World Book Day: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 5 March 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. You can listen in here on the BBC website, starting from 1hr13:20 or so.

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I remember packing for a family holiday once, I was about seven, and I filled up my suitcase completely with books. It weighed more than me, but somehow I dragged it down the stairs, ready to go. My mom said: You might need some clothes and a toothbrush?! But honestly, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If I had enough books, I knew I’d be okay.

At that age, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series popular in the 1980s. In these books you the reader were also the main character. Every few pages you had a couple of choices, each of which would unfold a few pages later into more choices, and on and on until one of many possible endings. The bookcover said: “You’re the Star of the Story!” and I loved exploring all the different paths.

Exploring ourselves – knowing ourselves well – is so important in life, and books can help us figure ourselves out. I remember being 13, nervously pulling a book from the library shelf and reading for the first time about being gay. Or at 19, diving into the Bible and finding ancient descriptions of mind-blowing spiritual experiences like the one I was having 2000 years later. Or at 32, opening the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and feeling like someone had taken pages straight from my journal.

Knowing yourself is important, but let’s be honest: if you’re always the star of the story, it gets boring, narcissistic, even dangerous: if the only information we take in is from people just like us, with the same backgrounds, politics, and beliefs, we risk living in the echo chambers that are killing our society.

Good books help us know ourselves but they also help us know others. I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In its stories of 12 mostly Black, British women, I was struck again with the truth that we are not all the same, we’re different, and that’s actually a beautiful thing. The best stories always unfold into the stories of others. The best endings are the ones where our differences don’t isolate us but hold us together. Life is not just about me, it’s about us.

There’s a verse from the Bible, about the ways Jesus meets different people right where they are. The verse goes: If these stories were all written down, the whole world wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written (John 21.25).

That’s a lot of books, that’s a lot of life. Way too much for me to fit in my suitcase alone, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The Real Me: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 26 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The Real Me is sort of a weird person, and so I know this is a bit unusual: I see a spiritual director every month. She’s a mixture of therapist, mystic, personal trainer, and general straight-shooter.

For example, she tells me how much God loves me, but in the next breath, how full of rubbish I can be at the same time. The real me is apparently wonderful and also quite a mess.  

But welcome to being human! This is us – we’re a mix of things that don’t seem to go together but actually do. We’re courageous and yet we colossally screw up. We’re luminous but a mere pixel in the universe. Beautiful and broken ­­– not either/or but both/and. And life is about navigating these double-truths. 

I remember experiencing this in my mid-twenties on a gay cruise in the Caribbean. A cruise is not my general idea of a good time, but my then-boyfriend, a jazz singer, was playing a concert on board and I went along for free. Free is my idea of a good time.  

It was a week of sun, cocktail parties, and dancing until dawn on the Lido deck.

One afternoon at the pool, I got chatting to a woman who turned out to be the chaplain on board. When she discovered I was a minister, too, she asked me to help with the worship service that day, which was Ash Wednesday.  

Ash Wednesday’s the first day in the season of Lent, which began last week ­– a time when Christians remember what it means to be real.

And to get started, we mark our foreheads with dirt crosses and, though we’re still alive, we hear the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. It’s one of those weird double-truths: You’re going to die, but you’ll be okay. 

Later that evening hundreds of folks gathered in the ship’s rooftop bar and we put ashes on each other’s faces. I remember old men in wheelchairs, two women partnered for 60 years, and loads of fresh-faced university students with their whole lives before them. All of us crowded in to mark the glorious weirdness of being human, the truth we’re all facing in these pandemic days: we’re going to die, and here’s to life. 

The worship service in the bar flowed onto the dance floor that night. Our bodies pulsing in the light of the moon, you could still see the ashes on people’s faces, shining in the dark. 

My Biggest Temptation: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 19 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The first time I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was doing research for a sermon on addiction. From my own experience of active alcoholics in my family, I expected to hear a load of whingeing and blaming other people for their problems. 

But this meeting felt different. Laughter filled the room. I was welcomed, given a coffee. Someone helped me find a seat.  

The meeting started with celebrating sober anniversaries. One guy said, it’s been hard but today it’s a year without a drink. And the crowd clapped and whistled.

Other folks said: it’s been 90 days, or it’s a decade, or today I’ve got a week sober.

I could feel a lump forming in my throat. 

Then people told deeper stories – of what had gone down in their lives, stuff they’d done, what they’d lost, the secrets that were killing them.

But also stories of how things had changed when they found the courage to be honest, when they shared the secrets, when they admitted they had a problem. 

Their stories were diverse, but there was a common theme: everyone who was getting better had realized they couldn’t get better by themselves. They couldn’t make it alone. Instead of blaming other people for their problems, they’d discovered that other people could actually help. Someone said: Welcome to being human. 

That lump in my throat had turned into tears.

A woman offered me a tissue. I said, thanks, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just here for research purposes. She looked at me, she looked into me, really. She said, okay baby, okay. She knew. 

I knew, though It took me two more years to admit my drinking problem.

But the biggest obstacle to recovery for me was asking for help, learning that I need others.

My biggest temptation still is control freakery. I think I can sort it all out by myself. If I work hard enough, focus, organise, do enough yoga, I can fix anything. I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I’m also a recovering control freak.

But I’ve come to believe that everybody’s addicted to something. If we’re honest, we all struggle with some substance or behavior or attitude that’s just draining the life from us, and we cannot fix it on our own.

But that is actually good news: because it pushes us outside of ourselves. And help is only another human away. 

A post-General Conference riff on Galatians 3

In the wake of the egregious harm being perpetrated against LGBTQ people, over and over again, by 55% of the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, three brief things:

1. I’ve said it before, but I need to say it again, to reassure all my straight peeps out there. I know that some of you are now wondering, even agonizing: “Is it possible for me to be both straight and Christian? Can I be a practicing heterosexual and a faithful disciple of Jesus at the same time?” Let me just say that though there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary in the Bible and in the world out there, I for one believe that, by God’s grace, it is possible. Don’t believe the naysayers: straight people are beautiful and loved deeply by God.

2. To my queer peeps: remember that not only are we God’s beloved, we are Christ’s own forever and ever – and we are called to lead. Our joy, our awe at God’s beauty, our assurance in Jesus Christ, our Holy Spirit courage and call – the General Conference didn’t give us these things, and so the General Conference can’t take them away!

3. God made us all a promise, and we are heirs – recipients, participants, full-sharers, ministers – according to that promise. So don’t turn back to the margins, or the liminal edges, or the shame of the shadows. No. Live from Christ the Center: cast vision, risk, bless those who need a blessing, bind folks in love, evangelize! And let’s plant a million new Gospel-inclusive churches where people meet Jesus and love has no asterisks and lives are changed. Because we can. Because we are heirs, and so we are free.

LGBTQ or straight, whatever decisions we make in the aftermath of the horrible decisions of this week, I pray that God will help us find, shot through our anger and grief, the space to make our discernment from a place of Christian freedom.

As for me, I’m going to try to take each day as it comes, to keep doing the work that is mine to do, that I’ve been sent to do, and to surrender my life over and over again to the Love Who Excels All Loves, who is the Joy of Heaven Come Down, even Christ our Lord.

May his peace be with all y’all.

#OneChurchForAll
#EvangelicalAndInclusive
#GC2019
#UMC

 

A Church For All

I am praying this morning for The United Methodist General Conference, which meets in St. Louis for the next four days to discuss a presenting set of questions about ministry by and with LBGTQ+ people, which represents of course a deeper discernment about the kind of Church we believe God is asking us to be in general in the 21st century.

(I’m not there. This picture is a rare shot of me crying after a restrictive vote at the 2004 General Conference; one GC is enough for me for a lifetime!)

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I love the diverse people of The United Methodist Church. Through them, God changed and continues to change my life.

My grandparents, Jean and Louis Hall, introduced my sister and me to church when we were kids, taking us to Sunday school at their beloved St. Luke’s UMC in Memphis, TN, whenever we spent the weekend with them.

In my first year of college, a thriving United Methodist campus ministry in Murfreesboro, TN, led by Bill Campbell, helped me personally and consciously undergo God’s grace for the first time. Because of the theologically very diverse friends I made there, I experienced justification and assurance, and knew myself forgiven and freed by God. That experience of salvation, of meeting the risen Lord, gave me the spiritual power, at 19, to unashamedly come out as a gay man and to receive a different calling for life than the one I’d planned for myself.

A United Methodist seminary (hey, Candler School of Theology – Emory University!) prepared me well for ordained ministry amidst scholars and colleagues who were much more theologically liberal than me (hello, process theology friends!) and much more theologically conservative than me (what up, neo-Calvinists!). I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Three Chicago bishops (Joseph Sprague, Hee-Soo Jung, & Sally Dyck) have commissioned me, ordained me, taught me, and humbly listened to me when I pushed back at their interpretations. Because of them, I have been sent to serve with fabulous people in two established congregations (Glenview United Methodist Church and Holy Covenant Umc), a new congregation (Urban Village Church, Chicago), and now in Britain as a coach and general church staff in evangelism with theMethodist Church.

Life has been an adventure because of the people of The United Methodist Church. There has been joy and pain and doubt and drama and transformation and anger and capital-T Truth. To recall Jesus’s parable, it’s been a mixed field. Welcome to being human in Christ.

And welcome to being an institution. I think the nature of big institutions is that they’re mixed fields. They just are, more complicatedly mixed than even the individual human heart. Which makes them hard to love. And though I don’t know how precisely to say it, I guess I don’t actually *love* the institution. What would that even mean? What would it mean, really, to love a compressed set of political processes and agents called the General Conference? It’s necessary, of course, to have some ostensibly representative decision-making body, and I pray that the Holy Spirit fuels it, but does anyone actually love it?

But everywhere I go, with very, very few exceptions, I love – and like – the United Methodist people that I meet, even the ones I disagree with and who disagree with me.

I desperately want us to change. Since I came out 24 years ago now (!), I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants and working with so many other sinners and saints for a rGospel-inclusive church, centered in the Good News of God in Jesus Christ and therefore increasingly open to repentance, transformation, santification, and world-changing ministry.

I’m praying for us this weekend. Not just the 800+ delegates, but the 13 million of us around the world – in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. That we will speak the truth as we see it in charitable ways, that we’ll ask forgiveness when we have hurt others, and that all of us, somehow together, will be caught up in God’s dream for us and move towards God’s whole will for us.

How Testimony Saves Lives (Mine Included)

Testimony saves lives.

That’s one of the reasons that when people ask me for best practices for starting or revitalizing churches, I almost universally recommend it.

Every week in worship, organize a layperson to stand up and share in five minutes or less what it feels like to undergo God in their own particular skin. Every week, make sure someone who is not the preacher tells a true story of faith, that is to say, an honest personal account of gratitude or struggle or changed perspective or joy or lament or doubt or beauty or surrender or anger or trust or love or anything that finds and searches for a grounding in Christ. Call it testimony, call it spiritual autobiography, call it whatever you want – just start doing it. Every time you meet, make room for diverse people to translate their faith experience into public words.

Because of its capacity to channel spiritual power, testimony has been and still is a crucial part of the pioneering days of many Christian traditions and movements, but it often falls out of vogue as we grow more “refined” or bureaucratic and contract out our fundamental need for storytelling to clergy or other religious “professionals.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO ME

That may be one of the reasons that the first testimonies I heard were not in Christian worship but in the rooms of a 12-step recovery community that I visited one sunny Saturday morning to “do research” for a sermon series on addictions that I was planning.

I arrived a bit late, and as the meeting was in a grotty church basement and as I had a lot of assumptions about substance abuse, I expected to find a fragmented collection of miserables possessed by guilt and teetering on the verge of self-destruction. But instead I was greeted by a happy crowd of people and volunteers trying to add more cheap metal folding chairs to rows that already almost touched the walls of the packed-out room. I saw an open seat and squished in between a young white guy with dreadlocks and a cigarette tucked behind his ear and an octogenarian black woman touching up her lipstick and wrapped in a flawless floor-length fur coat.

After a short welcome, the meeting’s chairperson asked, “Is there anyone here who’s celebrating an anniversary or counting days?” and that’s when the testimonies began. People scraped their chairs back on the dusty tile floor and lined up in the aisles. One by one, they moved toward the front to say phenomenally beautiful things:

“Yesterday I celebrated a year of continuous sobriety,” someone almost sung into the microphone, and the crowd broke out into applause.

“Today I have twenty-five years free from alcohol and drugs” someone else said, to whistles and cheers.

“Today it’s two weeks, and it’s hard as f***ing hell, and I’m just trying to take it day by day, but I’m here. Two weeks.” The already enthusiastic clapping intensified to ovation, and I started to cry.

I was genuinely surprised by the tears running down my face, and off my face, and onto my notepad, smearing the “research notes” I’d taken for my sermon. Why am I crying? I asked myself, but I knew – somewhere deep down, beneath all the calcified layers of self-deception, I knew that these testimonies of lives-in-the-process-of-being-saved were meant to save my life, too.

I managed to pull myself together for the rest of the celebrations. “I’m just here for research,” I said to the fur coat woman, and she looked me in the eyes, nodded her head, and called me “Baby” as she offered me a tissue to dry my face.

The meeting didn’t stop with the testimonies of celebration. My tears continued as two other speakers got up to share slightly longer stories that included not only that their lives had been and were being saved but also what they had been and were being saved from – all the addictive, compulsive stuff that had gone down, that had landed them in the pit where they finally accepted they needed help that they couldn’t conjure by themselves. From relational misdemeanors to serious slips to colossal moral bankruptcies, people were telling the truth – in detail. Stories of waking up next to people who weren’t their husbands or wives in foreign countries where they hadn’t been three days before on the last day they had any clear memory of. Stories of losing their life savings or their jobs or their dignity or the custody of their children. Stories of losing everything. Stories of lying and falling and failing and embarrassing themselves (and many others) in epic or everyday fashion.

Interestingly, while I was crying, it seemed like everyone else in the room was laughing. It wasn’t a laughter that made light of these testimonies or tried to cover over their thick descriptions, however grave or garden-variety. You could easily intuit that there wasn’t an ounce of denial or shame anywhere. Rather, it was the laughter of joyous freedom, fueled by the deep knowledge that telling the truth, a miracle in itself, was the doorway to a life of miracles. The knowledge that God can use even the most ersatz sense of freedom (which is finally all your drug of choice can offer you) to break you out and into the Something More that is shatteringly freeing and truly saving and always, always on offer.

Why don’t we do that in the church?

Probably for a host of reasons: the idol of polished “excellence” in worship, clergy control freakery (I cry “Guilty!”), Christianities that have prioritized the rational or the official or the “liturgical” over the subjective, the false notion that “real” testimonies are only about dramatic events and not the boring, ordinary parts of day-to-day human life, the individual fear of exposure, the pain of invidious comparison with others’ stories and the anxiety that “my story isn’t _____ enough” or “I don’t have a story to tell.”

WHAT CAN HAPPEN IN CHURCH

Make room for testimony and as true storytelling becomes a norm in worship, these negative barriers will begin to diminish. Your community will begin to teem with new verve and potential. People will listen more attentively, as they recognize themselves in the testimonies of others, as they relax into the awareness that they are not alone in their own stuff, both good and bad: Oh, right, she’s talking about me! I totally do that, too. I’ve also felt that way, or wondered about that. I want what he has. Yes!  Laughter, tears, and deep existential rest — all symptoms of the spiritual assurance that can be opened with testimony – will begin to transfigure congregations and individuals that before seemed stagnant or hesitant or repressed.

Make room for testimony and your church’s mission statement about changing lives will no longer only be something that you print in your bulletin every week; now it will be narratively demonstrated every week in people’s stories. And a mission story is always better than a mission statement. Missional power and humility will expand as people come to subjectively experience what they might have cognitively believed (or not) for years, that their true stories are what God wants. Which is why regular lay testimony is also one of the most evangelical commitments a church can make. In my experience, most unaffiliated folks are not that interested in checking out a worship service to hear an unknown preacher’s sermon, but they’ll show up to hear a friend of theirs tell a story. I’ve baptized a number of adults who came to worship only because of a friend’s testimony and ended up sticking around and rather unexpectedly coming to faith.

HOW TO DO IT

So, how do you start a regular ministry of testimony in your congregation? For some longer reading, check out two wonderful books: Lillian Daniel’s Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony and Thomas Long’s Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian.

But to get you started, here are some basic suggestions:

For church leaders:

  • You can start whenever you want, but some find it helpful to launch a testimony trial run that is framed in a particular season of the program, liturgical, or calendar year. Whenever you start, share in advance with your congregation what testimony is and isn’t and why you’re embarking on such an experiment.
  • Since the first experiences of testimony in a congregation will begin to establish a culture, choose the first 8-10 testimony givers with several things in mind. You’ll want a diverse range of people (age, gender, race, sexuality, etc.), a diverse range of experiences and stories (incorporate the wide spectrum of the human experience so that you don’t privilege one personality or spirituality “type”), and people that you trust to take it seriously.
  • Reach out to these individuals well in advance, tell them what you’re hoping for, and ask them to pray about it. Give them a list of guidelines (see below) and if they say yes, schedule them for a particular worship service. I like to have testimonies scheduled at least 6 weeks in advance so that testimony givers have time to reflect and prepare.
  • Especially if the practice is new for your congregation, offer to read folks’ first testimony drafts or meet up with them one-to-one to encourage them. When they stand up to share in worship, you want them to feel as confident as possible. As the practice continues and deepens in your congregation, you may decide to add an additional one-to-one meeting afterwards, as the experience of testimony often unlocks callings, purpose, and questions in those who give it.
  • You can place testimony anywhere in the service. I personally think it works best in the first half of worship, perhaps before the Scripture reading, so that people connect it to the other proclamations of the Word.
  • Have someone briefly introduce the testimony each week, sharing in a sentence why your church does it, and inviting the testifier up by name: “Here at ___ Church, we believe that stories change lives. So let’s give Demetrius a round of applause as he comes to share testimony with us today!”
  • Have the testimony giver close the time with prayer, or have someone else pray for the testimony giver.

For those giving testimony:

[The following is from an email I send to people several weeks in advance of their testimony.]

Thanks for being willing to share some of your testimony in worship on [date]!

Plan on your testimony lasting no more than 4-5 minutes. The time goes quickly, and written words take longer to speak than we might imagine, so be sure to prepare in advance and to practice.

We’re trying to help people get connected to each other and so we would like to include your email address in the worship program so that folks who identity with your testimony can be in touch directly. If you would prefer us not to do that, just let us know.

There aren’t a ton of dos and don’ts for testimony, but these suggestions may help as you prepare:

1. Your testimony is your testimony. Don’t feel like it has to be like others you’ve heard in worship. If yours is funny and full of levity, that’s great. If it’s more introspective or chill, that’s great, too. A short reflection, a story, a poem that you’ve written or some other media: share authentically how God is moving/active/present/working in your life and you’ll be just fine.

2. We hope that testimonies will share “new life” experiences – a new perspective, a change of heart, a new belief or practice or question, a new community, etc.

3. Don’t try to cram too much in; pick a point or two and let that be it. Remember: 4-5 minutes goes quickly.

4. If you are sharing something marked by pain, we suggest, as some have put it, that you “speak from your scars, not your wounds.” Both scars and wounds are part of the Christian experience, of course, but scars are perhaps better material for testimony as they often include the reflection and wisdom gained by walking through time in the pain, whereas speaking in public about open, current, unexamined wounds can sometimes hurt more than help.

5. Don’t diss directly on other churches or denominations or religions. We understand that we all come from some place and sometimes this includes a difficult religious experience. It’s totally fine to be honest and to reflect on that, but we ask that you not single out particular groups; for example, please don’t say anything like “the Baptist church is horrible and exclusionary” or “Roman Catholics don’t understand” or “Muslims don’t believe in grace.” We want to avoid the potential stereotyping and demonizing of other traditions.

6. Be yourself, for Christ’s sake. You can only be where you and who you are. No need to pretend, because, after all, it’s your testimony.

7. Don’t forget introduce yourself by name at the beginning of the testimony and to close in prayer at the end.

8. Did we mention 4-5 minutes? 😉

So, that’s it. Try it for a few seasons in your congregation, and see what happens as people start to tell the honest-to-God truth, in detail, in public. Church renewal is not guaranteed, but lives-being-saved are.

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If you’re looking for coaching or consulting around church revitalization or church planting/pioneering in the US, UK, or Europe, you can find out more about my coaching ministry here.

The Recovering of Sight to an Egomaniac with an Inferiority Complex

I was on a train in Chicago, going home after a very important meeting that I had done a very excellent job of leading. As I looked out at the city through the train windows, my inflated ego was drinking its strong cocktail of success: one part self-reference, two parts self-congratulation, and a long pour of judgmentalism – of some of the other people at the meeting, of course. Dude, you killed it. I love how cleverly you responded to that person’s critique. Definitely a mic drop moment.

It was dusk and as the light faded outside, the windows on the train started to become mirrors. I saw my reflection and began to examine it. As I considered my crow’s feet, my receding hairline and expanding pores, and my no-longer-fresh face, my ego turned on me. Dude, you’re looking so worn out. I don’t think you don’t have it anymore. What’s happened to you? The egoic cocktail is complicated: one moment you’re buzzing; the next you’re angsting.

And then the light outside changed – maybe the train went around a bend or came out from behind a building, I can’t remember – and the mirror became a window again. My too reflective preening and pummeling became transparent, and I could see through to the sunset, and a neighborhood, and people on the street carrying their groceries and walking their dogs, and a jazz club on the corner. A fleeting shift of energy delivered me from competition to connection, from evaluation to ecstasy, and for a moment or two I was lost in a space more generous than my ego could ever concoct.

Fasting from Social Media

The American election brought me into contact with how occluded and mirrored my vision still is. A week or so after the election, I decided to take a break from social media in order to observe how my using/not-using influences my perspective.

My decision to fast from Facebook and Instagram did not come from an original insight. A couple of friends had posted that they were going to abstain for a while. I was reading a book on contemplative silence by Maggie Ross, a Christian solitary. I had seen a shattering episode of the British TV series, Black Mirror, and a compelling article by a Millennial professional who’s never been on social media. I also just could not bring myself to watch Trump’s Presidential Twitter parade (and still cannot).

A friend who’d signed off of Facebook for the month before the election commented that during his abstinence he’d realized just how much time he’d been spending “watching other people’s lives.” I knew what he meant.

As I began my fast, one of the first things I noticed was how much extra time I had. I finished the novel that’d been sitting on my bedside table for months. I settled back into a daily pattern of prayer and meditation. I threw the ball for our dog a few more times every day and enjoyed his running after it.

I realized that a significant percentage of my daily life had been being filtered through an admixture of screen-based critique, “affirmation”-seeking, and “meaningfulness.”

Here’s a representative sampling from my ego feed:

I simply cannot believe the insensitive idiocy of his comment! How much time can I manage today to write a brilliant rejoinder?

Wow. She’s really doing some beautiful, important work with her new blog / business / book deal / home redesign / work project / marriage. I wonder how I could spruce up my life like that?

How will I wittily curate my posts today to feel the sensation of that envisioned sprucing?

Invidious Comparison & Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose

I began to “come to”: to see how much of my social media using was about not only watching other people’s lives but also watching my own life through the innumerable lenses of “invidious comparison.”

That’s a term that Brian Mahan, one of my theology school professors, uses to describe how even our spirituality can potentially mask our tendencies toward self-seeking. If we’re not awake, our “prayer” or “meditation” can become a subtle way of judgmentally watching ourselves and others, all the more dangerous because our evaluative comparisons and compulsions are masked (and reinforced) by our “practice” or “devotion” or “theology.”

Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose suggests some truly enlightening spiritual exercises and thought experiments that can help us relax from the invidious comparison, see ourselves and others more generously, and decenter our imaginations of what others might think of us.

For me, at least, it turns out that the path to a more truthful vision requires less “work” than my ego would have me believe and more intentional silence than my ego can generally stand (right now, about 20 minutes a day).

Which is why, recovering “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” (as the Twelve-step community puts it) that I am, joyfully forgetting myself (at once the method and the gift of this practice) – or, in other words, learning how to pray – will probably take my whole life.

A life, I hope, of mirrors slowly turning to windows and perhaps the occasional and increasing awareness, that, as 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “[t]he eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

A life, I hope, that can see graciously in the midst, even (more consciously and less time-consumingly?) in the midst of Facebook, because, y’all, honestly, I have missed the dog videos, and baby announcements, and pictures of Hillary Clinton hiking, and (among my own) the intending-to-offend and waiting-to-be-offended soliloquies, and, yes, most of all, the pearls of great price that are revealed from time to time.

That’s how I hope I’ll see.

A Non-Negotiable Practice for Ministry Leaders

I get asked a lot if there is a common characteristic among the successful church planters and redevelopment leaders that I know or coach.

And there absolutely is.

In my opinion, it has nothing to do with their theological or political location, Enneagram type, race, gender, geography, or sexual orientation – the folks I work with are wildly diverse in those ways.

So, what is one crucial thing that all of these leaders share?

They know how to build real, no-BS relationships with unaffiliated people.

They have a natural capacity or a learned competency for authentic connection with folks who are not part of their religious organizations – the “nones” and “dones” that our recent studies are so rightly obsessed with.

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER, BUT…

That relationships are essential is, of course, not an esoteric bit of knowledge. We all know that “relationships” is the right answer.

You give a one-question exam:

1) What is the church?

(a) Relationships

(b) Buildings

(c) Money

(d) My own agenda and rigidity projected onto other people and God

You give that exam and everybody gets 100%.

Everybody knows the right answer is (a) Relationships, but here’s the thing: not everybody knows how to do the right answer. To be blunt, many lay and clergy leaders simply do not know how to connect with people outside of their church cultures.

But here’s the good news: the great majority of folks can learn how.

This longish blog post has the singular goal of teaching one basic practice to shift your ministry orientation outwards, toward building new relationships with new people. This practice is called the relational meeting, or the 1-1.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING AND THE 1-1

I learned about relational meetings as a young pastor, just a couple years out of seminary, when I attended a weeklong community organizing training. Community organizing is a multi-layered process focused on increasing the participation and power of diverse people in a community in order to generate collective will for social change.

The relational meeting, a fundamental part of community organizing, is a short (30-45 minute), one-to-one, in-person conversation meant to uncover, explore, and share the animating stories, core values, and motivating interests of each conversation partner.

The goal of a 1-1 is to figure out the “why” of the person you’re talking to by inviting them to tell you.

On an average day, we spend a lot of our time in “what” conversations: we exchange pleasantries, rehearse our resumes, report our track records, seek or provide advice, etc. That’s all well and good, but the relational meeting is not any of those things. It’s not a commercial for our new project, an interview, or a pastoral counseling session, either.

A relational meeting is a brief, in-depth exploration into why someone is the way they are: what they give a damn about and why, what keeps them up at night and why, what they hope against hope for in life and why. It’s also an opportunity to share those same things about yourself and to look for overlaps. And maybe, depending on the connection, perhaps eventually at another 1-1 in the future, to explore whether you might work together on a common project.

Urban Village Church, the multi-site congregation I helped to plant, used the relational meeting practice to dream, launch, and expand a new way of being church in Chicago. Over and over again, lay and clergy planters sat down for 1-1s at coffee shops in neighborhoods across the city. And they still do. We’re talking thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of relational meetings over their first 7 years. The 1-1 has become Urban Village Church’s standard way of discerning vision, practicing evangelism and discipleship, and engaging mission and justice. For the church planters I now coach, relational meetings are a non-negotiable.

HOW TO ACTUALLY DO A 1-1

Here are the basics: a blend of what I’ve learned over the past 16 years of ministry from community organizations like Industrial Areas Foundation and Community Renewal Society.

[SETTING UP THE MEETING]

1) Make a list of everyone you know in your city, town, village, or whatever your ministry context is.

That’s right: why not start with everyone? Put everyone you know on your list. (This was a suggestion I got years ago from the Rev. Junius Dotson, a church planter who is now the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, an agency of The United Methodist Church). These will be the people you reach out to first. If the idea of that list is simply too overwhelming, make a list of the leaders of important organizations in your community – the schools, social service providers, businesses, cultural groups, etc.

2) Choose ten of those people and email (or call) them to ask for a meeting.

Invite a range of people. Offer your credential and your connection, clarify what you’re inviting them to and why, and ask them to respond if they’re available. Some of them will immediately respond; some of them won’t. It’s totally fine to follow up on an email invitation a week later. Schedule the meeting and the meeting location.

Here’s one of my basic invitation templates:

Hi, Principal Morris,

I’m Trey Hall and I’m a new pastor in the neighborhood.

My friend Emily Jones (insert the name of your personal connection, if there is one) knows you and mentioned some of the cool things you’re doing at Coleman Elementary School.

As pastor of _______, I’m really interested in meeting up with folks who are doing cool things in the city, and I wonder if you’d have 45 minutes to grab a cup of coffee and talk sometime over the next month. My treat.

Let me know what your calendar’s like and we’ll find a time that works.

Peace,

Trey

[DURING THE MEETING]

3) At the beginning of the meeting, restate your credential and context, and be clear that you’ll honor the time set aside.

Thanks again for taking 45 minutes out of your day to talk. As I said when I contacted you, I’m part of a church that takes community relationships very seriously, and Emily Jones told me that you’re someone I should get to know.

4) Then move into the main part of the meeting: the conversation itself.

Resist the temptation to default to the aforementioned conversation patterns that the relational meeting is not. Your goal is for the conversation to be memorable, to stand out from the hundreds of other conversations that happen in a week. So ask good questions, follow up with more good questions that invite folks to consider the “why” of the answers they just gave, and share meaningfully about your own commitments.

At first, navigating the balance of deep listening, probing questioning, follow-up, and story sharing will feel clunky. But don’t worry. The more relational meetings you do, they more natural they will become to your practice of ministry.

Here are some potential starter questions, culled from trainings over the years:

  • Tell me the story of how you became a _______. Biography is best place to start, but push hard on the particulars; don’t let it stay superficial.
  • What does that mean for your life now?
  • What’s the main thing you’re up to in your organization?
  • Who are your s/heroes?
  • You seem angry/passionate/convicted about that. Where did that come from?
  • What are you going to do about that anger/passion/conviction?
  • If money were no object, what would you do?
  • What’s next for you?
  • Go for a spark or a probing question that risks troubling the easy information exchange that we’re used to. For example, someone might risk asking a pastor: “I’ve read some studies that say the church is increasingly irrelevant to young people and will be dead in another generation. Do you think that’s true?” That’s a very different kind of question from “tell me about your church.” Ask big questions that have punch and verve.

Don’t forget: during the conversation, you should find natural places to speak about your story, interests, and values. The 1-1 is not an interview.

[ENDING THE MEETING]

5) Five minutes before the end of the meeting, you’ll want to move to finish meaningfully.

It’s okay – actually, it’s great! – if you have to finish a really good conversation that could go on for hours. Resist the temptation to stay at the table for a long time. Finishing the meeting on a high note increases the likelihood that you’ll meet again in the future.

  • Ask your conversation partner if they have any last questions for you.
  • This is essential: ask your conversation partner if they know anyone else that you should be talking to. Ask the question and then be quiet and wait. More often than not, they’ll suggest a couple people. Then ask if they’d be willing to e-connect the two of you. This is how you get more 1-1s for the future.
  • If you sense that there is some potential for future connection with your conversation partner, mention how interesting the meeting has been and then ask if you could follow up in a couple months for another conversation.

[AFTER THE MEETING]

6) Record your conversation partner’s basic information with whatever technology you use to keep track of contacts. Note any compelling things or important resonances that that came up in the 1-1.

7) Follow up with an email the next day to thank your conversation partner and see if anyone else has come to mind that you should reach out to. If they haven’t yet e-connected you with the people they mentioned at the end of the 1-1, ask them directly to do that.

8) As you’re doing 1-1s regularly, figure out how to scan and organize the increasing “data” you’re getting from the meetings in order to discern next steps for current and future projects.

9) Repeat. Keep reaching out with more invitations for more 1-1s. You should never run out of people to talk with.

SO, HOW WILL YOU SPEND YOUR TIME?

I promise you that if you begin to do 1-1s as a weekly practice of ministry or leadership, you will become a better leader.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you that I don’t know of one person who didn’t grow significantly when they started doing 1-1s on a regular basis. Many of their churches and organizations started growing in numbers and depth, too.

I do know lots of clergy and lay leaders who don’t do 1-1s. They spend more time in their offices, behind their computer screens, managing their social media streams, than they do in the community – and the result is that they and their congregations suffer.

In most contexts, there is a “positive” correlation between the amount of time the leader spends on solely internal matters and the inability of their new project to launch or the decline of their current project.

When I train clergy groups on relational meetings, invariably I hear from some people that they don’t have the time to be out doing 1-1s, that they are unbelievably busy, that such a practice is for those who have the luxury of spare time or different kinds of churches.

I try to gently call BS on that claim. (It’s interesting that these people are usually the same leaders who are “too busy” to spend serious time putting together a compelling sermon every week. One wonders what they do have time for). The truth is, of course, that we each have the same amount of time as everyone else in the world. And, speaking for clergy, it’s largely us who decides how we’ll spend it.

What would it look like for you to build relational meetings into your standard operating procedure as a leader?

Right now, do an honest assessment of how you generally spend your work or ministry time each week. Break it down into percentages. Take a good, honest look at your stewardship of time, and see how you might start by giving 10% of your work week to 1-1s. That’d be like four or five 1-1s a week.

As you do more 1-1s, you’ll certainly build new relationships in the community, but you’ll also find other parts of your work coming alive with an energy and insight that wasn’t there before.

  • That tricky sermon you’re architecting? Instead of sitting behind your computer for another hour, do a 1-1 and see how the sermon gets unlocked.
  • That long-term mission plan? Instead of writing it all by yourself, do some 1-1s to see how others would frame the vision.
  • That new project that you hope will take off? Instead of developing the blueprint with an internal committee, do some 1-1s in the community you’re hoping the new project will take off in. See how that changes the focus and timeline.

Over my years of ministry, I’ve developed a personal mantra:

When in doubt, do a 1-1.

It’s never failed me yet.

YOUR EXPERIENCE?

Have 1-1s been part of your practice? I’d love to hear your comments, ideas, nuances, suggestions, and pushbacks on this post. Share away!

Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

My friend Ben Yosua-Davis recently launched a cool podcast featuring conversations with ministry practitioners “working on the spiritual margins of culture,” particularly with unaffiliated folks (the “nones” and “dones”).

I was honored to be invited to join Ben in conversation about post-ideological faith community, contemplative life, 12-step recovery, and a few other bits and bobs.

Check it out here.

Jesus’ Trashy Family

In the whirlwind of the ideological purity games that are wreaking havoc right now in American and British national politics and United Methodist church politics, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a sermon I preached a few years ago:

I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. There’s a great BBC interview in which she talks about her history, coming from the poverty of East Tennessee.

The interviewer asks, “When did Dolly Parton, as we know her, appear?”

dolly parton

Dolly said, “I really patterned my look, a country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the town tramp. This woman… I just thought she was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, red nails, high heel shoes, and I just thought she was the prettiest thang I’d ever seen.”

Dolly’s mother said, “Oh, honey, she ain’t nothing but trash!”

And Dolly responded, “That’s what I wanna be, Mama. I wanna be trash!”

One of the wonderful things about that story is you can tell in the interview that Dolly saw that woman in a different way, like God actually sees us—not as trash, but as treasure.

Unfortunately not everyone sees in the divine way that Dolly did. Most people don’t.

Every family (and every institution, organization, party, religion, movement, etc.) has folks that they consciously or unconsciously think of as trash—people they would rather keep secret about, keep out of the family pictures, skeletons in the closet—because they’re eccentric, because they don’t fit the family mold, because they’ve done something that has brought dishonor or shame to the family. Or the family feels they’ve done something disgraceful. Often that person has done nothing other than be themself, but the family is not happy.

You know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re that person in your family. Maybe you’ve made fun of someone who is.

Some folks imagine that Jesus comes from a perfect family. They would do well to consult the New Testament. The very beginning of the Gospel—its opening salvo, actually—is not a catchy story or a funny joke or a sublime theopoetical passage, but rather a very extended family tree. The Gospel writer goes to great length to name the people from whence Jesus comes. And as you begin to explore, you realize: this is not good breeding; this is no high pedigree line.

Can I be honest with you about Jesus, whom Christians call the Savior of the World?

He comes from a trashy family.

Liars, thieves, frauds, murderers, manipulators, passive-aggressives, corporate hucksters, and egomaniacs—these folks abound in Jesus’ family roots.

When people talk about Biblical “family values,” I always wonder exactly what they mean. Have they read the first chapter of the Gospel? Jesus’ family is irregular, nontraditional, and often downright scandalous. You think your family is weird? Jesus’ family will out-dysfunction anything your family brings to the table.

And according to the Bible, this is good news: trying to convince us that God doesn’t choose “perfect” to get God’s message into the world. God chooses actual people, real live human beings, to speak God’s truth. Which includes you and me and other trashy, treasure-filled folks offering ourselves, the best (and worst) we can.