Creative Church

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


How do you come up with ideas? I was having lunch with a pastor who was describing an “aha” moment. I asked her what brought about the aha? She said she’d been thinking and praying about the topic for 8 years. Then this big idea struck her. Her moment of inspiration was years in the making. This pastor’s story aligns with what Kevin Ashton writes about in How to Fly a Horse. He argues that creativity is not magic, and often does not manifest in moments of clarity. Creativity comes from hard work. He writes, “To create is to work. It is that easy and that hard.”

Creativity and imagination are the challenge for our congregations and our presbytery. I remember talking with one of the most gifted pastors I’ve known. He was explaining why he was retiring. “Craig, I’ve just run out of ideas.” This is the same statement I hear while sitting around tables with discouraged session members and heartbroken elders. The problem of congregations dissolving is not just financial or aging out, we often lack creativity to see new solutions, opportunities, and breakthroughs.

Ministry in the 21st century requires imagination and creativity. The first step in creativity is to try something. Take an action. Take a risk. Do something. One creative expression of ministry is New Worshiping Communities (NWC). Imagine these as seeds for the future of the church. Our presbytery has birthed four NWC in the past three years. We currently have three remaining: UKirk, Haus Church, and Light for the Darkness. I had a conversation with Rev. Thirza Sayers who is the organizing pastor of Light for the Darkness. I asked Thirza, who is very creative, what is the source of her creativity. Her response? The Holy Spirit! She then added that coming out of a deep depression helped her to see how the light of the gospel brightened her darkness. For Thirza, and for us, our personal experience with God is also the source of our creativity. Our testimony is the key to the door of evangelism.

Education Day on March 21 at Ladue Chapel is about imagination and reimagination. It is about getting our creative chops going as we imagine leadership, church in a digital age, creative liturgy, and doing ministry in the in-between time. We will have training for ruling elders and deacons as we imagine the future church they will serve in. Registration forms will be sent later this week. I encourage everyone to come out and experience the Holy Spirit as we are moved to imagine the church God is calling us to be.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Presbyterians Care

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


The Dismantling Racism and Privilege (DRAP) team is still seeing fruit from their trip to the Legacy Museum in Alabama. Although the trip happened last October, the waves are still flowing outward from the initial event. There is energy in the presbytery that is triggered by the enthusiasm and focus of DRAP. An example is the pre-session at the presbytery gathering on this coming Thursday February 6th. Ordinarily, we anticipate 125 people at our gatherings. We already have 140 registered! We have over 110 planning to participate in the pre-session. Wow! We anticipate about 25% of the participants will be first time visitors to a presbytery gathering. These members are showing up because they are both excited and curious. They are excited about what DRAP is doing. They are curious about who we are as Presbyterians and how we live in life together beyond their particular congregations.

At the gathering you will see many people wearing Presbyterians Care shirts. This is part of the DRAP initiative designed for each congregation to reach in and reach out with acts of compassion and caring. Congregations and individuals are being asked to volunteer in community activities like visiting a Ronald McDonald House, neighborhood clean-up, or a local food pantry. They are asked to do internal mission like hold a career day, create an intergenerational event, or host a read-a-thon for children. They are asked to wear their Presbyterians Care shirt while involved in acts of compassion, peace, and justice. The idea is to raise awareness of Presbyterians in action, and to witness through the wearing of the shirts.

Simply wearing a shirt that identifies us as Presbyterian may generate conversation. It may become an entrée to sharing our faith, witnessing for Christ, and inviting someone to church. In a time where the most shocking clothing seems to be the most popular (did you see the red carpet on the Grammys!), it may be easy on the eyes for someone to see a simple and honest message. It would be even more powerful if this message is connected with an action of compassion and community service.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

From Every Tribe and Nation

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I’ve been able to catch glimpses of the impeachment. I saw the house managers make their case for impeachment. Now I’m watching the defense state their rationale for acquittal. I know what the results will be, even before the vote is taken. When we live in a partisan world, people tend to stick with their tribe.

The Senate is showing me something. Even though most of their minds are made up, they sit and listen. They show respect. They disagree with a level of decorum.

I also noticed that I am far more interested in what one side says than the other. I watch news shows for one side, far more than I do for the other. I realize that I too am part of the partisan spirit that has engulfed our country and the world.

We live in the waters of partisanship. We take sides and we believe our side is right. I have come to accept this reality. The challenge is how do we navigate a course with people on both sides of a divide? How do we come to an agreement that both sides feel is fair and has the potential to live into what God wants for this presbytery, and the various institutions and churches that are affiliated with it?

Each presbytery gathering, I struggle with the question of capacity. Do we have the emotional capacity to make difficult decisions in a respectful way? Do we have the maturity to recognize that even though we are on different sides of an issue, we are able to listen, speak, and vote with class and decorum; we are capable of coming to a bipartisan solution?

At the February 6th gathering we will discuss and vote on the An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for the Sin Of Slavery and its Legacy, which is being submitted by Dismantling Racism and Privilege Team. We will vote on overtures for the upcoming General Assembly. We will have other business of the presbytery to vote and discuss. What will our spirit be during these times of conversation, debate, and vote?

In spite of my expressed anxiety, I am watching this presbytery evolve and grow. The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy is claiming its identity as a diverse body of believers who are spread across the spectrum of theology and faith. We are a large tent that seeks to include conservative and liberal, LGBTQIA+ and straight, all people of color including white, urban and rural, wealthy and poor. We are the vision of God’s kingdom, where all are welcome to the table where Jesus Christ is host.

This is why we will gather, we will pray, we will worship, we will learn, we will fellowship, and we will vote. The more we gather, the more we can see Christ in one another, as we love each other with the love of Jesus Christ that passes all understanding.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Sugar

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Last year I received a health scare. After my semi-annual physical, my blood sugar levels spiked. Diabetes runs strong in my family. My Mother died of renal failure related to complications from diabetes. Each of my brothers are diabetic, and now so am I. The truth is I’d been diagnosed as pre-diabetic for years. But I didn’t take it seriously. I was in a weird form of denial. I figured that if I didn’t pay attention to my diabetes, nothing would happen and my numbers would decrease, and all would be well. Last August that myth was shattered.

My first response was to change my diet. Actually, my first response was a weird depression, sadness, and belief that my life would end with blindness and the loss of limbs! Once I got over my apocalyptic drama, I focused on what I can control. After talking with my brothers (they are the greatest brothers a brother can have!) I learned more about diabetes than any doctor could tell me. Perhaps it is because people who love us know how to talk to us in ways we can listen; ways we can hear with compassion what they are saying.

Back to the diet! I watched sugar and carbs. I no longer drank soda or sugary drinks. I watched my alcohol intake. I began a serious exercise program. I walked after dinner and worked out 3 – 4 days a week. I did weights and cardio. I sweat, a lot! And I began checking my blood sugar levels. I learned how my body works, when my sugar rises and when it falls, how it responds to food and exercise. I learned that the biggest contributor to a rise in my blood sugar is stress (I now take Bible reading, prayer, and meditation more seriously). By Thanksgiving I’d lost 25 pounds! My glucose levels were within normal range (my next A1C is February and I’ll know for sure). So far, I’ve kept the weight off.

I must give a huge shout out to the Board of Pensions. Through their Livongo plan I am able to obtain a blood sugar kit with an endless supply of strips and lances. The plan connects to my Call to Health monitoring as well. All of this is free. I know many of you are part of Call to Health. 46% of our eligible members participated last year. I would like to get that number up. I would like to see more of our pastors and Board of Pension members get involved with Call to Health.

I still love sugar! Just ask Ruthie down at Fisk Presbyterian church. I couldn’t resist her apple pie on Sunday after worship! My eating is a lifetime choice, a choice I make daily, and sometimes meal to meal. I am aware that the loss of sight and limbs may not be avoided, but I hope to do all I can to live a full and abundant life for those I love and myself, with the help of God.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Paradigm Shift

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I can’t wait to hear Jennifer Harvey at our next presbytery gathering! I am looking forward to participating in worship and her workshop on February 6th at St. Mark. Jennifer is the author of the book, Dear White Christians. The presbytery will be reading the book throughout the year. Several of you are already into it! Second Presbyterian even had a class on the book (Go Second! Go Second!). Jennifer is challenging the church to shift from a paradigm of reconciliation to a paradigm of repair.

This shift is a challenge for me as well. As I read her book, I felt a shift in my own thinking and expectations. And it troubles me.

My way of understanding anti-racism has been shaped and formed in me since childhood. From kindergarten to fourth grade, I attended all black schools. From fifth grade through college, I only knew white majority integrated schools. My first day in a white school was my first school fight. I was raised to believe that if we can learn, work and live together in the same neighborhoods, and even worship in the same churches, then we can remove the scourge of racism from our society. This model of integration and reconciliation has been my underlying way of thinking.

What Jennifer helps me to see is that racism creates scars and wounds in people of color. These wounds are soothed and healed by other people of color living together in the same community and worshiping in with one another in the same church. This is why 11:00 remains the most segregated hour. Not because Blacks and Whites can’t worship together, but perhaps because Black people choose to worship where they find dignity, agency, and strength.

I still believe that integrated worship is still a sign of God’s power and a strong witness in our racialized society. I do not want the white congregations in our presbytery to give up on attracting Black people to worship. But now I value churches of color that are separated and able to express their culture in worship without justification or judgement. I get it.

If Jennifer Harvey can help change my thinking (being the old dog that I am!), I believe she can help the presbytery take steps toward racial healing and repair.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

Continuing Education

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Happy New Year! The beginning of the year can bring hope and possibility. It is a grace from God to try again, afresh, and anew. I pray that each of you have a vision of improvement for your mind, body, and spirit. I pray that you find ways to connect to your community and make a difference with a focus on hope and justice. May we as a presbytery help fulfill Zachariah’s prayer for the child Jesus when he said, “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” Luke 1:78 – 79.

One of the gifts each presbytery minister has are funds for continuing education (con-ed). The minister uses these funds to enhance their working knowledge, feed their spirit, and nurture their ministry. For some ministers this means a class or a workshop. Each year I use a portion of my con-ed to meet with a consultant. I, along with a small group of presbytery executives are given personal help and inspired by ideas to lead our presbyteries into the future. I enjoy going to lectures by authors I’ve read as well. In 2018 I attended a lecture on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton presented by Richard Rohr.

Ministers take workshops on music, painting, or other ways to express their creative side. Sometimes churches cannot see the connection between how a minister uses their con-ed, and the work of the church. This is because sometimes the connection is indirect. An inspired minister is a better leader. A relaxed and de-stressed minister is a better leader. A minister who has their creative spirit opened through photography, may find new ways of understanding a text, or solving a problem.

I want to encourage all ministers to take advantage of their con-ed. Be it a biblical class, music workshop, writing seminar, or finger painting, do something that will stretch your soul or build upon the gifts you already have. Sessions and boards should make sure each minister is improving their craft. Quality leadership is one of the keys to a vital congregation, and ministry setting. I encourage all minsters to plan and schedule their con-ed for 2020.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Reshaping and Stretching the Structure

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Presbyterians are a meeting people. We meet in sessions in our individual congregations. We meet in committees, commissions, and councils in our presbyteries, synods, and General Assembly. Our polity eschews concentrating power in one person or office. Instead, we disperse responsibility across teaching elders and ruling elders. We come together to share information, spark new ideas, plan, and take action. We meet.

We meet in our presbytery too! The structure of the presbytery is designed to facilitate the needs of the presbytery, at least the needs as we understood them in 2015 when we began reimagining the design and structure of the presbytery. The result is the structure we accepted in 2016 and work from today. This year over 170 members participated in the work of the presbytery through 32 teams, sub-teams, and commissions. The presbytery committee on representation and nominations does an excellent job of recruiting volunteers from across the presbytery. I appreciate the work, effort, and time commitment from each of you who volunteered in 2019. Thank you!

However, we are finding it more and more difficult to find volunteers to serve on many of our teams and attend one meeting after another. That’s why as the year 2020 rises upon us, I am asking a question about our current design. It is the question of purpose. What is the reason these teams exist and come together to meet, or do they come together and meet because they exist? Has anything changed since 2015 that makes these teams more or less relevant? Is the problem the people or the structure? Like a church which tries to staff a session designed for the church when it was twice its current size, does the structure of the presbytery fit the reality and needs of the members and congregations we have today?

In seminary I learned that the best theology lives between the tension of two truths. In this case, our best design lives between the need for permanence and surety, and the reality of rapid change. We need permission to push against those structure that no longer work or fit and allow what God is bringing forth to emerge. The structure must be able to reflect the rapidly changing constituents, needs, and fiscal realities of the organization. This flexibility applies to the Book of Order, presbytery policy, and congregation’s manuals operation.

So, if we’re a truly flexible presbytery, what would our structure look like? How do we make sure honorably retired pastors, and those participating in specialized ministry get hardwired into the structure? How do we lift up climate change and global missions, while keeping dismantling racism front and center? Pray along with me and our leadership as we meet together and discuss these important questions.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Deciding Versus Discerning

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I am a youngest child. There are basically two types of youngest children: One says, “Help, I can’t do it!” The other says, “I don’t need your help, I can do it myself.” I’m the second type! My drive for competence and control is what led me to take Home Economics (so I can wash, iron, and cook without anyone’s help!) and obtain a doctorate degree (I’m smart enough to do it without anyone’s help!). Sometimes I think the Presbyterian church is filled with oldest and second type of youngest born children. These are the take control, independent thinking, highly competent, decision making type. Our polity is designed for order and efficiency; it is a polity that works hand-in-hand with a “we can handle this” personality.

Yet God calls us to silence. God calls us to stillness. God wants us to let go of the controls. God speaks to us in prayer and meditation through a still small voice. At a time when meeting to make decisions is the norm, perhaps God is calling us to ancient practice of discernment. In her book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont quotes Ruth Haley Barton in defining discernment as, “. . .an ever increasing capacity to ‘see’ the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing.”

Discernment can be done individually or as a committee, team, or group. In either context, discernment means letting go of what we want- what we desire to happen. We then open ourselves up to what God wants as we seek God’s will for the situation or problem. This process is called shedding or letting go. Beaumont writes, “Shedding invites personal indifference. Discerners suspend personal preferences because they don’t value anything as much as they value honoring the soul of the institution and knowing God’s will.”

There are many more elements to discernment in Beaumont’s book including framing the question, grounding in principles, listening, exploring, weighing, choosing, and testing. Discerning is a lot of work! It is not practical to use this process for every decision. But it could be used for individual critical decisions (like when I sought God’s will for becoming your presbytery leader) and group decisions (such as “Should we lease our space? Change our worship? Reorganize our department?”). 

Advent invites us to a reflective pause as we ponder the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. This is a good time to reconnect our spiritual disciplines which are the foundation for discernment. Advent reminds us that no matter how talented or gifted we are, we cannot do it by ourselves. We do God’s best work when we are not in control. And that we need the hope, peace, joy, and love we find in Jesus Christ and in one another.  Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Self-Empathy

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


The work of leadership, pastors, teachers, and chaplains is the work of making decisions. Pastors and other leaders often feel as though they are on an island and often work alone. While there are still a few large congregations with full-time staff, for the most part, the days of multi-staff congregations and full-time staff are behind us. Many pastors find themselves preparing bulletins and vacuuming carpets! Seminary faculty must do their own copying while handling a large teaching load. Hospital chaplains are stretched over several hospitals and have little administrative help with their work. Religious leaderships in various forms are faced with expanded roles with extended time without matching compensation. They face complex problems with varying and contextual answers with even more severe consequences. The demands of religious leaders to have an answer quickly and correctly is matched by the requirement to be relvant, approachable, and “without all that spooky spiritual stuff” in their replies.

As my colleague and Executive Presbyter of Pittsburgh, Sheldon Sorge, likes to say, “Lord give me a tough skin and a tender heart in this work that creates a thin skin and tough heart.”

I’m writing to leaders who may judge themselves harshly for not keeping up or when they make a mistake. I’m addressing those who experience internal guilt when they fall short of their high internal standards and to those who blame themselves when things don’t go as planned. I’m writing to myself.

I have been helped this Advent season by the book Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action by Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini. They spend a bit of time on the subject of self-empathy. Self-empathy is needed when we hear a negative comment, fail at a task, or things don’t go as we would like. It is needed when we respond internally with words like, “I should have known better,” or “What an idiot I am; I can’t believe I did that,” or “I’ll never learn.” They write, “With this kind of response to criticism, we set ourselves up for chronic stress, guilt and shame. If it becomes a deeply entrenched pattern, it can lead to depression.”

Empathy is the ability to listen, connect, and relate to others. Self-empathy demands the same attention and compassion that we share with others to be applied to ourselves. Through self-empathy we hear things differently and respond in healthier ways. It is a way to lighten the burden of leadership by emphasizing our acceptance by God and valuing our feelings and needs in our relationships and lives. As we practice self-empathy, we will learn to love ourselves as we love others.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

Advent

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Advent is the season of waiting. During advent, we light candles on the advent wreath with each candle representing an element of our faith. These elements are hope, faith, joy, and peace. The fifth candle, Christ’s candle, represents light and purity.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect on our calling in Christ. As Presbyterians, we believe everyone is called to a particular vocation. This calling asks each of us to serve our society and the world. In her book, The Spirit of Advent: The Meaning is in the Waiting, Paula Gooder reflects on the calling of Abraham and Sarah and how their lives can guide us in our sense of call and vocation. She writes, “With God the command is both to go and to come. The ‘go’ element involves leaving behind many things; the command to ‘come’ involves knowing that God will accompany us on the journey.” What is God calling you to leave behind this Advent season?  How do you experience God on your journey of faith?

Advent is a time to believe that the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ is the God who calls us to wait. We are called to wait for the seeds of faith that have been planted in our spirit to sprout into new life. For me, I wait in anxious anticipation for fruitful congregations, chaplains, teachers, new worshiping communities, and other specialized ministries to bud, blossom, and bloom, all in God’s time. What do you find yourself waiting for during this Advent season?

Advent is a time for change. God’s change in God’s time. Change may mean letting go. It often means loss and grief. Gooder writes, “God’s call to us remains a call to change: to leaving and accompanying, to moving and changing, to growing and flourishing. It is part of human nature to yearn for stability, to put down roots, and to stay put; but it is also a rule of nature that things that do not move do not live.” What changes are you welcoming into your life this Advent? 

Advent is a call to life. As we embrace the core elements of our life in Christ – hope, faith, joy, and peace–we enjoy the happiness of God through the fruit of the Spirit. Blessings to all during this Advent season as we engage the Triune God and find new life together. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard