Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry - Update"

The Presbyterian Outlook has posted a link to my recent article, "The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry." 

You can find the complete text at Presbyterian Outlook . 

I would also encourage you to examine the other resources available through the Outlook, including several other articles on Rural Ministry in the July 4, 2016 issue. Jill Duffield and the staff at the Outlook have been very supportive of our efforts to bring resources to rural and small town pastors and leaders and continue to provide an important service to the Church.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry"

Check out my article, "The Changing Landscape of Rural Ministry" in the July 4, 2016 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. The focus of this issue is on finding vital ministry in the midst of change, especially in our rural contexts.

Friday, April 8, 2016

                    Finding Hidden Gems

Who are the hidden gems in your community?

One of the most rewarding aspects of leading future pastors on immersion experiences into rural America is the opportunity to discover the hidden gems who give rural life a special kind of vitality.  They are out there in nearly every small town and rural community.  Sometimes their contributions are known and acknowledged by the people around them and other times they work rather quietly behind the scenes, sharing of themselves and their faith in ways that bring little recognition or special compensation. Each has their own motivation, but all are driven by a call to make life a bit better for the world and people around them.

This January we met a number of extraordinary people who showed us the importance of recognizing that we are an interconnected community, especially in a rural context.
I am reminded of Darwin, an 86 year old farmer near Bronson, Iowa.  Darwin is one of the few farmers in our area who still work the land with horses, rather than modern technology. His value for the land in his care, and the animals who assist him, is evident in everything that he does. Obviously, the acreage that he can cover is more limited than the typical farmer today, but he claims a respectable yield without incurring extraordinary expenses.  In the process he exemplifies an ethic of
stewardship that speaks volumes.  What really stands out however, is his love of God and concern for the students that I bring his way every year.  He doesn’t just want to meet them and give a tour.  He wants to know why they are becoming a pastor and how they expect to serve.  He inquires about their hopes and dreams for ministry and the expectations they have for life in the parish. He hesitates to give advice, yet offers a perspective born of many years of faith and hard work.

Another amazing example is Maggie, the chief administrator of Ida Services, Inc., who has made a career out of caring for the “least of these” – men and women who are challenged in one way or another, but who dream of living independently and finding meaningful employment. Working in a small town in one of Iowa’s smallest counties, the challenges are innumerable and funding is a constant concern.  But her care is obvious from the moment you meet her.  While weaving through a myriad of government limitations and regulations, she is a champion for those in her care, looking for ways to help them aspire to a new way of life. Her task is more than providing funding or activities. She and her staff provide personal and vocational training, encourage self-confidence, look for new opportunities, and lend both physical and emotional support and encouragement. It would be easy to walk by the ISI building without paying much attention, and unfortunately, many of the clients who call ISI home have experienced what it is like to be ignored by individuals and society.  But in this rural community, hope abounds in the most unlikely of places.

You will find one in nearly every small town and rural area – a volunteer fire department.  Their work is essential to the community and we usually take them for granted until an emergency arises. These men and women give of their time and train regularly, without compensation, to respond to crises and disasters that they hope never happen, but surely will. We often see them out in public during parades, and steak fries, and endless training exercises.  But there is an aspect to their work that goes entirely unnoticed.  As the fire chief in Battle Creek, Iowa, Deron exemplifies the commitment and even calling that these men and women share.  As he spoke to our group, he talked as much about the importance of self-care and pastoral care for the firefighters after responding to a disaster, as he did about the need for appropriate training and equipment.  While the mission of this organization does not hinge on a spiritual orientation of any kind, this leader is very aware of the role that faith plays in the well-being of those who serve alongside him - and in his own life. And he was not afraid to speak
from a perspective of faith as he described their life and work together.  As such, he uses every resource available in the community to ensure that the difficult aspects of life that they experience do not emotionally injure these emergency responders, and he is not afraid to include the local pastors as the need arises. In his eyes, faith and service are not segmented and kept apart from one another, but are a part of the whole-life experience that many of these community servants share.

You can easily visit these communities without ever meeting these individuals. But the community knows they are there, and in many cases, is very aware of the contributions they make. They are indeed special, but they are not unique.

So where are the hidden gems in your community – or in your congregation? Understanding the role that others play in the life of a small town can help us to be better pastors and better citizens, and in some cases, may help us to utilize those gifts to bring our churches a new kind of life and vitality. It is important to remember that many of these special servants, never experience a call, are never ordained to special office, and may never receive any kind of commendation or recognition.  But their gifts are invaluable to the well-being of the people of our area.  It is our job as church leaders to learn how to recognize those gifts, perhaps cultivate new relationships, and in some cases, learn to work in partnership in ways that enhance the way of life for others. And in the process we can hope that they are recognized and that God is glorified.

The hidden gems are there.  How will you use them in your work for Jesus?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God With Us

“Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God with us’)." - Matthew 1:22-23

That wonderful season is upon us again, that time when we gather together with our family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus.  And although our traditions may differ, during this special holiday we seem to make an extra effort to be near those who are important to us.  Airports are crowded, mail is slowed, and highways are packed as we try our best to share the beauty of this time.

We often see those things as trials we have to endure in order for Christmas to come.  And from time to time we may even get angry that they are distracting us from the real reason for the season.  I’m not so sure.  You see, just as we long to be close to our loved ones now, so God longed to be close to the ones he loved.  That’s us.  And because he loved us so much, he sent his only son to be near us.  The first chapter of John tells us that in the person of Jesus, God became human and lived among us.  That’s the kind of love we celebrate this month.

Of all the names we use to refer to Jesus, the one we use at Christmas is perhaps the most appropriate.  For as Matthew told us above, Immanuel means, “God with us.”  Now that’s not just a catchy phrase or a line from your favorite Christmas carol, for when Jesus was born, God was truly with us.  He was with us way back then and he is still here with us today.  And that’s important to each of us as we try our best to live our lives of faith.  But this time of year it is easy to remember that.  As we sing our songs and exchange our gifts and enjoy our families, reminders of God’s presence are all around us.  But what about later, after the tree is down, the decorations are put away, and the family has all gone home?  Do we remember God’s presence then?

We should.  For the promise of Immanuel is not just a promise for December.  It’s not meant to be celebrated once a year and then put away in a box in the attic.  For when God came to be with us, he came to be with us forever.  And even when our parties have ended and our packages are all unwrapped, God is still here.  Waiting and wanting to be a part of our life throughout the year.  It’s only up to us to make him feel welcome.

This is an incredibly busy time for rural pastors. The services are numerous, attendance is usually up, and activities abound.  We are often challenged and perhaps even a bit stressed by the many obligations that crowd our calendars and our perceptions that each activity is essential to providing a meaningful experience to each of our members.  In the process of doing Advent and Christmas it is actually possible to miss out on our own celebration of the season.  I have to admit that there have been times when I have come up for air after the Christmas Eve service and realized that everyone else has been celebrating but me.  And while it is understandable how we might fall into that trap, it is completely unnecessary.  Because the most basic lesson that we learned in seminary applies to this time as well – it is not about us.

Pastors and church leaders are more than just paid employees in the Christmas service machine. Like everyone else in the church, this time is for us as well.  When God came to be with us, he came to be with us, too.  Not just those in the pew, but everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Therefore, it is up to each one of us, pastors especially, to make an effort to remember that this season is not about what we do, but what we receive. And the greatest gift of all was given in the name of the child we celebrate this week. I hope you will take the time to experience the Christ, not just tell others about him, as you celebrate the nativity with your family, your church community, and your own faith.

In the spirit of his love, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 4, 2015

  Small Churches, Powerful Worship

I have always admired people who could play the guitar, especially pastors.  The ability to lead the congregation into an encounter with God by moving seamlessly between Word and music is a very special gift.  Certainly we can do that to a degree with organ or piano accompaniment, but I have always felt that a pastor who can both lead music and preach has a sense of intimacy with their congregation that encourages a feeling of vitality in worship.  I watch my friends or my students stand up there and lead worship with confidence, playing the familiar strains of “This is the Day” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and setting a mood that is undeniably appealing, and I think, “If only I could play the guitar…”

But I can’t…and that is a ship that has long since sailed!

Some congregations are blessed with musical talent. Others are not.  In small and rural churches this is a fact of life that we frequently cannot change.  We live and minister in a relatively small pool and our options for recruiting specialized talent is limited by the nature of our context and community.  I have been blessed over the years with some fantastic organists and pianists, but have never been in a place that had even one reliable, competent guitar player or a group of people who could make up even a basic praise band. But that did not mean that we could not have vibrant worship. Vital rural churches understand that the key to success is in making the most of our available assets, not being held back by our inherent limitations.

I am sure that we would all agree that worship is an essential element of the life of any congregation and is probably the most visible act of ministry that we perform.  In many ways the quality of our worship defines who we are as a church, particularly to those who are visitors in our midst. So why is worship vibrant in some congregations and lacking in others?  Believe it or not, in spite of my confessions of Fender envy, it has less to do with the type of music or the continuing debate about contemporary vs. traditional styles of worship, than it has to do with other factors that we can control and encourage.

There are certain things about good worship that we should simply assume.  For example, worship should honor and praise our Triune God and encourage us to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Jesus as our savior. In worship, scripture is essential, preaching should be faithful to the Word, and music of some kind is an important part of every service. Nearly every church tries to form their worship around these basics.  But there are other factors that we find in vital churches that seem to set their worship apart from the rest.

Here are a few common themes that we find in the vibrant worship of vital congregations:

1.      Worship is welcoming. This may seem obvious and much has been written about the need to be welcoming, but what I am referring to is far more than whether or not you have greeters at the door or nametags for your members. It is not enough to just say hello to someone who visits your church or to make them comfortable or even to invite them to your fellowship time. Those are all important things.  But the key is in the service itself. Our worship service should be developed in such a way that it is welcoming to visitors. That means making the order of worship easy to follow, avoiding too many hidden responses or expectations, and giving even the least experienced among us something to think about when they go home.

2.      Preaching is relevant. As we all know, a sermon is more than just an interesting speech or an exegesis paper. A good sermon is based on careful interpretation of scripture, but then that preaching has to apply to real life.  It is in the application that our members begin to put the word into action and see meaning for their own lives.  One should not have to be a theologian in order to make that connection, so it is our responsibility to make sure that the language we use is clear and understandable. Save those words you learned in seminary, like exegesis and expiation, for your conversations with your pastor friends and use the vernacular of your congregation and community. Remember, the sign of a good sermon is not in others seeing how smart you are, but in how faithful you can help them to be. Everyone should take something home every week.

3.      Worship should be memorable. In vital churches, worship is remembered long after the service is over.  If you find that your members are talking about the service or your message in the local coffee shop or cafĂ© several days later you know that you had an impact.  I’m not talking about being quirky or goofy in worship, but in drawing interest to our God in ways that others can relate to.  People who experience memorable, vibrant worship are often excited to share about it with their friends and neighbors, sometimes even inviting them to come see for themselves. It might be the music, the sermon, or the fellowship afterward, but there is something about vital worship that stays with the participants after they leave the sanctuary.

4.      Worship is an attitude.  In vital churches, people see worship as much more than a Sunday morning service. It is the attitude that they take with them into everything that they do. Worship impacts the decisions we make, the relationships we share, and even the problems we encounter. In turn, that makes worship our motivation for service in the community. That means that the outreach of our church, no matter what form it takes, is an extension and reflection of our worship, even encouraging our members to feel comfortable sharing about their faith with others who have little understanding of what it means to know Jesus.

5.      The Spirit is welcome in worship. We have all been in congregations where we have sat down to worship and then felt less than inspired.  When the service becomes an exercise in moving from one item on the agenda to the next, there is little sense of expectation or inspiration and too often the most exciting thing on your mind has to do with your plans for lunch. In vital worship, when the Spirit is welcome there is a sense that God is indeed present and that an encounter with the Almighty is not only possible, but likely. Leaving room for God means leaving room for the unexpected. It means allowing for awe and wonder and not just order. While good planning is an essential part of our preparation for any worship service, allowing for silence and mystery is equally important. Being a good leader is not just knowing what to say, but also knowing when to get out of the way.
      Incomplete as it might be, my intent in sharing this list is to get the conversation started. What I want to avoid are excuses, reasons why we can’t make our worship have life and excitement no matter what size our church might be. There are certain things out of our control or that are hard to change, like the resources we have available or the number of members in our church. But these are a few characteristics that we find in the worship of vital churches and whether we have 30 or 300 in attendance they give us a starting point for considering how we might encourage and enhance the worship of our own small and rural churches. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Exploring Vitality in Rural Congregations

An Online Conversation for Pastors and Church Leaders

We have been sharing together for several months now about the ways we can bring vitality to the congregations we serve. Now I want to take the next step and invite you to be a real part of the conversation in a very intentional way.  

The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary is offering us an opportunity to take this conversation into the classroom in an online format.  I will be moderating the discussion (teaching the class) but you can be an active part of the course by participating in a series of online discussion forums over the course of five weeks. I want you to help set the agenda for our time together by asking your burning questions about rural ministry.  During that time we will share ideas, discuss our own ministry settings, talk about what has worked and not worked, and hopefully leave with an idea or two that will enhance the work that we do. 

Best of all, this class is affordable and accessible.  For only $150 per person our group will get five weeks of conversation and sharing about topics designed to impact their ministry in very real ways. And all from the comfort of your home.  This class is asynchronous, which means that you can join the conversation anytime day or night, at times that work best for you. There is no travel involved and you don't have to be away from your other responsibilities.  For those reasons alone, I think this is the most relevant and convenient continuing education offer available anywhere.

I invite you to check it out:

“Exploring Vitality in Rural Congregations”
Dr. Skip Shaffer, Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Ministry

University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
October 19 – November 22

This course will explore the practices and programs that bring vitality and vision to rural congregations and their ministries.  We will examine the practices of successful church leaders, share ideas about programs that have been successful, and suggest resources that may work in your ministry setting.  This will be a five-week seminar that encourages input from ministry leaders and puts us face to face with others who have brought new life to the churches they serve.  We will use our time together to share those ideas and help one another develop ministries that make a difference.

We have had good response so far to our invitation and a number of people have already registered. But there is still room for you. The more participants we gather together, the richer the conversation and the greater the opportunity to share ideas that will make a difference. It is my hope that we will make a statement to the larger church community and show those around us that rural ministry is alive and well and that we are able to have a significant impact on the church around us.  I invite you to register today!

To register or for more information, contact Bridgett Boone at 563-589-3691 or BBoone@dbq.edu. CEUs are available. First time participants in online learning at UDTS will be asked to take the Online Learning Course, an easy to complete orientation to online learning for only $75.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cultivating Vitality

In some places you can feel it the moment you walk through the church doors – a sense of energy and enthusiasm and life.  The greetings are genuine, the people seem motivated, the worship is vibrant, and the fellowship appears to be mutual. Most important, it doesn’t take long for newcomers to be welcomed into the circle.  This is something you could get used to.

There are other churches where the mood is less inviting. It doesn’t mean that you are not greeted at the door and welcomed with a bulletin, but there is something missing.  People quietly filter in and find their seats, but conversation is sporadic and subdued.  Even when the preaching is decent, worship often feels like a collection of unrelated elements without a central focus and the hour seems to take much longer than sixty minutes.  When the service is over, the members briefly greet one another in the narthex and then exit without much opportunity for fellowship, eager to beat the crowd to their favorite restaurant.  You have been to this church before.  And you are not excited about going back.

Vitality is something that we all want for our congregations, but the results are often mixed. It is hard to define specifically, however we seem to recognize it when we see it. Unfortunately, there is no secret formula to achieve it and there is no single strategy that will ensure success.  And very often achieving that sense of vibrancy and vitality depends on different factors in each congregational context.

What gives a church that special aura of vitality? It is my hope to explore this question in a variety of different ways over the next few months. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are a number of factors that seem to be common to the churches that we would consider the most appealing.

Here are a few ideas to get the conversation started.

Vitality begins with mission – Churches that have an extra sense of life are motivated by more than just the desire to be together.  Of course, basic to our Christian faith is an underlying call to serve God through Jesus Christ. But within that rubric, there are many things we can do to express our faith and share the good news.  Sometimes it happens though worship, but often we find ourselves living out that purpose through a variety of activities, some social, some educational, some missional. Churches that exude a sense of excitement understand that there is a purpose to everything we do together, and that ultimately reaching out to others in God’s name is an important thing.  It is what motivates and encourages us and it is inviting to others who want to join our cause.  Churches that are self-focused, where the primary attention is on the care of the building or making the budget or having meetings for their own sake do not share a sense of purpose that is appealing to others outside the community.

Vital churches share leadership – Organizations are the strongest when their members join together to share the work and the responsibility, and churches are no exception. I have yet to see a congregation, large or small, where there was not enough work to go around, but the big question is in how the work is distributed. Too often our churches look like an inverted V, with the pastor and a few select leaders at the bottom and the others along for the ride.  Members cannot expect their pastor to carry the whole load. Those that do usually experience two things – that their pastor will burn out, becoming less effective and eventually seeking a new call, and that the church body will be unmotivated, since they are essentially bystanders. On the other hand, the pastor must be willing to share responsibility for leadership with the laity. We cannot try to do it all ourselves. Too often in the past, members have been given jobs like Sunday School teacher or choir director, while worship leadership, preaching, visitation, and in some cases, decision making and administration, was left to the clergy. Cultivating spiritual and administrative gifts and then allowing the freedom for our members to exercise those gifts, is one of the primary things we can do to encourage vitality in our churches. With that sense of confidence and responsibility comes an attitude of shared ownership in the mission and a motivation to serve God through the church.

Worship is an attitude, not an activity - Too often we think of worship and church and Sunday morning as being synonymous.  And while they do go together, we are short changing ourselves if we limit our worship of God to one hour on the weekend.  In truth, worship can be a part of our lives in a very wide-reaching and all-encompassing way.  And it doesn’t just happen in the sanctuary.  And it doesn’t have to be limited to what we do together as a church.   Our spiritual lives are encouraged and fed by the time we spend together in that place.  But they are nurtured and nourished when we take what we receive there and apply it to our lives each and every day.  Worship takes many forms….in our prayers….in our devotions…in our scripture reading…in our service out in the community…in the words we use around other people and most important of all, in the way we demonstrate that we are people of God. Vitality happens when worship becomes an irresistible expression of our faith and not just a rote activity that happens every Sunday at 10:00.

Vital churches express hospitality – It may seem obvious, but the church should be a welcoming place. And in many ways, our time together with the Christian community should be an opportunity to take refuge from the rushed existence of our culture.  That is why so often we find ourselves sharing together around the table, whether for a meal, a cup of coffee, or even to experience the love of God through the Lord’s Supper.  We have said it before, but hospitality is the language of rural life and food is its currency. Eating is never an end in itself, but a means to a deeper kind of relationship.  Food provides a bridge for conversation, relationships, and even pastoral care. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie that would have never been expressed in a phone call or an email. But all of that takes time.  When we worry too much about our schedules and not enough about each other we miss out on the rich opportunities that God has placed before us.  Rushing in and out of a social setting, a meeting, or even a worship service, is not only bad manners, but it is also bad practice. Vital churches find the time to be in fellowship together, whether in the coffee time after worship, a meal following a funeral, or even a special night out with our fellow members.  The form that fellowship takes is less important than the rewards that it brings.

Activity in the church is contagious – One of my students did a study last year of the churches in his area and came to discover that churches where activity was present throughout the week were perceived to be more vital than churches that locked their doors Monday through Saturday.  Even though worship is considered the primary public act of the church, it was the perception of activity that made the community feel that the church was a hopping place.  It didn’t usually matter what the nature of the activity was, as long as it was church related.  The mere presence of cars, people, and kids and the sight of the lights on in the building made many feel that this was a church of action.  And some who were interviewed even expressed the opinion that they were more likely to attend that church because it seemed to have a lot going on.  Don’t get me wrong. Activity for activity’s sake is never a good idea.  But churches that expressed their faith by getting together throughout the week increased awareness of the church in the community, enhanced the possibility that others would wander in the doors, and helped their members feel that they were a part of something special.

Congregation size doesn’t really matter – Vital congregations come in all sizes, large and small, and express themselves in a variety of interesting ways.  What they all have in common is a commitment to worship and serve Jesus Christ.  Large churches have the benefit of an abundance of resources, enough members to always have a critical mass at any activity or gathering, and the ability to provide variety for many tastes, whether in worship, service or fellowship.  On the other hand, small churches that have a strong sense of their mission in the community can have vibrant worship, a significant sense of purpose, and a feeling that what they do together really matters.  The truth is that the size of the congregation cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of vitality in worship or community life.

Neither does worship style - The same is true for worship style.  Much has been made of the worship wars, including the place of traditional or contemporary music, the use of a standard ordo or a free flowing format, and even the place and timing of the services.  But the truth is that we find strong churches that fit in each of these categories.  Style does not determine vitality.  Far more important are the quality and integrity of the various elements of the service, the faithfulness to God’s Word, and the perception that each person was given the opportunity to truly encounter and worship and living God.

Inspired pastors influence vitality – The attitude that pastors and church leaders take into their work does make a difference. In fact, it can be contagious. When church members see that their pastor is excited about his/her faith, they get the message that it matters.  When the congregation sees that the pastor is more than a master of ceremonies in worship, but is committed to encouraging an encounter with the living God, they are more likely to be enthusiastic themselves.  When a family feels that an emergency pastoral call in the middle of the night is an act of love and not an obligation, they realize that faith is more than mere words. On the other hand, when it feels like we are distracted, bored, or overworked (and we are letting it show), they are more likely to bring the same attitudes to their own spiritual lives and activities.  Like it or not, we set the tone in everything we do.  We establish the standard for the attitude of any gathering by the attitude we present.  Vital churches have pastors who are inspired about their faith and are not afraid to share those feelings in all that they do.

As we enter this new era in the life of the Christian faith, it is important that each of us has our eyes on ways that we can effectively cultivate vitality in our churches.  We cannot afford to be complacent, inflexible, or worse yet, boring. But we must also be faithful to the leading of the Spirit and to the Word of God.  This is just the beginning of the conversation. There are so many more factors, observations, and ideas that we can share about vitality in our churches, in our communities, and in our faith and I am excited to begin to explore the possibilities with you.

That’s where I am going.  I hope you will come with me.