Ministry as a Research Project: : A Re-Frame That Mattered

August 4, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

“Ministry as a research project”—a phrase I first heard from Ed Friedman, the rabbi connecting family systems theory with leadership. But the antecedents for this re-frame go back a way. When I allowed it, this re-frame could change the way I viewed my work.

First, let’s understand Friedman’s point. He spoke of taking with him into a session with a client a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he wrote factual notes from his conversation that might assist him at a later point in the therapy, e.g. age, work, family members, hospitalizations, medications, etc. And on the right side of the pad he recorded what he was learning for himself from the interactions. Much later, he reports, he would cut the paper down the middle, discarding the process notes while preserving for himself the personal learning gleaned from the experience.

The story stayed with me as a metaphor—the “yellow pad with a line down the middle” with new ideas on the right side to be harvested. For me it was a fresh slant on ministry, asking, “What am I learning here?”

The antecedents to this stance go back further for me. Early in seminary the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl came to my attention. I suspect you know the story. Frankl, a young psychoanalyst, was abducted and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, just for being Jewish. Everything was confiscated from him: his family, his friends, his synagogue, his community, his work, his book manuscript, his clothes, his hair, potentially his life, and even his name, now a number. Everything. Everything . . . except one thing. He discovered that the one thing that could not be taken from him was his freedom to respond. He claimed this freedom. He chose to treat this horrific prison experience as a research project, observing how inmates found meaning or failed to find meaning in this death-dealing existence. The project—what he was learning—kept him alive, gave him purpose, and became the basis of a new approach to psychotherapy that he later developed as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy.

Let’s review a characteristic frame of ministry. Drawing on the “yellow pad” metaphor, most of ministry is preoccupation with the left side, that is, focusing entirely on the work itself, the people involved, their needs, their possibilities. That’s the way I framed it initially. I was to be available to help, not to learn . . . show up to give, not receive . . . present to serve, not to be served . . . eager to change, not be changed. You can guess where that frame led me. Yes, to over-functioning, over-attaching to results, and eventually to bone weariness of heart and body.

Later I began to experiment with the re-frame—what am I learning here? What am I clinging to that I need to release? What am I seeing in the other or myself or situation that I want to savor, perhaps digest for growth, my own and others? Something is trying to grow here, something trying to emerge, something of the Spirit happening here—where and what?

This re-frame could change my angle of vision. The very question, like a crowbar, could prize open my emotional over-investment in a person or situation. It could release my grip on forcing some quick solution. Just by asking the question—what am I learning?—would grant distance and perspective. Raising the question, either in the moment or later, created space for exploring options. Even better is the question that invites mutual insights—what are we learning here?

An example. The closer I came to my retirement as pastor the higher the level of my anxiety. The prior endings of my predecessors were problematic, so I felt the pressure to help configure a good ending, both for myself but especially for the congregation. By that time I was schooled, as you are, in the impact of pastor endings upon a congregational system for years and years, for good or ill. So I was full of angst, asking: When to announce my retirement? How long between announcement and last Sunday? How will my preaching be different during the last months? What will be my agreements about requests for weddings and funerals? How will I say goodbye? With whom do I need personal time? How will “ending” gatherings and rituals be handled? You get the picture. I was feeling a huge amount of responsibility. And all this anxiety, even before my announcement.

Then the re-frame inspired by Frankl and Friedman came to mind. I began asking myself, “What if I treat the ending process as a research project?” Immediately curiosity peaked. My energy shifted. My anxiety lifted a degree or two. My thinking was invited in another direction. What if I framed the question: “In our fifteen years with you as pastor what have we learned about being church together?” What if I kept journal notes about what I am learning about my leadership over these years? What if I selected an “ending” committee to be with me and share all the planning that must happen?

You can sense the shift from this re-frame. For me the difference is noteworthy. I entered my last months with less anxiety, less sole responsibility and with more curiosity, more inner freedom. There were times when I could pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “What am I learning here? What are we learning here?”

And, you may be thinking, this could apply to other areas of my life—marriage or illness or friendship as research projects, occasions for learning and growth. Try it out and see.

I pass along this shift for your consideration. Occasionally seeing ministry as a research project gave perspective, sparked curiosity, invited playfulness and provoked transformation. It’s a re-frame that mattered.


Hospice Chaplain / Midwife: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 13, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

. . .

Pete named it: “I feel like a hospice chaplain and a midwife.

In our circle of pastors we were responding to the question: “Your current ministry feels like or looks like a … what?” Pete’s response stayed with me. I played with it, trying on the images, experimenting with seeing pastoral ministry through these lenses. Over time it became a re-frame of the role for me. Of course, no metaphor captures the complexity of our work. But this frame reflects a truth I want to explore with you. Let’s consider these images separately.

Hospice chaplains help people die. They look for ways to align with the little, sometimes compelling movements of faith and gratitude during the journey toward one’s final breath. Pastors, as well, are given this sacred opportunity with parishioners.

But Pete was not referencing the standard, expected grief ministries of pastors, namely, the responses to personal losses that include death of a loved one or marriage or job or reputation. He was pointing to another level of loss more peculiar to the church in our historical moment.

This grief takes us to another category: the loss of church status, once “main-line,” now “side-lined”; the loss of congregational programs once vital but no more; the loss of familiar faith concepts, once life-giving but no more; the loss of institutional loyalty; and the loss of consensus about the essentials, e.g. what is Spirit/God about? … what is church about? … what is being human about?

Pastors these days hear a litany of laments:

“We don’t have young people like we used to” …

“I miss the old hymns” …

“you don’t talk about God in ways I’m accustomed to” …

“our ‘active’ members only attend maybe twice a month” …

“why, we used to have a thriving Sunday School” …

“nobody talks about tithing any more” …

“change, change everywhere, and now in church too.”

But there is an even larger sense of loss and lamenting, seldom named but nevertheless in the air we breathe. Nation-states are collapsing. Refuges know homelessness in unprecedented numbers. No longer can we assume a stable climate, predictable shorelines, and an ample, unending supply of clean water. Others have noted that 9/11, 2001 symbolically represents the undoing of U.S. exceptionalism. For sure, we are witnessing a gradual decline of our sense of privileged super-power at its peak during post-Cold War years.

This is my point. A huge amount of felt loss — losses on multiple levels, deaths experienced in various ways — is experienced by every pastor on a regular basis. People grieving over some kind of dying are the norm, not the exception. I think Pete is right. We are more, but not less than hospice chaplains.

Yet, I know of no pastor who “signed on” to be a hospice chaplain. Not one. Granted, hospice chaplaincy is both worthy and needed. But to see oneself as a hospice chaplain is a major shift in self-perception. A re-frame. It means valuing and appreciating grief work on these many levels. A priority insists on being clarified and embraced: assisting others in the letting go of what is no longer life-giving and, at the same time, companioning with others in the move toward re-formation, toward new life, toward birthing.

Yes, birthing. This takes us to the second image — a midwife. Clearly at this point I am now beyond my personal experience and can only draw on conversations with others, particularly with my ob-gyn physician daughter-in-law. But the birthing metaphor is so perfect, so essential, so biblical, so full of awe and mystery. Think of the fetus forming in the womb, growing until pre-natal life outgrows the constricting walls of the womb. The mother’s excruciating pain announces this point of no-return. But the movement toward new life cannot be stopped. Pushing forward is demanded. Evolution will not be denied. Either this singular evolving life will be supported or aborted. Amid it all, persons with “midwife” capacities offer skilled, compassionate, supportive presence.

Pete, in explaining his metaphor, felt the excitement of a midwife. He was witnessing pushes for birthing the new. Here and there, emerging from congregational relationships, were experimental ideas, programs and practices. This included many who were at work re-imaging their understanding of God, church and discipleship. The winds of spirituality blowing largely outside of the institutional church were beginning to blow within the congregation as well. It was as if he was midwife to emerging life pressing for birth, for breath, for new forms against the womblike strictures of the church.

At first glance, this metaphor of Pete’s — hospice chaplain and midwife — might appear as binary, as either-or. No, it’s not. It is not as if we do grief hospice work in the morning and midwifing of the new in the afternoon. Rather, I see the two dimensions, hospice chaplain and midwife, as held together by our most central theological affirmation of faith, namely, dying and rising, death and resurrection. It’s the Spirit’s way.

We affirm, as I understand our faith, that life and love cannot die; only the form of life and love dies. Any form — whether stage of human life development or stage of church life development or stage of faith development — will die. Our ego, ever clinging to form for security and comfort, will resist the dying, the letting go of our finite formulations. But like the trapeze artist, the trick is learning repeatedly to trust the letting go of one bar, enduring the up-in-the-air anxiety before grasping the next bar coming toward us. Isn’t this what we in the church name the paschal mystery embodied in Jesus — letting go, taking hold; dying, rising; life, death, resurrection.

If true, then this is our work: to help others learn to die in order to live, to help others learn to let go in order to embrace the next stage, to help others release their efforts to control/cling and trust the new life wanting to birth through them. This is where hospice chaplain and midwife meet. It’s one work that faces in two directions. It’s one call to be present in a way that bridges past and future.

This reflection ends with admiration. To stand in that breach, attending both to helping in the letting go and supporting the new being birthed, takes courage. Especially in our time of paradigm shifting, experienced in every institution, this role is seldom understood and appreciated. You can see why. Who likes to hear the message that much is dying in the church? Who is eager to hear the invitation to let go and trust the new yet unformed and unknown? Expect no kudos for that message! Then, on the other hand, what innovative souls, eager to get on and experiment with “being church” in fresh ways, want to hear, “Now be patient with those still denying the death occurring in the church!” Expect no kudos from them!

But this leadership during the “in-between-time” is critical. The church needs clergy called to this challenge. This challenge includes the inner work required. The pastor must learn to release dependence on kudos, to let go of the egoic need to be understood and affirmed, to, as Ethel Waters once said, learn to become “applause deaf.” To relinquish the known and trust the birthing Spirit of the unknown may be the hardest inner spiritual work embedded in this re-frame — being both hospice chaplain and midwife.

I hear this same re-frame in Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher and first president of liberated Czechoslovakia. Let’s give him the final word: “We offer leadership in a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.”


Triangling in the Purpose: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 22, 2015

This re-frame, Triangling in the Purpose, has a similar feel to the last one, Triangling in the Text. The first re-frame about preaching, as I wrote, came in a flash while reading Brueggemann’s article. This one about leadership came gradually over a period of time.

As clergy we are “set apart” at ordination to serve the church. For years this sparked internal resistance. I was uncomfortable being “set apart,” as if it meant being special or better than. “Call me Mahan,” I would urge. “We are all priests, all ministers,” I would teach. “We all share baptismal vows to walk the Jesus way,” I would preach. These are true affirmations, I hasten to add. So, what is it about being “set apart”?

Functionally, to be “set apart” looks something like this: we, the congregation, set you apart to oversee activities at our church. We pay you for managing congregational life, leading worship including preaching, officiating at church rituals and being available for pastoral crises. Often ordination boils down to a contract for services.

I came to embrace a re-frame that transcends, yet includes these multiple services: we, the congregation, set you apart to keep triangling in our Purpose for being.

Every congregation I know has a Purpose (mission) statement. The good ones are crisp, short and portable. Each one is a variation on one theme: love God, love neighbor. Some I have known are “we are people of the Way”; “followers of Jesus;” and Micah’s version—“do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Each version carries its own local accent. In fact, these identity statements are particularly forceful when hammered out by a congregation over time. But, in my experience, seldom are mission statements alive and active in congregational life. They are displayed somewhere on a wall and website or hidden away in a file labeled “Important Documents.” Rarely are they listened to … I mean really listened to for inspiration and guidance in decision-making, program-making, service-making, vision-making and especially leadership-making.

I submit that as ordained pastors we are set apart to keep reminding the congregation of its Purpose. Regularly we can triangle into our collective life the Purpose that knits us together. It’s primary, critical, though usually a role unnamed and unexpected. Why? Why is this so important? It’s because we forget who we are, why we are together, what’s our purpose for being. We forget. We experience memory loss. Amnesia sets in as a common malaise.

It’s not that others in the congregation don’t raise the Purpose question. I hope some do, but that’s not in their job description in the same way it is in ours. I like to imagine the church saying to the pastor:

We are setting you apart to study, reflect and meditate on the Purpose of the church in our time and place. We expect you to live the question and help us live the question: Who are we? What is our raison d’etre, our reason for being? How is our Purpose being embodied in our decisions and actions? By paying you a salary, we free the time required for you to keep the meaning and promise of our Purpose ever before us.

So when we are in the midst of a budget committee arguing over the best use of our money, we expect you to triangle in the Purpose question: How does this proposed budget reflect our calling, our mission statement? Or, in the midst of some conflict when we are locked into polarities, we expect you to raise the Purpose question: Where is the Spirit active in this? What new resolution is trying to emerge? What depth of loving is being asked of us? Or, in your preaching, teaching, and worship leadership we expect you to keep reminding us of the Purpose question: Who are we? Whose are we? What’s the shape of our participation in God’s movement toward Shalom, individually and collectively?

I hear an “amen!” from the research of Frederic Laloux in his recent book, Re-Inventing Organizations. Laloux, assuming that all institutions in our time of accelerating change are pressed to re-invent themselves, studied a few global organizations that navigated such difficult transitions. He particularly focused on the leadership required in these re-inventions. These leaders shared these qualities:

  • they focused on the clear, compelling Purpose of the organization while, at the same time, holding lightly any particular structures or programs;
  • they gathered around them colleagues who were equally excited about the Purpose;
  • they offered no clear future vision of the organization but rather trusted that from the collective listening to the Purpose new forms, directions, and programs would emerge;
  • they placed Purpose over profit or survival;
  • and they did their inner work (e.g. meditation) that freed them from inordinate self-interest.

Laloux notes one practice that I found intriguing. One executive when meeting with his leadership council would place an empty chair to represent the Purpose of the organization. During the discussion of organizational concerns and plans anyone on the council at any time could move from their chair to the empty chair and speak to the discussion from the perspective of the Purpose. They might say, “How does this decision fit with our Purpose? Here is how I see it. This where I see us veering from our Purpose.”

In congregational settings I’m saying that the pastor often sits in the “empty chair,” seeing, listening and speaking from the perspective of Purpose/Mission/Calling. And in addition, I’m advocating that pastors invite other members, especially lay leaders, to feel the freedom to occupy that seat as well.

Everybody I read these days either assumes or addresses the transition the church is experiencing in our time. All institutions, including the church, are in the business of re-inventing themselves. This paradigm shifting, as it is sometimes named, is true today in a way it was not when I began my ministry during post-WWII years. In those days the Purpose was unspoken, assumed and seldom challenged. Our purpose was to grow; our message was come. Now, with growth unlikely and fewer and fewer persons coming, we are driven wonderfully and painfully back to essentials—why are we here? What is our calling? What does it mean for us to allow the justice-love of God to incarnate in us? Or, in other words … we keep triangling in the Purpose.


Triangling in the Text: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 1, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. The reflections will be “re-frames” that have mattered in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m grateful that this astounding technology makes possible on-going connections with you and others. For this to be possible at my age and from my home is a gift beyond measure. I treasure your participation.  

 . . .

With this first re-frame, let’s go to a characteristic aspect of our work—preaching. Addressing regularly the same community over multiple years is unique among professions.

When I retired someone asked me, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” Without hesitation I blurted out, “Yeah, I sure will. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Preaching was the opportunity to work out my sense of the gospel’s take on the meaning of life with a community of soul friends week after week after week . . . in my latest instance, for fifteen years. It became an on-going conversation that starts with the life and lives of the congregation and returns to the life and lives of the congregation. Each Sunday after stepping up to the pulpit I could have said, “Now . . . as we were saying.” There’s nothing like it: this on-going conversation about faith, hope and love with people you know and who know you. Preaching, while never losing its sense of audacity and chutzpah, came increasingly to feel like an unimagined privilege.

But privilege was not my word for preaching during the first part of my pastoral ministry. “Performance” was the word. I felt an enormous pressure to “make it happen.” My congregation deserved my very best. And more to the point, my competence was “on the line” week in and week out. More than I like to admit, it was about me, an awareness frequently confirmed by after-comments: “That was a great sermon . . . you really touched me today . . . you are getting better and better.” These responses, of course, just pushed me to try harder.

But along my learning curve of this art appeared a fresh, new concept that named what I was beginning to intuit. It is a re-frame that changed my understanding of preaching. The gift came from friend of preachers, Walter Brueggemann, drawing on an insight from family systems theorist Murray Bowen in an article “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” (Theology Today 47 1990. 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod requires three legs, not two, in order to be stable. Similarly, when two human beings feel unstable, they often “triangle” in a third person or issue as a way of reducing the tension and sustaining the balance between them. You know well the experience. Recall two parishioners in conflict who (likely unconsciously) “triangle” you in as problem-solver or maybe even as the “problem.” This reduces the tension in their relationship while leaving you holding the anxiety. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But the re-frame so helpful to me is a positive use of “triangling.” Brueggemann calls on the triangle concept in family systems theory to present his understanding of preaching. Preaching is generally seen as occurring between pastor/preacher (A) and people/congregation (B). It sure looks that way: preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting scripture, people agreeing or not agreeing. It’s an interaction between only A and B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

(C) text

SilerTriangle

(A) preacher               (B) congregation

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our untethered imagination. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It’s the sense of God’s Word through words—scripture and ours—that matters.

I found this perspective liberating. When I allowed it, I was no longer performing. It lifted the burden I felt to interpret brilliantly, to craft a polished sermon, to declare a memorable message. I was freed to realize that I am not the subject. My sermon is not the subject. The text is the subject. God is the subject. Christ is the subject. Spirit is the subject. The “triangle” makes it clear. The primary action is between the congregation and the text, not between the congregation and me.

We, as preachers, are left with the privilege to engage the meaning of the text out loud hoping all along that the preaching stimulates the member’s interaction with the text. My role becomes more prompter than expert. I was to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—in public—wanting my words to provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Friends, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. Here is where it takes me. This is where it can take us. Where does it take you? What do you see, feel and hear? ”The shift occurs: the sermon becomes primarily about God and the congregation, not about you and the congregation.

I found this re-frame transformative. It re-shaped my vision of preaching. And more importantly, on occasion I could internalize this truth emotionally and spiritually.

This way of re-framing preaching is also a way to conceptualize leadership. That will be the subject of the next Re-frame.


Visionary Dreamers: Be Warned

January 27, 2015

“Without a vision, the people perish”—a truism we live by. We are marinated in biblical, historical and current visions of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, liberation. Recently, on MLK day, once again we blew on the embers of the Dream. In our leading, teaching and preaching we keep painting pictures of what could be, plus the audacity to call them “dreams of God.”

But there is a “shadow” side to this light. And greater the visionary dream, greater is the “shadow.” Let me explain.

It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance with a gentle breeze near as breath. Sitting on a bench I was taking in the beauty . . . and sadness, too. Two months’ prior I had resigned as pastor with no vocational place to go. I simply was unable to sustain beyond five years my first major attempt as pastor. I had hit a wall. Something had to give. So our family of six retreated to the mountains, piecing together a “living,” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce with most friends and family not knowing what to say.

Sitting on the bench that day, with adequate emotional distance, I began to ponder—what happened? My eyes landed on these non-inclusive, yet searing words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who  fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

“Is that what happened?” I whispered. Some “lights” were coming on. Did I “fashion a visionary ideal” for our congregation and expect us to reach it? The Bonhoeffer downward spiral sure felt familiar. As things didn’t happen as envisioned, first I blamed the church, and in time blamed myself. In his words: “ . . . first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” This startling awareness, though over forty years old, remains vivid, a memory still full of color and feeling. I think my soul journey started at that point. I was beginning to see the difference between clinging to a vision and having a vision. Clinging is idolatry.

I came from seminary fresh with an ideal of what church ought to be. I set about to lead this D.C. area Baptist congregation in that direction. It was 1967, soon a period of more assassinations, rising black power consciousness, the activism for fair housing, the Poor People’s Campaign and, most of all, the height of the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands and fathers away for a year at a time. It was a turbulent season for families and nation. From feeling located in the center of this vortex, the opportunities reverberated through our little congregation wanting to be a pastoral, prophetic presence in it all.

The congregation was partner in my dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man entering a young, seven year old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We were a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, I came to see, ripe for the seduction of lofty self-ideals. Together we were eager to become a “unique, special” witness amid social, political disarray.

Of course, my ending at this church was not that simple or singular. My resignation was many layered, as all of them are. But that day something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. Since then I have been alert to that visionary side of me. It’s a gift I cherish. I like my capacity to see the big picture, discern possibilities and hold curiosity about what can be. But it’s a danger, as well, to be attached to the dream, to fuel it with intensity, to allow it to yank me from the present ambiguities, and to choose an abstract vision over the tangled intricacies of what’s before me.

I hear an “amen” in a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. I found it recently in my friend’s (Ken Sehested) prayer&politiks website:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Active love is labor and fortitude.”

Bonhoeffer had to shout to get my attention. Clearly he is not against dreaming. He, for sure, was a dreamer, creating an alternative residential seminary, plus visioning a church free of anti-Semitism. In fact, for his vision he was executed. Maybe he was shouting at himself along with avid dreamers like me who are prone to love the “what could be” more than “what is.”

 


Preaching as Conversation

December 2, 2014

Funny, the things I remember about preaching. Like the time someone suggested that I preface each sermon with the warning noted on cigarette packages: “What you are about to receive may be hazardous to your health!” Don’t know what he meant, but I liked it. For sure, the gospel is hazardous to ready comfort and quick fixes. Dangerous, indeed. As Jesus warned John, sometimes it will take you where you don’t want to go.

Recently another one-liner was jogged to awareness when a pastor friend, on the verge of retiring, asked me if I missed preaching. His question reminded me of that very same question upon my retiring, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” My quick response even surprised me: “Well, how will I know what I believe?”

Somewhere along the way preaching became for me a week-to-week conversation with a particular set of pilgrim comrades. It’s unique. I can’t think of anything like it. The regular interaction was always on the same topic: What does following Jesus, loving God and the “other” look like in our time and place. It’s where I hammered out in public what I believed as a way to challenge members to engage in the same inner work. My part of the conversation was more external; their part of the conversation more internal.

I once commented — and here is another one-liner — “Why, I could begin each sermon with . . . ‘as I was saying.’” That’s true. I was picking up on an on-going conversation about the stories of God incarnating in the world. Out of a week of pastoral conversations, plus the study of the text (a form of conversation), I would pick up on the conversation, making it public, knowing that those present would in turn carry forward the conversation within themselves and within their relationships. Week by week, Sunday by Sunday I imagined this feedback loop occurring.

So back to the question: Do I miss preaching? I do miss that privilege. There is nothing to compare with preaching that comes out of a network of relationships and cycles back into these same relationships — over and over again. Preaching to congregations full of strangers never appealed to me. I always feel in those contexts that the sermon is a presentation, more a performance, less a to-be-continued conversation.

Then along the way, toward the end of my ministry, Walter Brueggemann shows up to deepen this understanding of preaching. In an article in Theology Today (1990) entitled “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” he draws upon the concept of “triangles” from family system’s theorist Murray Bowen.

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. Always, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. You know the experience: two persons in conflict may “triangle” you in as problem solver or as the “problem.” If it works, you are left holding the anxiety while they walk away feeling lighter. These challenging triangles are the daily bread for pastors.

But Brueggemann draws on the positive use of “triangling.” He points out that preaching is often seen as a transaction between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit, people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. In other words, preaching appears to be a two-way interaction with the focus on the preacher and his message.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? What if the text is the focus, not the preacher, not the sermon. In Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It is the sense of God’s Word through these words that matters. You, the preacher, are talking out loud about your engagement with the text, hoping the congregants will not only be in conversation with you, but even more, be in conversation with the Spirited text.

I found freedom in this view of preaching as a three-way conversation. Less did I obsess about correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. In this way of framing, the preacher becomes more prompter than expert, more witness than final authority. The preacher is liberated to engage the text, struggle with it, play and fuss with it — out loud — trusting that your authenticity, vulnerability and ideas will provoke a similar engagement between congregant and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Fellow pilgrims (congregants) this is what I see, feel and hear in this text, what do you see, feel and hear? This is the Word that comes to me for us, what is the Word that comes to you?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes more about God, less about you.

An addendum: This understanding of preaching as conversation, drawing on Breuggemann’s insight, has implication for other pastoral functions. “Triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Take note, for a moment, of situations with potential for win-lose debates (between “A” and “B”) — e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on some public issue. Now see the difference when in such a situation you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. your church mission or the loving act or an agreed upon guiding principle or mind of Christ, etc.) and ask how does our faithfulness to this agreed-upon commitment speak to this situation? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like? Looking through the eyes of our covenant commitments, what connections or possibilities do you see?

It’s a practice I recommend — triangling in the “text.” This reframing, like a pair of glasses, can change or reenforce the way you see preaching and even pastoral leadership.


The Powers

October 20, 2014

“I’m so tired, so very tired,” she said. “Physically, but more emotionally and spiritually. I feel exhausted. I know what to do but I don’t have the energy to do it.” Let’s name her, Linda.

I remember the feeling. When I was about her age, also a first time parent and first time solo pastor, that same dark tar settled in my soul to stay for a long while. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. And I said.

I wish I had known then about Walter Wink. He was the gift that made a second round of being pastor a different, more understanding, more liberating experience. In Engaging The Powers, he writes about folks like us—persons caught up in the good, exciting work of healing and justice and mercy. He names the time when the wells of compassion run dry, when the very love that gave birth to our vocation is exhausted. “If you feel powerless,” he says, “then it’s a sure sign that the Powers have your spirit.”

The Powers? What does that mean? What are the Powers? The Powers are the third factor in every situation. The first two factors we can see. Factor one is ourselves; factor two is the other person or group of others, for example, a colleague, family, committee or congregation. People, along with the physical environment, are what we see. Do you remember the ditty with movements: “Here’s the church; here’s the people. Open the door and there’s all the people.” That’s it, I thought. Ministry is about people and me.

But there’s a third factor, always a third factor. It’s invisible, a spiritual reality we cannot measure, control or name precisely. These Powers are supra-human, transcendent forces, the more than “flesh and blood,” what the Apostle Paul named “principalities and powers” against which we contend, lest they capture our spirit. (Ephesians 6:10–17)

You and I experience this truth—the Powers—but seldom name it. We feel it in a cheering, crowded stadium and call it “school” spirit. Or, it may be a mob spirit that we name “demonic.” We enter a home and sense hospitality or hostility, formality or informality. The same when you worship in a church that is new to you. Immediately you take in the spirit of the place coming from the architecture, the congregants, and leaders. When we speak about the personality of a congregation, we are referencing its culture, its collective spirit—that is, the Powers. And Powers, whether for good or ill, whether life-giving or death-dealing always influence what’s possible in a system. They can be so dominating they virtually determine what’s possible. Wink names this the “domination system” in which, along with divine Spirit, we live and move and have our being.

Back to Linda. She is not primarily contending with “flesh and blood” congregants. Actually, most members, she says, are supportive, collaborative and appreciative. She is contending with supra-human forces. She is breathing in and internalizing the thick messages of her family, church and cultural context. She is inhaling its imperatives: “It’s up to you to pull out of this exhaustion” . . . “you are not enough, spiritual enough, doing enough” . . . “pull yourself together, try harder” . . . “your worth is on the line” . . . “after all, you are paid to carry the anxiety of this church” . . . “to ask for help is weakness.”

Then there is the larger pervasive assumption: what Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” that is, coercive force (violence) solves problems—internally or externally. Linda was violating herself, condemning herself, trying to force or coerce different behavior and feelings.

All this and more are the unacknowledged waters we swim in. It’s the air we breathe. These invisible powers press upon us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. They are the third factor, always present. When we give in to these oppressive, dominating Powers, we feel powerless—like Linda.

“Great,” I imagine Wink responding to Linda. “Now, you know a freeing truth: by yourself you can not fuel your good work even with your gifts, stimulating insights, superior training, ‘try it again’ efforts or a self-willed determination. Simply, you are being reduced to prayer. He writes, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism [ministry] runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, [and] the well of love dries up.” Prayer, for Wink, is opening up to the transcendent possibilities of God always pressing for realization in every situation. Praying is aggressive, joining God as partner in the struggle for Shalom against the anti-human Powers ever pressing us down. This struggle against “principalities and powers” is so challenging, Paul writes, it demands “the whole armor of God.”

“Linda,” I hear Wink saying, “You have over-estimated your will power in overcoming the oppressive messages, both internal and external; you have under-estimated the prayerful resource of alignment with the power of God. Paul even provides a sample prayer (in the same Ephesian letter) that, I like to believe, includes us as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3: 14–21)


Meaningful Evaluation

August 27, 2014

Meaningful evaluation—an oxymoron? Well, maybe not.

Jim Chatham, a retired Presbyterian pastor, told me a story that gives a new angle on evaluation. I wish I had heard the story in earlier days of active leadership.

Jim invited a glass artist, Ken VonRoen to meet with him and some other pastors. The setting: one artist of one medium meeting with other artists of another medium. The conversation included the question of meaningful feedback or evaluation. VonRoen was clear:

I don’t ever let the question, “Do you like it?” be the question used to evaluate my art. No. The question is, “Does my art call you forward to a place where you have not been before? Does it ask you to look at your normal world through different eyes? Does it invite you to a new perspective?” If it does, then I have succeeded! I hope you like my art. I try to design it so you will. But that is not the point.

Upon hearing this story my imagination fired, picturing its application as a pastor.

Parishioner: leaving the worship service saying, “I sure liked your sermon.” Pastor: “Thank you, so much. Could we step aside for a moment (or, more likely, can I call you this afternoon)? I want to hear what you liked and what it meant to you.”

Or, on Monday morning at staff meeting, “Where did our ministry last week, including leading worship yesterday, take us personally to new places in our lives, to new ways of seeing?”

Or, parishioner in a note: “Pastor, during my grief, you meant so much to me. We couldn’t have made it without your words and presence.”

Pastor: calling (not emailing or texting), “Pat, thank you for your gracious note. I treasure as well the time together. Could we talk now or at a later time that suits you? I am curious. What about my words and presence helped you get through that dark time? Also, I would like to share how that time with you, Kathy and Mel, helped me see some new things.”

Or, parishioner or colleague: “I didn’t much like your sermon (or your comment, or what you did).” Pastor: “I’m interested. Tell me more. Where did what I said (or do) take you?

Or, pastor meeting with core leaders at the usually unsatisfying annual evaluation, suggesting, “Let’s talk specifically about where our leadership of the congregation during this year has taken us— perhaps personally or as a leadership team or as a congregation. Are we in new places we have never been before? Are we seeing with new perspectives?

Meaningful evaluation? Yes. Maybe it is possible. But my, what courage and inner security it takes to ask these questions. Do we really want to know?


Having Fun Yet?

July 1, 2014

It was the strangest of benedictions. One of my favorite professors, Henlee Barnett, gave me a curious blessing. At seminary graduation, upon hearing of my first opportunity to be a full-time pastor, he responded: “Oh, you will have fun there!” He didn’t say the expected: “Oh, that will be a good fit for you or a good opportunity or a worthy challenge for you.” No, he spoke of having fun doing pastoral ministry. Frankly, I had never put those two ideas together. The sound of his words echo still. What did he mean, “having fun?”

I’m pondering, now out loud with you, why should that blessing seem so strange then or now? The question unmasks the Puritan streak in me: play is a waste of time; play is what you do when the work is done; every minute playing takes us away from the seriousness of our work. I assume all of us have internalized to some degree our culture’s basic dualism’s: work and play; work and art; work and leisure.

I am not talking about play as recreation or play as time off from work, as in our “day off.” No, I am referring to work as play, to playing around with our work, to having fun in ministry.

You know this experience from time to time. I’ll bet your best preaching comes from “playing around” with ideas. Your imagination runs free. You hold a space for surprising possibilities to surface. You muse about the Muse: “What is the Spirit trying to say in this passage?” Then what flows—yes, with discipline—includes the fun of creativity.

Or, similarly as pastor you find yourself in the midst of some personal or interpersonal crisis. You have no clue what to say and can detect no redemptive end in sight. Yet, you are as present as possible, listening intently, praying silently for some guidance. Occasionally, some insight, some way through, some new possibility emerges and you feel the Creator’s pleasure: “Now, that was good, very good!” It’s the pleasure and playfulness of an artist, a creator. Or, even if there is not resolution or some hoped for outcome, there remains a joy in the creative effort.

From the Industrial Revolution we have inherited a machine-like view of work. Work is made up of units—units of time, units of productivity, units of money. We can feel that pressure in ministry, namely, to produce something measurable, to live by the clock, to number the “family-giving” units in our congregation. Yes, that’s a part of our work. But before we know it, we can feel in our core like another cog in a machine.

Could it be that we are more artists, than mechanics? We have some freedoms that most congregants don’t in their work settings. Considerable freedom in the use of our time comes with our job. We can play with our time with an artist eye—looking for co-creative possibilities, leading imaginatively from the congregation’s past, helping shape loving relationships from the clay of peoples lives. I know, these words feel a bit romantic, maybe unrealistic. Yet, I don’t want to give up the joyful possibility in defining our vocation as being artisans, poets, and mid-wives assisting in new life birthing. But there is a cost in playing around with this identity. There is a price to pay. As with most creative leaders, expect considerable criticism, disapproval, and misunderstanding.

Perhaps this is an issue of spiritual formation. I know that my own seriousness is usually a sign of ego forcing some particular outcome. Missing, at such times, is lightness and non-attachment required in creativity. And conversely, playfulness, humor, laughter, having fun are signs of self-transcendence. You can’t be playful and anxious at the same time. You can’t laugh and be fearful at the same time. You can’t be artful and controlling at the same time.

I must admit. I am drawn to pastors who laugh a lot, especially at their futility in keeping up and accomplishing their goals. They have a knack of two responses: delighting in their efforts to keep up and accomplish goals; and delighting in the larger life/love that transcends their efforts to keep up and accomplish goals. It’s a funny paradox we live.

I wonder, is this even close to what Henlee had in mind?


Do I Have a Witness?

May 12, 2014

The title I will explain later. First, some eye-opening statistics about pastors. This from the Barna Research Group: 1500 clergy leave pastoral ministry each month; 70% of pastors report struggling with depression; 50% would leave if they had another way to make a living; 61% of congregations have forced a pastor to leave; 83% of clergy spouses want their spouses to leave pastoral ministry; and 80% of pastors report that they receive no support from peers.

Alarming statistics. Surprising. Well, on the other hand, not surprising. I’ve been in a few of those categories myself for a time. Many of you have as well. And I have been alongside a fair number of clergy in the heart throes of such anguish. This data can, indeed should, wake us up to the widespread pain among pastors, which includes, lest we forget, some long-suffering lay leaders as well.

But the shock of these dismaying statistics sent me in a surprising direction. In my imagination, I pictured myself in an African-American congregation. There the preacher was, in the pulpit, reading these startling statistics, saying, “Now, brothers and sisters, this is bad news, real bad news! We gotta’ hear and heed what’s happening in our churches.” Then the preacher adds: “ But, beloved ones, I’m asking, is that the whole story? Is this an epidemic spreading among all pastors? I’m wondering, is there some good news out there about pastors and churches? Is there any hopeful news? Do I have a witness?” And, in my mind’s eye, I spring to my feet, saying, “Yes, I’ve got a witness! I see more than these alarming statistics. I have a witness.”

My witness is this: There are a host of pastors out in church-land who know the joy, feel the privilege and find the courage to serve the church — let’s say, at least 75% of the time. Mostly they love what they do.

Yes, I have a witness. For the last fourteen years in “retirement,” I have come alongside, as elder-friend, to sixty or so clergy on a sustained basis. Calling on Paul’s metaphors, each pastor or priest is an “earthy, cracked, clay jar” for sure, but they carry the treasure of “good news” with extraordinary chutzpa. I have been up close. I’ve seen it. I have experienced the “afflicted,” “crushed,” “perplexed,” but not driven to on-going “despair,” and, more often than not, they continue to “make the life of Jesus visible” in their ministry.” (II Corinthians 3:7-11) I have observed it. I have a witness.

But having just written this, I wonder: What’s common among these — most of the time — alive and life-giving pastors? Are there a few mutual threads characteristic of them all? Here’s a few that come to mind: They all . . .

  • self-define themselves as leaders and work at it.
  • have spiritual practices that nurture and deepen soul.
  • are being transformed by the challenges of their work.
  • cherish a few soul friends with whom they can be out of role, yet who understand the role.
  • laugh a lot.

Gladly, I stand up as a witness to these pastors, and others like them, who are mostly unnoticed, under-valued, and under-appreciated. Do I have a witness?


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?


Locating God

March 24, 2014

Where is God? Where do we look for God in our secular age?

I was asking these questions out loud while driving home from a recent discussion group. In the group one person was telling the Jonah story, treating it like a myth or parable. The presenter was asking: where is the Jonah in us? What are the ways, like Jonah, we flee from a God so radically loving of “the enemy,” Nineveh in this case?

A few in the circle quickly self-identified themselves as “secularists.” They interpreted the story literally, dismissing as fanciful any God who stages an ocean storm, including a large fish to swallow fleeing Jonah, later regurgitated on the land. “We can’t relate to this story. We don’t believe in God, especially that kind of God,” they all said in various ways.

Later in the conversation, a member of the circle (let’s call her Kelly), one of the “secularists,” spoke movingly of her long history with an elder in a remote Mexican village. Once a researcher in this village, she remained his friend through the years. When she heard of his dying, she made the long trip to be at his side. It seemed that he was staying alive to have his last moments with her.

By the time of her arrival, the elder has slipped into a coma. “Too late,” she lamented. But Kelly stays, remaining at his bedside, holding his hand in hers. She spoke of a profound, palatable presence of love that pervaded the room. Even the animals seem aware of this difference. Hours pass until the unexpected happens. Her mentor opens his eyes, fully and clearly, smiles, squeezes her hand and the hand of his son, then closes his eyelids, and stops breathing. It was a brief moment, so full, so unexpected, so unexplainable.

I blurted out, “Why God was all over that!” She smiled with a puzzled acknowledgment that neither of us pursued.

While driving home, I imagine saying more to Kelly. I wanted to add: “Kelly, in my way of seeing, what you experienced was God. The invisible, loving presence, so palatable to you, I name Spirit. The name is not so important to me, but naming the experience is. Your love for and from this Mexican elder, culminating in that sacred moment, is a Reality more than just you and him, more like a magnetic field, a Mystery that pulled you beyond explanation into awe.”

I assume most people have such profound moments igniting similar responses: “Wow! What a gift. And surprise. A presence, too deep for words!” Every one, from time to time, gets knocked off their feet with unexpected goodness. But I’m sad when these life-shaking experiences are left without symbols, story and metaphor, without rejoicing in community. Naming, I think, gives these spiritual experiences a marker, a container, an anticipation for more.

Isn’t this what church, at its best, does? Church, as corporate worship and caring relationships, can provide the context where such experiences are named, appreciated and expected. Of course, we cannot make these extra-ordinary events happen, but within community we do offer liturgy, story, and silence where openings to gracious/terrifying Mystery are invited and celebrated — the very fuel for acting compassionately in our worlds.

This is my assumption: Kelly, and many “secularists” like her, do have spiritual experiences. She strikes me as a person open to wonder over breakthroughs of kindness, beauty and self-giving acts of compassion. But with her image of God so tied to an other-worldly figure removed from our humanity, she may miss the connection so obvious to me.

I am thinking of the preachers among you. Probably you have a congregation full of those who still worship a God separated from this world who intervenes from time to time according to whim. I keep being surprised about how imprinted in our psyche is a deity “up there, out there,” not in here, the invisible, in-between part, the love energy in relationships.

I suppose I am a literalist at this point. I take this truth at face value: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7). There’s where I look for God.


A Spiral Upward

March 5, 2014

I experienced, and I have noticed this paradox in pastoral ministry. It was about me and up to me; yet it was not about me, nor up to me. A strong ego on one hand; a transcended ego on the other.

Maybe this dynamic is more of a spiral movement, round and round from one side of the paradox to the other. The hoped for direction of the spiral is this:  ministry happens more and more through us, not just from us, more letting it happen than making it happen.

In one sense, ministry is about you, and its up to you. That’s the way it begins. During the season of pastoral formation, the seminary and early years as a pastor, you need to be self-focused. After all, you are preparing for a particular vocation. There is so much to learn, so much knowledge to take in, chew and digest. You are busy ingesting church history, systematic theology, biblical studies, Christian ethics, liturgy, and church polity. It’s all foundational to the work looming before you. In addition, there is the “practical” side of the curriculum, the skill-set of pastoral care and congregational management required. Hopefully, all this adds up to a strong sense of self.

And, upon assuming leadership in a congregation, it’s all the more about you and up to you — your preaching, your leadership, your personality, your pastoral visits or lack of them. On the surface, that is the way it looks, about you and up to you. You are visible, up-front, public, employed, hence a convenient, obvious rack on which to hang unending judgments.

But occasionally, and increasingly so, we experience pastoral ministry as impossible. For all our heroic efforts to meet expectations, both ours and others, we come to the end of the day whispering to ourselves, “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t have what it takes.” How often, it seems, what worked doesn’t work any longer. Or those insights we glean from this book or that conversation are insufficient for long-term travel. Even the conference we attend or lectures we download grant short-term benefits that dissolve like cotton candy.

I remind you what you know. These times of “impossible” can be times we trust the More than we are. Likely, we ask our will power and personal acumen to take us as far at they can. But it’s never far enough. Our finest efforts break down, in small and, for some of us, in big ways. It’s the heart of 12-Step wisdom: only at the point of admitted powerlessness can we experience the Higher Power, God, that is.

Recall those “impossible” moments when you fell into a wisdom not your own. It could be in the midst of a sermon or counseling session or interpersonal conflict or contentious committee meeting, when the “possible” surprisingly emerges from the “impossible.” You know this experience. I imagine it as being a violin making music you didn’t compose.

I am suggesting that maturity in ministry, as in life generally, is yielding to this spiral upward — from our ministry being about me and up to me to it being not about me or up to me. It seems, if we allow it, that increasingly we experience creativity and strength coming more through us than from us.

Think of the mature among us. They speak less about striving, controlling and trying so hard, and more about allowing, being carried, graced as an agent of intentions much larger and wondrous.

This spiraling movement from self to transcending self calls for poetry, not prose. Rainer Rilke names it beautifully.

The Swan
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I’m left with a question. I’m asking myself, and now you, what helps us die, to let go of clinging, allowing the giving of our selves to the Water that receives us gaily and flows joyfully under us, granting us pleasure in being carried? What helps us do that?


A Pastor Advantage

January 20, 2014

“Pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions,” it’s often said. And that’s true. You have to wear many hats: preaching, teaching, leading, pastoral care, managing and community leader. And each function calls for a different skill set.

But you are specialists, as well. Your specialty is grief ministry. That’s your expertise. From beginning to end, you are alongside of this sequence: illness, dying, death, funeral/memorial service, after care. Other care-givers, like nurses, funeral directors, physicians, family, and friends have unique roles to fill, but, as pastor, you have access to the whole grieving process. If pastors are faithful in this work, relationships with congregants deepen; if pastors fail here, congregant relationships weaken.

Consider seeing this specialty in a larger sense. Among helping professionals, you possess a distinct advantage. All around us death and decay are being experienced on a much broader scale than persons physically dying. We are daily engaging individuals and families grieving multiple losses. So much of what “worked” is not “working” now — in virtually every area of our lives. Given this historical context, your vast experience with death and dying well positions you to see and offer what is critically needed.

Our moment in time is being similarly named: New Reformation (Phyllis Tickle); New Axial Age (Karen Armstrong); The Great Turning (Johanna Macy); From Empire to Earth Community (David Korten); From Domination Systems to Domination-Free Systems (Walter Wink). This major historical transition, however it’s named, is about change. And change is about loss. And loss is about grief.

The hard part of change is loss because the letting go has happen before the new can be seen. The trapeze act gives us the picture. The trapeze artist must first release the current bar, risk suspension in mid-air, and trust that a new bar is coming. That’s what grief looks like.

Call to mind how many of your pastoral conversations are about the losses that come with change — the external, measurable losses of technical prowess, job, status, income, place, structure mirrored by the more internal, immeasurable losses of self-esteem, confidence, security, control, and trust. The grief process follows, more or less, a pattern that includes denial, bargaining, anger, fear that may, if honored, move to acceptance, letting go, and even gratitude for what was.

You know this process like the back of your hand. You are not afraid to place yourself in the midst of grief’s intensity. Others, perhaps most others, are likely to withdraw for fear of saying the wrong words or doing the inappropriate thing. You have an advantage. You know it’s not about saying or doing the “right” thing. You know its primarily about Presence, being present with listening, mirroring, encouraging, coming alongside like a midwife, patiently and sensitively assisting in the letting go and the birthing of the new.

Of course, change has always been with us, but the accelerating rate of change is the big story of our time. No longer is the rate, 2-4-6-8, but rather, 2-4-8-16-32. Grieving multiple loses may be our primary inner work. People need you — neighbors, family and congregants alike. They need your expertise. They need your presence. They need to experience within their loses the paschal mystery, the very core of your calling: dying/rising; facing into loss trusting that life is rising out of death.

You and I, as pastors, have an advantage. Can we see it, then offer it?


The Wager

January 6, 2014

You and I often lament the overuse, the abuse, and the misuse of two words: God and love. Some recommend a moratorium on these words. Others suggest substitutes, like “G-d,” or synonyms like, “Holy One” or “Spirit” or “Life Force” or “compassion” or “justice” or “mercy.” But there is no way around it — these words, God and love, are essential, not replaceable, despite our being tongue-tied in naming the unnamable.

Over the past Christmas season I joined these two words, God and love, in a poem inspired by Raymond Lull.

The Wager

“I love you” . . .  “I love you too.”

the universal exchange

resounding around the globe.

Subtract “I” and “you,” “love” remains.

The in-between part

the invisible, can’t measure it, part

the word with many names — justice, passion, compassion, mercy

the Mystery with no names.

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.

“Where did you come from?” “From love.”

“Who are you?” “Beloved, be-loved.”

“What formed you?” “Love”

“What’s your practice?” “Extravagant loving.”

“What about difficulty?” “That too . . . hold in love.”

“What’s permanent?” “Only . . . love.”

“What about Christmas?” “Love enfleshed.”

“What about God?” “Love Source.”

“Why are you here?”  “To fall into Love.”

“Where are you now?” “A beginner.”

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.


A Spiral Upward

November 25, 2013

I experienced, and I have noticed this paradox in pastoral ministry. It was about me and up to me; yet it was not about me, nor up to me. A strong ego on one hand; a transcended ego on the other.

Maybe this dynamic is more of a spiral movement, round and round from one side of the paradox to the other. The hoped for direction of the spiral is this: ministry happens more and more through us, not just from us, more letting it happen than making it happen.

In one sense, ministry is about you, and its up to you. That’s the way it begins. During the season of pastoral formation, the seminary and early years as a pastor, you need to be self-focused. After all, you are preparing for a particular vocation. There is so much to learn, so much knowledge to take in, chew and digest. You are busy ingesting church history, systematic theology, biblical studies, Christian ethics, liturgy, and church polity. It’s all foundational to the work looming before you. In addition, there is the “practical” side of the curriculum, the skill-set of pastoral care and congregational management required. Hopefully, all this adds up to a strong sense of self.

And, upon assuming leadership in a congregation, it’s all the more about you and up to you — your preaching, your leadership, your personality, your pastoral visits or lack of them. On the surface, that is the way it looks, about you and up to you. You are visible, up-front, public, employed, hence a convenient, obvious rack on which to hang unending judgments.

But occasionally, and increasingly so, we experience pastoral ministry as impossible. For all our heroic efforts to meet expectations, both ours and others, we come to the end of the day whispering to ourselves, “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t have what it takes.” How often, it seems, what worked doesn’t work any longer. Or those insights we glean from this book or that conversation are insufficient for long term travel. Even the conference we attend or lectures we download grant short-term benefits that dissolve like cotton candy.

I remind you what you know. These times of “impossible” can be times we trust the More than we are. Likely, we ask our will power and personal acumen to take us as far at they can. But it’s never far enough. Our finest efforts break down, in small and, for some of us, in big ways. It’s the heart of 12-Step wisdom: only at the point of admitted powerlessness can we experience the Higher Power, God, that is.

Recall those “impossible” moments when you fell into a wisdom not your own. It could be in the midst of a sermon or counseling session or interpersonal conflict or contentious committee meeting, when the “possible” surprisingly emerges from the “impossible.” You know this experience. I imagine it as being a violin making music you didn’t compose.

I am suggesting that maturity in ministry, as in life generally, is yielding to this spiral upward — from our ministry being about me and up to me to it being not about me or up to me. It seems, if we allow it, that increasingly we experience creativity and strength coming more through us than from us.

Think of the mature among us. They speak less about striving, controlling and trying so hard, and more about allowing, being carried, graced as an agent of intentions much larger and wondrous.

This spiraling movement from self to transcending self calls for poetry, not prose. Rainer Rilke names it beautifully.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I’m left with a question. I’m asking myself, and now you, what helps us die, to let go of clinging, allowing the giving of our selves to the Water that receives us gaily and flows joyfully under us, granting us pleasure in being carried? What helps us do that?


Music Matters

November 5, 2013

I am just back from one of those powerful, ‘full of power’ week-long conferences. You know what I mean, events that renew your body, mind and spirit. Upon returning, I’ve experienced the familiar frustration of naming this “power” to those pressing me for its meaning.

​I found myself focussing on the leader, a typical fall back position. After all, the leader is up front, visible, the one most easy to blame or commend. I chose commending. I spoke of her inner freedom to offer fully who she is, her clarity of thought, her humor, her generosity and other such glowing, yet nebulous words. I gave some examples. I drew a few mental pictures.

​But, upon reflection, it was the “music” that empowered me. She helped us make music together. Her vulnerability invited ours. Her self-giving invited ours. Her wisdom invited ours. The power is from what happened between us — the invisible, immeasurable, mysterious — like a symphony. I most enjoyed what flowed through her, much like the music that flows through the violin and violinist in concert with other musicians.

​Then I remembered a quote from Anthony DeMello in Awareness. I pulled down from my shelf this favorite book in former years, leafed the pages, finding these words:

“What I really enjoy is not you; it’s something that’s greater than both you and me. It is ​something that I discovered, a kind of symphony, a kind of orchestra that plays one ​melody in your presence, but when you depart, the orchestra doesn’t stop. When I meet ​someone else, it plays another melody, which is also very delightful. And when I’m ​alone, it continues to play. There’s a greater repertoire and it never cease to play.” ​(p.54)

​That’s it. That’s the deeper truth. Last week I experienced a symphony, many variations on a theme, with numerous players involved and — yes, an authentic, skillful maestro leading us all.

​Then my mind jumped to another memory:

The surprise came at the end of a banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the ​work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing ​together again and again — all in preparation for the final recording session coming up ​the next week.

​“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording,” she admitted.

​“Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?”

​Her response was profound beyond her knowing.“When I can get to that place within myself ​and with others where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

​Maybe the music is what’s important, what really matters — the Music we experience through others; the Music others experience through us. Name it Love, Grace, Spirit, God, Sacred, Christ, as I am prone to do. But today Music is my word of choice.


On Movements and Institutions

September 30, 2013

As pastors, are we leaders of a movement or an institution? Or both?

This summer I have been active in two social change movements: Moral Monday, a protest movement led by the NAACP against recent N.C. State legislation; and Walk for Our Grandchildren, ending in a rally across from the White House, declaring “yes” to a sustainable environment and “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. I referenced both of these in my last posting.

I’m uncomfortable as an activist. Frankly, I am more of an institutional person — for fifty years a pastor of three congregations and a director of Pastoral Care within a medical center.

Lately I have been pondering — what is the relationship between movements for social change and institutional leadership? Then I came across this quote:

History suggests that movements of moral imagination are the animating force for social change. In order to realize their goals, however, these movements must eventually impact and transform existing institutions . . . Once a movement is institutionalized, however — politics being the art of compromise – the original moral insights are often eroded and sometimes lost altogether.

— Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation

I find myself responding, “Yes . . . and!”

We know this truth. We experience this awareness. In our lifetime we have witnessed the Civil Rights Movement as “an animating force for social change.” We watched it “impact and transform” our national institutions and yield Voting Rights legislation. But, we see, as well, as the result of intuitionalism, how this “moral insight” is now under the threat of “being eroded.”

Or, we study the God movement embodied in Jesus being an “animating force” that, in the effort to renew Judaism gave birth to the church, a new institution. Yet, even within the New Testament we begin to see the crystalizing power of institutionalization as roles, structures and doctrines become more tightly defined.

My “yes . . . and” response to Enns and Myers is my need to distinguish more clearly institution from institutionalism. I want to put in a good work for institutions. In my circles of relationships the word “institution” seems tainted, at best a necessary “evil.”

But, to make an obvious point, institutions are inevitable. Even a movement begins to institutionalize as soon as the leaders of a movement decide to meet at a certain time, with a particular people, and some semblance of organization. Soon, if the movement keeps moving, there is money to raise, a budget to create and communications to establish. Before you know it you are asking, “Who does What When?” That is institutional work.

Perhaps my concern can be best expressed in negative terms. Note the dangers of both institutions and movements. The danger imbedded in institutional life: When institutions become ends in themselves, they become self-serving, eventually freezing into inflexible structures and rules for purposes of survival, control and protection. There is the constant danger of the “animating force” being choked by “right” structures, “right” procedures, “right” beliefs.

The danger imbedded in movements: Movements will dissipate for lack of structure, procedures, and covenants. Movements need containers as a way to hold the “moral imagination [as] animating force for social change.”

Pastors possess the courage to walk the line between these two dangers. It’s a sharp, treacherous edge. They are leaders in the divine movement of shalom in a world that defies all efforts to contain its Mystery in precise form; they are leaders of institutions that seek to hold and be held by this movement, when at its best, allows this “animating force” of Spirit to flow through its finite structures and words.

Is not the church both movement and institution, willing to live in the tension between the two?


The Pastoral Prophetic Edge

August 27, 2013

Prophetic is such a vigorous word. It brings to mind the courageous actions of an Amos, Shiphrah and Puah, Ghandi, Day, or King. Prophets stand up, stick out with their actions for justice in the face of oppression.

I have been thinking about the prophetic edge of pastors.

In North Carolina there is currently a ground swell of protest to current legislation called Moral Monday. When legislators were in session, rallies, led by the N.C. NAACP, gathered each Monday in Raleigh to protest legislation that many of us regard as unjust and immoral. Thousands gathered each week. Over nine hundred were arrested in non-violent witness. I joined in both.

Recently I participated, along with my grandaughter, Leigh and son, Mark, in a Walk for Grandchildren culminating in a rally at Layette Park in front of the White House. We were protesting the destructive effects of fossil fuels on global climate in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular.

Were my actions prophetic? Hardly. They cost me little. I hold no position to protect. I have the time. I have the health. I have little to lose.

I’m thinking, what about the prophetic edge of pastors? Their prophetic witness is not so obvious or dramatic. Here is a way to see it.

Johanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their provocative book, Active Hope, lists three dimensions of the prophetic. One is direct action, the kind I just named. This collective witness can expose publicly the damage caused by political, educational, religious and economic policies. Events, like rallies, boycotts, campaigns, petitions and other forms of protest can awaken the larger population to awareness — and possibly to action.

A second form of prophetic witness is changing the system. This involves rethinking the way we do things and, likely in the process, redesigning structures and policies. The current attempt to recreate our health care system would be an example. So would the increasing options for socially responsible financial investing. It’s the hope that these protests of Moral Monday will affect future elections and, as a result, affect future legislation.

There is a third dimension of prophetic action: the change in consciousness. It is probably the most important, least measureable and less noticed of the three. Neither protesting nor changing systems will stick unless there is a change in our mind/heart set. New structures or policies will not survive without deeply embedded values to sustain them. These external changes require a consciousness that both summon and undergird the actions for “mercy and justice.”

This takes us to the home turf of pastors. We are in the business of advocating a new way of seeing. We are all about worldviews, the way we see the world, inviting others to “put on the mind (consciousness) of Christ.” Reality, we declare, is thoroughly relational with no separation from a Love that never ends, not now or later, nor in life or death. Within this network of interdependence, communion, and mutuality, the Spirit is ever present working for just relationships. It’s gospel, good news.

I submit this to be a prophetic edge, even a prophetic wedge toward personal and social change. What is “good news” to us is “bad news” to those seeing Reality as consisting of separate parts with the point of life being individual success, individual gain, individual freedom, individual power, individual salvation. We proclaim partnership, not domination; power-with, not power-over; community, not individualism; collaboration, not binary either-or thinking; non-violence, not violence as problem solving; and grace as gift, not achievement.

I close with what you know all too well. When you talk this way and walk this talk, watch out! Resistance happens next. It’s the prophetic edge that cuts both ways. Count on it. Nothing is more threatening than messin’ with the way people see the world and themselves in it. Those captivated by the Dream always call forth killers of the Dream. The more we live this Way and invite others to this path, the greater the push back, criticism, and yes, persecution.

It was promised by Jesus . . . along with the barrels of joy.


Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

July 8, 2013

Who am I? . . . a question, like a sinker on a fishing line, that takes you down, down into your depths. For Jacob, in front of a mirror, asking the question over and over again transformed his life.

Here is the story. Jacob gave me permission to share his story as long as I used his real name. He wants to claim it. Jacob is an inmate at Marion maximum-security prison and a member of our weekly writing group. As facilitator, my plan on this particular day was to reflect on transformation stories of other famous prisoners, e.g. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and my favorite, Victor Frankl. But before I knew it, our writing circle of five began to tell their own stories of radical change.

Jacob shared his. This is the setting: Jacob in “solitary” for thirty-four months with an hour a day for exercise and shower. A toilette in the corner, bare bed along one side, wash basin in the other corner . . . and a metal mirror secured to the wall. “Yes,” I thought, “mirror, mirror on the wall!”

For two years anger keeps him alive. He spends his little bit of freedom on outbursts of defiance, spewing abusive language with accompanying obscene behavior. “What happened at the two year mark?” I ask.

“It was that damn mirror on wall that got me,” he says. “It was ever-present, always there, as if staring me down. No where to hide. Over and over and over again, it keeps asking: “Who are you?” “Who are you?” “Who are you?”

Over time something happens. He calls it a miracle. I call it grace. Somehow through his mirrored encounters he begins to answer the question on deeper and deeper levels. From identifying himself primary as a criminal, as a angry person, as a complete failure at twenty-seven, he begins, with the help of his new Rastafarian faith, to identify himself as African. (His father, whom he never knew, was from Ghana.) He goes deeper still with the question — who am I really — beginning to glimpse himself as a cherished child of God. In telling the story he keeps repeating the words, “identity” and “home.” There is such mystery to his story, no clear step-by-step path to this deeper place. But no doubt about it — his presence, his spirit, his smile gives evidence of this profound change.

Since that day I have been pondering two questions.

First, why Jacob? There are many, many other inmates experiencing solitary confinement. And they, each one, have mirrors fastened to the wall. What was it about Jacob that led him to see in the mirror these deeper and deeper responses to “who are you?” Why do some — including us all — “get” grace, or better, realize “being graced,” but most people don’t? And why is it so counter-intuitive for any of us to sustain the awareness that our worth as pure gift, not our achievement? For me, there remains such mystery about how, with whom and how long inner transformation happens.

My second question is this. What if I took, as a spiritual exercise, looking in the mirror asking repeatedly “who are you?” Currently I only glance into the mirror, long enough to part my hair, wash my face and brush my teeth. I don’t like reminders of my aging. Now, because of Jacob, I am experimenting with lingering long enough to ask, “Who are you? Whom will you be today? From what identity will you live this day?”

Thanks, Jacob.


Flying Close to the Sun

April 15, 2013

Over the phone I was hearing a familiar story. Another visionary (not a pastor) flying too close to the sun with wax between the wings melting, intimate relationships dissolving, then the predictable fall from the sky. I hung up the phone, and sat in silence for a while, feeling deep sadness. A profound tragic sadness.

​This is the tragedy: he has been a voice of life-changing news. His vision was eye-opening for many. His five-talent skills were invested for good, much good.

​This is the sadness: he came to believe he was good news. His admirers made the message about him. And, sadly, he came to believe them.

​I’m referencing the familiar Greek myth. Icarus, in spite of the warning from his father, Daedalus, flies so close to the sun that the wax attaching wings to body melts. The wings fall, along with his body, into the sea.

​Flying high is a part of a pastor’s job description. It’s not optional. It’s inherent in the fine print of an unwritten contract. With no small amount of chutzpa, every week pastors stand before congregation being a living symbol of More than they are. They enter into the dark places of human anguish, vulnerable to the raw cries, “Pastor, where is God in this? Why us? What should we do?” Pastors fly high with their humanity on display, becoming the subject of evaluations seldom heard and a Rorschach for outrageous projections — all the while holding confidential information without it showing. What daring, I say. What audacity.

​Most pastors I know fly high with a vision that they cannot but proclaim. They cannot stop themselves from attempting the flight. They seem to heed a compelling summons that will not let them go.

​But they fly high at the great risk of self-destructive and others-destructive hubris.

​But I call attention to the rest of the story. Often left out of the telling of this myth is the other advice that Daedalus gives his son. He also warns him not to fly too low, too close to the sea, less the water prohibit the lift of his wings. This is the counter caution: flying too low, playing it safe are equally self-destructive. Fear of failure, risk, and vulnerability is as lethal as flying too close to the sun.

​This seems to be a cautionary tale in two directions: the danger of believing your service is about you; and the danger of believing it is not about you. One hazard is pride that “goeth before the fall;” the other is low self-regard that lacks boldness.

​I’m left wondering if there is a wax that holds in high flying? I suspect its substance includes humility, not hubris. The few visionary leaders that come to my mind are keenly aware of the Wind that sustains and empowers them. If pressed, they speak of yielding to and working with a force far more than their power or even their understanding. “Success” or “achievement” are not in their vocabulary. “Gratefulness” is.


Shepherd and Manager

March 6, 2013

Shepherding a family of faith; managing a religious institution. Two hats, two roles, two job descriptions. It seems that way. It feels often like a balancing act. But is it? Or, could these be separate tilts or bows from a single identity?

I hear this polarity in comments like these: “The church pays me to handle staff. The rest (the soul/spiritual work) I would gladly give free of charge.” Or, “You gotta pay the rent (organization management), so you can do what you love to do.”

I remember this self-talk during seminary days, “Just think, when I am a pastor, I will be paid to study/ponder the gracious mystery of God, teach and preach this grace, embody its hope in caring ways, and in following Jesus help a congregation put flesh and blood to this justice/love in the world. Incredible! Paid for that? What a deal!”

Then the rude awakening came at my first call as pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church for $50 a week and at all the subsequent congregational invitations to be pastor. There it was in the fine print of an unwritten contract: I was paid to help manage a religious institution. Yes, I was paid for more than that, but not less. And yes, I did not manage alone. But I was expected to work with budgets, funding, policies, records, staff supervision, membership loss/gain, and building maintenance, not unlike a manager of a Walmart or a Hardees or a Ford dealership.

I recall a conversation with a pastor in which I saw a glimpse of how shepherding and managing might be two stances from the same identity. I like it because it is a typical issue that comes to congregational leadership.

The church leaders’ were expressing appropriate concern for the security of the church building, and, in particular the safety of the secretary who is often alone in the building. The building committee took it upon itself to purchase a number of surveillance cameras without checking with the pastor and some other lay leaders. They saw what needed to be done, and did it.

The pastor spoke of being aware of both hats. Her management-head was concerned about the hasty action that left out other leaders, including herself. She knew the leaders would need to review their process in decision-making.

Her shepherd heart saw something else. Their building is a hospitable, anonymous, safe space for the 12-step participants in recovery who meet weekly. The multiple surveillance cameras might compromise this ministry.

What struck me about the story was the pastor’s integration of both process management and spiritual leader. She saw and lifted up what was missing, namely, the witness of their church in management decisions. The solution, a good business decision, might jeopardize the mission value of hospitality. As I saw it, she was bridging the false dichotomy between business issues and ministry issues. In this “bread and butter” management dilemma she saw embedded a faith opportunity, a possible teachable moment. What she saw is incarnational — God’s compassion for the invisible taking on flesh and blood in ordinary church life situations?

Maybe that’s what she is paid for — to keep showing up in institutional/family relationships and asking the faith question, the Jesus question, the mind of Christ question.


A Story to Steward

January 2, 2013

Evidently mystical, spiritual experiences are common. I am referring to those times when you seem lifted out of your limited self-preoccupations and feel a part of Something larger. You experience, even if for a moment, the extraordinary in the ordinary. That experience seems widespread.

I am thinking of times like these: in a crisis – feeling held together by love you can’t generate, a strength given you cannot explain; or, a typical day in the garden feeling suddenly a part of growth beyond your control or understanding; or the poignant awareness of loving someone as an extension of yourself; or, those moments of “wow,” when you feel the wonder of what is before you.

 These common experiences are sometimes transformative, that is, they change the way you see the world. A shift in perspective occurs, however slight or major. We walk away from these experiences never to be quite the same.

 This is what I am wondering: How many of these self-transcendent moments go unrecognized? And do they go unrecognized because there is no story or worldview to name them? Is a transforming change from these mystical moments undermined because there is no container, no narrative, no worldview to hold and sustain them?

Actually, these are statements, not questions. I think what we have as Christians, along with holders of every other religious narratives, is a framing story, that, like a string, can tread these spiritual experiences. It’s being a part of a larger Story that grants them definition, continuity and context. Otherwise, these potentially transforming moments will fall to the ground, like separate beads, left behind.

We have a Story that connects, that names, that incorporates. To the ones experiencing the sense of loving another as an extension of themselves, I think of Jesus’ saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself (not as you love yourself).” To the ones enthralled in gardening, I think of creation spirituality as in Jeremiah’s vision, “Their life will be like a watered garden.” To the one’s held by love in some devastating crisis, I think of the biblical refrain, “I am with you . . . with you . . . with you as Love from which no-thing in life or death, now or later can separate you.”

We live within a historical context of competing Stories or worldviews to live in and from. Defining narratives plead for our allegiance, such as, the myth of redemptive violence (violence saves, solves problems), or the story of progress (we are getting better and better, bigger and bigger, or should be); or reality is limited to what you can see, touch, feel, taste or hear (secular materialism); then our Story of God as force of Love, most clearly embodied in Jesus, ever seeking connection, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy — in other words, Shalom. And, being human and inconsistent, we live within all of these stories. We claim no purity. Yet, I have the desire, likely you do as well, for the Jesus story to define our way, hold and motivates us.

Once I pridefully thought that it was my job to help people have transforming experiences. Now I assume that these openings happen, though often unacknowledged. As steward of a Story, I feel the privilege to look for these spiritual openings, to recognize them, to expect them, to name them, and assist their sustenance in community.


On Job Satisfaction

November 19, 2012

“What gives you satisfaction in your work?” the reporter asked.

It’s probably not the best question. Sounds a bit self-serving. But it was the question asked me by a reporter some twenty or so years ago. I still remember my answer. “I love the privilege of a ringside seat near members making sense of their lives, particularly during hard times.”

My answer still rings true after all these years. My role as pastor invited me alongside when a rug was pulled out from beneath a member’s feet. The sudden stroke, the dying and death, the end of a marriage or friendship or job — losses of every conceivable kind. We see up close the rawness of grief and the groundlessness from pain, watching protective shields shatter before our eyes. But not just crises. Gains too. How do people make sense of the good events in their lives? The birth of a long awaited child, the transformative “ah ha” of some breakthrough, the realization of a personal dream. But mostly the courageous struggle for meaning comes with the hard stuff.

These pastoral conversations might occur in my office or over a cup of coffee. More often they took place in the home, in the “living room,” a safe space.

I was invited to be there not as a voyeur, but as a presence, a living symbol of the More-than-me and a face to a congregation’s care. I could listen to their questions, and add a few of my own. I could watch the resources they turned to draw upon. I could participate, in some small measure, in the fears, doubts, and faith that rose to the surface demanding a hearing. Up close I could feel their yearning for meaning. Holy ground it was. A sacred privilege. And to think, I was paid for doing this.

But, upon reflection, there is a major flaw in the metaphor, “a ringside seat.” Being pastor is more than having a close up view of human struggles in the “ring.” The metaphor denotes detachment. Quite the opposite, in coming “alongside” you go “inside.” We become a part of the action, thrown into the ring, so to speak. There we are, when life events send the presence of God into eclipse. There we are, in the midst of the push-pull energy of relationships — parent-child, spouse-spouse, friend-friend, member-member, parishioner-God. There we are, immersed in the contentious energy in a budget committee or congregational meeting. There we are, preaching a counter-cultural gospel that generates a dissonance that takes some to deeper meaning and drives others to angry resistance.

In that “ring,” we learn — if we are to thrive — to be present looking for signs of the Spirit at work for healing and hope, to receive reactivity and not be reactive, to know a joy not tied to results, and even come to value the energy within conflict. These relationships, especially the difficult ones, kept forcing my ego out of hiding, shining a light on my desire to control, to look good, to achieve. Challenges, lessons and occasional taste of transformation — but not from a detached ringside seat.

If asked today the same question of satisfaction in my vocation, I think I would say, “I loved the privilege of being in the same arena (not ring) with multiple people in covenant, my teachers in disguise, seeking the meaning of their lives — just as I was.” And to think, I was paid for this.

Now it’s your turn. I am the reporter asking you, “What gives you satisfaction in your work?”