Ditching Father and Resisting Gender Roles

There are other reasons I am leaving Father behind.

[See my previous post, Relationship: Parent, my most-viewed blogpost ever, for my initial explanation of why I’m leaving this term behind.]

For one, I increasingly reject gender roles. The terms Mother and Father are filled with notions of parental responsibility and care (good!), but are also laden with narrowly defined, culturally contrived gender roles (not good). I want to minimize the extent to which I emphasize gender roles  – consciously or subconsciously – in my parenting and in my life in general. Defaulting to the gender-neutral Parent is one, albeit small, way to do just that.

gender roles

Culturally defined gender roles dangerously limit our understanding of who we are and who God created us to be. Men are supposed to be tough and emotionally barren. Women are to be pregnant with care and emotion. Men like sports. Women like crafts. Men hunt and protect. Women gather and nurture.

Hogwash.

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Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.

Do Not Say They Are “Only” Youth

Edited and re-posted from my congregational newsletter.

My jaw dropped.

On one of our recent “Living Faith” gatherings of the Confirmation Class – a Sunday night event that includes dinner and hands-on faith activities – we began with a game of questions. To play this game, the person who will answer a question has a choice – to sit in one of three chairs. If you sit in the small, hard, uncomfortable chair you get an “easy” questions. If you sit in the normal but otherwise unexciting chair, you get a “medium” question. If you sit in the comfortable, high-back, cushioned chair, you get a “difficult” question.

The comfort of the chair is inversely related to the difficulty of the question.

So when one of my youth sat in the comfortable chair – which will likely invite a less-than-comfortable question – I pulled a card from the deck of questions and asked, “How do you feel about euthanasia?” He paused for a moment to think and then responded, “Well, if someone is in pain and suffering, and wants to end their life, I guess that’s their choice. But really, we should help them so they don’t get in that situation in the first place.”

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Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Kneeling During Lent

On Sunday at the closing of our Sunday School ministry – a gathering of all the children's Sunday School classes we call "Closing Devotion" – I talked with the kids about bending down. It was the First Sunday in Lent, and I used this ocassion to talk about what our Lord Jesus does in relationship to us: namely, to bend down to be with us where we're at, in our struggles and our suffering, in our lonliness and our sadness. Thus, rather than use the "we journey with Jesus" metaphor for Lent, I turned it around, and shared with the kids that during Lent we remember that Jesus walks with us and comes to us.

As an example, I had all of the children gather in a large circle in our Parish Hall. I asked one of our Confirmation Ministry students to come into the middle of the circle, and to fall down, as if injured. I then ran to the other side of the room, far from the "injured" youth, and asked her, "How are you doing? Can I help you? Gosh, you look hurt!" Then I asked the children, "is this a good way to help her?" Of course, the kids responded that it was not. So I walked half the distance closer to her, but still 15 feet from her, and repeated the charade. And of course, the kids saw right through it.

Finally, I came to her and knelt down next to her, asked her how she was doing, and offered assistance. Then I turned to the kids and asked if that was a better way to help her, to which they responded enthusiastically, "Yes!"

I then explained that this is how Jesus works. He isn't far off but rather comes to us, bends down to be with us, and is alongside us in our pain and struggle. I rattled off a number of situations in which I hope the children would take comfort knowing that Jesus is near them – when they have nightmares, when they get scraed, when they get hurt, etc. etc..

Then I had them kneel, all of them. I asked them what we can do when we kneel. Several said that we can pray. A few others said that we can help people when they're down. Pray and help. Pretty good things.

We talked about all those people who were knocked down, literally, by the tsunami in Japan, and how there are rescue workers who, like Jesus, are bending down to help those who have been beaten down.

After I was done with the message the kids stood up and sang a song, and we shared some announcements. But when it was time for our prayers, I invited the kids to kneel once more. There was some groaning, of course, but I think that kneeling hightened their focus. When I asked "for what shall we pray," several hands went up with great suggestions – more than usual – from "the sick" to "the people of Japan" to "peace in the Middle East" to others.

During Lent our children will be kneeling during prayer, to remember that our Lord comes to us when we're feeling low, and to form us, through a posture of prayer, for lives of bending down to reach out to those who have been knocked down by suffering.

Confirmation Ministry: Age Grouping in a Medium-Sized Program

Like many Lutheran congregations, my congregation's Confirmation Ministry is a two-year, group-graded program involving 7th and 8th graders.  And like most Lutheran congregations, one year of the program focuses on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, and the other year of the program focuses on the Bible.  We have 14 kids in the roster, more or less evenly split between 7th and 8th graders.  Average attendance at the Sunday morning classes and Sunday evening program hovers around 8-10. (Our congregation's average weekly worship attendance is 173.)

There's an odd social dynamic, however, in that each year the 8th graders are confirmed and thus "graduate" from the Confirmation Ministry program, and are released into our high school ministry … which doesn't exist.  We tried last year to have a high school class, but with little success.  We have a smattering of high school kids who come to worship regularly, but getting a critical mass of them to gather regularly for a class has been nearly impossible.  This is an experience shared, I believe, by many Lutheran congregations.  There are a variety of reasons that high school kids' participation drops-off, but one of those reasons, I think, is the sheer lack of numbers.

By the time they are confirmed in May or June, depending on when Pentecost falls, confirmed 8th graders have just completed two years of a somewhat intense, high-expectations program.  From service notes to worship leadership to class attendance to a retreat and other events, they've been keeping busy at church with a dozen or so kids.  But after they are confirmed, and thus no longer in a structured program, the proportion of these (now) 9th graders who actively participate in church drops significantly, and those who do come to church have few, if any, peers.  What results is that we have a handful of kids who just a year earlier had a vibrant, if not huge, group of about 8-10 kids who regularly gathered for class and events.  Now the few who remain are lucky to have a peer or two who still comes to church.

What if, instead of confirming only the 8th graders, we confirmed the whole class – 7th and 8th graders together – creating a larger critical mass of kids who are "released" together into the post-confirmation world of youth faith formation? Even if half of the kids on the class roster drop off, half of 14 provides a bigger critical mass than half of 7, and gives us a fighting chance to create a post-confirmation youth fellowship.

It could work like this: 6th and 7th graders are gathered together in the fall of Year One, and move together through the two year faith formation ministry we call Confirmation.   After Year One the make-up of the class doesn't change at all (unless new families and youth join the church, of course). In Year Two of the program all the kids are 7th and 8th graders, and 6th graders remain in a pre-Confirmation ministry class setting.  At the end of Year Two, on Pentecost Sunday, the entire class – 14ish kids – are confirmed, and advance together into the congregation's post-Confirmation ministry program with a larger peer group than they currently do, a group that has spent two whole years together growing in faith and forming relationships with each other, with the church, and though these, with God.

This means that we would celebrate the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism only every-other year.  That's fine with me.  And this means that some youth would be "confirmed" in 7th grade, and some in 8th grade.  Again, that's fine with me.  

The goal, of course, is that no child would "drop off" after Confirmation, and clearly more needs to be done to support the faith formation of our teenagers and their families.  But assuming that some kids will drop off, I think it is worth while to restructure the program in a way that gives our kids the best chance to maintain a viable post-confirmation peer group as they move from the structured confirmation ministry experience to life as post-confirmation youth in the church.

Have any of you out there tried this kind of age-grouping scheme?

Related Posts:

Teaching the Bible in Confirmation Class

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

In an earlier post I shared how we are using the Here We Stand confirmation ministry curriculum to help us teach the Bible to our 7th and 8th graders.  Yet the hour-long, traditional Sunday School class session – informally dubbed "Learning Faith" – is only one of two core program components of our ministry.  The other core program component, "Living Faith," is a Sunday evening gathering with a more hands-on, book-free approach to faith formation.

To be honest, these Living Faith sessions were born not out of a sense that our kids needed to learn something – though there is always more to learn! – but rather out of a sense that our kids needed a chance to come together in a less formal setting to build relationships with each other, with the church, and through these, with God.  An hour on Sunday morning in a traditional learning environment was not condusive to forming relationships and creating community.  Hence, the Living Faith sessions – a fellowship event with a meal and a hands-on learning opportunity – were born.

We have fifteen Living Faith sessions during the year, divided into three units of five consecutive Sunday evening sessions each.  Each unit has a theme and objective:

  • Fall unit theme: Worship Leadership
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders feel competent and valued as worship leaders (readers, assistant ministers, ushers, communion preparers).
  • Winter unit theme: Serving Others
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders embrace service toward others as central to Christian identity and calling; and, that they plan and carry out a service project.
  • Spring unit theme: Spiritual Practices
    Objective: That 7th and 8th graders develop a competency and a comfort level with practices that can nurture their faith and relationship with God.

For this first unit of Worship Leadership, I'm not drawing from any curricular materials but am simply introducing each worship leadership ministry (sometimes by inviting congregational leaders to attend and introduce their ministries), and then giving the kids a chance to practice it.  To help set up a session on serving as lectors, for example, we watched a few minutes of a Dead Poets Society clip in which Mr. Keating speaks passionately about poetry as containing rich words of life, full of meaning for us and for the world.  In last evening's session, two ladies who each week prepare the altar, elements, and vessels for the sacrament of Holy Communion, took the kids into the sacristy and walked them through their Sunday morning tasks.  In the coming weeks, these kids will sign up, two by two, to assist these ladies with the task of preparing communion.

The schedule for these evening programs is as follows:

5:00 – Gathering, and introduction to theme
5:30 – Dinner (and dinner clean-up)
6:00 – Hands-on activity/training/practice
6:45 – Prayer
7:00 – Go home!

A different confirmation ministry family has signed up to provide dinner each evening.  We use doodle.com for sign-ups and for Living Faith RSVPs, so that the dinner families know how many people they can expect to have to feed.

Our confirmation class has 14 kids on the roster, though past experience tells me that Sunday morning attendance will hover around 8-10.  At our first two evening sessions we've had attendance of 8 and 9.

The real success of this program – if I can speak of success after only two weeks – is that relationships are being created.  Kids are genuinely getting to know each other, and they look forward to spending time with each other.  There is laughter and lively conversation around the dinner tables.  It has been a pure joy.

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Evaluating Curriculum

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the third point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

Third Question: What curriculum to use?

Visit a trusted source.  What constitutes “trusted”?  A source – author, publisher, distributor – that is theologically appropriate and pedagogically engaging.  You might feel that you struggle to find resources that have both of these characteristics!

Overwhelmingly, materials from our Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, are theologically reliable and, increasingly, quite engaging.  When I started out in youth ministry over ten years ago, the Augsburg Fortress catalog wasn't my go-to place for resources.  To this day their offerings are not nearly as expansive as those of larger publishers and youth ministry niche publishers, but what they have is quite good, both theologically and pedagogically.  You may also check out the published and online denominational resources of our full-communion partners, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, and so forth.

I realize that with these words I essentially give a blanket recommendation to our denominational publishing ministry, Augsburg Fortress, and for that reason some of you might be reaching for the "go back one page" button on your browser.  Click away, if you must, but please understand that it's not that I find every single lesson plan that Augsburg Fortress creates to be perfect, but that overall I find the curriculum they've developed in recent years – Akaloo, Here We Stand, Re:Form, etc. – to be quite strong, theologically reliable, and engaging. 

OK.  Keep reading, please.

Third point One Question: How do I theologically evaluate a non-Lutheran curriculum?
The youth ministry curriculum market is saturated by publishers whose theological perspective is anywhere from somewhat to significantly different than that of our Lutheran church.  While we ought to respect the distinct teachings and theological perspectives of our fellow Christians and be willing to learn from them, we should nonetheless place in our children's hands materials that resonate with our church's teachings and teach our children what we want them to know about God, the church, and the world.

Theology is important.  Just because the games look great or the packaging is market-tested to suck you in, we should still be careful about theology.  Luckily, the theology embedded in a curriculum usually has markers that reveal where the writers are coming from.  While no list is exhaustive, if in reviewing a curriculum you stumble upon any of the following markers, please tread carefully, as the material in your hands likely does not reflect the theology of our Lutheran church.

  • A “decision” theology that asks learners to (or assumes that Christians must) “choose Christ.”  While we are called to make decisions in our faith – from deciding to go to church on a Sunday to striving to live our lives as Christians – nonetheless, the grand faith narrative taught in our churches is that God chooses us, and not the other way around.
  • Too much concern about “moralistic” or “cultural” issues.  Surely we Lutherans are called to live upright and moral lives in service to others, and surely we need to look at the popular culture through the critical lens of faith.  However, materials that have a strong emphasis on moral concerns or a combative approach to the popular culture often teach a legalistic approach to faith and life that doesn’t resonate with our teaching of how God works in the world.  Simply put, a black and white approach to moral or cultural issues is overly simplistic.  As children of a tradition that embraces paradox, we Lutherans should avoid simplistic or draconian approaches to the supposed dichotomy of church vs. culture.
  • A near total lack of teaching about service to others.  Our faith calls us into the world to love and serve others, not just with words but with deeds.  If the curriculum seems overly concerned with convincing people of right thought, right belief, or a quick Scriptural answer for every question, you might do well to drop those books and run away.  However, if the curriculum reflects a dedication to service of neighbor and witness through action, not just convincing words or proof-texting Bible verses, then you’re probably in the right place.
  • Strict gender roles.  Do women and girls have one role, and men and boys another?  If all the examples are of girls sewing of cooking, and boys hammering nails or hiking in the woods, don’t buy it.
  • Literal” or “fundamentalist” approach to reading Scripture.  If the publisher tells you on their FAQ page or on the inside cover of their books that they are literalists or fundamentalists, the material likely will not jive with our Lutheran approach to Scripture.

Third point Two question: But, but what if I “fix” the theology?

It's not usually worth it to “fix” the theology (unless it is a minor fix, such as changing references to Methodist worship practices to fit with our Lutheran practice of worship).  A theological perspective usually permeates a curriculum, if the curriculum is done well.  Fixing one or two lines of text, or replacing an activity, might change the most egregious of theological difficulties, but the underlying structure of the curriculum is likely still bent in a theological direction other than the one in which you want to travel.

Third point Three question: But the theologically sound stuff bombs with the kids. What should I do?

It’s easier to come up with creative activities than it is to re-write bad theology.  If you have a curriculum that is spot-on theologically, but creatively lacking, develop a few questions or activities of your own that fit the content of the lesson.  Then, write to the publisher and let them know how you tweaked the curriculum to make it work in your setting!

Excursus: The folks who write and edit curriculum are not clueless, dim burning bulbs.

You don't have to go far in a congregation, synod gathering, or youth ministry conference to hear grumbling about the church and, in this case, the church's publishing ministry.  I chalk that up to two indisputable facts:

  1. Neither the church nor its publishing ministry are perfect; and,
  2. We are a people who like to grumble.

Let me dispel one myth right away: much of the material we get from Augsburg Fortress Publishers is not written by cubicle warriors ensconced in a Minneapolis office building.  Rather, curricular materials from Augsburg Fortress are largely written by people who currently do youth ministry or have had extensive experience in parish ministry – pastors, teachers, VBS leaders, children’s ministry coordinators, youth directors, from small and large congregation, in rural and metropolitan settings, on the coasts and in the midwest.  After the materials are written, they are reviewed and, in some cases, tested by practitioners. 

This process is not perfect (see point 1, above), but c'mon folks, let us not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the quite good.  And this is no guarantee that the material will always “work” for your congregation or that it will always be very good.  But overwhelmingly the Augsburg Fortress material you have in your hands was written, edited, and evaluated by someone with training and experience in youth and education ministry, striving to contribute to a good and faithful ministry.

Next post: Curriculum Recommendations

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Are You Ready to Teach?

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the second point.  I'll get to curriculum itself in the next two posts.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

Second Question: Are you ready to teach?

Whether or not you use curriculum, you must prepare in advance.  If you prepare your lesson in five minutes, your kids will know and they won't take you, or what you have to say, very seriously.  This is the Gospel we’re talking about, folks.  Take it seriously.  Plan ahead.

If you’re using a curriculum, review the materials ahead of time.  Good curricula always includes options – Activity A or B; Questions 1, 2 or 3.  Make sure that you've read and marked up your leader guide, so that you know which activities or questions you're going to use.  Be ready to use the curriculum as a tool for proclaiming the Good News of our Lord.  Also, be sure to get your supplies ready and have the room set up. 

If you’re not using a curriculum, be familiar with the Bible study method you’re choosing to use, not to mention the passage of Scripture you'll be reading.  Preferably, you’ve used this Bible study method on your own or in
another setting before, so that your first time introducing it with a
group of kids isn’t your first time ever doing it.  Have Bibles available and make sure the meeting space is ready and welcoming.

Leading and facilitating ministry with young people requires more than just a pulse and a willingness to show up (though showing up is huge).  It requires that we care enough about the kids and the Gospel that we'll take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to plan a youth Sunday School class or Bible Study session.  This stuff ain't rocket science, but it does require some time to plan and prepare.

Next post: How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Is Curriculum Even Necessary?

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the first point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

First question: To use, or not to use, curriculum?

This is an important question.  Though I used to sell Sunday School curriculum for a living, I do not believe that every learning opportunity in the church requires the use of a published, purchased curriculum.  Teaching and learning requires planning, but we don’t always need a packaged curriculum.  So first ask yourself two questions: what do you want to achieve in a period of study?  And, do you need to go out and buy a curriculum do achieve that goal?

For example, if your goal is to read the Bible with your youth group, you can do this without purchasing a curriculum.  A very popular, simple, and down-to-earth Bible Study method is often referred to as The African Bible Study Method.  This method involves reading the text aloud three times and, after each reading, inviting each participant to share a word, phrase, or feeling that emanated from the hearing of the Scripture.  There is no discussion, no need for historical analysis or heady theology.  It is a shared time of reading and hearing the words of the Bible, and allowing its words and message to speak to our faith and life.  Visit the link for more information.

For an overview of several curriculum-less methods for reading the bible, enjoy this article written by Pastor Paul Lutz, formerly on staff at the churchwide headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and now serving at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Princeton Junction, NJ.  In it he writes about Bible reading methods that seek not only to inform, but to transform.

Simple methods of reading the Bible in community are easily memorized or noted on a folded sheet of paper tucked inside the front of your Bible.  If you, as a leader, want more background in a certain book of the Bible, you can access Study Bibles, commentaries or other Bible study material, without needing to buy materials for your whole group.  But before we reach for fancy (and expensive) materials perhaps we should simply open the Bible and use a method that allows the grace and truth of God's Word to speak to our faith.

A closing comment about reading the Bible in community.  I avoid the use of the term "Bible Study" when possible.  There are many ways to read the Bible in community that are not "studies" in an academic or heady sense.  We can and should read the Bible devotionally, as a faith-filled story that connects with our own stories of faith.  We shouldn't disregard the significant academic issues related to ancient texts, theology, and the traditions of the church.  But these things need not dominate or become roadblocks to the way we read the Bible in community, either.

Of course, going curriculum-free is not for everybody or for every situation.  Sometimes we just need to use a curriculum.  More on how to select and use curricula in future posts.

Next post: On being prepared to teach in the church.