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• Monday, May 09th, 2016

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Encore Post

I am not, by nature, a very athletic person, but my teenage daughter, whose sport is horseback riding, convinced me to take a trail ride with her in Vermont last weekend. They gave me a lovely, well-trained horse named Mickey. I liked him right off the bat when he stood still for me to get on! A few steps later, however, I was feeling very awkward and more than a little apprehensive experiencing the movement of this huge animal beneath me. The trail guide told me I should relax, but the trail guide was a 17 year old and I had nearly 40 years on her — “relaxing” was not an option!

Still, I did my best to hold the reins lightly and not stiffen my body everytime there was a slight tip in one direction or the other. Even so, I was not what anybody would ever decribe as relaxed, especially as we went up and down hills and my daughter and the guide kept insisting I lean this way and that. I kept trying to guide the horse and tell him where he should go. I was holding onto the the horn of my western saddle as if it was the only thing that stood between me and my own destruction.

I spent the whole first half of the trip looking down at the back of Mickey’s head and not appreciating any of the beauty around me. Until, suddenly, the guide instructed us to stop and take a moment at the top of the hill. I looked up and saw that we were surrounded by the mountain peaks of Vermont. I heard the birds chirping. There were daisies and other wildflowers. The sun was shining brightly and the sky was an extraordinary shade of blue. It suddenly dawned on me that I might appreciate this ride a whole lot more if I looked up once in a while. I realized that Mickey was a trained trail horse, surefooted and easy-going. It occurred to me that if I stopped trying to tell him what to do and if I could trust him to go where and how was best and safest for him and for me, then I could actually relax and enjoy the ride.

It will come as no surprise to you that I spent most of this trailride praying for my own safety, BUT when I let go of the fear and stopped trying to run things, I actually began to really enjoy the trip.

It occurs to me that this is a struggle many of us go through on a daily basis. Do we trust God to lead us in the right way, as individuals and as congregations, or do we spend most of our time scared stiff and trying to control every little thing that happens? Do we remember to look up from the struggle and recognize the goodness of God flowing around us? Do we remember to ask for God’s guidance? Pray for God’s wisdom? Open our selves to God’s compassion?

If not, we need to consider handing the reins to God, relaxing into the saddle and trusting that GOD knows what to do and where to go.

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• Friday, April 01st, 2016

Encore Post

We all love those adorable little tykes in church. Those sweet little angels who:

• kick the back of your chair throughout the service
• cry, shout, talk, whine and scream
• leave a dozen times to go the bathroom
• turn the program into paper airplanes
• poke, stab, punch, tickle or otherwise irritate their siblings
• climb under their chairs
• scribble in the hymnals or Bibles
• get a weird sticky substance on your best outfit
• are so noisy you can’t hear the sermon
• totally destroy the service for you

BTW – we’re not talking just toddlers, some pre teens and teens can be just as disruptive.

There was once a commercial for Life Saver candy in which a boisterous child in church was given a hard candy – and sat quietly for the rest of the service. It should be so simple.

I had children in church – and now grandchildren. Hey – I’ve been there and done that. I know it’s not easy. My gang certainly did not qualify for any halos. I know the mortification of having an older person in the next pew turn and glare at me – or loudly “shush” my child. Not to digress, but honestly, sometimes the person who is saying “shush” can be more disruptive than the noisy child. But we won’t go there.

So what does a church family do when the “family” part of worship service is acting out and ruining the service for others?

Well I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on this, but here are some random suggestions.

• First of all – do not elect to skip church or leave the child home, while you go to church. Children should have the worship experience and opting out is not a solution.
• At my church, many years ago, they instituted the “puzzle pamphlet” for the kids. It was a four page booklet with games, word searches and so on. I remember being somewhat horrified thinking that inappropriate church behavior was being rewarded with a game book. But, in fact, it worked pretty well. The kids were entertained – and quiet, yet they were there.
A little side story to this is that following one service in which the children were doing puzzles, I asked one of the kids if he knew what the minister had said. And – by gosh – he quoted back to me the sermon lesson of the day! His focus was on the piece of paper, but he was actually listening!
• I’m a strong believer that if children are being disruptive, they should be removed from the service – for a short period of time. Not a big scene – nothing embarrassing. But as a courtesy to those who are there for a religious experience, it’s only fair to take the child out for a few minutes. A change of environment for a child – a redirection – can make a huge difference. But always come back. Don’t reward bad behavior by taking the child to a Sunday School room and letting him play.
• Every church has a different Worship Service versus Sunday School set up. At my church, the children are in worship until the passing of the peace (about a quarter of the way into the time) and then go to Sunday School This is good because they get to participate in some group worship – then go to their own classes. However, that doesn’t work for all denominations.
• And finally, I believe it’s up to the parent to talk to the child before the service and explain what it’s all about. What is church, why are people there, why is that man or woman standing at the front talking, what is the music about. Hey, I know – that conversation provides no guarantee about behavior, but a least it gives your child a context for what is happening.

And if all else fails, there’s always that roll of Life Savers.

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• Thursday, February 04th, 2016

Encore Posting

Gretchen Switzer

Co -author of  Finishing With Grace:  A Guide to Selling, Merging or Closing Your Church

How many of us have said to our families:  “If we just had ‘this much more money,’ then we could do ‘that’ and we would be happy.”  How many of us have said similar things at church?  “Oh, if we only had enough money to pay for a really good music director!  If we had the money to repair this or add on to that, we’d be  okay!”

I guess it’s part of the human condition to feel that we never have quite enough, but it leaves us, at home and in church, feeling that we are without resources, that our hands are tied when it comes to providing for the future.  If we live with this mindset long enough we end up living out of what we perceive as poverty, rather than living with a sense of abundance.  It makes us negative and feeling  powerless.   We slash the vastness of our dreams because all we can see are the obstacles before us, the closed doors and dwindling dollars.  Our vision becomes tiny.  Then, we are failing to live in the grand vision of our God.

I used to believe that  not having enough money in the bank was the cause of the demise of many congregations.  Over the years, serving a variety of congregations, many of whom had limited financial resources, I have learned that it is not the dollars and cents that dictate a church’s potential, but the size of the congregation’s dreams.  This is where we get stuck — when we allow our visions and dreams to be limited by our own negativity and lack of faith.

I spent most of my pastoral career serving small to mid-size churches who were worshiping in modest buildings with minimal professional “staff”, but recently, I have had the experience of visiting several churches who worship in huge facilities and have the funds to do just about anything they might want to do.  Their presence in the world, however, is still dictated by the size and power of their dreams for the future.  Their future will be dictated by their ability to look out beyond themselves.  A congregation whose focus is only turned inward, and cares primarily about perpetuating itself, will eventually become a lifeless community, no matter how much money they have.  While a community of faith with wonderful, broad overarching dreams for their ministry will probably find a way to make those dreams come true whether they have a huge bank account or not.
I think it’s time we stop letting money get in our way. Don’t you?  We need to start creating outrageously profound visions based in our faith in God through whom “all things are possible.”
We must stop focusing only on maintaining the “institution” and move toward tapping into the divine “inspiration” which will allow us to fulfill even our largest, most outrageously abundant, dreams for our churches.

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• Tuesday, January 05th, 2016
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Encore Blog

How many of us have said to our families:  “If we just had ‘this much more money,’ then we could do ‘that’ and we would be happy.”  How many of us have said similar things at church?  “Oh, if we only had enough money to pay for a really good music director!  If we had the money to repair this or add on to that, we’d be  okay!”

I guess it’s part of the human condition to feel that we never have quite enough, but it leaves us, at home and in church, feeling that we are without resources, that our hands are tied when it comes to providing for the future.  If we live with this mindset long enough we end up living out of what we perceive as poverty, rather than living with a sense of abundance.  It makes us negative and feeling  powerless.   We slash the vastness of our dreams because all we can see are the obstacles before us, the closed doors and dwindling dollars.  Our vision becomes tiny.  Then, we are failing to live in the grand vision of our God.

I used to believe that  not having enough money in the bank was the cause of the demise of many congregations.  Over the years, serving a variety of congregations, many of whom had limited financial resources, I have learned that it is not the dollars and cents that dictate a church’s potential, but the size of the congregation’s dreams.  This is where we get stuck — when we allow our visions and dreams to be limited by our own negativity and lack of faith.

I spent most of my pastoral career serving small to mid-size churches who were worshiping in modest buildings with minimal professional “staff”, but recently, I have had the experience of visiting several churches who worship in huge facilities and have the funds to do just about anything they might want to do.  Their presence in the world, however, is still dictated by the size and power of their dreams for the future.  Their future will be dictated by their ability to look out beyond themselves.  A congregation whose focus is only turned inward, and cares primarily about perpetuating itself, will eventually become a lifeless community, no matter how much money they have.  While a community of faith with wonderful, broad overarching dreams for their ministry will probably find a way to make those dreams come true whether they have a huge bank account or not.

I think it’s time we stop letting money get in our way. Don’t you?  We need to start creating outrageously profound visions based in our faith in God through whom “all things are possible.”
We must stop focusing only on maintaining the “institution” and move toward tapping into the divine “inspiration” which will allow us to fulfill even our largest, most outrageously abundant, dreams for our churches.

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• Tuesday, December 01st, 2015
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Encore post

As one ages, it’s more difficult to find holiday spirit. Oh, it’s out there – just look at small child’s reaction to everything from being a wise man in the Christmas nativity to seeing Santa Claus at the local mall.

Alas – for us non-children, the holidays are more apt to be about dealing with not having enough money or time, facing stresses and pressures, negative dynamics and disappointments. The list of reasons for not having any holidays spirit could take up this entire blog; but let’s take another approach.

What feeds you during this season? As you rush through the weeks before Christmas – are there any quiet moments that give you an “ahhhh….” feeling?

Here’s my list – and if even one of them reminds you of what makes you feel good about this season, this blog has been a success.

• The aforementioned image of a small child in a wise man costume at a church nativity (ditto the excitement of seeing a child’s reaction to Santa).
• Certain Christmas music, especially singing In Excelsious Dios with the Gloria chorus. Add singing Silent Night (by candlelight) at a Christmas Eve service
• Some of the old Hollywood black and white movies from the 40s and 50s (like Christmas in Connecticut). And, yeah, the very funny The Christmas Story with Peter Billingsley.
• A well-performed version of the Christmas Carol by Dickens
• Light snow on Christmas eve (okay – that works in New England, maybe not where you live).
• The Sundays leading up to Christmas in which we are reminded of the Christmas story and sing Away in a Manger.
• Lighting the Advent Candle each week
• Preparing for and putting on the church’s Holiday Christmas Fair. People dynamics and fiefdoms not withstanding, what a great fellowship gathering.
• Teaching the Christmas story to children in Sunday School.
• Going caroling to the church shut-ins. (Okay I don’t do this one since I’m not a singer, but still…)
• Buying gifts for needy children and taking food to the local food pantry.
• Some holiday Christmas parties, but not all.
• Seeing my grandkids Christmas morning: the wonderment before the frenzied gift opening.
• A quiet moment on Christmas Eve when everyone else has gone to bed and I stop to ponder all that has happened to bring me joy (and spirit) in the past year.

Now, my friends- begin your lists and…Happy Holidays!

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• Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Posted by Gretchen    Encore Blog

For years I have been asked about the difference between religion and faith and I have never felt I have had a satisfactory answer. But the other day, I found a pretty great one: “In religion, people tell you what to believe. In faith, you figure it out for yourself.” (Tom Ehrich)

Religion is that thing which gives us a framework for sorting out our ideas about and our experiences of the divine. Religion gives us sacred words to describe spiritual experience. It relates our own very personal encounters with God to the historical teachings and stories found in scripture and the doctrines and rituals of our faith tradition. Religion gives us the context of a community in which to share our faith and learn from other people sharing theirs.

Faith is that thing some of us learned in childhood from adults who trusted God, who found strength in adversity, and who consistently taught us what they believed. Faith is also that thing inside many of us that we always kind of knew was there, but there was no one there to provide an example or give us ideas about God until we grew older. In either case, faith is that thing which grows inside us slowly, often without our even noticing it, until a profound event forces us to lean on it and thereby discover it is there.

Faith grows in as many different ways as there are individuals, and yet, the role of other people in teaching us, showing us, loving us is an ever-present part each faith story. We need each other to help us understand what faith is when we feel it; to give us language to describe it; to reflect back belief to us when we begin discovering we’ve developed it; to help us understand and learn how to express our experiences. The community often provided by “religion” becomes a catalyst and companion to spur us forward once that first spark of faith, trust, love, is lit by God.

Most Christians have properly sensed a difference between religiosity and faithfulness. While they are not the same thing, both are needed to help us fully realize our personal capacity for faith and to teach us how to move from faith to meaningful action.

 

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• Monday, August 03rd, 2015

Encore Blog
Do you know the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule)? For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Now what does that have to do with a blog about churches in transition!? Well, consider that the Pareto Principle is also called the law of “the vital few.”

When it comes to involvement in a church’s leadership and activities, only about 20% of members get the work done. That dedicated 20% does 80% of the church work. If you’re a regular attendee at your church, you’ve seen this in action. There’s that core group of people who always step up to the various leadership roles; who can always be counted on to “get the job done.”

Churches survive thanks to that committed 20% who often will step out of their comfort zone to take on tasks that others avoid. Run the annual Stewardship campaign? “Well, if no one else is interested, I’ll do it.” Clean the oven after the church supper? “Ugh – but, since it needs to be done – sure.” Organize the high school kids car wash? “Sure, I’ll handle that.”

Sadly, sometimes that hard working 20% is under appreciated and even criticized. “Look at that Sally – always has her hand in on everything.” But the truth is that if the Sallys did not step up, a lot of important church activities would simply not get done.

So what’s this mean to the majority of church members who observe the involvement of others and might even feel a small niggle of guilt about not doing more? If you’re a church member who sometimes feels that you’re on the outside looking in, it may be your own fault.

Churches thrive and grow when members are passionate about their church and their church family. Showing up only on Sunday and sitting in a back pew may be enough church for you, but it may not be enough of you for your church. A church community is built by the community itself. A church may have a gorgeous building and an eloquent pastor, but it can’t go forward and grow without strong underpinnings. The behind-the-scenes church leaders – the Deacons, the Stewards, the Sunday School teachers and so on – have to be in place and strongly committed to their tasks.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of 20% of the church members doing 80% of the work – 80 to 100% of a church’s members worked together faithfully to make decisions and grow their religious community. What a church it would be if everyone said: “Sure – I’ll do that.”

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• Monday, July 20th, 2015

ENCORE BLOG by Gretchen

Years ago, I was in a store and the woman in front of me inadvertently dropped a twenty dollar bill on the floor as she was taking her wallet out of her purse.  Without giving it much thought, I picked up the $20 and handed it back to her.

At first, she was embarrassed to have made the mistake of dropping money.  Then she was astounded that I hadn’t kept the money for myself. Then this look of amazement went across her face, she smiled at me, and said “You’re a religious person, aren’t you?  I can always tell. It seems to me that people of faith live differently than other people – you are honest and kind and ethical and compassionate. I think I may have to learn more about different faiths to see what you know that I don’t!”

I’ve never forgotten that woman or what she said.  She was really on to something.  Shouldn’t this be true for all people of faith? If you and I believe in God and try to live like our particular faith teaches us to, our lives will look different to the rest of the world.  We have this habit of worshipping and revering God, listening to the teachings and figure we’ve done our “religious duty.”  But for me, our duty as people of faith goes far beyond knowing what’s right and true.  Our duty is to do what is right and true, to live out the teachings of faith in such a way that the world around us sees something different in us. Something admirable.  Something they would like to become.

When we talk about church growth, we talk about making church look wonderful and exciting.

We talk about inviting new people in.  I can think of no better way to “advertise” our joy in Christian life, and making it look appealing and valuable, than by living it out in our lives, by allowing others to see the values and compassion of our faith working within us.  By making it our goal to have others witness our lives and say, “You’re a person of faith, aren’t you? I can always tell.”

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• Thursday, June 04th, 2015

Encore Blog:

Business networking groups have mastered making guests feel welcome. Anyone who has ever attended one of these groups knows that a core rule of networking is reaching out to visitors. You see someone standing alone and you get right over and talk to that person. In business, a visitor may become a client….

At church, a visitor may become a new member.

Often church members forget about reaching out to visitors. Oh, sure someone walks in for the first time and members believe they are welcoming. “Hello.” “Glad You’re Here.” But those welcomes can ring false if the visitor is greeted at the door and then ignored (except for the many eyes cast that way and the obvious speculation as to who this “stranger” may be).

Right now, you’re probably saying “No, our church is very friendly.” But feeling welcomed in a new place is more than a few words, it’s a culture. And many churches, with their long-time cliques and favorite seating arrangements, are much less welcoming than members might realize.

I was at church the other day and saw a visitor standing alone while several church members stood chatting, waiting for the service to begin. Presumably they had welcomed (or at least smiled at) the guest, but felt their church business took precedence over the comfort of a stranger in their midst.

Although many churches have greeters, that doesn’t mean that you as a church member can ignore a newcomer. Indeed, if there are several visitors, your rank of greeters may be stretched too thin. Step up to the role of welcoming people to your service.

Welcome To My Church #101
• Put yourself in the visitor’s place. Imagine how you would feel if you were visiting a new church and didn’t know anyone.
• Extend a genuine welcome – with a smile.
• Ask the visitor’s name. And give your own. First names only are fine.
• Ask a few friendly (versus nosey) questions:
Are you from this area?
What brought you to our church?
• Share a little about yourself and your role at the church
• Talk about your church and the service
• If possible, introduce the visitor to the pastor.
• Introduce the visitor, by name, to others. If the visitor has something in common with a member (like where they come from), include that in the introduction.
• If there are small children, point out the nursery. If older children, explain the Sunday School options.
• If it feels appropriate, offer to sit with the visitor.

After church
• Be sure the visitor knows where the fellowship hall is located.
• During fellowship, share information about church activities and invite the visitor to check them out.
• Invite the visitor to return, but casually (not out of desperation to increase membership rolls or add to a committee).

Admittedly, some visitors prefer to visit a new church under the radar. If you sense that a guest wants to be anonymous, back off. Be welcoming, but don’t smother.

Whether at a networking group or visiting a new church, a visitor’s decision to return is based on how he or she is treated by the members of the group. And you – as a member of your church – can make a lot of difference with your awareness, empathy and kindness.

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• Friday, May 01st, 2015

By Tom Ehrich | Religion News Service January 7, 2014

After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.

Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.

My conclusion: Religion shouldn’t be this hard.

An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people — by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.

An assembly that should relax into the serenity of God’s unconditional love shouldn’t be so filled with hatred and fear.

An assembly that should do what Jesus did shouldn’t be so inwardly focused, so determined to be right, so eager for comfort, so fearful of failing.

An assembly that follows an itinerant rabbi shouldn’t be chasing permanence, stability and property.

An assembly whose call is to oneness and to serving the least shouldn’t be perpetuating hierarchies of power and systems of preference.

Faith should be difficult, yes, because it inevitably entails self-sacrifice and renewal. Life, too, is difficult. Dealing with Mammon is difficult. Speaking truth to power is difficult. Confronting our own weakness and capacity for sin is difficult.

But the institution whose sole justifiable purpose is to help us deal with those difficulties shouldn’t be making matters worse.

When we bring our burdens to church, we shouldn’t find ourselves feeling intimidated by the in crowds, caught up in conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.

Yes, I understand that church is a human institution and therefore it will participate in humanity’s brokenness. But church should be seeking to redeem that humanity, to heal that brokenness, to show better ways to live. Instead, we celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry.

We fight against the very transformation that God seeks.

Maybe I’m the last one to see this dilemma. The millions who are fleeing institutional Christianity in America aren’t escaping bad doctrine, shoddy performance values or inconvenient calls to mission. They are escaping the institution itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. God certainly doesn’t want it this way.

I think, for example, of the performance anxiety that infects most churches. We needn’t worry so much about pleasing constituents on Sunday. Worship isn’t a Broadway show; it’s a glimpse of God, not a celebration of style, excellence and self.

I think of our leadership conflicts. Pastors aren’t CEOs hired to maximize shareholder returns. They aren’t impresarios rewarded for putting on great shows. Pastors are flawed creatures called to help other flawed creatures bring their neediness to God.

Church should be a safe place — safe to be oneself, safe to make one’s confession, safe to love whoever one feels called to love, safe to imagine more, safe to fail. Instead, church often is a dangerous place, where people feel guarded, self-protective, hemmed in by tradition and expectation, required to obey rules.

Church should be different from society. Instead, it plays by the same rules: get mine, be first, be right, punish the weak, exclude the different, reward the wealthy.

Our society needs healthy faith communities. But neither society nor God has much need for religious institutions grounded in right-opinion, self-serving and systemic danger.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

Reprinted with the permisison of the author. The article was published in the Washington Post (January 2014).  www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/commentary-church-shouldnt-be-this-hard/2014/01/07/1d869022-77c0-11e3-a647-a19deaf575b3_story.html.  I

Copyright: Religion News Service LLC.