On the 5 Year Anniversary of Becoming a Lead Pastor

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Five years and 262 Sundays ago I became a senior pastor.  That was a wonderful Sunday.  The sun was shining brightly in the mountains of northeast Oregon.  The small town church was packed with the honest and humble of rural America.  My sermon was on my life verse, which is 2 Corinthians 12:9 about God’s power being perfected in weakness.

I was coming off of a wonderful seminary career that ended with accolades and compliments.  I was holding a newly minted master’s degree with a certificate in biblical languages.  My GPA was near perfect.  I attained only one B and I got that B on purpose because the quest for a 4.0 was becoming my idol.  I was brimming with confidence.

Seminary had ended with two open doors.  I was offered a management position at the Rescue Mission where I worked.  I loved that place.  I had hopes and dreams galore.  Many of the homeless men and coworkers who lived and worked there were and still remain great friends.

The other open door was that church in rural Oregon.  With great fear and trembling I moved to Oregon.

So in a sermon that now seems a bit more arrogant than I intended, I told those lumberjacks, postal carriers and farmers about my charisma, my wisdom, my optimism and my drive.  Then I told them all that was useless, as if they didn’t all ready know, and I claimed that I just wanted my weaknesses to be on full display so that God’s power would be all the greater.

Then we had a good old fashioned northwest barbecue with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and other forms of fat with sugar.  Then the next day I got to work.

That was 262 Sundays ago.

Here I sit today in the suburbs of Utah.  I am a little bit older now.  I am a lot wiser.  I am even quite a bit more well informed.  I have read more books now than I did in college and seminary and more than doubled my library.  I am kind of proud of that.  I am also proud of the fact that I don’t weigh a pound more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  Most pastors gain 30-40 pounds their first years of ministry.  I have lost around ten.  My marriage and family are still intact.  I don’t feel I should have to mention that but I do know a few pastors who, on their 262nd Sunday, can’t say it.

I am little bit less naive and a bit more cynical and a lot angrier.  I’ve been verbally abused more times than I can count.  Some of the times I deserved it.  Most of the time it was just angry people needing an outlet.  For some reason pastors are prime targets for those vents and I have come to appreciate that role even if it is painful.  I wish I could say I handled all those situations well but most of the time I was so surprised by the elevated voice that I responded in shock and made things worse.  In those times, I have learned that this poor world and God’s wretched church are far more wrecked than I suspected.  And the darkness isn’t just outside.  It’s inside me as well.

I have had my theological beliefs challenged both internally and externally.  Some needed to be challenged so as to be done away with.  Others I have let go only to realize I badly needed them and ran back to them.  Those ones were not just biblical but crucial for survival in life and ministry.

God has saved some lives and given me a front row seat to the miracles.  There was a young couple, former addicts with two toddlers.  They landed in a motel room in the middle of winter with little food and no money.  They were about to get evicted into a foot of snow.  Somehow they got my phone number.  I raised a couple thousand dollars to get them into a nice two bedroom apartment that their income could afford.  I sometimes question the money we spent on them, especially since the mom relapsed shortly after.  But a couple years later the father told a friend, “If it wasn’t for Pastor Kevin I would have relapsed with her.  But because of what he did, I knew I had to keep the kids and stay sober.”  I disagree with his theology.  It was God who did it but still, that was worth being a part of.

I think God has saved some souls too, though that one is harder to measure.  In the last year alone I have met so many people whose faith has been ransacked by the world.  Somehow they have found me and unloaded all their questions and doubts.  As I talked to them I realized I am the first Christian pastor they have met who has taken those questions and doubts seriously.   God has been able to use me in those moments to bolster their failing trust.  It is in those conversations that I am the most “pastor.”

On that note, I have come to absolutely love being a pastor to those who have never had pastors before.  To those who have had pastors before, I am lousy.  They bring all these expectations and baggage into the relationship that I haven’t quite figured out how to handle.  But for those who have never had a pastor, I am a balm in their wounds and they are in mine as well.

I have a friend whose first church was a buzz saw.  It chopped him to pieces.  After three years of misery, he left the church and the pastorate.  He almost left the faith all together but miraculously he found a church and a pastor.  A month or so ago his church was praying for young seminarians who were about to take their own churches.  They invited everyone to come up, lay hands on them and pray.  My friend stayed in his seat.  All he could think was, “Don’t do it!  Please don’t be a pastor.  For your own health and sanity, do anything but!”  Then he remembered that if not for his pastor he wouldn’t be a Christian at all.  His pastor was a salve in his wounds.  In the words of our founder, Phineas Bresee, “she didn’t blight the budding hope or break the bruised reed.  She lifted up his fainting heart.  She poured oil and wine into the wounds of the poor pilgrim who had been wrecked by the Devil on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.” (Prince in Israel, p. 394)

I suppose for that reason alone, I probably have at least another five years and 262 Sundays in me.

You know, I am more hopeful too.  I still believe in the church.  I still believe in the optimism of grace.  I still believe in the God who equips the called.  I still believe in my weaknesses, in my insufficiency and my worthlessness.  In fact, I believe in those even more than I did 262 Sundays ago.  But most importantly, I absolutely still believe in the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

2015: The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia

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TIME’s last magazine of the year was released to my tablet this morning.  I have been an avid TIME reader for about 7 years now and always look forward to the year end issue.  It is a fun issue including the “Person of the Year,” best pictures of the year, best moments of the year, best 15 minute celebrities and the like.

The TIME year end issue always gets me thinking about the year I had and what were my best moments.  In fact, for years now I have done this ridiculously cheesy thing where I name every year.  The titles have ranged from the sappy, “2008: The Year All My Dreams Came True” to the tamer, “2013: The Year That Just Was.”

After tapping through TIME and drinking my coffee, I got my two kids dressed, fed my dog, stepped out of my split level suburban house, climbed into my mid level SUV and suddenly realized, “2015 is the year I sold out to the suburbs!”

That realization might not have been difficult for some but for me it is a difficult reality.  There is this version of myself from late college and early seminary who loathed everything about suburbia.  You can chalk that up to a typical Millenial’s rebellion against his childhood but I felt pretty secure in my belief that Satan controlled the suburbs while God dwelt in the small towns and inner cities.

After all, I worked in an inner city homeless shelter with wonderful, but homeless, saints.  The suburbs of that city had police officers who would see wandering homeless people, pick them up in their squad cars, drive them into the city and tell them, “Don’t ever come back.  This is the place for you.”  I wish I was making that up but I am not.  I believe there was a some racism there as most of the “homeless” they found were hispanic or black.

Beyond that, suburbs are/were the heart of selfish consumerism, that great evil which is the modern day equivalent of what Jesus called, “the pursuit of wealth.”  They waste the most resources, hoarde the most stuff and destroy the most families.  They do all of this while being quite smug.

At least that is what I thought.

Yet here I am in 2015, only 3 and a half years removed from seminary and 6 and a half from college, living in a suburban split level with 2 kids, a dog and an SUV.

It all started before 2015 with a reluctant job interview initiated by me because of a sense of calling.  Soon after I was getting a new Costco membership, stocking up on Starbucks gift cards, shopping in malls, eating at Olive Garden and watching movies once a month at the local megaplex.

I can offer you all kinds of excuses and justifications for this sudden turnabout.  I could mention that I am married to a wonderful woman who never shared my negative feelings about the suburbs and now is quite happy here, happier than she has been in the entirety of our marriage.  And as the old but funny adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

I could also mention a report that I can’t name but I know exists that suggests poverty is now moving to the suburbs.  I seem to remember it said that based off of current trends, in 10-20 years the suburbs will have decayed to shanty towns while the inner cities rejuvenate.  I read that report 10 years ago, which means we are that much closer to it.  I could put up pictures of buildings on my suburb that illustrate this trend.  I can even tell you the names of people I know who live in the suburbs and are making far below the poverty line, despite working 40 hours a week in great jobs that do incredible good for society.

More than that I could also argue that I am here to “sanctify the arrogant suburbanites,” that if suburbs are where the sinners live, than that is where the gospel should take root.  I could point to the fact that even though John Wesley and Phineas Bresee, the grandfather and father of my tradition, spent much time among the poor, their real contribution to the church was that they lived among the wealthy and encouraged the wealthy to also embrace the poor.  See, that is what I am doing!  Except that I am not and that attitude is as arrogant and self righteous as the worst of the suburbanites.

Putting that aside I could even satisfy a bit of my guilt by letting you all know that my family took a drastic cut in pay to move here and the church I took over was running less people on a Sunday than the church I left.  However, since moving here my wife has found a great job that she enjoys and we are making slightly more money than we were before.

So maybe I could just tell you the truth.  One day in mid September 2014 (which is “The year I broke my own heart”) I was walking down the street in a wonderful and impoverished small town whose residents were rough around the edges but solid diamonds underneath.  On that street in that town I heard God say, “Time to go” and I was certain it was God so I made plans to leave.

Then in October I was sitting a dinner table with a new friend who has since become a great ministry partner.  In that conversation he shared with me about Utah and about the spiritual needs and I heard the voice of my Lord tell me to come here.

As it turns out, I actually might have a little bit in common with that infamous Old Testament prophet Jonah.  The inner city and small towns are my Tarshish.  The suburbs are my Nineveh.

And after God said, “Hey Kevin, go to Nineveh,” there was no use going anywhere else but Nineveh.  It was far better to go willingly than to buy a ticket aboard a whale’s digestive tract.

So here I sit, typing this out on my brand new laptop, in my split level suburban house, after putting the kids and the dog down for a nap, ready to go to the big city for a date night with my wife, perfectly pleased to let all of you know that 2015 is “The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia.”

 

The Value of Honesty in a Non-Confrontational Culture

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It is 60 degrees and cloudy outside with smatterings of rain.  Last week I drank not one but two Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  Yesterday I finished off the last of a jug of Simply Lemonade and sadly don’t plan on buying another one until late April, early May.  And due to the weather, I seriously debated not wearing shorts today.  In the end I put the shorts on because you can’t let go of summer al at once.  Yet still, it must be Autumn.

Nobody is happier about that than me.  I love the Fall.  I love football games and cross country races and pumpkin flavored everything and brown leaves that crunch beneath your foot.  Everything about this time of year is simply amazing, with one huge exception.

In the Autumn, because I am pastor, I have to spend huge amounts of time recruiting people to do things for me.

Of course us pastors are not really asking people to “help us out” but more to “help the church out.”  Yet it is hard to see it that way.  The church and its pastor get so closely intertwined during this time of year that we feel like we are asking everybody for deeply personal favors.  In fact, what little political capitol we have been storing up all summer is spent quite quickly through carefully worded, overly polite requests to “invest in discipling our children,” to “assist us in making our building more hospitable” to “aid our worship service in making it more vibrant” and to “help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus.”  (See the key below for translations of all that Christianese.)

Not surprisingly most Christians in America don’t want to do any of those things.  After all it is the Fall, which means their personal lives have all become ten times busier than they were just one month ago, which is crazy because they were really busy a month ago.

So throughout the country church goers have specialized in the polite and non confrontational rejection that is barely a rejection.  Most times your poor pastor doesn’t know they have been rejected until they reflect back on it the next day.

“I just don’t feel like that is my calling.”

“I just need to focus on my family right now.”

“I have too much going on and can’t give it the attention it deserves.”

“I’ll pray about it.”

Once again, see the key below to translate all those Christianese cliches.

And I appreciate polite non confrontation as much as the next person.  In fact, I suppose the fact that nobody is willing to just say “no” outright symbolizes that there is just enough positional authority in the title “Pastor” to warrant some degree of nicety.

And yet I have found over the last couple weeks that I deeply appreciate outright “no’s” way more than the overly polite avoidance tactics adopted by most Christians.

In fact, those few times someone has just said, “no, I don’t want to do that,” I have found myself going back to tell them “thank you” because I would rather a blunt and honest truth than an overly polite lie.  I think there is biblical warrant for that.  Politeness is rarely, if ever, extolled in our great book but honesty is a downright basic requirement.  And sadly one that most Christians today sorely lack.

For that reason, when someone lies to me about wanting to help with the children’s ministry, I always wonder what else they are lying about and who else they are lying too.

But when someone just flat out tells me, “No, that isn’t my thing” I at least know I can trust them.

After all, the worse thing that can happen is that someone says yes out of obligation and then ends up hating the church and hating me because they felt coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

So this gorgeous Autumn, as you sip those Pumpkin Spice Lattes and watch those Sunday night football games and feel the cold rain fall across your brow, feel free to be honest with your pastor(s).  Be polite and respectful as can be about it for there is a big difference between being honest and being a jerk.

But trust your pastor enough to tell them the truth about that halloween event or that children’s program or that lawn maintenance project.  Seriously, if your pastor can’t deal with a little bit of honesty they are probably in the wrong profession anyways!  Instead, I hope they reward you richly for it!

Christianese Dictionary

“Invest in discipling our children” means showing up once a week to color pictures with them.

“Assist us in making our building more hospitable” means taking time to fix a broken toilet or mow the lawn.

“Make our worship service more vibrant” means joining our worship team in whatever capacity.

“Help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus” means showing up on Halloween and passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters.

“I don’t feel like it is my calling” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I have too much going on right now and can’t give it the attention it deserves” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I’ll pray about it” means no.

A Pastor’s Ode to Running

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In what follows I try to tell my story of being a runner as briefly as possible.  I would welcome you to read it, but as I wrote it I found I was writing more for myself than for you, that  more than anything I just wanted these words down somewhere visible and somewhat permanent.  So I hope you enjoy but will not be offended if you don’t.

Shortly before my 16th birthday I got it in my head I wanted to go out for the Cross Country team at my small high school.  The first practice involved a 3 mile run around a park and I remember being overjoyed that I completed the 3 miles without stopping, so overjoyed I called my dad to brag about it, which is really ironic today.

It didn’t even occur to my parents or me to buy a decent pair of running shoes, so I took my $10 pair from Wal-Mart.  They barely met the minimum P.E. requirements for “exercise” shoes but they were what I had.  After a week of running in them I had a giant blister that stretched from the ball of my foot to the back.  Upon seeing the bright red patch of raw skin, my dad realized his grave error and took me to buy my first pair of legitimate running shoes.

My form was harder to fix.  It was tight and awkward.  At the time I equated “working hard” with moving as much of my body as possible.  During one race I was “working” so hard that my head bent over to my waist at every stride.  But I was passing people!  My coach told my dad, “I have no idea how he is running so fast with that form!”

My dad replied, “That just tells me that when we fix the form he is going to get even faster.”  How right he was.

I did okay in high school, worked hard at it, as hard as high school kids can work.  I had no natural talent, at least none that was visible beneath that awkward form.  I did have a strong desire to run faster and train harder.

Unfortunately I was told by a few teachers and several classmates that I would never run in college.  I was too slow and too annoying and just did not have what it takes.  I believed them because that was the state of my self esteem.  The local university coach at the time didn’t bother recruiting me.  He even told my dad he didn’t think I would make it.  Little did I know he was in a bit of a conflict with the administration for such attitude.

Without my knowing the administration changed the coach and hired a guy from the next university over, a wonderful and compassionate former thrower who brought one of the distance stars from his university to help with the Cross Country side of things.  Being new coaches, they didn’t have a conversation with me until Spring of that year when all of the scholarship decisions had all ready been decided.  I was convinced I wasn’t worthy of scholarship money anyway so I wasn’t put out or anything.  I wanted to just keep running.

A week later they mailed me the summer training program.  At my high school a “long” run was a half hour.  The pamphlet they sent wanted me to run an hour everyday and an hour and a half one day a week!  I remember laughing hysterically at it, certain I could never do that many miles.

I didn’t follow the plan perfectly but when August 1st hit and the season was imminent, I found my inner motivation and began doing the hour a day.  I woke up at 5:30am every morning and jogged until 6:30 so that I be to work by 7:30.  And found  the early morning runs not only doable but enjoyable.

3 weeks later I went to the training camp.  I was very talkative and very annoying, so the fast kids ran me into the ground.  I didn’t care.  It was a mutually enjoyable experience.  They were proud of themselves for dropping me after five minutes.  I was proud of myself that I kept up for a minute longer than yesterday!

Then we started racing and I actually didn’t finish last on the team.  I was able to hang with them and that was thrilling.  All summer I had pictured them running a mile ahead while I trotted behind.  I imagined their finishing times five whole minutes faster than mine.  It never happened that way.  The days they did beat me it was by seconds and most days I finished in front of at least 1 of them.

Then the truly bizarre happened.  The coaches found a little bit of scholarship money left over and one sunny afternoon in late September I  opened one of the most obscure but thrilling letters I have yet received.  It was a financial statement saying that I owed the school $2000 less dollars.  It had something to do with a checked box next to the words, “Athletic Scholarship.”

I literally cried.  This untalented, geeky, nerdy, lanky, weak and very annoying kid had just become a scholar-shipped college athlete.  I would later find out I was the first ever in my entire extended family.

I had been given a great and gracious gift and I did not want to squander it.  I ran even harder.  I added more and more miles to every run.  I pushed myself further and faster.  Eventually I got up early and did morning runs.  I hit the weight room a few times a week.  I logged longer runs and faster runs.  I completed work outs others would quit.  I cannot say I loved every mile but man, I loved every day.

We didn’t fix my form until halfway through my sophomore year.  My coach read up on drill workouts and forced me to do them.  The first one about killed me.  I literally crawled to the cafeteria for dinner.  I healed up by the weekend and knocked 30 seconds off my indoor 3,000 meter race (over 15 seconds a mile!)

I added miles to my long runs and started doing hour and a half to two hour long runs.  One day, after a 2 hour long run I engaged a big, bulky shot putter from the Track team in a pizza eating contest.  I weighed 150 pounds and wore a size 32 waist.  I still put away 25 slices of pizza and a few salads and a plate of pasta.  The thrower beat me by one slice but for that hour I was the hero of the runners.  Seriously, they were chanting my name.

I got injured and took my red shirt year but came back stronger and faster.  I began winning some races here and there.  My name started to appear on the regional rankings.  I won some conference and regional awards for best student athlete and athlete of the week.  The whole experience was a dream.  My scholarship money went up too but I hardly cared.  I wasn’t in this for the money any more.

Then I set some school records and then I beat them again.  Then I started scoring major points for my team.  Then I started taking home medals and plaques.  Then I started getting 2nd and 3rd at conference championships.  Suddenly people all around the region knew who I was and my name was mentioned in running forums and blogs.  Then other coaches began asking my coach where I had come from and how I had turned from a mediocre walk on to a serious conference contender.  Then the administrators and professors of the university started congratulating me around campus, knowing all of my race times from the previous weekend.

Then the dream ended.

One day in early May in a small town in Central Washington I ran my last college race.  It was a 5K.  I had won the 10K the night before and didn’t drink as much water that day as I should have.  So I finished 6th and as I stumbled across the finish line, it occurred to me that the game was over.

The big question became, “would I keep running.”  Some of my younger friends joked that I was going to be fat within 5 years.  I laughed with them but was slightly offended.

Of course I would keep running.  It is not that I loved running.  Most days I didn’t and still don’t.  But running is so central to who I was that giving it up would be sacrificing part of my soul.

The next year I ran a half marathon and the year after a marathon.  I finally ran 100 miles in one week, something I had been trying to do for a few years.

After the marathon I fell back on half hour easy runs a few times a week.  I did way too many of them but at least I was still moving 3-4 times a week.  I gained a few pounds, though not many, and slowed way down.  I did a couple more half marathons to try to stay motivated.

Then I moved to a small town and became a Cross Country and Track coach.  I learned quite quickly that you can either train or coach but you shouldn’t do both.

It took me another year or so to realize that was completely wrong.  Leading by example is about the only way to get through to teens in today’s world.  Less and less they don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an inspiration.

So I trained with them and lost 15 pounds and gained more muscle than I even had in college.  More than that, I was having fun again.  I did drill and core exercises with them and got my six pack back.  My average mile pace dropped back down to 6 minute miles.

And here I am today, having just completed a 15 mile long run in preparation for a marathon.  I was on the fence about whether to do the 15 mile plus run today or tomorrow.  I decided to do it tomorrow and went out hoping to do somewhere between 5-10 miles today.  After a mile and a half I wanted to turn around and go home but I kept going, promising to turn around at 15 minutes.  15 minutes came and went without me realizing it because in that 5 minutes I had switched into the mode.

It is that wonderful zone that surpasses “should run” and “want to run.”  When I am in the mode, my spirit is carried to a new plane of reality, a plane where I just exist for the sake of existence, a place where I run for the sake of running.

There is a beautiful harmony in those moments, a harmony that doesn’t override pain but welcomes it as a necessary melody.  In those moments I am caught up into nature.  The trees became more tangible, more noticeable.  The birds and flies and spiders and deer become my companions.

There is a rhythm and a beat to the strides and the clops.  Together they sing a song of inner peace and outpouring joy.  It is nothing less than spiritual.

Surely there are other ways to arrive at that plane of existence but running is my chosen road to the eternal, my glorious path to the divine.

At times I am scared that my inner runner is gone for good but on days like today, there he is again, roaring back to life, emerging from the shadows of my beat up psyche, insisting I do another mile and another after that and even more after that.  I keep running until I can’t run any more.

Perhaps that is why so many of us love the quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Vacation Bible School

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This post is the recent in a periodic series on failed outreach ministries.  The intro post is here.

I should warn you from the get go that this blog post is going to consist of a series of educated guesses about your local congregation.

My first guess is that your congregation did a VBS this summer.

If only those lousy pagans loved it as much as we do!

My second guess is that after it was over, everybody hailed it as a crazy success.

My third guess is that some kid probably “gave his heart to Jesus” or maybe you had many.

My fourth guess is that sometime in the next year a family whose first connection with your church was at VBS showed up for one or two Sunday morning worship services.

My fifth guess is that your VBS cost a lot of money, required a lot of human power and consumed a great deal of time, more so for the one “lead” person who planned the whole thing.

Oh all those cartoon characters are happy, wearing the same shirt and raising their arms in some weird exercise posture. That is just what is missing in kids’ lives!

My sixth guess is that VBS is so encoded into your DNA, (aka your hidden curriculum), that nobody even bothered to ask “why” you were doing a VBS.  However, if those involved were asked “why?” they would probably give some vague answer like, “to reach people for Jesus” or “to show the church of the future that Jesus loves them.”

I would further imagine, though not guess, that if someone in your church did ask, “why are we doing this?” they were probably laughed at, but not a jovial laugh, the judgmental kind whose hidden threat was, “we banish people who dare call into question VBS.”  I am further assuming, though once again not guessing, you are giving that laugh to me right now and are not reading this any more but typing your judgment in the comments below.

Aren’t these the kids from the last picture? Let’s put them in a boat. That will really convince those heathens to come.

My seventh guess is that most, if not all, of the kids who showed up were kids from Christian families.  I would further assume (though not officially guess) that a great deal of the “new” faces were the kids from other churches who were camp hopping all summer so their parents could take advantage of all the free babysitting.

My eighth guess is that there was almost no follow up with the unchurched and non Christian kids who did show up.  You probably hoped they would get connected but I am guessing they didn’t.  Furthermore, nobody probably even bothered to take them out to coffee or ice cream or whatever people are drinking and eating these days.

What is with the arms? Seriously, picture google vacation bible school and you will see the worst insults to graphic design every designed.

If I am right about all this, and trust me, I mostly am, than your VBS was an epic Wile E. Coyote type failure.  You spent tons of time, money and energy and burned out your poor children’s director to reach all ready reached kids and further alienate the unreached people who dared to show up.

But hey, at least you provided free babysitting.

More than that, you got five extra discipleship times with your church kids, which is dang difficult to do these days.  And you probably did a lot of good team building with your laypeople which will increase your congregation’s “friendly atmosphere.”

So VBS isn’t all bad (which I am going to say to all the people who comment on this).  But its purposes need to be stated.  You are not going to reach un-reached families with a fifty year old ministry model based off of flannel graphs and silly props and costumes.

However, you are probably going to reach them if you follow through on all that contact information in a non-confrontational, friendship evangelism type way, like over ice cream.  Here I do offer a warning:  It won’t take just one follow up ice cream.  Prepare to buy a bigger belt because you are going to have to meet with them once a month for a year or so before they darken your church’s doors.

But if that is going to work you need your follow up strategy figured out before you even buy your curriculum.  You need to encode that strategy into every aspect of VBS.  You need to plan every part of it, right down to, “Who is going to take who out to ice cream after all this is said and done?”

That brings me to my ninth and last guess.  I am guessing some of you have figured out the follow up strategy and seen great results with your VBS.  Please do share those success stories in the comments below.  The rest of us Coyotes need to hear them.

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Introduction

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A few months ago I was meeting with my new District Superintendent, talking about church planting, missional movements and ministry in the 21st century in general.

As our hearts and minds met on the drastic need for the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, to become more innovative he repeated to me what he had heard from someone else who had heard it from someone else who had read it in a book somewhere,

“The church is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner world.”

For those of you younger types (like me) who might be tempted to think Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were names for obscure characters in that Mad Max movie that came out this summer, let me explain the reference.  There is this old, actually ancient, Warner Bros. cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings.  It just had two characters.  One was a hungry coyote, cleverly named “Wile E.”  The other was a rather simple but crazy fast bird named the “Road Runner.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Sets tail on fire instead of rocket.

Every episode involved the coyote coming up with some elaborate, cleverly detailed scheme to catch the Road Runner.  And every episode the Road Runner, without so much as a plan or a strategy, just ran right through the scheme.  The humor in the show almost always centered around each plan’s fatal flaw.  Even though the plan was brilliant and well thought through and cleverly executed, there was always one chink in its armor, one thing Wile E. did wrong, one humorous oversight that let the road runner slip away.  In well over half the episodes, the flaw wasn’t a flaw.  It was just the world not working like it is supposed to.

For example, there is the now classic scene where the coyote paints a mural of a tunnel on a cliff side, hoping the Road Runner will smash into the cliff.  Instead, the Road Runner runs right through the mural into an actual tunnel.  The lesson is simple: The world doesn’t work like the coyote wants it too.

Its sad how the church is remembered for our foolishness, not for how well we can execute a potluck that only feeds “us.”

And we are the coyote.  Our programs, or to put it more religiously, our “ministries,” are elaborate.  They are schemed up by outreach committees in 3 hour long meetings.  They are emailed to pastors with subjects that read, “the brilliant plan that will save our church.”  While we pass the offering plates on Sunday morning, a passionate and dedicated layperson explains them to the congregations.  We claim it worked out just great for that mega church in Seattle or that mushrooming church down the street.  Our congregants get all excited and we all jump on board.

But they all have one fatal flaw and that flaw makes all the time, money and energy we just spent worthless.  Most of the time that flaw is we just failed to understand the world we are living in.

Fatal Flaw #2: We don’t know when to stop.

When that flaw manifests itself and our brilliant feat of outreach falls flat on its face, we at least have a number of cliches we use to comfort ourselves.

We say things like:

“Well God doesn’t care about results.  God just cares about faithfulness.”

“That’s just the way the world is.  God has hardened their hearts so that nothing we say will get through.”

“Well at least we tried.  Church of the Baptist Jesus down the street isn’t even trying.”

“We planted a ton of seeds. Go us!”

Some of that may be true and I am all about comfort in the midst of epic failure.  After all, comfort is what gives us the means to get up and try again.

But what if our problem isn’t that we aren’t dedicated enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.  What if our problem is that we just don’t take the time and energy to understand the world we are living in.

Over the next week I want to write a bit about what I perceive are “Wile E. Coyote” ministries being run by many churches.  My hope in this is not to be overly mean or critical but to think deeply about how we spend our time, money and energy in the hopes that we will become better stewards of our callings.

Even more than that, I hope that our mourned failures would turn into seasons of rejoicing as we truly reach the world for Christ.

Until the next post, here are some great articles elaborating on this concept:

http://pres-outlook.org/2000/10/wile-e-coyote-or-the-roadrunner/

http://time.com/3735089/wile-e-coyote-road-runner/

http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/march/3031813.html

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/04/desire-and-causality-in-road-runner.html