I estimate forty of us—
spread like thin gravy
over the dim sanctuary.
My own Baptist flock
honors the noontime
crucifixion, so tonight
my son and I are free
to join these Methodists
who have hired four
Gregorian chanters from
the Catholics up the road.
My son was attentive
at first, but is now
rifling through items
in the pew rack:
prayer request cards
"What Methodists Believe".
The tiny choir is giving it
their all with Dubois’
Christ, We Do All Adore Thee
but are hobbled
by a soprano whose high G
doesn’t quite clear the bar.
The man across the aisle
is fighting to keep awake,
his head swinging
like a censer.
What a pitiful clot
we are, curdling
beneath the cross.
We chant our confession:
We love darkness rather than light
and I reckon
my own brambly heart
For on this night of nights,
as sorrow and love
flow mingled down,
I'm still fuming
at the seminarian who,
on our church marquee
and whom I (rightly)
castigated just before
in the cover
of this half-light,
of his wounded face
The choir is lumbering
through the Palestrina
Kyrie while the man
across the aisle
~ Julie Pennington-Russell
(published on Baptist Global News website)
Peter Drucker, writer, professor and business consultant hailed by BusinessWeek as “the man who invented management,” once said this: "My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions." Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”
Last fall, as I met with FBC’s Pastor Search Committee, I sent them some questions I had about First Baptist. There were 63. (Okay, I’m a curious sort—in more ways than one.) Over the past ten weeks, as I’ve begun settling in here with all of you and getting to know you better, I’ve culled that original list of 62 questions down to 10. I shared them with the deacons last Sunday and want to offer them again here the rest of you. I don’t have a blueprint for asking them, but I’m convinced that if we let ourselves keep gravitating back to these—in our committee meetings and Sunday morning classes and at Sunday brunch together, the way forward for First Baptist will continue to unfold:
- Can you talk about the movement of the Holy Spirit at First Baptist? How do you see God at work these days?
- What is FBC currently known for in Washington DC and beyond? If God were to do everything you are asking God to do in and through FBC, what would our church be known for in DC five years from now?
- If Jesus himself were to plant a new church in DuPont Circle, what do you think it would look like?
- How would you describe FBC’s present culture—the DNA of our church? What’s the desired culture/DNA/future?
- Is FBC’s prevailing mission and vision widely shared among the congregation? Would you be able to communicate these in an elevator ride at work? If you were someone on the margins of church life, would FBC’s stated mission and vision capture your imagination and make you want to plunge in deeper with God and this community of faith? If so, why? If not, why not?
- How are these four major areas at FBC—finances, facilities, staffing and structures (team & committee structure; governance structures, disciple-making structures; decision-making structures, etc.)—supporting and/or hindering our church’s prevailing mission and vision?
- How are we going to address together the reality that young adults today, as well as the “Nones” and “Dones” are less inclined to desire involvement in the often complex inner-workings of a congregation than those of past centuries? (Because of this, increased attendance doesn’t necessarily mean increased participation in committee work, business meetings, etc. Hardly anyone joins a church with the prevailing hope of one day being able to serve on the Church Council. Most people are desperate for God and for community, not for institutionalism. Most thriving churches are drastically simplifying their structures so as to remain nimble and able to focus on gospel priorities.)
- How are we going to create more opportunities for people (especially newcomers) to experience authentic community at FBC?
- How are we going to practice intentional leadership development at FBC, especially with our young adults?
- How are we going to practice the ministry of faith formation among people who are brand new to faith, or who’ve been away for a long time?
You have good questions of your own. Share them. Ask them. I’m ever so glad to be living the questions here with you…
Some years ago I took a week-long preaching class in Berkeley, Calif., taught by Tom Long (who retired recently from Emory’s Candler School of Theology). Excellent class. Tom is a gifted preacher and teacher. It was a great experience for me.
One of the requirements for the week was that each of us preach a sermon to the others in the class. Of course everyone is always a little nervous about this kind of thing, but one woman—a young seminary student named Lyddie—was particularly terrified. We encouraged her all through the week, assuring her of our support and prayers. But on the final day when it came her turn to preach, Lyddie was all but paralyzed with fear. At the moment when Tom Long called her name, she emitted a small gasp that I could hear from across the room. She slowly stood with a look of dread on her face, steadied herself on her feet, then walked to the front of the room and took her place behind the small pulpit.
About midway through the sermon Lyddie began to tell a story about a Sunday School teacher from her childhood, and of the difference the elderly saint had made in her young life. As she talked of how this teacher's witness had led to her conversion, Lyddie began to weep. Then she began to sob. She stood there, rooted to the floor, unable to continue. The rest of us were desperately trying to figure out how to encourage Lyddie but didn't know quite what to do. Until one of our classmates—an older, African American woman named Rose—stood up, crossed the floor and quietly pulled up a chair directly behind the pulpit. Without saying a word, Rose placed her hand solidly against Lyddie's back, lowered her head, closed her eyes and began to pray silently for the weeping young woman.
The effect was immediately visible. Lyddie took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, then leaned into the rest of that sermon with a confidence and strength that surprised the whole class. Rose eventually removed her hand from Lyddie's back and remained quietly seated there with her head bowed until the sermon was finished. Then she stood up and without a word, returned to her seat.
Often since that day I have thought about Lyddie and Rose, and of the very real power of Christ that flows like an electric current through the Church. I have had, in moments of anguish or doubt or grief, the experience of feeling the strengthening presence of a sister or brother coming to stand beside me. The smallest encouraging word or gesture has, at times, felt like a hand against my back, re-charging my anxious heart with the very courage and power of Christ. I want to be more a conveyer of grace like that. May God help us to be that for each other.
Grace and peace,
This week I’m pausing to reflect on my first thirty-five days at First Baptist, and to think ahead toward the next sixty-five. Bill Wilson from the Center for Healthy Churches says, “The first 100 days of a new pastorate are a precious resource that should be thoughtfully and carefully spent by the pastor and the congregation.” The CHC publishes a list of key priorities for pastors and congregations in their first hundred days together. I’ve been keeping an eye on that list as I’ve moved through these first weeks, and want to share with you some of my key priorities and hopes for this important season:
- Keep learning people’s names. (Nametags on Sundays would be such a big help!)
- Identify the 25 key leaders in the congregation with whom I need to have an individual conversation in my first 100 days.
- Conduct individual meetings with each staff member. First 20 days.
- Meet with established groups (Church Council, Committees, Deacons, etc.).
- Visit each Church School class on Sunday mornings. First 90 days.
- Meet with key worship leaders (Sunday morning & Mosaic). First 40 days.
- Establish a healthy pattern of offering pastoral care in conjunction with staff and lay teams. First 100 days.
- Meet at least twice with Search Committee representatives to check in and see if expectations are being met.
- Identify key community leaders with whom I need to meet. Days 50-100. Need congregational help with this.
- Seek out connections with area clergy. Days 40-100.
- Connect with local and state denominational leaders. Days 30-100.
- Continue with Tim the ongoing process of nurturing and strengthening our marriage.
- Help Taylor adjust to his new home in DC.
- Support and care for Lucy (she’s not able to come home from college as often as when we lived in Atlanta).
- Establish a predictable weekly schedule, including healthy work and personal time boundaries. (I’m observing Thursdays as my weekly day off.)
- Exercise regularly.
- Connect with and schedule first meeting with a spiritual director. First 30 days.
- Plan for the eventual move from our temporary apartment into a home in the District.
I welcome your input on these! In all that we do and all that we are, may our first 100 days—and all the years ahead—honor God and embody the way of Jesus.
Grace and peace…
This winter I’m learning a new language. Nope, it’s not Italian, French or Farsi. I’m not listening to some Berlitz instructor parse verbs in German. This one’s more difficult: I’m learning to speak Windows. Now that I’m officially your pastor, I can make this confession: I’m a Mac user. Ever since that memorable day 25 years ago when I first pressed a computer “on” button, it’s been Apple all the way.
So when D’O Dillard let me know, in the gentlest way possible, that First Baptist DC office operates in a PC world, I’ll admit I was a bit up-ended. “Tim!” I wailed, “I don’t know how to be a pastor on a Dell!” Luckily we figured out a compromise solution: I can keep my Mac and work in Windows—thanks be to God.
Truth is, I’m learning a lot more than Windows these days. After almost nine years of speaking Georgia, Atlanta (or Atlanna) and First Baptist Decatur, I’m learning how to speak “DMV” and The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC.
And as anyone knows who’s ever studied a new language, before you speak it you must first listen. I’ve got some listening to do as we walk together. It will take some time to become more proficient. But as I listen for your particular rhythm and meter, and the inflections and intonations of FBC’s unique dialect, God will open my ears.
In that vein, here is a missional question: What language is our church’s neighborhood speaking, and is First Baptist engaged in language lessons of its own? Parlez-vous Dupont Circle? ¿Habla usted Millennial? Sprechen Sie Embassy Row? Every church is in the befriending business. Learning someone else’s language opens the door to deeper connections and cross-cultural friendships. This is going to be fun.
Listening for the One whose first language is Love…
Tomorrow morning I’m going to slip a clerical robe over my shoulders and drape a green liturgical stole around my neck. I will line up behind the choir, along with the other pastors and liturgists, process up an impossibly long center aisle in a neo-Gothic sanctuary and take my assigned seat in the divided chancel. Later in worship I’ll climb a circular set of stairs into a pulpit as high as Rapunzel’s tower.
This is new for me.
And I love that.
I’m crazy about this new adventure because, for one thing, it’s grounding me in the reality that the gospel is true and transformative in every culture—including worship cultures. The heart of God beats in country churches and cathedrals, in darkened theaters and beachside pavilions. The Spirit of Christ is at home among hand-clappers and genuflectors; the Good News sings through guitar amps and organ pipes.
I also love this moment because it offers me a chance to experience again the childlike delight and curiosity of a beginner’s mind. Nothing blocks the spiritual path like the assumption that we already know, or that we have nothing more to learn. Yesterday one of the other pastors at our church kindly led me through the considerable choreography of a worship service at First Baptist Church of Washington DC. My awkwardness reminded me of the ballroom dance lessons Tim and I took years ago: “Step here…turn here…cross the floor and pause.” I imagine there’ll be some missteps tomorrow, but what fun it is to learn!
Mostly, by taking a chance on the unfamiliar, I’m invited again to rely on that which is most true—to rest in the essence of faith. I love the way Richard Rohr puts it: “God’s life of love is being lived within you, and you must simply learn how to say yes to that life. If you exist on a level where you can see how ‘everything belongs,’ you can trust the flow and trust the life.”
Good and gracious God, let me find you in all people and things…and be found by you in every moment. That is enough.
After nearly eight months of church-homelessness, I am so looking forward to Sunday and to this new beginning together. It’s hard for me to fully convey my joy at plunging in with this flesh-and-blood expression of the body of Christ at the corner of 16th and O. Perhaps these words from a friend of mine in Georgia, pastor Bill Self, who died this week after a battle with ALS, say it best:
"I still love the church. I love the church universal, as well as the church local (red brick, white-columned with deacons smoking in the parking lot). With all of its dysfunction and flesh marks, with all of its confusion and humanity, it is still the best thing God has going for Him in this world. We do have a treasure in earthen vessels.
The church is a solid oak tree, not a fragile tea cup. It has withstood Roman Imperialism, Jewish legalism, pagan optimism, medieval institutionalism, the excesses of the reformers, wars and rumors of wars, a youth quake, modern skepticism, southern provincialism, resurgent fundamentalism, and heresies in each generation that seem never to die.
[The church] can withstand anything our generation can throw at it.
It has been victimized by unprepared and selfish clergy, tone-deaf musicians, manipulative members, argumentative deacons, demanding denominations, unloving reformers, and greedy politicians. Still it continues to provide love, affirmation and community to the fallen in the face of alienation. The church is worth the effort."
~ Bill Self, The Church Is Worth the Effort, preached at First Baptist
Church of Pensacola, FL, May 4, 2014
The church is a treasure in earthen vessels and your new pastor is as “earthen” as they come. Thanks in advance for your patience with me in the days ahead. Thanks most of all for your commitment to this beautiful, homely, graceful, awkward, inspiring, frustrating, living, breathing embodiment-of-Christ-on-earth.
Here we go!