Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In the Room Where It Happens

Have you ever experienced a moment when you know something important has shifted and moving forward things will never be the same? It’s like being in “the room where it happens”, as the song from Hamilton goes. Last night I was in the room where it happens at Ascension. 

The meeting of our Congregation Council (that’s what we call our Board in the ELCA) was unlike any I have attended since I arrived at Ascension. We didn’t meet during July, so we had a lot to cover. As an aside, I found out why we don’t meet in July from our President, Kim. She said it started something like 20 years ago when the pastor at the time was always away during July. Seriously? That’s like the old story of the woman who was constantly cutting off the end of the ham before she baked it. When her husband asked why she always cut off the end of the ham, she didn’t know; that’s the way she had learned to cook it from her mother. So she asked her mother, “Why do we always cut off the end of the ham before we put it in the oven?” Her mother informed her that she had to cut off a couple inches so it would fit into the pan she had. And so it goes. But you never know until you ask. (It may be time to revisit the practice of no July Council meeting at Ascension.)

As a result of missing a month, we had a lot of ground to cover at our Council meeting. But that’s not what made it so unusual. It was unusual because of the way people engaged in the process. 

We’ve been beginning our meetings with a book study that we’re doing all year. It’s about adaptive leadership. The discussion last night was about how to change the DNA of an organization. Unlike some months when I lead this part of the meeting, everyone seemed to have something to say. They are really wrestling with what adaptive leadership looks for Ascension. 

Next came approval of the June minutes. Also a part of the agenda that normally slips by with minimal discussion. Not so this time. We spent considerable time reviewing one of the goals the Council set for themselves over the next year. After a variety of perspectives were expressed, we eventually decided to scratch the goal. I was surprised by the passion people had around this. They didn’t hold back. Emotions ran high. And here’s the part I loved. They listened to one another. They disagreed and were experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance, but they were open and they hung in there. And when all was said and done, we landed in a different place. 

We were not wrestling with a small thing like the color of the carpet or what to serve at a potluck. This was the big stuff. The stuff that Councils are supposed to be wrestling with. DNA type stuff. Do we focus our attention on reducing our mortgage? It weighs us down financially as we are not meeting our monthly payments from offerings and continue to dip into a fund that won’t last forever.  In addition, we live with the knowledge that in three years our interest rate will be changing, and we assume it will go up.  So the desire to reduce our mortgage is not unfounded. But then, there are some on the Council who are frustrated that we have emphasized reducing the mortgage in a way that is perceived as putting mortgage above ministry. 

One member put it well when she said that we all have mortgages at home. Should we just use all our money to pay off our mortgages without giving to the church? To her, that’s the message we are sending by focusing so much on paying off our mortgage. She made a similar point when we were discussing this at a previous meeting, but at that time she didn’t get much traction. This time she was not alone. And so, we were really hashing it out together. 

It’s a struggle that any congregation with a lot of property deals with. It’s so easy to invest all our time and energy on property needs at the expense of ministry. On the other hand, a congregation ignores property needs at its own peril. And things like heat, and electricity, and a roof are valuable resources that allow ministry to take place. (These are the kind of things that our building renovation covered. Nothing fancy, but necessary. And the mortgage lingers.) But does it have to be an either/or dilemma? Can vibrant ministry take place while we’re maintaining our building? Can opportunities for ministry increase while the mortgage decreases? 

I must add that Ascension is a generous congregation. We don’t sink every spare dime we have into reducing our mortgage. We are committed to tithing to our synod and giving to other ministries beyond the walls of the church building. This discussion was prompted because the congregation had just received a huge undesignated bequest. We put it into reducing the mortgage and doing some needed building improvements, which was pretty much assumed when we received it. But apparently, Council members had spent some time rethinking our decision, and they were feeling compelled to challenge it last night. As a result, we decided to take 10% off the top of all undesignated bequests and put it into a fund that the Council will manage for the purpose of supporting ministries outside our budget. It was a positive way to resolve the conundrum, and I have the sense that all felt good about it. 

The end result isn’t what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about the energy and passion in the room and how people freely expressed it. It was tense. It took a while. But it was a discussion of substance. It was about vision and really big stuff like faith and fear and what God would have us do. And we did it. 

This is why I have such confidence that Ascension has a future. I’m sensing a shift among the leadership and among members of the congregation. It’s a bit scary at times. But it’s such an honor to be in the room where it happens. Thank you, God.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Unlocking the Mystery of God's Will for Your Life

When I was a kid and my mom’s birthday was coming up, I would go to her and ask, “What do you want for your birthday, Mom?” And her answer was always the same. “Nancy, if you want to give me something, clean your room.”

Well, that was the last thing I wanted to give my mother for her birthday, and at the time I thought she was just being uncooperative. So I would go out and buy her something that I thought she might like. But you know, now that I’ve been a mother with kids who kept their rooms a lot like I did when I was their age, I understand what my mom was saying. And I realize that she meant it. The best present I could have given her would have been cleaning my room.

It seems like we all struggle with discerning God's will for our lives. We long to have a clear answer to the question, "What do you want from me, God?" But I've come to the conclusion that we aren't any more interested in hearing what God really wants from us than I was interested in hearing what mom really wanted from me.

After all, it’s not such a great mystery what God’s will is for our lives and discerning it is not like the search for the Holy Grail. We don’t have to go any further than the baptismal liturgy where we present a lighted candle to the newly baptized and say: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

God’s will for our lives is spelled out for us repeatedly in the scriptures. One of my favorite passages is from Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God?” That’s pretty clear to me. Jesus himself gives us lots of instructions, including: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He summed it all up by telling us that the most important thing we can do with our lives is love God by loving one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). 

We have tons of scriptures that clearly tell us what God’s will is for his people. And yet, we act like it’s some great unsolved mystery. Why? Is it that we don't believe God really means it? Or could it be because we simply flat out don’t want to do it?