Fueling the Passion

Week #1. Meet Krista Lovell. She is the Mission Coordinator at Faith Presbyterian Church, a worshiping community of 300 in Huntsville, Alabama (www.presby.org). In 2016, over half of the members of her church (approximately 175 people) were involved in 20+ service project. That’s amazing!

 One day Krista started to poke around the church and stumbled into an old fashion church library.  She thought, “Here sits a room, not in use, and no one has checked out a book in years! This room is prime real estate to do something new.”

Space with high visibility can speak in ways that this old library caught the attention of Krista. She dreamt of what the library room could be. With 10 % of the church’s budget going to missions and outreach, Krista wanted a space that could connect people of all ages to the 34 mission partners. Her vision casted caught the enthusiasm of the church!

She got as many people involved as she could to transform the dusty library into a new Mission Center. With the foot traffic in the hallway, people stopped in to visit the center and learn about the different projects. Each mission partner has a shelf which tells a story by displaying what that mission partner is about, their needs, and ways to be involved.

Krista said, “I give tours to all ages and stages of life, who are interested in stepping out in missions. It’s a match making process so by visiting the Mission Center people can see what they are interested in and sign up.”

But displaying information and events isn’t the only thing that goes on in the Mission Center. There are spontaneous hands-on projects for people to do right away. Kids come in and decorate bags for the weekend food shelf or a Christmas ornament for the giving tree.

Other planned projects happen (in above photos) such as cutting netting material to produce a bag to hold fresh potatoes that are then delivered to feeding agencies (over 40,000 lbs of potatoes!) or intergenerational projects such as tying quilts for the children’s home.

What Krista has learned in the process is that people have passion. They want to make a difference. But it takes listening, asking questions, and interviewing to help people connect with the right mission partner so that they can step out successfully in outreach. That’s what this new space does by breathing life not only into a mission center but into the hearts of those who serve others.

Why does this Mission Center matter? It matters because of what Acts 1:8 says: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (NRSV)” This verse doesn’t ask if you want to be but that you will be a faithful witness to the ends of the earth. That includes Alabama! Their vision statement says that “Faith Presbyterian Church seeks to be Worship-Centered and Mission-Focused as we join together in Christ’s ministry.” The Mission Center helps people faithfully live out this vision by being God’s witnesses locally and globally.

To learn more on this story, contact Krista Lovell at  klovell@presby.org or 256-881-4811.

Kids vote. Parents listen.

Wind back until 1985. Now I don’t know about you, but in my house my parents made the rules and the decisions. My life growing up was a good one, but my role was to do as they asked or not. The later usually got me into trouble. Nevertheless, at some point I would acquiesce.

I don’t remember being asked my opinion as a kid except in my mother’s daily question about what we should have for dinner. In fact, some decisions were sprung on me as they decided to move around the east coast landing me in four different high schools.

Nor was I asked about my thoughts on church. My mom and dad grew up in a time when church was a response to duty and obligation. No matter how much I resisted, church was a part of my weekly life. Simply, I did not have a choice to go or not.

But things have changed with my kids. As teenagers, they decide what sports to play, clubs to join, or with guidance what school to attend. Church, even though it is my life work, is not seen as an obligation or just some opportunity in our family. My kids decide for themselves on how they would like to be involved or not. Simply, they have a vote.

My youngest is a big fan of Vacation Bible School (VBS) and camp. From the music and songs to the games with friends, he finds joy and acceptance. It’s a place that he can just be a kid in God’s natural kingdom that attracts him to these ministries.

My oldest son teaches Sunday School, sings in the choir, and serves communion. One Sunday, I woke up him to go to church. His response was met with fatigue and asked to stay home. It was no big deal and so I left. About one mile down the road, he texted me. It said, “Man. I wish I was going to church because Addy is singing today.” Addy is my son’s little friend (and my God-daughter). She is a spunky three-years-old, who was singing with her choir for the first time. Remembering this, my son wanted to be present to see her sing. I turned my car around and called him. By the time I got home, he was outside waiting for me. My son – 16 years old – voted against sleep that day. He went to church on his own reckoning. No pressure from me the parent or (almost) pastor. It was a win-win day.

Families visit your church every Sunday. Some kids come willingly with their parents, and others might not be as excited. Whatever the case, these young people will visit our Sunday Schools, worship services and youth groups. Then, they leave. But I can guarantee you this. The first question parents will ask their children on the way home is “Did you have fun?” Kids will  answer either, yes or no. Bam! Just like that their opinions are not only heard but help in deciding their family’s next step. These kids, who are parented different than I was, know that their voices and votes matter in family decisions.

So don’t forget: This Sunday as you prepare to open the doors for worship, Sunday School and youth group, that your building will encounter new families. And right along with the parents, a child’s vote will help them decide whether they will return to your church or not. The questions is – are you ready for them to vote, yes.

church entrance

(Photo credit: The Visual Faith Project of Vibrant Faith)




A Third Space

Week #5. Meet Nicole VanderMeulen. She is the Director of Children, Youth and Family at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton, Washington. With a worshipping attendance of around 300 people, VanderMeulen says, “St. Matthew’s is committed to loving all people.”

This vibrant church has five core values, which are based on these title headings: Welcome, Story, The Cross, Dirty Hands, and Humor.  At first glance, these five core values seem somewhat unconventional or even a little quirky, but after spending just five minutes on the phone with VanderMeulen, it was easy to see how these core values have impacted her congregation.

My favorite of these core values is “Dirty Hands”. The website gives this description:

“A congregation that takes the pain of the community seriously has to be willing to become involved in the acts of caring. When we care, we do not do it from a distance. You have to enter into relationship with the other person. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty.”

 After years of planning and dreaming, St. Matthew’s decided to get their hands dirty. Along with a grant from the ELCA, they created and opened Luther’s Table, a non-profit café shop that opened in April 2011. Luther’s Table is what VanderMeulen called a “third space,” a place where the church could meet people where they were at and have conversations.

Now, Luther’s Table is a thriving establishment that serves food, drinks including wine and beer, provides a weekly storytime for children, supports local music and the arts, and has become a place to host meetings and events, or just meet a friend for coffee. Luther’s Table was built on the site of a former Lutheran church and does have a Sunday evening congregation called “Roots of the Table”.

Now, here is the amazing part: Luther’s Table for the most part is supported by the hands of volunteers.  There were approximately 42 different volunteers that gave about 3,600 hours of service in 2016. They serve the meals, wash the dishes and clean the space. Being a volunteer for Luther’s Table means “getting your hands dirty” for the sake of the Gospel.

It’s a third space where non-Christians encounter the Christ incarnate through hospitality, warm smiles and real world conversations. VanderMeulen says, “Following Jesus is not just about hanging out with fellow Christians. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone to engage with someone you don’t know. To do that, we have to be willing to meet people on their turf. As a church, we are all in this together.”

Why does the work of Luther’s Table matter? It matters because what Jesus does in Matthew 9:9-13 in the call of Matthew. VanderMeulen says, “Jesus did not wait for the people to come to him. He went to the people.” Jesus walked up to Matthew the tax collector and said, “Follow me.” As people of God we are called to follow Jesus. But not to just hang out with people who are like us and insulate ourselves from the realities of the world. We are called to something bigger – to serve and love and care for all those we find in our own third spaces. Living the Gospel is about getting our hands dirty.

For more information on this story, contact Nicole VanderMeulen at 425-226-2420 or nicole.vander@comcast.net



Stop Inviting, until…

I love my clerical collar. Even though it is a little itchy, it has opened many conversations about God and my life with the people I encounter around town. And what I have noticed thru these bump-into’s is that people are longing to know God.

Churches on the other hand long for people to enter their doors. But no longer can churches rely on the attraction model of “build it and they will come”.  Nor can churches force or obligate people to respond to their hospitality.

(Photo credits – the Visual Faith Project with Vibrant Faith.)

What happens then is the church gazes out the window wondering how do we reach people. And if left, the gap between the congregation and its surrounding community grows wider and wider.

So, how do we close the gap between our churches and communities? My work as a former missionary and my love for story has me thinking about what happens when you put the two together. Right now, I have narrowed it done to three things:

Stop inviting. Work first internally by developing a memorable vision statement. Give pop quizzes to the staff and council to help them learn it. Make it visible around the church. Teach it to the congregation. People will happily invite neighbors if they know what they are inviting them into. For example, Good Shepherd’s vision statement is Where Love Comes to Life. People know it and people reach out using that statement.

Teach story. Ever wondered why the scope and sequence in Sunday School moves from the Old Testament to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus then into the early church? Because it makes sense. Take time to teach people the arc of the story and how it connects to daily life. Use repetition, illustrations and images. Give people space and time to talk about their story in the midst of God’s story. Practice, practice, practice. Ask yourself ‘what do you let go of’ so that the practice of story can permeate the building on a Sunday morning.

Measure success. Numbers do tell a story. How many people are in worship or kids in Sunday School help us keep count of growth. But they don’t tell us everything. I learned this first hand a couple of years ago. It was fall and I was leading a Sunday School teacher training. Our topic was discussing different ways to measure success. Numerically, of course, was the most obvious as we reviewed the color-coded class lists. But another way was could the teachers say “yes” to this question: Would you be willing to bring a friend to church? (My good friend Mary Pechauer taught me this question!) One woman was so moved by our conversation, that she stood up and said, “Yes!” Immediately, she felt called to go see her friend and to invite them to Rally Day. It’s a win.

Through my experience these three intentional moves have led to church growth. A clear vision helps with congregational buy-in. Storytelling develops biblical fluency and confidence in faith storying. And measuring non-numerical success encourages invitation.

As a church, we have work to do that does not involve window gazing. It’s work that may take us outside our church doors and into the community of the unknown. But it is our work to do. It’s our calling to close the gap.

100 Members: 3000 Meals

Week #4. Meet Mary Corning Sanders. She is a solo pastor at United Lutheran Church in Tacoma, Washington. United has a membership of 100 people, with about 45-50 worshipping on a given Sunday. What this little church has done is amazing.

Sanders says, “The realities are like many. United is an aging white congregation with little to no budget.” To help facilitate the building, the church shares with two other congregations, an African American Church and a Samoan Church.

United along with Pastor Mary have one goal in mind, which is “Proclaiming God’s Promise.” Sanders makes a comparison that United Lutheran Church is like the Mighty Mouse Cartoon, the congregation is little but strong!

Deciding to take a church assessment, United found out their diagnosis. They are as Pastor Mary described as being “financially challenged” but “spiritually vibrant”. With creative leadership and a congregation with a determined spirit, United made a bold move to open its doors.

About five years ago, a new idea began to stir around food insecurity. United realized that food shortage and people going hungry is a real issue. They decided to open a weekly community meal and food bank. Pastor Mary says, “Every Wednesday from 12-2 pm, anyone who shows up hunger is welcomed to eat lunch with us.”

food bank shelves 2.png

The community meal has doubled in hungry visitors from five years ago. And over half of the volunteers who serve the meal are not from United. Donations for the meal and the food shelf pour in from the budget and members, a grant from the ELCA, from the food drives by the Boy Scouts and the school across the street.

Sanders estimates that in both 2015 and 2016 that approximately 3000-3500 meals were served by the community lunch and/or food shelf. The reality that really hits home though is that not only has the program grown but so has the need. This little church of 100 people has fed over 3000 people with food and counting! Amazing!

Why does this community meal and food shelf matter? It matters because inside the walls, these programs give the church a sense of purpose in following Jesus. It’s God’s work, our hands. But in John 21:17, “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Feed my sheep.’” For United and Pastor Mary, they believe that as Christians we are called to do just that, to feed those who are hungry and clothe those in need. It’s all about God’s sheep.

For more information on this story, contact Pastor Mary Corning Sanders at unitedlutherantacoma@gmail.com or 253-475-3175.


A Tale of Two Churches

In my effort to blog about my own experiences as well as other churches, here is my next story. I have always known that church relationships matter. For 20 years, I have been in ministry on 3 different continents speaking 3 to 4 languages. But it didn’t really hit me until I made my last church move.

I used to work for Bethlehem Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis as the Director of Children’s Ministries. I loved my time with this generous and loving congregation. But after 7 years, I felt the call to move. This time – still in south Minneapolis, 2 miles apart – to Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Children’s Ministries and now as Intern Pastor. It’s been a good fit to be with this equally generous and loving congregation.

But I will never forget the day when I told my kids that we were moving congregations. Jacob being 9 years old at the time burst into tears in the backyard. He began to rattle off a list of names – Lottie, Gabby, Anna – peers from his Sunday School class. His list was long! He feared that he would forget them.

boys at 9 and 12

Noah, who was on the verge of 7th grade, would not talk to me. Instead, he texted. He said, “I love Bethlehem.” In my reply, I affirmed his feelings about Bethlehem but reassured him that he would love Good Shepherd as well. Noah then responded in another text with just 4 names: Jensen, Henry, Fritz, and Marshall. The first two didn’t surprise me. They were his peers. But Fritz and Marshall were 4 year olds. Noah had been their assistant teacher for Sunday School.  He valued their relationship just as much as he did his peers! (Sidebar: My kids loved both churches and have made lasting relationships at each congregation.)

At the heart of the church’s identity is relationship. The essence of God manifests in relationship—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Christ, God emptied God’s self, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2). Through Christ we are restored to God. In Christ, we find strength to forgive and love the other.

Relationships matter. With church, we have the gift and the richness of multiple generations in one place. Of course, this gift is not without its challenges. One challenge is the significant difference between how 20th and 21st century people live, learn and process. We’ve changed from linear to multi-sensory, physical to virtual, local to global. “Why change?” is now “Why not change?” (Next week’s blog!)

But for now, it’s a tale of two churches. Two congregations that have loved my children and have held onto them tightly. And what I have figured out during this past 10 years between the 2 churches is how to be a “connector”. In a time when faith and daily life seem far from one another, my role is to help people connect the dots of faith through their relationship with God and each other. It’s a time when relationships matter.

As an intern, I don’t know where I will land next whether it is a call to a church, to be a missionary, or a clerk at Barnes and Nobles. But I do know how I will proceed with my work – in relationship with God and God’s people.

Worship Reordered

Week #3. Meet Mary JJ Keelan. She is the Director of Youth and Family Ministry at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Manasquan, New Jersey. With a vibrant staff, Holy Trinity has average worship attendance of 250 people a given Sunday.


Keelan, Youth and Family Ministry and Worship and Music committees asked: “What do youth need in life? Many of our kids grow up in a nurtured environment but they need deeper conversations.” Keelan uses the analogy of a rope to help parents raising young children that they have role in leading them in faith.

She says, “Everyone needs a rope to hold onto. Someone who will pull you along when you need help and to swing you across to the other side. Faith is what tethers us to the rope. It is a part of our everyday lives”

But the problem is that parents did not know where to start. Like many churches, parents were dropping their kids off for Sunday School and leaving. They were not attending worship to gain the knowledge and skills they needed to grow in faith with their children.

Acknowledging that something had to change, Keelan dug deep into her certified project management skills and asked three questions:

  • What’s the behavior? By observing what was going on with families, Keelan understood why parents were dropping off the kids and leaving.
  • What’s the benefit? By asking questions, Keelan understood the changes that needed to take place to equip parents with faith skills and how they would benefit from the changes.
  • What’s the goal? By setting goals and casting a vision, Keelan successfully implanted change that stopped the “drop and go” problem.

Because of the team’s keen observation and vision, Holy Trinity made a bold move. Get this – they decided to flip the order of worship. Starting together in the pews, here is how the families and congregation now worship:




Eucharistic Prayer

Holy Communion


Hymn of the Day

Kids travel during the hymn of the day to their respective classrooms.  When the parents return to the narthex you can see them breathe a sigh a prayer before entering the sanctuary. The balance of the service contains:

Readings/ Sermon

Prayers of Intercession


Sending hymn

When the parents return to the pews they can fully embrace the word with little or no distractions. It also allows the children to receive the message in a classroom/interactive environment.

Keelan says, “The rearrangement of worship was to reach families.” Guess what? It is working! By aligning priorities, the drop off affect has vanished. Parents are now attending worship with their kids and getting the nourishment they need to lead their kids in faith.

Why does this new arrangement of worship matter? It matters because of what Jesus says in Luke 11:9: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” The problem is that churches don’t ask; they talk at young people and their families as if they already have all the answers. Keelan says, “In order for a shift to occur we need to take Jesus’ advice. In our congregations, we should be asking, searching and questioning the why and how of what families need to raise their children in the faith.” When you do this, expect change.

To learn more about this story, please contact Mary JJ Keelan at Mary.Keelan@yahoo.com or (732) 223-0533.








Play Holy Communion?

Just as I am lifting up the creative things that congregations are doing around the USA, I am happy to share some of my own gleanings. With Maundy Thursday around the corner, first on the docket is about Holy Communion.

Often I get questions from families about Holy Communion. Questions like “When should my child start communing?” or “Is my child too young to receive communion?” The answer that I have learned through worship class or through my own convictions is whenever the child can reach out his or her hands.

Jesus never gave an age limit at either end in life concerning communion. It’s intended to be a free gift for all people including kids! At Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in South Minneapolis, where I am an intern and director of children’s ministries, I encourage kids to commune at any time or as their parents allow.

But at some point, families attend a hand’s on class where Holy Communion is explored as a celebration, community, forgiveness, love and true presence. Here are some of the things Children’s Ministries at Good Shepherd does to help kids and their families learn about communion:

Kids learn through pretend play with the play communion kits, instructions, and stuffed animals in the worship bags. Kids in the pews can follow the actions of the pastor during the Words of Institution, read the Lord’s Prayer in pictures, and commune a stuffed animal.


Kids learn through practical ideas such as baking unleavened bread, acting out the last supper story, pre-communion taste-test, learning the logistics, and decorating their own chalice.

Kids learn through practiced repetition such as kids helping read the Words of Institution, holding up the elements, and becoming communion assistants. They see what is happening around them and repeat the actions.



Families and kids love learning about the mystery of God together. Our role is to be storytellers of the faith and to create tangible ways for them to engage in God’s story. These are few simple ideas as I am sure you have others! Please share in the comments section as I would love to hear or blog about your ideas.

PS For a pattern for the kit, check out this etsy page for inspiration and download her set at Click Here









Ash Wednesday Prayers

Prayers based on the Narrative Lectionary text Luke 9:51-62.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem…

Led by Christ in our journey of repentance and moved by his compassion, let us pray for the church, those in need and all of God’s creation.

God of the Journey, through your son, Jesus Christ, you are doing it. You have done the about face turn towards Jerusalem. Your death march has begun. Today marks the first day, your first step into the wilds of people who wish to see you dead. But we know your life comes with a promise for us, the promise of which you are headed towards, the promise that comes from what will be done on the cross, a cross which is now ashed on our foreheads. Help us to mindful of who you are, what you do, and who you call us to be.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

cross with photos.jpg

God, you have set out on a mission to set right this world. Teach us what we need to know, to love, and to care. Guide our hearts on the journey as we put one foot in front of the other. Helps us to take a moment, to pause so that we may hear your guiding voice. Lead us in what is right – right by you.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.


It’s true God, we – your people who come from dust – we see you coming. Your face shines on ours in the dark places of our lives. And so we ask that you shine on others. Bring peace to those who struggle, who are at war, who are refugees. Give food and shelter to those who are hungry and homeless. Heal those with your loving care. Comfort those dear God who mourn and grieve. Be with those who are close to our hearts.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

jacob in water fall.jpg

No more waiting, God. Please calm our fears, warm our souls and move our hearts so that we might be about your love and goodness in a world that desperately needs you. Ready or not, set our feet into motion. Walk with us on this journey. And help us to see you face to face in each other.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Into your hands, gracious God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior.




Football Anyone?

Week #2. Meet Lexanne Kimball Graves. She is the Director of Faith Formation at Living Springs Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Living Springs has a membership of 350 people with a heart for service.

Graves describes Living Springs as an “agile church” that likes to do something else. She says, “The congregation is excited to try new things with permission to fail!” In re-imagining church, their goal is to move people’s hearts with the idea that God is not just at church but that God is everywhere.

One way they have started to move people is by connecting two things that go hand-in-hand: education and food. Reaching out, Living Springs has started two community service projects collaborating with schools and counselors to help with food scarcity:

1. Each fall, people from Living Springs gather at a local high school in Columbia, SC on Thursdays nights. With school spirit, they bring dinner to the junior varsity football team and then watch the game. It is a football food ministry!


Through food and support, these two groups of people have begun to get to know each other. Feeling comfortable, Living Springs at the end of the season invited the team, coaches and parents off the field and into the church community. Time was spent in worship and in a meal together. Graves says, “It’s an awesome partnership that the Holy Spirit has brought together.”

Another education and food project is a backpack ministry. At church, all ages come together to pack food in generic bags. Social workers then pick up the food and distribute it at their schools for kids who need food for the weekend. Collected donations support this food ministry.

The myth behind service projects is that much money is needed to provide everything. But Living Springs debunks this myth. Yes, money is helpful but it is really about the people. With a collaborative approach – people amd to outreach ministries, children are fed, relationships are built and a community closes the gap that once stood in-between them.

Why do these two service projects matter? It matters because of the Bible story about Manna and Quail found in Exodus 16. Graves says, “Just as the Israelites were given enough each day to eat, the same is true for us. We don’t need to be gluttoness; we just need enough.” Food scarcity is a real issue, and we should share what we have. She says, “Like the Israelites, there comes a time when we have 7 years of famine and 7 years of plenty. And you could easily find yourself in-between one of those places at any time.”

For more information on this story, contact Lexanne Kimball Graves at Lexanne@LivingSpringsColumbia.org or 803-736-0661.