For a Time

Dale wasn’t a member of the church but was there most Sundays this past year and called us the “Broken Pieces Church.”  He named it as:

  • A “foster” church for those in spiritual transition
  • A home for as long as people needed
  • A safe place to heal from brokenness
  • A place of restoration and resurrection
  • A home into which all are united and welcomed
  • A place to remember how to return thanks by giving of self to others
  • A place with high expectations to participate fully
  • A place for folks for whom a traditional worship service won’t fit

Over this last year of Plainfield United Methodist Church’s 134-year-old worshipping community, several people have become a part of our “broken pieces church” for a time.  I noticed it last summer when the attendance of our very small congregation began to increase.

Trumpet and kidsWe were in a time of discernment about our future, compelled to face the grim reality that we no longer had the human or financial resources to do effective ministry in our community.  Our plight was known by the Grand Rapids United Methodist community because our twenty metropolitan churches have been intentionally supporting each other in various ways for a number of years.

Our congregation of about twelve active members (the disciples) kept going because they were absolutely convinced that God wanted ministry to remain at this critical location of need in urban Grand Rapids for more than just a time.  But we were tired and overwhelmed from plugging leaks, fixing boilers, repairing roofs, and wearing way too many hats.

Almost every Sunday over the last twelve months we had at least one guest from another United Methodist church who was led by the Holy Spirit to offer support and encouragement for a time.  These guests always lifted our spirits.  When our pianist found another job, we hired a husband/wife duo who offered contemporary music to our congregation.  We could have never paid Zach and Lindsay what they were worth, but they felt called to walk with us for a time and immediately elevated the energy level of worship.

A few months ago when we were serving a dinner to the community on Friday night, our cook became ill.  The call went out around the district, and we were flooded with volunteers from other churches who came for a time and embodied our trust that “God will provide.”

I soon noticed, however, that some of our guests kept returning.  They didn’t join the church, but they became part of us.  They were “all in.”  Last fall Dorothy was on the way to her own church when she felt the Holy Spirit calling her to drive past the exit.  She ended up at Plainfield UMC and was with us almost every Sunday over the past year.

Dorothy’s husband died the year before after a long illness, and she was seeking healing.  She wondered who she was in light of her loss and what plans God had for the rest of her life.  It was just for a time, but Dorothy was a leavening influence on our congregation.  A person of deep prayer and spiritual perception, Dorothy could tell who was struggling and spoke gently to church members after worship.  She even came to our meetings “of the whole” and offered a fresh perspective when church members could not clearly discern the way.  Dorothy found new meaning by giving herself away to us.

Aileen, Steve, Ava, and Isaac decided to make Plainfield their home for a time when the White Pines UMC new church start to which they had been committed closed after teetering on the edge of viability for years.  Even though Plainfield was another struggling congregation it became a tranquil resting place on the way and a place to regroup.  Their very presence filled our church members with hope.

Dale, the one who called us the “broken pieces church,” was a local pastor without an appointment after having faithfully led the White Pines UMC through their painful closing.  At Plainfield he found safety, welcome, and unconditional grace in the knowledge that each one of us was also broken in some way.  Dale, too, was here for a time and served as liturgist, committee member, and steady presence.

Other White Pines refugees included Stephanie and her children John and Claire, and Charlie and his children Rose and Grace.  They found Plainfield to be a place to recover hope.  Teens John and Rose participated in the sermon on several Sundays.  Other times the children would go to Sunday school and help with the ten to twenty neighborhood children who were hungry to learn about Jesus.  These families, too, were with us for a time.  Because they became part of us, we grew, learned, prayed, and healed together.

Kids CommunionWhy did our for a time friends imitate the apostle Paul, who had a vision one night where a man of Macedonia pleaded with Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us?”  Convinced that God called his party to proclaim the good news to Macedonia, they set sail immediately.  (Acts 16: 9-10).

Why did our new friends respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to come and help us?  All I know is that our congregation’s attendance more than doubled over the last year of our existence… for a time.  All I know is that the atmosphere in our congregation changed from one of depression and despair to anticipation and excitement at what God was about to do with our broken pieces.  The Holy Spirit seemed to literally dance around the sanctuary for months before our final worship service.  I could see it, feel it, and was caught up in it myself.

Was it something about our impending congregational death and rebirth as a new church restart that acknowledged death and resurrection in our own lives?  Could it be that the letting go we experienced as a congregation was helping everyone to let go of whatever was preventing us from living fully in the midst of difficult times?  Was it the joy of becoming something greater than ourselves, something God alone can see?  Did we all become wounded healers for one another for a time? 

A critical lesson that I have learned from my year at Plainfield UMC is that it’s okay for church membership to be fluid.  Over the years I’ve seen more and more people moving back and forth between churches for a time, but now I no longer get bent out of shape.  I get it.

When a church member feels led by the Holy Spirit to affiliate with another congregation for a time, whether for missional or personal reasons, I am learning to rejoice rather than cling tightly to “my members.”  If a church member has the gifts to help another church begin a major ministry, I say, “Go for it!”  If someone wants to walk alongside a church that has come on hard times, I say, “Hallelujah!”  If a family decides to attend another church for a time because their children love that youth group, I say, “Thank you Jesus that someone is reaching them.”

After all, what business are we in, anyway?  Is our mission to build our own fiefdoms, or are we called to build the kingdom of God?  And if it’s God’s kingdom, then who are we to buck the Holy Spirit and become possessive of our own?  Could it be that we live up to our calling as a connectional church when we share all of our broken pieces and together fit them together into a tapestry of shalom and hope for our world?

Welcoming and caring for people who are in churches for a time is a cutting edge ministry that can no longer ignored.  Perhaps they are in town for a six or twelve month work project.  Maybe they are in emotional, physical, or spiritual transition and don’t feel able to go back to their own church.  Perhaps they are peregrini, nomadic pilgrims who are “prone to wander” because they feel called to by God to various congregations for specific short-term ministries.

Whatever the reason, our churches must find immediate ways for “for a timers” to connect, be active, and even participate in leadership, if appropriate.  Don’t get hung up on membership.  Don’t make the boundaries around participation too tight.  At the same time let people be if they simply need to heal and only want to worship with you.  And for God’s sake, don’t quench the Holy Spirit.  Let the Spirit move where it will.

Zach, Lindsay, Dorothy, Dale, Aileen, Steve, Ava, Isaac, Stephanie, John, Claire, Charlie, Rose, Grace, and others: your presence at Plainfield for a time has been one of the greatest gifts we could have ever received this year.  Your steady presence has been a symbol of the great cloud of witnesses cheering on the Plainfield congregation.  You have brought with you light, caring, faithfulness, peace, hope, joy, and the Comforter.  Most important, you became part of us.

Wherever God leads you next, remember the words of one of our favorite songs this year,

“You make beautiful things out of the dust.  You make beautiful things out of us.  You are making me new.”  God made something beautiful out of you for a time.  Thank you, dear friends, for a beautiful and holy sojourn together.



P.S. 150 people “for a timers” graced Plainfield UMC yesterday for our last worship service before the new church restart.


Are you branded?  The task force to develop a strategic plan had just sent its proposal to the congregation when a young man emailed task force members, “To do these activities we need a clear message of what we offer, what benefit people get when they attend, and how this is different from other churches or organizations.

“In short I feel we need to define our ‘brand’ so we can craft a consistent communication message and ‘live our brand’.  The new vision/mission statements are a good start but we really need to be more focused.  If we don’t communicate our brand promise then make sure our ‘product/service’ and church family live the brand, it will be very difficult to get people to attend and stay.  They may expect to experience ‘x’ (i.e. what we communicated to them) but when they come to church they get ‘y’.”

Branding in the church?  It’s not as farfetched as you may think.  Livestock branding has been used for thousands of years to identify cattle with the “logo” of their owners.  Businesses have also used branding for decades to communicate the essence of a product to their audience.   A “brand” usually consists of a logo as well as a compelling tagline that convinces you to try it.

Just Do It

It’s not about clothes or shoes.  It’s about attitude.

I'm Lovin ItIt’s not about the health benefits of the food.  It’s all about loving the food you’re eating.

Melts in Your Mouth

It’s not about the quality of the chocolate.  It’s about the convenience of eating chocolate that doesn’t melt in your hand.

Branding also promises a certain level of quality for a product.  When you go to the grocery store do you buy national brands or store brands?  If Meijer Corn Flakes are $1 less than Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which box do you buy?  If Costco underwear is $8.00 less a three-pack than Calvin Klein underwear, which pack do you purchase?

National brand-name merchandise is attractive to many people because it guarantees product quality.  You know what you are getting when you buy Banana Republic clothes, Merrell hiking boots, or Oakley sunglasses.  We all have our favorite brands of clothing and food for which we are willing to pay more than “generic” prices because we know how they are going to fit and taste.   Even more, branding confers a certain status when we proudly display our designer brands with accompanying logos.

John Wigger, history professor at the University of Missouri, has written extensively about Methodism in early America.  He says that in the 19th century no American could fail to know about Methodism.  “Methodism provided a great many Americans … not only with a source of spiritual meaning, but also with fellowship and community, with comfort and aid in times of distress, in short, with a sense of belonging that all people crave.  The extent to which Methodists were able to accomplish this is what most clearly distinguishes their movement from the other denominations of this period.”

He continues, “Early American Methodism’s leaders understood the nature of the post-revolutionary cultural marketplace, in effect designing an innovative marketing strategy…  No company could match Francis Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, local preachers, circuit riders and presiding elders.  They led the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial conferences – all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis.”

Methodism was the most recognized and talked about denomination in the 19th century because of our cutting edge brand.  Since 1968, when The United Methodist Church was formed, our formal “brand” as a denomination has been the cross and flame.  While the cross has been the Christian “logo” for 2,000 years, the double flame, originally symbolizing the joining of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church, reminds us of the Holy Spirit power that undergirded the Wesleyan movement.

But notice the tagline, which was added several decades ago.  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” is the trademark phrase that describes who we are as United Methodists.  Our brand promise is that anyone entering a United Methodist church will find disciples of Jesus Christ who are welcoming and compassionate and who engage the world.

Open Hearts

So why do local churches need their own brand?  Why can’t we just use the cross and flame?  And isn’t our mission statement a brand?

10 Things Churches Need to Know about Branding

  1. Branding as part of a church marketing strategy is not giving in to the secular world.  While businesses sell products, we sell faith in Jesus Christ and must find effective ways to reach our community.  After all, it’s been fifty years since churches simply had to open their doors for worship, and guests would stream in.
  2. Our brand is not our mission statement.  Our mission statement reflects what God is calling our congregation to do.  By contrast, our brand tells the world who we are and why they should come to Grace United Methodist Church.
  3. The cross and flame isn’t enough.  Most United Methodist churches proudly display the cross and flame on their building.  However, a local church brand needs to be relevant to its particular constituency.  The brand should remind people: “Oh, yeah, that’s the church that …”
  4. Branding may get guests in the door, but they will not stay unless the brand aligns with the church’s mission and their initial worship experience.  Don’t pretend to be who you’re not.  Rather, become who you are called to be and do what you are called to do.
  5. A brand normally consists of a compelling logo and a snappy tagline.  The brand needs to be memorable, containing an image and a few words that provoke curiosity about who you are.
  6. Ultimately, your guests won’t remember you by your brand, but they will remember how welcoming you were and whether they felt included.  If your brand promise (what people feel after they’ve visited your church) matches your branding (what you say they can expect) then you’ve got it!
  7. A consistent brand will assist in telling your story.  It helps people remember you and lessens initial fears and barriers about visiting your church because they will know what to expect.  However, even the most creative brand cannot guarantee growth if you do not have systems in place to invite, welcome, and assimilate guests and if you do not have a clearly articulated, supported, and implemented mission and vision.  Brand does not substitute for effectiveness in ministry.
    1. A brand is a marketing tool to create awareness of and generate interest in your church by the population you are targeting.  Thus, creating a brand entails not only knowing who you are as a community of faith but knowing the hopes, dreams, and unmet needs of those you hope to engage.  The logo does not have to be overtly religious, nor does the tagline have to include the word “Jesus.”
    2. Branding is a product of our culture.  Church brands help to distinguish us from other churches in the area, United Methodist or not.  Brands may also be more attractive to the non-churched or de-churched than the churched.  According to new research by a Duke University marketing professor and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv (, people who are not deeply religious care more about commercial brands than religious people do.  For the non-religious, brands convey a sense of self-expression and self-worth that is not as important to people who find their worth in religious expression.  Brands are designed to resonate with those we are attempting to reach by saying “Come, try us!”
    3. United Methodist Communications has a wealth of resources about marketing and branding.  Check it out!

Can United Methodist churches recover our cutting edge?  I believe we can.  It’s time to be branded again.



We are 21st Century Circuit Riders and We Rock

“I really wish I could stay longer for fellowship time, Jim, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late to church #2.”

“At least you don’t have to ride a horse.”

“Does a 1969 Grabber Orange Mustang count?” (my first car)

I honestly thought it would never happen.  I sailed through 31 years of ministry, grateful to have served in almost every type of appointment: rural, downtown, urban, and county seat; pastor, program, and corporate size; associate pastor, co-pastor, solo pastor, and district superintendent.

Oops.  I forgot something.  So guess where I was appointed next?  A two-point charge.  After 5 months I’ve concluded that all clergy should have the joy of serving a multi-point charge.  How else will they know what it’s really like to be a Methodist circuit rider?

Every Sunday morning we wake up not knowing how the day will turn out but simply praying for energy and grace.  We gas up our car rather than feed our horse.  If we’re running behind, we take along breakfast, a snack, a water bottle, and even lunch if there are extra meetings after the last church service.  We carefully lay a towel across our lap so that our clothes don’t get dirty.   Although a clergy robe would neatly hide food stains, most of us don’t wear one.  Who has time to change?

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  If you’re lucky, you’ll be appointed to a multi-point charge someday as well.  I go through the checklist every Sunday before I leave:

√  Cell phone and ear piece (in case the pianist for the 2nd service calls in sick or  construction between churches appears overnight, and you’re going to be late)

√  Food (ever try preaching while your stomach is competing for attention?)

√  Extra pair of hose just in case (does not apply to all circuit riders)

√  Coat and gloves in the winter (if the heat is out in the sanctuary)

√  A fan in the summer (air conditioning is a dream in most multi-point charges)

√  Sermon and worship materials for each church (good luck keeping sins, debts, and trespasses straight)

√  A pen and pad of paper (essential for noting follow-up items in church #1 before switching gears to  give full attention to church #2)

√  A second pair of comfortable shoes (wearing heels for 6 hours doesn’t work for everyone)

√  Patience, flexibility, and good humor (in case the liturgist forgets to show up or half of the already small congregation is gone for the weekend)

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  The genius of United Methodism’s explosive growth in post-revolutionary America was its circuit-riding clergy.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Americans lived in widely scattered farms or remote villages.  Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of early Methodism in America, ordained itinerant clergy who rode on horseback between different stops on a circuit.  The clergyman’s job was to preach, deliver the sacraments, establish weekly class meetings, and train lay people to care for each other in the clergy’s absence.  Because the circuit riders crisscrossed the frontier as America moved west, Methodists were the only religious group to conduct services in many areas.

Bishop Asbury once urged one of his circuit-riding preachers, “Feel for the power.  Feel for the power, brother.”  I now understand what Asbury meant, for the life of a circuit rider was extremely difficult.  Bishop Asbury did not want his preachers to marry lest they choose to settle down with their families and refuse to ride their circuit any longer.

A typical circuit rider was a single young man with a common school education and trained as an artisan (no women clergy yet).  After a dramatic conversion experience he would be appointed to a rural circuit of between 200 and 500 miles, which was normally completed in two to six weeks.  The average circuit rider in 1800 earned $80 a year.

These itinerant clergy rocked around the clock!  They preached almost every day of the week, starting at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, sharing practical religion with zeal and passion to a spiritually hungry young country.  The pace was brutal, with uncertain lodging, uneven food, poor weather conditions, illness, the danger of attack, and horses pulling up lame in the middle of nowhere.  Life expectancies were short.  At the same time the church exploded in membership.  In 1771 there were 600 Methodists in America.  Forty-five years later, when Bishop Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists.

In 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Michigan Annual Conference, which sent a preacher to Grand Rapids every year.  The Grand River circuit was part of the Marshall District, and in 1838 two preachers were assigned to the circuit, one of whom was Allen Staples.

According to the written history of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Staples was licensed to preach in 1836.  “An ‘attractive speaker, unwearying and unceasing in the salvation of sinners,’ he over-worked himself, causing his death at the age of thirty-seven.  He had a revival on each of his charges, and after his death it was computed that he had received over 1,300 into the church during his ministry of a single decade.”  Poor Rev. Staples rocked himself to death. 

Pastoring a multi-point charge is not as grueling today as it was 200 years ago.  After all, our Mustangs are cars, not horses.  Nevertheless, the challenge is enormous.

  • Early circuit riders had very few sermons, but today the same sermon cannot always speak effectively to churches with different needs.  One size doesn’t fit all, but it’s the best we circuit riders can usually do.
  • How do you maximize your gifts in each congregation at the same time as you train, equip, and empower the laity to be the church without your full-time presence?
  • How do you treat your “children” fairly in terms of time and energy without hearing grumbling about favoritism?
  • How do you handle the grind of never having a break from preaching unless you’re on vacation?  Even when one church has a guest speaker, thinking it will help you out, they don’t usually realize that you still have to prepare a sermon for the other church.
  • How does a perfectionist learn to say “good enough,” knowing that it is impossible to give more than one church what they need in terms of pastoral leadership?
  • How do you connect with people in church #1 when you have to leave immediately after the service for church #2 and then maybe church #3?  Forget about teaching Sunday school.
  • How do you cope with the administrative demands of several churches, let alone mounds of church conference paperwork?  You think one church is a handful?  Try doing nominations work for two to three churches and attending two to three Staff Parish Relations, Trustees, Finance, program, and church council meetings.  Got any more complaints?

I often hear grumbling about small membership churches. “If they can’t grow, why don’t they close or merge?”  “Small churches can’t be vital, and their buildings are way too big.”  “Why waste our valuable clergy by making them spend hours every week in the car driving endlessly between churches that are going nowhere?”

Now that I’m rocking in the circuit rider trenches, my perspective has changed.  I love the small churches that I pastor and see their potential.  Some small churches will never grow significantly.  However, vital, transformative ministry that effectively reaches their community is usually possible.  The laity in many multi-point charges step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that are expected of pastors in larger churches.  They are committed, generous, persistent, savvy, loyal, flexible, and spiritually mature.

In addition, the possibilities are great for small churches to engage in collaborative ministry.  It’s the way of the future.  Why can’t we do youth ministry, Stephen ministry, Bible studies, outreach, and small groups together?  Why can’t we share staff?  We can, and we are!

It’s afternoon on the second Sunday of Advent.  I and my fellow 21st century circuit rockers are utterly spent, having prepared the way of the Lord, offering up to God and our churches everything that we have and are.  We are acutely aware that the energy to keep at it day after day does not come from us.  Rather, we preach what the 19th century itinerant circuit rider Henry Smith referred to as an “irresistible holy knock-em-down power.”

We are local pastors, provisional members, DSA’s, retired clergy, elders, and even bishops, and we rock!  We don’t often receive awards and accolades for church growth, but we rock.  Our churches and ministries are usually under the radar, but we are faithful, persevering, and resilient, and we rock.  We are still feeling for the power, but right now we can hardly keep our eyes open, so we rock ourselves to sleep until the Sunday night Christmas program.