Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Zinged by a Centenarian

Yesterday afternoon I went to the nursing home to see my member who is over a 100 years old. I saw her on her 104th birthday a couple of months ago but had not visited with her since. I'd stopped by one afternoon maybe a month ago, but she was tired and I'm not sure she recognized me.

This time the little lady smiled as I walked in the door and called her name. As I said my name to her, she said, "Oh I know who you are, but I haven't seen you in awhile." So I sat and we visited. I read scripture and we prayed. Then she said in her slow, soft manner, "I like this place. They take good care of you. They bring good food here, more than you can eat. This is a good place. I like it. I like it better when you come by."

Zinged. True, she said it without any tone of manipulation. She was just stating what she was thinking. But that's what got me.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Don't Mess With the Help

Recently I have talked with a minister and a church staff person (neither of them on my staff) who have been accosted right before the worship services. A member of the congregation pulled the person aside to complain, strongly. No questions for clarification, or suggestions, just raw ugliness expressed over the inconvenience the complainer had endured.

Unfortunately this is not a rare occurrence in churches. It’s happened to members of my staff and to me, just not lately. And it is so wrong. What causes some church members to think that verbal abuse of a church staffer is acceptable preparation for worship? Inconceivable, but true. I don’t think that even a legitimate complaint should be voiced at worship time.

I have a rule for my staff members on this (which they don’t always invoke unfortunately). Whenever this happens they are to step away and say, “Stephen has a rule that all complaints are to be taken to his office. I am not supposed to listen to them.” I’ve found that most complainers are not going to go to the trouble of coming to me – it really wasn’t so important that it would be worth the extra effort. And, if they do come to me, they find that the complaint had better have substance; and they’ll have to listen to me talk about the big picture of what we’re about and how this concern fits (or doesn’t fit) in with that.

So, if you are a church member and you’re unhappy about something, make an appointment and talk to the staff member about it. If you can’t do that in a reasonable way, then pray and ask God to reveal what’s keeping you from being a decent person. Don’t mess with the hired help, especially on Sunday. In nearly every case they are just limited, mistake-prone humans trying to serve God while being overworked, under-appreciated and underpaid.

I know that a true “complainer” will never pay attention to a message like this. And while the Church has a lot more encouragers than discouragers, it only takes one or two rotten apples to make the whole bushel seem bad. So, if you ever witness such an interaction, I hereby authorize you to enter the fray and announce, “This is inappropriate, and I’m telling.” Better yet, help create such an environment of encouragement in your church that the chronic complainers will be the ones who feel uncomfortable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Retro 70's

Leaving the hospital at the end of the day yesterday it felt like a 70's flashback as I drove home. Every gas station had long, some extremely long lines for gas. I suddenly wondered if there had been something abnormal on the news, like a terriorist attack again.

What was it? Storm panic. With Hurricane Ike headed into the refinery dense Texas gulf coast, I guess everyone expected a jump in prices, or gap in supply. I heard talk at the JV football game last night that gas prices today would be over $5.00. Customers were limited to 10 gallons of gas and some stations had already raised prices for basic unleaded by 50 cents a gallon. Apparently the panic was centered in Sumter, but did spread to Columbia by evening.

Ah, human nature. Maybe the churches should announce a potential shortage of grace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The First 3 to 5 Minutes

"Visitors will decide in the first 3 to 5 minutes of visiting your church whether they will return."

1. Where did we pick up that bit of marketing savvy? Is it true? I've heard it several places and each time it's left me feeling doubtful. It definitely stresses the need to be warm and welcoming to new folks, and to have the place cleaned up with easy access to things (like parking, the nursery and restrooms). But has the church succumbed so completely to consumer marketing that we are entirely dependent on first impressions?

2. Many times my "first impression" of a person and place has been completely wrong. What I thought I would not like I ended up enjoying or realizing I needed. What happens if the congregation is well trained and excels at first impressions, but isn't authentic and transparent in sharing the love of God in its relationships?

3. How does the church help people transition from being "consumers shopping for a church" to being "seekers of Christ?" Is it by being warm and friendly in the first 3 to 5 minutes and feeling like the job is done?

4. What if we removed the 'open doors' tagline and required that new people be sponsored? Aside from the charge of exclusiveness, what would happen to church growth? I am a Rotarian. We don't have people just walk into our meetings; they are invited by a Rotarian. We take them to the Rotary meeting, introduce them to others, and bring them back several times before asking them to become part of our club. Rotarians balance first impressions with personal relationships.

5. Something tells me that if we truly care about other people connecting with love of Christ that is expressed in the body of Christ, the first 3 to 5 minutes will take care of themselves.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Survival Basics

During one of the convention speeches last week I started channel surfing and caught part of one of the survival programs I enjoy. I never remember the name of the guy, but he’s put out in some wilderness area and has to survive as he finds his way back to civilization. Yes, the program has to be rigged for video recording, but still I enjoy it, especially the problem solving skills used as he tries to provide for the basics of survival.

And what are those basics? Water, shelter, food and fire - that’s what I surmise, although a survivalist may add more or rearrange the list. What the program emphasizes is that if you don’t provide for the basics, the body becomes too taxed and soon the mind cannot reason correctly and you can’t respond adequately to threats.

A couple of times this week I have been with friends and church members who have gotten horrible news - information that has dropped them down right smack in the middle of a different kind of wilderness. Life cannot go on as it did, and emotionally, they are thrust into providing for the basics of survival.

And what are those basics? Well, again, here are my suggestions. What are the emotional needs that have to be attended to before reasoning begins to falter?

SECURITY. We need assurance that we and our loved ones are safe. We need a non-anxious presence that sends a beacon of calm through the fog. We need someone in whom we can trust.

ACCEPTANCE. We need assurance that we are accepted just as we are with all our brokenness, wounds, inadequacy, sin, inability, and imperfection. We need release from the fear of shame and rejection. We need someone to welcome and acknowledge us.

AFFECTION. We need to know that we are liked and that our presence is desired. We need evidence that attention will be given to our needs. We need know there is someone to care for us.

COMPASSION. We need to experience empathy from others and we need to be moved to empathy for others. Compassion acknowledges our interdependence in sadness, joy, anxiety, and laughter. We need someone with whom to share.

I’m sure you noticed that I didn’t list “love.” That word just means too many different things to people. And I feel confident that if you experience security, acceptance, affection and compassion, you’ve experienced love. What would you add to the list?

Stepping into a crisis moment as a pastor, I would love to “fix” things – make it all right for everyone. Impossible. But I can by my presence remind others of the one in whom we trust. I can demonstrate acceptance and affection. And I can give and receive compassion. With those emotional basics in place, reasoning will not become scrambled, and those in the wilderness can find their way back.

I wonder if we could gauge the effectiveness of congregations in a similar way?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Time for a haircut and I've got a decision to make. Do I keep the buzz cut or let it grow back out? Here's how I got in this situation. Right before our vacation I needed a haircut and was using my beard trimmer to just take a little off around the ears. We bald guys pay attention to what little hair we have.

Cynthia offered to use the trimmer and touch up the back of my head. Great. She took the spacer off the trimmer to clean it and when she put it back on she inadvertently set it to the lowest level - buzz cut. Then she made a swipe right up the back of my head, giving me a reverse Mohawk. Her frantic gasp is what told me something was wrong.

After trying to "patch it up," the girls finally just buzzed the rest of my head. It felt weird for several days, like I was back in the third grade. But it was also nice on vacation because I really didn't have to ever worry about combing my hair. Such a convenience does not go unnoticed with me.

So, Cynthia says she likes it, it's less trouble, and I've found that at my age a chance to feel like a third-grader isn't bad either. Where's the trimmer?