Saturday, December 30, 2006

First Impressions

We had a visit from a youth this past Sunday who is hoping to go into ministry.

He was quite candid and said he didn't like my preaching style. He said that he would have preferred a "more biblical style".

Hears me once, and he knows my style? I smile and say I guess that is possible. But in reality, his comment did make me reflect a moment or three on the whole issue of first time visitors and what causes them to come back.

What does cause someone to return for a second visit?

I do routinely ask those who I see again who do not come back and I get a variety of responses ... some of which in the short term I might be able to do something about ... but many... are a function of a small church with a limited array of programmatic options.

We do get a fair number of visitors -- usually three to four a month. Sometimes they show up in clusters and other times, strung out more regularly over a month. My guess is that about one in four, one in five come back at least once more. One in ten or so, come back a third time. The third time is the charm -- we have made a relationship and I think as a practical matter they will be back a fourth, fifth, and other times. Our growth in membership and attendance has been due to this group coming back, and making up for losses to the military permanent change of station rhythm and pure moves in order to follow their professional lives. We seem at times to be a three step forward, two step back routine.

But this reflection is about first impressions, and I am prayerful that we can create a positive first impression. At the same time, I ask people to give us two, three shots before saying that Stratmoor isn't for them. I sometimes feel guilty when I am poorly prepared and we have two or three visitors. I feel like my poor preparation contributed in some way to us not making a connection. That having been said, I have had people come back after a poorly prepared sermon. Ya know -- maybe it isn't about me!

The reality is -- I know it isn't.

Peace be with you ....

Friday, December 29, 2006

Memories of Jerry Ford

I had a real dilemma in 1976. I was originally from Georgia, and I felt a lot of pride that Jimmy Carter stood a chance of being the President.

On the other hand, I genuinely liked what I thought I knew of Jerry Ford.

A man who could in his first moments as president tell us he was a "Ford, not a Lincoln", that he was 'mindful of the fact he wasn't elected' and that "The long national nightmare is over" was someone I liked.

If he had not pardoned Nixon, he might have gone on to be an elected President. His own comment to his friend Tip O'Neill was that his being elected in his own right was secondary to getting the Nixon pain past us.

We look now on the moment with different lenses.

At the time, many of us thought that it was a major mistake to pardon Nixon. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (that will be published tomorrow 12/30/06) says words that should resonate with us today...:
The first is that when he pardoned Richard Nixon, he threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame, from going too far. It was an act of deep political courage, and it was shocking. Almost everyone in the country hated it, including me. But Ford was right. Richard Nixon had been ruined, forced to resign, run out of town on a rail. There was nothing to be gained -- nothing -- by his being broken on the dock. What was then the new left would never forgive Ford. They should thank him on their knees that he deprived history of proof that what they called their idealism was not untinged by sadism.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

How are Things Going?

Friends ask me -- How are things going in Ministry?

Invariably I say - Ministry is going well.

That said, I know I have many vices, and one of them is impatience. I know that a Fruit of the Spirit is patience, but it is a Fruit I am not as good at growing as I would hope.

But patient is what I am called to be. We continue to show slow, but steady improvement in attendance, stewardship, membership and discipleship.

Our attendance is probably the most dramatic increase, where we have gone from 34 people on an average Sunday to right at 62 in less than four years. Our goal is to be at 100 by 2010.

Our membership, stewardship and discipleship have shown increases that we also are prayerful will continue to rise. I am of the view that increasing Sunday Attendance leads to the others having some increase.

In a main line denominatioin that is nationally showing declining numbers, why are we increasing?

Relationship is my start point in trying to explain this.

I inherited a congregation that was highly relational, and we have retained that flavor. We tell people we are a Cheers church -- a place where everybody knows your name. People regularly ask me who a person is who has been there more than once.

Related to the relational aspect is the time we spend in worship with Blessings and Concerns. We try to lift both up and mention them to all. I think this is part of the relationship building that is going on, and while it sometimes makes getting to the end by 10:15 AM (meaning one hour for the total service) a little dicey, I think it is part of the DNA that we have to honor and must sustain.

I sometimes use imagery drawn from the Walk to Emmaus model (a church renewal program sponsored by The Upper Room out of Nashville). Here my view is that our faith relationship needs to be like a three legged stool. The three legs are relationships with God, others, and yourself. Each leg needs to be about the same length. When one is overly long or overly short, the three legged stool is not balanced, and we slide off.

How are things going? Well. I am prayerful that we can slowly, steadily, continue to show increases for the Kingdom in 2007. That is my fervent prayer and hope.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Excitement and Energy are functions of Preparation and Practice

I have been quite surprised that on those infrequent occasions when I have had to preach twice in a day, I actually had the energy to do it. The contrast in relaxation and energy is also noticeable. I often feel better about what I feel I am called to proclaim the second time, than the first. Yesterday evening was a good example of this. I really felt more relaxed and at the same time more energetic for the 7:00 Christmas Eve service, rather than the 5:00 service.

But is this about the energy level of a 58 year old part-time pastor or something else?

I vote something else.

I think part of what I am reflecting on is a commentary on the value of practice -- and here I mean the practice of actually saying what I am going to say. Getting myself into the mode of standing there and saying it seems to make it better (duh). I can be more exciting, more engaged, when I have practiced the sermon in the space. I need to covenant myself to do that more frequently.

For me, the key to how if I feel connected or not with the listener is how prepared I feel like I am. The more prepared I am -- and here I think eight to ten hours of preparation is about what is needed -- the more excited and the more energetic I can be. And the more excited and energetic I am, the more I feel like the Word that is passing through me, has a chance of connecting with those around me. It is interesting how often this comes back to relationship. Over and over again -- relationship seems to be a key, if not the key. Here, my relationship with myself is a function of my relationship with the topic, and when I am secure with myself, and the topic, I am able to better establish relationship with those who are there to here the Word proclaimed.

I have to think this is a lesson relearned, rather than learned, but that a goal I have to have for 2007 is more conscientious time devoted to preparation and making the worship hour fun, exciting, interesting, and maybe just maybe, challanging. But fun, excting, intersting and challanging, are just indicators of -- Did we establish a relationship?

May you have a peaceful, and blessed day.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Moving from Advent to Christmas

You can have the fourth Sunday of Advent as late as December 24, and tomorrow that is the case.

One needs to think very intensely about the anticipated arrival, and then, within hours, we are required to talk about that very arrival.

My theme in the morning is on the excitement we find from the altered expectations. We thought God was going to take one action, but then, we are surprised, and I pray excited, by the delivery. I can't help but wonder how much of the expectation excitement isn't driven at least in part by the change from a more communitarian messiah to one that is more individual. I am sure that D'Toqueville, if here, would find me pretty normal American on that one.

In the eve, I plan to use the John Buchanan essay in the mid-month Christian Century on the gift of love that is the Christ Child as the center piece for my reflection. That message will only be ten minutes, and many will want to get past the building of the manger scene we do, and move on to the Silent Night with Candles all churches do on the Eve of Christmas. My theme will be that borrowed from Buchanan and 1 John 4 -- that it is a gift of love that is with us and in us daily. At Stratmoor (my church) we say We celebrate Easter every Sunday. Well, I am prayerful that we are both excited about Christ's presence in our lives, and willing to recognize the gift that we have been given. I would hope we also Celebrate Christmas Eve every Sunday.

Peace be with you ....

Friday, December 22, 2006

What is it I am going to say with this?

I set this site up about a year ago, and for whatever reason, I never got started. I seem to feel like if I am going to try this, I need to have some kind of approach I am going to use.

I think talking here in a journaling-like fashion is how I am going to start. Obviously all of my journal comments won't go here, but I think for a while, some thoughts of what is on my mind -- and that might mean some concerns -- will. I am thinking frankly that this will be a place where I:
  • Reflect on what is going on in ministry (or)
  • Talk about my sermon preparation for the week (or)
  • My reaction to what is going on in the sports world
We'll see as I grow with this. But I think that will generally be my approach.

For now, that is probably enough.