Loving and Leaving a Church – A Book Review

Loving-and-Leaving-a-ChurchLet’s face it – for many pastors the perception they have of their ministry when they set off to their first pastorate and the reality of that ministry are two very different things. Barbara Melosh’s Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey tells the story of an older, second career, female pastor and her experiences with the small blue-collar congregation in Baltimore where she “learned how to be a pastor.”

The neighborhood is undergoing gentrification and the church has been in decline for forty years but Melosh optimistically thinks that she can change the congregation and save the church. That doesn’t happen and yet it would be wrong to call her time there a failure. She is faithful to the congregation who drives her to laughter and to tears and they, in turn, learn to love and accept her.

Melosh uses pseudonyms in the book and refers to her church as “Saints and Sinners” and her congregation as “the Saints.” But these Saints are not the ones we refer to as holy and virtuous in anthologies; they are ordinary people who constantly surprise their pastor and are full of contradictions.

Anyone who has ever tried to bring renewal to a church can appreciate Melosh’s frustrations. Although the sign on the church declares “A Warm Welcome Awaits You Here,” the Saints are an insular group. As Melosh notes: “What they wanted was to come to church—this church—on Sunday, to take their familiar places in the pews, to worship the way they’d done for years, with the people they’d known for years.”

As Melosh plans a peaceful Advent with “midweek services and encouraging people to observe Advent at home,” she is ambushed by Winter Wonderland – a church fair with lavish decorations including more than twenty artificial trees; secondhand goods, handmade crafts, and hot dogs for sale; and a throne for Santa which just happens to have been taken from its usual place next to the altar. To her credit, Melosh buries her disappointment as her Advent dreams recede and has a rush of affection for the Saints who had worked for more than three days to create what they considered a thing of beauty.

There are serious moments in the book too as Melosh describes with honesty her empathy for those she ministers to: Saints now in nursing homes, a young mother facing cancer, and the family of the victim of a violent crime whose funeral Melosh presides over.  When she finally realizes it is time to move on, she struggles with guilt at the thought of leaving the Saints to soldier on and disappointment at her failure to save the church. She is heartbroken and writes:

I had been called to ministry, and I’d given my heart to it. But I’d been distracted by the wrong dream, deluded into thinking I could save the Saints. They already had a Savior, and it wasn’t me. I was called to be faithful: to do the work in front of me, to serve the people I’d been called to serve, to love the people I’d been given to love…I was beginning to realize the precious gift that was already mine. Saints and Sinners might well not survive as a congregation. But in the candlelight of the healing services, I saw that the kingdom of God was already among us, and in us.


My Favorite Color Is Blue. Sometimes – A Book Review

My Favorite Color Is BlueLife is hard. Sometimes, children find that out sooner rather than later. For a child the loss of a loved one may be difficult to process. Children lack the vocabulary to express their feelings as adult do; their brains are not fully developed so completing the process of reconciling to the death may take years.

A children may give the appearance of coping well, but may be grieving tremendously on the inside. Denial of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and lead to problems in the future. An understanding adult can help a child remember the person they’ve lost in various ways, such as looking at photographs or telling stories about the deceased adult.

Roger Hutchison has provided another tool to help grieving children (and adults) express the mixture of feelings that come when a loved one has died. His book My Favorite Color Is Blue. Sometimes. is subtitled A Journey Through Loss with Art and Color. It uses colors to talk about different ways a child may be feeling. Turning the pages of the book to read the simple text and experience the beautiful artwork can help children to share their own (perhaps confusing) feelings about the person they’ve lost. Blue stands for sweet blueberries, the bright blue sky, and the deep blue of the sea, but also for a swirling blue rainstorm.

The storm is inside of me.
I am angry.
I am sad.
My heart is hurting.

Hutchison had the privilege of painting with children who witnessed the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The experience convinced him that he had a vocation to serve those who grieve with his writing and art. My Favorite Color Is Blue. Sometimes was published by Paraclete Press on November 7, 2017.

On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, Hutchison will be presenting a free webinar about the book for PRC – Practical Resources for Churches. You can click here to register to attend the webinar in person; after November 14, you can use the same link to register to view the recording.

Paraclete Press provided a review copy of the book.

Crafting Gratitude – A Book Review

Crafting GratitudeMost of us know that practicing gratitude has many benefits including greater happiness, better health, and increased productivity. Gratitude journals, where you might list five things each day which you are thankful for, are one way to focus on gratitude, but after a few weeks or several months, this practice can become monotonous.

If you’re looking for other ways of practicing gratitude, then take a look at Crafting Gratitude: Creating and Celebrating Our Blessings with Hands and Heart, published by Viva Editions in 2017. It’s written by Maggie Oman Shannon, who has written a number of books including Crafting Calm: Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation and A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads.

The gratitude crafts listed in the book include many which involve multiple senses. Shannon suggests different ways to do the crafts which allow an individual’s creativity to flourish. For instance, gratitude bowls can be filled with running water every morning as a person reflects on what fills them up and drains them or what gives them life and what takes life away. At the end of the day, the water in the bowl is poured out onto the earth, as a signal to rest. A person can use a bowl they already have which has special meaning for them, a purchased bowl made by an artist, or a bowl they make themselves by crocheting, using clay, or decorating a purchased bowl.

For each suggested craft, there are “Inner Inquiries for Journaling and Reflection.” Interspersed throughout the book are quotations and prayers from a number of religious and spiritual traditions. I could see this book being used by a church or spirituality group or some of the crafts being part of a retreat focusing on gratitude.

Author Maggie Oman Shannon is an ordained Unity minister; the Unity Church embraces a progressive interfaith approach to Christianity and accepts and teaches the “universal truths in all religions.” The crafts are not explicitly “Christian” and may be too New-Agey for some if their religious perspective is conservative, but for most the crafts can easily be accommodated to any religious perspective.

If you’d like to meet the author of Crafting Gratitude, PRC – Practical Resources for Churches will be presenting a Meet the Author webinar on October 17 with Maggie Oman Shannon who will be talking about the book. There is no charge for the webinar and you can register to attend by clicking here. After the webinar is broadcast, the same link will allow you to view the recorded webinar.


The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention by Rachael A. Keefe – A Book Review

The Lifesaving ChurchFrom the title, you might think this book is a how-to for churches and other faith communities on how to prevent suicides. It is that, but also much more. It is the story of the author, Rachael A. Keefe, her struggles in a highly dysfunctional family, her eating disorder, and her own attempted suicide as a teen. She is honest about her feelings then and now, and her continued emotional turmoil as she attended college, seminary, became a pastor, and became aware of her bisexuality.

It was the church of her childhood and adolescence which she credits as having saved her by letting her know that she was not alone. Her experiences led her to become an advocate for churches to take on the task of suicide prevention. Her courage and honesty will surely inspire others with thoughts of suicide to break their silence about the subject, one which Keefe refers to a “one of the last taboos of the church.”

In order to get churches talking about the subject and then taking action, a free downloadable study guide for the book is available. There is also a free download available of the PDF 10 Facts Every Church Needs to Know about Suicide Prevention.

Keefe addresses some of the theological questions surrounding suicide but cautions those dealing with suicidal people or survivors of suicide to be careful about what they say. The best answer, she maintains, is that “God is not a fan of suicide.” She emphasizes that the language we choose to talk about suicide is important.

The book includes seven appendixes, filled with useful information and resources. They are: Signs of Suicide Risk, Resources for Clergy, Resources for Laypeople, Resources for Those Struggling with Suicidality, Resources for Suicide Loss Survivors, Scripture Verses and Stories That Emphasize Hope, and Prayers.

The book is available from the publisher, Chalice Press, as well as Amazon and other booksellers. PRC – Practical Resources for Churches recently had a webinar focusing on the book and led by the author. The recording is available; you can view it at no cost by registering here.

The Pope’s Cat – the Story of a Special Relationship

The-Popes-CatChildren are drawn to animals and find them fascinating, so it’s no surprise that a number of children’s books focus on animals. The Pope’s Cat written by Jon M. Sweeney and illustrated by Roy DeLeon is a little bit different, however. It tells the story of a very special relationship between a cat named Margaret and the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the pope in this story is not identified, he certainly shares a number of traits with the present Pope Francis, including his concern for the homeless and those looked upon with disdain by society.

On an early morning walk outside the Vatican, the pope meets up with a stray cat who is standoffish at first, a trait the pope find refreshing because of all the people who say “yes” to him. The pope names the cat “Margaret,” an appropriate choice considering that St. Margaret of Scotland is the patron saint of the homeless and other outcasts.

The pope’s day is filled with appointments and religious duties. On the day he finds Margaret, he is to have lunch with the Queen of England. Despite his impending meeting with the queen, he is concerned for Margaret who is left alone in his room. Margaret manages to make the pope’s luncheon interesting; you can read the book to find out what happens.

The Pope’s Cat is recommended for ages 6 and up; it would certainly be of interest to those of the Roman Catholic faith but could be enjoyed by anyone. This would be a good book to share in your children’s ministry as St. Francis’ feast day (October 4) approaches and many churches are offering a Blessing of the Animals service. It’s available from the publisher, Paraclete Press, as well as from Amazon. It is the first in a series. The second book in the series is Margaret’s Night in St. Peters: A Christmas Story with a publishing date of October 1, 2018.

Faith Formation Is a Lifelong Journey

Never stop learning

As September approaches, it’s time to get ready for another programming year in the church. Often, when we talk about Christian education or Sunday school, we’re referring to programs for children and youth. But no one “graduates” from learning about God and how to live in God’s world — faith formation is lifelong. We can ponder our questions about life and faith alone, but adult study groups give us the opportunity to share the struggles and joys of living a Christian life with others. Adults bring their varied life experiences to group discussions and can offer different ways of looking at biblical passages or complex issues.

In the past, adult study groups were often led by the pastor or another person who was there to impart wisdom to the group. Nowadays, groups are more prone to have a facilitator, someone who can keep the discussion on track and make sure everyone has a chance to share their views. The use of an introductory video segment is a great way to start a session and can quickly give information and raise questions, especially in studies which don’t require lesson preparation for participants. Study groups may meet at the church or in someone’s home; starting with food is a great way to encourage fellowship.

Trends in studies include not only the use of videos and little or no participant preparation, but also short-term studies. DVD studies, as well as traditional studies, can be expensive and may only be used once in a small church, so churches may want to save money by subscribing to the services of a resource center which loans out studies.

At PRC – Practical Resources for Churches we have a large selection of studies (over 1300 study-related resources) available for subscribers to borrow at no cost. We will even mail out studies to those who are unable to get to one of our centers and we will usually purchase a study if it is requested by one of our subscribers. If you prefer to purchase studies yourself, follow the links in this post for more information.

Some of our most popular studies are in the area of Prayer and Spiritual Practices, Theological Questions, and Living Your Faith. Studies in all areas of the Bible are also popular. We have numerous DVD studies by recognized authors such as Adam Hamilton, Philip Yancey, and N. T. (Tom) Wright. Hamilton’s many studies include Making Sense of the Bible which looks at how we understand and interpret the Bible. He also has studies on biblical figures such as Moses, John, and Paul, as well as studies for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Two of Yancey’s most popular studies include The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? Available N.T. Wright studies are Jesus: The New Way and Surprised by Hope.

Many of the studies in our Living Your Faith area are video based and include the Embracing series with presenters such as Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, and Phyllis Tickle. Other offerings include The Way of Life with Brian McLaren, as well as Hazardous Saints: Christians Risking All, Changing Everything, and The Jesus Creed. We also have studies on the topic of social justice including Fear of the Other and the recently published Dialogues on the Refugees Crisis.

Contact PRC for assistance in planning an adult study program or selecting a study for your church. For more information about planning and leading studies, check out our recorded webinar “You Can Lead an Adult Study” and/or download the booklet of the same name. You can also find more information about CE for adults on the Adult Ministry page of the Links & Online Resources section of PRC’s website. PRC offers annual subscriptions at a reasonable price for those in our geographic area as well as at-a-distance subscriptions. Check out our website for more information.

We’d appreciate it if you would take a few minutes to answer our online survey about adult Christian education at you church.

Choosing Curriculum for a One Room Sunday School

hands-2847508_1280In many churches, we’re seeing less children in Sunday school. Adapting to decreased attendance may mean reevaluating how children are grouped and going to a multigraded or one room curriculum. Publishers are responding to these changes and there are now a number of choices available.

The One Room Sunday School has been around for a long time; it comes from Cokesbury, the United Methodist publisher, and is considered part of their Deep Blue curriculum line. It is for ages 3-12 and the retail price per quarter is $76.99. Deep Blue also offers a Large Group/Small Group option for elementary age children which lists for $99.99 per quarter. Beginning Fall 2018, the theme for Deep Blue is “At Home with God” which emphasizes families today, families in the Bible, and what it means to be part of God’s family; the curriculum follows a three year cycle. The One Room Sunday School kit includes everything you need for lessons including a leader guide, reproducible kids’ book, resource pack, and a CD-ROM with music resources; the Deep Blue DVD can be purchased separately for $29.99. The Large Group/Small Group kit also includes everything necessary; it has the leader guide, student sheets, and other material available as PDFs on a CD. The DVD as well as music resources are also included in the kit.

Sparkhouse, the ecumenical branch of the ELCA publisher, is introducing two options for multigraded Sunday school classes starting this September. They are both for a classroom with children ages 5-12 and follow a two year cycle. Spark All Kids sells a quarterly leader guide for $24.99. Reproducible learner leaflets are not available; they must be purchased for each child at a cost of $5.99 per quarter. Many of the activities in the leader guide use the leaflets. A separate music CD for the year can be purchased for $19.99. Whirl All Kids is a video-based curriculum. The leader guide sells for $24.99 per quarter; the quarterly DVD is also $24.99. Learner leaflets sell for $6.99 per child per quarter. The Whirl music CD sells for $19.99.

Shine: Living in God’s Light is a Sunday school curriculum from the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren with an emphasis on spirituality and peacemaking. It is used by churches in a number of other denominations. Shine offer a multiage component for ages 5-12. For each quarter, you will need a teacher’s guide for $13.99, a resource pack for $24.99, and student leaflets for $9.99 per child. The songbook and music CD for the year sells for $19.99.

For Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches, the Growing in Grace and Gratitude curriculum offers a multiage component for ages 5-10. The Leader Material is available as a download for $50 per quarter or in print for $75 per quarter. One copy of the student Stories, Colors and More is included with the Leader Material; additional copies are $20.

If you’d like to use a multiage curriculum based on the lectionary, there are a few options. Feasting on the Word is an ecumenical curriculum from the PCUSA publisher which offers a multiage component for children in grades 1-6. The price for Feasting on the Word varies as it is available as a download or as a printed product; churches can purchase one quarter at a time or select a 9-month or 12-month subscription. The curriculum includes leader guides, reproducible resource sheets, and more. Full-color visuals are included in a printed color pack. A yearly music CD is available to purchase separately. Another lectionary-based curriculum which offers a multiage component is Living the Good News which is ecumenical and comes from the Episcopal publisher. It is downloadable and costs $139.99 per year for each age level. Seasons of the Spirit is another option for churches wishing to use a multigraded, lectionary-based curriculum. It comes from Woodlake Publishing, an ecumenical publisher based in Canada. Seasons of the Spirit offers worship resources as well as a curriculum for ages 3 through adult which includes a multiage component for ages 5-12. Student resource sheets are reproducible. Pricing is available for 1 quarter, 3 quarters, or all 4 quarters in three different formats: web, printed, or on a CD.

Samples of all curriculums mentioned are available on the publishers’ websites. As Sunday school attendance continues to diminish, we can expect to see more options available for one room or multigraded classes.