Changing Church

I have attended the same church about half my life. In 7th grade my family finally completed a move after my dad switched jobs and we started attending Grace Chapel. I grew up in the youth group and except for a break when I was in college and then living overseas I have been a regular attender. All told I have been there around 14 years.

I loved Grace Chapel. I was an active member of the high school youth group when I was a teenager and always enjoyed it. For the past seven years I served in the middle school and high school groups as a small group leader. I’ve gone on retreats and events and gotten to know many students, parents and other leaders. Most notably I met my wife while volunteering and we are approaching our 3rd anniversary next month. When I look at my experiences at Grace Chapel I feel elated, excited, and blessed. However, despite all these positive feelings toward this community and place, this coming Sunday I am changing churches.

Why on earth am I doing this?

My wife was not any lowly church girl. She was a church staff member. The first time I saw her she was speaking in front of the huge group of middle schoolers. I had never really personally known anyone who worked at church but soon I was dating someone who did. As I relate to in a previous post I have learned a lot. But because we met at the church we both attended I did not have to worry about changing where I went every week.

This did not change that my wife’s career was still developing and changing. Earlier this year she accepted a new position at a different church. It is a little farther away but we do not have to move which is great. But it does mean on Sunday I won’t be at Grace but someplace totally new.

This is undeniably bittersweet for both of us. We both know and love many people at Grace. Both our parents go to Grace and it is a place with many great memories and experiences. At the same time this church and position feels like the perfect next step for her and her development and we are excited to see what happens.

Even with the excitement of a new journey about to begin it is apparent in the recesses of my mind that if I was not married I would probably not be attending this new church on Sunday. So to be very clear at the end of this blog: my wife is totally worth changing church for. I think our society values the idea of marriage a lot in our society. We certainly still value weddings. Despite this value we ascribe to the ideal of what marriage can be I do not think we acknowledge as much what is absolutely required in any strong marriage: mutual sacrifice from both parties. In getting married we combined our lives. My wife married me, a school teacher. I married her, a (youth) pastor. Whether or not I processed what that fully meant on our wedding day, changing churches this Sunday is in a small way a fulfillment of that commitment I made three years ago to us.

I am going to a new place on Sunday. It will be new and different and maybe even a bit weird. But I’ll be sitting next to my wife so I think I’ll be ok.

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When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

Confessions of a Youth Pastor’s Husband

One of the most interesting things I learned about church culture after I got married to a youth pastor was that there was such a thing as “Pastor’s Wives Conferences.” Apparently it’s just a bunch of pastor’s wives going to a conference to learn about such topics as… well… I have no idea. Two and a half years in and I have not been invited to one yet.

I mention that because 1) I think I’ve learned a lot about church in the last two+ years and 2) I think I have a perspective as the somewhat rare “pastor’s husband” that might be of interest. I have to warn you though that at the start I do not come off very positively. At all. But don’t worry! It gets better I promise.

When I first started dating my future wife and learning more about her weekly ebb and flow I confess to feeling just a little confused. She often seemed very busy and at times stressed and judging by what she told me of her colleagues they often seemed busy and stressed too. Apparently burnout is a huge thing for church staff from pastors to support staff. That seemed reasonable to me but I also figured that in the 40 hours that full time jobs typically require a youth pastor can pull together two meetings for kids a week and whatever other meetings and planning required.

Yes, I told my wife what I figured. Yes, I am a poor, little, unintelligent man.

Don’t worry I moved past my woefully inadequate understanding of what the typical youth pastor does. Today I continue to have a deep and abiding respect in the work my wife and her colleagues (many of whom I count as dear friends) do, week in and week out. I hope to explain just a little of this work during the rest of this entry. She is called and blessed to do what she does, and while it’s a lot of work and hard at times, a simple acknowledgement or thank you from time to time I know is enough.

First off, hours. At my wife’s church, employees are typically asked to work 40-50 hours. Although much of the work is planning, figuring out logistics, coordinating volunteers, etc. at the center of the work is people. This isn’t a clock in/clock out job; where there are people there are needs and struggles and the work can seem endless, there is always more to do.

Second, retreats. A youth pastor does far more than two events a week. They plan two retreats a year. These are massive weekend events where all the kids go to a camp where they have tons of fun and learn a lot about their faith. They are amazing and vital but also a planning nightmare, totally exhausting, and cost a ton. Camps are typically booked out a year beforehand and as soon as the Fall retreat is done, you need to start thinking about the Winter one. These are always on the horizon.

Third, mission trips. These go by different names depending on the church but most people know about them. Youth trips, usually in the summer, where a group travels somewhere else (often overseas) to assist another ministry. This might be ministry, construction or something else. To do these well takes endless planning, meetings before and after, as well as leaders willing to give up a week of their summer to be on call for the kids 24 hours a day. Typically for five days to two weeks. These again are vital and deeply rewarding but also exhausting beyond all measure.

Lastly, intangibles. My wife was asked to preach at our church on a Sunday morning for the first time ever this past August. She had been waiting and hoping for this opportunity for a long time and was beyond excited. She preached twice in a row to four different campuses, probably over 2,000 people altogether. She did amazing. But the work beforehand was intense. She wrote, edited, practiced, reedited, and practiced again. All the work paid off but this type of intangible and deeply intense spiritual labor is far more scary to me than perhaps any work I have done in my past.

This only scrapes the surface of the work my wife does but I did want to give a snapshot of what is asked of church staff today. It is good work and deeply rewarding but it is also difficult and all too often, unappreciated. One more thing too, and I wish I didn’t have to write it but is something that frankly needs to be acknowledged. There is a large segment of Christians who think women like my wife should not be leading in the roles she has. Our church has and continues to grow in support of women pastors, leaders and now elders. I’m deeply grateful for this for so many reasons. But to ignore the fact that some Christians don’t think my wife even deserves a seat at the table, just because she’s a woman, is something I cannot begin to imagine dealing with. She overcomes it every week she walks into the church offices.

All this to say, I’m deeply proud of my wife. I’m proud of her care for the kids she’s responsible for. I’m proud of how hard she has worked over the last seven years at our church. And I’m proud of her steady and unrelenting leadership in a place that too often says, implicitly and explicitly, you do not belong. I confess to not understanding all of this a few years ago but as I continue to grow I’m very grateful to be alongside with her.

Sundays

I don’t like Sundays.

I like church. It’s kind of funny. The one thing most people dread about the day I actually don’t mind. I like it for a whole list of reasons but that’s not why I am writing this entry. It is the rest of the day that stinks. 

Sunday. It’s the day you realize the weekend is over and the only thing you have to look forward to is…Monday. Jeez that stinks. When I lived in the Czech Republic Sunday afternoons were the hardest. A weekend of friends and/or travel was over and I returned to my little apartment in my little remote town and I usually just felt like dying a bit inside. Once my week started and I could distract myself with teaching and planning I was fine but Sunday afternoons…gosh…just awful.

Being back at home things have changed a lot but I still dread the week on Sunday afternoons a bit. But other things have changed too. Drastically. Let me explain.

Here was my typical Sunday a couple years ago. Church at 9:15 or 11. I go to a big church. It’s easy to walk in and out without talking to folks. I preferred this. Keeps life simple. I was out by 12:15 at the latest and home by 12:30. Cue nap, then running and then relaxing the rest of the day. Simple, uncomplicated. The way life should be.

Two years ago I started volunteering with my church’s middle school group as a small group leader. About a year ago I started dating one of the other leaders. Let me explain what happened this past Sunday.

Out of bed at 8:15am. I’m running late. I went to the middle school meeting at 9:15am. Over a 100 kids each Sunday and this week I did the main talk. Hooray for responsibility. 11am go to main church service (subject: True Sex. How racy!). Drove to my house at 12:30pm to pick up a cake that I had baked for middle school end of year staff party (I am a man who bakes delicious things from boxes. Deal with it.) Went to party from 1pm-3pm. Went home for precisely 15 minutes. By 4pm was on way to my girlfriend’s sister’s birthday dinner. Ate food till 6:30pm. Then went to see Star Trek at 7:30pm (IMAX 3D!) I was home by 10:30ish.

So yeah my Sundays have changed a little bit. I am not 100% sure how to process all these changes but I will say this: I’m not complaining.

Defending Church

It is easy to knock church these days. Organized religion is being seen less and less as a positive thing. At best it is seen as a boring, unimportant, harmless chore for unusually dedicated folk to do to feel better about themselves. At worst it is a unsafe incubator of hate, distrust, scandal and secrets, more worthy of being protested against than a beacon of light to society.

As I sat in my church today I realized how unfair both these extreme views are. I was also reminded how important church is for the Christian who seeks to have a vibrant, growing spiritual life not only with God but the others in their community. Yes, church is easily lampooned but that doesn’t make it any less powerful and important when it is done right.

For me church keeps me focused on the important things in life. It engages me. It reinforces beliefs that I hold. It encourages me. It reminds how I am supposed to (and want to) live. It allows me to see, meet and enjoy the company of other believers. It gives me a place to refresh and renew myself. It gives me a safe place to emotionally open myself up to a God I rarely am open to. Church does so much I am convinced that no Christian should go without it on a regular basis.

I have had a very positive experience with Church my whole life. I realize many others haven’t. Their churches and leaders have not been what they should have been. Instead of love and truth, people have experienced distrust and judgement. Some have even faced serious abuse in church. Others have simply been bored to tears waking up earlier than desired on Sunday mornings. All of these failings are tragic. However, none of this means that all churches are wrong or unnecessary.

If you are a Christian who has never found the right Church I encourage you to start looking again. If you aren’t a Christian and think going to a church would be crazy, I encourage you to give it a try. If you live in the Boston area I’ll  pick you up and drive you. It’s easy to dismiss and disregard church. Finding a good one can be difficult. But for my money there is nothing better for my faith than a building full of dedicated, worshipful people seeking out God’s will for themselves in this world.