Friday Link Love: Tech Overload, Life of Pi, and the Death of Homework?

Away we go!


dove-hands12NEXT Church 

I am on the strategy team for the NEXT Church, an initiative that is trying to encourage dynamic and vibrant ministry, particularly in the Presbyterian Church (USA). If that’s something you care about too, you want to be reading our blog, perusing (and contributing to) our archive of ministry resources, and registering for our 2013 gathering, March 4-5 in Charlotte.

Bookmark it! Share it! Love it!

Update: The latest post on the NEXT blog is by yours truly. Yes, I’m getting cranky about not singing Christmas carols during Advent again.


Time to Tune Out — Roger Cohen, New York Times

Posted this on FB/Twitter yesterday with the question, “Is disconnecting from technology going to be the new trend?” Here’s the article again:

[The author quotes a reader who unplugged from Facebook] “Now, I am back to reading books when I would have been Facebooking. I talk to folks at the café I frequent. People have started calling me on the phone again to catch up because they don’t know what is going on with me otherwise. I have a hunch that being DISconnected is on its way to being the new trend.”

So here’s to doses of disconnection in 2013. Get out of the cross hairs of your devices from time to time. Drink experience unfiltered by hyperconnection. Gaze with patience. Listen through silences. Let your longings breathe.

Take a tech sabbath!


Can Faith in the Better Story Sustain Us? Survival and Significance in “Life of Pi” — Nick Olson, Patheos


Life of Pi is a story about Story, which means I love it:

Taken together, Life of Pi‘s various themes seem to suggest a longing for human significance couched in vaguely religious language. It’s a contemplative tale rooted in questions with room for open-ended interpretation. More specifically, Lee’s film — as an extension of Martel’s novel — suggests that our difficult, often tragic lives matter in a way that cold “facts” can’t totally explain. You might characterize the story as a “desperate” (survivalist) attempt to re-enchant a supposedly disenchanted modern world. Interestingly, in an interview with PBS, Martel says that he wrote his novel during a time when he felt lost: “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ — something that would direct my life.” Martel’s existential plight seems to have been Pi’s shipwrecked plight: lonely and directionless. Having “faith” in this particular context has a less specific range; its content is the simple belief that our lives — suffering included — are filled with meaning, purpose, and wonder. Which is to say, in Life of Pi, the religious and literary imaginations merely function as signals of the truth of significance itself, a “better Story” compared to a disenchanted, cold rationalism because there is more to humanity and existence than meets the eye.


Isaac Newton v. Rube Goldberg — 2D House (Video, 1:07)

Who will win the battle? Why, you will, because you’ll be wonderfully entertained. Here it is. (Can’t embed for some reason)


Today’s Assignment — Louis Menand, The New Yorker

Is homework useful? The article looks at attitudes about homework in two very different countries, Finland and South Korea.

Yet both systems are successful, and the reason is that Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality, and South Korean schools are doing what South Koreans want, which is to enable hard workers to get ahead. When President Hollande promises to end homework, make the school day shorter, and devote more teachers to disadvantaged areas, he is saying that he wants France to be more like Finland. His reforms will work only if that is, in fact, what the French want.

What do Americans want? Not to be like Finland is a safe guess. Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else.

That’s one of the truer sentences about the American Dream I’ve ever read. He goes on:

The dirty little secret of education reform is that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is household income. Even the standardized tests used for college admissions, like the S.A.T.s, are essentially proxies for income: students from better-off backgrounds get higher scores. The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo.


An Age-Old Question: Readers Debate Science and Theology — New York Times

The author, Nicholas Wade, wrote a reflection on Marco Rubio’s recent comments about the age of the earth. These are some of the responses to that article, which I found interesting. Here’s one:

In calling Senator Marco Rubio’s answer to a question about the age of the earth “15 back flips and a hissy fit,” Nicholas Wade grossly misdescribed the answer quoted earlier in his article. Mr. Rubio’s answer was a simple and ordinary evasion. It left room for Mr. Rubio’s religious right supporters to hope that he will support teaching the Bible in science class, while leaving himself room not to appear to be an outright science denier, to appease his more scientific supporters.

Possibly, the article should have been put in the political news section rather than the science section; the scientific truth of the theory of evolution has not been news since about 1859.

I’m not sure whether it was a simple evasion or not, but it seems plausible.


“Couponing” for Authors — J.L. Greger, Mystery Writing is Murder

This link is going to be most of interest for writers; if that’s you, check it out. The author describes a process by which she collects stories, data and tidbits that might be inspiration for a bit of writing.

Good principles here. But the main reason I’m linking to the article: it gives me yet another chance to profess my love for Evernote. I have several notebooks set up at the moment, in which I’m couponing ideas for new book projects.


A 120-Year-Old Mechanical Device that Perfectly Mimics the Sound of a Bird — Colossal

Get out the headphones or turn up your speakers and prepare to be impressed by archaic 19th century engineering.



Have a wonderful weekend.


Friday Link Love

It has been a crazy week. Just nuts. On the upside, I am now finally, completely, 100% done with the book, revisions and all. Huzzah!

And anon!


Logo for “The Truth”

First, some link love family-style:

The Truth — APM

My brother-in-law Jonathan is the producer of this radio program, dubbed “movies for your ears.” They were recently featured on This American Life. If you like the cleverness of the radio plays on Prairie Home Companion, but long for something WAY less stodgy, check this out. Clever, quality work.


Where the Hell Is Matt…One Last Dance — YouTube

I adored the 2008 video and always vowed to use it as an intro to World Communion Sunday. (Now I have the technology to do it at Tiny! Woo!) Maybe I’ll use this version instead:

Absolute joy.


What Post-Baby Bellies REALLY Look Like — Daily Mail Online

Honesty and beauty:

A group of working mothers and bloggers have decided to tackle the growing pressure women feel to snap straight back into shape after giving birth.

Baring their own post-baby bodies, seven bloggers from CT Working Moms have embraced their stomachs, in an effort to liberate other women from the unattainable cultural beauty ideals plaguing today’s ‘bounce-back’ obsessed society.

In a photo shoot they have named the Goddess Gallery, the women hope to encourage new mothers to accept, and cherish, their changing bodies despite the ever-growing ‘body after baby’ celebrity worship, and the suffocating negativity that can come with it.


The Impossible Juggling Act: Motherhood and Work — NPR

Anne-Marie Slaughter is EVERYWHERE right now. Her Atlantic article is a tour de force. This capsule of her Fresh Air review gives you the gist of her argument, but honestly, you should read the whole thing.

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can, too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured,” she writes. “My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged — and quickly changed.”

Those changes include recognizing the needs of both parents — and giving them both time off — when they first become caregivers. But the deeper problems, Slaughter says, are more cultural — and extend beyond the first months of parenting.

“[We assume] that the worker who works longest is most committed as opposed to valuing time management and efficiency at getting things done over the length of time,” she says. “And second, [we assume] that that time has to be spent at the office.”

I’m too close to this at the moment to comment. Maybe I will at some later date.


Impromptu Puccini — Andrew Sullivan

I’m shamelessly reproducing Sully’s entire post because it defies abbreviation:

A male reader writes:

“My husband Jimmy and I recently celebrated our wedding here in Brooklyn, and my mom and her new husband came up for the festivities. This was a totally impromptu performance by my mom at the request of friends who just started asking her to sing something. Though I expected she would go with something from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog, Puccini is what she delivered. Absolutely brilliant. I’m still picking myself up off the floor. I’ve never heard her sing this and it’s one of my favorite pieces. The reactions of my friends Sarah (flower dress on the right) and Neal (lilac shirt next to her) are priceless …”

[Sullivan continues] A small reminder: Mitt Romney wants to ban these occasions by constitutional amendment across the entire country, and forcibly divorce those of us living happy married lives. What he hasn’t counted on are our moms. You think Puccini is surprising? What till Mitt messes with her son and son-in-law.

Do not miss the follow up post, either. The mother is a conservative Republican from North Carolina who is very suspicious of Obama and voted for McCain/Palin… and against Amendment One.

Love wins.


Take My iPad, Please! — Forward

Leaders in the Conservative Jewish movement have offered some guidelines on technology as it relates to Sabbath. I haven’t read them in depth yet but obviously I’m glad this conversation is taking place.


And in honor of my denomination’s General Assembly which meets next week…

Hey PCUSA, Stare Death in the Face! — Theresa Cho

Lately, I’ve been reading “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales. Using science and storytelling, he tackles the mysteries of survival – why do some have what it takes to survive while others don’t. It seems an odd choice of reading to correlate with the challenges of our denomination today, but you would be amazed how useful simple survival skills may give us the tools we need to survive. Gonzales says, “In a true survival situation, you are by definition looking death in the face, and if you can’t find something droll and even something wondrous and inspiring in it, you are already in a world of hurt.” As Christians and Presbyterians, we have a real opportunity here to recalibrate and look “death” in the face and see something wondrous and inspiring. I wonder if that is what Jesus saw when he entered the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. What Boy Scout survival skills did Jesus whip out in the depths of temptation. I imagine he didn’t only experience a sense of being physically lost, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

If you find my diagnosis of the church too optimistic–and some do–read Theresa’s article.

What To Expect… Grandparents’ Edition

My video on “What to Expect When Your Church is Expecting” has hit 4,000 views/pages and counting. I’m humbled and honored by the attention.

It also makes me cringe since I hate watching myself on video.

A few folks have countered that there are places in which the church is not pregnant, but really and truly dying. I agree. One person rightly pointed out that the symptoms for pregnancy that I named are not unlike the symptoms of a cancer patient. Also true. As I’ve said, this video/post offers a metaphor. To the extent that the metaphor helps, great. If it gets in the way of the hard work of dying that must take place in many specific places, disregard.

May my words be faithful or may they slip harmlessly away.

The inimitable Jan Edmiston riffed on the metaphor in a wonderful way today. The church is graying. So what is our responsibility as grandparents to this new church that is coming into being?

It occurs to me that those in my and older generations need to keep something in the forefront of our minds as the church we love is pregnant:

The Next Church Will Not Be Our Baby.

We will have great ideas for how to care for it and treasure it.  We might even be able to help pay for its nurture and its future.  But it’s not our baby.

 This is not to say we will not be ideal grandparents.  But it’s possible that we could overstep our bounds.  We could chuckle at the disciplines the younger generations have chosen to follow. We might want to talk incessantly about the way we did it.  But let’s not.

She ends by saying that the church of the future will be a lot browner than it is now. That’s also true. And yet the Presbyterian Church is very white. So what’s going on there? Adoption is another metaphor that might help us. I wonder if there’s someone out there that might riff on that in some creative ways. Susan? Alex?

Let’s all keep dreaming and spinning generative metaphors.

Agile Church: Slides and Case Studies

I can see that.

Folks who attended my workshop last week at NEXT: things have been pretty crazy around here since then, so I haven’t had a chance to play around with uploading my Keynote slides to the Blue Room. But if you’d like me to send them to you, e-mail me at maryannmcdana at gmail and I’ll pass them along.

However, I can post the case studies easily and have done so below.

During the workshop, after I’d done a short overview of agile as I understand it, we looked at these case studies and answered these questions in small groups:

Where do you see intersections between this church’s processes and agile process?
Where do you see places that agile methodology might help them?
What impediments do you see standing in the way of this church becoming more agile?
What next step would you suggest?

Here are the case studies. These are adapted from actual churches I queried. Hope they prove helpful.


Agile Church: Case Studies

Case A. Edgy Urban Church with a Smooth Traditional Center:
Medium-Sized Pastoral/Program Oriented Church


  • elders chaired committees
  • session meetings were run as committee of the whole
  • meetings were “terrible”
  • elders were burning out


  • elders do not run committees; in fact they do not even serve on committees
  • new system of volunteer staff coordinators who oversee the ministries of the church
  • volunteer staff are empowered to get the work done any way they want (individually, through teams, regular meetings, online), but they have written job descriptions that describe their work
  • volunteer staff are also empowered to spend within their budget without session approval
  • the week before session, volunteer and staff meet for dinner—each coordinator prepares a one-page report for session containing basic information, actions taken, any major items requiring session approval, and examples of transformation/new growth that have occurred
  • these reports are compiled and given to elders several days before session meeting—elders are expected to get any questions answered prior to meeting
  • session meetings involve 30 minutes of business; the rest of the time is spent on prayer, equipping/study, and visioning “big picture” tasks for the congregation


Case B. Church of the Leafy Suburb: Large Program-Sized Church

  • Session consists of fifteen elders that are divided into pairs or triads for partnership, support and accountability—for example, children, youth and adult education elders form a triad; small group elder and fellowship elder form a pair; facilities and office operations elders form a pair.
  • Elders chair the committees and ensure that the ministry gets done, using whatever means they wish (regular meetings, retreats, “divide and conquer,” etc.)
  • Elders are expected to report back to session whenever there are items requiring session input or approval
  • In addition, each month a different ministry is highlighted as an order of the day: the elders prepare a more in-depth report, seek feedback, basically delve deeper into their ministry so elders are well versed in it
  • Session meetings consist mainly of business, but with 30 minutes of study/discipleship each month.


Case C.

Same as Case B but with the elders serving as a liaison to the team rather than the chair. As liaison, they have no power on the committee other than a vote when one is required.


Case D. Our Ecumenical Neighbor: Governance Model from Another Reformed Denomination

  • Ministers, elders and deacons
  • Elders=church council. Deacons=board of deacons. Combined elders and deacons=consistory
  • Elders are understood to be responsible for the spiritual life of the church, including pastoral care.
  • Deacons are responsible for the physical life of the church, mostly the finances and the charitable and social justice life of the church.
  • Major financial decisions are made by the consistory
  • “Elder districts”: each elder is assigned a certain group of people in congregation, often alphabetical or geographical. Every person in the congregation has an elder. If a person lands in the hospital, they would expect to see their elder and their pastor. These districts are sometimes small groups.
  • Not every elder is assigned to a committee. Committees report to council, but sometimes they don’t have a member seated on council. Councils will often have someone assigned or asked to be on a committee, but not to run it necessarily.
  • Council meetings were usually focused on worship; education; and even a review of what was going on with people in your elder district. And, of course, anything else that needed to be dealt with. Often, Council and Deacons met concurrently so that they could check in with each other if needed.
  • Elders team together (three panels of three elders) to coordinate ministry areas
  • Ideas for new ministries (from congregation members) would be referred to the Elder relationship area panel (and the full Session if necessary) for review as to whether they fit into CPC’s current mission/vision

Case E. Church on the Highway: Medium-Sized Program Oriented Church

  • If approved, the Elder panel will identify a task leader to create a taskforce for implementing the program
  • If no leader or volunteers can be found for an approved taskforce, the program is not implemented
  • Ministry Initiation Form is completed by congregation member or group desiring to implement a new ministry, event or “task”
  • Ministry Status Reports include:
    • Submitted by Task Leader to Elder Relationship Area Panel
    • Monthly Status Reports when there is an activity or issue to be resolved
    • Ministry Completion/Annual Report at the completion of a short-term ministry task, or annually for long-term and on-going ministries



Harvesting from NEXT: Open Space

One of the most interesting happenings at NEXT was Open Space. After a presentation that included a description of the topic, people shouted out topics they wanted to discuss, then people clustered to the conversations that interested them and we were off! There were probably 30-40 discussions going on around the room.

We’ve implemented Open Space in our presbytery, National Capital. Here is a good description from our website. Note that the purpose of OS is not to deliberate on an issue or to seek consensus on something. The point is for people to come together to share ideas and potentially even form partnerships. (See the video at the NCP link about “flipping the presbytery.”)

Robert Austell had a good “friendly critique” of the process at NEXT. Some of his comments reflected limitations of the conference: the space was not ideal, and it’s hard to start from a place of trust when you don’t know one another. Some of the discussions were better facilitated than others. However, his post provides a good overview of what we did and some ways it could be better.

Rather than provide a broad description of Open Space, I want to share two moments I witnessed in OS recently, one in our own presbytery and one at the NEXT Conference. I share them for people who may be looking to implement Open Space. They are not huge moments, but I found them revealing in their own way:

1. After our first OS at National Capital, we had one of the crankiest meetings I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. (There’s a reason I call us National Crankypants, but this was cranky even for us.) People were pulling out all the Roberts Rules of Order stops: Division in the house! Substitute motions! I think we were even wordsmithing a motion en masse at one point. Blech. Now granted it was a contentious issue we were dealing with (I can’t even remember what it was) and there was some confusion too. But I am certain that Open Space played a role in this dynamic. It’s like things were so unstructured that people just clamped down afterwards.

Some people find Open Space exciting and refreshing. Others find it scary in its sheer open-endedness. If you get a bunch of Presbyterians in a room together and ask them to be open source… to go off the agenda… to meander around in a topic to see what generative stuff might result… there is going to be blowback. It is such a different way of being that some folks will overcorrect. That is basic family systems stuff right there. We should have anticipated it and planned for it in our meeting, in retrospect. (I say that as a member of the committee that plans presbytery meetings.)

2. Following the NEXT conference Open Space, there was a report back of “harvestings.” These were supposed to be short sentences that reflected some aspect of the discussion. One person got up and, instead of sharing the results of the discussion, launched into what felt a lot like a public service announcement. It felt like talking points. Don’t get me wrong; the information was really important. But the difference between this report-back and the others was obvious and it shifted the energy palpably. I found myself wondering what that group’s discussion had been like.

Not sure what the takeaway is there, though it seems related to number 1. You can’t shift a culture overnight. There will be pockets of resistance. And resistance doesn’t always appear as frowny crossed arms. Sometimes resistance is friendly, but still speaking the old language.

It’s OK. But be aware of it, plan for it, correct and redirect as necessary… but don’t let it stop you either.

Image: the rules of Open Space.

Reflections on the Next Conference

Non-Presbyterians, thanks for standing by as I engage in a bit of inside baseball.

I wasn’t able to attend the Next Conference, but I followed the Twitter feeds and am making my way through the videos. Several good friends were involved in the leadership, so I have a bit of insight into what this group is about. From their website:

“New occasions teach new duties,” the old hymn suggests.  For some months a group of friends and colleagues across the church have been in conversation about the “next” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We have focused less on denominational controversies and other matters and more on vital, faithful and connectional congregational ministry. We held an initial gathering at the 2010 General Assembly to spark a larger conversation. There is strong interest in continuing and expanding the conversation to explore the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and God’s intention for the future of the Presbyterian Church.

This gathering in Indianapolis is open to the whole church. We will join with friends and colleagues, old and new, who care about the future of Presbyterian witness. Together, we will seek God’s guidance in discerning how to move forward in a rapidly evolving church and culture. Join us in Indianapolis for the important work of reflecting on such topics as:

  • How do we live and work together as a connectional church?
  • How do we engage the gifts of our members in Christ’s mission?
  • How do we identify and nurture leadership for the future of the church?

The Next Conference is really about conversation, so this post is very much offered in that vein. Other bloggers are reflecting on the conference too, providing helpful stuff. I also resonate with Jan Edmiston’s pre-conference reflection. Jan’s post, on listening to a variety of voices, was prescient: while the Next Conference was meeting, Rob Bell was essentially being tried for heresy on Twitter and his book dealing with heaven and hell was moving to #21 on Amazon—and it’s not even out yet. (I’ve preordered my copy for Kindle, you?)

I also have to say that, as much as being Presbyterian is the air I breathe, and I’m married to a “genetic Presbyterian,” I’m not as grounded in deep love for the denomination as many are. I am interested in the flourishing of the PCUSA because I am interested in the flourishing of those congregations that make up the PCUSA. But I do not have the deep Presbyterian roots and, perhaps, the nostalgia that some do. For what that’s worth.

One of the threads of critique I heard on Twitter (and sympathize with) is the demographic makeup of the leadership. One person estimated that of the 23 leaders on the podium during the conference listed as leaders in the conference program, 5 were female. [UPDATE: see comments for more context on this number] And the crowd was overwhelmingly white. Much of this is to be expected—the PCUSA is overwhelmingly white. And this conversation began with tall-steeple pastors, and the sad reality is, women are incredibly underrepresented among those folks.

However, this conversation began almost two years ago, if I’m counting right. This thing needs to get blown open, but quick, if it is to foment a truly faithful conversation about what’s Next. And when I say blown open, I don’t mean that we need women and people of color and small church pastors (which, of course, make up the bulk of the pastors in the PCUSA) to talk around the edges on blogs and social media, but on the platform in Dallas next February, when the conference meets again. Women outnumber men in our seminaries. Multiethnic churches are growing while historically white denominations are shrinking. And tall-steeple pastors are vastly outnumbered by the pastors of small churches. We need to hear from these groups, not to kneel to the gods of political correctness, but because that’s what’s next in the church of Jesus Christ.

Of course the gender piece is near and dear to my heart, but it’s the small church piece that’s really on my mind… for obvious reasons. I agree with whoever it was at Next who said that some little churches need to die—especially if the resources used to prop them up can be funneled into new church development and supporting already strong congregations.

That said, I also find hope in church guru Kennon Callahan, who writes, “The 21st century is the century of small, strong congregations. More people will be drawn to small, strong congregations than any other kind of congregation… Around the planet, the vast majority of congs will be small and strong, and the vast majority of people will be in those congregations.” That’s from David R. Ray’s book, The Indispensable Guide for Small Churches. Other recent books speak to the potential of small churches for being intimate, nimble, authentic and effective… indeed, a great gift to the world.

But let’s be honest. People are not going to spend their precious time and con ed money to come and listen to pastors whom nobody’s heard of. They want to hear Scott Black Johnston and Tom Are.

So here’s my modest proposal—a dialogical, dialectical format next February. What if the planning team surveyed presbyteries to identify churches of 200 members or less that are growing? What about partnering one of these small-church pastors with one of the “big names” around each of the conference topics? What if the dialogue took place right there on the stage in addition to small groups?

What about putting a new church development pastor together with a pastor of a historic congregation?

What about a seminarian with a pastor nearing retirement age?

What about an “ecumenical advisory delegate”—like we have at General Assembly? This would be a pastor or leader in another denomination that has made some of the same shifts we’re discussing, and can give us some of their wisdom. (I nominate the UCC; they are incredibly tech savvy and “get” a lot of this.)

A final suggestion: a conference “presscorps” that would liveblog and tweet the conference and serve as curators for social-media discussions.

Offered in a spirit of wanting this discussion to continue…

Image: what came up when I google-imaged “next church.”