Monthly Archives: March 2015

Five things pastors dread hearing — and how some respond

A recent article in Relevant Magazine caught my eye and brought me up short, as I’d been guilty of the same things over the years. Titled “5 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Pastor … and what you should say instead,” the article by Aaron Loy contained wonderful advice about the things we innocently say to pastors and what it reveals about us.

The five things were “good sermon,” “we’re church-shopping,” “you know what you should do?”, “we just don’t feel connected” and “I’m not being fed.” In response to the article, I asked a few Anchorage pastors how they respond — or would respond — to these statements. Their answers clearly indicate they deal with them on a regular basis.

Good sermon

Unfortunately, the sermon and musical service for many evangelical churches have become the focus of one’s attendance. Early church members met in houses to share the “good news” of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. But dialogue is rarely afforded in today’s Christian churches. It has been replaced with top-down sermons and music.

As worshipers leave, after waiting in the never-ending queue, it may seem appropriate to say “good sermon” to the pastor. But that can convey a lack of engagement by the hearer.

Dan Bollerud at Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church says, “I usually respond with thanks, but in my heart I don’t view it as a compliment; rather, as a platitude. The best comments I have received have been terms like ‘ouch!’ or ‘hmm, I’ve got to think about that for a while.’”

When Great Land Christian Church’s Ray Nadon hears it, he says he often responds with questions: “What did you like about it? What was good about it? How will you take that into your life this week?” So does Clear Water Church’s Mike Merriner, asking, “What aspect of the sermon resonated with you most?”

Pastors, on the other hand, need to avoid being flip at this time. Years ago, one pastor responded to my “good sermon” with “Well, I like to throw a little hope in now and then!”

We’re church-shopping

This is often said by guests and current members alike. Brian Chronister from New Grace Christian Church says that when he hears it, “I inwardly sigh. It’s as if they are buying a house when in fact they are joining a family.”

Great Land Christian Church’s Nadon drills down, asking, “What is it you are looking for? Would you be interested in getting together and looking into the Scriptures?”

Several say there are many great churches in town, but it’s important to choose a good one and stick with it, noting they would be honored to be chosen as that church.

You know what you should do?

People who say this assume the pastor knows what they are talking about. Some pastors said they simply asked, “What?”

For responses to specific thoughts, Merriner’s struck me as thoughtful and considerate: “There are lots of legitimate ways to do church. This is the way we’ve decided to do it here right now, but I’m open to considering other options. I’ll think about what you said.”

We just don’t feel connected

While one may feel this way, it may also indicate they assume the pastor or the church reads minds.

Chronister says he responds by asking whether the person has joined a small group — something some of the other pastors mentioned, too.

“Remember, connection is a two-way street,” Bollerud says. “In what ways have you tried to connect that you don’t feel worked for you? Perhaps we can get together and explore some ways to help you get better acquainted.”

I’m not being fed

Frequent church changers often bring this up to me in conversation. I’m not surprised by the ways in which pastors tend to respond.

“I’m doing all that I can do but only God can feed you. Did you not come openly expecting Him to feed you? If not, give that a try,” was Chronister’s response. Nadon says he responds with, “Wow, it sounds like you are really hurting. Would you like to talk about it?”

When Bollerud hears it, he responds, “This church is not a force-feeding institution; it requires interaction. What questions do you have that you feel are not being addressed? Perhaps we could get together and explore some ways you can become more involved.”

And Merriner answers, “That bothers me. I try to give people biblical truth to chew on during the week. It is important you are fed spiritually. Are you reading the Bible on your own? There is no substitute for self-feeding. Maybe you need the challenge of teaching others. That always forces me into the Word. Do you think something like that might help?”

Final thoughts

As churchgoers, it’s important to recognize our words may betray our individual lack of commitment to our religious buy-in. Next time you attend church, choose those words directed to your pastor carefully or take their suggestions or questions seriously.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

Archbishop Hurley: 45 Years a Bishop

I first met Archbishop Francis T. Hurley at the installation of Lutheran Bishop Shelley Wickstrom. Surprised to see him there in a Protestant church along with many other clergy, I introduced myself to him as ADN’s community church blogger and asked if we might meet. When we met at his residence he was cordial and conversational with me, a non-Catholic. I’d researched the proper terms with which to address him — finding “your excellency,” “monsignor,” “your grace” and “the most reverend.” Asking Archbishop Hurley which term would be appropriate, he said, “Just call me Father.” Recently, I arranged another interview on his completion of 45 years as bishop in Alaska this week. That interview further enlightened me about significant events occurring during his career in Alaska.

Road to bishop

Born in 1927, Archbishop Hurley graduated from St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. He was ordained as priest in 1951. After serving as a priest in the San Francisco Archdiocese, primarily at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, he was asked in the early 1960s to join the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He first worked in the office of Catholic education and then as associate general secretary for the United States Catholic Conference. In 1968, the first bishop of Juneau had retired. The diocese was vacant and under the administration of Archbishop Ryan, the first archbishop of Anchorage. In early 1970 Monsignor Hurley was asked by Pope Paul VI to become a bishop and serve as auxiliary to Archbishop Ryan in his role as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Juneau. Archbishop Hurley likes to tell of calling his mother about the Alaska appointment. She responded, “Did you turn it down?” His episcopal consecration as bishop was on March 19, 1970, at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, with his brother, Bishop Mark Hurley, as principal consecrator.

First Juneau, then Anchorage

When Bishop Hurley discovered the size of the territory the seven parishes his Juneau Diocese covered, he decided to become licensed to fly. With a diocesan airplane, he could fly to outlying parishes quickly, celebrating the sacraments and ministering to people as necessary.

After nine years in Juneau, Bishop Hurley was appointed Archbishop of Anchorage by Pope Paul VI, moving here to succeed Archbishop Ryan in 1976. Retaining his pilot’s license, he continued to fly to hard-to-reach parishes such as Dillingham, Bristol Bay and some on the Kenai Peninsula. Over the years Archbishop Hurley accumulated over 5,000 hours of flying.

Pope John Paul II’s 1981 visit to Anchorage

A high point in Archbishop Hurley’s years in Anchorage was Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1981. The pope would be returning from a papal trip to Japan. Archbishop Hurley was given just five weeks to put it all together. Local Catholics created a “popemobile,” built an altar on the western end of the Delaney Park Strip, and diligently prepared all the details. When Pope John Paul II arrived, he went first to Holy Family Cathedral for an audience with local Catholics, then to the cathedral ‘s basement to meet disabled people. From there, he traveled to the Park Strip for Mass. Secret Service and other local law enforcement provided security for the event. Archbishop Hurley gave a welcoming address at the Mass and Pope John Paul II preached. The Mass was celebrated by 50 bishops and cardinals who had traveled for the occasion. Attendance estimates ranged from 50,000 to 65,000 people. Hurley called the occasion “a strong interreligious event, where we wanted to show respect for the pope, not overwhelm him.”

Russia trip

A significant event in Archbishop Hurley’s life came when Holy Family Cathedral helped Ted Mala, a Yupik-Russian doctor, facilitate medical exchanges after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Archbishop Hurley was invited to return with medical personnel to Russia. He discovered interest in establishing a Catholic presence in the Magadan area — something accomplished in 1991 when the Holy See established a Catholic parish there in response to Archbishop Hurley’s request. In 1994, Hurley recruited a Palmer priest, the Rev. Michael Shields, who built a church there and still serves that area. Hurley encouraged this development with multiple trips there.

Hurley’s driving force

Archbishop Hurley says his ministry was driven by a key principle of Vatican II: “The Church is all of the people.” Under his direction, the archdiocese blossomed and grew rapidly. When I asked him what he’d like as an epitaph, he laughed and pointed me to a nearby book. Picking it up, I noted the title on the cover: “Pastoral Insights from 15 Years as a Bishop in Alaska.” Upon opening it, I discovered it was blank. When I asked what happens after his last breath, he responded, “That’s His job.” Again he laughed.

A tribute from the Rev. Elliott

The Rev. Norman Elliott, acting rector of All Saints Episcopal, offered this tribute to Archbishop Hurley:

“Of all the clergy in Alaska Archbishop Francis T. Hurley is surely one of the most ecumenical. An example: In 1982, following Pope John Paul’s visit to Anchorage in 1981, the Archbishop led a pilgrimage of over 250 people to Rome for a private meeting with the Pope. He invited me, my wife and members of the Episcopal Church to join. Eighteen did. The pilgrimage included a weekend stop in London. On Sunday he celebrated Mass at Westminster Catholic Cathedral and asked me to vest and stand with him at the altar. He began his sermon with the words, ‘Many years ago there was one river — the Catholic Church it split and became two rivers: Catholic and Church of England (in the U.S. it is the Episcopal Church). This morning, Father Elliott and members of the Episcopal Church are worshipping with us. Perhaps we can show you that the two rivers may one day flow together.’ We were then presented to the Pope. In Rome this was repeated at a Mass in the Basilica.

“I was privileged to be invited by him to preach at his retirement and he accepted my invitation to preach at mine. He is a close and valued friend.”

Purim, a joyful family-friendly celebration – 3/14/15

Last Thursday, I enjoyed a wonderful evening at Congregation Beth Sholom, where I joined in their celebration of Purim. During that time I consumed tasty pastries, listened to a dramatic story and drank in the ambience of a participative, family-centered celebration.

First, the story

Purim is a traditional Jewish celebration centered on the Book of Esther. Having all the hallmarks of a stage drama, it is most entertaining. The story is set in Persia during the fourth century BC, when all Jews were subject to the Persian empire. Its king, Ahasuerus, had a wife, Vashti, whom he commanded to come before him at a lengthy state banquet wearing her crown. (Some scholars have interpreted this as wearing only her crown.) With modesty she declined to do so and was removed as queen. Ne

eding a new consort, he looked for a new queen in a yearlong process involving all 127 of his provinces. Ultimately, Esther, a Jewish girl, became his choice and was named queen. At the time, King Ahasuerus did not know she was Jewish. An anti-Semite, Haman, was given the role of prime minister. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, a Jewish leader, refused to bow to Haman in response to the king’s order. Indignant, Haman asked Ahasuerus to order the killing of all Jews. The extermination date chosen was the 13th of the Jewish month of Adar, picked as the result of a lottery conceived by Haman. Purim is named after the word “lots.” Mordecai and Jews throughout the empire fasted, lamented and mourned. Next, Esther asked her king and Haman to join her for a feast, where she revealed that she was Jewish and Haman’s treachery against the Jews. As a result, Haman was hanged and Mordecai was given the prime minister’s position. It was then decreed that Jews would have the right of defense against their enemies.

The 13th of Adar was when the Jews killed a number of their enemies. The 14th of Adar was a day of rest and celebration. The 13th of Adar is observed as the Fast of Esther and the 14th of Adar is Purim.

Purim celebration at Congregation Beth Sholom

As I arrived at the synagogue, members were beginning to enter. Most of them were dressed in costumes, including a pirate, policewoman, ballerina, superhero and movie star. There was an air of gaiety as people continued to arrive, most with trays of a special dessert especially for Purim called hamantaschen, triangular pastries made from a circle of dough filled with a sweet filling, folded into a triangle and baked. The name refers to Haman, the villain in the story.

The Esther story is called the megillah and is from the Book of Esther scroll. So we were there to hear the reading of the megillah. However, for what happens during the reading, Rabbi Michael Oblath read an abbreviated version or we might have been there all night.

Refreshments were served first. There were many flavors of hamantaschen brought by the congregation. The children made masks and had pictures taken with the rabbi, who was dressed in an elegant plushy hamantaschen costume he had made. We then entered the synagogue for the megillah reading. As people came in, graggers (noisemakers) were made available to use during the reading. The rabbi reminded those present that when Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading, children were to twirl their graggers and adults to boo to eradicate his evil name. He also encouraged yeas for Mordecai, Vashti and Esther. There were many children in attendance that night. Truly it was a family evening.

As the abbreviated megillah story was read, there were sustained interruptions by the children with graggers drowning out Haman’s name. Rabbi Oblath was patient as the story was slowly read. Some of the parents had a difficult time silencing their children after each gragger outburst. Clearly the children were familiar with the Esther story and enjoyed its reading. Nonetheless, I was made aware that night that this faith tradition involves its children from early on in meaningful expressions and clear understandings of key scriptural stories. Another celebration at this congregation is the observance of Seder, the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

If you’ve not experienced this congregation’s joy, community Seder is coming up on April 4.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, Church Visits.

Two more churches using schools as places to meet, worship – 3-07-15

In my Feb. 21 column, I wrote about two churches using Anchorage School District middle schools as places to worship. This week’s column is devoted to two more churches doing the same. I’ve attended services at both and find their worship is not impeded by meeting in a school.

Great Land Christian Church lives up to its name

It’s been my pleasure to visit Great Land Christian Church a number of times since I’ve been in Alaska. Initially I was invited to visit this church when they were meeting in a UAA Recital Hall. The invitation came from a college student I met on an Alaska Airlines flight years ago. She wanted to share her faith and where she worshipped. I responded to her invitation and had an interesting time at their service. GLCC started in 1992 and the Rev. Ray Nadon and his wife became actively involved in 2007.

While they worshiped at the Anchorage Korean Seventh-day Adventist Church I really became aware of them. Due to their growth, they needed a much larger meeting space, and settled on Central Middle School as that place. Central is a great place to meet. It has a large multipurpose room ideal for meetings. Last time I visited the church there I saw hundreds of energetic, engaged worshipers. People were open and friendly to me. The music was refreshingly a cappella, the preaching was energized and the audience was engaged in the sermon. To this day, it remains a high point among my church visits locally.

I asked GLCC pastor Nadon why they chose Central. He said there were five reasons: a home they could grow in, a home where they could have potlucks, a home with breakout rooms for the children, Central was “central,” and a home that “wouldn’t break the bank.” Nadon, elaborating on the money issue said, “We had considered buying, but the cost is so great and to be tied to such a big mortgage is not the best situation. We believe it can hinder your ability to preach the Gospel, as you may just be too concerned about money. As well, if you buy, then you are limited to that size or multiple services, which we are not ready to look at yet. We love the closeness of our family. One last thing on the buying: It does seem strange to own a building that remains empty a good part of the time, hence our schedule lines up quite well with a school’s.”

I’d noticed there seemed to be a high proportion of millennials at GLCC. Nadon said reaching that age group wasn’t a focus initially, but started happening over the past five years. He interpreted this as being “focused on serving the community and teaching a discipleship that was active. Over the years, we have seen that the millennials are kind of interested in God, but not the God they see in church. At least part of this seems to be that they do not see any meaning behind it or action attached to it — just Sundays and perhaps a worship thing here or there. Many do not want to ‘play’ church and most are looking for more than just a good ‘worship band’ or dynamic preacher. They want substance and we put quite high expectations on them when it comes to reading the Scriptures and digesting it for themselves. We try to connect them with the Gospel in a practical way. We also connect them with mentors to help them in life’s many decisions and choices.”

GLCC delivers much of what I seek as I visit churches: greetings, hospitality, well-delivered biblical sermons and music not intended to entertain. I consider it a great church and an asset to Alaska.

Calvary Chapel South Anchorage makes the switch

A relatively new church, Calvary Chapel, initially began meeting as a mobile church, migrating to a fixed site over the last four years. Two weeks ago, they began meeting at Hanshew Middle School. I attended their second service there last Sunday and found it sincere, with a warm greeting, singing, prayer and a good sermon.

Jeff Steiner, their pastor, feels strongly their move was blessed by God. “To see the body working together, serving together and fellowshipping in a capacity that would not have occurred in our other facility was a great confirmation of the Lord’s blessing on our move,” he said “This has a very fresh appeal in reminding us that the body of Christ is not a building, but people. Love is the greatest tangible expression of being a disciple, not the facility occupied.”

When I asked pastor Steiner if he was targeting any demographic he said, “Anybody and everybody. We are not really the cool or hip fellowship, nor are we liturgical. Our motto is simply ‘teaching the word of God simply, verse by verse and chapter by chapter.’ We have simple, singable contemporary worship and open Bibles. Our target audience is Christians who want to grow in their relationship with Jesus and be equipped. We teach ‘the Bible,’ and seek to do it in its entirety.” Steiner did note young families, mostly millennials, figure prominently in attendance.

What a concept! Meeting in a convenient location, plenty of parking, and the familiar setting of a public school. I’m not surprised more young families don’t jump at this type of chance.

Clearly one detriment for all churches meeting in public schools, as opposed to a fixed location, is having to move in and out every Sunday. This requires the offsite storage of audio/visual equipment, tables, chairs, and whatever else is necessary to conduct church, in a trailer or truck. It all must be set up prior to the service and taken down afterward.

Personally I’m fascinated with church plants, meaning a church being raised up in a new area. There’s always room for one more. I don’t see it as a matter of “sheep stealing” but making opportunities for worship in our community more accessible. Both are worthy of visits from those seeking a new church experience.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)