Monday, April 27, 2015

Ten or Eleven Gentle Suggestions for Church Members

            Sundays at Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) are fun. People come early for a cup of coffee, and stay long after worship for another. Kids run up and down the halls. Worship services are marked by great music. On the whole, they’re also theologically challenging, and creative. We take Paul’s suggestion that we should rejoice always seriously, but know there is a place for lament too.
LPCC's Motto

            So this morning, I sat down and asked myself what are the personal qualities or practices members of LPCC bring to the table that help to positively shape the church—besides their unique beliefs and personal piety? I made a list of ten such practices and turned them into gentle suggestions. Take your pick. And remember, I’ve thought of these things because mostly, at LPCC, people do them!

ONE: Come early for coffee and stay late for coffee and refreshments. At root, churches are communities. Communities are healthy, in part, to the degree that people feel they really know each other and belong. So building personal relationships among church members is crucial. Besides coffee time, everything from meditation classes to Bible studies, from choir practices to committee meetings are also opportunities to build community. Sign up!

TWO: Besides staying for coffee, keep an eye out for strangers. Remember, the Old Testament tells us to love our neighbours only twice, but it tells us to love the stranger something like thirty-six times. Few things will attract new members so much as a warm welcome that stretches into their third, fourth and fifth visits. Remember that every time you look deeply into a stranger’s eyes, you’re looking at your own soul.

THREE: When you’re visiting with church members, and the conversation happens to touch on another church member, remember that we aim to build people up rather than tear them down. If there are serious issues involving other church members that need to be resolved, you should probably go talk to them rather than another member.

FOUR: Let the minister know about pastoral needs or other expectations. Ministers don’t read minds. We don’t know if you’ve had a troubling diagnosis, a spiritual concern, or something else you may want to discuss. Still, we’re always happy to sit down and talk. It’s one of the main things we decided to do with our lives. So call.

FIVE: Learn the names of as many kids as you can, and when you see them, say, “hi.” Make a game of it. See how well you can do. Church is a family. Kids need to feel a part of that. How will they feel a part of that if when they walk down the halls no one calls them by name?

SIX: Make at least one long-term volunteer commitment. I’m always amazed by how much needs to be done at church—from getting coffee ready to buying communion supplies, from singing to administering to attending youth retreats to collecting coats. The list is endless in both length and variety. So sign up for something, anything. Then, whether your commitment is a large one or small, make sure we can depend on it.

SEVEN: If you are on a committee that has serious responsibilities—the church council perhaps, or the Flower Guild, resign if you don’t have time. There are other opportunities that will work with your schedule, so why frustrate both yourself and fellow committee members?

EIGHT: Sing. I’ve been in churches where people mostly listen to the choir, and in churches that lift the roof up off the walls even for hymns they hardly know. Few things make church seem exactly like church than every voice joining in. I know that not all of us have the voice of angels (I certainly don’t). But it’s about letting what lives in your heart out through your lips. Church isn’t a reality show like American Idol. No one is judging you.

NINE: Contribute generously. Not only of your time, but your resources. Do it through PAR, or through automatic withdrawals from your account. Make sure the church is a beneficiary in your will. I still like the idea of tithing toward your charities as a guideline. If the poor Hebrews could do it, why can’t we rich Westerners? We have so much to be grateful for, we ought to figure out how to be grateful in concrete ways. Consider giving a third or a half of your tithe to your church, and the rest to other worthy causes. Of course, none of this applies to people who really can’t afford to tithe!

TEN: Tithe your complaints, too. There is another area where tithing is a great idea. Complaints. Your complaints about what is going on at church should never amount to more than a tithe of your compliments about what is going on in church. By the way, sharing thoughtful suggestions with the pastor or a council member about the preaching, or the music, or the finances of a church is not complaining. It is participating in the life of the church.

ELEVEN: Attend annual meetings. Even if you don’t have time to contribute as a volunteer, and even if you don’t have financial gifts to be generous with, participation at congregational events is crucial. Inform yourself about church priorities, congregational health, and the plans of the church’s leadership. Offer constructive input. Not only does this build a sense of shared responsibility and community, it will bring important viewpoints that might not otherwise have been considered into play.

            I’m sure I’ve managed, at best, to touch on some of my pet peeves, and that most church leaders—whether lay or ministerial—have their own list. But at a minimum, these suggestions will make for a good discussion starter. What items might you add? Or subtract?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ten Commandments For Preachers (not related to the sermon!)

            When parishioners gather, after church, for some roast preacher, it isn’t always the sermon that gets jabs. And there’s more to being the preacher on Sundays than bringing an exegetically smart, creative sermon to the pulpit. So I’ve put together, here, a list of ten commandments for preachers. None have to do with the sermon. The list is meant to compliment my column from a few weeks ago, “Ten Commandments for Worship Leaders.”

One: On Sundays the wise preacher’s work starts long before worship, and ends long after. Get to church early to greet volunteers, musicians, early comers, kids on their way to nursery, and so on. Stay late to say “thanks for coming,” and “good-bye,” to as many as you can. It’s amazing how many pastoral hints you’ll pick up on. And if church is about community, the pastor’s job is to be a leader in trying to create and model it.

Two: Tell children’s sermons. If church is a family affair, and if the little children are supposed to come to Jesus, and if we are supposed to learn how to receive the kingdom from the child in our
midst—well, they should be in our midst. You’re their pastor too. You get to learn names. Telling children’s sermons humanizes you not only in their eyes, but in the entire congregation’s eyes. You live the reality of church as the family of God. People will laugh at the wise things they unexpectedly say. So get down to their level, eyeball to eyeball. Keep it really short. Don’t talk down to them but talk with them. Laugh.

Three: Remember that announcements made before or during the service, while they may be a challenge to integrate, are another critical part of building community. Depending on how you handle announcements it can sound like there are never enough volunteers, or like you’re glad for the many you have. You can make it seem like nothing of importance is going on, or like the church is bubbling with activity. Whether it is in marriage or a corporation, communication and how it is handled can have a huge impact on morale. So use announcements to show the humane, the exciting, and the empathetic side of your church community.

Four: Smile. I once directed a high school production of Oedipus. Afterwards, Oedipus came to me in tears, wondering why I thought she had failed (yes, this Oedipus was a woman). The thing is, she had not failed. But I was so serious in my demeanour, so critically observant in my role as a director, that even as I sat in the front row for the whole play, I forgot to smile. I nearly ruined the show. Pastors—smile! Don’t be goofy. Don’t avoid other emotions. Don’t try to be a nothing but a cheerleader. But when you have the chance, when the occasion is right, smile. People catch on that whatever else church is, it can often be a happy place, as it should be most of the time.

Five: A bit of self-deprecating humour goes a long way to making people feel at home. Whether in the announcement time, or a sermon, or as I shake hands with people on the way out, making fun of yourself just a bit makes you accessible and real. Nothing signals underlying problems in a church more quickly than a pastor who isn’t laughing at himself once in a while.

Six: Don’t strive for perfection. Or, another way of putting it might be, don’t take yourself and your every move so seriously that you can’t be as human as anyone else in your audience. God knows, I try to dress the part, I try to remember to polish my shoes, and I try to lay my tie straight on my shirt. But like Jennifer Lawrence, I’ve tripped on the steps up to the pulpit. I’ve forgotten lines and misplaced sermon notes. And while I don’t want to play the part of a dufus, I’ve often fallen into the role for a few minutes here and there. When I do, I try to relax, apologize if necessary, and do a bit better next time.

Seven: Every Sunday, try to find someone to thank, publically. It isn’t that there is ever a shortage of people worthy of thanks. But it is human nature to create shortages of appreciation.

Eight: Apologize. Not more than is necessary. But if you miss a hymn, or if the janitor forgets to put water in the baptismal font and you have to send someone out for it, or if you forget the name of your council chair during announcement time—stop for a moment. Note the mistake. Apologize. Smile (see number 3, above), and move on.

Nine: Listen to your own sermons once in a while. You’ll be surprised by what you learn. I drop the end of my sentences sometimes. I use too many “ums.” I can correct these things, with a little effort and if I’m willing to engage in a bit of self-criticism.

Ten: Listening to your own services is also a helpful way for preachers to get some idea of how badly they’ve fallen into the bane of church, the preacher’s drawl. In a way, such drawls are unavoidable—we all have our own style of speaking, our own accent. But if having a style is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is work on making it unpredictable, lively, and engaging. Speak as if to equals (they are, after all). Don’t drone on in a monotone—listen to how the best radio announcers vary tone, loudness, timbre, and speed. Let some emotion in. Important for preaching, but doubly so for prayers.

            I’m sure readers can add their own ten or twenty commands to the list. Perhaps it would be better to call them all suggestions--less presumptuous.  But I’d love to hear more suggestions, especially from those in the best place to offer them--pew sitters. And maybe, one day, I'll write a list of ten commandments for sermon time.