeking your pity. I offer them simply to be real, and because I firmly believe that honesty opens up room for others to be honest as well. It’s not all going well. I’ve worked really, really hard for many years, only to realize many of my efforts can basically can basically be filed under “F” for “Failure.”

And maybe you feel the same way?

Here’s some hope for us all. I’ve been reading an old, old book I found in the church library. Forgotten for years, this copy of Humility by Andrew Murray* is now covered in coffee stains and my grubby fingerprints. Sometimes those old writers really have a way of cutting through the popular culture’s madness to really get at the heart of the matter. If something was important and true more than a hundred years ago, maybe we should still be paying attention.

(Just to be clear, the copy I have is a reprint from about fifteen years ago. I’m not spilling coffee on a hundred year old book.)

Murray’s point is simple: Humility is the path to holiness, and directly to God’s heart. Yet we often resist the very things that allow that humility to grow in our hearts. He writes:

Many Christians fear and flee and seek deliverance from all that would humble them. At times they may pray for humility, but in their heart of hearts they pray even more to be kept from the things that would bring them to that place. They have not reached the level of seeing humility as a manifestation of the beauty of the Lamb of God (pg. 91).

We want our churches to be shiny and popular and flush with cash. We want our marriages to be healthy and our parenting to inspire awe in our community. When our efforts are unsuccessful, we either double down with more effort or give up in despair.

But what if there was another way to look at it?

Could we take that lackluster career, that long-running battle in our marriage, or our pathetic book sales and realize that when we bring those things directly to God, we’re growing in humility?

No one’s going to look at our efforts and then be awed by our abilities. But maybe those struggles are making us into kinder, gentler individuals. Maybe we’ll show more grace to others because of this experience. Perhaps our ministries will grow deeper and more heartfelt, with more of the Holy Spirit’s power to show to others.

After all, Jesus was born to inconsequential people (in a stable!), never took the throne in Rome, and then died next to criminals. His best friends were a ragtag group of fishermen, tax collectors, and women. If our Lord chose the simple, humble things, who are we to expect some sort of shiny, glorious life?

I can’t see all the areas you’re struggling today, so maybe none of this helps your exact situation. But I have a feeling that maybe it does. Reframing our humiliations as experiences that bring us closer to Jesus might be the most helpful thing we learn as we mature in our walk with God.

I believe there’s joy to be found in growing more gentle, kind, and reliant on the Holy Spirit. And if it takes twenty failures a day to get me to that place, then I guess I’m all in.

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Because Murray has been dead a loooong time, the book is off copyright and can be read on the internet. Here’s the link if you’re interested– it’s well worth the read! Link to Humility.

*The Amazon link is an affiliate link, and I’ll earn a tiny stipend off sales. The link to the online, off-copyright is not an affiliate link.

The curious case of the full-grown woman who completely failed at her church’s meal ministry

I drop a bombshell of truth in the last chapter of my next book (coming February of 2018!).


This is my bombshell– a fact few people realize about me: I don’t actually participate in my church’s meal ministry. I can feel your horror and surprise from here. I must seem callous and uncaring.

It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I don’t cook.

Not well, anyway. To be precise, it’s not the actual cooking that’s the trouble; the problem is that what I consider dinner is kind of weird. For example:

  • An English muffin with peanut butter.
  • A banana and a cold hot dog.
  • Noodles cooked in butter, and also popcorn for a side dish.

YOU SEE HOW THOSE IN NEED MIGHT NOT BE COMFORTED BY MY CHOICES.

I swear I ate these for dinner moments after I staged the photo.

Obviously I don’t feed my family these freakish combinations for dinner (not usually, anyway). As a mature adult I can prepare a real meal with protein and vegetables and everything. But I can guarantee you that most nights three of the four of us in this house don’t actually like what I make. And with our gluten/dairy/sugar/fat issues, we frequently eat a rotation of raw vegetables, a lean protein, and brown rice.

Still not exactly something you deliver to a new mother. “Here, beloved woman who just bore life onto the earth. I have a dried up chicken breast and a pile of lettuce for you. Be blessed.” That woman would take the lettuce and weep into it a little, probably.

I was part of the church’s meal ministry, taking food to those who were ill or had just had a baby, for quite a few years.

Until the day I had to take food to another family and I had a meltdown when I didn’t have the right containers to deliver soup to the new mother, and that was it for me. I just couldn’t handle the stress of deciding what to make, actually making it, and then locating the proper vessels for delivery.

I opted out.

I said no, and God did not, in fact, smite me.

My stress load lifted considerably, life continued, and I still had loads of other ways to minister to our congregation. I’ve taught Sunday school class, worked with the financial team, scrubbed dishes, and hosted small group at my house.

None of these things have involved crying into lettuce.

Even better– when I’m doing the things I love to do, the cooks in the congregation can do what they do best. They might not enjoy balancing the Sunday deposit from the offering, but maybe they can create an entire meal and then deliver it with joy.

GOOD FOR THEM. Good for all of us.

So this is my encouragement for you today: you don’t have to do all the things. If there’s something really stressing you out about your ministry or home or family life, you get to choose. You can let it go and serve elsewhere.

I promise this is true.

I promise you have options, and serving others takes many, many forms. Serve with your gifts, not with your guilt. You won’t believe how much more delightful life becomes.

What about you?

Do you have a particular thing you hate to do? What would happen if you opted out? I’d love to know.

 

 

Your ministry matters. Do not kid yourself– what you do makes a difference.

In this age of mega stars and internet sensations, it’s easy to feel lost in the crowd.

It’s easy to believe your little old life doesn’t reach a million people on YouTube each day, so probably you don’t matter. When you’re typing away in a tiny office or teaching a small class or wiping wee noses, your impact on the world seems limited at best. Microscopic, possibly.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Let’s be honest– there are billions of people on the planet right now, so we’re all a little bit insignificant in that global, historical, long-range view of the world. This is totally true and should keep our perspectives a little humble.

Humility is good for our souls, but blindly disregarding our gifts and impact is another. I’m quite guilty of this. I’m slowly, slowly learning about how important the small things really are in the scope of my family, small group, and community.

It’s not the big, important people who really pour blessing into your life, is it? Does your favorite actor/blogger/YouTuber/politician show up at your breakfast table each morning and help you set your day right?

I’m willing to bet they don’t. The people who bless you the most are the ones who show up day after day after day and trudge through life right next to you.

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

It’s the spouse who’s up in the middle of the night with you while you both scrub vomit out of the carpet.

It’s the friend who will take your children at a moment’s notice so you can get to an appointment.

It’s the coworker who hands you a mug of coffee so you don’t murder your 10am appointment with the sharp letter opener you keep on the desk as a weapon in case a crazy person breaks into the building.

(Wow, that got a little dark. I’m sorry. But I have this really scary letter opener on my desk and that’s where I got the idea…)

If their love and blessing in your life makes a huge difference to you, what makes you think your efforts don’t matter to anyone?

Your ministry matters. You matter. What you do each day makes all the difference to someone.

Maybe that someone is only a few months old and recognizes you only as comfort, warm milk, and a clean butt. Those days are so hard, but you’re building a foundation of trust and love that will never be undone. Your child will go out into the world ready to love and care for others, and that is no small feat. Doubt me? Ask anyone who was raised by a neglectful, abusive parent and see how much damage selfishness does.

You’re fighting a tidal wave of pain and loss, every time you drag yourself out of bed for a 3am feeding.

Maybe your loved one has been next to you for more than fifty years, but now has trouble recognizing your face. Your care matters. Your love resounds through the walls of your home, into your church, and is a living witness of Christ’s love to a younger generation who is watching you carefully. You’re showing us how to love, even when that love is forgotten five seconds later. You show us over and over again.

You’re fighting a tidal wave of cultural selfishness with every act of service. We are so thankful.

Photo by Nathália Bariani on Unsplash

Ministry comes in so many different forms.

All these deep thoughts have been stewing in my brain for the last few months as I ponder what it means to be a writer in this current environment. It’s easy for efforts to be evaluated by a number of views to my website or “likes” to my posts. But what I can’t see is the Holy Spirit’s work after I’ve finished typing. What do those words mean in your life?

I don’t know. It’s not really my place to know, honestly. It’s my responsibility to use my gifts to care for the Body of Christ. I’m called to encourage and minister, and whether that’s to 100 people or 10,000 is not for me to decide.

Besides, if only one person’s heart is nudged closer to God today, it doesn’t mean that one individual can’t go out and minister to thousands. The ripple effect is alive and well, and the stone never gets to see that last wave.

Two questions to ask yourself:

I was listening to a brilliant podcast recently (The Road Back to You, which is also a fantastic book on the enneagram personality profile system), and Suzanne Stebile asked a guest these two questions:

  • What does it mean to take yourself seriously?
  • What does it mean to take your contribution to the world seriously?


Do you have an answer for those questions? I didn’t. But I’m going to keep thinking about it until I work it out.

This is our challenge today– to take our gifts to the world seriously. Small doesn’t mean insignificant. Small might mean concentrated and powerful in our case. Or, small might just be the first ripple in the pond, extending far beyond what we’ll ever see.

All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:11

 

 

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Because you never know where the smallest invitation and warm welcome will lead

By the time the fourth African family settled themselves into the pews on Sunday morning, I was sort of crying. Happy crying, but crying nonetheless.

I tend to tear up a lot in the back row. Just ignore me and pretend I’m not weeping over the amazing things God does when I least expect it. Nothing to see here; move along.

My tears were completely and totally due to a tiny portion of Africa streaming into church. A new family with the three boys arrived early, smiling tentatively (because at that point the foyer was full of blindingly white people such as yours truly), shaking hands, and pronouncing their very non-English names carefully for us.

Then, as the service started, their fellow continent-men joined as they got around to it. The three boys headed to children’s church, the smaller twins in matching white shirts did too, and I’m not sure where the baby ended up after the last family walked in.

It was really the baby who got me crying. He was just so pudgy and fat and happy and I was so profoundly thankful to be in a congregation where Kenyans feel welcome.

It all started a few years ago with Harry. He wandered into our church one Sunday because our building was close enough for him to walk from his apartment. A doctoral student at the local university, he was studying in Kalamazoo while his wife and children were home in Kenya.

I’m not exactly sure how we got from “Hello, welcome!” to a congregation with beautiful African dresses. I’m not sure when we moved from warm smiles to needing the translate option on Facebook to decipher Swahili when our friends switch over to their native language.

But we did. Somehow a warm welcome turned into friendship, and then the congregation brought Harry’s family here, then one international student after another ended up in our pews.

We don’t even have a formal ministry to international students. We don’t teach them English, or help them prepare for the Michigan driving test, or intercede on their behalf with their professors.

But we do give their kids a few too many cookies during the fellowship hour. We invite them to parties in the backyard and heaven knows we make sure they’re warm enough through our terrible Michigan winters.

It occurs to me that formal programs aren’t really what most of us are looking for, are we? Do you wake up in the morning and hope your husband will give you a formal lecture on how to load the dishwasher? Do you have a six-hour retreat scheduled for your friends tomorrow?

Probably not. That would be super weird. What we’re longing for is relationships, real and deep ones, to share food and time and parenting duties as we trudge through life next to each other.

And it appears that the Kenyans want exactly that, too.

It’s the smallest things that sometimes lead to the biggest, longest lasting relationships. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. We don’t need formal programs or fancy meals or the next ten years mapped out.

I need to be honest– I’m still pretty bad about this. Part of the reason I leaked tears on Sunday was because I’m not great about the invitations and all the hanging out. It’s often our pastor and his wife and a few specific families in our church who turn those invitations into the kind of relationships that keep our congregation full of Kenyans.

But I can see the results in living technicolor from that back pew. I can see the relationships that have grown, three years after an invitation was offered. I learn from hindsight and others’ actions, it turns out.

And maybe, after this long and meandering blog post, you can too.

Letting go of what no longer works for you

Picture this. Family dinner after church, in celebration of Mother’s Day. While around the table someone made an innocent comment that was, quite frankly, hilarious and also completely and totally inappropriate if you took it the wrong way. (Which we did.) Those close enough to hear it froze, completely aware of how funny the comment was, but also aware of the kids at the table.

One of us broke down and snickered a little, then repeated the comment. Our daughter, an eighth grader, laughed and laughed because NOTHING GETS BY EIGHTH GRADERS, especially if it’s inappropriate. Soon Grandpa was yelling, “What?!” from the other end of the table and we refused to tell him because there are just some things you can’t shout cross the room at Sunday dinner.

Well, not at Eric’s family’s house anyway. My own family would have yelled it and then the entirety of us would have howled with delight, but Eric’s family is a little more proper about these things.

But let’s forget what was actually said and focus on the fact that we laughed over this silly thing with our child. We all realized it was funny.

Things change. Parenting changes.

Ten years ago we could talk about anything in front of the child and most of it went right over her head. She was sweet and innocent and really excited about JoJo’s Circus and Dora the Explorer. But we can’t parent her like she’s four years old anymore, because she’d get eaten alive in middle school.

We’ve had to let go of parenting styles that worked for a certain period of time, and we’ve embraced this new age. New responsibilities, new freedoms, new challenges.

And now let’s talk about the couches at church.

I don’t know about your house of worship, but our church building is where old couches go to die. It’s a slow death, plopped in the youth room where teenagers flop on them, toddlers leap from cushion to cushion, and old women (me) nap on them when they get too tired.

Some of the most hideous couches ever created had come home to die in our youth room. Not to mention the closet was full of junk no one recognized. Not to mention the walls had been painted in 2003 and had suffered fourteen years of abuse from hyperactive teenagers.

Yes, we knew it was ugly. We knew things had to change but no one had the guts to drag the couches to the dumpster. (Or set fire to them in the parking lot, which would have been more fun.) ((But the fire department disapproves, apparently.))

Our new worship leader arrived a few weeks ago, and he has no qualms about getting rid of old, crappy couches. He had us pile them up so they could be disposed of ASAP. He ordered a crew to clean out the closet, not really caring who donated the old costumes that were used in a sermon skit in 1985. (For the record, it was the church’s Clean Up Week, and we’d all shown up to work. It’s not that Mike is a Bossy Pants.)

The couches are gone, the closet is clean, and new paint is on the way. We’re letting go of what no longer serves us.

I don’t know why we get so paralyzed and cling to stuff that used to work but now just weighs us down.

It can be really hard to realize your child is growing up. It can be terrifying to throw out a couch, wondering who donated it and if they’ll be mad because you tossed their hideousness to the curb.

All the change is upsetting, sure. But isn’t it more upsetting if nothing ever changes? Are babies supposed to stay babies? If your kid was 18 but still in a crib and trying to nurse, you’d be freaking out a little.

If your spouse never changed, you’d still be married to a twenty-two-year old who likes thrash metal and trucks from the 1970s.

If your church never changed, you’d be missing opportunities to engage the culture that lives right outside the door.

It’s okay to take a good, hard look at your life. All of it. And it’s even more okay to accept that something isn’t working and needs to be changed.

Comfortable? Never.

But life-bringing? Absolutely.

Healing: A Few Years After a Church Split

A few years ago our church struggled through a complicated and difficult split. The reasons for the division were many, and there’s no need to rehash them on the internet. It suffices to say there was a time when I feared we’d never function well again. The loss was keen, the anxiety deep.

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Yet this morning in worship service I sat in the back of the room and watched people streaming in until the sanctuary was comfortably full. I realized that if I had been able to foresee this in the middle of the split, I would have felt a lot better. Even though it’s too late to go back and reassure the old pitiful, anxious, and cranky me that everything would turn out all right, it’s not too late to encourage others who might be going through the same thing.

Here is what I’d tell myself (and anyone else going through this):

Right now all you can see is loss. You see empty pews, empty classrooms, and a parking lot that is ridiculously large for so few cars. You don’t know what you fear more– losing the building to the bank or having to manage that enormous mortgage with half a congregation. You will get very, very angry at everyone who voted for the enormous mortgage and then walked out the door a few years later. You will resent the changes forced upon you, you will miss the sound of happy children chasing balls in the gym, and you will grow weary of trying to explain to your children why their friends are suddenly missing on Sunday morning.

You will, quite frankly, block a few people on social media simply to save your own sanity. I’m sure Jesus understands taking a little break from someone, yes?

Give it all some time. It might feel like the end of the church as you know it, but the Church will not be stopped by a few arguments or bad decisions. Our Foundation is secure.

In the near future, you will look around at a sanctuary that’s nearly full again. You’ll see new families who come with new strengths and weaknesses, new resources and needs. You’ll snuggle new babies. New staff will come and find a space in your heart. The music will be joyful again.

You won’t lose the building, but even if you do– so what? The Church is made up of people, of disciples. The pile of lumber we paint and heat can go back to the bank and we’ll find a different pile of lumber. Buildings are everywhere, so let the anxiety go.

One day you’ll look around at the brothers and sisters who stayed, who put their heads down against the storm and picked up the load with you. You’ll remember how they suddenly filled empty elder positions, started singing on the worship team, and filled the pulpit. You’ll be so overcome with affection for them you might be tempted to burst into tears as they hand you a cup of coffee between services. They will move from acquaintance to family. You will never regret staying with these people.

Because this is a relatively small town and a very small world, you will keep bumping into the friends who left. You will suddenly find them in hospital corridors, in the book store, and at the beauty salon. The weirdness will fade. You will be truly glad to see them. You will see the fruit in their lives and realize it’s good fruit, because they may be worshipping in a new location but they have not been severed from the Vine. This realization will bring you peace and warmth.

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Yet none of this healing will be possible without the Holy Spirit’s help. The bitterness and anger will grow and destroy you if you let it. Keep praying and reading the Word so you will be able to move past the brokenness into the peace that passes understanding. Take your focus off the anger, and put it where it belongs, on Christ. Pray for your church, your staff, and those who left. Pray everyone keeps their focus on Christ and his commission.

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Today was the annual Thanksgiving meal our church celebrates together. As we ate together I was truly thankful for the family around me. I still miss my friends who now worship elsewhere, but the grief is over. I ate too much turkey and cake and I celebrated what the Lord has provided. He is good, all the time. I pray you’ll find this in your own situation.