Sunday, December 31, 2017

Social media trends influencing ministry in 2018

The first trend I'm noticing: lots of writers are committing to less time in the daily grind of social media, with the goal of creating better and more enduring content.

I'm making that commitment also. Personal practices I'll be changing in 2018:

  • No social media sharing other than content I've created myself or that was created by someone I know. 
  • More focus on group work in smaller channels, especially Slack.
  • If I share a post in social media, it will be long. Longread long. Probably on a blog. Like this one.
  • Mostly, I just plan to be on less so I can write longform again. A book. I'm at work on a book.

Then there are some predictions in the larger social media world worth considering as they pertain to  church ministry space. Here they are:

  • From Entrepreneur, there's an emphasis on visual story-telling, especially on Instagram Story. Faith communities have always engaged the visual and the verbal. It may be that this kind of story-telling is the emerging way not only to share our lives with one another, or promote brands, but also proclaim the faith.
  • Livestreaming and interactive broadcasting: There's nothing in social media that has ever more closely approximated the live and interactive nature of preaching than live-streaming. But like preaching, it's harder than we might think to create interactive streaming content. It's going to take practice. Seminaries and synods will probably start hosting live-streaming clinics the same way they currently clinic preaching.
  • Declining organic reach and fatigue from tools and tactics: It's probably ironic to include this in the list, because my list is itself a set of tools and tactics, but we really are fatigued. We like to talk authenticity in the church. We are now seeing an emphasis on the authenticity of our media reach itself, and the users of it. Our influencers are going to help share faith in social media more than the tools or techniques. In the past, these influencers were called apostles and evangelists.
  • Ephemeral content is going to provide higher engagement: This one makes me super curious. I don't know how it translates. But all the platforms are shifting to ephemeral content because the next generation (Z) and a wider set of users seem to prefer it. It's worth experimentation. It's also probably why I'm more interested than ever in live theater.
  • Addressing pain pointsCan you describe the pain your faith community solves–and why anyone should care–in just a few words? Can you then invite those in need to consider your message using your simple explanation? These are the actual kinds of issues marketers are pondering, something the church and people of faith are always working on. But are we doing it well? Tight messaging can contribute to healing.
So, what are you thinking about in social media and church ministry for 2018?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A message from our refugee resettlement director

Dear faith leaders, and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, 

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.”

This time of year, as we all gather to celebrate the gift of Christ’s birth, I ask you to remember this part of the Nativity story: Our Savior and his Earthly parents were driven from their homeland into the arms of strangers under pain of death. Our King was a refugee in Egypt

There are 65 million refugees in the world today: that's millions of families just like our Savior’s family who have been forced to flee for their lives—and they are knocking on our doors. What is our response? As a Church? As a country? As a community?

As many of you know, I work for Canopy NWA, a new nonprofit started by our community to welcome and care for refugees. We have had the chance to welcome 55 refugees so far, and there are 75 more we are expecting this coming year. We know 32 of them by name. Many of these families were assigned to us last winter but have not been permitted to travel because of three separate refugee bans. Even though some refugees are starting to be admitted again, we are worried by the current pace of admissions: currently, we are on track to admit a paltry 15,000 this year instead of the 45,000 promised by our President. If nothing changes, we worry that some or all of our families might not make it in this year.

I’m writing to you all as my brothers and sisters in Christ to ask you and your churches for three things this Christmas, in the name of the 65 million displaced: 

1. Will you pray with me? Pray for the 32 men, women and children who are being kept from their homes here in Northwest Arkansas. Pray for their safety: already, we are grieved to know that one young man we were expecting has passed away in a refugee camp from an illness that would have been easily treated here. Pray for peace for them as they wait. Also pray for the families, co-sponsor teams and churches who have been waiting for nearly a year to be able to receive these people here in Northwest Arkansas. And above all, pray that they would be permitted to join us here soon. Pray for change in the hearts of those who are barring the way for these families to enter into their promised home. Ask God to change our rulers’ hearts to “let His people go.” 

              2. Will you give to support our work? Since our founding, we have relied on the support of faith communities like yours, but never has this support been more crucial than in this moment. Our government funding is tied solely to newly-arrived refugees. If we are not permitted to welcome any refugee families this year, that funding—which also allows us to continue serving those who are already here—will disappear. We are facing the possibility of a loss of up to $75,000 if none of our expected families are permitted to travel. I ask you all and your churches to consider supporting our ministry this coming year. It is becoming clear that we simply won’t be able to continue without you all. 

              3. Will you plead with our leaders along with me? Every one of our elected officials—from our members of Congress, to our President and Vice President—call themselves Christians. So as leaders of the Christian faith, I ask you consider how you might be able to use whatever influence you have to remind our leaders that our faith commands us to welcome these strangers, fleeing for their lives. Our elected officials are not infallible. Like the kings of Israel, they are humans who sometimes need to be reminded of what is true and right. God often used His prophets to correct the rulers He had put in place and call them back to obedience. Likewise, I believe God is calling us—calling the Church—to speak up for His children. We cannot be silent anymore. Please. This Christmas, join me in pleading with our elected officials to do what is right and to allow the 45,000 who have been promised refuge here to enter into safety without delay. I invite you to start by signing this statement, if you haven't already. After that, I would ask that you prayerfully consider who you might have in your sphere of influence who might need to hear this message this Christmas.

Thank you, brothers and sisters for taking the time to read this and listen to the Holy Spirit's leading. Please feel free to reach back out if you would like to speak to me about any of this in person or over the phone.
For the sake of our Refugee King,

Emily Crane Linn
Resettlement Director, Canopy NWA

Monday, December 18, 2017

A few apposite comments on the "call to ministry"

This winter I'll have been ordained fifteen years. Way back in the day, before children, a move to Arkansas, and the advent of social media (though not before blogging) I knelt near the altar (that no longer exists) of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa (the church in which I was raised).

Many bishops and clergy laid hands on my head that day (the weight of those hands still startles me in the remembering). The words: teach and preach in accordance with Scripture and our confessions. The act: apostolic succession into multiple historic episcopacies, mostly by the happy accident of which clergy and bishops were present that day (Porvoo, Latvian, and Episcopal), The prayer: calling for a special measure of the Holy Spirit. The reality: all of this qualified me for employment by congregations so I could do what I've been doing professionally since then.

Our denomination likes to use some fancy language to say all this: I'm a rostered minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ordained into the ministry of Word & Sacrament. This means I'm on a special list and there's a special job in churches only people on that list can fill.

They call us pastors.
At the capitol in Little Rock speaking against the death penalty

Like many professionals, over the years I've had to re-evaluate what I thought I was doing when I was pastoring. I think early in my career, I thought I was stewarding some ancient things that might otherwise get lost: liturgy, theology, the sacraments, radical Lutheranism. I liked church camp, visiting people and such, and was finding my feet as a Christian progressive (rode a bus to protest the Iraq war, participated in actions against Walmart, attended meetings between hotel workers and their employers, etc.)

I also just loved the people. I grew up on a farm, so serving rural congregations in southern Wisconsin was a real joy. I loved life as a kind of adopted Norwegian, and of course still wear the sweaters and miss the cheese curds and lefse and people.

Over the years, I think I've changed a bit. Ministry tempers you. I don't get all highfalutin as I did early on (though I still love books), and I've got the cassock on mothballs. 

But I think the context for ministry, what it means to be a pastor, has changed even more than I have.

So at this anniversary, I've been trying to articulate a bit of that. Why is it I think the context has changed more than I have? And why is it so important to name the contextual change?

The bottom line: I have parishioners and even one staff person who are considering pastoral ministry. So I need to give an accounting to them of what they're getting themselves into. I mean, they're adults, so it's their decision. But I'd like to be honest, and clear. They say they may be called to ministry. So what is ministry? And what is a call?

Let's start with seminaries, because almost anyone who starts discerning a call to ministry starts thinking about seminary. Seminaries still are really cool places. Where else can you devote three or four years to the study of religion, with a fighting chance of finding a job on the other side? I loved seminary, and even if all you do is go to seminary and get the degree, and then go back to what you're doing now, I'd say that was time well spent. Especially if they have a cool library and pray every day, and if you avoid going deep into debt while there.

You might be called to ministry if...
But seminaries are changing, drastically. Residential is out. Distance learning is in. This is of course a larger trend in education. Many seminaries are struggling, even failing, and some are relocating to their historic context: the university. So if you are considering seminary these days, know that you are entering into an academic context that is in a high state of flux. Faculty and administrators and everyone are trying to figure out what to do with themselves. 

Be okay with that. If you are, it will be a great ride. Alternatively, come talk to me or somebody near you about starting a new church or ministry as a tent-maker, because it costs a lot less and is just as much of an adventure. We can read some good books with you if you want.

Calls are changing too... although neither as fast as some are warning, nor as quickly as others hope. I mean, churches are aging, fast, especially the mainline Protestant ones. So it's likely that a lot of churches are going to shutter their doors, or shift to calling part-time clergy. But the church is a stubborn entity, and it doesn't look like the church will change very fast, so if you are thinking you just want to land somewhere and love a group of people, that very traditional desire of the pastor is still a solid option. 

And a lot of churches are growing, quickly, like ours here at Good Shepherd Lutheran, as more and more Christians come to a clearer understanding of their own faith and commitment to Jesus, and either return after long absence, or come to faith for the first time.

But while we're still on the topic of finding a comfortable call... you may want to second guess pursuing such ends. Ask yourself, did the quiet and traditional approach to church of the last century steward a level of discipleship we hope to continue and deepen in the 21st century? I mean, the church in which I was raised was comfortable and fun and energizing... but I'm not convinced that overall Christianity as practiced in the majority churches in our communities instilled deep levels of biblical literacy, or formed people ready for resistance.

For example, the church hasn't done very well at offering an alternative to capitalism. Wendy Brown, political theorist, criticized academic theorists for their 'theoretical retreat from the problem of domination within capitalism.' And as R. Rogers-Vaughn argues, "Pastoral theologians have participated in this retreat" (19).

The clergy's complicity in this retreat has primarily occurred through political co-optation. Clergy attempt to keep everyone and everything together. They tend to be, and were historically trained to be, conflict-avoidant. And avoiding conflict rather than leaning into the truth is the primary manner in which pastors retreat from the problem of the domination of not just capitalism, but also heterosexism, racism, nationalism, and a variety of other heresies.

So one thing I've learned during these fifteen years: sometimes surviving the split that happens if you stick to the truth is the way in which you will truly thrive. It's death and resurrection, for real.

I do get uncomfortable with all the discernment language and soul-searching and hand-wringing that accompanies conversations about the call to ministry. I think such language, highly individualistic as it is, forces the ministry into one class-based mold: the middle class. 

If pastoral ministry is captive to any one thing, it is definitely captivity to the middle class.

We truly need more working class clergy, who think more in terms of systems and participation and solidarity rather than meaning and words.

I've learned there are lots of ways to do this gig, but probably a majority of clergy tow the line and are overly careful. They ride the rails of the already established. Pastoral ministry is a set of relationships with tasks embedded, whereas many other vocations are a set of tasks with relationships embedded. So if you can sort out how to have the relationships, you can spend your time doing a wide variety of things among a wide variety of people. You've got to love people. And books. But people, people you believe are alongside you on a mission of fidelity to the way of Jesus.

The new parish is the public. Perhaps never before in the history of pastoral ministry did every pastor have an opportunity to consider all the world a pulpit. New media now offers such opportunity. This requires considerable and careful planning on the part of the pastor. Clergy now need to understand platforming. Courage and curiosity are also required. Keep trying stuff (podcasts, tweets, manifestos) to see what works. 

I'm not convinced the whole narrative of "resisting" the call is helpful. I've heard a lot of clergy say, "Only do this if you can't do anything else." I don't think that's a very helpful perspective. I mean, really, wouldn't that be true and not true of almost every vocation? Such narratives of call set the ministry apart in a very non-Protestant way. I think we'd be better served if more clergy would say, instead, "Everybody can do this. Here, let's talk about how you can do it too."

Why should we pay people to do this? Well, that's a good question, given that I just said everyone can do it. But the truth is social organizations function thus. Non-profits need directors. Almost all organizations, from businesses to schools, seem to need principals or CEOs. So some people are going to organize together and realize they want to pay somebody who is really good at a percentage of what the church does, and then spend all their time doing it. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the person so hired keeps giving it back, while also stewarding the unique role they have as the paid person who keeps reminding everyone the real head is Jesus.

What about releasing the ministry to the whole people of God? Yes, do it. Do lots more of it. But keep in mind the old business mantra that the holy grail of systems is the self-actualizing work-team. It's not all that easy to give it all back. People are people. It's still worth trying.

I think the way congregations will inspire more people to the ministry is, in the end, by doing really good ministry. When the neighbors of your congregation start saying, "I love what your church is about. You all do great work!" I can almost guess that in that congregation, multiple people will be thinking about ministry. Because who doesn't want to go study and do the thing they're already a part of that they love?

I think early in my ministry I was trained to value doctrine and orthodoxy. And those aren't bad things. But recently a colleague criticized our statement of unity for refugees and immigrants as elevating compassion over orthodoxy. And I thought, "If I ever think that you can elevate compassion over orthodoxy, then there's probably something wrong with my orthodoxy."

That's the real struggle of every pastor right there. To keep the faith, the actual faith, in the service of the love we've learned in Christ.

And I hope you like to read. I hope you'll keep reading. Because books.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Creation of Advent

An Invitation to the Season

Salvation extends far beyond the human. Although we humans are attracted to the salvation peculiarly offered through that human being Jesus Christ, we realize that salvation is more than just a promise of eternal life for humans. Salvation is bigger: it is all of creation restored, made whole, healed and at peace. And this is in part because we are a part of, and not separate from, creation itself.

As a preacher, I probably make the mistake of too frequently focusing on how the gospel impacts human beings. It’s a natural mistake. It’s easiest for us to think out of our own frame of reference (the human), and harder for us to consider how the gospel connects with the non-human: mountains, angels, stars, forests, creatures of all kinds.

And yet the poet reminds us in Joy to the World that “heaven and nature sing” and “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.”

The Scripture we hear during Advent focuses our attention on God’s loving connection to all of creation. Mountains quake at God’s presence. Clay is formed by the potter. Even boiling water and kindling for fire participate in the praise of God (Isaiah 64:1-9). At the great and glorious day, the sun will be darkened, stars will fall, angels will fly out, the winds will gather, fig trees will teach, roosters will preach (Mark 13:24-37). The river Jordan becomes the means of forgiveness and atonement, leather and camel hair amplify the baptist’s message, the wilderness itself becomes the pulpit (Mark 1:1-8). Valleys will be lifted up, mountains will be made low, uneven ground will become level, grasses and sheep become the communities over which God’s Word hovers and cares (Isaiah 40:1-11). 

And those are just the creation references for the first two Sundays of Advent. Clearly, all of creation is part of the gospel message, and it is all of creation that sings the Advent song.

There are many references to creation in the liturgy also… and even more than the creation we can directly experience. Even as we discover more and more stars, galaxies, universes, planets, quarks, and elemental particles, I am reminded that every Sunday in the liturgy the pastor names the cherubim and seraphim as members of the great choir together with whom we sing around the throne of God. Although most of us have not directly experienced cherubim or seraphim (or dragons or unicorns for that matter), naming them in the liturgy becomes a way to live in the space between what we can see and know, and what we cannot see and yet can name and trust.

God’s creation is always far larger than we know. The maps used to read “here be dragons” along all the regions as yet unexplored. Advent is an excellent season to set sail into the lesser known regions and meet, God-willing, the better angels of our fantasy, and all creation with them. Perhaps in this way, mindful of salvation as the healing of all of creation, we might better participate in such healing, experience such healing ourselves, created as we are, beloved creatures God is currently healing.

Here are the ways you can experience Advent at Good Shepherd:

On December 3rd, 10th, and 17th, we host Advent worship services at 9 and 11 a.m. In these liturgies, we sing the great songs of the seasons, light the Advent wreath, and reflect on texts from the gospel of Mark and Isaiah that accentuate all of creation’s participation in Christ’s healing work. On December 10th, during the 10 a.m. education hour, our Sunday school program hosts a Puerto Rican Christmas Pageant and Disaster Relief Fundraiser. On the 17th, our choirs and ensembles host their annual Christmas Concert at the 11 a.m. service.

On December 6th and 13th, we host Advent soup suppers. These simply suppers are a fund-raiser for the high school youth traveling to Houston next summer for the ELCA National Youth Gathering. Bring a soup to share if you wish, supper is at 6 p.m., Holden Evening Prayer at 6:30 p.m. 

On the 20th of December, we host a Longest Night service. While Advent is a season of hope and Christmas is a season of joy, not everyone feels hopeful. Grief, illness, aging, depression, loneliness, unemployment, and loss are magnified. In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 is the longest night, the winter solstice. It marks the shortest day of the year, the official start of winter. Tradition says that nature and all her creatures stop and hold their breath to see if the sun will turn back from its wanderings, if the days will lengthen and the earth will once again feel the sun’s warmth. On this darkest day of the year, we come with our honest yearnings seeking the return of light and hope.

We conclude the Advent season with the great celebration of Christmas Eve, with a contemporary service at 9 a.m. Sunday morning December 24th, and two candlelight services at 4:30 and 7 p.m. The following Sunday, December 31st, we host a special 9 a.m. service of Lessons and Carols.

Throughout all of it, we will remain mindful of the depth and breadth of God’s saving work, who in and through Christ is working the healing of the whole cosmos.