Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Your Mark. Get Set… Be Friendly!

It's has been going on long enough in enough churches that it has become a ritual.

"Let's take a moment to greet one another," the worship leader says. Then the music begins, the people stand up, move around, shake each others' hands, and say how glad they are to see each other.

They call it "Passing the Peace" or "Meet and Greet." I like "Trap and Rap" but it has yet to catch on--I'm hoping, though.

I hate it. It reminds me of when I was a kid attending a party and when it came time to leave, my mom would say, "Be sure to tell them you had a nice time."

"I had a nice time," I would mumble with deep sincerity.

A lot of people seem to like it. If I try to skip it, I get complaints, especially from the guys who consider it a religious experience to hug a good looking woman.

I had occasion to visit another church not long ago and it came time for that precious moment of fellowship. I saw a handful of people working the crowd like salesmen and politicians and I thought for a moment I was at a used car lot.

It depresses me to realize how often I have done that same aggressive glad handing myself, working the crowds and noting the visitors for future cultivation.

I can remember when I worked a crowd to see who was especially needy. But there are two things different now. First, in this crowd, no one wants to let on that they're needy. And second, I'm too tired to care as much.

By the end of Sunday night, I'm tired of shaking hands and beaming my big mug into other people's faces. I'm ready to go home to hug my two tall handsome sons and kiss my pretty wife.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let Us Pray

It was prayer time.

A little old woman raised her hand and with a booming voice said, "I'm grateful I finally got my PLUMBING fixed last week!"

Several pairs of eyebrows went up at her fervent praise. A couple of people laughed.

"It's nice to get those house repairs done, isn't it?" I clarified.

"Ohh." One of the choir members behind me said.

It's hard not to say anything in public without stumbling into an unintended double entendre. One time when the Lay director's microphone was not working, I addressed the sound technicians from the stage: "Fellas, one of you needs to come down here and turn her on!"

They still tease me about that one.

One time, we had a band play for us, and the woman stopped her playing for a moment to tell us that the reason they were performing this kind of music was so they could help us not be so stuffy in our worship. "We want you people to loosen up!"

Her fellow band member knew she has spoken too harshly, so he tried to smooth it over. "And isn't it wonderful," he said grandly, "to be loose in the Lord."

All I could think of was how they were having a laxative effect on the congregation.

I'll take my lumps for my own verbal blunders, but I really wish we could curtail some of the things people share during prayer time. The rest of us do not need to hear of Uncle Bubba's hemorrhoids, or Aunt Flossie's rash just under her right breast.

The worst one was from the prim lady who asked us week after week to pray for her son-in-law who "has a tumor on his left testicle and will have to have it removed."

I kept resisting the urge to ask if the tumor or the whole testicle would need to be removed.

Anyway, if there are no other requests, let us pray….

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Good Week

My God! I just realized that I had a good week! It has been so long, I almost didn't recognize it.

I was dreading last night's finance meeting. Like everywhere else, money is scarcer and it looks like it will be worse before it gets better. But I have some pretty smart guys working at this, and they've got some ideas on how to keep us up and running.

But at the end of the meeting, after we had officially adjourned, nobody got up. They became excited about the work they were doing. Money had raised for food for a homeless ministry. The youth are helping the elderly. The children are collecting canned goods. A mission trip to Mexico is being planned. Project after project was mentioned.

What's really amazing is that usually this kind of talk makes the money guys anxious. But they weren't. They were excited about the possibilities.

The week before, I had told many of them that even if we had to scale down our spending, we shouldn't let anxiety steer us away from the mission of helping others. Whatever we had coming in needed to be used for service, not self preservation. Did they actually listen?

Earlier in the week someone came to me for real ministerial help rather than to complain about something at church. And maybe, just maybe I said something that actually helped.

Before then, I met with the guy who is my boss in our denomination. I reported that both attendance and giving was down, which was not surprising to him or me. I told him how frustrated I was at coming to a church that was obligated to pay off a lavish new building when there were so many poor people needing help. It made me mad and uncomfortable every time I entered my own office.

He smiled. He actually seemed pleased. He thought my discomfort was a good thing. He suggested perhaps I was moved to this church to help them change direction. And perhaps I should not worry about the numbers so much and focus on direction. That's what I had been doing, but I didn't know if he would understand that. Most people don't.

I also confessed to him that I was having a hard time liking these people and that I missed my old church. He said I needed to quit trying to like them and to focus on the job. That helped. He also said I needed to find some interests outside the church. Maybe blogging?

The Sunday after my meeting with him, the attendance was back up, and my preaching had a little more zip to it.

It's only now, when I've had a few moments to sit and think, that I see that it really has been a good week. And maybe just maybe there's some hope.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Endurance

I once worked for a toxic church in a community of crazy people. It was a confusing place where everything was ass backwards.

Examples: I fired the youth minister for inappropriate behavior toward a girl in his group, and the congregation sided against her and sympathized greatly with him.

I had another counseling case where someone in the congregation demanded to know how it was being handled. I told that person to back the hell off because who I spoke to was confidential and not subject to her examination. This should have reassured the church that they could trust me, but instead they thought I was too harsh with the woman I faced off.

One teenager was also into witchcraft, and I'm told he put a curse on me. I laughed but I sort of believed he might have had that kind of power. I don't believe that now.

I was threatened, lied to, and conspired against. Like the cartoon said, "You're not paranoid; people really are out to get you."

Like I said, it wasn't just this church, but the whole religious community. Seven preachers, including me, all left at about the same time. Three of them left the ministry--one of those ran off with the organist. A couple of us were sick. And one died of illness.

Most churches, even the dysfunctional ones, are not as mean and hateful as what I've described. In fact, I have received much kindness from people in the name of Jesus.

But I've learned some things.

First, my family is more important than my church. I don't know why we clergy will often sacrifice our families for this work. I was on this track back then, but not anymore.

Second, I won't die for this work. Jesus' death will have to be enough for them, because I won't sacrifice myself for them.

I spent some time in the hospital for both psychological and physical disorders. I have often wondered why I did not die because I came pretty damn close. I learned about my weaknesses and I learned about my strengths. I'm smarter now. Better than I was before. I'm also more bitter and cynical. I've paid some dues.

But I didn't die, and I'm still serving.