Eschatology as Provocative Re-frame

April 28, 2014

Plan with the end in mind — a piece of advice I keep coming across in leadership material.

This bit of wisdom came to mind during two recent conversations with pastors getting clear about their retirement. While not time to announce their plans, their clarity was internal. I asked both of them, “What’s this like for you?” They both made similar responses, “I feel lighter.” And, I noticed this in both. They were working the same questions: “Now that I know the end time, what is most needed from me now? And what do I most want to give?” 

Let’s pull off our “theological shelf” and dust off this esoteric word — eschatology. Yes, both of these pastors are living in a personal scatological “end time.” And obviously this awareness is bringing clarity, and with it an exchange of one kind of energy for another. The difference is striking.

Then I began to ponder my own pastoral experience. In my first flight as pastor I served a seven-year old congregation. We both had little flight experience. Jointly we felt the exhilaration of a new beginning with no awareness of endings. Our sense of limitless horizons contributed to an eventual “burn out” in my case.

Later, much later, I became pastor of an almost hundred year old congregation. What a difference! I knew immediately — no matter how long I stayed — that I was an “interim” pastor. I served that congregation for fifteen years, a longer than usual ministry in one place. Yet, in terms of its history, fifteen years granted a very short privilege to come alongside this congregation rich in heritage.

Then, with that same congregation, I entered my 60′s with a deep weariness setting in. I went to the lay leaders saying two things: one, I felt I had more work to do with them; and two, I needed a few months to step back and catch my breath. During that time I asked to relinquish worship and committee responsibilities. We came up with a plan.

What surprised me during that mini-sabbatical was the “eschatology” that kicked in. I knew my time as pastor was coming to an end. This awareness forced the questions: for these next few years what does this church most need from my leadership? And, given my excitements, what do I most want to give? The clarity — a result from this sense of end-time — contributed to my final years being the most joyful and creative.

It’s something for you to think about. You are an interim-pastor. Your congregation was there before you came; it will continue after you leave. It is as if you come on board of a train at a particular station platform. Then somewhere down the tracks you will depart at another station, waving back to all the well wishers until they are out of sight.

This scatological re-frame, working with that end in sight, raises generative questions: Given the limited time, what does this congregation most need from me? And, given my gifts, concerns and interests, what do I most want to give?

It just may be a fast track to some joy, lightness, energy and clarity.

P.S. I’m playing imaginatively with this scatological re-frame. I picture myself at my death-bed, hearing this question from my grandchildren: “What were you thinking to left us a planet damaged beyond repair?” I want to be able to say, “Regrettably I woke up late, but when I did, I took action.”


Hierarchy: Blessing or Bane?

April 14, 2014

“Hierarchy” is a loaded word. In my circles this word can spark fire in the eyes with quick examples of oppression that follow. Feeling uneasy, if not hurt from both coercive power and hierarchy, many in my “tribe” want to organize our lives and life together free of both. I submit, this is dangerously simplistic.

Hierarchy: blessing or bane — which is true? I argue for a “both/and.”

First, the “bane” side. Some of us know, up close and personal, the abuse of power from a parent, parents, older sibling, teacher or other faces of domination. Decisions are made, demands given; obedience is expected. Add to this, all of us have experienced working within domination-systems, including the church, where coercive force, directly or indirectly, is the norm. Particularly, women, gays, African-Americans and the less privileged among us know the sharp edge of subjection in a way that I have not experienced. And, daily we watch across the globe the countless instances of top-down decisions that benefit the few at the immense suffering of the many.

Because oppression often comes packaged in hierarchical structure, it’s understandable that hierarchy and coercive power become joined together at the hip. As we awaken to the freedoms inherent in partnership and inclusion and equality, the conclusion seems obvious — we must free ourselves of hierarchies as well. Yes, I agree but only if they are domination hierarchies.

But there are natural hierarchies that appropriately structure differences. Given their position in biological life, molecules function at a higher level than atoms. Given their position in evolution, humans function at a more complex level than monkeys. Parents, given their position in a family, function at a higher level of responsible caring than children, that is, until the children become adult.

A human body needs a head — the very image for Paul of the church. He plays off the metaphor, challenging the Philippian Christians to “Let this mind [consciousness] of Christ be in you. . . “ And he writes of the “body,” the church, as having separate, very distinct, unequal parts brought together in joint desire to embody the mind or Spirit of Christ.

Additionally, a favorite concept for church leader in the early church was “over-seer,” translated as “bishop.” Bishops are titular heads of large sections of the church, hierarchical in structure. But the original word, “over-seer” deserves a second look. An “over-seer,” sees over much of the body, not because of its superiority, but because of its position in the body. If the eyes were positioned, say, on the arm or leg, their capacity to over-see would be severely limited. Eyes in the body function to encourage cooperation, note growth, see dysfunction, and scan the environment — just what a good parent or good bishop or good pastor or good leader does. The role names the position; it does not grant powers of domination. The role as “over-seer” is for empowering, for powering-with, not for powering-over, not for coercive force.

The question for me, as I look at organizations, is — what kind of hierarchy? Those who, by their position in a system, are leaders will lean either toward being empowering or toward powering-over in controlling, coercive ways. By itself, hierarchy is neither blessing nor bane. It’s a matter of how power by leaders is understood and used: one with humility, challenge and support; the other with control, self-inflation and manipulation.

Don’t you find examples of both coming readily to mind?