Cokesbury, Redux

UPDATE: Note in the comments there is a link to a petition, protesting the store closures. Thanks, Lauren!

Usually, I wait a day or two after big news hits to sort out my thoughts before posting on this blog.  This practice helps me to speak with more charity and thoughtfulness.  But yesterday, the news about Cokesbury closing all of its “bricks and mortar” stores – including the seminary stores – hit me so hard that I could not wait.  The result was a post entitled Protesting the Cokesbury Closures.  I imagine I was not the only one who was upset by the news: I haven’t seen this much traffic on a single post in 24 hours since I wrote The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children.

All the same, there are a couple of things that I would have changed about that post.

I wish that I had not slipped in the paranoid insinuation that the news had been withheld until the last possible minute.  There is no evidence whatsoever for that.  I do not know the decision makers involved, and have no basis from which to cast aspersions of that kind on their characters.  Furthermore, if I did have any reason to believe that, I still ought not to type it.  It lacks charitable imagination.

I wish that I had not encouraged Mr. Alexander and the board to pray over the decision, insofar as writing that implied that they had not already done so.  My experience with every person working for a general board or agency of the UMC, from the highest level down to – yes, I’m going there – the clerks at the Cokesbury retail outlets has been that they are people of great faith who act on their convictions that they are in ministry.  Have I encountered individuals with foibles, with different theologies than mine, with outright self-serving behavior? Of course.  ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  But anyone who is working for the church is not likely to need some blogger they don’t know reminding them that they are in ministry.

That said, there are some things that I wish that I had added to that piece.

For instance: when going to a Cokesbury store with my father, we always ran into friends of his.  It would become a reunion of sorts.  He would introduce me, and they would catch up on the past years of ministry, and compare notes.  As I grew older and would go to Cokesbury on my own, I often either made connections with new people or reconnected with old friends. You don’t meet people in an online bookstore, generally.

For instance: I learned about my new favorite prayer method from a book that I picked up when browsing at a Cokesbury store: Praying in Color.  I was in the store looking for something else, but because I had 15 minutes, and because I love book browsing, I worked my way through the aisles.  I don’t think I would have found that book online – because you generally find only what you are looking for and “related items” when searching online.  This is my argument against internet dictionaries as well, incidentally.  They are helpful on a smart phone when reading a book in a cafe and you really need to know the meaning of that book RIGHT NOW, but overall, they are inferior.  I have learned so many new words – and explored new ideas – when browsing through a (made out of paper) dictionary, on my way to finding the word I was originally looking for.

For instance: when I first became a preacher on a two point charge (no office staff, naturally), and a parishioner died in my first couple of weeks on the job, and I discovered that there were no funeral bulletins in the paper cabinet, I was able to drive 50 miles to the Cokesbury store to pick some up.  (I know 50 miles sounds like a lot, but when you live in the country, you are routinely driving that far to visit parishioners in the hospital, or to find a movie theater for that matter.)  Funerals are not exactly planned a week in advance.  Order them?  They wouldn’t have gotten there in time without rush shipping – and I would have been a nervous wreck wondering if they would make it.

I remember, too, buying my first Book of Common Prayer in the seminary Cokesbury bookstore.  It was the end of semester / holiday sale, and there were about 40 of us crammed into a truly tiny space with our arms filled with books by our professors, and commentaries we especially wanted, and books we were speculating might be on the reading lists for the next semester.  I noticed that a number of my United Methodist friends had Books of Common Prayer, and I asked one of them why.  She told me that she was picking hers up for an order of personal daily prayer – and she showed me the daily lectionary.  I didn’t even have to hop out of line – I just reached out to the shelf as I passed it and picked one up.  I was praying with it the next morning.

And then there is an anecdote not about Cokesbury, but about bookstores in general.  I worked as a clerk, and later as a special orders coordinator for a Barnes and Noble in the late 1990s.  Amazon was starting to demonstrate that it was going to become a major player.  All too often, people would come into our store, flip through the books, decide on which one they definitely wanted, and then go back to their home or dorm room to order it on Amazon.  Because Amazon was cheaper.  Here’s the thing, though — they still wanted to get to see the book.  Keeping the lights on and knowledgable employees on staff – and those books on the shelves – cost money.  I remember one of my supervisors shaking his head saying, “One of these days, they are going to come looking for us so that they can see the book, and we won’t be here.  And they will be angry, because seeing the book first matters, and now they won’t be able to.  But it will be their own fault.”

Sure, I shop online sometimes.  I did it more often when my daughter was younger, and her napping schedule made it more difficult for me to run errands.  Now that she is in kindergarten, I save internet shopping for items that I can’t find in a store.  Because I actually care about whether or not I get to see the item.

For that matter, I still rent videos in a video store from a real person, because once my husband went there and said, “My wife is in the hospital, and I want to take her a movie for us to watch together.  So I’d like for it to be uplifting in ways.  But not in a big Hollywood romance kind of way.  We recently watched ____ and ____ and liked them.  Something like that, if you have it.  But not like ____, which we didn’t like very much.”  And Jason directed my husband to The Visitor.  You don’t get that kind of service from a Red Box.  Or Netflix.  Or Hulu.

Maybe that is enough of a reason for news of the Cokesbury closures to strike me as – I believe I said “appalling” in the last post.  But it has not escaped my attention that it is November, between the dual Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2), and three interlinked days of mourning for me:  Veteran’s day, and my father’s birth and death days  (November 11, 12, and 15.)  Rather inauspicious timing for the announcement that this valued and valuable resource is disappearing.  Cokesbury has been at once a connection to the communion of saints for me, and a connection with my father.  I know that the loss of an icon does not entail the loss of the thing itself.  But it brings fresh grief at an unwelcome time.

So, “like a dog with an old rag,” as I can still hear my father saying, I am still not giving up.  And I am giving you all yet another option for contacting the United Methodist Publishing House about this decision:


Children’s sermons – When? Why? How?

Children’s sermons must be really hard to do, because (since growing up and leaving my father’s church) I have mostly only seen them done poorly – too often they exploit children and pander to the grown ups in the congregation. They confuse the children at times, or embarrass them, or teach them bad theology. Many preachers dread them, or else devote almost no thought to them whatsoever. And few could give a good reason why we do them at all. This is why some churches have never adopted them, others are now abandoning them, and some church leaders are calling for an end to them altogether.

It does not help that children’s sermons are generally not covered whatsoever in seminary, so a pastor must find her direction elsewhere when figuring out how and why to do them. And in order to find, she must be inclined to seek.

My Dad did not always do children’s sermons, but when he was 45, he became a father for the first time, and he began to take an interest in how children fit into the worshipping community. He bought more than a dozen books of children’s sermons, read them and made notes, and mixed in what he read with what he had learned from child development classes, together with what he observed in the children he had worked with over the years, and what he was learning from being a dad, and from discussions with my Mom. Then he brought all of that to worship, and presented it in his signature style – gregarious, interactive, interested, dramatic.

He was brilliant. I only remember one time when he made a spectacle of a child (me, as it turned out), and he apologized for it – profusely, and more than once. He realized in retrospect that he could have made the same point for the other children and the rest of the congregation more effectively by enlisting me in advance as a confederate, rather than springing the surprise (a trick candle that would not blow out) on me in front of the congregation.

It would not be accurate to say, “Everything I learned about children’s sermons I learned from my Dad.” But he certainly gave me a strong foundation on which to build my own style.

So I am not unilaterally opposed to children’s sermons. But I do think that there are certain parameters within which children’s sermons function, and outside of which they are perhaps even detrimental. If a pastor does not have the inclination to thoughtfully and prayerfully prepare for this type of ministry to children, then he would do better to follow the example of churches who have found ways to minister to children without children’s sermons.

For example, St. Luke’s Episcopal, in Durham, NC, invites children aged about 4-9 participate in Godly Play at the beginning of the worship service, and then to join their parents in the sanctuary for the choir anthem, the offering, the Eucharist, the final hymn, and the benediction. In Godly Play, they engage the scripture deeply in a developmentally appropriate, Montessori-inspired way. Younger children may play in the nursery during worship.

But for those who remain committed to the idea, I will be examining how best to incorporate children’s sermons into weekly worship. But first, I will be offering an example of a children’s sermon I presented about six years ago, in which I involved the children in making fresh squeezed lemonade for the congregation during the worship service!

“Leadery Leaders” – Wherefore art thou pastor revisted

This past fall, I published this article on the blog as a “page” before I understood what those were for! So now I am moving it to a post.  The article is itself a revision of an earlier blog post – revised for The Morning Breaks, The Shadows Flee, edited by Russell Johnson and Kara Slade – a playful festschrift for Amy Laura Hall, presented to her on October 7, 2011.  The title “Leadery leaders” is an expression frequently used by Dr. Hall in her Ethics class.

The Pastor Dilemma:  How are United Methodist pastors to lead without becoming “leadery leaders”?

 What is a pastor?  What is a pastor for?  Who should or should not be a pastor? What should a pastor do?  When I was a seminary student, these questions were asked by the students, but almost never examined in the classroom.  For the most part, it was assumed that the answers to these questions were known – that, beyond being able to recite the definitions of the Discipline when before the board of ordained ministry, no further existential explorations along the lines of “Wherefore art thou pastor?” were required.

I imagine that things are not all that different now.  Which may in part explain one critical difference between the students now at Duke Divinity and those who were students with me ten years ago:  after generations of no explicit answers, today’s students are less and less feeling called to a position they cannot describe, explain, or (in some cases) even justify.

But I am not ready to do away with the position of pastor just yet.  What I would like to do is re-imagine it.  As one who feels called to the Order of Elder – an order in the UMC that is different from Deacon not only in the relation to the sacraments, but in being responsible for “Order”ing the church, it is about time we thought about re-ordering the Order.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  And true to the Fall-driven disorder of the world, a lack of theologically sound direction in what pastors are to be has led the pastors to find their direction elsewhere – they gotta follow somebody.  And who pastors are following are the authors of various books that purport to solve whatever leadership problem they are having – books of dubious theology, rooted in the dominant language and narratives of our national faith in such contradictory (and elusive) ideals as freedom, power, rights, and the market.  Marketing is particularly enjoying ascendancy now, as anxieties about dwindling membership have burst into full bloom.  (Let us not say “taken root,” as these fears took root some decades ago.  It is only now that they are leading to full scale dashboarding and boards of inquisition in the various conferences.)

My father used to often describe his role as “the CEO” of the congregation.  He’s not the only one.  Whether they speak these words aloud, or even recognize that they see themselves this way, many pastors behave as the chief executive or their corporation.  They take their ideas about leadership from the post-Reagan business world – which means that their purpose (and aren’t we enculturated to desire a “Purpose Driven Life?” Even those of us who sneered at the book and its readers?) is to come up with new and exciting ways to re-invigorate the brand, and so bring in new customers.  To be a CEO is to lead the company (the pyramidical, top-down, power driven company) into a future of decreased costs and increased revenues.  But this future had best be a near-future, because the analysts will be closely examining your quarterly results – that is, Charge Conference reports.

But perhaps with a new model, consciously explored and adopted, pastors would find themselves with a more God-centered life – which is to say, a less market driven life.  The model I propose is the model of the anchorite, a religious order that is most familiar to seminary students through the life of Julian of Norwich, who was herself an anchorite.

Anchorites lived a monastic life.  But rather than living that life in a monastery or in some remote location, the anchorite’s cell shared at least one wall with a church sanctuary.  The anchorite’s life was one of worship, eucharist, and prayer – of total devotion to God.  They were provided for by the congregation with which they were associated.  They were available to the members of the congregation (and other visitors) to provide counsel – counsel that was understood to arise from the time they spent in communion with God.

Now granted, anchorites did not lead worship, so that is one key difference.  But I am not suggesting that pastors become anchorites – only that they consider it as a model / metaphor for the pastor’s life.  Shall we imagine that the congregation pays the pastor to be a CEO?  To give them a next quarter better than last quarter – on the books, anyway?  Or shall we imagine that they provide for the pastor’s needs in order that she may devote her time to the service of God, and that her doing so will benefit the members of the congregation (to which you are “attached,” as the cell of an anchorite was attached to the church wall) considerably – especially insofar as they seek her out?

The words of Paul are particularly instructive here:  “Am I now seeking the favor of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.”  Indeed, pastors spend all too much time trying to please (mostly) men in positions of “power” – the men who judge one’s ministry, whether on the Cabinet, on the SPRC, or in absurd Annual Conference proposals that adopt the standard of the number of “professions of faith” as the sole measure of the worth of a pastor.  As if Satan himself cannot recite scripture when it appears expedient.  The time has come for pastors to stop fearing men, and to fear God alone – because the way of serving the whims of men (you gotta serve somebody) puts us body and soul into a living hell.

But if pastors are to fear nothing but what their lives will be if they do not serve God alone, then we must not throw these fledglings out of the nest unprotected.  If the past generation (or two or three) has feared the bishop, the SPRC chair, the sweet little couple on the front row who has threatened to withhold their offering check, then the seminaries must share some of the blame: the seminaries who neither warned nor prepared these young pastors for the reality of service in the local churches.  (Better that Duke-stone be tied around our neck and we be thrown into the sea than that we mislead these young people.) Giving the students a model of a God-centered ministry may just give them a chance to make it as pastors – a role that requires them to be (perhaps more than any other Christian) in the world, but not of it.