What Is The Church’s Future?

Steve Wright is one of my best friends en todo el mundo. At Southern California’s Cypress High School, we were always the last two shivering on the deck at our 6:30a.m. water polo practices. Eventually, Coach Drent’s threats of additional yardage got us airborne over our fog-shrouded pool.

Today, Steve is a pastor in Huntington Beach, CA, a driver and fairway metal from where we spent our summers surfing and honing our frisbee genius. I invite you to eavesdrop on my Thanksgiving letter to him.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for the excellent resource you posted to Facebook recently. That essay, coupled with several recent “healing” sessions at our church, has me thinking about our church’s recent challenges with conflict and the future of the church more generally. I thought I’d update you on the goings on at Olympia’s Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the hope that what I’ve been thinking about has broader relevance to yours and other churches.

As I listen to people process what happened, I keep returning to four ideas. To understand the first, you have to understand who is attending our healing sessions. The vast majority are the “committed core”, about 15% of the congregation, whose average age is about 70. These stalwarts regularly remind people they’ve been members for 30-50+ years. They spend a lot of time at church and passionately refer to it as their “family”. Some of them are still upset that the Church Council I serve on asked our previous pastor to resign, others that it took us too long to reach that decision, but I digress.

They’re inspiring people whose experience, commitment, and gifts we honor. We also have to understand and be sensitive to their desire to “do church” in the manner they’re most familiar.

My first idea. The more I listen to the committed core talk to one another, the more convinced I am that they don’t have any feel for why younger people and families with school aged children don’t attend or don’t get more involved. We have to make sure the committed core know they’re valued, while listening to and learning from much younger former members, visitors, and others who are just dipping their toes in the LGCS water. Like ethnographers, we need to ask questions of those people and encourage them to talk openly and honestly about what their church experience is like and how they might change it. Absent that type of applied anthropology, I am not optimistic about our future.

My second idea begins with a tangent, but bear with me, it relates. Three-fourths of the way through A’s and J’s schooling, it dawned on me that despite being a former teacher and now a teacher educator, I hadn’t been very involved in their schooling. Kinda ironic. Yes, I attended conferences, but I never filled out a single form or did anything extra. I wondered why and concluded it was The Gal Pal’s fault because she had it totally under control. I didn’t have to do anything because she took charge and immediately swatted any and all forms or related responsibilities back over the net. We shoulda been playing doubles, but I ceded the court to her and neither of us really realized it until after the match was over.

Similarly, think of all the uber-responsible people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who have taken the lead in the care of their aging parent(s). In some cases, allowing their siblings to coast.

I suspect younger, more casual members of our church watch the committed core in action and conclude “They have it totally under control.” Idea two. I am convinced that the committed core has to let go a bit and learn to do less to create the space for the next generation of members to develop deeper commitments to the community. This is hella tough though because their identities are so closely tied to their church roles and activities.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic in higher education. Almost always, the most senior faculty are the most vociferous when a new curriculum is being developed despite the fact that they won’t be around to implement it. It’s exasperating to say the least. They simply can’t let go.

How do we nudge the committed core to choose not to serve on Council so that other newer members can? How do we get them to speak less often in meetings so that other newer members can? And maybe even, how do we get them to volunteer a little less, so that newer members need to?

Idea three. When it comes to church conflict, we talk about the importance of forgiveness, but absent regular opportunities to work through contending viewpoints about how things are or aren’t going, resentments build. Too often, we rush to “just be done” with a conflict before people truly reconcile. Then, when the next conflict arises, people’s resentments inevitably resurface, making the resolution of the conflict much more complex and challenging. It’s like we’re on a bench press and between reps someone keeps adding 10 lb. weights on each end of the bar.

Also, I doubt that casual church goers are very understanding of church conflict. Idea four. Everyone has a finite capacity for dealing with conflict. And everyone has a little or a lot in their extended families and at their workplaces. It may be naive, but it’s also totally understandable for people to want their church to be somewhat of a conflict-free oasis. Wherever and whenever a couple of hundred people form community, there will be conflict, but given our finite capacity for dealing with it, how do we proactively reduce the number and intensity of conflicts in our church communities?

I left you with a question, which I guess means you have to write back. Or give me an extra 500 yards.

I’m thankful for our friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Ron

 

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Absent the 1980 Summer Olympic boycott, Steve, Kevin, and I woulda brought home water polo gold. I’m sure of it.

Train For Thanksgiving

Thanks Karin Tamerius of Smart Politics for this five-step method on how to have difficult conversations.* One question though, why with our ever deepening commitment to gender equity, is it ALWAYS a crazed uncle? There has to be at least one crazy aunt out there somewhere doesn’t there?

*happy to report that I aced it, but don’t trust my results, given my relative calm when taking the hypothetical, self-paced test

Postscript: Thanksgiving Netflix scorecard. House of Cards Season Six, “terrible” doesn’t do it justice. Shoulda killed the show with FU. Narcos Mexico Season One, excellent, as long as you can stomach guys whacking one another at point blank. Schitt’s Creek Season Four. Alison Byrnes says it’s the best season yet. She’s wrong (again), but it’s still a lot of fun. I’ve never heard the Good Wife laugh so consistently at any series ever. Especially at Moira.

Erynn Brook’s Mum Taught Her She’s Allowed to Leave

A Twitter thread @ErynnBrook.

“I want to tell you a story about how my mum taught me that I’m allowed to leave an uncomfortable situation.
I was maybe 7, I think it was my first sleepover at someone else’s house. I don’t remember the girl’s name. But before I left Mum told me that if I was uncomfortable at any point, for any reason, even if it was in the middle of the night, I could call her.
She was very clear. She said even if her parents have gone to bed I want you to knock on their bedroom door and ask to use the phone. I could call her even if it was late. And if her parents didn’t answer the door to just go find the phone and call her anyway.
She said it doesn’t matter what time it is, you won’t be in trouble and I’ll come get you.
I think I was being teased about something. It definitely wasn’t just I can’t sleep, there was something social going on. But that’s what I did.
The girl’s mom tried to discourage me. She said it was late, I said my mum didn’t care. She said I could sleep on the couch. I said I wanted to go home. She said I was upsetting her daughter, I said she was mean to me.
I remember holding the phone and my mum answered. I said “hi Mum.” She said “you want me to come get you?” I said “yes please.” She said “ask her Mum to help you pack up your things and get your coat on. I’ll be right there.”
And my mum showed up on her doorstep in pajama pants and a coat. The girl’s mum kept apologizing for me calling, my mum put up a hand and said “don’t apologize for my daughter. I want her to know she’s allowed to leave and I’ll be there for her at any time.”
I remember the little crowd of sleepover girls huddled in the far doorway that led to the bedrooms, watching all of this confused and silent. And I remember that mom apologizing. She didn’t seem to know what to say after my mum asked her to stop.
I had more incidents like that as I grew up. My mum did a lot around boundaries with me. I remember her marching me down the street to another girl’s house to ask for an apology in front of her parents.
I remember her telling 3 friends to sit in the front room with their bags packed while they waited for their parents to come get them, after I had told them all to “get out of my house” for teasing me and bullying me.
I remember her coaching me through a speech on how to resign and leave from a hostile work environment when I was in the middle of nowhere at a camp for the summer, and she offered money to get a cab to pick me and my friends up.
I can’t say I’ve always followed my gut on boundaries and discomfort. I can’t say I’ve never swallowed it in order to make others comfortable. But I can say what she taught me was important. It was and still is radical.
It’s radical to have boundaries. And to exercise them. Three things I think were really really important in what she did:
1. She always explicitly said ‘you can leave if you want to.’
2. She never questioned why, or whether I was overreacting.
3. She showed up.
But I think a lot about the girl’s mum apologizing and how… that’s the norm, actually.
What my mum taught me was radical, what that girl’s mum was teaching was the norm. ‘Just deal with it, don’t trouble anyone, go back to sleep, it’ll be over soon, don’t ruin it.’
And I still get that message from a lot of places. But my mum taught me that I’m allowed to leave.

I see what a privilege that is as an adult. For some people, for some situations, there is no way out. But sometimes, also, we don’t leave because we think we’re not allowed.

So, just in case no one ever told you (or you need a reminder): YOU ARE ALLOWED TO LEAVE.

You can leave a date, a party, a job, a meeting, a commitment. You are allowed. If you’re worried about keeping your word remember that your boundaries are also your word, your integrity.

I wanted to tell this story because the message to stay to make others comfortable is so pervasive, that without actively teaching me that I’m allowed to leave, that’s what I would’ve absorbed.
Hell, I absorbed a lot of it anyway. As an adult, at that camp job, I remember her on the phone saying ‘what do you want to do?’ And not knowing, until she said ‘do you want to leave?’ And I said ‘can I?’ She said ‘You can always leave. What do you need so you can leave?’
So, if you’re a person like me, who was taught that you’re allowed to leave, keep an eye out for those who weren’t. They may need the reminder. They may need to hear that it’s okay. They may need help. And keep telling yourself that you are allowed. You’re allowed to leave. 💜
Wow this is really taking off! Before it goes too far I wanted to say: I’m seeing this being gendered and while I am a woman and my mother is a woman there’s no gender on this message. I understand the impulse to teach your daughters this but please teach all children.
When you know that you are allowed to leave, when you exercise that boundary, the idea that others are allowed to leave also comes up. Boys stay in uncomfortable situations to fit in as well, they also deserve this lesson.
Trans, non binary and gender non conforming folks often shrink themselves for the comfort of those around them. They deserve this lesson too. Everyone is allowed to leave. No one is obliged to be uncomfortable for others’ comfort or enjoyment. 💜”

Which is Better, Rewards or Punishment?

Trick question, neither. How to parent. And teach. And coach. And change the world for the better.

“No matter how irrational or difficult a (parenting) moment might seem, we can respond in a way that says: ‘I see you. I’m here to understand and help. I’m on your side. We’ll figure this out together.'”

The book.

Rocky Mountain High

The Good Wife and I lived in Denver in our late 20’s and early 30’s. I was studying curriculum and global education at the University of Denver, she was improving the life prospects of inner city third graders. We became a threesome while in Denver and it was supe-cool to be back for a family wedding with both daughters.

In 1993, I would’ve never left Colorado if there were more academic positions there once I had it piled higher and deeper (PhD). 300 days of sunshine a year, beautiful mountains, shimmering aspens, 300 days of sunshine a year. Of course, I’d probably be dead from skin cancer by now, but no one lives forever. The sun was hotter than I am used to and there’s next to no tree cover compared to the upper lefthand corner of the country.

Like most places in the country, Denver has grown and changed a lot in a quarter-century. Especially downtown. Tangent. There were NO homeless people downtown. In Boulder either. Coming from Seattle, Portland, Olympia, that was really odd. Someone in the know, educate me. Where are they? Why?

We hiked a few times including in a crowded Rocky Mountain National Park, visited the first house we ever bought near the “U”, and attended a wonderful outdoor family wedding in Lyons. Two young, giving, caring people committing to love is a wonderful antidote for these cynical times.

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First house. Observatory Park, 25 years and one grown ass woman later.

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Flatirons, Boulder. Getting our hike on.

 

What’s A Young Woman To Do?

Imagine you’re a heterosexual, twenty or thirty-something female, wanting a romantic partner, even a husband, maybe even children, but you spend more time looking at screens than interacting with male friends. Realizing the folly of your ways, you unplug a bit, stop taking your phone everywhere, start changing your daily routine so that you’re Instagramming less and talking to people your age more.

Then you read this essay titled “How Abusive Relationships Take Root” and learn:

“Roughly a third of women in developed countries report having been in at least one abusive relationship, defined by a partner or ex-partner who ’causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors,’ according to the World Health Organization.”

What do you do? Throw in the towel? Benedict Carey, the author of the essay, has an answer. Pay really close attention to warning signs.*

“The hallmark signs of the male abuser are well known to experts. He’s jealous. He exhibits a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. He can be cruel with animals, to children. But often there are subtler, more incremental steps in the development of an abusive relationship, among men and women of all orientations.

‘It often starts in a very insidious way,’ said Patricia Pape, a psychologist in private practice in New York. ‘He says, ‘Don’t put Sweet-and-Low in your coffee, it’s poisonous.’ ‘Then, ‘When you wear that nail polish, it makes you look like a fallen woman,’ and ‘That skirt is too short, it’s too revealing.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you should see her, she’s not good for you.’ ‘You wind up in a situation where he’s telling you what to wear, what to eat, who you can see, how to behave.’ Each small adjustment made by the victim reinforces this control, Dr. Pape said. One of her patients had a husband who, when the couple was out at a public event, would insist she not look around at the crowd, as he felt it could be seen as flirtatious. ‘It came to point that when she walked around, she would look down,” Dr. Pape said. “It changed how she walked.’

In this case, as in so many others, no single request was offensive on its own — at least, not early on. Each person in a relationship makes room for the other’s quirks, to some extent, male or female: that’s what couples do. It’s the incremental ceding of control on one side that can prime someone for abuse, therapists said.”

The incremental ceding of control. The incremental ceding of control. The incremental ceding of control.

When he says, “Don’t put Sweet-and-Low in your coffee, it’s poisonous,” your inner voice has to say, “F*ck you.” Get up from the cafe table, walk out, and don’t turn back. When he says, “I don’t think you should see her, she’s not good for you.” “F*ck you, I will always choose my friends.” Nail polish makes you look like a fallen woman, f*ck you. Skirt too short, f*ck you. Swear too much, f*ck you.

At the same exact time you have to remind yourself that most men are not prone to dictating what you put in your coffee, that they don’t care who your friends are, what color your fingernails are, or how short your skirt is. Most men are not jealous, do not have Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities, and are not cruel to animals or children.

In fact, #MeToo headlines and popular culture depictions aside, a lot of men are secure, psychologically healthy, even kind and considerate, and they dig whatever friends, color of fingernail polish, and clothing make you happy. They willingly cede control to all-important things like what you put in your coffee. And they listen, consider your feelings, and seek to make most decisions together. They conceive of romantic love as a partnershp. Lots and lots of men.

So you overcome your understandable uncertainty and take chances with male friends, sharing more and more of your deepest thoughts, assuming that they are of the kind and considerate variety until they prove differently. At which point you promptly drop kick them and start all over again.

*I will be using this passage in future writing seminars. Brilliant illustration of specific details.

Monday Assorted Links

1. My Gender-Fluid Senior Prom by Ara Halstead from. . . Olympia, WA.

2 . The Spy Who Came Home. What do Fallujah and Savannah, Georgia have in common? Find out from Patrick Skinner, who I find inspiring on so many levels. Then follow him on Twitter.

3. How Bike-Friendly Is My City? Not as friendly as Fort Collins, Colorado or Wausau, Wisconsin.

4. Jerusalem opens a bike tunnel in a sewage tunnel.

5A. Silent soccer.

5B. Young swimmers may have to wait to dress like Katie Ledecky.