Thursday, September 30, 2010

Random Musings on Anti-Gay Bullying and Suicide

I might get in trouble for some of these words, but here goes:

  • I'm a little bit confused about how we look at today's youth.  On the one hand, we are told that young kids are far more tolerant of gays than older groups.  On the other hand, we see a lot of young gay teens committing suicide.  So what does that mean?

  • I am reminded that being a teenager sucks.  As adults, our memories start to get cloudy and we start to remove all the bad parts of being a teen.  But the fact is, it still sucks.  It sucked back in the 1980s and it still does.

  • Where are the gay adults?  Yes, I know there is a lot being done by Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, but besides expressing our anger on blogs, why aren't we volunteering at some center for gay youth?  They do exist in many big cities.  Yes, schools should do more, but what are gay men and lesbians doing?

  • Why aren't we teaching kids how they can stand up to the bullies and remind themselves that they are beautiful and worth it?

  • While I'm not opposed to anti-bullying laws, I don't think they will stop kids from being teased or from being bullied.  It's not simply because schools are doing bad job, but because kids can be cruel and they will find ways to hurt each other.

  • I think churches need to do a better job of teaching their youth not to make fun of each other and to do what Jesus did: love the outcasts.

  • Suicide was an issue as a teen growing up in the 1980s.  It wasn't specifically about being gay, though that was probably one of many reasons.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

For Gay Youth...

Since there has been a lot of talk about a lot of gay teens committing suicide, I wanted to share something that the church I am at is doing starting October 8.

We are starting a program geared towards gay teens where they can come together in a safe space and maybe learn that God loves them just as they are.

You can find out more by reading this post at the church website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It Gets Better

It's never easy being a teen, and it's harder if you are gay or dealing with autism.  In junior high and in high school, I was dealing with both.  At the time, I didn't know I had Aspergers and was working hard to deny being gay.

I remember being picked on and told I was gay and the teasing was bad in my junior high years.  I can remeber especially when I was maybe 14 or 15 being picked on in church. There was one particular guy that would always call me gay or insinuate in various ways that I was different.

Long story short, I didn't fit in and while there was a lot of good things that happened to me back then, I also felt very lonely and very afraid at times. 

Back in the summer, our Christian Educator, Deb told us about what was happening in the Anoka-Hennepin district, a suburban school district north of Minneapolis.  A number of teens have committed suicide after being bullied and most if not all of those kids were gay.  After hearing some of the issues from a friend and teacher in the district, Deb was spurred to action and our church helped put together a fundraiser for the teacher, Jefferson who is walking in the American Foundations for Suicide Prevention's annual walk this Saturday.  Deb even went farther to create a program for gay youth where they can come and talk and have  safe space at a choatic time in their lives.

Columnist Dan Savage was spurred to action because of teen suicides in his area and put together a project called, "It Gets Better."  In the video below, he and his partner help young gay teens know that life does get better after high school.  I was touched by Dan's story of seeing Paris at dawn with his five-year-old sun.  My partner Daniel and I went to Paris in 2008 for our honeymoon.  I had been to Paris 10 year earlier, by myself, but I will forever remember this trip because I was with my love.  I remember eating pastries with Daniel from bakery right near Notre Dame.  What a wonderful memories.

The fact is, it does get better.  Hey, I got to be a pastor!  And I got to travel to Buenos Aires!  My parents have come to accept me as being gay and they love Daniel as the white-Norwegian son-in-law they never had.

I should add that kids with autism should also know that it will get better.  You will find people who accept you for who you are and will love you.  People will come to love and accept you, even with your quirks.

I guess the thing I want to say is that things can get better.  If you are a young gay teen or a kid with autism that is having a hard time at school and church...know that it does get better.  The bullies will only last a time.  And know that there are caring communities out there.  Seek them out.  You will find out that life really is worth it if you just stick around.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Church, Autism and a place of Welcome

I wrote this post originally back in July of this year.  I've added a few things and expanded upon it.

When I was a kid , I spent several years on the junior usher board at church. Of course, back in the 70s, neither I nor my parents knew I was autistic, but they knew things were a bit off with me.

Anyway, being an usher in the African American church is an artform. You wear certain uniforms and there were certain hand signals that you would use to indicate a certain need. When the time came for prayer, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest and bow your head. I can remember the feeling of cocooning myself into this little ball and it felt good. Once I was in that position, I would start twisting or rocking my torso, to the left and then to right. Back and forth, back and forth. It felt good to me, but it must have looked damn weird to the people in the pews. I can distinctly remember one day being in my happy place and rocking back and forth until a pair of hands touched my shoulders indicating that it was time to stop.

Looking back 30 years later, that was a vivid example of kid with autism in the church. I don't know if what the person did was correct or not, but I do wonder if people were disturbed at what I was doing.

Now that I am a pastor and someone with autism, I have started to wonder how those with autism are treated in the church. In talking with a good friend who has two children on the spectrum, I have found out that churches have a long way to go in welcoming people and families where one or more persons are on the spectrum.

I stumbled upon this blog post by a special-ed teacher in Georgia, who shares the struggles he and his wife have faced when it comes to the church accomodating his son who is autistic:
One would think that the safest place in the world for children with disabilities would be in houses of worship, among people dedicated to God, love, mercy, grace, compassion, faith, and forgiveness. But this is not true at all. The worship service itself, with constant demands for compliance and conformity, is hostile for those who are inherently different from everyone else. Anyone who is unable to conform to the structures of the service is not welcome and asked to leave. The larger the church, the more true this will be.

I may editorialize more on my feelings toward church and those with disabilities later, but I want to talk a bit about how churches attempt to deal with this unique and growing population. In this particular church spoken about above, they attempted to recruit helpers in order to help Thomas participate in the same activities as his peers. I think the intent of the program was excellent, and it started out well enough. But without diligence by a committed coordinator, it becomes just another chore to dread like ushering, parking lot duty, being a greeter or assorted other mundane tasks and ministries in the church. Yes, we are the boy’s parents and he is our responsibility which we take seriously. But no one was caring much about our own spiritual growth or struggles. Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized. I don’t think Jesus would approve.


The thing is, a lot of this rings true. There are many churches where the worship service is meant to be a time of silence and decorum. God help you if a kid gets cranky. But it's one thing if grown people are talking out of turn; it's another if a kid with autism is having a meltdown.

Churches have to be more aware and willing to find ways to welcome special needs persons. Of course, being a pastor I also know that isn't so easy to do, especially when it comes autism.  Sometimes a person with autism could be very disruptive in a worship service and dealing with a person with autism can be difficult. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. That said, no one ever said being church was easy.

When it comes to this family, I wonder what would have happened had the pastor worked with family and other leaders to make church a more welcome place, not only for the kid, but for the parents. It is interesting that in all of this, it seems that the Senior Pastor was absent.

Raising a kid with autism can be challenging for parents. They love their kids and will do what it takes to make sure they are well-cared for. But it can also be draining for them as well and it seems like in this case, no one seemed to care about the spiritual and emotional health of Thomas' parents.
Maybe the problem here is that church is so formal. We treat it like we are watching the symphony. We want to hear the music and the choir, but we don't want to hear babies crying; that just ruins everything.

I'm not saying that church needs to be a rock concert, but what it we allowed a bit more informality?

Lesile Phillips, a blogger from Houston is more pointed in how churches treat persons with autism and other behavior disorders:
What I find fascinating (and by that I mean infuriating) is that often the people who claim to be most understanding, most inclusive and most loving are often actually the most judgmental, UN-welcoming people out there. Sure, many faith communities have taken the trouble to build ramps or make accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Sorry to say folks, but that's the easy stuff. When are we going to get to the hard stuff?

The hard stuff is making successful inclusion happen for people whose disabilities have behavioral manifestations, like autism, bipolar disorder, Tourette Syndrome. Many people can understand that children with autism may have behavior challenges, but they seem to think that because a place of worship should be quiet and reverent that a child can somehow leave their disability "at the door". If walking into a place of worship cured my son's autism, I'd live in one. It doesn't work that way. His disability follows him right inside the door, past ornate statues, alongside people in fancy-colored robes, among people praying and singing - you name it, it's there.

I was raised as a Christian. Christians are fond of asking "What would Jesus do?" (In fact, they are so fond of asking it, they sometimes sport bracelets that simply say "WWJD?") Would he turn my son away? What about your faith, whatever it may be? Is it consistent with your beliefs that people with challenges and their families, who likely need supportive fellowship more than anyone on the planet, should be excluded from worship?


I don't know what I can do to make church more welcoming to my fellow aspies, but I will try. I want church to be a place where freaks are welcomed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Retreads: The Aspie Pastor and Evangelism

The following is a post I wrote back in February about evangelism and autism on my old blog.  I thought I'd re-post it here.

[caption id="attachment_34" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="One of my cats, Morris, circa 2002."][/caption]

One of the things I have learned since my diagnosis is that I really have a hard time connecting with people.  I don't mean to say that I'm friendless, but it's a lot harder for me to meet people than it is for others.

Our congregation is trying to encourage people to start sharing their faith in non-coercive ways.  I think it's a great idea and I've seen how the Senior Pastor has been able to talk and share his life with others.

But I sit somewhat amazed at how he does it.  I mean, I've tried to invite people to church events, but I feel at times like Data from Star Trek: I might understand the mechanics of something, but not it's essence.

My aspie way of evangelism is sending someone a Facebook event invite.  Something tells me that while that's one way of inviting people to church, it is not the most effective way.

The fact of the matter is, I don't know how to invite someone to church because I am lost in inviting people, period.  I think that's why the church start that I was a part of failed so badly: I had no idea how to build those relationships that one needs.  Oh, I would ask people, but I don't think it had that same "magic" that it has when it comes from someone that isn't autistic.

It's funny- I feel God has called me to be at this place, to help this church grow spiritually and be able to share their faith lives with friends and neighbors and yet I have a big issue in how to actually share my life, something that I have a hard time doing. God really does work in mysterious ways.

I feel at times like a cat trying to make my way in a dog world.  Dogs are social animals and love to be with other dogs ( I guess that's what the butt-sniffing is all about).  But cats tend to be solitary and don't understand what's up with those crazy dogs.

I wish there was a cat way to be social, a feline way of evangelism.

Let's see what God has to say.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Write the Future"

How much impact can an struggling church in the urban core of Minneapolis have on the world?

Well, a lot if it knows that church is verb as much as it is a noun.

A recent post on the blog Church Marketing Sucks referenced a marketing campaign by Nike that was shown during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Called "Write the Future," the ad features several well-known soccer players making moves that could either win or lose the game and the ripples those actions make around the world.

The writer of the blog likens this to the church.  A gathering of believers can have a major impact in our world today, but too often we call people to "come and stay" instead of "go and do."

First Christian Church is a group of people who come together to worship God and care for each other.  First Christian is a noun.  But First Christian is also a verb, it is a gathering of followers of Jesus Christ, who go into the world to care for the poor and the outcast.

Examples abound of those writing the future and "doing church."  I am reminded of  the Handcrafters as they make prayer shawls.  I think of those who donated to the Backpack Sunday drive First Christian did with Central Lutheran, helping countless children get school supplies.  I think of the Young Adults who took a Saturday evening to make sandwhiches for the Dignity Center, a ministry of Hennepin Avenue Methodist to help homeless folks have something in the bellies for the day.

A church like First Christian might not be many in number, but it can "write the future."  We can live out faith as followers of Jesus Christ and make a difference in the lives of untold numbers of people, both here in Minneapolis and around the world.

Let's continue writing the future, First Christian.  Go and do church.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The End of the Full-Time Pastor?

When I started my current position at First Christian two years ago, I came on part-time....very part time.  The church couldn't afford a full-time Associate Pastor and frankly, I didn't want to give up my day job.  So, since that time I've worked part-time at First and full time at my job with the Presbytery.

I have to say when people find out that I'm a part time pastor, they look at me funny.  Some wonder how I do it (I sometimes wonder myself).  I've learned to try to not overdo it and try to manage time.  I'm not always good at that, but I do try.

Some people tend think that my ministry is not very real, since I'm not full time.  That always bugs me since I tend to do almost everything that a full-time pastor does- just not full time.

The funny thing is, full-time ministry is changing.  I've been around mainline churches enough to see that many of them don't have the finances to fund a full time pastor like they used to.  Congregations aren't as big as they used to be and the people in the pews don't give like they used to.

Lutheran pastor Amy Thompson Simvili is watching how things are changing and sending a warning to young clergy to not expect that they will serving as a full-time pastor.
Young clergy like myself entered the ministry expecting to spend our working lives in some church capacity, never intending to amass a fortune, but planning to earn enough to pay the rent, put children through college, and save a little. That is, we hoped eventually to earn more than our denominations’ minimum-salary – which is enough to get started but little more. Given the messages I heard as a young adult discerning a call, never did I think this model was untenable.  “The church needs pastors,” I was told.  “Soon there will be a shortage.”

It looks as if that was only partly true.  It is true that pastors are needed in the mainline’s many small congregations, and that won’t change. But the number of full-time pastors (i.e. pastors earning enough to pay the rent and support a family) is dwindling.  Many judicatories around the mainline churches are looking for more part-time than full-time clergy. In my own financially-healthy synod, the number of part-time positions is growing faster than we would like. A lot faster. Some say that this will change when the economy rebounds. Maybe it will for a few.  But in most congregations, the issue is not money. It’s numbers.  Many congregations have become so small that any future economic growth will have no effect on their ability to pay a full-time pastor.

So what's the answer? Pure honesty:
I think the simple answer is this: tell the truth. The model for ministry which we have long assumed is no longer the model of the future. In the same way that older clergy are facing the reality of decimated pensions and the prospect of working more years than they expected, so too are younger clergy facing a different future. In 10-20 years, some will still have full-time calls; many will not. So, for those of us already in the ministry, we will need to acquire a second set of skills and discern whether we can fulfill our calling through bi-vocational ministry. For those who are entering the ministry, they need to be told at the outset about the reality into which they enter. They, too, will probably have to acquire a second set of skills and to add to their discernment the question of whether or not God is calling them to bi-vocational ministry.

Most of all, the church and its mostly older leadership has to talk about this economic reality right now. They must do this without sounding unnecessary alarm bells but with realism about the future. They must also address the future of clergy education. They could even ask some younger people to help. I think we would be willing.

The future is not necessarily dire, but it will look different.

For me, I was lucky to find a job where I could use my the journalism skills I learned in college. The thing is, in the future, pastors might have to go back to what the apostle Paul did: having a ready skill to help pay the bills.

Of course, none of this is news to church musicians or those from the African American church tradition. As my partner Daniel, who is a church musician, can tell you, there are few full-time positions out there. Many musicians who have a passion for music have to work another job to make ends meet. It might not be perfect, but it allows them to fulfill their calling. I remember as a kid, that many a Black Baptist church was headed by a pastor who was a pastor on Sundays and worked in the auto plants during the week.

So, to those who are thinking about ministry I offer two pieces of advice. First, don't be a religion major in college. Find another skill that will be useful. Or maybe even learn a trade and become a plumber or carpenter (I think there was a nice, young Jewish boy that tried that once). Second, really think about why you want to go into ministry. If you can be open to working two jobs, then you might be called to be a pastor. If not, you might want to do some more discernment.

At the end of the day, the church of the 1950s is dissapearing. But while we don't know what's coming down the pike, at least we know that God is with us.

Thanks be to God.

h/t: Michael Kruse

If you are wondering what's up with the deerhead, read this post from 2006 where I talk about bivocational ministry while I was leading a new church start.

Friday, September 03, 2010


I've always been a Bjork fan and one of my favorites has been the song, Hyperballad, which came out in 1995-96.  I remember hearing it when I first moved to Minnesota in the winter of '96 and it seemed like a song of hope in a kinda lonely period in my life.