The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bob Sitze's Blog

October 6, 2015

Simple congregations: Sports sloganeering

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation. In the following entry, most of that introductory statement might not be operational!)

On account of my deep attachment to the sports culture that forms the basis of our civilization, I have recently become convinced about the value of sports-related slogans (for example, "Bear Up, Chicago Bears!"). In most team sports, these slogans provide much-needed personal identity, help support the burgeoning sports apparel conglomerates and create the necessary emotion-laden conversations that grace family dinners and first dates (for example, "How about them Cubbies?").

It seems logical, then, that congregations wanting to grab even a small piece of America's dwindling attention span would want to get in on the action—the sports-slogan action and all its connected artifacts and activities. This entry might help your congregation make the transition from perhaps-meaningless vision and mission statements to sloganeering that captures the essence of spiritual life.

Co-opting existing slogans
With only slight twists of verbiage, you might adapt Wichita State's enigmatic "Fear the Wheat" as a way of bringing former fearmongers into faithful church membership. You could also enable liturgical literacy by fitting any of the formulaic color-infested slogans—for example, Nebraska's "Go Big Red"—into liturgical seasons (as in "Go Big Purple!"). Cal State Santa Cruz's mascot, Sammy the Banana Slug, has inspired the  slogan "Let There Be Slugs," a motto easily adapted to your congregation (as in "Let There be Church Mice").

Worship cheers
You could certainly enliven worship with sports-based cheers, fight songs or chants. For example, before-sermon mantras might include "All the way through the text, hey!"; "Give 'em Heaven"; or the ever-popular "Fight, fight, fight"—for those sermons where you really want to exorcise sin. Worship leaders could be introduced at the start of every service with a light show and public ceremony naming them with high-pitch and high-volume bios that look good on your jumbo screens. Fist-pumping and "No. 1" gestures seem especially appropriate here.

Mascots and logos
In previous decades, Jesus was thought to be a cult figure worthy of adorning bumpers, T-shirts, window decals and hats. Nothing should prohibit you from doing the same, now substituting colorful mascot logos that advertise your congregation's name. For example, any church named after one of Jesus' Capernaum disciples could be thought of as a fisherman, yielding mascots such as Thomas the Tilapia Trader or Bartholomew the Boat Guy. Newer church names—e.g., Community of Happiness—could be pictured as a crowd of joyful people holding—you guessed it—varieties of sports equipment!

Sports-based linguistics
Given the vast array of colorful sports metaphors and the extensive vocabulary of on-air announcers, it makes good sense to adapt the linguistic formulas of sports into sermons, teachings, creeds and liturgical elements. The Kyrie could be rephrased around the theme "My bad, 'bro." The Christian life would no longer be a "journey" but instead be cast as "The Game." Worship could be divided into "halves" or "quarters," and Sunday school classes would get to choose a name inspired by their favorite sports team. Sermons would be thought of as "locker room talks" and prayers as a function of "the huddle." Doctrines could be grouped under the headings, "Offensive" and "Defensive." Your pastor would be repurposed as a line coach and the youth director as the farm team director. Membership classes would end with a draft—for committee assignments—and unproductive members thought of as injured reserves.

In all of these adaptations, you would be taking to heart the pervasive influence of sports in the lives and personalities of a vast array of the citizenry of this great land, thus making your congregation appealing for all the same reasons that sports-living permeates our culture. Perhaps most gratifying, Sunday morning soccer coaches may soon be complaining about your congregation stealing their players for worship and learning opportunities!

Go, Spirit! 

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October 3, 2015

Simple enough: Gracing customer surveys

Here's one way to add grace to the dreaded customer surveys that pop up at your local cash registers: Go online and complete them! Here's my reasoning.

First let's admit that there may be something not-quite-kosher in these surveys. Companies use this device as a way improve their service, but they are also amassing data and mailing list contacts for marketing purposes. (Your email flood increases five minutes after you complete the survey!)

An often overlooked purpose for these surveys is to evaluate the work of employees, in some cases even tying compensation levels or other perks to worker ratings. Here's where you come in, with grace! When you feel that the employee reminding you about the survey's existence is doing so because its results affect his or her continuing employment, resolve to complete the online survey. Consider these added suggestions:

  • When the level of service is just ordinary, still rate it at the top of the available scale. (For some businesses, nothing less than complete excellence is required of employees.)
  • Always complete the "Comments" section of a survey. If possible, use the employee's name, and craft your comments so that specifics of high quality service are contained in easily recognizable verbiage. Use complimentary adjectives that any algorithm can recognize. Don't spare superlatives or other positive reactions. Fill the available space as much as possible.
  • After you start receiving unwanted emails from the company, use the "unsubscribe" feature to end their unwanted communications.

Why do this? It's one way of adding grace-filled justice back into employment systems that can sometimes squash workers inside of narrowly framed, data-based philosophies of acceptable work. Yes, you are gaming a system that has winners and losers, but you're doing so on behalf of people who have served you. It seems only fair.

Simple enough? 

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September 30, 2015

Simple things: Shoes

(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look more deeply, appreciatively and gratefully at some of the elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in the rest of the world.)

Look at almost any photo of people in developing countries and you likely won't see many of them wearing even the simplest footwear. In many places in the world, shoes are a luxury. Today might be a good time to consider the blessings brought to you by your shoes.

However constructed, durable footwear is fairly complex. The materials from which shoes are constructed must endure sustained use under difficult circumstances. Leather, rubber, metal, plastic, strong fabric—each is tooled to create footwear that lasts over time.

Although you may think of shoes only as a fashion accessory, they provide some of your basic needs. Layered onto the soles of your feet and securely attached to your ankles, shoes provide you with protection from a variety of hazards. These dangers include sharp objects; harmful insects, plants and small animals; extreme temperatures; and sprains. In tropical climates, shoes also protect people from pathogens that live in the ground. Specialized footwear keeps your feet dry and free from fungal diseases. Shoes adjust to the dimensions and movement of your feet, providing continuing protection no matter your posture. Shoes help protect your lower extremities and hips from injury.

Without well-engineered and carefully crafted shoes, you would be vulnerable to any number of life-threatening circumstances. Without shoes, walking, jumping, running or working wouldn't be enjoyable. Without shoes, the comfort and distance of your mobility would be severely limited.

The shoes in your closet—and on your feet right now—are part of the long history of shoemaking. At this moment, workers in factories in developing countries are fashioning shoes that will continue to make your life safe and enjoyable. Today you can thank God for the shoemakers who are crafting your next pair of shoes!

Simple enough? 

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September 27, 2015

Simple enough: Let it alone

One aspect of aging is the gradually growing list of things that you can't cure or solve. Your doctor may tell you that it makes sense "just to watch this condition for awhile." Your adult children are probably not going to change much, so you can learn to enjoy them rather than change them. It makes little sense to replace your well-worn furniture if you're heading to assisted living. And you probably don't need to feel guilt or shame about most parts of your life anymore. As you grow older, "let it alone" functions as a useful lifestyle principle. It's also part of living simply.

"Let it alone" operates in many ways, at any age. Once you admit that you will never be able to work hard enough or spend enough money and time to make your life perfect, you can begin to prioritize which parts you can accept as they are and which  you will continue to maintain or change. You can name the risks you are willing to take, the unknowns that you can live with, the impossibility of completing all items on your bucket list and the imperfections that actually provide unique character to your life. And, of course, sleeping dogs will no longer be a problem!

When you learn to be satisfied to let things be as they are, you don't give up on what's important, you don't overlook evil and you don't stop being grateful. Humility and wisdom are more possible or prevalent in your life. You realize that you can slow down, choose carefully what to focus your lifework on and resist the temptations of "more." You accept your aging with grace, and stop thinking about your eventual death as a dreaded circumstance that should be fought at every moment.

Simple enough? 

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September 24, 2015

Simplicity's children: Dealing with FOMO

From your ever-expanding and extremely hip knowledge of social media terms, you are certainly aware of the possibility that FOMO—fear of missing out—may be destroying your preteen's self-concept. (And, of course, her/his ability to remain one of the popular kids well into post-college semi-adulthood.)

A quick review about FOMO: This psychological condition emerges when your preteen discovers that she/he is possibly not being included in some of the events or relationships that grow on social media sites like self-identity mold. Your preteen may worry about not getting the number of tiny morsels of others' regard that he/she thinks are necessary for the maintenance of digital bondage with her/his peers. When left unnoticed or unmentioned, FOMO can grow into—you guessed it—full-fledged anxiety that can continue to vex your child through his/her entire life.

What to do? As was true before the arrival of social media, you're looking at a distilled form of peer pressure. The amelioratives for this condition are already available or well-known to you: Provide other sources for self-esteem than handheld, not-so-smart devices. (For example, your love!) Talk about the fears exposing their wispy tendrils as "less than real" and certainly "less than important." Help your preteen continue to discover and develop admirable attitudes and skills. Relate your own life struggles for social acceptance as a youth. In conversation, let your teen-child reaffirm other values and strengths of character that are attention-worthy and friendship-building at their core (e.g., empathy, forgiveness, generosity, honesty). Pray for and with your child, holding up to God's loving embrace this precious child whom you hope will not be formed by fears of every kind. With your teen-child, consider limiting the amount of time he/she spends on these personality-changing devices.

Eventually, FOMO will dissipate. But while you're waiting, remember this: You are the key to the self-worth of your child!

Simple enough? 

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September 21, 2015

Simple enough: People analytics down at church

Math-infested "people analytics" has made the vexing job of interviewing and hiring employees a simple task. By merely following the recommendations of algorithmic certainty, employers can now analyze resumes, personal inventories and interview behaviors to make rock-solid decisions about rock-solid employees.

In the following paragraphs I envision how people analytics could be put to use for those vexing parts of congregation life that include "ordinary people"—a technical term used in the analytical business. Consider these rock-solid possibilities:

  • Prospective members can now be screened for inclusion rituals by using the Possible Membership Calibrator (PMC) to correlate the number of their well-behaved children, the size of their home and the quality of their pet care to derive a highly reliable Definitive Membership Quality (DMQ) score.
  • Pledges of financial contributions? No longer necessary once you feed each family's financial data into the highly predictive Willingness to Contribute Index (WCI). Each family would receive an Expected Annual Contribution (EAC) letter each December, and donations would be tracked weekly by the highly regarded Contribution Tracer System (CTS).
  • Members' spiritual maturity would be monitored as they complete weekly inventories of spiritual disciplines practiced during their daily activities. Using the highly regarded Spiritual Maturity Ratio (SMR), congregational leaders would be able to correct lapses in stewardship, witnessing, prayer, Bible reading and guilt.
  • No longer will you have to rely on prayer, colleague recommendations and drone surveillance to choose your next pastor. By analyzing a candidate's responses on the popular Pastoral Excellence Scale Test (PEST), you can be assured that your next hiring decisions will result in a perfect fit!

You can see how the development of highly desirable people analytics can be adapted into your congregation for the good of the church. And also for the benefit of people whom God loves so predictively!

Simple enough? 

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September 18, 2015

Simple enough: Special feature—Advent devotions

This blog introduces a series of short Advent observations for your devotional use. Each entry invites you to consider your readiness for whatever God has in mind for your life, especially during this season. The entire series is included here, but you get to choose which entries to use—and in which order they occur—to fit your setting. One note: Be sure to credit The Lutheran and the author.

Simple enough: Ready?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with cooler weather and best-ever sales—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of Advent themes and texts: Are you ready?

Readiness is an elusive quality of well-lived Christianity. It's observable in the kind of physicality that includes tensed muscles, alert sensory organs, sharp thinking and proclivities toward action. When you receive advance notice, readiness also suggests anticipatory actions, preparations, a change in mindset and high expectations.

Advent is a season for getting ready—something different occurs in your physiology, your mindset, your spirit. You feel an itching for the future, an uneasiness about looming possibilities, an upswelling of hopes—even a hunkering down to wait. Christ is coming, and you get to choose whether it's a baby you're waiting for. Or perhaps something else.

That something else is what can unnerve you. The Second Coming of Christ—to judge you along with the rest of the world—is more than a little bit daunting. Likewise with an attendant reality: "The End is Near!" Perhaps the looming winter cold adds its own hint that something ominous or frightening may occur in the near or distant future.

So we encourage each other to be ready. Even more appropriately, to get ready. To do something while we're waiting. To engage body and soul in preparation for whatever God has in mind for our futures.

In the coming weeks, I invite you to think along with me how you might ready yourself for God's coming actions in your life.

And to rejoice!


Simple enough: Ready to rust?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with piling trash and castaway possessions—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to rust?

Soon, most folks will be awash in new toys—also called Christmas presents—that bring with them the inevitable result: New things displace old things. What's shiny attracts attention, and what's dull gets overlooked and discarded. During Advent, a quiet description of this inevitable devaluing and destruction—something about "moths and rust corrupting"—sounds its sad little note: All this stuff? It's going away. All that people hold dear about themselves? It will pass. All that seems immutable or eternal? It will turn back into small piles of dust. Insect hunger and oxidation will remain active, dismantling what we think is valuable, taking the mighty off their seats—and sending them away hungry.

Strange as it may sound during these days, you may be part of that moth- and rust-process, an agent of God's quiet judgment about what's important and what's not. Your Advent calling may be to eat away at false notions of the good life, to nibble supposed "power" down to nothing, to corrode the false shine of transitive things. To be an agent of rust.

This may seem like an odd calling, but Advent gets right to the point: Are you ready to rust?


Simple enough: Ready to run?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with purposeful hustlings and aimless bustlings—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to run?

One of the supporting actors in Advent themes is the messenger. The one who brings good tidings to Zion and relies on good highways to carry good messages. Someone who runs, for long distances and for important purposes. A go-between and an announcer, the running courier was the key link between royal/godly decrees and people who would carry them out. Someone like you. Someone like you, who connects God's wishes with God's people. Someone like you, who won't stop moving until your task is done. Someone like you, who carries God's messages without thinking that you're also part of those memos. Someone like you, who God trusts to bring truth and good news to people who desperately want it.

God's Advent messages are waiting for someone to carry them to the places and people where they will accomplish God's purposes. Are you ready to run?


Simple enough: Ready to rumble?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with special foods and warm beverages—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to rumble?

At selected wrestling events—or monster truck shows—big-voice announcers rev up the audience with the question, "Are you ready to rumble?" The question—oddly directed to people who will only observe a fight or competition—alerts the attentive crowd to what's coming: a struggle filled with danger. It seems fitting that, during Advent, you could get ready to rumble. Not as an audience member who's watching God take on evil. Not as an appreciative observer, just glad to be watching what you may not really want to see. Instead, your ticket to Advent comes with an implicit invitation to step into the ring, into even bigger arenas. To gird your loins, to strap on whatever you need in order to engage the forces and powers who work against God's will, God's commands, God's invitation. Advent can be a time where you become a participant in God's wrestling with (or wrecking) everything contrary to Jesus' ministry. Where you step out and take charge of your life. Where you insist that righteousness prevails.

The main event is about ready to start. Are you ready to rumble?


Simple enough: Ready to rouse?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with sleepy days and restless nightss—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to rouse?

Directed at the obscure biblical figures of night watchmen and sleeping bridesmaids—the sturdy-joyful hymn "Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying" is an Advent favorite. It carries a necessary message: Wake up, people of God! However the imagery of the hymn gets played out, one fact emerges strongly: Following Christ is not something for sleepyheads! During this season—Christ is coming again, everything may end suddenly and we all have work to do in the meantime—it makes sense to stay alert. Mindful about what you observe, hyper-aware of small signs, attentive to what's going on around you, keeping your wits about you—all necessary traits and behaviors if you want to be nimble, flexible and quick.

You watch people, you listen under the obvious surface of conversations, you stay connected to God in prayer and Scripture. You ask hard questions and show people what they're missing. You're awake and part of your mission is to shake open others' eyes and hearts to God, to stir people "who rest "complacently on their dregs" (Zephaniah 1:12).

Caffeinated or not, your neurons and muscle fibers scan far horizons and your own mind for evidence that God's coming again will make a difference. You're ready to rouse.


Simple enough: Ready to root?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with Christmas tree lots and the warmth of good coats—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to root?

Plants root, but so do pigs. In both cases, a necessary digging takes place: Plants grab tightly onto life-giving soil and pigs find delectable treasures for their fine dining experiences. Advent could be a season for rooting, a time of necessary digging into your lifestyle and identity. Assessing reasons for gratitude, evaluating what's important and what's pure frippery. Thrashing around in Christmas decorations to find that one ornament that calls you to reflection. Digging out the cancerous sins that you hope to throw away for good. Finding deep in your soul some delicious possibility for renewing mind and body. Pulling heartfelt encouragement and God's goodness out of the sometimes-detritus of Christmas family newsletters.

Your first ancestors started from the ground, and that's where you'll end your dusty existence. In the eons in between, the earth has been the source of all good that comes from God. And digging deep into the soil of your inner life is a good way to thank God for the ground.

For pigs and for plants, rooting continues life. Are you ready to root?


Simple enough: Ready to rock and roll?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with fallen leaves and the hint of snow—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to rock and roll?

Yes, you can start this season with the anticipation that there will soon be reason to celebrate. To party hearty, to get down. Before you head for other Advent themes or frames of mind, what would happen if you started Advent with a sense of blessed relief—Christ is coming soon ... finally! What if you could be satisfied with whatever state you're in now and celebrate it? What if you could start your seasonal activities with the assurance that you're forgiven—no matter how messed-up or complicated your life seems? What if you could sense the coming of a big "Reset Button" for your life? What if you knew—for certain—that "the end of everything" wasn't really the end?

How soon would the dancing and singing start? How soon could you decorate yourself as a room fitting for the coming King? And who would you invite?

Ready to rock and roll?


Simple enough: Ready to roar?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with ancient hymns and strange Scriptures—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to roar?

During Advent, you learn again that "lions will lie down with lambs" in a peaceable kingdom yet to come. You also remember that lions roar, so this season could encourage you, the lion (or you, the lamb) to do more than approach life quietly or sheepishly.

You have reason to roar this season. Not on account of yourself. God is doing wonderful things, perhaps in spite of your lifestyle. People who are hungry will eat well this season; in some places "the mighty" will fall; God is picking up a winnowing fork for some heavy-duty work and the impossible seems reachable. So you can roar—your never were good at praise hymns or any singing—about God's mighty works, God's mighty power to change the world. You can bellow your gratitude that God's will is breaking out everywhere. You can frighten away hyenas from your peace-seeking.

You can be glad to be one of God's lions—whose best bawling invites lambs to grateful rest! Ready to roar?


Simple Enough: Ready to reveal
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with dancing candles and crisp sunlight—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to reveal?

Advent topics sometimes include notions of "light" and the good that comes when even the smallest source of illumination signals that something is about to happen. Advent announces the Messiah's other code name—"Dayspring." With it comes the idea that the Messiah will be the brightness that makes tunnel-time bearable. And even though you're not the source of this hope, you have enough of a glow in you to be a revealer. "Look there," people think when they encounter you. "We can see what Jesus is all about." Someone may plead, "Can you please show me how you stay so calm, how to be forgiving?" In your daily living, you can light up a room with your quiet presence. Sometimes you can spotlight what others miss, what's unethical, what's possible, what's true. You uncover what has remained hidden and make transparent what's been opaque. Mostly, you show people Christ, the coming Light.

It's dark during most of Advent, but not when you're around. When it gets hard to see, you're ready to reveal.


Simple Enough: Ready to return?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with nostalgia and homecomings—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to return?

Christ is coming again. A big event, this last-ever visit. Something you've dreaded—you're not quite finished with your work yet—but something you could still look forward to. All these years you've been waiting to meet Jesus; all the wonderings and worryings about what he'll do or say when you meet up. Something powerful and awesome, calming and frightening, this reappearance of Jesus!

Advent could be your homecoming too. Back to the start of another church year—the cycle returns to its beginning—but also a time when Christ may come to gather all of us and head for heaven. When you'll be reunited with those who left you behind. When God's purposes will all come together. When all of this Christ-following will finally make sense.

Are you ready to return?


Simple Enough: Ready to restore?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with old stuff about to be made new—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to restore?

Part of your work during this season might be to freshen up, refurbish or at least repaint some of what's gone bad. Not furniture or your old easy chair. Nope. Instead, you get to work on yourself. With the help of others—who have been standing alongside you all this time—and with some guidance from the word, you can spend these days in self-examination that leads to restoration. Bringing what was once old back to what will be new. Strapping new personality accessories for a new long haul. Shaping up, slimming down, polishing over or dusting off.

You have all these weeks to consider how God might already be working to help you peel away what's useless or sinful. Scraping off the futility of trying to die with the most toys. A new coat of spirituality that can soak into your wooden heart and preserve you.

New usefulness, new justifiable pride, new purpose, new outlook—all part of God's invitation to Advent renovation. Are you ready to restore?


Simple Enough: Ready to reap?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with full larders and overflowing grain silos—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to reap?

The corn is in and the beans are heading overseas. The applesauce and rows of recently stewed tomatoes smile at you from their shelves. Inventory is up and sales will be good at Christmas. You're counting on a bonus—or at least breaking even. It's harvesttime—maybe a little past, actually—but you're still in a "reaping" mood. A year of work, and there's something to show for it: good friends, love ready to be seen and stored, a strengthened core, flexible joints, ailments gone for now. Life is good. Thanks to God's grace, your thanksgiving can continue.

However large or small the "harvest," now seems like a time to name it and claim it: God's blessings pour over you. Now's the time for your stewardship to be a ministry of receiving. And as you reap—what God has sown!—you remember in gratitude those for whom harvest won't be possible, those still hoping for today's food and water, those whose bounty seems only to trickle at them.

You're a steward—none of what you have is yours—so you're going to continue to gather it in, store it away and prepare to use everything you have to God's glory. You're ready to reap!


Simple Enough: Ready to ramble?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with new imagination and old memories—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to ramble?

Every so often—perhaps during Advent?—it's time to get off the path and wander a bit. Like a child purposefully distracted (by what's intriguing and new), you might find surprise and delight during this season of warnings and work, damage and destruction, eons and endings. It might be just the thing you need, a cold-weather sabbath in the middle of what's perhaps dragging you down. Rambling—wandering with a whistle and a spring in your step—might take you to new places. In your lifework, your attitudes toward others, in your self-talk. A time of tromping through forests of worry—but looking for the last flowers of the season. A time to snowshoe off the beaten trail—hoping for the tracks of wandering animals. A time for tiptoeing up to God's newest saints—and hugging them because they bring you hope. Rambling moves you off the dime but toward what's surprising—farthings? Rambling reawakens your sense of adventure, a balance to your sense of duty. Rambling energizes your soul, your body, your brain.

Soon enough you can get back to Advent's major themes, but for now, a little roaming could be fun. Ready to ramble?


Simple enough: Ready to rage?
By Bob Sitze

Advent is here again—along with darkness growing longer and pain growing closer—so it's time to ask (again!) a question that springs out of the season's themes and texts: Are you ready to rage?

One of the more stirring arias in Händel's "The Messiah" asks the question about why nations "so furiously rage together." (The bass soloist gets really worked up!) This fuming doesn't seem to be an Advent kind of question—the Prince of Peace is coming, after all. So it doesn't make sense that furious raging would something positive or even necessary. And yet ....

During this season, it might be a good or necessary thing for you to join in some raging. Anger at evil and people who promote it; weary disgust with decision-makers with no interests other than their own well-being. Seething, steaming fury because the bad guys seem to be winning. Irritation or exasperation with the slow pace of change. Enough excusing of the malicious opportunism that tramples people who are poor. And so you rage—against The Machine, the powers-that-be, people who stand in opposition to Christ's ways. Not always a good thing, raw rage nevertheless won't leave you.

Some Advent days, rage may seem like the only option left. Like it or not, are you ready to rage?

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September 15, 2015

Simple enough: The cost of redemption (Part 2)

To see how daily redemption is secured by the cost-bearing actions of others, I invite you to follow me through one day in the life of an occupational therapist (OT). OTs help restore agency/capability to injured, sick or disabled individuals so they can regain physical and emotional well-being, especially their self-reliance. We will observe the schedule of a visiting OT who brings vocational expertise directly to patients' homes.

The day begins by phone-verifying the day's schedule, including time the OT will spend driving significant distances between several appointments. (The cost: dealing with frustrating, always-changing plans.)

One of those calls results in a 30-minute consoling conversation with a spouse who's despairing for her loved one. (The cost: this task was not Medicare-reimbursable, so the OT won't be paid for the conversation.) Another phone call reveals that a patient needs to return to the hospital immediately, thus ending the OT's caregiving relationship. (The cost: an opportunity to offer redemptive assistance evaporates suddenly.) One appointment includes the pretreatment evaluation of a patient's situation. (The cost: wise listening as a jumbled torrent of the patient's life-story pours out.) At another visit, the OT helps move a patient with an advanced degenerative neurobiological disease from an uncomfortable sleeping couch to the bedroom's new hospital bed, assuring more options and support. (The cost: the OT risks serious injury while moving this individual.)

The day ends with the OT's late-night documentation of the day's visits for billing purposes. (The cost: extra work, not reimbursed by the OT's employer.)

These redemptive actions illustrate how this OT can bear costs in order to bring rescue and restoration to people who might otherwise find little hope. The example may also encourage you to carry out your part of God's continuing redemption of the world.

So may it be! 

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September 12, 2015

Simple enough: The cost of redemption (Part 1)

(NOTE: This and the following entry continue my fascination with the familiar lifestyle theme of redemption, here focusing on its costs.)

Redemption continues to show its face in a number of cultural memes—Harry Potter and a collection of recent Hollywood movies as examples. Redemption reminders usually consist of heartening stories of lives brought back from horrific circumstances or self-inflicted abysses. These narratives encourage all of us to be grateful for the large and small rescues that grace our lives.

What's sometimes missing are questions about redemption's cost: Because redemption is a buying-back, what expense, sacrifice or loss was necessary for a life-saving to take place? Whether you're the recipient or the grantor of redemptive acts, you realize that significant costs were involved. (In our Christian lexicon, the price for our eternal salvation/redemption was Jesus' cross-tortured death.)

In other entries, I've asked you to consider that your simplicity-seeking is part of the larger scope of God's continuing redemptive work. But I may not have been as forthright about the costs you might pay. Let's be honest with each other: because you engage in simplicity seeking for the good of the world, you will pay some costs. You give away or give up what our culture might consider necessary ingredients for well-being. You take risks. Simple living can be a lonely undertaking. Your redemptive simplicity for the sake of others entails some self-emptying.

I hope this doesn't deter you from continuing to participate in God's loving insistence that redemption continues, wherever and however possible. I hope you can name those costs as part of your lifework, your contribution to God's holy will for the world.

In the next entry, I want to illustrate costly redemption by examining the lifework of occupational therapists, one example of how profoundly simple acts of kindness and care can buy back the lives of people who might otherwise have little or no hope for their well-being.

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September 9, 2015

Simple words: Redemption

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also draws theologians into your circle of friends. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Redemption is an invaluable concept for anyone who wants to live simply. (That's why the word appears so often in these entries!) The term reaches far into antiquity, its etymology based on the straightforward business of paying the cost for deliverance (from debt or capture). Nothing all that theological about it, at least not until the metaphor expands—as Scripture's writers have always done—to include the broader qualities of God's nature. In the Old Testament the costs for God's deliverance were presumably paid by sacrifices and obedience to the law. And because of God's undeserved love, God's restorative mercy arose over and over. In Jesus Christ, the rescue of all humanity was afforded by his death on the cross. God's desire to free us from the effects of our own sinfulness has always been the core of God's being.

It might be easy to keep redemption at arm's length, as if God's signature act of redemption closed the subject once and for all. The wonder of redemption goes deeper, though, running straight into your desire to live simply. God's loving rescue—of the world and its people—continues every day but at a cost. Harry Potter magic will not rescue the environment from degradation. Neither wand-waving nor spell incantations will deliver families from impossible expectations about the good life. No potions will transform possession-addicted people. The business of extracting the world from its hell-bent ways requires work, even sacrifice. Other costs: wisdom, humility and casting aside foolish self-idolatry.

Your part of God's continuing redemption: Putting into plausible practice those principles of godly living that restore life, rescue relationships and provide new beginnings. When you live simply, you prove that God's ways are workable, God's love available, God's forgiveness applicable. Your lifestyle is part of God's ongoing redemption!

Simple enough? 

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September 6, 2015

Simple congregation: Prayer writing as worship preparation

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation.)

In our congregation, each Sunday's assisting ministers compose the petitions they will voice on behalf of the whole congregation during the "Prayers of Intercession." Some of them consider this task as part of their preparation for worship—both a necessity and a privilege. Let me expand on this idea so you might appropriate this custom into your congregation.

Assisting ministers can benefit from some instruction on how to incorporate into these prayers the content of the lectionary, hymns, seasonal emphases and the specific requests of worshipers. They might also spend time—with a writer, poet, English teacher or public speaker—analyzing and developing an especially evocative vocabulary, readily understood syntax and approachable grammar.

Choosing assisting ministers
These prayers have special character and power. You might select assisting ministers on the basis of their speaking (and chanting) voice, generally acknowledged wisdom and humility, or their leadership roles in the congregation. When you invite men and women of all ages into this role, be sure they understand the task of writing and offering the petitions of these prayers. Consider rotating the duties of assisting minister—or the prayer-writing tasks—through a growing number of congregation members. Teens and children can also participate fully in this work.

Broadening the benefits
Because these prayers transcend pro forma utterance, they will likely attract attention and appreciation among worshipers. You might extend the value of these prayers by making them available in printed or digital formats after each Sunday's worship, posting them on bulletin boards, or including them in material that is mailed or delivered to homebound members. A prayer team might elicit prayer requests on an ongoing basis, providing the assisting minister with specific content in advance of a Sunday's worship. These prayers might also serve as a foundation for devotional times during the following week's meetings or gatherings. Prayer-focused thoughts might be featured in your newsletter, blogs or other congregational communication.

Think carefully about a style of prayers that transcends cleverness, obtuse phraseology, complicated/lengthy syntax or formulaic language. You might include periodic conversations among assisting ministers, worship leaders and selected congregational members to assess the value of this prayer-writing in your congregation's worship life. Think about including assisting ministers in text/lectionary study groups. Be ready to assist them when the prayer-writing gets difficult.

This simple change in worship leadership might add to the richness of worship experiences in your congregation. It will surely change the way worshipers perceive and participate in times of prayer and will bring other, perhaps-surprising, blessings to your congregation.

Simple enough? 

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September 3, 2015

Simple things: Paper

(This entry continues a mini-series within the larger "Simple enough" blog family. The premise: It's important to look more deeply, appreciatively and gratefully at the many elements of our lifestyle that are wonderfully ordinary, yet startlingly rare in the rest of the world.)

As I write these words, I know they will eventually manifest themselves as ink marks on dependable paper. Even though we live in an imaginary paperless world, actual use of paper continues to rise significantly each year. Paper still anchors the worlds of enterprise and relationships. This seemingly simple element of contemporary life remains a blessing, an asset for any kind of lifestyle, something easily considered common. Still, in many parts of the world, paper—especially for writing—is an unimagined luxury and treasure.

Paper starts as fibers—most often from wood—and journeys toward its useful forms through a maze of physical/chemical processes that have developed over millennia. The Chinese invented this lasting technology, and the Muslims brought it into Europe before the Middle Ages. Whether as a writing medium, packaging material, shelter, binding, decoration, containers, filters or newsprint, paper puts the "U" in "utility." In all its forms, paper offers portability, efficiency and permanence. It begins with resources—plant fibers—that can be replanted, making paper one of the few renewable elements of our current lifestyle.

Perhaps the most important feature of paper is its recyclability. In all but a few forms (e.g., infused with plastic) paper can be reused over and over again. This makes it one of the few inventions of humankind that keeps giving, a blessing that doesn't give up. (Yes, paper could be a metaphor for God's love in Jesus!)

As you use paper, thank God for the ancients who first imagined how plant fibers could be pulped, strained, pressed, dried and flattened to make a durable substance. Thank God for the people who operate recycling facilities or manufacture items from recycled paper. Put your thanks into everyday action by insisting on paper recycling, and by using it wisely and efficiently.

Simple enough? 

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August 31, 2015

Simple enough: Praying the context

I want to use this entry to suggest a way of thinking that might energize your prayer life. Instead of focusing your prayer thoughts only on what's immediately visible or seemingly central, scan the wider context and pray about the entire scope of that setting. These examples might help:

  • Pray your meals. What had to occur so you could partake of this repast? Thank God for more than just the food in front of you, including all who took part in the providence of your food.
  • Pray a tragedy or disaster. What's the big picture here? Who or what within that context might escape attention? What larger need or blessing calls out for prayer?
  • Pray a meeting. Pray about the personal and whole-group contexts that come together to form this gathering: All the hopes and emotions that accompany participants; all the skills and wisdom that will be necessary; all the good that might come from decisions.
  • Pray a movie or television show. Think about the relevance of the entertainment, imagining its impact on the lives of all those who view it and asking God to bless all who participated in the making and distribution of this show.
  • Pray a church service. In your mind's eye, scan the entire worshiping congregation, including in your prayer the life stories of the people assembled, the good that can come from the daily ministries of these worshipers, and the burdens and joys they bring to this time and place.
  • Pray your commute. While driving, imagine yourself in the lives of the drivers who surround you. What are their needs, what do they wrestle with or what blessings could God provide for them today?

By unfolding any large-scale context into your prayers, you might discover yet another way to "pray without ceasing."

Simple enough? 

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August 28, 2015

Simple enough: A bandwagon is coming your way

It seems apparent that decluttering (one aspect of simple living) has become trendy. (This is a good thing, even if you have enjoyed being a countercultural rogue!) The newest evidence of this fact is the lingering presence of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on New York Times and international best-seller lists. Author Marie Kondo has added a dash of zen and charism to this subject to make it more approachable to more people. The book joins multiplying YouTube videos, blogs and Twitter-chatter. A bandwagon is coming your way!

Given this rising wave of interest in decluttering, you may find people around you who have recently discovered the lifestyle wisdom that you've been practicing for years. Since you are not given to "I told you so" or other forms of arrogance, you might consider how you could take advantage of this growing movement within the general culture. (And remember: In these matters, you are already a prophet and evangelist of something good and godly, so "taking advantage" is part of your larger, sacred lifework!)

You can now come out of hiding! Those people who used to yawn when you asked questions or proposed simple-living ideals may now be willing to listen or query you. Your book-reading group could have another best-seller to consider, perhaps with the insertion of spiritual insight. Your spouse, family or friends might understand you better and treat you with added respect. Some of the book's readers might seek you out as a mentor, counselor or life-coach. At last, you might be able to incorporate simplicity-seeking into your congregation's life.

For as long as this bandwagon continues to roll, you can count it as a blessing, a confirmation of what you hold dear and a recommissioning to keep at simple living.

All good things!

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August 25, 2015

Simple words: Hormesis

(This entry continues the series "Simple words," which helps you increase your simplicity vocabulary and also attracts the admiring winks of actual scientists. Etymologies and musings will ensue.)

Yes, I know hormesis is not a simple word—maybe it's not even in your dictionary yet. But the significance of hormetics is likely to grow over the next few years, so I'm using this "Simple words" entry to acquaint you with what may turn out to be an important development in the health sciences. For the information in this entry, I am indebted to John Hopkins University neuroscientist Mark Mattson, whose July 2015 Scientific American article "What Doesn't Kill You ..." treats this subject in fascinating and hopeful detail. The longer article merits your reading.

First, an explanation of how hormesis works. Mattson wrote: "Toxic chemicals that plants use against predators are consumed by us at low levels in fruits and vegetables. Exposure to these substances causes a mild stress reaction that lends resilience to cells in our bodies."

Where scientists and nutritionists have formerly promoted the positive effects of consuming fruits and vegetables because of their antioxidant properties, it now seems possible that—when exposed to the mild neurotoxins in fruits and vegetables—our nerve cells can build the strength they need to combat brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and stroke. Mattson said medical practitioners "are now convinced that plant chemicals that are toxic when consumed at high levels can be hermetic—that is, they provide health benefits when eaten in smaller amounts." Regular fasting may also offer some of the same benefits. Debate continues, as does practical research.

Where's simplicity in the gathering evidence about the process of hormesis? Three possibilities: That this field of inquiry will further encourage healthy diets filled with fruits and vegetables, that lifestyles made unmanageable by debilitating brain diseases will diminish in number and in power, and that the discipline of fasting will gain favor among simplicity-seekers.

Simple enough? 

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August 22, 2015

Simplicity's children: Nothing new

In a May 25 article in the Chicago Tribune, columnist Heidi Stevens reported on a local family that had completed the challenge of living an entire year without purchasing anything brand new—except for items necessary for health and nutrition. Her article included interesting discoveries that I'd like to spotlight here.

The columnist notes that the family's not-new purchases—seeking products at thrift or secondhand stores—provided them with a different way of looking at possessions. To be specific, this family learned how unwarranted some of their previously "necessary" purchases actually were.

Mom and Dad had to work hard when their two young boys interacted with other kids, especially when bringing gifts to other youngsters' birthday parties. The parents' creative solution: To give experiences (e.g., museum tickets) for the birthday child's whole family. Another difficulty: first presenting this idea to their children (the solution in this case: "We're doing something cool").

Stevens observes that overbuying—yielding to children's sometimes-whiney insistence about what they want—is really a grown-up problem. More specifically, a "grown-up-who-doesn't-say-no-enough problem." By this comment, she calls attention to a truism about materialism: Children have to be taught by mature adults to resist the temptation to buy whatever they think they "need."

A year after they finished this lifestyle shift, the family remains committed to one-on-one time together, and the children have come much closer to understanding the difference between wants and needs. Through their courageous lifestyle lesson, these parents have given their children a legacy of wisdom that they will likely remember for their entire lives.

You might want to talk with your family about trying a variation of this experience.

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August 19, 2015

Simple enough: TV glut

In a probing article in Time (June 22), James Poniewozik, the magazine's television critic, noted how a TV glut is growing within our culture. Some quick facts frame his implicit warning: During the 2014-15 season, more 350 scripted series were available on a vast array of channels. To view all of these programs would take 146 days of nonstop watching. One more: Available soon is TiVo's new DVR, which can store as much as three year's worth of TV shows for retrieval!

Poniewozik widens his critique of hyper-abundant TV content by characterizing this phenomenon as a kind of Midas effect: "The paralyzing promise of riches everywhere you touch." (Midas was literally and figuratively paralyzed by his rapacious desire to touch everything so that it turned to gold. You will recall that this mythological king's story included some damaging side effects, as he obtained one part of his imagined well-being—financial riches—only to pay dearly by relinquishing almost every other quality of life.)

A culture continuously connected to live, streaming or recorded television programming does not enable a satisfying lifestyle. Poniewozik wrote: "We carry in our pockets tiny rectangular windows into which it is possible to fall forever and ever." This falling might also be termed a failure of the human spirit, enabled by our continuing addiction to being entertained by whatever we encounter.

I note these insights here as part of my continuing comments about the damage that excessive television viewing can have on those who want to live manageable and sustainable lives. I hope you are not captivated by this Midas-like phenomenon within our society, and that you have found ways to resist the false promises of the TV glut.

Simple enough?

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August 16, 2015

Simple enough: Relishing the small stuff

I've written about this before, but the thought bears repeated emphasis: You can be satisfied with your life, however simple, when you find delight in even its smallest elements or features. "Relishing the small stuff" starts with the realization that nothing—no person, no conversation, no deed, no item, no attitude, no event—is actually "small." In a world where everything is connected to everything else, what appears to be small is really the first evidence of something very significant.

Finding delight requires sharply tuned senses. Not just your physical senses (smelling, tasting, seeing, etc.) but also the "senses" of intuition, appreciation, love or gratitude. All your senses can help you perceive and interpret every moment fully. You see more than what's obvious and you hear important subtexts in conversations. Your curiosity extends over the horizon and you empathize with deeper motives. You experience life both from intimate and 30,000-foot viewpoints.

When you encounter anything "small" in your life, your attention can bore fully into that moment, that person, that action. You look for beauty, excellence, connectivity, depth and meaning. You expect God to surprise you in this Spirit-inspired moment.

So a flower becomes a soft sculpture, an angry word announces a tipping point when honesty emerges, another's smile encourages you toward joy, another's gentle touch evokes delicate intimacy. A bee works as your partner in food production and an airplane conversation develops into a free education. A sermon invites you into reverie, prayers quiet you down and the kind questions of others signal God's care for your inner being. Your problems humble you toward gratitude and your forgiven sins encourage you to forgive others.

Best of all, in a world of small delights comes another gift: You can find satisfaction that you are not small either!

Simple enough? 

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August 14, 2015

Simple congregations: The no-program church (Repeat)

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation)

Previously I wrote about "the simpler pastor," whose ministry could be manageable in part because his/her congregation no longer depends on programs. Let's explore that idea in a little more detail.

Programs have an honored place in congregational identity. They consist of regularized benefits that are offered to congregation and community members. The programs require funding and leadership that are provided by lay volunteers and professional staff. The planning and maintenance of programs comprises the majority of a congregation's meetings. When developed and administered well, the programs fill presumed needs and can become a standard for measuring the strength of a congregation. (So an outreach program can satisfy congregation members' desire to care for those in need and be known as a primary marker of that congregation's vitality.)

In many congregations, programs continue to multiply to fit a growing number of recognized needs. The sophistication of programs frequently requires increased expertise (staff), funding or volunteer time. When these resources aren't easily available, the programs can deteriorate in quality or dependability. Staff members may have to pick up the slack when fewer volunteers are willing to lead or participate; staff stress and burnout become more likely. Congregations that have few staff members or whose volunteer pool is shrinking may find it difficult to compete for the attention of program-seeking members. Except for very large congregations, many program-oriented churches have begun to diminish or eliminate programs.

What might a program-free congregation look like and how could it fulfill functions formerly assigned to programs? Let's look at some examples:

Asset-based planning
At least annually, congregations can map the assets of members. This establishes a basis for the useful gifts, talents, skills and connections that can be available for the congregation's ministries. These assets—not the needs that programs ostensibly fill—determine the work that members will undertake together. Where the assets of the staff and lay members do not warrant a ministry, it is not begun or continued.

Instead of offering regularly scheduled programs, congregational leaders can plan and offer periodic events. Here, planning focuses on one-time experiences that offer opportunities for fellowship, training, conversation, service, learning or mission-funding. This focused approach takes advantage of members' assets for only a specified period of time. This makes the events more likely to be manageable and successful.

Some examples: Parent training events (offering family devotions, Bible reading, spiritual conversations) could take the place of a formal Sunday school. Ongoing social ministry could be replaced by periodic expert-briefings about a pressing problem or opportunity for service that are offered to the entire community. Fellowship meals or retreats could spark informal caring ministries. Adult Bible study programs could become online courses from authoritative sources, with occasional gatherings for networking or testimonies.

Participation in community efforts
In some situations congregational programs duplicate already-existing efforts in the community. Here this is true: congregation members can offer their expertise or time to whole-community efforts. This can enrich members' experience of success and the community's appreciation of the congregation's involvement with its neighbors.

Orientation toward lay ministry
All significant program-like efforts of the congregation can be led by lay members. More importantly, the congregation can repurpose itself to be an equipping place for members' daily ministries in the world. Because it takes advantages of members' already-existing relationships and skills, this may be a more effective and efficient method for outreach, evangelism, creation stewardship or justice ministries.

These few thoughts don't cover this subject completely and may give rise to many questions. But I hope you can begin to see that it's possible to maintain a healthy, strong congregation without letting proliferating programs drag congregational leaders—lay and professional—into unsustainable roles or ministries. 

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August 13, 2015

Simple congregations: The simpler pastor (Repeat)

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation)

In many congregations, pastoral ministry may not be manageable or sustainable. The role of the pastor is fraught with impossibilities and improbabilities that lead toward burnout or worse. Whether in your congregation or in your soul, you may know firsthand how strongly the whole church yearns for ministry that's manageable and sustainable—hence "simple." In this entry, I want to add my voice to the chorus that continues to sing hopefully about what might be called "the simpler pastor."

The congregation
By definition, a simpler, more manageable pastoral ministry takes place in a simple congregation. This congregation has quietly—and perhaps painfully—shed itself of a program-orientation or an identity as a kind of hospital. Its numbers have stabilized somewhere in the range of 150 to 250 members. Its governance structure has flattened to a church council that supervises and enlivens the work of permanent and intermittent task forces. In this congregation, the number and shape of ministries changes periodically as members' assets and interests fuel specific efforts.

The primary mission of this congregation is (per Ephesians 4:11-13) to equip members for their vocations in the worlds in which they find opportunities for ministry. The congregation identifies strongly with its denominational family. The congregation's influence is rooted in the collected relationships its members enjoy within their community.

The pastor as a professional
The simpler pastor is seminary trained, ordained and called to this congregation for word and sacrament ministry. The pastor brings an additional set of marketable skills and experiences gained during a previous career. He or she is schooled in the arts of community organizing, including the identification and use of gathered assets. The pastor works on a bi-vocational basis: Time and energy devoted to this vocation is shared with another calling, preferably one located in the congregation's community.

The pastor's work
With the diminishment of program and "chaplaincy" duties, the tasks required of a simpler pastor are considerably diminished. The time a pastor devotes to the congregation consists mainly of visiting members in their workplaces or other relationships. (In this critical role, the pastor helps members connect their faith and life.)

The pastor is not the congregation's ex officio or de facto organizational leader. Significant leadership roles and responsibilities are assumed by members. In addition to worship leadership and legally described pastoral acts (marriages, funerals), the pastor convenes small groups of lay members, assisting them in their leadership of changing ministries. Some of that assistance takes place in formal and informal events that promote Christian formation and fellowship.

In the pastor's shared vocation, she or he works as a trusted employee in a local enterprise. In this role, the pastor also carries the congregation's influence into community matters. The pastor/employee may also take secular leadership roles and responsibilities consonant with the skills and experiences carried forward from previous work.

These descriptions presume that a congregation will have condensed or modified its expectations about what's manageable. It has turned much of its presumed "outreach" over to societal institutions (populated by some of the congregation's members). This congregation and their pastor remain uniquely powerful in their roles, largely because they have matured past the narrow idea that ministry occurs primarily within the congregation's programs. Both a simpler congregation and a simpler pastor function as yeast that infuses everything it touches.

This description of pastoring seems possible to me, most likely in a smaller congregation where members are willing to shed long-held assumptions about the function of the church in our society. The description may hark back to simpler times, but it may also point the way forward to newly simpler times.

God's Spirit will be there too! 

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