That'll Leave a Mark

"Experiments in creating closed societies are ongoing, and the church is home for many of them."
(Leonard Sweet, in his book, The Dawn Mistaken for Dusk)

Are We Missing an Opportunity?

I have always believed (and experienced) that the Church is the greatest force for good in this world and their communities. Some more than others, of course. And I have always prayed for and looked for ways to make that more of a reality--and a visible one--in the churches I've served.

I've been honored over the years to be a part of thriving faith communities that have offered daily day care to children and seniors, visited lonely prisoners and nursing home patients, served weekly or monthly meals to those in need, given away backpacks to schoolkids, offered free oil changes to single parents, and more. I love it.

But I can't help but wonder if--even with all that--most churches are missing a golden opportunity.

These tough economic times present many challenges for states, communities, schools, and churches. Programs are being cut. Communities are changing. So much is changing, and so much of it seems to be for the worse. It is rough. But I wonder why we church folk don't more often see these changes as open doors for ministry, for giving value to our communities.

When I preach a sermon or write a book, one of the first things I try to do is connect with listeners or readers by hitting a nerve, touching a soft spot, meeting a need that they already had--and knew they had--before they began worship or started reading. We need to do that sort of thing not only as preachers and writers, but also as churches. We need to benefit our communities not only with evangelistic programs or Bible studies, but by meeting needs they feel keenly and daily. For example:

1. Music, art, and drama lessons. The arts are often the first victims when schools face lean times and have to make budget cuts. Many churches can offer free or low-cost lessons by gifted musicians, artists, and thespians with talent they already possess. In fact, my faith background, The Salvation Army, continues to produce some of the finest musicians, vocalists, and other artists in the world, and has always offered free lessons to all comers. But few folks in the community are aware of these opportunities.

2. ESL or SSL classes. Many look at the growing immigrant population in our communities as a threat, or at least a problem to be solved. But what an opportunity it presents for the church! Why not serve both Latino and English-speaking communities? Anglo congregations can (and sometimes do) offer English-as-a-Second-Language classes and Latino congregations can help their neighbors learn Spanish while building relationships (and bridges) at the same time. I'd sign up for the latter in a heartbeat. Or a salsa beat.

3. Community gardens. With the rising cost of groceries, I wish we could convert the large lawns many churches and churchgoers possess into community gardens to teach and feed. Like the garden pictured above, in the Over-the-Rhine area of urban Cincinnati.

These are just a few of the opportunities I think we may be missing...opportunities to bless our communities, to get out of our Sunday-and-Wednesday ghettos, open doors, make new friends, and well, hey, maybe just answer some prayers.

So what do you think? Am I crazy? Or loco como un zorro? Are there other opportunities you think the church ought to be seizing?

(photo: Wyatt Baker)

Church of the Week: Holland (OH) Free Methodist Church

I was honored and blessed the weekend before last to speak at the Fall Seminar of the Northwest Ohio Christian Writers, held at the Holland Free Methodist Church in Holland, Ohio (a Toledo suburb).
It was a lively group, from whom you'll be hearing and reading much in the years to come, in fiction and nonfiction for children, youth, and adults. It was a very well-planned and well-executed seminar. 
And the church seems to be a thriving, active congregation, dating back to 1868, making it one of the oldest in the area. I visited the sanctuary after our seminar was over, and found a group of young people who I think were concluding a practice of some sort. The auditorium is spacious, comfortable, and adaptable. 

Holland Free Methodist Church is located at 6605 Angola Road in (you guessed it) Holland, Ohio.

A Month of Thanksgiving

It happens at least once a year: Someone says, "We should be thankful every day, not just on Thanksgiving."

Here's the next best thing: A month of Thanksgiving.

My friend Ray Hollenbach has created a thirty-day devotional, available in hard copy and ebook, that will help you cultivate a habit of thanksgiving (if I were a preacher, I might say, "an attitude of gratitude") and celebrate a full month of thanksgiving rather than a single day, once a year. Designed to be started on November 1 and last through the month, each reading presents a short, thought-provoking meditation followed by a question for self examination, a practical idea for cultivating a life of thanks, and a quotation from one of many spiritual guides through the ages.

For example, the November 5th reading includes this gem:
Your Heavenly Father is not the author of evil in your life, but he is the editor. What men mean for ill, God can use to build goodness into us. A thankful spirit flows not from the fatalistic acceptance of every event but from the conviction that God is with us.
A Month of Thanksgiving is a perfect way to deepen and broaden your Thanksgiving celebration--and an ideal prelude to the approaching season of Advent and Christmas.

I love this idea. I wish I had thought of it first.

Church of the Week: McGonigle-Millville U.M. Church, McGonigle, OH

So many lovely churches dot the highways and byways of this world that have beautiful stories to tell and wonderful people to meet if we could only stop in and "set a spell," as Andy Griffith might have said. One of those, I'm convinced, is the McGonigle-Millville United Methodist Church at 2370 Lanes Mill Road in McGonigle, a stone's throw south of Oxford, Ohio.
I was there just over a week ago to officiate a wedding for some dear friends, and so entered the tidy sanctuary of this fine church, just one block off the well-traveled US 27 highway between Millville and Oxford.
I had visited this church once before, but that was for a rummage sale, so I only got as far as the fellowship hall (above). This time, of course, I got to familiarize myself with the sanctuary and kitchen and grounds, which are all very nicely kept (in fact, when I arrived early on Saturday for the wedding--which came off with a hitch (see what I did there?)--someone was there pulling weeds and seeing to the gardens around the church. I also picked up a bulletin from the previous Sunday, which I often do when being nosey--er, visiting a church, and so got to see the lovingly planned order of worship, including the ringing of the church bell, which I would love.

The flock at McGonigle-Millville U.M. Church is led by Pastor Chris Trumbull and is part of the Ohio River Valley District of the United Methodist Church's West Ohio Conference.

An Interview With a Desperate Pastor

Websites, blogs, and magazines often feature interviews with successful church leaders. We at the Desperate Pastor are different.

Very different.

So here, for your edification, is an interview with a former pastor. A failed pastor (in many ways). But one who is still desperate to know God and make him known. So, with that in mind, see if you can make any sense of the following interview, in which I interview...myself.

1. What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned over the past year?

Well, inasmuch as I haven't been in an active pastoral role for the past three-and-a-half years, I think I've finally figured out all the right answers. That's a joke, son. But seriously, folks, I think one thing has been not newly but freshly impressed on me: great leadership is mostly good communication. Regardless of what organization you're leading or what decisions you're making, a huge part of the leader's job is communicating what needs to happen, why, and how. At every level. And more often than not poor (or non-) communication sabotages good decisions.

2. What is God showing you personally?

Maybe it's because I've been neck-deep in writing and rewriting The Red Letter Prayer Life, but man, oh man, God has been impressing on me not only the blessing and necessity of unceasing prayer, but also, as I say in the book, "prayer is first and foremost about the Father, not about us. It is not about getting things from God but entering into partnership with God. It results in blessings, but not as a result of seeking blessings but from seeking the Blesser—his glory, his kingdom, his will." That'll preach, bro.

3. What is the top ministry challenge you’re currently facing?

Patience. Having changed churches last December (along with my wife and family), I'm thrilled to be a part of an exciting part of Christ's body, but am constantly challenged not to run so fast that I over-extend myself, leave others behind, etc. It's a fun place to be but one that requires more patience than I come by naturally.

4. What is a ministry blessing you're currently enjoying?

A lot. I'm enjoying writing like never before and doing more of it than ever before. I'm thrilled to have launched a "31 Ways to Pray for Your Kids" iPhone/iPad app last month (based on the global success of my article and prayer resource, "31 Biblical Virtues to Pray for Your Children"). And I'm honored to be hosting a brand new blog on, called "A Thousand Ways to Pray," where I'll be posting about prayer every Tuesday and Friday. I'm loving the writing life, the praying life, the married life, and the grandparent life these days.

5. What do you do for fun?

Spend time with my wife, the lovely Robin. Spend time with my kids. Spend time with my grandkids. Read.

6. What books are you reading?

Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, and two novels: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and Magdalene by Angela Hunt.

Why I Value My Prayer Journal

I have been prayer journaling for years. For some time, I actually used two separate journals, one for thoughts and ruminations and the other for prayers. Then, a few years ago, I combined the two, at first using a different color ink for prayer than for other entries. Then I shifted again, and began simply concluding my journal entries with my prayers (still in a different color).

This post (here) capsulizes why I so highly value my practice of prayer journaling.

Church of the Week: Guesthouse Chapel, St. Meinrad Archabbey

On a recent prayer retreat at St. Meinrad Archabbey in south-central Indiana, the lovely Robin and I joined our fellow retreatants for a time of worship in the guesthouse chapel, sensitively led by the retreat director, our friend Kasey (Warren) Hitt.
The chapel, while much less elaborate and far more modern than most of the other spaces in the archabbey (though architecturally consistent with the guesthouse design), is nonetheless a beautiful place, thoroughly conducive to quiet and meditation. The acoustics allow a human voice to be heard throughout the room (which seats seventy or so quite comfortably, and could seat more). 
Over the weekend I saw at various times a single nun and a small group of nuns using the space. I re-entered myself for a few moments, and enjoyed its quiet and calm. 

What It Takes to Survive and Thrive in Ministry

We study everything these days. By that I mean we poll and survey and analyze and conduct studies on so many things, some of which you'd think would be obvious.

That seems to be the case with the following by Bob Burns on The Gospel Coalition:
What does it take for pastors to survive and thrive in ministry?

This was the key question asked in an eight-year study funded by the Lilly Endowment that I had the privilege to coordinate through Covenant, Reformed, and Westminster Seminaries....After hundreds of hours of meeting with pastors and their spouses, then working through the data, our research team identified five primary themes for fruitful ministry, which are shared in the book Resilient Ministry. While these themes aren’t the holy grail of ministry survival, my co-authors and I believe each one plays an important role in pastoral resilience.
Those themes are spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management.

On the one hand, it shouldn't take an eight-year study to figure that out. On the other hand, I am constantly amazed by how my ministry friends and colleagues ignore and neglect those priorities.

In fact, chances are you neglect those things too. So read more about the study and its results here. And please...if you're in ministry, make spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, leadership and management top priorities in your calendar, schedule, and life. Now.

A Thousand Ways to Pray

I'm thrilled to announce the launch of a new blog on "A Thousand Ways to Pray." As my first post on that blog says:
There are a thousand ways to pray.

Like Enoch, who “walked with God” (Genesis 5:24, KJV). Like Sarai, who laughed, though she didn’t know God was listening (Genesis 18:12). Like Joshua’s army, who shouted and blew trumpets (Joshua 6:16). Like Daniel, who opened a window toward Jerusalem and knelt to pray (Daniel 6:10).
The purpose of the blog is to explore, get this, a thousand (or more) ways to pray. To share my--and others--adventures in prayer. To encourage more prayer. To enthuse and equip people to pray.

I would be so very grateful if you would visit (click here), comment, tweet, post, pin, and email my posts. I'd love it if you would add the blog to your blog reader and/or bookmark it in your web browser. And please tell everyone you know about it.

St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, St. Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, IN

In early September the lovely Robin and I were blessed to spend a weekend in silence and prayer at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana. Only afterward did I learn that St. Meinrad is one of only two archabbeys in the United States and one of eleven in the whole world.
The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in the Seminary and Theological School is where the seminarians worship together much of the time. It was built during the late 1800s and was remodeled twice in the twentieth century. It is a place that is simultaneously impressive and warm.
In the hall outside the chapel are large murals of St. Meinrad (above) and St. Benedict (below), the founder of the Order of Benedict.
While I didn't get to worship in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (in fact, my visit was part of a whirlwind tour of the abbey at the beginning of our retreat), I'm so glad I at least got to see it.

The Sacred Year

Michael Yankoski's book (brace yourself, the subtitle just goes on and on), The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life sounded like my kind of book when I first heard about it. So I got it and read it.

It was not the book I expected. But I wasn't disappointed at all.

The book tells the story of how Yankoski, a motivational Christian speaker, became disillusioned with his shtick--and with his life. So he goes on a retreat to a monastery, where he sits down with a Father Solomon (Yankoski's description of the tone and technique of the priest/spiritual director is dead-on). Father Solomon tells him, "A carnival is a wonderful place to go every now and then, but a terrible place to live."

I was hooked.

Guided by Father Solomon, Yankoski undertakes a "sacred year," in which he systematically pursues a series of spiritual practices, one at a time. He distinguishes these practices and places them in sections in the book as "Depth with Self," "Depth with God," and "Depth with Others." For example, he plumbs new depths in himself by pursuing the practice of attentiveness, simplicity, and creativity (among others). In pursuing depth with God, he explores the practice of confession, solitude, and wilderness (among others). And pursuing depth with others took him to new experiences in gratitude, protest, and community (among others).

I appreciated his style and self-effacing humor. I loved his choice of practices--the unexpected (like mortality) among the unsurprising (like Sabbath). And I thoroughly enjoyed the means he used, such as gardening (simplicity) or digging a grave (mortality). And I tried hard not to drool with envy at his descriptions of visits on Iona and St. Paul's Cathedral, among others.

More importantly, I found myself longing for more depth in my life, too. Depth with "self," with God, and with others, perhaps with my own version of a "sacred year." I'm checking air fares to Scotland right now.