Last year, some megachurches got tongues flapping fast when they decided to cancel worship services on Christmas Day -- which happened to be Sunday morning.
This year, churches face another Christmas "what to do" decision, because Dec. 24 lands on a Sunday. So congregations big and small must decide whether to offer both Sunday morning worship and a full lineup of Christmas Eve services -- or whether that's just too much.
Some people want a traditional late-night Christmas Eve service, with a choir and communion and candlelight.
This Thanksgiving, as Americans sit to break bread and count their blessings, Bob Dole and George McGovern want them to think about the men, women and children all over the world who do not have enough to eat.
These men -- one a Republican, one a Democrat, both former U.S. Senators and presidential hopefuls -- have written a new book called "Ending Hunger Now."
Their basic argument is this: There is enough food being produced in the world. Millions do not need to go hungry, while others gather around tables piled with food, if governments and individuals have the political will to spend enough money to make it stop.
Dole was traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment. But McGovern, now 83 and living in South Dakota, took time for an interview. "I'm trying to live to 100," he said. "There are so many things I still want to do."
Outlook national reporter Leslie Scanlon interviewed McGovern and Donald E. Messer, a professor of practical theology and president emeritus at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.
Summer is supposed to be a time when time almost stops, with long slow days spent reading books and picking berries and fishing and hiking and drinking an icy something and yakking with the relatives. You're supposed to be able to eat dinner in your bathing suit or your pajamas if you wish.
Tell that to the ministers.
For ministers, summer is a time when there's still worship every Sunday and people still get sick and die and their marriages still hit the rocks (remember those cold beverages and all the yakking with the relatives?). For a solo pastor serving a small church, taking vacation can mean finding someone else to fill in. For ministers from bigger churches, it can mean shouldering more of the load, taking on more stress, so someone else can fit in a week or two away.
Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in other denominations, some are starting to pay attention to the realities of ministers' working lives -- to the sources both of joy and of stress. There has been a lot of conversation about what kinds of people are going into ministry and what happens to them when they do -- if they are well-enough prepared, if they are the right kinds of people for the congregations that need pastors, if they like the work and the pay well enough to stick around.
I warn my seminary students to watch out for “litmus test” theology. “If you find yourself getting backed into a corner on a doctrinal issue, with someone pressing you merely to ‘check “yes”’ or ‘check “no,”’ do your best to redirect the conversation,” I advise them. Being a Christian believer is not, primarily, about checking the right boxes.
The fallout from Presbyterian actions involving the Middle East continues to rain down.
On Nov. 11, the denomination announced that it no longer employs two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national staff members who traveled to the Middle East last month and were involved in a controversial meeting with Hezbollah, a group that the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization.
Gone are Kathy Lueckert, who as deputy director of the General Assembly Council was considered part of the top level of the denomination's leadership, and Peter Sulyok, coordinator for the past dozen years of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.
In announcing the departures, John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, did not make it clear if Lueckert and Sulyok resigned or were fired -- or say precisely why they no longer are PC(USA) employees, citing in a written statement their right to confidentiality.
But the Hezbollah visit, made during a two-week fact-finding tour by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy -- a visit that also included high-level meetings with political, human rights and religious leaders around the Middle East -- had provoked strong and immediate criticism both from Jewish leaders already angry with the PC(USA), and by some from within the Presbyterian church.
Presbyterian-Jewish relations have been tense since the General Assembly's decision, last summer, to begin a process of phased, selective divestment in some companies doing business in Israel, in protest over Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people.
A small congregation, in need of a new pastor, looks at new seminary graduates -- a pastor seeking a first call would be just fine with them.
A student, eager to dive into ministry, is delighted with the idea too.
The congregation needs a pastor; the pastor needs a job.
A match is made.
Except here's the problem: a lot of the time, it doesn't work like that at all.
People familiar with the system say there are multiple, serious problems with the path that students take during and after seminary -- problems that are often frustrating for students and churches alike.
Some students don't move into the inquirer and candidacy process quickly enough, or don't pass their ordination examinations, so when they graduate they're not ready to take a call to a church.
More than a few people go to seminary, but don't want to go into parish ministry, or don't want to serve the kinds of churches that have the most vacancies -- small congregations in rural areas or little towns.
The United States has always been a religiously pluralistic place — now, more so than ever, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion.
In a recent lecture series, Ammerman described how she sees things lining up — saying the United Stattes now has eight major streams of religious leanings, what she referred to as eight points on the compass.
These are cynical times, and this is supposed to be a season of hope.
We have the president of the United States flying off in fierce secrecy at Thanksgiving to greet the American troops in Iraq — an unabashedly Hollywood patriotic moment — followed almost immediately by more deaths of more soldiers far from home.