Curriculum is Not the Problem!

It’s common these days. We look at the problems in our church’s education ministry and blame the curriculum. It doesn’t do this or that well enough, there’s no video component, it’s too hard to decipher, or it’s so easy that we’re done with a lesson in 15 minutes. So the search goes on for the new, the improved curriculum, that can’t cost too much or demand too much, but it had better be thorough in its representation of the gospel.

Curriculum is not the problem, friends. Our expectations concerning the curriculum are. If you use a curriculum produced by a denominational publishing house or one that is meant for mass consumption, then there’s no way it will please you in its entirety. Something in it won’t work for you. In fact, every curriculum developer I know expects the users to adapt and modify it for their own particular setting.

The onus is on you and me, the users. Don’t buy curriculum thinking it will solve your attendance problems or transform volunteers into master teachers. It won’t do it.

Today, it seems that churches use curricula that meet one of two criteria, aside from cost: its theological underpinning or its ease of use, which often boils down to accessible arts, crafts, and videos. If I were to choose, I would err on the side of the theological bent of the curriculum. Does it represent our theological tradition? How does it understand God? Do the interpretation of Bible stories focus more on what God does or on human actions? What view of God will the learners take away from the formative event in which the curriculum is but a tool? What understanding of the church does the curriculum convey?

If you find a curriculum that supports your theological tradition, then you might have to adapt or add activities that better engage your learners. It’s up to you and your education partners to make assessments and adjust as necessary. For example, if you locate a curriculum whose ecclesiology is on point with your tradition, but all of the activities focus on the individual’s response, you may decide to add community-based learning activities. That way the experience of community coheres with the theological point you want to make.

Let me know how I can help you and your church assess your educational and formational ministries.

—Mark Hinds


Paddling Your Way

I enjoy the water—jumping in a canoe, paddling to the middle of the lake, pulling in the paddles, and leaning back to bask in the warmth of the sun. Everything is tranquil and calm; time stands still.

Yet, even in that calm, quiet place, I’m still moving. The slow, rocking movement and the rhythmic beating of water against the sides of the canoe remind me that if I don’t eventually pick up the paddles and steer, I could get caught in the quickening current and pull of the lake’s overflow drain.

There are times when we need to rest. In the biblical tradition, this is called Sabbath. Psalm 23 sings of still waters where our souls are restored. Floating on still water reminds me of being supported, being loved and carried when I can’t find the stamina for the journey. It reminds me of prayer, being lifted and comforted by God in the quiet when my spirit has no words.

Yet just as a floating canoe moves with the currents, our lives are never completely motionless. Even when we feel like we are going nowhere, we are moving. If we are not intentional about guiding our own movement, we may be taken where we do not want to go. A balanced, buoyed life embraces the quiet times and the times when we are in movement; when we take the paddles in our hands and direct where we go.

Immersion or Sprinkling?

One of the questions at baptism: immersion or sprinkling? For some people, immersion is desired because of the symbolism of being buried in a death like Christ’s. For others, sprinkling is the chosen mode because God’s grace is sufficient, regardless of the amount of water used.

It’s also an important question for your Christian formation efforts. What’s preferred? An immersion into the life of faith? Or a sprinkling, a little bit of this and a little bit of that of the faith?

I can hear it now: with the busy-ness of families today, the best we can hope for is a sprinkling. So we’ll keep on doing what we’ve always done, even though church members only appear at the church door once a month or less.

Sprinkling is the problem for most churches. It’s resulted in shrinking rosters, disconnected generations, alienated families, and the opinion that church is just another option for our consideration. It’s like being vaccinated; we innoculate people against the church by giving them a little bit of church. No depth, no breadth of practicing the way of life Jesus calls us to.

Let’s imagine immersion: Choose an event in the life of the church. The baptism of a new Christian, for example. Decide that for five weeks, you will prepare the congregation to receive the new member into the life of the church through an immersive event.

Identify the date, the Scripture for the day (maybe Ephesians 2:1-10), and select a key verse (v. 8: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God). Next, count back four Sundays. Imagine an event or series of events that immerses your congregation, all ages, in baptism through the key verse. You’ll need a team of helpers and a space. You’ll need water, blue fabric to simulate water, water music (Handel?), a baptism hymn, white fabric to make stoles with baptism designs, and so on. You’ll need a catchy way to memorize the key verse, repeated every week, and included in the worship service as a call to worship or affirmation of faith. You’ll need construction paper and envelopes to make welcome to the church family cards for the newly baptized. You’ll need willing people to tell their baptism stories and openly reflect on the meaning of being saved by grace through faith, a gift of God. You’ll need to display all creations in a well-traveled route in your building, prepare members of the congregation, young and old, to read, sing, and participate in the worship services.

For four Sundays, you welcome all ages into the space with an invitation to be immersed in a significant teaching of the church, to practice living what it means to be baptized and belong to the church, to exercise the memory muscles of the congregation so that the words and hymns of the faith become part of who you are.

Then, on the day of baptism, celebration! The whole congregation rejoicing with the newly baptized. Words of promise, words of hope delivered in sermon, hymns, and greeting cards. Does it require planning? Yes. Effort? Yes. Collaboration and cooperation? Yes and yes. But what a payoff!!!!

Your congregation will never forget baptism or that time they practiced hospitality and radical welcome. That’s how immersion can change your church! Give it a try! And let me know how it goes.

10 Ways to Care for Your Pastor

In the movie, “First Reformed,” the main character played by Ethan Hawke is a pastor struggling with his own despair and self-doubt. The movie is rich with themes about theology, creation care, hope, suicide, forgiveness, opulence, church decline, and pastoral identity. (For a thoughtful review click this link: Patheos.com.)

One of the things that struck me in the movie was that Hawke’s character struggled with his burden in almost total solitude. It reminded me of something I heard a pastor say several years ago in one of my doctoral classes. In complete vulnerability, he said something like this: “I am pastor of the largest church in our district. The district looks to me for leadership and other pastors tell me they admire my ministry and often ask for advice. What they don’t know is that I am dying inside. I have no one to talk to. I can’t tell my Superintendent. Who is there for pastors like me?”

This minister is not alone. I have worked with pastors for over twenty years and I hear similar stories all the time. I remember in my own pastorate feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the emotional and spiritual energy pastoring took. It helped that I had a co-pastor, a mentor on the Presbytery staff and a group of colleagues. Still, by year four I was already experiencing the symptoms of burn out.

What can congregations do to help pastors thrive?

  • Provide financial assistance for a coach, spiritual director, and pastoral counselor. Each of these offers a ministry of presence from a different perspective and with varying techniques. I have coaching clients who also have a therapist and spiritual director. Pastors may not need or want all three, but every pastor should have at least one professional with which they can process their emotions, discern God’s will, and keep accountability.
  • Provide adequate compensation and benefits. Financial insecurity adds more stress to an already stressful occupation. A congregation that values its pastor should show in its budget and stewardship.
  • Honor the pastor’s day off by leaving him/her alone. That means no emails, calls or texts unless it is an emergency. An emergency is a serious illness, accident or death of a member. The power going off in the church building is not an emergency for the pastor to cover.
  • Provide for a Sabbatical every five to seven years. Researching, writing and preaching a sermon almost every Sunday for five years on top of all the other pastoral duties is taxing. Sabbatical gives a pastor a substantial amount of time away from day-to-day ministry to refresh, renew and study so that they can come back with new ideas, energy, and knowledge. This time apart can also be renewing for the congregation and keep the pastoral relationship thriving longer.
  • Ministry is a work of the people, not just the pastor. The pastor does not need to attend, let alone lead, every committee meeting and ministry activity. If chairpersons take their responsibility seriously and are adequately resourced, they will create their own agendas and lead their meetings. The pastor needs to be present only when needed as a resource for a particular project or discussion.
  • The same holds true for mission projects, congregational care, and fellowship and educational activities. Volunteers can lead projects, visit the sick and homebound, host gatherings and teach classes without the pastor. This is not to say that the pastor does not visit or attend activities. It means that the pastor should not be responsible for everything. A pastor who over-functions takes the ministry away from the people. A congregation that under-functions burns out their pastor.
  • Some congregations observe October as Pastor Appreciation Month. This is a nice way to publicly acknowledge a pastor for her/his faithfulness and hard work. However, giving affirmation, and showing gratitude and care need not be relegated to just one month a year. We have all experienced the emotional high of hearing someone say, “thank you” and “you’re doing a great job.” Share a little love with your pastor on a regular basis. Invite her to dinner at your home. Send him a thank you note. It does not have to be a huge gesture. It is the little things that can make someone’s day.
  • Treat the pastor as a partner in ministry. Pastors are not above congregation members or below them. All Christians are called to follow Christ and use their gifts for in God’s service. The functions may be different, but the call to discipleship is the same.
  • Practice grace and forgiveness. Pastors are human and make mistakes. Many parishioners put the pastor on a pedestal. The fall from that height can be terribly damaging. Be realistic about expectations and refrain from petty complaints.
  • Do hold the pastor accountable for maintaining appropriate boundaries and behaviors. Forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye to misconduct. Studies show that the stress and exhaustion of ministry can lead to poor decision-making and succumbing to temptation. The above tips can help prevent this, but if it happens name it and deal with it directly and lovingly.

Congregations want a long and vibrant pastoral relationship. Pastors want the same thing. By working together to maintain healthy boundaries and lifestyles, pastors and congregations can thrive in ministry together.

Holy Anxiety, Batman!

Guest post by Mark Hinds, EdD

It was Wednesday! I couldn’t wait to watch my favorite show—Batman! The ABC Television network had been hyping and teasing the show for weeks. And what a show it was! Pow! Punch! Zowie! The best part? It was on twice a week! Part one aired on Wednesday with a terrifying, campy cliffhanger which would be resolved on Thursday night. It was a good time to be alive!

So, it was Wednesday. It was late winter 1966. I hurried home, ready to finish my homework before 7:00 p.m. My nose in a book, my mom came into my room to tell me that the family would be going to dinner with a neighbor family. “What time?” I asked. “6:30” was the unwelcome response.

My stomach was in knots. I had to see that show. After all, Batman was my second or third favorite superhero, who wasn’t “super” at all. How else would I know the set-up to the Thursday night episode? I was churning, hard to breathe, or at least that’s how I remember it. Thankfully, I survived. But I couldn’t face this loss alone. I had to tell my brothers! Mom said, “And don’t say anything about missing the show to your brothers!” Yikes!

Steve and Phil, fourteen months my junior and twins, could be oblivious to things at times. They enjoyed the show too, but they also liked to do other things, and weren’t obsessed like me. How to clue them in without telling them?

In the car, on the way to the restaurant, I looked at my watch, feigning that it had stopped. “Hey, Steve,” who was sitting in the front seat, “my watch stopped. What time is it?” And you know what happened. “It’s 6:30! Batman’s on in half-an-hour!” he exclaimed desperately. Mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, hit me in the shoulder and gave me that look!

Why was it so urgent to make sure my brothers knew what I knew? A dictum of systems theory is that anxiety travels. Something upsets the status quo leaving the anxious host’s stomach in knots, lungs unable to breathe. The most instinctual way to relieve some of the angst is by sharing or giving it away. Let someone else carry the burden for a while. This aspect of anxiety can be seen while watching a herd of cows from a distance. If a cow senses danger, you can see the anxiety ripple through the herd. Anxiety travels. Steve was a willing host for my anxiety. My 10-year-old self was expressing what is known as an undifferentiated self, which reacts to conflict or crisis at an instinctual level. My judgment was clouded by emotionality. And you know what? I did feel better, my mom’s punch aside.

Congregations experience this too. Anxiety can suffocate a church when its empty classrooms echo with the past glories of throngs of children; when the coins in the coffer don’t ring as often or as plentifully as they once did; when the church majors in minors. When a church leader even so much as thinks about leaving, church members can catch the scent that something has changed. Shared anxiety can mimic the balance the system once knew, yet it is an unhealthy state for any group.

If my mom were in charge, she would have undoubtedly advocated punching a few key congregation members, much like Cher in Moonlighting: “Snap out of it!” I, however, do not advocate punching. A winning strategy when anxiety has your congregation in its grips is take a step or two back, get a wide view of your people, the herd, and refuse to take on the congregation’s angst. As a leader, become a well-differentiated self.

A leader with a well-differentiated “self” responds to conflict and crisis at a reasoning level, thinking rooted in a careful assessment of facts. Such a self is less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment and can work from thoughtfully developed principles. She is less susceptible to “group think,” acting in the best interests of the group as a thoughtful choice. Confident in his thinking, he can understand and support others’ views without selling out his values and principles.

Peter Steinke imagines the intentionality of the well-differentiated self:

“Anxiety is there. Yet, now that it is where I can see it, I can keep an eye on it. I won’t let it slip- back into unconsciousness. With anxiety up front in awareness, I can tame and harness it. While I may feel like pouncing on someone, I choose not to submit to my instincts. I have good access to my thinking facilities. My emotional state is not in overdrive. I will survive this; I can take the sting out of anxiety and be a calming agent.” (Uproar, 51.)

What about Batman? It happened that the restaurant where we ate that Wednesday evening had a TV hoisted in the corner of the dining room. I didn’t say a word but looked at my brothers and my mother. “OK, let’s ask if they’ll turn the channel to Batman,” mom said. What I had fretted about, what led me to instinctually dump my worry on my brother, never happened. A moment of grace during an ordinary “crisis.” Perhaps there’s also a word of grace for pastoral leaders in conflictual settings.

A Different Kind of Bucket List

Many people kick off the new year by removing the clutter from their homes. An organized home helps them begin the new year with a clean slate.

People who commit to de-cluttering have found success with the 3-box method— keep, get rid of, or store. As you go through your clutter put items into the appropriate box. Once you have finished sorting, take care of each box appropriately and promptly.

We can use a similar strategy to organize our lives, helping us to focus our time and attention on the things that really matter. Think of it as a different kind of bucket list.

Bucket 1 includes the things that you want and need to spend your time on, things that are your responsibility or that help you achieve your personal goals. This is your keep bucket.

Bucket 2 holds the things that you need to deal with—eventually—but are not priorities. You can retrieve an item when it becomes important or when you have extra time. This is your store bucket.

Bucket 3 is the place for items on your to-do list that are not really yours. If you are not sure if the items belong to you, ask yourself: “Is this my responsibility?” or “Is this something I really want to do?” If you answer “no,” these items do not belong to you. This is your get-rid-of bucket.

Once you have sorted your items you can more easily prioritize your commitments and live a clutter-free life. Give your Bucket 3 items to the people to whom they belong or dispose of them. Put your Bucket 2 in a location where it is not always in front of you and let the items go for now. Focus your time and energy on Bucket 1. Do the things you want to do and need to accomplish first.

As you begin the new year consider de-cluttering your tasks. Reflect on how you spend your days.

  • Are you doing the things that are most important to you?
  • Have you been spending too much time on other pursuits that can be put aside or given away?
  • Can you let go of tasks that belong to others?

Remember that over-functioning and micro-managing keeps you from pursuing your passions and keeps others from contributing to the ministry.

A pastor client was struggling with finding the time to do the parts of ministry she loved—sermon preparation and pastoral care. She complained that she spent too much time on administrative duties. Her church had a secretary and treasurer. She also had a committee structure that included administration, finance, and personnel. She applied the bucket list method and determined that she had been doing jobs that belonged to others. When she was able to sort her to-dos into the right buckets, she could clearly see that she was letting go of her passions in order to over-function for her staff and committee chairs. She made changes that enabled her to focus on her priorities and thus enjoyed her ministry much more.

Start 2019 with a clean slate. De-clutter and give yourself the gift of time and energy to pursue your passions and take care of yourself.

Just for Today

I was walking through the mall the other day when I saw this tee shirt in a store window. “Not Today, Satan” struck me as a humorous and positively rebellious sentiment.

Satan, at its root, means “adversary,” “one who plots against another.” In religious traditions, Satan is the adversary of God who tempts and abuses humankind in the divine drama. To say “Not today, Satan” is like saying NO to your enemy, the person, place, or things that keeps you from being the person you desire to be.

As I walked, I thought about the demons in our lives, and I wondered what it would be like to get up each morning and start the day by saying “Not Today, _______.”

  • Not today, self-doubt.
  • Not today, sadness.
  • Not today, procrastination.
  • Not today, guilt trip.
  • Not today, hurt pride.
  • Not today, grief.
  • Not today, fear.
  • Not today, hatred.

Too often we allow negative emotions to rule our day. They keep us from contentment and accomplishment. They can be overwhelming, particularly when we have been in a period of heartache or depression. These emotional states take their toll on even ordinarily optimistic people. We wonder if we will ever be ‘normal’ again.

What drew my attention to this tee shirt is that the sentiment was expressed as a small step. One day—today—I will not let the demons get to me. It does not require making overwhelming commitments that we may not be able to keep. It only requires that we give one day to reject our adversaries. Maybe then one day can turn to two days and two days to three. And eventually, being “normal” is not so hard to reach anymore.

Dana was feeling overwhelmed by her fear of losing her position as a first-call pastor. She had been serving the small rural church for two years. In just a matter of months after she started she began to realize that the church was not a good fit for her. She worried that leaving so soon would make it difficult for her to find another call. “What if no one else wants me?” she asked during a coaching session. As we got further into the session I asked, “What would happen if just for tomorrow you decided to let go of your fear? What would that feel like?” By breaking it down to just one day, Dana was able to imagine more courage and joy. She listed things she would do that day, and the things she would not do. I could hear more animation and energy in her voice. Her fear was not so overwhelming any more.

We all experience demons in life, those emotions and negative thoughts that seem to plot against us. Some are caused my external things that happen to us, others by inner voices that sabotage our true selves. We can allow these demons to control us or we can choose to put them in their place.

To say it in a positive and proactive tone, we can proclaim: “Today, I choose _______!”

  • Today, I choose self-confidence!
  • Today, I choose joy!
  • Today, I choose to get it done!
  • Today, I will let go of the guilt!
  • Today, I choose forgiveness!
  • Today, I choose consolation!
  • Today, I choose courage!
  • Today, I choose love!

Either way you put it, give yourself permission to be the person you want to be, if only for today. Boldly proclaim it. Don’t let your demons choose for you.