First-hand: Church Administration from Those Who Practice it

Especially in college, I realized that as much as I learn effectively from books, I learn a lot from listening to people tell their stories. This class is no different! So, I designed an assignment (yes I dream about designing assignments for myself, I am strange) where I interview two people about the role of church administration in their work.

C is an office administrator at a larger Lutheran congregation in the Pacific Northwest, and A is a pastor of a 2-point parish in Texas. As her central role, I wanted to know from C what it was like to manage church administration all day. Also, since I want to be a pastor, I thought it might be smart to interview someone who is currently a pastor, whose call has imbedded administrative roles as a leader of two different congregations.

I took my notes from our conversations and arranged them into main themes that I heard rise to the top. So – in paraphrased form here’s what they said about the role of church administration and why it matters:

I’m learning that when it comes to church administration…

A: I came in and people were already doing administrative jobs. I am one among many who manages administrative roles in my congregations. Someone else gets the mail, someone else runs budget meetings (which I attend), and someone else does the day-to-day financial management, even though check-in on it regularly.

C: Yes, I have lots of administrative tasks, but a lot of my time is spent visiting with people who come in my office. Often individuals will find me on a Sunday morning to tell me something about their health or about a family member or friend. Longevity has helped with building up relationships and people trusting me.

The best part of church administration…

A: I get to be like a gardener and help people identify their gifts, whether they are administrative or otherwise.

C: The people. It was “unreal” when my spouse passed away. So many people came by with dinners and casseroles that we had turn them away and groups started getting mad. They wanted to help so badly, and their compassion touched me, and still does.

Most challenging part…

C: As the congregation grows, in membership and thus staff size, my job as administrative support changes. This congregation has experienced tremendous growth recently, and this impacts how I support the congregation and staff members in an administrative way.

The one of the best things you can do is…

A: As a parish pastor, it’s important communicate things far in advance, and in more modes than one. Our church and other local churches collaborated and led a youth event. With my gift of administration, I did a lot of the calling, communicating, advertising, etc., and sometimes it felt discouraging that other churches didn’t have or didn’t empower their members to manage their administrative tasks.

A: Acknowledge it’s a gift or not. If administration is not your gift, ask for help, and it’s okay to ask your parishoners for help. I lean a lot on my parishoners when we do visioning work, and they lean on me with a number of administrative tasks.

It’s all about…

C: Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is why my faith is so key to being a church administrator. Know why you’re caring for these people and this facility; otherwise it might be a challenge to put in the effort or care this role requires.

 

What I (Allison) think:

From these interviews, I gained a new sense of appreciation for these church leaders and their roles. Neither of them are counting, arranging, organizing, or communicating in front of their computers all day. Their roles are extremely human, and they helped me see that administration enables them to connect with individuals and communities even more effectively. Like A said, not all of us have gifts in administration, but if you recognize that you don’t, don’t be afraid to ask for help! I’m so grateful for both of these church leaders and especially people like C who manage administrative tasks that keep our faith communities running. Thanks for sharing your stories with me, and learning with me what it means care for people, which includes the (all essential) administrative side of things!

A Red Thread: An overlooked and necessary part of ministry

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You can’t see it here, but after I read this paragraph I wrote in the margin “anxious,” boldly underlined. Church, why do you require so much effort in areas that I’m not very good at? In Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White, we read how the burgeoning church, just decades after Jesus’ resurrection, responded to the call to follow Jesus by engaging in these administrative efforts:

  • fiscal challenges
  • ecumenical relations
  • raising money
  • establishing and managing volunteers
  • creative communication (no cell towers or phones)
  • reconciliation among congregations
  • “[preserving] of the church as a Christian institution”

Oh boy. How is an ordained person, who often is one of two or less paid staff in the average ELCA congregation, supposed to do all that?

This is, of course, where I started. In a panic, thinking that I needed to gather all the information I could on a topic that I don’t have much strength in, so I can “do it all” and “be it all” to my future first congregation (God willing, I will be in a first call soon after internship). #superpastor (yes, I will reflect on my reflection).

If you know me at all, you know that I function from and believe in serving from a strengths-based place. God made and makes us all loved and worthy children of God who each have a unique set of experiences, stories, backgrounds, gifts and strengths (Luke 10:27). So why do we waste so much time fixing or filling the holes of places that we aren’t as good in, rather than asking for help and giving family, friends, congregants, or our fellow humans the opportunity to serve and lead from their strengths too?

I told my internship supervisor about this hidden assumption of mine. As I learn (and experience) my assumptions and questions on internship, we thought this was the best topic for my last class, a .5 online independent study with a hilarious, creative, and un-bounded vision caster for the church and the world, Dr. Terri Elton. So, I’m studying church administration. I will be walking through our main text, Church Administration, two chapters a week and interviewing church administrators along the way. I will post my weekly reflections here. I’m excited to book-learn and church-learn in my internship context, and I hope you also contribute in the comments on your contextual learning and questions. I have a feeling I’m not alone in my wondering about how to engage with administration while keeping myself from the temptation of doing it all myself.

Because here’s my starting point; my starting hunch (I know, hundreds of words later, but I’m getting there; you made it here, I’m proud of you!). Church administration is not something to visit or revisit only at times of crisis. It’s a red thread that is woven through every small group, every worship service, every quilters’ group, every late night council meeting, every community meal, and every staff and non-staff’s service experience.

You guys.

This is in everything. All the time.

And this isn’t something to panic about, like when you first learned about germs as a 1st grader; aahhhhh they’re everywhere! It’s something to reorient as a ministry alongside other ministries in a congregation. Bachor and Cooper-White explain that “administration” comes from the Latin ad + ministrare, meaning literally “one who ministers to.” To me, this means the ministries of a church are literally arranged and managed by those gifted in counting, governing, planning, and doing other administration-y things. These people are ministers.

“…[the] one whose work is primarily administrative is no less a faithful servant than those who mostly preach, teach or counsel…it is time for the church to reclaim the holiness of vocations that involve a major measure of administrative work” (vii).

This work, the behind-the-scenes of work of budgets, money, supervising, and schedules is holy work. This work is done by specific people in a congregation, but it’s also work that each leader does a little (or a lot) of in their role. In both ways, we’re reminded that all of our contributions are significant as we are each ministers, and part of the priesthood that God calls us to be (1st Peter 2:9).

You might be thinking, “Allison, but you went to school for and will make an awesome pastor-minister person! How can we all be ministers if you’re the minister?”

Good question. It’s both. A congregation has a minister or ministers (some have a synodically-authorized one if they’re tight on cash), and we’re all ministers. Those who are ordained in the ELCA administer communion and baptism and preach, and are in a separate space (or “office,” like the office of the president or the office of a superintendent) and get compensated. Those who aren’t ordained (or who aren’t on staff) don’t get paid by the congregation/synod/community.  There are other distinctions between ordained ministers and all other ministers (everyone else, as we’re all called and children of God), but the point is that this concept is not black and white. If you’re reading this, looking back at your phone or laptop screen, we’re the same and we’re not. All at the same time.

As you can see by all my parentheses in that paragraph, I’m not satisfied with my own answer, because to say “it’s a both and!” or “it’s just another Lutheran paradox!” is I think a cop-out. Are we the same or are we different? What is it? Where is the peace and justice in knowing that one of us gets all the Starbucks gift cards for our faithful public ministry, and one of us just doesn’t? (it always comes back to coffee, doesn’t it). We’ll leave this topic for another day. I can feel Terri looking at my word count so let’s move on, at least for now. Priesthood of all believers and ministers (the theme of), I’m coming back for you!

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What I wanted to land on as I reflect on these first two chapters of Church Administration is that when a group of motivated people gather to serve and discern God’s call, administration is a pair of glasses that they need to wear in order to carry out that service and discernment effectively. Bacher and Cooper-White write that administration and governance are enacted, “when two or more persons engage in a common purpose” (1).

When two brains, or two hearts, or two strengths connect and say:

  • “Let’s try this new church thing.”
  • “What if we try this church thing like this?”
  • “I wonder what it would be like if we did church this way?”

…there is one purpose. There is a common purpose. Administration is a color in that new portrait of what the church looks like today. We could leave out that color, but we could be leaving out the color that ties all the rest of the colors together, or makes all the other colors work together. They just work.

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I think Paul had this hunch about administration when he was first leading congregations who were sorting out what it meant to follow Jesus; a resurrected savior with an unpredictable, unbelievable story. How do you spread that message? How do you engage an entire community around a faith in Jesus that doesn’t peter out, but blazes a new path and direction in a world that is ripe with possibilities for new life, second chances, and new growth for all? That’s the urgency. That’s the call. So how does a congregation utilize the gift of administration as a red thread that helps us do our diverse ministry and work, and respond to God’s call most effectively?

That’s what I hope to learn more about in these six weeks with you. When was a time when you felt in over your head with administrative tasks (yes, “conflict” is a topic that will be explored in the weeks to come)? What pushed you to ask for help in administrative stuff, or what are you hoping to find help in, as an ordained, otherly-rostered or non-official pastor person, when it comes to administration?

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This is what I preached at my internship site on the First Sunday after Epiphany, on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[It was a little bit of a whirlwind of a preaching morning, two weeks ago, as my supervisor gave me a ride to the airport for my 1:06 flight right after the second worship service, but the sermon itself I think went well. It was certainly a good reminder as I was traveling off to Minnesota for a week-long intensive Public Worship class at Luther Seminary (which I need to blog about too). I hope you will hear some words of promise and peace here as you perhaps are preaching or leading in worship this weekend. So, here’s what I preached:]

It’s hard not to think of your own baptism when you hear about this gospel story of Jesus’ baptism. Not that I could remember it – for my baptism, I was just 2 months old. I was a newbie to this whole human thing, and from what my parents tell me I was not having it. You know those baptisms that feel like they just go on forever because the kid is just crying though the whole thing? That was mine!

I threw my parents off so bad that they switched my first and middle names – so I could have been a Mabel before you today, not an Allison, but they got it squared out. Allison Mabel was declared a baptized & chosen child of God.

Jesus was an adult when he got baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens were opened and God speaks—yes God speaks, not an angel, not a messenger, but God speaks directly and says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s unclear if just Jesus heard God say this, or if everyone in the world heard this.

I think it was probably the latter. If we’re talking about the heavens opening and the announcement of Jesus’ ministry, I’m gonna say—that must have been a pretty loud announcement.

Today I want to share with you just a couple gifts of this passage.

I could tell you all the theological holes, discrepancies, or missing plot points, but today I just want to talk about its gifts.

Because, truthfully, sometimes I think I beat-up on Bible passages, and honestly I have been trained to in my theological education—thinking that I’ll get to the root of it; to the real truth of it if I deconstruct it to its atoms and molecules.

But what if we treat this passage like how Jesus is treated here—someone who is talked about as someone who is worthy of love. Someone who is a gift. Someone who is loved, and who is so loved that the person who loves him isn’t afraid to show it or shout it. What if we started there?

The first gift of this passage is that Jesus’ baptism is a marker and a commission into his earthly ministry. It’s like God’s scrapbook page for this memory is full of stars and big hearts and cute metallic eye-catching graphics. This is a big day. Even the universe understands it as a big day as it says “the heavens are opened.” This means that not only is Jesus’ life changing, the world is changing, because of the restoration, healing, and revitalization God will bring through Jesus, the Christ, our Emmanuel.

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What if these were God’s scrapbook choices? Not bad. Needs more sparkles.

When God is with us, things happen, and Jesus’ baptism gets a big, beautiful bookmark in the book of God’s story.

The second gift of this passage is that Luke crafts this story so beautifully, that we see Jesus as a fulfillment of Israel’s desire and longing for a Messiah. Psalm two echoes God’s words saying, “I will tell the decree of the Lord. He said to me ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’” In Isaiah 42 we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The Israelites in exile, away from home, prophesied about one who will save the nations and establish justice in the earth.

Jesus has been chosen for a task much bigger than him. He is a part of something bigger than himself. Wow, what a feeling that must have been.

But I think the greatest gift of this passage is God’s direct proclamation of love. Rarely do we hear God speaking directly to people—we see angels, and messengers, and speaking through his disciples (and bushes).

But here we hear directly from God. There is no middle-man (or middle-woman).

The heavens have torn open, and now there is nothing that can separate us from the love, and, justice, and voice of God. Wow, what does that mean? I know it means something. God says, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Isn’t that what we all want to hear? That our dads or moms are proud of us? “You are my Son/You are my daughter. You are beloved. I’m proud of you.”

I’m lucky that I have awesome parents and an amazing husband who tell me that. But not all people are lucky enough to hear that every day. It broke my heart the other day when I read that in 2013, 21.8% of high school students didn’t make it to graduation.

21.8%.

That’s 1 in 5.

This study said the number one reason why students are dropping out of high school before they graduate is because they are disengaged. They don’t know why this material matters and they don’t consistently hear why they’re there.

I wonder if this is a question that ever wanders into your brain when you think about faith?

That you ever wonder, “Why am I here at church?” “Does it matter that I’m here?” Do you want to hear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re supposed to be here? I’ll just say it from my perspective: I want to know that I’m not wasting my time. I want to hear that I’m not getting the wool pulled over my eyes and I want to hear that my deepest fear isn’t true: that I’m not a part of the most elaborate, complex, two-thousand-year scheme to get us to believe that a man in his 30’s in modern-day Palestine could bring salvation to everyone in the world.

Oh come on– Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh come on, Allison, we don’t need to know that. We know that this is all true, and we’re children of God, loved by God, and worthy of love. Of course we know that.”

Then why do 21.8% of high school students drop out of school before graduation?

Why were there almost as many shootings than days of the year last year (and not just in 2015)?

Why is suicide the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24?

Because have fallen out of the practice of proclaiming to each other that you are loved–in all of your uniqueness, in all of your gifts, in all of your strengths, in all of your ‘oops’ moments, in all of your acceptance letters, mental unstable-ness, bankruptcies, promotions, second chances, and all of your ideas that start with “I wonder if that would work?”

Just like we are called to the vocation of showing and saying our encouragement to one another, God tells Jesus, proclaiming to the world, at his baptism that he is loved, and it’s a passage is begging to be read out loud on a consistent basis to our kids, our adults, and our people that they are loved.

The heavens are opened, and the world hasn’t been the same ever since.

Jesus is made new, and we are made new, in our understanding that we are loved & our unique gifts make God’s smile open like never before. Amen.

You are not Jesus: this was a weird sermon

Hello friends! I preached this last weekend at my internship site. My sermon’s based on Mark 10:35-45:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t know about you, but I had a ton of fun at the blessing of the pets last week here at Messiah. Did any of you come? It was awesome. So many fun furry creatures // and one snail. But perhaps even more awesome than seeing the animals and their owners, was my triumphant welcome home by my cat at the end of the day. See it was my husband who brought our mildly-social cat, and as I came home our cat scrambled toward me for a snuggle, as if to say “Did you know what he did to me today?” All of the sudden I was the greatest pet owner, and it was an awesome feeling.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are scrambling to be the greatest, and to feel awesome.

Jesus and the disciples are struggling to make this whole discipleship thing happen, and the disciples just want more. Jesus has just predicted his death for the third time, or described what’s to come. The disciples are becoming increasingly agitated and anxious. Their fear is keeping them from listening, which happens to all of us when we are afraid.

So to find some security, James and John ask Jesus a weird request: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus entertains the question, and they go on to say they want to sit at his right and left hand in glory. To this, Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup, and be baptized in Jesus’ baptism. Which to us – a church that baptizes and do communion, it’s like okay – John and James are like ‘Sure, why not!” But Jesus says that these seats of glory aren’t his to grant. Then to all the disciples Jesus says “Whoever wishes to be great, must be your servant… for I came to serve, not to be served, to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Even as I write this, and now preach this, I can’t help but feel for Jesus. Yes, the disciples are lost, figuratively and literally, they hear their leader they left their former lives and former worlds for is really really going to die. But think about Jesus. Once again, his people don’t get it. He’s saying that you can baptize, you can commune, but to sit with me in heaven? To live in the same presence of me, in the paradise, that is now and not yet? That’s not mine to grant. And it’s not yours to grant either. You’re not Jesus. This is where you end, and I start. You do not have the capacity to save people. Jesus says: That’s my role, and not yours.

You are not Jesus.

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I think sometimes we get tricked into thinking that we’re Jesus. We’re the saviors. We’re the greatest. We’re the most free. We win.

But we both know, winning, freedom, greatness – is that what a life following Jesus is all about? Jesus says no. Jesus says “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” Whoever wishes to be great must be radically not free. Must be bound. Must be dependent. If this sounds like things you don’t want to be – you’re not alone. This life doesn’t look all that great to me either.

But what’s the life that is constantly marketed to us? Did you know that you see anywhere from 300-3,000 brands or logos each day? They say: Be more free! Be independent! Be perfect with this product! Save all the children!

But we’re not Jesus.

I’m not Jesus.

I can’t say that from now on I will never try to fix or save someone, but I certainly won’t forget the last time the universe told me that saving a person’s soul was not a cure I could grant.

As a seminary student in the Master of Divinity program, this summer I finished a credit or a class in which I got to learn in whole different kind of classroom – a hospital in downtown Minneapolis. I was on the staff of a spiritual care team as a chaplain. I got to visit with patients, their families, their friends, and the awesome, awesome staff of my assigned space – a medical/surgical unit/wing.

At the beginning of the day, the team of our unit – nurses, staff, coordinators, and the chaplain (me) have rounds – sort of like an update meeting of the last 24 hours.

Now as a chaplain, a ministry person, and not really a morning person either, I was lucky if I caught one or two words of medical words thrown around in that fast-paced meeting.

But when I heard the phrase, “…he doesn’t know that yet…” I knew I had to ask. I put my elbows on the table and asked “What was that again?”

We’ll call him John. John doesn’t know upon discharge (healthy enough to go home) he was going to jail. He was found overdosing on drugs while in rehab, and he was detoxing in the hospital on his way to immediate incarceration. John didn’t know that when he was healthy again he wasn’t headed home.

Now, no one told me I had to visit him. But when there’s a 22-year old patient on your unit who is headed on a dark path, who came from a dark path, it’s hard not feel tugged by the Spirit’s call.

The police officer floating on the unit kept an eye on me as I entered the room, and with the encouragement of his assigned nurse, I knocked and entered John’s space.

He was kind. The supervisor in the room quietly read her book as John and I talked about his family and friends, and why he was there.

Now, I don’t claim to be some miracle-worker, but I felt like I was getting through to him. He even brought up his questions about the Christian faith. I felt like the coolest chaplain – even a drug user talked to me about God – awesome!

But he kept asking me if he could take a walk. And his phone rang while we were in there and he tried to talk quietly, suggesting to me that he wasn’t cured of his dealing habits.

But he was just a kid. 22. He just needed someone to believe him, right? He just needed someone to care for him, and love him, and give him everything he needs, right?

The next day, as I talked with my supervisor and other chaplain interns about this interaction, it became clear that I had an intense feeling of wanting to save John.

I just wanted him to feel like someone believed in him. I just wanted him to feel like someone believed him.

I just wanted to save him.

He even told me what he believed about God! Or – perhaps he emotionally manipulated me, because that’s what users do. They search after what they want at any cost, and ultimately, what they want is something deeper than drugs, but the result is often what harms them the most. Because John wants what we all want – To feel loved. To be told he matters. To know he’s missed. So maybe we’re not that much different?

In his disease, I was on the cusp of being swept into his swirl of masking and manipulation.

But he just needed to be saved, right?

And I could save him, right?

The funny part is that no one else was really prompting me to think this. I don’t remember anyone specifically telling me “Allison – you’re awesome, you can save people, you can fix people, go for it!” No – but this does come from messages in our culture that have squirrelled their way into our bank of wisdom. So in some ways, I expect myself to save people. That inner voice is just so loud and I can’t find the volume knob sometimes.

But I bet it’s in you too. You hear inside yourself that you can save people and fix people. That you can be Jesus.

Where does that come from?

The part of you that says ‘I don’t need anybody.’ The part of you that says ‘I’m independent. I’m free. I’m the greatest.’

The part of the disciples that steers their decisions and requests when they’re afraid.

My hunch, is that we’re so afraid as individuals, as a country, as a world that we don’t trust each other or another presence to save us. I’ve got to do it, it has to be me. Jesus saves me? Jesus saves you? That’s nice. I’d rather save myself, thank you very much.

The good news that Jesus gives us – is that we are not bound by the responsibility to save, liberate, and redeem ourselves.

We are free to not be Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are freed from the task of being the name above all names. Because being the most independent and the most free is exhausting.

But we’re not totally off the hook – It’s not up to us to save the world, but it’s up to us to do the best we can.

We are given opportunities and gifts and strengths not to save people, not to fix people, but to serve.

We are truly freed, or you could say, “freed up” to serve our neighbor.

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This is the kind of service that doesn’t involve the expectation that we’re going to get something back

This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder, “Why is that guy so willing to go into these dark places and shine a light of hope, and help people out?” To this he might say, “Because Jesus has freed me from the task of saving myself so I can serve my neighbors.” This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder “Why is the girl so excited to serve a meal or clean tables to people who seem to constantly be out of luck?” To this she might say “Because I get to serve my neighbors since I don’t have spend my time worrying about how I’m going to save myself.”

Out of the darkest moment that Jesus is walking toward in Jerusalem, out of the crucifixion, comes his resurrection, not only of our body, mind, and soul, but a resurrection of this world. This is our joy – that we now live in a kingdom, in a paradise now, and not yet, and we as freed people get to share that joy with the world. That is the challenge and the mystery and the beauty of following Jesus – we get to share the good news that a savior has come and it’s not you. We’re not Jesus. That burden has been lifted and we are free to not serve ourselves but serve our neighbor with this good news propelling us into those dark places where the light is dim, but our hope is fierce and speaks a word of life and light into spaces that we thought deserved left to be dead.

Jesus listens to the disciples request today to sit at his left and right side in glory. A bold request, I’ll give them that. But Jesus doesn’t give them an answer they like – and once again the disciples are at a loss for where they went wrong. They’re so afraid of what will happen next that they want to claim a piece of Jesus before he is crucified. All they can see is Good Friday. All they see is their need to be free and be saved and forget that Jesus is Jesus, and they are not. They are blind to the joy of being a disciple which is being freed up to serve their neighbor – not to save, not to fix, but to serve their neighbor. And that just might be the best news of all.

Adults and lifelong learning: expectations

So one of the exciting thing about designing your own independent study or learning experience, is that you have just as many printed words on a syllabus as you do pen-scribbled words.

I’ll be writing four reflections for Prof. Mary Hess on what I’ve learned from readings and experiences throughout the spring on adults and lifelong learning. We decided that using my blog to publish these learnings will: 1. make it fun, 2. generate a sense of collegiality, because friends in calls and jobs and are asking these questions too, & 3. help me remember what I learned after the class is done. First call pastors, synod staffers, congregational staff people, people in the pew, honestly my family members (hi mom & dad), students, seminary staff leaders – have all expressed a desire to learn too in this broad topic of adults and lifelong learning. So, are my first thoughts – reflection #1, guided by my reading of In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life by Robert Kegan out of Harvard.

The scribbled words on my syllabus (below) for the first reflection say, “What does learning look like for adults?” This is because Mary and I sat down with my drafted syllabus and realized that my initial “first reflection guiding question” was too detailed. I was going to ask “Why should church leadership coach adults to be learners/Why is lifelong learning important?”

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Yes, those are letters and words. Clear handwriting is not my forte.

You can’t really answer that unless you find out how adults learn. So that’s the first question. Here’s what I learned in reading the first 100 pages of Kegan’s book:

The environment in which adults learn is really complex and really heavy. Yes, In Over Our Heads is just over 20 years old. I was seven when this was published, and the expectations that our culture (Western American, middle class) has on adolescents specifically, not adults, are still very real:

– Employable

– A good citizen

– A critical thinker

– Emotionally self-reflective

– Personally trustworthy

– Possessed of common sense and meaningful ideals

Even the author says “This is a lot to want” (19).

Think about then the expectations that culture places on adults? I’m only a fourth of the way into the book, but I have a feeling that he will start to make the argument that the “training” or “instruction” that adults receive about how to be adults is not inadequate to meet the expectations that culture has on adults, and for what it means to be an adult.

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Kegan talks about personal development in terms of consciousness – not mental capacity or behavior (which are parts of consciousness) – there are first-fourth orders of consciousness. The first is very simplistic, linear thinking, and the fourth is when you are able navigate the complexities of being yourself and honoring the other, and at the same time maintaining boundaries. This is all in the realm of psychology which I’m not terribly familiar with, but that’s how I would summarize the framework he’s using. I believe he is trying to make the point that to meet the expectations that culture places on adults, adults must be functioning with a fourth-order consciousness.

I would argue that this is a really difficult and complex environment in which adults learn. Adults are expected, by culture, to communicate in various ways, to set limits, maintain boundaries, create and preserve roles, and exercise executive leadership (99).

So, where in there do adults find the space for listening and humility, crucial elements in learning, since to learn is to admit that you have something to learn, right? Perhaps listening and humility is implied in these cultural expectations. That’s the next question I would ask to the author – and honestly to anyone whose interested in this too. How do adults learn about new things, especially things that help them maximize their strengths or grow their vocation as leader/servant – and at the same time meet the needs that our culture expects of them?

Honestly, I read these few chapters and I got stressed out. Now that I’m an adult I have to do all this stuff? I have to maintain boundaries, communicate, preserve roles, etc.? Oh my goodness!

It also made me wonder: What is the list we all silently carry around of things we expects adult to do/be? What do we expect of our colleagues? Of our empty-nester parents? Of our pastors? Or our for profit people or non-profit people? I’m guessing that others might read this and panic too, thinking, “I don’t do all those things!!” So maybe a take-away is that we’re all under that cultural pressure. None of us are immune to the expectations of our culture – and at the same time we can feel comfort knowing we are not alone. That’s the good news I see in this. That adults are under similar cultural expectations – none “bad” or “good” – and we can empathize with each other and know that we’re all together.

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Well, in an ideal world. That’s a good thought. Does it actually happen? Are there communities where adults lift each other up and say, “I’ve been there too, and you can totally maintain healthy boundaries too.” Where might that comradary be? What might that look like? What does it look like – is there a place or group that empathizes together as adults come together to support each other in the cultural expectations that are placed on them?

Adults are under a lot of cultural expectations. But I think we can shape our response (not reaction) to those expectations with care and with each other. Kegan brings the challenges and dynamics of this to light and I’m glad to have him as a companion, if only in text, in this journey of learning about adults and their lifelong learning.

Back to school

Growing up I was terrible at keeping new years resolutions. Now I think I’m getting better at it. I’m not sure why this is so important to me, but the last couple years have been really important to me. I chose the resolution for 2015 (let’s be honest, one resolution is enough) by browsing through Pinterest (I think I searched “awesome quotes”). This one grabbed me:

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Simple. Succinct. Direct. Stay rad: my resolution for 2015.

I took stock of my behaviors and values in 2014. Were they rad? Since graduating in 2012 from Luther Seminary with a MA in systematic theology, I served at Trinity Lutheran in Stillwater, MN in lifelong/adult learning and helping churches collaborate with each other over a theology curriculum. That role ended in August 2014. I got to be a coach, an editor, a trainer of trainers, a facilitator, a learning experience designer, a creator, a preacher, and a colleague.  Since then, I joined a team of workshop facilitators/coaches at brightpeak financial (Thrivent is the umbrella company) and serve young couples in their emotional connections with money.

In the last couple of years especially I’ve discovered that I love helping adults see that God isn’t done forming and molding them. School might be done or almost done, but the opportunities to learn from life and people and experiments are just beginning. Facilitating adults in their learning was (and is) fun, but without the leadership identity as an ordained person it felt like I was a fish constantly hitting the glass of its fish tank.

In the realm of married life, things were not as rad. Timothy weekly heard my complaints in the car after church about worship that he would design at Woodlake Lutheran as an interim worship and music director. Why did you use those words of confession? That part of the service doesn’t align theologically with that part of the service? Why is communion so short?

I realized that I could complain about how the church is “doing it wrong” (what does that even mean?) for the rest of my life, or I could contribute my leadership by making a significant contribution in the role that church people currently turn to for guidance, vision, direction (whether they should or not): the ordained pastor. In order to curate a community of faith that truly embodies the priesthood of all believers and takes vocation as a core vehicle of learning, growth, worship, and leadership – I have to jump into the sandbox and step into the leadership that most congregations recognize as “the” leader: the ordained congregational pastor.

I hope in this I can have that first-hand authentic experience of being a pastor so I can best coach and walk alongside pastors in their own lifelong learning, journey to health, growth, leadership, and contribution. I’ve done coaching/facilitating with kid and adult leaders here and there, but not in so focused of a way that I hope to do. Put simply: I want to stay rad.

I have ten credits left. This consists of coursework in spring, summer, fall 2015, and internship starting January 2016. I will turn in my M.A. in systematic theology (and will still draw a lot from that experience) for an M.Div. with a concentration in systematic theology. Yes, I feel weird about it, but I honestly feel more hopeful than mad; this will position me to be the most Allison, be rad, and make the biggest impact I can hope to make with these people and these places I call church, my home, my people. The church is called to big things. I want to be a part of shaping that response, and I want to help others see (pastors or not) that they’re capable and worthy of shaping that response, too.

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This is the lens that I bring to my second round of seminary. I think the catalyst for shifting to wholehearted living and healthy living in congregations comes from walking alongside adults. Kids watch them like sponges, and emulate them as they grow up. If adults don’t know their gifts, their capacity for leadership or the roots of their theology and sense of spirituality, how should we expect today’s youngsters to have lives of faith, self-awareness, curiosity, adventure, and service? This leadership vacuum, articulation of your personal theology vacuum, naming your gifts/strengths/stories vacuum – we have a lifetime-plus of effort/work/energy to do, and I just might find my life’s work in this.

That’s why I’m grateful that Prof. Mary Hess agreed to instruct an independent study with me called, “Adults and Lifelong Learning” (.5 credits). I’ll be honest, I don’t get how adults do it: be responsible, autonomous, community-serving, approachable, leading, retreating, confident, full of questions, vulnerable, courageous, all without slipping into deep depression or anxiety. I’m an adult (sort of?); should I know how to do this “adult” thing already or did I miss a class along the way? I don’t understand how our culture expects adults to be done learning after they graduate from school, and they should be done vocationally discerning because they should have careers by now. If they’re in careers should they stay there because why would they want to leave that security? These are the questions I’m wrestling with right now.

The outcomes of the learning experience this Spring with Mary are:

1. Demonstrate a new understanding of the challenges and opportunities of adult lifelong learning ministry & 2. Create and curate material for degree portfolio.

I have a feeling that what I learn will ripple out into more questions and more curiosities and more learning about what it means to be an adult, and what that means for how churches interact with them. I’ll have four posts on the topic of adult learning between now and May. I hope to share with you what I’m learning, and hear what your wonderings and such are about adult learning too. I hope you learn and ask question with me!

The Cost

I had a curious interaction yesterday. It was Sunday, I was at church (this happens often). The church my husband, Timothy, is working at is going through some growing pains, thinking about who they are and who God is calling them to be as the community changes around them. It’s hard, beautiful, inspiring work of a courageous community of faith. I’m so proud of them and to be one of them.

They’ve realized that they hang out in cliques, like most churches. Choir people over here, teenagers over here, knitters over there, 1937 local high school graduates over there. So to work on blending together, at the coaching of Timothy and other leaders, we paired up for one whole Sunday morning with someone of a different generation of than us.

An adult my parents’ age sat in worship with a chemistry-loving 11th grader. A high schooler had breakfast with a choir member my grandparents’ age. It was kind of neat. I got to hang out at breakfast, during worship, and in a think-tank conversation after worship with an 8th grader named Emily*. Emily is the most motivated 8th grader I’ve ever met. She looks into your eyes when you have a conversation with her. When I asked her what the most important part of worship is to her, she did not say “the music” or “if we had a contemporary band.”

She said the most important part of worship is the children’s sermon. She’s in 8th grade.

She’s bright and empathetic. Her lack of hearing requires her to wear two hearing aids and you have to wave in her line of vision to chat with her.

Before worship, we chatted for a bit, but not very long. Her mom helped us interpret each other. Emily darted off before worship to hang out with her friends. So as much as I want to be best friends with everybody, I had a hard time getting to know Emily. We didn’t know how to communicate and we live in different worlds.

She’s in 8th grade, adopted, super into sports, friends are her life, mostly-hearing impaired hearing. I’m 27, married, discovering my vocations post-grad school, changing definitions of home, career, purpose, can hear.

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But I tried. We didn’t communicate super well. I didn’t use my limited American Sign Language skills but I totally should have tried. But the point is we tried.

By the post-worship meeting, I figured out that we could communicate through writing – so I asked her:

“Why is the children’s sermon the most important thing in worship to you?”

She quietly mouthed back, kind of loud, but mostly quiet, “Because it helps kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important.”

I wrote back to her, “Ok, what other parts of worship would you change, so that kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important?”

She took out her bulletin from the morning and flipped through page by page. Her eyes scanned and I felt a fire within her moving through the guide, that, as someone who is hard of hearing, is essential for her worship experience.

She stopped at the readings, the Bible stories that are read before the sermon, and she started circling words like “Thus” and other “old English” words that are scattered throughout a NRSV translation. She said these words didn’t make sense to her.

I bring up my morning with Emily because without the pairing-up we did at church as an intergenerational experiment, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. We don’t look the same. She has hearing aids and we’re 10 years apart. But we tried anyway. I listened. I gave her a thumbs up after she lit the Advent candles during worship.

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Something has been heavy on my heart lately. The shootings and killings of black people in the US in the last couple weeks, without due trial, have made me so angry and sad. My Facebook feed has been a cacophony of justice-seeking pleas and Christmas shopping deals. How do we do live life like this? Reading through comments on blog posts where people pour their hearts out, calling for racial justice, make my stomach turn as I read the most black-phobic hateful speech.

Because I’m empathetic to a fault, I try and step into these people’s shoes. Why would they say such hateful things about black people? I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

But I know it’s cheap.

Saying hateful words is easy, it’s quick, it briefly releases energy, it’s at no cost to the writer/speaker.

You know what’s difficult and costs a lot? Being in relationship. Asking, “What’s your name?” Asking, “What’s at stake for you when you do/say these hurtful things? Asking, “What’s important to you?” Asking, “What’s your dream for this world?”

This is hard work because it requires listening, vulnerability, and humility. Costly, and difficult traits of the human experience, but traits that spur the most beautiful and strong movements of love around us. Love that our world is crying out to embody. Typing hateful racial slurs behind a keyboard is easy. Being humble and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, someone who believes differently, someone who belongs to a different ethnic and/or social community: that is hard work. But it’s work that we deep down know we are driven to do.

We long to connect with each other, and God call us to connect with each other in deep and meaningful relationships. One day, I’m hopeful that God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21: 3-5). This season that is described in the book of Revelation is coming, but honestly, I don’t think it’s coming soon enough.

In the church season of Advent, in December where we wait all month for Christmas and Jesus’ birth, we cry out “How long, O Lord?” How long until we see justice for the deaths of young black men across the country? How long until the judicial system changes so that racial injustice is a crime, not an expectation? How long until we stop cramming prisons with non-Caucasian individuals, so that the statistic of 1 in 3 prisoners are black, is an ancient artifact?

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Beautiful picture of the Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs) in Oahu, HI

I spoke with an 8th grader named Emily on Sunday. She’s adopted and has hearing aids, and has the cheerful energy of a teenager. It was hard to communicate, and talking/reading lips was not perfect, but I hope to call her my friend one day. It’s hard work, but I think we can do it, and I hope she keeps talking with me when I ask, “Why is this important to you?”

*Name changed but story’s true.