In my life, I've seen the pastor/ congregational relationship from many different angles:

In these situations, I've heard a lot of stories that begin: "Please don't be like our last pastor that . . ."

I've heard a lot of "Well, I'm not sure why ___ went into the ministry."

I've heard silence from pastors who I reached out to pastor me, pastors who didn't return my emails or remember my name during the 10th time I introduced myself to them.

Though we often say (especially in the free church tradition) that all members are ministers, who the pastor is really does matter.

Pastors shape the character of local congregations. Pastors set the tone for congregational life.  Pastors can define and easily create conflict in communities where there was none.

So, in the spirit of the good work of pastors going forth into the world, here's 4 things that I believe every congregation needs from his/her pastor. He or she must:

1. Love People

When a pastor is called to a local church, he/ or she needs to love its people (or learn to love them) quirks and all. Pastors model unconditional love to all kinds of people:  the homeless man on the steps, to the woman dying of cancer in hospice, and the loud mouthed teenager we'd really wish didn't sign up for the overnight retreat.

Of course, there are some days we won't like the people in our mix. But as in a marriage, we always end the day in love. Love that hopes. Love that protects. Love that believes the best is still yet to be.

This is what I most want to say: congregations KNOW when we don't love them. And, no amount of god-speak can cover up lack of true emotional connection. So, if we don't have a heart that wants to grow in love of people in particular place, we really don't need to find another job.

2. Practice Pastoral Care

It always amazes me when people become pastors and then are shocked to learn that visitation is part of the vocation.

"Oh, I really have to go visit shut ins? Oh, I really have to make hospitals? Oh, I really need to call regular visitors to introduce myself?"

YES YOU DO.

Pastors are care-givers of people in ordinary times, in joy and crisis.

In my experience, congregations will forgive a multitude of boring sermons and missteps in committee meetings, when they've seen us around their supper table.

3.  Show Some Preaching Effort

Sermons are holy moments, folks. We shouldn't take our opportunities to climb into the pulpit on a regular basis lightly.

Where else do a group of committed people gather in community weekly to hear a word about an ancient text? Few places other than the church! And, people don't just come to church anymore to check a box. Most people who give up sleep on Sunday mornings, want to hear something of meaning from the proclaimer.

So why do we, as pastors, think that we can serve up ill prepared homilies week after week after week with nothing more than cute stories or pre-packaged sermon fodder we found on the internet?

Sure, not every pastor's strength is the proclaiming moment. And this is ok (see point 1). But every pastor can try. We can honor calling by starting our sermons preparation earlier than the night before. Every pastor can make an effort to present something of value.

4. Live the Life, Not Just Talk the Talk

Of course, we as pastors aren't super humans. There will be times when will disappoint. Maybe even lots of times . . .  We'll forget somebody's birthday. We'll offend the church council member with the most seniority. We'll forget to make an important phone call. But, even in our imperfection, we need to be known as leaders who follow through with our commitments, more times than not. Basic curtesies like:

Answering emails.

Having conversations, even the hard ones.

Sending thank you notes.

Most of all, people need to see that we're the real deal. We love Jesus. And out of our love of Jesus, we do what we do.

What things would you add to the list?

417689_10150714380866798_1711766758_nIf you missed this week's first saint story, click here.

Continuing with the series today, I want to introduce you to my friend Amy-- a living colleague who has walked the journey with me for almost 10 years.

It's hard to describe my journey in ministry without talking about her presence in my life.

Many of you know her now because she's the pastor with her name in lights-- blazing new trails as the first female senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City.

But in 2004, from a library computer at Duke Divinity School in between my classes, I wrote Amy a blind email asking if she'd be interested in having a pastoral intern for the summer of 2005 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC .

To surprise of us both, she said come on!

As the summer of 2005 began, I hoped that Amy would like me. I hoped she’d give me meaningful things to do.

Yet, from the first week, I realized that a redemptive experience was underway that went way beyond these some sort of "Do you like me? Check yes or no" jitters on the first day.

Amy was and is a different kind of pastor. And she was inviting me into her sisterhood.

Amy took me quite seriously. She gave me great projects to work on such as organizing the first booth at Capital Pride on my first day! But not only did I get thrown in the deep end work wise throughout the summer (which was wonderful), I became a part of her life.

I spent time with her family. I found a safe space to share my frustrations and joys of the past and present about the crazy profession I wanted more than anything. I listened to her laments and exciting moments as well. She invited me into her process of what it meant to a young pastor.

Even as Amy juggled the demands of family, three kids, and time for herself, I never felt like she didn’t have time for me, as had been the case with other pastors I knew.

I saw someone thrive who intensely pursues interpersonal relationships in the pastorate, and I recognized the goodness of this strange gift of mine once again.

As I heard Amy speak daily about the church as a community of faith, living and struggling together, my similar vision of church was deepened and affirmed as well (this community stuff actually works!).

And most of all I was encouraged by Amy’s “make your dreams come true” pursuit of life.

From that summer on, I believed that barriers such as conservative upbringings or discouraging denominations can not keep the call of God from springing forth in women like me. God has created and called me with exactly what I need to minister to the local church. 

From the internship I became her colleague, and  then a friend. More than a year later, Amy spoke at my ordination (which I'm celebrating my 8th anniversary today!). A year after that Kevin and I chose her to perform our wedding. And two years after that, Amy was one of the speakers at my installation when I became a senior pastor a couple of miles down the DC beltway.

Now, I'm thankful Hagan household has many reasons to visit New York because of Feed the Children's presence there, so we can continue to be a part of her life and ministry.

I thank God for living saints of the church like Amy-- not just for all she's accomplished along the way (which is a lot!) but for the gift of friendship that she so richly shares with those on her path.

Thanks for answering my email back then and all the email since . . .

imageI wasn't sure I'd ever do it again. I wasn't sure if it was ever possible in Oklahoma. I wasn't sure how all the duel state life would come together.

Too many people laughed at me when I asked them if they would hire me. Too much crazy travel has become the norm in our household that I didn't see any time available for a weekly committment. Too much uncertainty about the future.

But, it happened this week.

I accepted an interim position as Pastor of the Federated Church in Weatherford, OK. Weatherford is a small but growing town that hosts the college Southwestern Oklahoma State. It is also home to part of the historic route 66.

Yesterday, I was shown to an office, given keys and told the password for the church WiFi. People started visiting with me in my office. It became real fast! 

Pastor Elizabeth is back in the regular business of church life.

Over the next several months, I'll have the opportunity to do more of what I love: preaching, pastoral care and assisting with administration.The church leadership has been kind enough to want to work around my schedule of all things Feed the Children and honors the fact that I want to stay connected as much as I can to my life in DC as well. So, I'll just be working part-time. I've noticed their favorite word so far is flexible and this really works for me!

Interestingly, this church is aligned with the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and the Presbyterian USA. And though my ordination is through the American Baptist Churches USA and I've served in United Methodist Churches before, they want me to lead them.

It feels like a great chance to live into what I say I believe: that I am an ecumenical Christian. What matters most is not the name of the church type on the door, but that we love Jesus and love each other.

Most of all, I'm so thankful to the Oklahoma/ Kansas UCC conference minister, Rev. Edith Guffey for connecting me to this open-minded congregation!

Stay tuned for more stories from this latest pastoral adventure!image

474758_10151033994919809_661170001_oIf you could go back and have a conversation with yourself, 10, 20 or 30 years ago, what would you talk about?

I know I'd have much to say.

When I was in high school, I was extremely lonely. I felt like no one really knew who I was. I was words like "too serious" and "too Christian" and "nerd" would be words other people used to describe me.

Needless to say, I didn't run in the popular crowd. I never had the right clothes or found myself in activities that achieved instant coolness. At school I only had one real friend. I think depression was something that I dealt with though I didn't have the words to describe it yet.

But, even with the awkwardness, I had some self-awareness.

I knew I liked encouraging others.

I knew I liked organizing and leading things with purpose and that validated others' gifts.

I knew I liked paying careful attention to the details of others' lives so to connect with them intentionally.

I knew I liked public speaking and got great joy out of someone receiving hope from something I said.

But, in all of these good gifts I felt completely defeated because I lived under a value system where none of these heart bursts of mine were assigned much if any value. Women in my church were not even allowed to usher, much less preach.

So, instead, tried to be what others saw as "good."  And you could imagine how well that went over . . .

I really tried, BUT

I wasn't good at sports. (I even got a C+ in PE once because of my kept falling off the aerobics bench during the routines).

I wasn't good at voicing my opinions in a crowd therefore I never got elected to student council.

I wasn't good at telling others that I needed them. I wondered why people didn't seem to like me as much as I liked them . . .

I just couldn't find my niche. I sat beside the teachers and the adults on the bus trips. But they didn't know what to do with me either.

Deep pains from this time in my life still eat at me now, if I let it. So, I could have become full of rage. I could have started living into destructive patterns of behavior. I could have rejected the faith I was given as a child. And, I'm sure no one from outside the bubble in which I lived would have blamed me.

But, in all of this mess, my life was saved, I know, because I was given this grace from God: to write. In my writing, I could figure out life. There might be a better way I could live one day?

Though I didn't have words to articulate this concisely at all, I knew what direction my life was going. I put pen to paper.

And gradually as I kept living, I found friends, mentors and colleagues who with great patience would beat it into my head that I was loved and that my gifts mattered.

I knew I had to fight for my own life, even if no one else did. Because my life mattered. And, I needed to live out my calling to BE the woman God created me to be, even if the Southern Baptist Church frowned on me. Otherwise my soul might start to die.

And, I'm so glad I did. I'm glad I choose seminary. I'm so glad I married Kevin Hagan. I'm so glad I became a pastor. I'm glad I'm continuing to learn what it means to be the "Preacher on the Plaza" on days like this one.

Consider the writings of Parker Palmer who says, listen to your life.

Let your life talk back to you. Let the divine gift of direction swell up in you and don't be afraid to believe in your own blessedness.

No matter if no one but you recognizes it at the time and not matter how much you feel beat down, keep believing and soon others will too.

So for me, if I could go back to high school, I'd have a long talk with myself about just hanging in their till the good stuff started.

"Life will get better for you, Elizabeth. It will. I promise!"

What would you say to you?

Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007 about an experience during my first year as a full-time associate pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time). By means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year and the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine). So of course I wasn't bitter or anything . . 

It was 6:10 p.m. before the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with my husband, Kevin racing back to the church for the service. In the course of our conversation, I remembered I had forgotten the most important thing. The ASHES.

Hearing the panic in my voice, Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. "Go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. I bet you can get it done before anyone gets there . . ."

While I saw the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. Did I have time to find a metal trash can? And who really listens to their husband?

Instead, I thought I had a brilliant idea, better than his. Our fellowship hall had a fireplace in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right? That's what fireplaces are for, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Yes, the very important flue.

So before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck (sigh) that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke. And more smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

But in a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off!  Lonnie, my pastoral colleague meanwhile called the security company and told them all was well. The pastor was just burning something for a service. But, the VERY loud noise kept going! And going. And going.

The first person I saw was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom (God rest his soul!). He was out of breath. I could tell that he'd been sprinting throughout the church like a crazy person. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I was glad Tom didn't yell at me. Together we got water in bowls from the kitchen and kept pouring them over the smoked filled fireplace.

And by the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Yes, the local fire department!

Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them and the crowd of early attendees standing outside wondering what was going on. I was so embarrassed! And I locked myself my office. (Yes, not a shining moment but the true story!)

Blessed Kevin, though talked me off the Ash Wednesday smoke filled church ledge and I found my way to the service.

I began the night talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening (for the late comers who hadn't heard the noise) and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

The Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.”

For our alarm really did sound!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of 2007's Ash Wednesday birthday.

I never have tried to burn my own ashes again, nor will I. And you all should say amen.

IMG_9703It's been over one year now since I left traditional ministry. And folks say to me all the time, "When are you going back to the church?"

I don't know how to answer other than to say that we need to think about the church in new ways.

Why do we always think about church in terms of buildings and ministers with retirement plans and pensions? Why do we always think of church in terms of who is the staff listed on the back of the Sunday morning bulletin?

And no I don't think I am not going back anytime soon to what you mean by church.

These are the facts: a year ago, I left a weekly pulpit, weekly pastoral care responsibilities and ties to one place, but what I gained in this transition myself.

I said it. I gained myself.  I still can't believe that I had the courage to make this leap into the unknown last year. I did have a retirement plan with a denominational board. As much as I've always had a rebellious streak, I've always liked following the rules too.

Yet, I know this past year has been a turning point for me. I think 10 or 20 years from now I'll look back on that year when I was 33 as a time when everything changed. Even with the mid-year moaning and groaning and "what am I doing with my life?" depression I went through  (for y'all who lived with me through all of this, thank you!), this move into the unknown was and is a great decision.

The longer I live in this new reality, the longer I know I am not alone and there's other ministers out there like me who want to make such a transition too. I'm gaining a new community.

I recently read Anne Lamott's new book, Stitches. And as I read, I was struck by Lamott's narration of how she quit what she called "her last real job" at the age of 21. She said when she stopped working as a writer at a magazine and called it "the moment when I lost my prestige on the fast track."

When I left the church a year ago, this happened to me too, I think. There were even emails that said: "What are you doing? Why don't you settle down and get a new church in Oklahoma?" (As an aside, I have yet been invited to preach anywhere yet in Oklahoma City-- so even if I wanted a new job in the town where my husband resides mostly, there aren't a lot of opportunities).  But who really needs a fast track? I'm still wondering.

Lamott goes on to say about her transition to a non-traditional writing life: "I started to get found, to discover who I had been born to be, instead of the impossibly small package, all tied up tightly in myself that I had agreed to be."

Spot on for me too! These days I am learning and re-learning and then learning some more about the minister, the writer and the human being that I am and was created to be.  It's wonderful freedom. I now get to dream without some box of what I think other people want me to be holding me back.

And so in all of this settling down to a new kind of life, I knew my blog-- a medium for so much of this kind of heart-felt communication and exchange needed a makeover. So here it is, and here's my stance. I'm not going back.  I am a preacher on a plaza.

As a preacher on the plaza, my new website can give you a tour about the ways in which I'd love to connect with you, your church or non-profit.

I think the conversations we've had and will continue to have are a part of creating what doesn't exist for other ministers, writers, dreamers, poets and businesswomen. This is it. We're on the edge of something beautiful. I just know it.

On Monday, November 4th, I celebrated the 7th anniversary of my ordination.

Seven years ago this week, I stood at the front of a church-- Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC and said to the congregation gathered of family, friends and congregation members that I would serve God in my vocational pursuits. I said I would set aside personal interests for the sake of the community of Christ. I said I would seek to embody, teach and share the gospel with my life. I said I would do all of this for as long as I lived.

After the service, we gathered in the church social hall and ate sausage balls and cheese dip among my other favorite snacks made by my future mother-in-law. There was a cake with a picture of me preaching with a huge, "Congratulations, Pastor Evans!" on it.

A big day all around.

The night before the service, I sat upright the in bed lounging with my closest girlfriends who came into town for the celebration (Baptist ordained pastors as well) trying not to be so anxious.

Over a bag of chips on top of the brand new white comforter I finally had the money to buy in my first post-seminary job, I recounted to them my deepest fear about the hours to come.

It wasn't about the music going awry.

It wasn't about the having to kneel for so long at the front of the church without my legs falling asleep as people prayed prayers of blessing over me.

It wasn't whether or not I'd be able to pray the benediction as I'd planned to say without being too emotional.

No, it was a cry of: "I don't want my life to be over."

I was having pre-ordination jitters; the kind where I really knew that this moment in my life was a really big deal.

And even as my pastoral support girlfriend team sought to calm me down saying that my life wasn't really over. They said things like, "You'll still have fun. . . We'll make sure of that. Being ordained doesn't make you any less human." There was part of me that felt the weight of the shift.

It was like I was getting married to God. I had one last night of freedom.

I ate more chips.

And though I had done everything I could to finally make it to this day-- the improbable feet as a Baptist woman in ministry getting a Reverend in front of her name-- when I stood in front of the altar on November 4, 2006, the relationship of God and I being in an more intense partnership was never exactly what I envisioned it to be.

This would be no easy marriage.

Though I'd grown up with a pastor for a father and knew all the social expectations that came with the title, to be the Rev myself was entirely new. Because all of the sudden the expectations didn't just come with my family name but it was what I'd chosen.

I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to publicly pray more than the norm.

I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to stand the gravesides of the grieving, the bedsides of the sick and on the doorsteps of the bewildered seekers.

I'd chosen to be "on call" 24-7 when pastoral emergencies arose in a congregation.

I'd chosen that when the day came that I was legally married to a man that he'd be the kind of man that also supported the marriage I'd been pursuing long before we'd ever met.

But as is with most marriages, as it was with my ordination, it was not a one-sided deal.

God long before had chosen me.

Not that I was more special or "called" than others with different kinds of work, but that this was my path to walk with God.

And in many ways my "fear" was indeed right on-- my life as it was before 11/4/06 was over.

In this new relationship that God and I would share together, greater discipline and sensitivity to the Spirit would be required.

No longer could I ever assume that my faith was for my own edification alone, but was for the blessing of my community.

No longer could I act as though I didn't need community, for as much as they needed me, I needed them.

No long could I live in such a way that forgot the day that God and I got married-- for if their ever came a time when I felt like a new vocational path was given to me-- I'd need to release this marriage in a public way just as it was given to me.

Being married is a long-term commitment.

Seven years ago it all began. Together God and I are still on this journey.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series coming soon . . . Seven years later.

(If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, read here to come up to speed).

Calling outside of the church takes a different kind of spiritual discipline to keep up than calling within the church.

It's a discipline they don't teach you in seminary: being both pastor and lay person in the church at the same time as deeply growing spiritual being. Or is that even possible?

When I was the pastor, my job description included preaching every Sunday (except the four Sunday got off a year). I had to come up with 2,400+ words to say about God, faith and our life by Sunday morning. No exceptions. It was a built in discipline to think critically and theologically about scripture and community life.

At first, this task both delighted and overwhelmed me. My seasoned colleagues said, "It will get easier. Don't you worry." And it did. Once I got in the rhythm it was harder to take a week off. Not only could I come up with a sermon every week, but it became the place where I worked out my own spiritual musings. My own theological and Biblical wrestlings came forth from within my sermons (even if my congregation didn't know it).

Now, as my calling has taken me outside of the church, I no longer do this. I preach once a month to every six weeks supply preaching for pastor friends out-of-town or filling in on an interim basis in smaller congregations without a pastor.

So where is my theological struggle worked out today?

If I want to keep learning, if I want to keep growing, then I have to keep my mind engaged. With our travel schedule, I've had to find my spiritual life outside just attending just ONE church.

And it takes discipline.

It takes discipline like initiating reading a book on spiritual practice with a friend and discussing it together though no one tells you to do so.

It takes discipline like engaging your preaching friend's sermon prep process, even if you will not be asked to speak on the passage.

It takes discipline like seeking out people of faith that challenge you-- even if you have to make a journey several states over to visit them.

It is so much harder to do outside the church (when one community isn't at your disposal), but it doesn't mean it is impossible. And it doesn't mean that rich spirituality has to be found in a box checked, "Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I am a member of this small group at this church." It can be found as opportunities present themselves to embody church in daily life.

I've been reading Addie Zimerman's new book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over (it's an amazing must read for any of you who grew up in evangelical land as I did).

One of the phrases that has stuck with me so far from this book is something that Addie's husband, Andrew says about church.

The two of them were "shopping" for a new church as a young married couple and kept hitting walls of frustration with the traditional church model which to them felt over packaged, inauthentic and all about awkward conversations around coffee pots in the corners of Sunday School rooms.

Addie keeps trying to find the perfect church while Andrew wasn't so wrapped up in the structure kept telling Addie his motto: "But we are The Church." Or in other words, church is not something we go to but something we experience every time 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ's name. (The two eventually joined a house church).

It takes discipline to remember that church is not noun but a verb. And that as we set out on this path to follow Jesus, there is not just one way to live out our faith.

We might spent our whole lives figuring it out and then realizing we were wrong and figuring it out again.

We might do it within the membership roles of a congregation. Or we might not. Jesus still loves us the same.

In continuation of the conversation about what happens to your own sense of doctrine when calling takes you outside the church?

(The first part of this series can be read by clicking here if you missed it).

What happens when you don't have a denomination or a presbytery or bishop or association telling you to stay within these lines of thought and worship practice (at least publicly that is)?

What happens when you don't have to worry about losing your job if you cross the line just a little to far in your writing or speaking?

What happens to your own sense of faith then? What happens to your own church attendance record?

Such are questions I feel like I've been living into this year with this new sense of calling on my life.

I no longer attend church on Sundays because I have to. I attend because I want to.

I no longer do service activities because it is something that my church asks me to do, I do things because it is just who I am.

I no longer tow the "this is what my denomination believes" card. In the spiritual community I have around me, we wrestle together.

Not that I've ever really been the kind of person who was shut down by those who want to silence my questionings, but to be in a place where my income (i.e. ability to pay the mortgage) is not dependent on what a particular church or a denominational group of churches thinks about what I believe can only be summed up in one word: freedom.

So dang freeing.

Most days now feel like living into the exhortation from Galatians: "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free."

It's been a season of life for me to once and for all put aside the voices in my head from my evangelical upbringing that say things like:

"Christianity is about going to church every Sunday" or "Christianity can't be found outside the church."

And in the midst of this freedom, I'm having lots of new questions about the role of the church in faith. Questions like: "Is spiritual, Jesus-centric community only found in a group of people who get together in a church building on Sunday morning or other times of the week?"

I realize by saying this aloud, I'm on the edge of the heretic zone for some of you.

You'll be getting out the Bible and start quoting passages from Corinthians to me about the foundational principles of church as shared with us by Paul.

"You're a pastor? You can't say these things!"

Ok, I hear you already.

But this is my point: as my own sense of calling has taken me out of the church, I've often found the "church" in what seems nothing like what I've ever known before. And I don't need the church to say I'm right or wrong here. It just is.

Church comes to me in conversations over lemonade or Diet Coke when people of completely different spiritual backgrounds somehow land on common ground.

Church comes to me over Skype conversations with my friend in Africa who reminds me that no matter what, I'm loved unconditionally.

Church comes to me when my best friend in Tennessee talks to me about how she's teaching her 2 year old to pray prayers of thanksgiving.

Church comes to me when I'm standing with Kevin at a Feed The Children food drop giving can goods and life essential products to neighbors in need.

What about you? Where do you find church? Where are you struggling with issues of doctrine and spirituality that somehow get tangled in the word we've labeled "church"?

A couple weeks ago with Kevin out of the country for work and no particular geographic place I needed to be I packed up from DC and headed south toward North Carolina.

While I was in seminary I worked to keep my student debt at $0 as a student associate pastor at a rural United Methodist Church.

For two academic years, New Sharon United Methodist Church was my home.

It was a win-win for both the church and me, I believe. They got extra pastoral help. I got valuable experience as a pastor in an affirming environment. I taught them that all folks with Baptist roots aren't crazy. They taught me the joys of entering deeply into their lives. We loved each other. And I made some life-long friends as a result of being a part of this community.

So, it feel natural to call some New Sharon church members who have abided in my life since then-- and ask them if I could stay with them when I came to town. Tim and Debbie Smith were great to say "Yes!"

In being in North Carolina, the land of many trees, I remembered who I was. And I got a lot of writing done surrounded by good company and food.
picstitch

Not only through the gracious hospitality of my hosts, but through numerous lunch and dinner conversations and even a visit back to choir practice at my old church.

I heard things like, "We still think of you all the time . . . We are so glad our paths crossed when they did. . . . I wish you lived closer."

I even got to reconnect with an older church member, Bobbie Hunt who told me that she has a bookmark I gave her after my visit to Africa in 2005-- and that she prays for me daily. Every time she sees the bookmark, she said that she prays for me! I was amazed and tears came to my eyes as I heard this. Not only did I have no idea I'd made any impression on her life, but to know of her daily prayers for me was amazing (especially considering so much of Kevin's work with FTC is now in Africa!).

North Carolina was good for my soul.

I remembered I came from somewhere-- including there.

I remembered that I have more people who love me than I realize from my current experience in a new place.

I remembered the joy that comes from the calling of being a particular group of people's pastor.

I remembered that I have a home to go back to anytime I forget.

Durham, Hillsborough and New Sharon United Methodist friends, I love you. Thanks for reminding me again how much you love me too.

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One question I've gotten recently is "Why haven't you changed the name of your blog?"

The official title of my blog is Preacher on the Plaza. I started this blog back in January 2009 (back when not everyone and their brother had a blog) when I became the pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist (WPBC) in Reston, VA. This church sat as the centerpiece of a commercial/ residential district of Lake Anne with our next door neighbors being a coffee shop, a real estate branch office and a Thai restaurant. (What fun, right?) Hence the name-- Preacher on the Plaza--- I was the only "preacher" on Lake Anne Plaza.

On my last Sunday at WPBC, I was given a couple of gifts. One of them was a binder full of my blogs printed out (remember the 2012 election joke about binders?). It was a funny yet appropriate gift. The congregation knew me well. They knew how much I loved writing and sharing the story of our little church with the larger community. They knew the blogs I'd written during my tenure with them meant something.

Though blogs are not meant to become doctrinal statements or even be the kind of thoughts shared that you'll always go back to years later-- I kind of like having these binders in my closet as a way to remember WPBC and their thoughtfulness.

So, when January 2013 rolled around, I thought about changing the name of this site. A chapter in the life had ended, you know. I was no longer "the preacher on Lake Anne Plaza." One day, there would be another pastor to care for this group of people I loved so much. Maybe he or she would want to be "the preacher on the plaza?"

But somehow I just couldn't change the name. The title had become a part of what I was and who I was in the process of becoming.
I decided to remain "Preacher on the Plaza" for two reasons:

1. In this current phase of life, God seemed to be calling me to be a pastor who was "on the plazas" of life (as I always seem to be somewhere that wasn't where I was the week before). I would not pastor a traditional church, but I would be out among the people where I found myself seeking opportunities to engage others in the deeper stories of life. The plazas of this world would be my new ministry. And I would need to write about them.

2. The church that made me their "Preacher on the Plaza" gave me my voice. One of the greatest gift my tenure at WPBC gave me was confidence in the leader/ teacher/ preacher I was made to be. I tell the truth when I say NEVER did WPBC ask me to be any less than who I was-- a rarity among churches these days. I actually think they would have been ill at me as a congregation if I'd backed down to be any less than I was. In keeping the name "Preacher on the Plaza" for my blog, it's my way of paying tribute to this wonderful congregation that empowered me in my becoming and having a piece of them always with me.

So, thanks for reading, oh faithful blog readers. Thanks for being on this journey with me-- this journey that I often have no idea where it is going from day-to-day.

I look forward to possibly visiting a plaza near you sometime soon!

I've been around church for years. And I think I've seen so much of what makes church, church these days--

Traditional Worship
Contemporary Worship
Contemplative Worship
Worship by the Common Book of Prayer
Worship where tongues are spoken
Worship where hands are raised
Worship in shorts
Worship in suits
Worship with shouts
Worship in silence
Worship from the pews
Worship from the pulpit

Is there a correct way to worship?

Is there a way of worship that is more pleasing to God?

Is there a worship style that will get more people to attend your church?

Such are the kind of questions church folks like to ask each other. Such are the kind of questions that church folks like to think they have complete certainty about.

We go to conferences to seek to worship in mass numbers. We go to conferences to learn better ways to lead our kind of worship. And we go to conferences to learn about the latest trends in worship.

But is such worth all our energy? What does God think of all our shuffling around like this? Does "better worship" or "bigger worship" really help us draw closer to the Divine?

I'm not so sure.

We've become good students at the art form of worship, but we've lost sight at what encountering God looks like-- the kind of God that Annie Dillard says we need to wear crash helmets to experience in church. We've lost sight of believing that worship begins with a relationship. Worship begins with a desire for adoration of the One who is greater than us all-- who could never to be controlled

And no fancy templates or worship orders are always needed. We can worship with or without drums, the piano or the organ.

And most of all, it's never about emotion alone as is the most popular trend in so many churches today-- it's about an alignment of our entire being.

And worship most of all is not about us-- not about what we "get out of it." Not about the feelings we leave a worship service with and most of all worship is not for worship's sake. Worship, as given to us in the Christian context is about setting our feet on holy ground. Holy ground which we may "feel" once in our lives-- or if we are lucky maybe more . . . but the emotion is never guaranteed.

Consider this wisdom from Roberta Bondi about the emotional traps of whatever kind of worship practice we choose:

“If we have a powerful religious experience, we need always to remember that just because a religious experience is powerful it is not necessarily from God."

Bondi goes on to ask us to consider these questions in our discernment of worship: "Does this experience make us feel singled out and either superior or not accountable to others in or out of the community because of it? Does it lead us to be judgmental of others, to say who deserves to belong to God’s people and who does not? . . . OR does this experience give us insight into ourselves, others or God? Do its insights hold good over time, or was it simply an emotional high that not only wears off but makes us seek another?”

If an experience of God in church leads us to want more of the experiences (the high of it all) and not God alone, then it is not worship at its best. BUT, if an experience changes us from inside out, turning over in us bone and marrow, thought and feeling, then it is worship that is about to change the world. It's heaven come to earth.

What I most like to tell people as a pastor is: if you feel the need to raise your hands in a "quiet" church: do it. If you feel the need to cover your head in reverence in a "high" church: do it. If you feel the need to sit reflectively in a "loud" church: do it.

I think the sooner we stop trying to manufacture experiences of God, the sooner we'll find the Holy in whatever tradition our worshiping life takes us.