Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Keep going

The following piece was published in the May issue of The Current, the publication for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church. The theme of the issue was "Moving: Surviving Pastoral Transitions", something I know a little bit about from a lay-person perspective. You can read the entire issue here: 

Have you ever walked a labyrinth? A labyrinth is an ancient kind of puzzle symbolic of pilgrimage with one unambiguous path from start to finish and no dead ends. Initially, your path to the middle is clear and obvious. But as you move along the path away from the center, it feels as if you're moving farther and farther from your intended target, though your path will again lead to the center in time.  

Life in itinerant ministry can be like a labyrinth.  Though it's cliche, the analogy holds that ministry life is a journey--putting one foot in front of the other in faith. But for the ministry spouse, it can feel like you're on a completely different path from your spouse, though in the same labyrinth. 

Five years ago when my husband began taking seminary classes and pursuing ordained ministry, I had no doubt that God was calling him. But was he calling me and my young children, too? I was not completely convinced.  Add my Catholic upbringing and lack of understanding about itinerant ministry and you can understand how I felt: lost.  But ministry put us on a shared path, working toward a common goal. It gave us people to love, children to teach, situations to learn from, and strategies to use in future appointments. 

Being a ministry family doesn't mean we stay on the same path. As my husband is working his way closer to the center, doing the work of the church and turning hearts and minds toward Jesus, I might be several steps behind, or in a different place entirely. When crisis or confrontation occurs in our charge, sometimes my husband follows my lead as I help navigate sensitive emotions and feelings.  My children are also traveling this labyrinth, and though they mostly follow closely behind us, sometimes they don't. 

Itinerant ministry puts us on a path. Just start where you are. You will experience both the peace of moving closer to the heart of Jesus and the agony of falling away over and again. Keep going. Sometimes you will want to start over, and sometimes the thought of starting over will bring you to your knees. But Jesus guides our steps. My prayer is that you feel the presence of God on your journey, wherever that may take you during this appointment season. But whatever your path, just keep going. 

Image taken from Wikipedia.

Beauty in the Corn Rows (Repost)

Driving around our little country town this weekend you could see the corn just starting to pop up in the fields.  We've had ideal planting and growing conditions so far, so it seems like the little plants popped up almost overnight.  I remembered back to our first spring in rural Illinois and thought I'd re-share my thoughts with you.  Make sure you take a moment today to stop, look around at the new life all around you, and thank the creator.  

Beauty in the Corn Rows
Originally posted May 23, 2013

It's our first spring in the Illinois valley. It's beautiful down here: lush green, black soil, blue sky. Last week the farmers finally got a chance to plant their corn. Ava, Maddie, and I got to watch their progress on our way in and out of Tiskilwa each day. Most of the corn is already up. I snapped this picture this morning coming back from dropping Maddie off at school:
It's not much at first glance.  You can see the tiny corn sprouts growing.  From this angle, it looks rather messy and random.

Here's what happens when you turn 45 degrees, though:
Perfect rows. Simple, neat, beautiful. You can tell the skilled farmer took care to plant his seeds.  

Isn't life kind of like that? Our lives can seem weedy and random. We struggle to find beauty in the mess. But sometimes if we change our perspective, we can see the outlines of a bigger, more complete picture.  

What unexpected places are you finding beauty lately? Could changing your angle change your outlook?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How to stop time: a birthday tradition

Do you ever want time to stop when your kids are at a particular age or stage?  Like when he thinks you are part superhero but before he is taller than you? Or like when she plays with your hair before her nap, but before the tantrum in the grocery store over wearing the wrong shoes?

For the last three years, I've been trying to do the next best thing: get a snapshot of who the girls are on one particular point in time. I've been asking the girls the same set of questions each year on their birthday. I saw the idea on Pinterest some time ago and adapted it. I include 8 pictures taken of the girls from throughout the year, including the first day of school and an obligatory Halloween costume pic. During the girls' birthday week and at the girls' birthday parties, I display both the current and former year's questions. They are always a point of interest for party guests (adults and kids alike!). 

Kids grow up fast, and it's so interesting to see how the girls' answers change from year to year.  Here are Ava's birthday questions from last year and this year:

Want to try your own? Here are the questions I use:
What is your favorite color? 
What is your favorite toy? 
What is your favorite fruit? 
What is your favorite tv show?
What is your favorite thing to eat for lunch?
What is your favorite outfit? 
What is your favorite game?
What is your favorite snack? 
What is your favorite animal? 
What is your favorite song? 
What is your favorite book? 
Who is your best friend? 
What is your favorite cereal?  
What is your favorite thing to do outside?
What is your favorite drink?   
What is your favorite holiday? 
What do you like to take to bed with you at night?  
What is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?  
What do you want for dinner on your birthday? 
What do you want to be when you grow up? 

What questions would you add?  Do you have any special birthday traditions for your kids?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Focus groups

My parents and (snot-nosed) little brother stayed with us over Easter. My (doo-doo head) sibling is a big-shot market research executive in Chicago. As we were catching up and swapping work stories he said, "You know, should do some focus groups to get to know your congregations better." OK, so my brother might occasionally have some good ideas (or whatever).  

According to Wikipedia, a focus group is "a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging."

Todd and I, being big data nerds, immediately saw the value of such an exercise in a church setting. But how to go about it? If you've ever participated in a focus group, you know there's some effort involved--a survey to fill out, a meeting to attend, a discussion with strangers within the target age/gender/religion/socioeconomic demographic. Almost always, participants are compensated for travel or are given some kind of financial perk.  

So we began to brainstorm ways we could do a focus group--what questions would we ask? What would we do with the data? How would we get people to talk to us?

And then we realized we'd been doing our own "focus groups" all along. 

Way back when I read Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist, I became convinced that the best way to get to know someone was to share a meal with them. And so since last fall we've been inviting people into our home for dinner at least once a week. We started with families with children, to help our girls make friends in our new community. These dinners are probably the most rewarding part of our ministry.  I cannot tell you how full my heart (and stomach) is after one of our "focus group" evenings.  

But it turns out that Todd and I are really bad data nerds. We don't carry clipboards and ask multiple choice questions. We don't ask our guests to rate their satisfaction with our church on a 1 through 10 scale. We just talk. We laugh. We share stories about our kids, our parents, our history, our work, our favorite place to get a cup of coffee. 

We've been able to put into practice these ideas from Shauna Niequist:
“The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It's about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”
“When you offer peace instead of division, when you offer faith instead of fear, when you offer someone a place at your table instead of keeping them out because they’re different or messy or wrong somehow, you represent the heart of Christ.”

So, thank you (goofball) younger brother Joey, for reminding us that doing "focus groups" is a good way to gather data, but it's also a vital part of being in communion with people.  

My brother, Joe
In what ways do you do focus groups?  What questions do you ask?  What do you do with the answers?