survival of the fittest church

kathyescobar church stuff, equality, incarnational, injustice, jesus is cool, leadership, rants 37 Comments

matthew 19

A few months ago I made a big plate of nachos for all of the kids. Within 10 minutes, they were devoured and I made a joke about how life around here is like “survival of the fittest.” The strongest and most-able-to-elbow-everyone-out-to-get-the-guacamole wins.

The past few weeks, I also talked to some amazing pastors & leaders who are some of the most humble and kind and dedicated people I know but are struggling with what it looks like to lead in their contexts. Their communities are small, the people they care about don’t have resources, and people-who-fund-these-kinds-of-things just don’t come be part.

It made me think how often church has become about “survival of the fittest”, too.

Even though Jesus spoke boldly against this in the gospels, the one “system” that’s supposed to be contrary to the ways of the world has adapted its methods and structures to fit in. The result: over time, the “strong” are surviving and what is perceived by the world as “weak” are becoming more extinct.

Mega-churches with big budgets keep building buildings; small, simple, in-the-trenches communities find it hard to stay alive. Strong charismatic leaders keep drawing people in; ordinary average pastors-who-are-just-doing-the-simple-day-to-day-work-of-taking-care-of-their-congregations keep dwindling in numbers.

The same principle applies to extensions of “church”. Take blogging, for example–often, loud, mean, provoking voices rise to the top and humble, kind, honest ones never get hits. Beautiful underground practitioners are doing the tangible work of living out their faith without the help of sustaining financial support but those with seminary degrees & charismatic communication abilities & strong-in-the-world’s-eyes leaders are the ones being fully funded.

Over the past 8 years The Refuge has been alive, I have seen a lot of churches & leaders come and go. The saddest part to me is that on the whole, the ones that have gone have been friends who were trying new things, deeply and humbly dedicated to people, and really passionate about the incarnation of Christ in all kinds of creative and wonderful ways. They made deep sacrifices over time to live out their dreams for Christian community, but in the end, some just couldn’t make it. Others, like us, continue to struggle along as best we can but money is always tight and the “strong” rarely come.

Bottom line: Human beings don’t like to be weak.

Many contemporary Christians like it even less.

We like to be on the winning team.

We like to be the ones who aren’t like “those people.”

We like to feel comfortable.

We like the safety of numbers.

We like certainty and conformity and affiliation.

We like the path of ascent, not descent.

And those are all contrary to the ways of the kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last. Where stopping on the side of the road to help the man bleeding is more important than the next-great-sermon-to-prepare-or-listen-to. Where spiritual poverty & humility & mourning & meekness & peacemaking lead to blessing. Where it’s worth it to leave the 99 to find the one. Where restoring basic human dignity and offering tangible love and connection trump programs & budgets & the law. Where mercy is more important than sacrifice.

I always wrestle with the paradox of feeling despair about the reality of church while witnessing hope, too. For some reason today I just feel extra bugged because I still see the strong getting stronger and the weak getting squeezed out. 

I am tired of hearing about yet another church plant with big plans for growth and funding when there are so many small struggling ones who could really use some brothers & sisters to come alongside and pitch in and help instead.

I am tired of hearing about the next, new great church idea when there are countless local agencies and organizations who could desperately use more volunteers and help and will never, ever benefit from another Sunday church service cropping up in their town.

I am tired of hearing of yet another amazing, small, beautiful community evaporating because of lack of funding to sustain the so-under-market-value amount some of these pastors & leaders need to keep doing the hard-and-painful-work-of-truly-living-alongside-others.

I am tired of hearing about yet another male leader of some church or network or ministry or organization who gets away with being a narcissist and mistreating and using people and somehow keeps getting paid good to do it because they have charisma and know how to woo the right people.

I am tired of hearing of another incredibly gifted female leader with no church to serve in or staying stuck in one that’s “as good as it gets” but will never see her as a full equal.

I am tired of yet another privileged argument about the scriptural interpretation of homosexuality while the poor are getting poorer and the grooves of oppression continue to get deeper and wider at home and around the world.

I am tired of hearing about many incredible, sincere people who long to find a spiritual community to be part of after a faith shift but have few options because most everything out there is either “strong” or dying or unwelcoming because the money & resource won’t tolerate the fringe.

I am tired of a heckuva lot of people being influenced by a theology of power & strength & hierarchy week after week after week.

Goodness gracious, I’m tired of a lot of things!

I’m not trying to highlight all the negative; there’s no doubt so many good things are happening all over the place, many that we never hear or know about. I definitely borrow hope from that and truly believe that ultimately the ones on the underside of power win.

Mostly, I think I am just tired of “survival of the fittest” accurately describing the church of Jesus Christ–the one group that should defy all of man’s theories.

mental illness: 3 sets of 3 things

kathyescobar church stuff, healing, incarnational, synchroblog 38 Comments

compassion henri nouwen

* Note: I originally posted this in December of 2013 but am republishing it tonight as part of the October 2014 Synchroblog centered on Mental Illness awareness. October 5th through 11th is Mental Illness Awareness Week. I will put the link list at the bottom of the post once it comes out tomorrow.  It’s so important to talk about this issue together.  The inspiration behind the synchroblog was Sarah Lund’s new book–Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church. This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I am so glad so many people will be writing about it at the same time!


Mental illness. I want to be careful about writing about it because I don’t come from a place of personally knowing all the ins and outs of what it feels like. While I have a lot of struggles, the ongoing issues related to the biology and realities of mental illness are not part of my own personal story.  However, I know so many people who live with it in some shape or form.  There is a wide range of diagnoses, symptoms, and day-to-day realities; some are open about it, and share with safe community what it feels like, tastes like, is. Others might not talk about it openly but are working hard to make things work despite the obstacles. Many others are just worn out & tired because of it and sometimes want to throw in the towel.

Personally, I am pretty mad that so many people I know suffer with its realities & ravages.  And God’s healing sure doesn’t seem to look like some of the scenes we have seen in the Bible where things happen fast and miraculously.  In fact, intersecting with this much reality and pain when it comes to mental illness has made me re-think healing & miracles entirely.

I am no expert on mental illness, that’s for sure, so please know that anything I am sharing is just from what I keep learning a long the way in my little world and the not-so-popular Jesus school i am part of.  But there’s no question, the stigmas attached to it really suck and harm so many.

Here are 3 main reasons mental illness really pisses me off:

1. It tells people lies. It makes people believe they are too hard to be around, too much, too _________, that if people really knew their truth they wouldn’t be loved and accepted.

2. It tries to strip dignity.  The crazy-in-the-head feeling can make so many feel less-than, ashamed, and unworthy.

3.  It doesn’t have any easy solutions.  A pill won’t do it, although it might help.  Prayers won’t do it, although they will help.  A now-go-to-this-group won’t do it, although it usually offers some relief.   Its’ complications just don’t lead to easy answers.

There are also things I think it’s good for us as individuals, people who care, to consider about mental illness:

1. Unless we’ve walked in another man’s shoes, we shouldn’t judge.  I can’t say what it feels like. I just can’t.  And that automatically means that I am disqualified from judgment.

2.  Never assume. It’s so easy to see smiles and think someone’s “fine”  it’s easy to see darkness and assume someone’s worse than they are.  Our assumptions can really cause us to deny reality or make reality worse than it is.

3. Friends matter.  It’s a mean struggle, and the last thing that’s needed is more isolation & shame & harshness. At the same time, we are human and it can sometimes be hard to be a friend.

Lastly, especially in light of hearing of 2 recent suicides connected to friends of mine just this week, both somehow connected to “church”, I think there are a few things that the church should consider related to mental illness to better love and care for the hurting:

1. It is damaging to put pat answers on this complicated problem. Making mental illness a “sin issue” or creating an environment that is unsafe to share the truth of our struggles is really jacking with people. It leaves them with no choice but to split and try to manage their pain on their own (which never goes down well) or lose their community and jobs and reputations.

2. Get better educated.  Ask questions, get trained, meet with others who understand mental illness far more than you do, hear real stories, find ways for others to hear these stories.  Do whatever’s possible to get schooled in its realities and help others learn, too. While relief is not one simple change away,  lots of constructive things together make a difference.

3. Embrace the realities instead of run from them. Pain is a lot of work. It requires time and energy and love and care that often doesn’t have a big pay-off. But we have to trust that there’s something much bigger going on that has nothing to do with “results” or “wins” or “outcomes-the-way-we-want-them.”  It’s about love & presence & Jesus call to us to not run from the hard stuff.   It’s about our shared humanity, our we-all-have-our-own-pains-and-none-of-us-are-exempts.

Jesus welcomed pain.  And like a moth to a flame, people came for relief. At the same time, I am sure there were many others who were afraid to ask for help, afraid to cry out for the opportunity to touch his garment, who suffered alone while the crowds circled this strange, ordinary man who did extraordinary things.  Stigmas have crossed many generations, making honesty very difficult.

My hope is that as we bring this very real issue into the light, less people will suffer alone.

That we will not let our fear prevent us from engaging with its realities. 

That we will be people of courage and peace and hope and healing, in it for the long haul.

That we will fight for our friends.

That we will never give up.

That we will remind each other that who we are in our worst moment is not who we really are.

That we will create churches and communities that welcome pain and restore dignity instead of slam the door shut at the first sign of danger.

That we will respect that living in real life with each other will be beautiful & hazardous and will require more of us than we bargained for. 

That we will keep learning, keep trying, keep praying, keep loving, keep walking toward the light together.    

These 9 things are such a small start, but I wanted to acknowledge this today while it was fresh on my mind.  I’d love to hear what else you’d add.


other bloggers writing about this important topic this week:

we have a dream.

kathyescobar dreams, equality, incarnational, injustice, synchroblog 17 Comments

we have a dream

This month’s Synchroblog is centered on Race, Violence, and Why We Need to Talk About It. There’s a link list at the bottom of this post of some other bloggers also writing today. If I were going to recommend one post to read on this subject, read I Need to Say Something Entirely Different to White People on a Deeper Story. When I was thinking of what to write, this is what came to mind. I know the road ahead is long and hard and painful, but I hope we can be part of making some of these dreams come true.


“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow…” (MLK) we still have a dream.

It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of God for all his creation.

We have a dream that one day the children of God will rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed: “Love our neighbor as ourselves” and that there would be no us and them, but only us.

We have a dream that we’d trade our guns and knives and swords and stones and words-as-weapons for tools of peace and listening and presence and humility.

We have a dream that one day on the streets of every Midwestern town, we will not see a sea of white or a sea of black, but a rising powerful wave of every color mixed and weaved together, moving on behalf of hope.

We have a dream that tables in every cafe and restaurant and pub and university and library and church and school cafeteria would be filled with people of all colors side by side, eye to eye, face to face, eating together, laughing together, listening together, living together.

We have a dream that even on Sunday mornings, still one of the most segregated day of the week, that we’d bravely and intentionally leave the church of our comfort and walk through the doors of our brothers’ and sisters’ communities and join in learning and listening instead of teaching and talking.

We have a dream that hardened hearts would be softened and stiff necks would be loosened, and knees everywhere would be bowed in humility toward God, confessing the ways we have participated in injustice and oppression and in hate and division and racism.

We have a dream that voices that have been silenced for generations begin to rise up in a strong chorus that stirs our souls and moves our feet.

We have a dream that the false power of this world would be replaced with the true power of the Kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last, where the low will be lifted up and the high will be humbled, where there is no over or under but only alongside.

We have a dream that we would raise up an army of peacemakers across all generations and shapes and sizes and theologies and politics who are dedicated to creating spaces and places of healing and reconciliation and hope and collective action.

We have a dream that God would wake those who are sleeping, rousing us from their ignorance and indifference, and move our hearts to action.

We have a dream that what was meant for evil could be redeemed and that even the darkest ugliest pockets of injustice could be transformed into an “oasis of freedom” and hope.

We have a dream today, not for tomorrow or “once we’re more ready” or “once the time is right” or “once things aren’t so tense.”

We have a dream that we won’t keep waiting for our dreams to drop out of the sky but that the wild and beautiful and creative spirit of God would move through us here, now, to bring heaven to earth.

A dream that we could live in a land where full equality wasn’t a dream but a reality, a practice, a way of life, evidence of Jesus-at-work-here-and-now.

Yes, we “have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together'” (MLK).

God, give us courage and wisdom and endurance and hope to participate in making this dream come true.


Check out these other bloggers writing about this, too:


women, men & church: what hurts, what helps

kathyescobar church stuff, co-pastoring, equality, ex good christian women, leadership, women in ministry 14 Comments

cocreators of wholeness and hope

Two fridays ago The Refuge hosted our first “Beyond Seminary: Moving Theology into Practice” gathering. Our amazing friend and seminary professor Dr. Deborah Loyd facilitated and we were challenged, encouraged, inspired in all kinds of ways.

There were 25 of us there, 21 women and 4 men. Yep. That was a little hard for me but probably tells the real story. Oh, we have to figure out how to get these conversations more balanced! Real, lasting change will happen when both genders are equally committed to learning and change together. I am so grateful for the amazing men that were indeed there and do know some other male leaders who wanted to come but couldn’t make it. They embody the humility, honesty, and willingness-to-engage that is what the church desperately needs.

Deborah started with a solid foundation of the reality that our theology on gender in the church has been built on biblical interpretation through the eyes of patriarchy and seeing what we want to see as opposed to the bigger story of what’s really there. Then, we quickly moved into reality:

What is really happening in our real life experiences related to gender equality in the church?

What disempowers?

What are some best practices to move toward change?

I thought I’d just share a brief summary of what we came up with in these two major categories–what hurts, what helps. What disempowers, what empowers. What continues the deep divide between genders in the church, what heals it. 

Here’s what hurts and disempowers women (and ultimately men, too) in the church:

  • When women aren’t part of the decision-making, power bodies of the church (pastoral leadership, elder teams, guiding teams).
  • When men are seen as employees and are paid properly and women are seen as volunteers and expected to work for free.
  • When women’s contributions and faithful input aren’t acknowledged (so many behind-the-scenes things happen by women in the church but are often unthanked or women’s contributions aren’t valued as highly–men are seen as the ones who “make the plans” and women are the ones who “execute them.”)
  • The media messages about women, how we should look, think, act. (I’d add the messages about what it means to be a “good Christian woman” (or man) that is solidified through so many of the books, blog, bible studies available at Christian book stores).
  • Stereotypical retreats and the same-old-same-old men’s & women’s groups –men do certain things at their retreats and groups and women do others.
  • When boards and conference line-ups don’t reflect equality at all and are very imbalanced. Most are still mainly men with a few women sprinkled in.
  • A scarcity mentality among women–that there are only so many places at the table so we had better fight to keep our spot. This can create a competitiveness that is really sad and limiting.
  • When women are not given the titles of “pastor” when that’s what they are really doing.
  • Comments about our looks and gender (Oh, do I have some crazy stories about that!)
  • Many sermon examples, scriptures, stories, quotes tend to be male-focused.

What else disempowers?

It’s really easy to get stuck there, and even as I read these brainstorms through again, I had that icky-and-hopeless feeling creep in. These things are so engrained into our church systems that it is going to be hard work to shift it to a more healthy, balanced place. With the bad theology and generations of patriarchy embedded deeply into our psyche and practices, it won’t be an easy shift.

However, change is happening. And can happen. We will just have to intentionally apply ourselves to some new practices, men and women together.

Here are some tangible and practical “best practices” that can help us move toward greater equality in the church:

  • Friendship. This is a core practice that opens doors to equality. We’ve got to find ways to practice being true friends together.
  • Be intentional about inviting, including, empowering, and releasing women into all levels of leadership. It won’t drop out of the sky so needs to be clear and strong message–“we need you, we want you, and here’s how we can make this happen.
  • Pay properly and equally. Period. Figure it out.
  • Avoid gender-biased comments (on both sides) about looks, athleticism, feelings, and other stereotypical ways of viewing both sexes.
  • Create intentional and brave conversations about gender in our communities–places to share, evaluate, process, adopt new practices together.
  • Ask at every table of leadership: how can we make room, make this table more balanced, who’s missing?
  • Recognize the realities of childbearing and honor it completely. That means keeping positions open, building flexible schedules, re-thinking the plans for advancement in churches & ministries.
  • The older generation of both men and women mentoring, supporting, encouraging, calling-out the younger generation of female leaders. Not just women supporting women but men and women supporting men and women.
  • Consider how to support women practically and tangibly through seminary and then ministry related to childcare help, books, mentorship, and financial support.
  • Start naming the elephant in the room before certain meetings and planning sessions get started–“We know women haven’t had an equal voice in this before. How can we shift that dynamic in here right now so everyone is heard?
  • Conference organizers and local have a solid and clear list of female speakers to draw from and use them; intentionally work toward balance.
  • Men showing up for gender equality conversations as much as women do (I added this one).

These are just a few of the things that were shared in our gathering. What would best practices you add?

My prayer and hope is that more and more spaces & places would be created where women and men were working freely alongside each other as equals, friends, brothers & sisters, and co-creators of wholeness and hope.

God, help us find our way together.


A few other notes:

  • Please read my friend and Denver pastor Kevin Colon’s reflection from the morning on Creating Gender Respectful Environments. I had already written this post when I read his, but really his summary is much better and so encouraging.
  • I’ll be at Sentralized in Dallas this Thursday and Friday sharing the content I love from Down We Go and would love to see you if you are there.


all roads lead to power.

kathyescobar church stuff, faith shifts, injustice, leadership 16 Comments

misused power has a mean daughter

I don’t usually wake up thinking of the word “power”, but I do often wake up thinking about:

My friends living on the fringe.

Those who are trying to leave or heal from abusive relationships.

People I know from all over the place who are healing from “church”.

The realities of mental illness.

The women I intersect with who are meant to lead in church but probably never will have a chance.

How to keep The Refuge alive financially.

Rising violence in the world and how powerless I and so many others around me feel to do anything about it.

The deep divide between “us and them” in too many contexts to count.

Coffee, what I’m going to wear, and the long, crazy list of things I have to do that day.

There’s one common thread that runs through each of these things (except the last one)–power.

My loose working definition of power is “resources, value, voice, and leadership.” I’ve already written a lot about power over time–three words about it, that it’s not like pie, that it’s worth re-thinking, that we know how to live under or over each other but not alongside. I’ve talked about good power & how part of our role as Christ-followers is to pass it on and diffuse it, but that usually works better in theory than practice.

The reason I wanted to write about it yet again is that I think it’s an often-missing-yet-crucial ingredient in so many of these blog-church-faith-life-theology conversations. And it’s maybe the most important to have because all destructive roads lead to it.

Misused power and control go hand in hand.

Misused power and unbalanced resources are tied together.

Misused power and violence can’t be separated.

I was reminded of Augustine’s famous quote this week at a meeting: Hope has two beautiful daughters–Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and Courage to see that they don’t remain as they are.

I love this thought, but we could re-write a much darker version centered on power: Misused power has a mean daughter and a cruel son–Control and Division. Control to keep people underneath and division to keep them weak.

In the gospels, Jesus wasn’t just railing on religion. He was calling out misused power, not only with “You’ve got it all wrong.” He also offered a better way. The Beatitudes and the way of the cross are good, solid starts.

It makes me think of what Henri Nouwen says in The Name of Jesus, his book on Leadership: ” What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

Because theoretical rambling about power isn’t that helpful, I thought I’d share some off-the-top-of-my-head ways we can address issues of power more openly and seek God’s help for healing its dark side so its light and good can be illuminated.

Remember, power isn’t bad. It’s just so often misused.

So here they are, 5 possible ways to address issues of power:

  1. Create safe spaces to talk about it openly. It’s underneath everything, the root of racism and sexism and classism and dysfunctional relationships and the human condition, yet we so often want to avoid it. Wednesday night at our House of Refuge we used our time to talk about race, and it was awkward and hard but I was glad we at least tried in our feeble way to talk about it instead of ignore it.
  1. Recognize our own power and privilege if we have it. When we minimize it or pretend we don’t want it or don’t have it, it isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s damaging. We need to own our white privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, economic privilege more honestly.
  1. Listen, listen, and listen some more to those who are on the underside of power. The only way to do that is to be friends with people who don’t have it. We need to hear from those whose resources, value, voice, and leadership have been diminished, silenced, squelched through culture and systems. They need to be heard and asked questions that help us better understand: “What does it feel like for you? What’s your story? Your family’s story? What makes you angry? What has hurt you? What helps?
  1. Be honest about our fears of losing it (if we have it). It is vulnerable to lose power or not have it in the way we did. Power can protect and separate us, so the reality is that when we give it up, we are far more human, far more vulnerable, far more weak-in-the-world’s-eyes. That’s worth reckoning with not only individually but as systems. Unhealthy systems are so afraid of losing power.
  1. Take out the shame of talking about it because it’s just…real. I sometimes feel guilty always bringing it up, worried that people will misperceive me as power-hungry or a whole host of other things that are confusing about talking about it as a Christian. But I think that’s part of the problem–we haven’t talked about, we haven’t addressed it, we haven’t been honest about it. And that is why our systems are so jacked up. The one place on earth that is supposed to be one of the healthiest, least-power-imbalanced, has become one of the worst.

What would you add?

I’d love to create new paths that lead to healthy power.

New ways of talking about it.

New ways of reframing it (come to the Denver Faith and Justice Conference!).

New ways of diffusing it so it multiplies.

New ways of leading and shifting it so that dignity can be restored, relationships can be free, and systems can be living, thriving reflections of the Kingdom of God in all kinds of beautiful ways.