The title of this post isn’t entirely true. I’m not quite an accidental church planter. I’ve been talking and dreaming about planting a church for the last 7 years at least. But I didn’t expect it to happen when it did. I was still trying to prepare. I thought I wasn’t ready. I thought I didn’t have enough support, or money, or time, or connections. And God said, “HA!” (God likes to say HA!)
A couple of months ago I decided that I needed to at least write out my vision for what I thought God was calling me to do. So I did. And I posted it on this here blog. It resonated with some other folks and within a couple of weeks we were meeting in someone’s living room talking about our hopes and dreams and reading the book of Acts together. It was that fast. And I thought we would stop there, at least for a while.
About a month after that we were offered space in a community building. Several different non-profits share a building and they said we could have our services there. So we moved out of the living room and into a public space. A couple of Sundays ago we had our first public meeting. We’re still meeting twice a month. We’re hearing that there is a lot of energy around our new community; people are excited, people are showing up.
And I feel like I’m playing catch up. All of the books I read say this isn’t the way to start a church. There are supposed to be teams and statements and plans. You are supposed to have lots and lots of money (or, hell, at least SOME money). There is supposed to be staff and institutional backing. We’ve got none of that. We have a dream. We have some people. We’ve got some donated Bibles on the way to us. And we’re going to be okay.
I’m still trying to play catch up. We’re praying for someone who is a musician to join our team. We need to get a vision statement in place. It wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of money. But I’m not really worried. I think God was just waiting for us to say yes. That sounds all ethereal and hokey, but whatever. I have no other way to explain the synergy. I could chalk it up to coincidence, but that just doesn’t seem to hold true.
I’m planning to recount some of my adventures on this blog. I also want to do some book reviews of church planting books. The reality is that almost all of the church planting books aren’t written for progressive/liberal/radical people. And so I am having to wade through a lot that I find theologically offensive to get to the good stuff. But since progressives aren’t writing church planting books you work with what you’ve got. Hopefully things I’m learning can help other people who are embarking on this crazy ride.
This is a messy process and I am just trusting God will make things happen as they need to happen. I am trying to be responsive to the guiding of the Spirit. Basically I’m just trying to not get in the way. We’ll figure out the details as we go.
What is God waiting for you to say “yes” to?
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a representative from the national office of a denomination. He was tasked with going to seminaries to talk with students who were in that denomination and feeling called to ministry. I knew him through some connections and so we sat down to talk. The conversation we had that day has stuck with me.
He said that churches were interested in hiring young (but not too young), white straight, cisgender men. Preferably men who were already married. But as he traveled around to different seminaries he said that the people God was calling were women, people of color, and queer folks.
There is a divide between who the church wants to hire and who God is calling.
I think God is calling the people God needs to revolutionize the church. And I think the churches that ignore those people are the churches that aren’t going to be able to survive.
The reality is the system we currently have set up isn’t sustainable. Churches cannot sustain large buildings, a large staff, pay health insurance and pensions with declining numbers, a tanking economy, etc. Most of the people who have heard my news of being ordained with the Old Catholic Church and been concerned immediately raise questions of how I plan on getting paid and what about my pension? Those are fair questions, but I don’t see the church as being able to answer those questions long term. I am happy to be bi-vocational. (In fact I see the entire future of ministry as bi-vocational, which I’ll write more about at another time.)
You cannot revolutionize a system by doing the same things only “better”. You have to do things differently. And people who have a stake in the system remaining the same aren’t the people to be doing the revolutionizing.
I’m sure there are some straight, white, married,cisgender men who can be a part of the revolution. But I think it will need to be led by queer and trans* folks, by women, and by people of color. And the longer we ignore the callings of those folks; the longer we make it impossible for them to get through the ordination process, the harder we make it for them to find jobs (or to be supported in experimental ministries), the closer the church becomes to death and irrelevance. Certainly the church as a whole will continue to limp along for a while longer. We have endowments to live off of and enough people to keep plugging away for now. But not forever. And I honestly don’t think for much longer.
We have a decision to make: Are we going to get involved with what God is doing, or are we going to dig in our heels and refuse to change? The choice is ours. For now.
I’ve said to people that Twitter has changed my life and they generally look at me sideways. Or laugh. How could such a trivial medium have changed anyone’s life?
Well, let me tell you:
* It has introduced me to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Some of whom I have exchanged emails, phone calls, and Skype conversations with. Some I have even met in person.
* People have supported me through tough situations and crappy encounters.
* I’ve had folks who have provided amazing graphic design, donated money to Camp Osiris, donated Bibles to House of the Transfiguration, prayed for me, and more.
* It has allowed me to watch and be updated on things the news wasn’t covering: Occupy raids, Egyptian protests, and more in real time with no delay.
* Twitter introduced me to the Archbishop of the North American Old Catholic Church who will soon be ordaining me.
* My friends on Twitter have made me laugh out loud with snarky comebacks, funny #hashtags, witty jokes. We have live tweeted movies together, conferences, meetings. We have prayed for one another, exchanged messages of support, rooted for each other.
The other morning I was having a tough time with something. I reached out to a couple of folks on twitter and within minutes was exchanging conversations and emails that allowed me to move past the struggle and get on with my day.
I have been provoked and encouraged. Had my thinking deepened and expanded. Been challenged and loved. This isn’t just a silly medium of flippant thoughts and random comments (although it can be); this is a community of people in the best sense of the word.
These folks aren’t just twitter handles or anonymous people, they are my colleagues, they are mentors, they are sojourners.
They are my friends.
I would love it if you would tell me your twitter stories in the comments!
I am preparing a lesson for Sunday for my senior highers on Dorothy Day. She is a huge inspiration to me. And also a challenge. She challenges me to look at my own life; What am I not willing to give up? Where do my words not match my actions? Am I being as humble and grace filled as she was?
I am inspired by the ways in which she continually worked with and lived on the margins and still managed to keep her sense of humor and humility. She didn’t see herself as a saint. A quote of hers that I love is, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
At the same time I wonder how she managed to not get beaten down by the society around her. How did she manage to keep her head held high even in the face of people with power and privilege who tried to dismiss her and those who tried to threaten her work?
I wonder how Dorothy Day managed to keep her faith in the midst of a world that was determined to continue making people poor. Did she just concentrate on one person at a time and let the critics go? What should my response be? And was it worse when well-meaning Christians came to her worker houses and couldn’t get with the program and so they attacked Dorothy Day?
Day was quoted as saying “The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart. A revolution which must start with each one of us.” I need to remember that my own heart needs to be revolutionized. That can be hard in the midst of cruel comments, an unjust system, allies that aren’t, in the midst of feeling beaten down. And it can be hard to see Jesus in the face of an oppressor who is also caught in the system.
This quote from Paulo Freire on charity has been both moving me and challenging me lately, “In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent found of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty…True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.” I find this true not just of charity but of all the ways in which we seek to “help” or “be an ally” to people without actually being in relationship with people. My hope is that I will do “good things” out of my love for specific people with whom I have actual relationships instead of some mythical entity like “the poor”. I also hope that I will remain humble enough and cognizant enough of my own privilege to accept that I will make mistakes, that I will say dumb things, and that hopefully when I am called out on such things that I will respond with graciousness and a heart that is willing to change.
Because maybe it’s not my job to revolutionize someone else’s heart. It’s my job to work on my own heart. I can speak truth to power, but if it falls on ears that will not hear then I need to move on and I will do my best not to demonize even my oppressors or those who seek to other me. And then I need to keep working on my own life and my own spiritual path. That is all I can do.
Another story about Day I love is this: One day she was sitting with a guest at one of the worker houses. She was pretty famous by this time and had people who were interested in interviewing her. A reporter showed up and came over to the table and her response, “Did you want to speak to one of us?”
What I hope I can convey to the teens is how deeply Day was motivated by her love for Jesus to be incredibly radical politically. I also hope to convey her deep graciousness and love for people and her willingness to give up everything in order to follow her calling.
I hope that when I am old I have the same grace filled face as Dorothy Day.
The portrait of Day (1968) is credited to the Milwaukee Journal
When I want to understand something, books are my go to, so lately I’ve been trying to read a lot of church planting books. As we continue to work on House of the Transfiguration I am trying to wrap my head around the logistics of what God has called me to. The reality is I know that I am called but doesn’t mean I automatically know what I’m doing. So I’m reading.
And the reading can be frustrating.
Yesterday I wrote about owning your calling and today I feel that I have to remind myself to remember who I am called to. Some people are called to churches that will grow fast and be large. They might get a lot of attention and be flashy. They might have clout in the community and be able to raise a lot of money. I am not called to that kind of church (even though sometimes, in my pride, I would like to be). (And I should state up front that I am not knocking the launch large movement or anything like that. I definitely think it has its place. I am just processing out loud about my own calling in comparison.) Books about “launching large” and raising scads of money don’t work for the context in which I find myself. Some of the books on missional ministry seem to work a little better, but even some of that falls flat.
Still I find myself reading. And comparing. And getting a little jealous. There is an egotistical part of me that wants to “launch large” and grow fast. That wants to wear cool clothes like Rob Bell and preach to large crowds. But that’s not what I am called to do. That’s not who I am called to be.
I am called to a people who have been so wounded by the church that they have no reason to trust anyone who claims to believe in God. I am called to a community of people (myself included) that doesn’t have a ton of money to devote to a new church (or anything more than food and necessities). I am called to do the hard work of living in community with people who aren’t like me; who have different histories, church experiences, etc.
People on the margins don’t get a lot of buzz. They don’t get a lot of press. The people ministering to them (to me) don’t get asked to speak at conferences or to publish books. They don’t make the list of the top ten paid clergy; hell they might not get paid at all. And maybe part of it is that I have been on the margins of church life for so long that it would be nice to get a little buzz. It would be nice if there was some recognition of the queer and trans* people who have never left the church, even when it was messy and hard. It would be nice if queer and trans* theologians got asked to speak at conferences or got book deals. It would be nice if people thought we had something to say to and to teach the larger church. And my real, human emotions can lead me to be jealous or to feel self-righteous. I am trying really hard to keep those emotions in check, but I think it’s also healthy to admit these things. To put it out there.
I don’t feel like running away from my calling but I do need to stop comparing my calling to the calling of others. I need to stop comparing House of the Transfiguration to the other church starts with fancy websites and better donors (even though I probably wouldn’t turn down either a web developer or a wealthy donor!). I need to remember that when 6 people show up for House of the Transfiguration and get to be their whole selves, that it’s an amazing thing. I need to remember that we’re creating space for people who have been pushed out of the church, who have been silence, who have been told that they are unlovable to come together and maybe hear about a different kind of religion.
And I need to remember that even if they never come to House of the Transfiguration, that it’s still my calling to be their pastor and to walk with them wherever they are. These are the people I am called to. These folks are my community. And I am uniquely equipped because of my own experiences with God and the church.
And that is a holy calling.
Who are you called to?
Growing up I internalized all sorts of messages about pride. It was very bad to be prideful. I had to keep watch on myself lest I become too prideful. I shouldn’t get a masters’ degree because it would make me prideful (that was actually something someone told me). So I tried to not become prideful. I tried to push any attention I got back to God.
And when I left the evangelical church, I carried these messages about pride with me.
But what has happened is that in my attempt to not be prideful I have started waiting for other people to affirm me. I have stayed more in the background. I have hedged about my accomplishments. I have refused to stand in my full power. I have waited for other people to give me permission. I have pretended that things weren’t important to me that actually were. I have been silent about my calling for fear that other people wouldn’t take it seriously. And by doing that I have shortchanged myself and my calling.
Here’s the thing: I know I am called by God. I am called to be a pastor. I am called to be a prophet. And it’s time that I own that calling. It’s time that I stop worrying about whether people will think I’m being prideful and stand into the fullness of what God is calling me to do. (And even as I write this I have a voice in the back of my mind saying, don’t admit that. Only an arrogant jerk would admit to being called to be a prophet, you should delete that, but I am letting it stand because I know that it’s my calling.)
There is a difference between living into your calling and being prideful. There is a difference between grasping for power and answering the call of God on your life. It takes discernment and community to know the difference and to keep yourself in check, but that isn’t an excuse to shy away from your calling.
You have a calling, too. I know you do. Maybe you haven’t been able to admit it to yourself. Maybe it’s the thing that whispers in the back of your head that you push back down because you think it’s too much, or that you’re not enough. Maybe it’s the thing that you only admit to yourself in your quietest thoughts when you are all by yourself.
It’s time to own it.
It’s time to stand up and go for it. It’s time to admit that you are called by God and live into that calling. The world needs people who are fully alive to their callings and living them out. The world needs people who are willing to be who God made them to be. The world needs you, in your own particularity, living out your calling. And you can do it.
What are you being called to do? What are you going to do about it? How can I support you in living out your calling in the world?
When I was in seminary I did my field education at an awesome church called Judson Memorial. They had a wonderful training program. The year that I did my internship they brought in ten folks and called them “Community Ministers”. We had weekly meetings as a group where we talked about all sorts of things. Our internships were able to be whatever we made them. We all brought different gifts and interests to the table and were allowed to pursue them. Some folks did more traditional parish stuff; hospital visits, pastoral care, etc. A couple people worked on immigration and fair work issues. I worked with a trans* masculine group in the city. What I appreciated about the program was that it freed me to do non-parish ministry; to reach out into the community not with the idea that we would get those people to come to church, but that we would partner with them in what they were doing.
Tonight I sat in on a webinar with Becky Garrison about her book “Ancient Future Disciples: Finding Jesus in Mission Shaped Communities.” (Which is a really fantastic book by the way.) She was talking about the new ministries she has been following over the past several years. She said that one of the things these ministries had in common was leaders who were entrepreneurial and who had backgrounds (or skills in) community organizing.
I’ve talked before about my evolving understanding of my vocation as a minister and one of the ways I have begun to articulate that calling is to be a community minister. But what does that mean?
I see it as being called to more than just a particular community or parish. And even more than that, I am called to people who might never enter a church building or come to a worship service (for whatever reason), but instead to be a minister to people in the community in which I live, to offer pastoral care to whoever might need it.
It also means thinking about “congregation” or “parish” as larger than just the gathered community, or the potential gathered community. I find that often folks will be pastoral if they think they might be able to get someone to attend their church, but this is about more than that.
It means bringing a pastoral presence to community events: showing up at court dates, at dance parties, at art openings, and being visible as a clergy person. Especially in places where other clergy people might not be willing to go.
I must admit that some of this is hard for me as an introvert. I’m not good at starting conversations with strangers. (Once the conversation gets going I’m fine, but it’s breaking the ice that’s tough.) I don’t want to be thought of as pushy or like I’m trying to sell something. So I am working on just having a presence. I need to work on getting more connected to the community, showing up at more community events just to hang out. This will be a growing edge for me, but one I am thankful to tackle.
Being a community minister means I don’t shed my pastoral call when I am at the grocery store, on the bus, or at the club.
What does being a community minister mean to you? How do you conceptualize your own call?
I’ve been thinking a lot about church growth lately. Why it happens, why it doesn’t. What it means when it happens and when it doesn’t, etc. Who counts as a member and who doesn’t?
I’m not one of those people that thinks huge churches are the most “blessed by God” or the most healthy (I’m sure we are all aware of a GIANT church led by a narcissistic, abusive person). I tend to prefer depth of community and depth of transformation to massive numbers.
But, on the other hand, if your church isn’t growing (or worse is declining in attendance), then is that a message that maybe something is wrong?
I think looking for the newest church growth fad is silly and ultimately detrimental to the health of your congregation, but I also think that refusing to embrace change can be just as silly and detrimental. We all know of the churches who say “We’ve always done it this way”.
But what happens when a church has attendance that is remaining steady, who’s giving is steady, who’s programs are running along. Is that a sign of health or the status quo? At what point do we say that a church that isn’t growing is really dying?
Just raising questions that have been on my mind as I read about church trends and observe the different churches in my community.
What are your thoughts?
from my transition journal March 29, 2008:
the hard parts: obviously not being happy with my body is really hard. and not passing as well as i’d like to. and i feel like in order to pass i have to do things that i wouldn’t normally do and that’s frustrating. like i have to talk less to cashiers and keep my voice with no fluctuations. if i talk normally then i get read as female. i have to gesture less, etc. and even though i know it’s temporary it’s hard sometimes.
i also have trouble being around cisgender guys. when i am around them i am really aware of how female i still look, sound, and act. and that sucks. so i just feel really bad about myself. when i am around women, i definitely feel more masculine by comparison and so that’s nice, but around guys i just feel less than. that’s hard on my self esteem. i also feel like sometimes when i get treated as a guy by other guys, while it’s really nice, it’s also hard because i feel like i don’t deserve it. like they are just humouring me. i feel like a fake a lot of the time and that wears on me.
i’m also struggling some with queer identity and identity in general. especially in relation to [my ex]. the reason i am writing this here is because i know that she is having a hard time with some of the gender stuff. and i respect and honour that. but it doesn’t make it easier on me.
more and more i have been just wanting to be seen as a normal guy. apart from being a transguy. i think a lot of this is the fact that i feel like being seen as a transguy gives people the license to dismiss me as not a real man. oh, he’s trans, so he’s somehow different from other guys. and so i have been wanting to keep that to myself. especially at these beginning stages where i am figuring out for myself what it means to be a man and what masculinity looks like. but as i am doing this i feel some pushback from [my ex]. she has identified as a lesbian/queer for years now. and so all of the sudden being in a relationship with a man is hard for her. and i totally get that and realize it will take time. so i don’t want this to be a negative reflection on her because she’s really trying very hard. but there are still moments when our new identities rub up against each other in a weird way. for instance: she is reading this book called “challenging lesbian norms” which i think is really helping her. so she’s reading it yesterday on the train as we were going into the city. which is fine, although i think some people noticed the book. but then she started talking about it to me in kind of a loud/normal speaking voice. and we were standing next to a guy who was obviously listening in and it made me uncomfortable. and she said later that he was looking at us funny. i feel like, especially now as i don’t pass all the time, that situation was really not good for me. as not only did it blow any chance that i could have had of passing, but it also reflected upon me strangely. but i don’t know how to handle these situations as i don’t want to tell her what she can and can’t talk about. it’s her life and her identity and i am trying to be respectful of that but it’s hard sometimes.
it’s hard for me to experiment with masculinity or even to be myself when i end up offending her because what i did was something a guy would do. and sometimes it’s something i’ve always done but now it’s not okay. i don’t know how to navigate that.
on another note: masculinity. i’ve been doing some reading. and thinking and just trying to work it all out. not sure i’ve come to any conclusions yet, but i find the whole thing to be fascinating. i just read “fight club” which has a lot to say about masculinity. and even though i don’t agree with fighting or violence of any kind there was still something beautiful in that book about what it means to be a man in a middle class job you hate in a world that spend time trying to just get you to consume, consume, consume. and i’m sure it’s not just men, but also women who feel that. i’m just saying the book really resonated with me and where i’m at at the moment.
The hardest part for me in the beginning of transition (other than social stuff) was trying to figure out what it meant for me to be a man. I knew intrinsically that I am a man, but I wasn’t sure what that meant in relation to how I responded to the world. In the beginning I’m pretty sure that I overcompensated: Tried too hard to be seen as super masculine mainly because my body still wasn’t as masculine as I would have liked.
I’m not always proud reading back on these journal entries, but I think they are important to share. I was floundering at times. There isn’t a guidebook for how to negotiate these internal changes and it can be complicated.
As I began to be perceived as male more consistently I was able to lighten up and go back to chatting with cashiers, gesturing when I talk, and more. I find that I am okay with being read as a gay man, but I don’t want to be read as female (not because there is anything wrong with being female but simply because I am not female). It’s all been a process of learning to feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. Learning how to come home to myself. It was often messy, but important work.
From a journal entry on March 8, 2008:
for our next assignment in our preaching class, my exegesis section has to do an artistic presentation (because we’re in a special exegesis for the arts section) and i was totally at a loss on what to do because i don’t really like the passage that we’re assigned (it’s the “doubting thomas” passage in John 20). but i’ve been thinking a lot about queer bodies (because basically i’m a science experiment right now) and want to tie that thread throughout my projects if i can. i was thinking about how thomas was saying that he wouldn’t believe that jesus had been resurrected until he could see the wounds for himself and touch them, and i started to think about how for trans people there is that same element as people ask, “so have you had surgery yet?” “what do your genitals look like?” “can i see?” and it’s that same idea: until i see what you look like without your clothes on, i won’t believe you to be who you say you are. so i want to do some kind of artistic presentation of that. and i think i want to culminate the presentation by giving myself my T shot in front of the group. i’m still not sure how it’s all going to work out, but that’s the initial idea. i think it might be really powerful.
This was the moment when my relationship to Scripture, theology, and God changed. This is the watershed moment that I point back to and say, “This moment sent me on a new trajectory.” It was this experience of reading myself into the Thomas passage that has shaped almost all of the work I have done in the past three years around theology. This was the impetus for the writing of the Trans* Passion Narrative, it’s been the impetus for much of the preaching and teaching I’ve done, and it’s also radically shifted the way I view my personal relationship with Scripture.
I’ve written before about how in my evangelical days my spiritual life had been based mostly on emotion and in my early coming out and seminary days it had been based mostly on intellect. Working on this artistic project in seminary was the beginning of bringing back together the emotional and the intellectual.
For the final project I ended up making four large canvases with photos of myself during transition, photos of my shot supplies, wearing my binder (and the crease it left in my skin from being so tight), my prosthetic, and articles and phrases about gender. I displayed the canvasses in a cross form and in the center I had a video of me giving myself my shot that played while people took in the photos. I prefaced the presentation with a short reflection on the invasiveness of the questions and the gentle rebuke of Jesus. And then I invited them to come and see.
It was an intensely personal project; I revealed a lot of myself through those photos, but it was also honest to the text. I began to see that I could reclaim Scripture as a living, breathing thing. I could see my story and my experience reflected in the Sacred story. It has made all of the difference.