A Checklist Manifesto for Ministry

In 2001, there was a critical care specialist at John Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost who became frustrated with the number of central line infections in the ICU. So he came up with a simple checklist of five steps that cut incidence of central line infections from 11% to 0%.

Seeing this kind of success, he started developing more checklists for other problems he noticed in the ICU. One of the simplest checklists was one step long.

Ensure patients are monitored for level of pain every four hours and provided timely pain medication if required.

This one, simple step reduced the likelihood that a patient would endure untreated pain from 41% to 3%. **

In 2009, Atul Gawande compiled a number of these stories from medicine to aviation to show how simple checklists are being used to make these industries and processes more efficient, while minimizing the number of mistakes. He called it The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame has heaped praise on Gawande’s work as Chang has used checklists while he expanded his restaurant group to ensure that quality remained high as he continued to grow his business.

I wonder how we might incorporate checklists into the life of the church.

Now, a lot of you might have a first reaction of “Wow. We have found a way to make the church more boring.”

But hear me out.

For church leaders, there is so much static going on in our heads and checklists are a way to help clear that static, clarify communication with our leaders, and ensure that everyone is on the same page moving forward.

For instance, what if we made checklists for:

Checking in with & supporting families following a funeral
Following up after a first-time visit
When families celebrate milestones (births, graduations, children leaving home, etc)
Communicating changes in service times or special services
When new families want to join children’s ministry
Thinking through a sermon/education lesson

Here’s an example of a checklist for following up after a first-time visitor:

____   Ask visitors to fill out communion cards with basic contact info.
____  Send an e-mail the next week thanking them for visiting & introducing myself
____   Make sure they are included on the e-newsletter list
____   Send information about upcoming & ongoing education opportunities
____  2 weeks later: Invite them to fill out a Time + Talent welcome survey & invite questions
____   3 weeks later: Send an invitation to a welcome lunch

The beauty of these checklists is that they can be in a constant state of refinement and tweaking. If you and your team are on the same page moving forward with these kinds of things, there’s no telling what could happen.

And as a bonus, it can help clear some of the disorganized static from our brains. The more of these follow up tasks we can streamline and automate, the more energy we can steer away from these processes and onto other aspects of ministry — messages, bible studies, connecting people to God and each other.

So what ways do you use checklists or these types of processes for ministry?

How could they be helpful and life-giving to the things you and your faith community are doing?

Leave a comment below and let me know! I always love hearing stories of how everyone else is finding ways to do life-giving things in their corner of the world.


** These statistics are taken from _The Checklist Manifesto_ by Atul Gawande.

On Telling Your Children About Egypt

widetableBrothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace is yours in the name of the one who came to break every chain that binds, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr was the pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He looked around the city and lamented the lack of unity he saw among the churches around both Pittsburgh and the country as a whole. So he decided to do something about it. He worked through the Presbyterian church to begin what he called World Communion Sunday in 1936. It was an opportunity for any church that wanted to participate to join their brothers and sisters in the faith around God’s table in remembrance and celebration of the gifts of grace found at God’s table.

Now, to be sure, there were people who were not happy about this. They were not content to share the precious body and blood of Jesus Christ with just anyone. Can you imagine how scandalous that would be? And yet they went ahead with the celebration. It continued year after year. The first Sunday in October became known as World Communion Sunday – where churches all over the world gather around this table, eat this bread and drink from this cup in remembrance of the love and forgiveness of Jesus.

Today is the 80th year that communities of faith have been gathering around the table for just such an occasion: to remember that we belong to something bigger that’s happening in the world.

The story we heard of the first Passover from Exodus 12 and 13 is an incredible story to tell as we celebrate this Sunday. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt for longer than they care to remember. Every day is just like the one before.

Moses and Aaron keep petitioning Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s heart keeps being hardened. There are 9 plagues sent on Egypt and after each one, Pharaoh still keeps the Israelites enslaved. Until the 10th plague. God tells Moses and Aaron that the Israelites are to take a lamb for each household — and if one family is unable to afford a whole lamb, their neighbor is to invite and welcome them into their home. They will then slaughter the lamb at twilight, take its blood and put it on their doorposts as a sign.

God will then pass through the land of Egypt and kill the firstborn of every Egyptian family — every family without blood on the doorposts. When God sees blood on the doorposts, God will simply pass over that house and move on. After the Passover, this Israelites will be freed from slavery and are then commanded to eat unleavened bread as a way of remembering the God who frees them from slavery.

The Hebrew word used here for Egypt is the word mitzrayim.
The name is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “narrow place.”

So for the Israelites, and all who would come after, the process of leaving Egypt is the process of leaving a narrow place or a narrow understanding of themselves and their place in God’s story for a more expanded or broadened view of God or of themselves or their community.**

Have you ever had an experience where you realize that you were thinking narrowly and then something happens that expands your point of view? A time in your life when you have moved from a narrow place to a wide place? We hear this language in the Psalms often thanking God for bringing us to a broad or wide place. We’re circling around this same quality of God. God frequently brings us from narrow understandings to wider understandings.

For the Israelites, the command comes from God through Moses to remember, then to tell following generations about the time God brought them out of Egypt — out of mitzrayim, out of a narrow place.

I wonder what that experience has been for you. The grace of God has a way of expanding our understanding of God’s love in the world. I wonder about a time when you have sensed God’s grace in a real and tangible way. 

For us, as followers of Christ, it comes to us around this holy table as tangible as the bread we eat and the wine we drink. Though our experience at this table may be intensely personal. On a day like today, World Communion Sunday, we are also reminded of the wideness of this table.

It’s a table that Jesus shared with his disciples, even the one who was about to betray him.

This table, which leads to the foot of the cross into new life, continues our journey to a wider place.

So today, as we join millions of Christ followers around the world in communion with one another, we come forward remembering the God who leads us from narrow places into broad places, from sin into grace, from brokenness into wholeness, from death into life.


** More is covered on this in Rob Bell’s conversation with Rabbi Joel Nickerson in episode 98 of the Robcast.

Fire and Wind, Water and Word, Toothpaste and Dish Soap: A Sermon on Pentecost

A reading from Acts 2

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace to you from God our creator, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ – Amen.

We have a number of different things coming to a culmination in worship this morning. First, we have two years worth of work and study coming to fruition as our youth affirm their baptism this morning. Second, we have seven weeks worth of incredible generosity building to this day where we celebrate the final day of our donation drive for Lutheran Services in Iowa. And third we have almost two thousand years worth of tradition in the story we heard today from the book of Acts.

Two thousand years ago, the church was gathered together in a room. The resurrected Jesus had ascended and so they just showed up together trusting that God would show up. And all of a sudden there was a sound like a rush of a violent wind. Tongues of fire were coming down over each of their heads.

It’s these ordinary things like wind and fire — things that we can’t grasp, can’t grab a hold of, can’t control for our own purposes — that come to signal the presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Over the last two years, we’ve had youth from our community learning more about the faith and trying to understand the promises that God made to us in baptism as they prepare to make promises of their own today. I don’t mean to rain on any of your parades today but, though these promises are noble, brave, and certainly can help in guiding our life, we will break these promises… often. We all break these promises — to live among God’s faithful people, to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. We break these promises, and yet God never breaks the promises given in our baptism.

It’s these ordinary things like water and words of promise — things we can’t grasp, can’t grab a hold of, can’t control for our own purposes — that come to remind us that we are sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

Over the last seven weeks, we’ve been gathering basic household items together to donate to families in our community who are in need through Lutheran Services in Iowa. They are a wonderful organization that help people from before they are born until they are well advanced in ages. They have programs that help victims of domestic abuse, children in foster care, refugees looking to find work often coming from areas of severe oppression and violence.

And yet to people who are in need, these items like soap and shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper can mean more than we can imagine. It’s these ordinary things that, when we give them for the sake of one another’s flourishing, do an extraordinary amount of good.

In simply gathering these items together, little by little, week by week, we are able to donate 1,485 household items to families across our community. 1,485! That’s incredible!


Our potluck lineup after church with the donated items in the background — almost 1,500 in total.

You see, we don’t have to worship in fancy sanctuaries or ornate cathedrals to have God be made known to us. It’s in ordinary things like fire and wind, water and word, toothpaste and dish soap that we are reminded of God’s promises to us and of God’s call to go and serve a world in need.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we go throughout our day of Pentecost, may we be blessed to remember that Pentecost was not a singular event that happened almost two thousand years ago and never again. It happens each and every time we feel that pull of the Spirit toward our neighbor and this world in love. May we be blessed to remember that God always keeps his promises, even when we break ours. And may we remember that our call as disciples is to give thanks to God for the blessings we have been given by sharing them with the world. And may we go on our way rejoicing, saying, “Thanks be to God!”


Prince & the Death of Creatives

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

princeI had just walked into the guest room to get the vacuum out of the closet when I received an alert on my phone that a body was found at Prince’s Paisley Park house. Naturally, I clicked the link that confirmed it was the body of Prince. Then I clicked over to Twitter for further confirmation. It was true. Then, almost as if I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I opened YouTube and watched Prince’s incredible guitar playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2004 at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for George Harrison. It still blows me away.

If anyone in this world would live forever, Prince was the one who would do it. There’s something about the way he lived, the way he created, that seemed like he was a spring that would perpetually regenerate from here to eternity.

And yet this news hits hard. There has been an outpouring of tributes on social media (four hours after the news broke, tweets about Prince’s death already numbered in the millions.) As I was scrolling through the different thoughts, it hit me that there are some celebrity deaths that are universally mourned.

For me, it has been people like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Bowie, and now Prince who, in their death have stirred something up in our broader culture, and in me personally as well. When someone prolifically creative and talented as these artists die, there is a mourning for art that will never be made.

Art connects us to some of our deepest places of pain and sadness. In those pits of despair, art has the ability to help us believe in something beautiful and joyous again. A great album, a favorite film, a painting or book can transport us to another world — one of awe and astonishment.

When we lose that sense of awe, it can be jarring. There are stories of people who don’t leave bed for weeks after their favorite celebrity artist dies. The grief hits us in an intensely personal way.

Psychologist David Kaplan says that when someone who is well-known or admired passes, it creates a desire for connection among people who admired them. He says, “We want to know that we’re not alone. So when I feel sad over a celebrity, I want to know that there are other people also feeling this way. That [connection] is very helpful.”

Every time one of our favorite artists dies, we feel a need for connection. Some of us also feel a need for an outlet — some kind of release from the pent up grief inside. My friend, David Hansen, issued a charge on his social media yesterday that I think is a great exercise for this grief as well.

For Prince. For Bowie. For Michael. For Whitney. For whoever your creative muse is: Go do something creative today. Create something. Use your gifts to bring something new into the world today. Don’t worry about how good it is or if you did it right. Just create. Use your gifts. Then share it with the world.

This is your charge, people. Create something awesome. Then share it. Drop a comment below to share something you’ve created recently. I’ll do the same. Let’s stay connected. Let’s stay creative.


Faith, Writing, and Insane Amounts of Coffee


Listening to Tara Isabella Burton’s presentation at #FFWgr

I have to tell you all about the incredible time I had last week. Every two years, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan hosts the Festival of Faith + Writing — a conference where readers, writers, and language enthusiasts of all stripes gather to talk about all things faith and writing. There are keynote speakers, panel discussions, poetry readings, and an exhibit hall that will make any bibliophile beam with equal parts excitement and envy. There are just so. many. books.

I’d never been to Grand Rapids before so, naturally, I had to do some prior research on coffee shops to start my mornings. Madcap Coffee is the big name in town, but I loved Rowster and Lightfast Coffee + Art as well.

After being sufficiently caffeinated (and then some), I was so excited to learn and be amazed at the truth, grace, and creativity oozing from every corner of the Calvin College campus — a phrase that is admittedly odd for a Lutheran pastor to write, but I call it like I see it.

Highlights for me were getting to see, hear, and meet Zadie Smith and George Saunders. They are two of my favorite writers and to be able to hear them and learn from them was such a cool experience.

The other incredible highlights were the workshops — particularly my lineup on Friday. I started out with an early morning panel about writing/being prophetic with Drew Hart, Austin Channing, and Aiden Enns. I’ve been reading a lot about race, slavery, stand your ground culture, and have been wrestling with ways to use the space my privilege affords me to work for justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and my sisters and brothers in Christ. This panel brought up so much for me around truth-telling, naming the lies our culture and privilege tell us, and practices for listening to and writing about these truths and lies in ways that are life-giving for people who are marginalized. I will be forever grateful.

On the drive home on Sunday, I realized that not only am I a better pastor for having been there, but I am a better reader, writer, and person for having shared that space for those days.

A huge blessing of these conferences is all of the conversations and stream of ideas that begin and extend into my everyday life back home. I’m excited to continue these conversations and deepen this learning for the sake of wholeness and life.

Any time you want to talk about this kind of stuff — faith, writing, race, privilege, gender, forgiveness, etc.  — let me know. I’m happy to listen and share in that conversation.

Oh man! I didn’t even get in to how Jeff Chu, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Shane McRae took me to SCHOOL about the nature of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’ll be up next. Until then… Be blessed. And let’s start the countdown until the Festival of Faith + Writing in 2018!


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