Seeing Under Water: A Re-Frame That Mattered

January 10, 2017

I was trying to shoe-horn one worldview into a shoe that didn’t fit. It took me a while, and not without some blisters, before I realized it. Here is what I think happened.

My formation as a person and pastor took place within Newtonian thinking. This map or worldview pictures reality as a machine with individual separate parts that, if working well, hums along with clockwork precision.

This map accents the importance of individual development, individual rights, and individual salvation, with individual teachers and professors providing guidance. My seminary was divided into separate, individual departments: biblical, historical, theological, and practical. Even theology was broken into parts — Neo-Orthodox, feminist, liberation, process, Old and New Testament theologies, etc. Very able and caring specialists, all ordained, were preparing me to be a generalist practitioner with non-ordained laity.

It was just assumed that I would be able, largely on my own, to synthesize this huge body of knowledge coming from separate disciplines. When I came to my first post as pastor, on one hand, I had never known so much; on the other hand, I had never known that so much was not integrated.

So I began my pastoral ministry as I had lived my life. I envisioned the congregation as a functioning machine with individual members. It looked that way. In committee meetings I would lead with clear agendas but, more often than not, I left these meetings frustrated over unexpected interactions that colored outside the lines. I encouraged a long-range planning process with goals and objectives precisely negotiated, only to find that after a few months this crafted plan had lost its steam. Similarly I would begin each day with a carefully thought out to-do list and end the day with only two or three “to-dos” crossed out. In those days I was scratching my head. The congregation was far from a smooth humming machine. There was something missing and it wasn’t more oil.

Like a slow dawning I began to see beyond the Newtonian map. Church work, I realized, is all about relationships; more like family and friendship, less like a machine with separate parts. And relationships are unpredictable — from order to disorder to order again, ever changing, full of surprises, all happening within a general frame of commitment.

A shift began to occur. In a committee meeting, for instance, a person might introduce an idea that sparks other ideas and synergy occurs. Yet this synergy would dismantle any tight, straight-line agenda.

Long-range planning that projected our life together five or ten years in the future was laid aside as a futile exercise. Yes, dialogue about direction is critical and can be energizing, but precise plans will always evaporate beneath uncontrollable, uncertain forces of change. The context of church work is always about ever-changing relationships within ever-changing environments, with no semblance of machine-like precision.

And let’s don’t leave out my frustration from interruptions to a carefully scheduled day. The common thread of these interruptions to daily planning was relationships — a member in crisis needing to talk now; a colleague needing some “time”; someone wanting to join (or leave) the church; a prolonged hospital visit; a call, “Have you got a minute?”; a death, a job loss, a birth, a complaint; a question about your sermon. The list of possible interruptions is endless. But each one happens within relationship; each one is about relationships; and each one opens the possibility for more life-giving relationships. Engaging the interruptions, in this sense, was my work.

The mystic Rumi names this awareness: “You think because you understand one you must also understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.”

That’s it. That is what I am raising with you, namely, understanding the “and,” the invisible, in-between energy in relationships. This was not simply for me an on-the-job learning. During those years I was being awakened by other forces pressing for a post-Newtonian worldview — quantum physics, feminism, systems theory, chaos theory, the Buddhist truth of inter-being, the South African “ubuntu,” Buber’s I-Thou, and the recovery of our contemplative tradition with its accent on the unitive, non-dual, non-separation consciousness of Jesus, as in “love your neighbor as yourself” (not like you love yourself) and Paul’s vision of the church as Christ’s organic body.

I am raising with you what you already know and experience. You too have moved from a strictly Newtonian worldview. But we tend to forget. Non-dual awareness is not our general way of seeing unless we intentionally choose to be conscious of the unseen reality of “and.” Marcel Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I am writing about new eyes.

A metaphor can help us. The nature mystic Loren Eiseley suggests that we humans are like the Brazilian amphibian fish whose eyes have two lenses, one for seeing under the water and one for seeing above the water.

Above water you and I see individuals and marvel at their distinctive personalities and peculiarities. We differentiate, separate, compare, distinguish. To live in our culture is to be immersed in these waters of individualism. The French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville named this characteristic early in our history: “They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” This heritage is in our bones, our DNA. It’s a map of reality — a Newtonian map — that has benefited us greatly. But it’s limited, oh so limited.

Under water we see through another set of lenses. We see relationships and individuals within relationships. We see the invisible “and,” the in-between spirit, the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced that is within and between us. Through these lenses (this map or worldview) we see this deeper truth, the underwater truth — everything is inter-connected, inter-being. According to this map separation into parts is an illusion.

Imagine holding a banana in your hands. Above water seeing recognizes its distinctive texture, color and other separate features. But to see under water is to realize all the relationships that make possible this banana’s presence in your hand at this moment — the connections with the tree, soil, rain, and sun, with the harvesters, transporters, and sellers, and now with the banana in your hand. Suddenly, when you see this, you are caught up in banana wonder.

Love, the core and point of our faith, is invisible, relational energy. God is Love; Love is God. But love makes no sense apart from relationships. To see this is to unwrap a different map than the familiar Newtonian map that names separate locations, separate persons, separate institutions, separate parts. It’s the map or worldview that Thomas Merton unfolds: “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to do is be what we already are.”

The problem, it seems, is that most people only see above ground. Their vision of life is binary with its separation thinking — you-me, either-or, right-wrong, in-out, up-down. For many, perhaps for most people, the map of distinctions and differentiation is the only map they live by.

In a poetic moment Merton marks his waking up from a dream of separateness only to see everyone walking, shining like the sun. And he later writes, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time … in people and things and in nature and in events. But the problem is — we don’t see it!”

So what if we see it as pastors? What difference would it make if this awareness of relational synergy was the way we went about our work? I have already referenced committee meetings, long-range planning, and our daily “to-do” list. I’ll suggest a few more.

Take feedback for instance. I found feedback, at its best, to be direct and relational. At any of the numerous church meetings, what if you saved ten or fifteen minutes to ask, “Well, how did we work together? What helped? What got in the way?” You are assessing the strengths of collaboration, not primarily individual contributions.

Or a member may comment, “Pastor I really liked (or didn’t like) what you said.” At that point you could shift to, “Can we get together and talk about it?” Or, in a strained relationship sometimes a bold question is needed: “Sam, can we talk about our relationship? It’s important to me. What’s working? What’s not?”

Marriage is obviously a relationship. Seeing above water we focus on the growth and well-being of each individual. What is frequently left out is the under water, invisible “and” dimension — the growth and well-being of the relationship. It’s not so obvious.

Or, consider your congregation’s way of making decisions. This assumption you can bank on: relationships will either deepen or diminish in every decision-making process. During challenging congregational decisions I kept declaring, like a mantra, that the way we make this decision (how we relate) is as important, maybe more important, than what we decide.

And there are always issues to deal with. Problems and challenges are often couched as issues. I submit that issues can be and should be re-defined as challenges to relationships. For example, the “racial issue” can be re-defined as “How will we be in relationship with those of different skin color?” Or the “gay or LGBTQ issue” is more appropriately “How will we be in mutual relationship?”

Then, note that all the church rituals tap into this relational synergy. If done well, relationships — the in-between part, the “and” — will strengthen. At the wedding the two individuals enter separately from different directions, meet to make covenant with each other, God, and family, and finally exit the ceremony as one in community. Baptisms are not about individuals being sprinkled or immersed. Rather, we are sprinkled or immersed into community, a web of relationships, a body working together at embodying the mind of Christ. At funerals we celebrate Love from which we cannot be separated and remind ourselves that while loving relationships change they do not end. And the Eucharist is relational energy through and through, re-member-ing who we already are — a Communion, a Body.

So over time I came to appreciate two maps. One, the Newtonian map, which highlighted individual effort, differentiation, separation, and binary thinking, I inherited. The second post-Newtonian map with its awareness of relational synergy came to me as a gift along the way. Gradually, not abruptly, the new awareness took hold: Love — the business of church — is all about unpredictable, messy, creative, destructive, exciting relationships that carry the yearning for Shalom, the inter-abiding dream of God.

And yes, God is alive in all these relationships — luring, challenging, healing, forgiving, dancing with joy. God is present in and around and between and under and behind and ahead. In every relationship God is shining through, whether we are aware or not. Whether we know it or not, we are all in relationship with God, with each other, and with all that lives. The Spirit is relational synergy; the relational synergy is the Spirit.

Life is all about relationships. Ministry is all about relationships. It took me many years to see it, to see under water. It became a re-frame that mattered.

 


On Time: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 4, 2016

As pastors we have time in our hands. Not a stethoscope. Not checks or prescriptions to write. No goods to sell. No papers to grade. No legal documents to consult. We have time, time to show up, be present, and invite others to find themselves in the Story as their defining story.

The congregation says to us: “We free you from having to spend part or all of your work time earning money. We are buying your time to lead us.” Then with no clear expectations, no structure, no supervision, no schedules offered, they walk away, trusting our use, not abuse, of this time given. It’s an awesome trust; it’s burdensome freedom.

Time, my relationship to it, was the blessing and bane of my pastoral ministry. I loved the freedom of choice; I felt the burden of its up-to-me stewardship.

A pastor was describing his thirteen-hour Sunday: the early review of his sermon; leading worship, including preaching; a pastoral response to a family crisis; a late afternoon committee meeting; a hospital visit; and then another meeting at the church that evening. Most disturbing was that, while driving home after a long day, his mind was still working, thinking of things not done and people not seen. “Always more, no endings, never enough,” he said out loud to himself. Later he left our vocation, in large part, he said, “for lack of time.”

Granted, such long hours are typical for many workers caught up in a job with high expectations, either self imposed or imposed by others. Thirteen-hour days are not so extraordinary. We all live and work in an environment that applauds over-functioning. “Not enough time” is a refrain sung by most adults I know.

But, and this may surprise you, for pastors the issue is not about having enough time. It looks that way. It feels that way. But insufficient time is not the problem. The truth is, we have time. Time is the gift that awaits us each weekday morning. It is ours to fill, to spend. We are paid to show up in time with presence.

This is the way I see the covenant between pastor and congregation:

We set you apart (ordination) to lead alongside us from a different angle. We give you time to understand, define, and offer yourself in the role of pastoral leader. We free you from some, if not all, the obligations to earn a salary outside the church. We pledge adequate personal and financial support for you to have the time you need to fulfill your calling. We make it possible for you to have time to study, reflect, and pray in ways that nourish your season with us as pastoral leader. Together, as pastor and people, we seek to embody in our historical moment the extravagant compassion of God, made most clear in Jesus.

Note the freedom. Let’s acknowledge up front the uncommon freedom we have as pastors. Yes, it can be a burdensome freedom, but it is freedom nevertheless. Most laborers, including professionals, have limited to no control over their schedules. Their time is carefully measured, sometimes in 15-minute increments. Most workers adapt to schedules largely set for them by others. Not so with us. We have an unusual freedom of choice.

This difference I felt keenly when I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to becoming again the pastor of a local congregation. In my hospital context my work schedule had structure—office hours from 8:00-5:00 Monday to Friday, many standing committees, one boss, with weekends usually free. I could still over-function, but I knew when I was working beyond the agreed-upon boundaries.

In contrast, the congregation offers minimal structure, vague and conflicting expectations, and fluid boundaries. Apart from Sunday morning worship and a few fixed committees, I was on my own to figure out my best use of time. Unless our misuse of time is flagrant, we are our own “boss” when it comes to time management. It’s up to you. It was up to me.

That’s my first preliminary point: we are given time along with the freedom and responsibility to invest it. There is a second point to make before I record the re-frame, namely, we are employed by people who don’t understand our job.

I’m not complaining or blaming, mind you. I am naming a lack of understanding that comes with our profession. Most of our work is invisible to the congregation that employs us. How could this lack of understanding be otherwise when much of pastoral ministry is private? For instance, most lay members seem surprised to learn that preparation for leading a worship service, including crafting a sermon, usually requires at least twelve hours. And how would members know that a funeral service takes six to eight hours of pastoral care, preparation, and leadership of the service? And there is the care we give to individuals and families that is appropriately confidential.

Technically, in some situations, congregational members are not the employer. For instance, in the Methodist system the pastor is appointed. But functionally, I’m assuming that in all parishes the power that allows us to minister belongs to the people. If congregational expectations of the clergy are not met, then it is only a matter of time before the bishop or superintendent or representative lay leaders say, “We think it is time for you to move on. The match is no longer a good one. It’s not working.”

Furthermore, with each “employer” (member) a pastor has a slightly different contract, a difference in large part unacknowledged. For example, some members insist on certain standards in liturgical leadership, especially preaching, yet seem less demanding in other areas. Others, however, expect availability and effectiveness in pastoral care. These members can tolerate less quality in worship leadership. Still others look for efficient management. Above all else they expect effective oversight of the staff, budget, programs, and building. A few members give top priority to pastoral leadership in the community, expecting their pastor to be a connecting link between congregational resources and community needs.

Again, I feel the need to say that I am not blaming. Members do not intentionally participate in these competing pulls on a pastor’s time and energy. These overlapping member-pastor contracts are expectations that live beneath awareness and only occasionally are brought to the surface in conversation.

This is the nature of our work. We offer ourselves in the midst of conflicting contracts, unconscious assumptions, and unnamed expectations. Our vocation is not for those who require detailed agreements, tight structure, and precise boundaries. Simply, we are employed by those who don’t understand our job. To the extent that this bold statement is true, we are left with a daunting responsibility. Our relationship to time is left up to us.

Now, to my point. This is the re-frame that mattered: giving top priority to prioritizing my calling in order to prioritize my time. This may sound counter-intuitive—taking time, lots of time, to prioritize the focus of our ministry as prerequisite to decisions about our use of time.

I’m advocating that the place to start is not a to-do list for the day. That’s too late. The to-do list comes last, not first. To begin with a list of what to do today leaves us vulnerable to the immediate, pressing, short-term needs. Left out of the list would likely be the larger arc of our calling.

Perhaps, at this point in this reflection, my own experience would be helpful. I hesitate because, as I have admitted, my relationship to time was my greatest single challenge. I reference my efforts in managing time not as a model to follow but as a set of assumptions and practices against which you can review your own stewardship of this gift.

First must come the work of self-definition. The on-going defining of call precedes and informs defining the use of time.

This means setting down before us a set of questions and working them toward focus, not once but repeatedly. I offer these primary questions that invite clarity of call, which in turn clarify management of time. They fall into three contexts ranging from macro to micro perspectives: church and world, congregation, and your personal life.

These are balcony questions. Getting to the “balcony” happens when we leave the dance floor of the complex movements of congregational life and step back, way back, in order to see the big picture. From the balcony we look for patterns, noting the connections and disconnections in order to weigh our options for re-entering the dance floor.

Context: church and world. Balcony questions: What’s the call of God to the church in our moment in history? Within our time in American culture, what is the prime purpose of the church? How does our perception of our local community shape the church’s witness? What resources, including interpreters of our time, stimulate your balcony reflections about the church in the world?

Context: your congregation. Balcony questions: With congregation as partner in ministry, what am I called to give? What is being asked of me? Where do my gifts and the needs of the congregation meet? What is it time for in our congregation’s life and mission? What are the resources within and beyond the congregation that can help me clarify the focus of my leadership?

Context: your personal life. Balcony questions: What time is it in your life and the life of your family? What’s being birthed in you? How do you nurture your soul within this role? Where’s the gladness? Where’s the sadness?

Priorities of importance arise from working these kinds of questions. And from these ABC priorities comes direction for the best use of time.

Key to this process, as you can see, is setting specific “balcony” times for this inner work of discernment. This key is non-negotiable. I tried but never could do this inner work on the run. It requires a different space and sufficient time. Here is the plan that worked for me.

During the typically low-maintenance week between Christmas and New Year, I worked with these balcony questions. First I would read through my journals from the past year, looking for patterns and themes. Journals, kept regularly but not daily, served as a catcher for ruminations about where I sensed God at work, what I was learning from my reading and life experiencing. For me my journals became the place I tracked the changes in my call, both to inner transformation and to outer work of the church. Out of these annual days came a revision of priorities for ministry, self, and family to guide me during the next year, sometimes years. Every month or so I would review and update these priorities.

All the better if this discernment can include others, in particular, your spouse, close friends, colleagues, congregational leaders, and the congregation itself. They join you in living the question of calling or purpose or mission, reason for being. The question, of course, never gets fully answered. It’s the asking that distinguishes “good” action in order to discover the “necessary” action.

Finally, I come to the daily to-do-list. Each day, for around twenty minutes, with the priorities before me, I prayerfully asked, “What is the best use of my time for this day, for the rest of this week?” This meant that I could enter the day with a measure of clarity. Of course, unexpected interruptions, the “bread and butter” of ministry, would occur. But with my focus for the day in place I was more likely to respond, not react, to the events coming toward me. I had a frame.

And now a last word, lest my thoughts blind us to reality. Everything will work against what I have suggested. Sabotage awaits any effort to claim the time for prioritizing your call as prelude to prioritizing your time. You will hear the resistance in these questions: Where will I find the time to work with my call and time? Who cares enough to ask, to understand, to support this effort? Can I embrace the conflict this will bring? This inner work will likely create dissonance simply because the clearer your self-definition, the more precise your “yes” and “no,” the more difference will surface. Your clarity will call for the clarity in others. It’s the way of growth, with more and more people taking responsibility for their agency. The energy released invites maturation both within the person and within the congregation.

You and I are fortunate recipients of time with few strings attached. How to unpack and offer this gift from your congregation for your congregation is an exceptional challenge. This was the assumption that crystallized in my struggle: on-going defining of one’s call into priorities precedes the daily use of this gift of time. It is a re-frame that mattered and matters.

 


Power-Over to Power-With: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 14, 2015

“I’ve been Pharaoh to every liberation movement,” once wrote William Sloan Coffin. “Me too,” I remember thinking when these words passed in front of my eyes over thirty years ago.

I’ve been “Pharaoh” in this sense: I was born into systems — family, church, nation, world — that work to my favor, my well-being and to the dis-favor, ill-being of others. Just being male, white, heterosexual, upper middle class, American — not my choice or achievement — gives me a privilege and power edge. “Born on third base” makes the point. At times this fact has been a source of guilt; at other healthier times, it’s been a resource of influence, an “alongside” resource to mercy and justice making.

During my life-time I have been engaged by the major freedom movements of our day:
women’s liberation; black liberation; gay liberation; class/economic liberation; and liberation from USA as empire. The surprise to me, or more accurately, the grace to me has been the taste of inner freedom these movements have brought to me as well. In my advantages, often disguised, I have found some liberation from the loneliness, constriction, and fear that comes with being in “Pharaoh’s” seat. Or to shift to a biblical metaphor, privileged positions are “logs in our eyes,” preventing clear vision. Every liberation movement is all about seeing clearly and acting from that awareness, from that awakening.

The re-frame that mattered is this: from relationships characterized by power-over to relationships embodying shared power, power-with. Unlike the other re-frames I have named, this change has been gradual and incremental, sometimes painfully so. The older I become, the deeper I see my complicity with domination systems that privilege me. But this re-frame has been clear for decades. It has provided a lens through which I have viewed power. This aspiration for just relationships, which I take to be God’s intention, has been a theme of inner work for all these years.

The rise of feminine power came first to my awareness. In my nuclear family, it was my education that received priority, since my sister would be “only” a wife and mother. There were no females in my seminary classes. At the time, there were no female pastors anywhere except among Pentecostals. And it was assumed that once married, Janice and I would move to where my vocation took us . . . with no questions raised.

But the question was raised soon after Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique (1964) set fire to a revolution. Around 1968, my wife, Janice said to me, “No longer do I want to be the woman behind the man. I’m returning to graduate school to prepare for my own vocation.”

She did. And we entered therapy. The hard, long work of redefining our marriage began. We relinquished marriage as a one-vote system or one-vocation system while reaching for the capacity and skills to become partners, equal partners. We risked, both of us did, toward a fresh life in this new way of experiencing power. Janice and I were among the fortunate ones, making it through these rapids without capsizing. Beyond marriage, this shift opened me to the gift of women in church leadership, the gift of feminine scholarship, and friendships that have gifted my life and ministry ever since.

Next came the black liberation movement. “Black power” was the awareness finding voice in neighboring Washington, D.C. in 1967. Our suburban congregation, Ravensworth Baptist Church, formed a partnership with a black congregation, First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. On many Saturdays about twelve members from each congregation met with a trained facilitator to explore the possibilities of honest, interracial relationships. We keep meeting until they became tired of helping us see our racism. However, during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, our church partnership provided a bridge of support during those fearful, divisive days. It was the beginning, a very small beginning, of interracial friendships that allow for difficult, transformative conversations.

Let’s stop at this point, allowing me to name the theological shift that was under-girding this re-ordering of power-relationships. Walter Wink was my primary mentor, in particular his Engaging the Powers, the third book in his trilogy on Powers. Other theological framing, such as process theological thinking, has shaped me as well, but Wink addressed directly the theme of this essay. He notes the rise of systemic domination around 3000 B.C.E. with the city-states of Sumer and Babylon, each system being authoritarian and patriarchal. He steps back, noting the prevailing assumption of “domination systems” for these five thousand years — the fundamental right of some to have coercive power over others (power-over). There developed what Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that power as violence can save, can solve problems. No wonder, with so many centuries of re-enforcement, this transformation of power in relationships is slow, arduous work, one step at a time.

Domination systems have largely prevailed as the norm during these centuries, but not without challenges and not without alternative options of relational power. The Old Testament prophets denounced the domination arrangements of their day, giving words to the longing for a more just order. In Jesus, God’s domination-free order of nonviolent love is clearly and profoundly unveiled. By word and action Jesus gave flesh to this re-frame of liberation by up-ending assumed power structures of his day. But the domination system proved too strong. Roman imperial forces joined with Jewish leadership to crush the Jesus non-violent movement of compassion and equality. Well . . . not fully or finally. Resurrection, among other things, means that this God movement could not be crushed. Indeed, and in every century since, within domination systems there have always been counter witnesses of Domination-Free relationships. Against this historical background, we can marvel and hail — and yes, join — the multiple liberation movements over time, and in particular our time.

Then came the gay liberation movement in the last decades in the 20th century, another challenge to “Pharaoh.” At that time, when I was a pastoral counselor, some persons came to me struggling with their sexual identity. A few became clear: their orientation was same-sex attraction, not opposite-sex attraction. I was close enough to feel their dilemma — costly to “come out of the closet,” costly not to. There it was again: I, a person of privilege, hearing stories of abusive power, including condemnation from the church. By 1984 I had returned to the church as pastor. Soon I began hearing from some clergy: “AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I knew better, I thought. I was, in some sense, forced out of “my closet,” feeling called to offer another voice from the church. Once again, the paradox was at work. In joining a freedom movement I experienced a measure of new freedom and grace.

Economic injustice, another form of abusive power, remains even more entrenched in my life. My privilege of income, house, insurance, and automobile has set me apart, in spite of efforts here and there to come alongside the hungry, thirsty stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned — those relationships where Jesus said we could find him. I remain, certainly by global standards, an affluent Christian, just as I remain in systems that favor me and disfavor others.

Within these systems, I can and do attempt to dis-identify, dis-engage, and de-tach from the abuses of power, while at the same time I continue to enjoy the fruits of privilege. Rooted and grounded in mercy within this soil of ambivalence and ambiguity, I can find some laughter at my efforts, even a measure of joy in my half-heartedness.

In this reflection I am not advocating the effort to dismantle hierarchy, even if we could. A hierarchy of roles is necessary in families and other organizations. I am advocating a different understanding of power, one incarnated clearly in Jesus of Nazareth. We know the difference between power that is coercive, dominating, and abusive and power that aligns, comes alongside, empowers, and invites, valuing mutuality, offering partnership. We know that difference.

It’s the difference I saw in the re-frame: from power-over to power-with in all relationships.

This re-frame mattered. It still matters.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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?


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?


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?”


Leading from the Heart

November 1, 2011

Leading from the heart, what might that look like? My last posting addressed leading from the mind. It highlighted that wonderful capacity within us to detach, step back, getting to the “balcony” and observe both patterns and options in a given complex situation.

Leading from the heart offers a different perspective. In this reflection, I am attempting to translate some teaching from Cynthia Bourgeault and apply it to leadership. Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest steeped in the contemplative tradition, defines the heart as the organ of alignment. This is in contrast to our accustomed thinking of the heart as the seat of emotions. Rather, see the heart as that cultivated capacity within us to discern and join the Spirit at work in a complex situation.

In a lecture about the Trinity, Bourgeault refers to the “Law of the Three.” This differs from the more familiar Hegelian schema: thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. With thesis and antithesis as conflicting forces, we look for some synthesis, a compromise usually not satisfying to either side.

The Law of the Three is different. It posits that in many, if not most, situations, there are affirming forces and opposing or denying forces. But, according to this Law, there is also present a third force, the reconciling or creative force. By aligning with the third creative force the result can be, not just compromise, but a new thing, a new creation that is more satisfying to all parties.

Bourgeault offers two metaphors. There is the wind and the water, both opposing forces. There is creative movement only when the helmsman with tiller in hand works respectfully with the opposing forces in ways that move the sailboat forward in the desired direction.

Or, there is the sperm and the egg. By themselves, nothing happens. Only with love-making are they joined in a way that creates the new, the formation of a person.

In this Law of the Three paradigm the leader from the aligning “heart” intentionally places herself in the midst of opposing forces. Within the chaos she looks for creative possibilities that are attempting to form. She values the differences, honors the resistances and works to avoid “either-or” stances. You are willing to “hold” both sides with care. All the while, as leader, she looks for commonalities. In Genesis 1:1 fashion, she assumes that a creative Spirit is brooding within the chaos, working to bring forth fresh creations. In other words, something new is trying to be born. So, much like a midwife, the leader searches for ways to align with this birthing Spirit. And, I assume, this midwifery capacity can be cultivated over time.

With the Law of the Three in mind, I have been working on a point-of-view article for the local newspaper. With the coming spring ballot on amending the N.C. state constitution to further outlaw same-sex marriage, soon the media will be full of strident voices “for” and “against.” Along with acknowledging both opposing forces, I am wondering, might there be a creative third force at work? Where is the creative force, besides “yes” and “no” that I can align with?

I am thinking that within this divisive conversation, one truth may be overlooked: both sides value marriage. Both movements care about the sanctity of marriage. Both opposing voices are speaking for marriage in a time when the institution of marriage is itself being questioned by our society. For many, gays and straights alike, marriage looks unduly confining, an option they choose to avoid.

I go on to argue that faithful promises of covenant love in one relationship strengthens this capacity in us all. I suggest that the increasing number of same-sex couples, documented by the U.S. Census, just may enhance, not diminish, the institution of marriage. They help us hold high the “bar” of covenant love.

My point is not for you to focus on gay marriage, a topic more complicated than my few comments. Simply, I am illustrating my effort to practice the Law of the Three, this process of leading from the heart. I found it intriguing and worth playing with. Hope you do as well.


A Good Word for Un-fulfillment

August 30, 2011

I felt good about the first half of the retreat. Then something happened, perhaps only noticed by me upon reflection.

Five co-pastor teams came together for two days and I was their leader. The aim of the retreat was obvious: These are pioneering pastors eager to be with other co-pastors who are taking similar risks. These pastors, attempting a new model of congregational leadership, needed space to learn from each other’s stories. So I structured the retreat to allow for mutual learning. Indeed, it was happening as they named their joys and challenges with those who could understand.

But during the last half of the time, when I began to offer some content on leadership, a shift occurred. The agenda became more mine than theirs. They began to respond to me and less to each other. I have never been a co-pastor, yet I felt full of my multi-decades of pastoral experience. I just had to share some of my wisdom, I felt. I left the retreat, driving down the mountain, with a gut feeling of dis-ease about my leadership, yet not knowing why.

But the next morning, while re-reading Gerald May’s The Awakening Heart, I saw “it.”  The proverbial “light” came on. During the last part of the retreat, feeling full of my ideas, I was filling in the empty space so requisite to their exchanges. I ceased to hold open the space for deeper sharing to occur. In wanting the retreatants to have a “fulfilling experience” I discounted the potential of un-filled time together.

May writes: “Most importantly, the myth of fulfillment makes us miss the most beautiful aspect of our human souls: our emptiness, our incompleteness, our radical yearning for love. We were never meant to be completely fulfilled; we were meant to taste it, to long for it, and to grow toward it. In this way we participate in love becoming life, life becoming love. To miss our emptiness is, finally, to miss our hope.” (p. 103)

Don’t you hate it when you have to re-learn something you thought you knew? I have always valued unfilled spaces in my relationships. I have treated, like a mantra, Kahil Gibran’s advice about marriage: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” I knew that. I know that. How humbling not to act on what you know. As one friend puts it, growth is like a spiral staircase. You keep circling around to the same issues with the hope you are moving toward some measure of maturity.


Behavior Change: How Does It Happen?

July 25, 2011

Change. You and I are in the change business, more typically called by us—conversion or transformation or repentance. In our preaching, teaching, leading and pastoral care, we assume that, with God, positive/healthy/redemptive change is possible.

Yet, we lament how hard change is, how little significant behavior change actually occurs in ourselves and in others. Apostle Paul names it: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 18,19)

I found some help from the current research on the brain. Specifically, I pass along some findings noted in an article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock (Strategy and Business, Spring, 2009)

Let’s begin by understanding the pain in change. One part of the brain (basil ganglia) is hardwired for routine, set habits, and familiar activity. It will set up a fierce fight against desired changes in behavior. When the prefrontal cortex, the hard working part of the brain, wants to implement some important change, expect the basil ganglia part of the brain to rise up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Stay with what’s comfortable and predictable!” This part of the brain makes strong efforts to sabotage. Because of this persistent resistance, Skinner’s incentives, “carrot and stick” approaches to changing behavior do not last. Neither do, according to Rock and Schwartz, the approaches to change from humanistic psychology that depend on empathetic listening and self-understanding.

From this brain research, what is required in change are three things. One, from the prefrontal cortex, there must be a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes. This means practicing this new behavior regularly, even daily. From such focused attention, even in the face of discomfort and impulse to return to familiarity and routine, new patterns and connections in the brain will be formed. And eventually, the new pattern drops to the basil ganglia, becoming habitual.

Think of learning to drive a car or learning to play a song on the piano. If the repetitive focus of the prefrontal cortex remains strong during the disorienting phrase and does not yield to the resistance, eventually our driving the car or playing the song becomes more routine and comfortable. That is, the behavior comes more from the basil ganglia than prefrontal cortex.

A second insight, relevant to our work, is the place of small peer-learning groups. For example, the Toyota company has fostered behavior change through workplace sessions in each unit that occur weekly, even daily. In these meetings, workers talk about how to make things better. In the interactive, collaborative process, they are training the brain to make new connections. In fact, Rock and Schwartz note, “These shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.”

A third finding I find significant is the importance of self-direction in change of behavior. Any pressure to change from others, as in advice-giving, will be resisted. So for lasting change to occur, a person must choose it. This is why coaching is effective. A coach supports and honors the self-direction of the client by asking curious questions and wondering with the client about options. The motivation for change must be from self, for self-chosen goals.

I take away from this article these three things to ponder: the crucial role of regular practicing; the importance of peer-learning; and the importance of self-direction, for our change and the change we hope for in others.


Ministry As Spiritual Practice

April 4, 2011

I, like many of you, live from three public vows: baptism, to love from/with/as Jesus loves; marriage, to love Janice (and children); and ordination, to love and serve the church. Of course, at the time, I knew so little about the promises I was making. (Aren’t you also amazed at your leaps of faith?) Nevertheless, these oaths framed my core identity, frames on which I have been hanging life experiences ever since.

The pressure I felt as a pastor, both external and internal, was to give priority to ordination. This priority was fueled by my need to do well and the needs of the congregation for my time and energy. That’s appropriate. My baptismal journey toward Christ-ness is my responsibility, not theirs.

In this reflection, I am wondering about the ways that ordination, that is, serving the church, gave me a spiritual practice, a way of inner transformation dramatized in baptism. These come to mind.

Preaching was one. It seemed to come around every three or four days. But, more often than not, it was a rigorous spiritual discipline, a kind of extended “lectio divina.” All during the week I could ruminate on the upcoming texts, listening for the Word of life for me as well as the congregation. In my better moments, I carried the text with me into pastoral conversations and institutional concerns, on the look out for connections with the text. If I allowed it, the text would be working on me, more so than me working on the text. In retirement, someone asked if I would miss preaching. I remember my response: “How will I know what I believe.” I miss this regular spiritual practice.

Second, I think of our presence with the dying, death and subsequent layers of grief. It is our specialty in a generalist vocation. Along with the “fear and trembling” of being present in such vulnerable, sacred moments, there was also a mirroring of my own mortality. Always I left pondering, “what really matters?” Each time I felt more keenly the gift of “now” in all its preciousness. And returning home, invariably I hugged Janice a little longer.

Third, there is pastoral care in other contexts. Because of our calling, we enter, upon invitation, into the private places of a person’s life and be there with presence, and sometimes sight. But also we are there as learners. We are privileged with a “ring side seat,” close to the fight for meaning and the yearning of faith. We are students. They teach us, each one.

I note one other way that ministry was a spiritual practice of transformation, when I allowed it. We engage in so many difficult conversations, difficult relationships, difficult crises. When we declared our ordination promises, none of us anticipated so many difficult interpersonal challenges. But, if I had the courage to see, each encounter would unveil my huge needs for security, approval, esteem, power and control—all characteristics of the egoic self. Each one offered the opportunity to transcend self-preoccupation. Each challenging difficulty invited the option of letting go, trusting, forgiving, and surrendering to Spirit at work for Shalom in all things.

A couple of quotes address this very point:

“Christ is revealed in those with whom we have the good fortune to be stuck.” Stanley Hauerwas

A Tibetan prayer: “Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened and my practice of liberation and universal compassion may be truly fulfilled.”

This too about a stance of ministry as spiritual practice. Nothing is wasted. Everything that happens is grist for transformation. Everything can contribute to our baptismal journey.


Near-Death Experiences

February 21, 2011

It was a near-death experience, the kind that frequents the life of a pastor, but less frequent for a retired pastor.

Just minutes after Ann died, I stood at her bedside along with her three devoted daughters. For many days, Joyce, Deb and Kay had been loving their mother—embracing, stroking, bathing, changing diapers, feeding, smiling, singing, praying gratitude. “Full circle,” I thought. Here, in this bed by the window, they had been caring for their mother in precisely the same way they were cared for at birth. As we held hands across her bed, the Mystery sank in on multiple levels: ending and beginning, death and birth.

In Western culture death is primarily denied. And feared too. We push the awareness of death down into our unconscious only to experience its projection all over our media screens. But mostly, except when death invades our intimate circles, our conscious thinking does a good job in keeping it “out of sight, out of mind.”

As pastors we don’t have this option. I’m glad. The experience of dying and death is always “near.” Like no other professional, we are expected to show up all along the continuum—from early stages of dying to death rituals to follow-through grief ministry.

Back to Ann lying lifeless before us. I kept to myself the question demanding a response: With Ann, as she was, now gone, is there “something” that lasts? In all the impermanence, is there any permanence? Is there “reality” behind these appearances, “something” invisible, “something” gracious and awesome and beautiful?

For certain, “love” was and had been present—the hard, sweaty, sleepless, earthy, self-emptying kind. No question about that.

I turned to the words I always do, Paul’s bold effort to name this Presence: “Love never ends . . . and no-thing now or later, in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then I went home and hugged Janice so hard, she said, “What’s gotten into you?”


For Meaning Addicts: An Achilles Heel

January 17, 2011

You and I are in the “meaning” business. We get our “highs” from someone’s, “Wow! I see what you are talking about. Or, this makes such sense! That is so helpful!”

Of course, we don’t make meaning, but we sure love being around when meaning happens. We like to fan the flames of a person’s passion for understanding. And as they struggle to make sense of a life situation, we are not averse to throwing in a question or two, maybe even a suggestion. What fun. What a privilege.

“Purpose” was the first word that marked my becoming a Christian as a young adult. I was bored, unmotivated and headed toward a job scripted from early days. But the “lights came up” when following Jesus was introduced to me as a grand adventure, as a huge purpose for living, exciting enough to awaken my motivation to learn and serve. I remember the amazement of studying beyond mid-night—just because I wanted to. Then, so seamless it seemed, this curiosity about life’s meaning drew me into our vocation. A journalist once asked me what I liked about being a pastor. My answer came quickly: “I love having a close up, ringside seat to people’s struggle to find meaning in their life experiences.”

But in the spirit of—light has a shadow and every strength has a weakness and every powerful person has a vulnerable Achilles’ heel—within the search for meaning there is a danger for us who love the quest. I felt “ouch” when I read this quote recently.

Treya Killan was blessed with friends, including her husband, Ken Wilbur, people who were profoundly curious about the meaning of life. So, when she discovered the aggressive cancer cells in her body, her friends rushed to help by convincing her of ways to understand her illness and find meaning in her suffering. She writes:

“I needed to be around people who loved me as I was, not people who were trying to motivate me or change me or convince me of their favorite idea or theory.”

Hence the challenge: to love without condition, even meaningful conditions.


The Time of Your Life

November 15, 2010

It’s an interesting phrase: “I’m having the time of my life!” From a faint remembrance of NT Greek, I can identify that as “ kairos”time, “wonder-full time,” as in Jesus came “in the fullness of time.”(Galatians 4:4)

These “kairos” moments of wonder/awe/astonishment are huge surprises of joy that occasionally wake us up to abundant life. But they are occasional. We can’t produce them, plan them, manipulate them. Like accidents, they just happen. Yes, our intentional anticipation makes us more “accident prone.” But “kairos” moments remain gifts, not achievements.

So, let’s think about what we do have some control over — “chronos,” the other kind of time, as in clock time, calendar time. This we have to work with: our presence in time. “I’ll stop by at 4:00” . . .”Let’s make it at your place at 11:00” . . .”Does 7:30 work for you?”

Other professionals have tangible tools to yield, drugs to dispense, documents full of rules to follow. Much of their work is scheduled; most of our work we schedule. Their day is largely structured; we, for the most part, structure our day. Most leaders report their use of time. We don’t.

I felt the difference when I moved from being a director of a hospital department to becoming a pastor again. Oh, the freedom to plan my day! But soon I was feeling, oh, the burden of this freedom, so many demands and so little time. My to-do list, created in the morning, ended the day with maybe half of the resolves checked off.

e.e. cummings has a word for us: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you somebody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.”

If that’s a human dilemma, and I think it is, then how much more this is true for us. We don’t have one contract about our use of time with an employer; we have multiple, ill-defined contracts with a congregation full of employers. And if our primary offering is our “presence in time,” then congregants rightfully have claims on our calendar. Their personal needs and the needs of the institution fill our schedule. Given the nature of our work, not from some evil intent, much of each day is spent responding to needs as they arise. Before we know it, we can feel defined by others, or in cummings’ words, these expectations can “make you somebody else.”

I’m interested in how you handle this freedom. As for me, this one practice helped me most in this “fight” to maintain the final word of self-identity: working at self-definition at the front end of a day or season or year.

My day was, and is, different when I can take at least an hour in the morning to remember. I turn to readings and prayer that call me back to the one mirror that reflects my deepest identity, as Abba’s beloved, as a follower of Jesus, as a graced channel of Spirit. I assume that the day will bring other mirrors that reflect lesser identities, so I try to start the day “rooted and grounded” in the Love/Life much larger than me. Then I look at the calendar’s day and week with this priority in place. What matters most about this day? How will I align myself with this Spirit today?

Also, periodically, usually every month or so, with calendar in hand, I would look at my investment of time through these questions: What does the congregation at this point in time most need from my leadership? And, what am I passionate to give?

And finally, once a year during vacation, Janice and I would review the next year, first penciling in a week of renewal for each one of us, then a week for us, and finally at least a week for the family.

I’m not discounting the truth that much of ministry is in the unplanned interruptions. To the contrary, because of this truth I attempted the ever redefining of calling, values and core identity at the front end of the day or season or year. This attention to “chronos” time made “yes” and “no” easier to discern.

I am interested in how you “fight this hardest battle” with the time of your life.


Relationships, Not Issues

October 25, 2010

Listen to the language around you. Notice how often problems are defined as “issues” e.g., the racial issue, Islamic terrorist issue, the abortion issue. Or closer to home, “Pastor, we’ve got an issue ____ that needs solving.” (You fill in the blank—“our giving is way behind the budget this year”; or “Jan doesn’t respond to e-mails fast enough.” Or, even closer, more personal, “Pastor, some of our older members don’t think you visit enough,” or, “I get lost in your sermons, not sure what your point is.”

My assumption around most “issues” is this: the problem is someone else’s fault and someone else (often you) should solve it. In family systems’ language, an “issue” (C) is often triangled in as a way to avoid the responsibility of the persons involved (A and B). Issues invite projection; the problem is out there. Issues, on the other hand, can challenge those in relationships to take responsibility for resolution.

Consider this rule of thumb: redefine issues as challenges to deepen relationships.

Let’s try this with the above examples. From “racial issue” to “How are we in relationships that cross racial lines?” From “Islamic terrorists” to “How can we foster understanding and deepen relationships with Islamic persons?” From the “abortion issue” to “How are all relationships, including with the fetus, impacted by the option of abortion?” From “Pastor, our giving is behind . . .” to “Thanks for raising this. Who do you think, along with the two of us, needs to join us in deciding how to respond?” From “Jan doesn’t . . .” to “Have you talked with her or him about your concern?” From “ . . . don’t visit enough” to “You are exactly right. Help me. Since you know these members so well, would you be willing to visit with me, perhaps even set up the appointments? A bonus would be getting to know you better.” From “getting lost in your sermons . . .” to “Thank you for letting me know. I want you to understand my messages, and I want to listen to your questions and confusions. How about us getting together over coffee and talk about last Sunday’s sermon?”

My biggest pastoral challenge in this regard was when a gay couple in the congregation asked for a public service of blessing on their commitment to each other. Most people, including the media, wanted to define this as a “gay issue.” I kept saying, with limited success, “No, this is not an issue. This is about people, two members who are part of our community. Let’s ask, ‘How will we be in relationship with Jim and Bill, with each other, with our sense of God’s purpose?” And I kept saying during our many months of discernment, “How we decide is as important as what we decide.” That is, how we listened, how we expressed ourselves, how we studied, prayed and worshipped together would either deepen our relationships or fracture them.

In retirement, I have been gifted with close Quaker friends. By valuing the leading of the Spirit within and between persons, they make every effort to listen and not coerce. In fact, for them the process of decision-making is an extension of worship. Making decisions, for them, is another way to deepen their relationships with each other, with the Spirit and with the world. That is their intention.

I suppose there are “issues” that are just that, issues. But, most of the time, I submit, they distract us from the hard work of deepening relationships.

 


The Mountain, Not the Weather

October 11, 2010

“What’s it like, Carl, when you moved from professor to pastor?” I asked. At the time, I was making a similar transition. His response, “Well, your highs will be higher and your lows will be lower.”

Carl was right. The nature of our work makes it so. Even within the same day, you can move from the thrill of celebrating the Wilson’s first born to the shock of Lou’s diagnosed, inoperable cancer . . . from the high of someone “getting it,” hearing grace to the low of another hearing “judgment, I’m not enough” . . . from the charged promises embedded in pre-marital counseling to the despairing news of Al moving out of his house . . . from the synergy of committee collaboration to the fractiousness of committee differences . . . from the hope in Alice’s baptism to the lament of Jim’s exit from the church in anger. What a roller-coaster ride ministry can be, up and down, emotionally high, emotionally low.

In some sense this is life, everybody’s life. In a given day, we are stretched between the poles of suffering and wonder. Our hearts are asked to contain huge amounts of both pain and joy.

For us, the occupational hazard is in the projections. As pastors, we stand up, stick out, and like a Rorschach test, we invite judgments all the way from “You are the best preacher I have heard”

. . .”you listen well, not like our previous pastor” . . .”you are just what we need” . . .”I love the way you put things” to “your sermons are good but I wished you visited more” . . .”you visit, I appreciate that, but I wished you studied more for your sermons” . . .”you talk about money and mission too much” . . .”You don’t speak enough about money. Just lay it on the line!” We are employed by those with the right of evaluation. Multiple employers; multiple evaluations—salted with projections.

Of course, we internalize these projections, even if for a moment, feeling special, feeling inadequate. As if riding on an emotional roller-coaster, “up” we go toward ego-inflation; “down” we go toward ego-deflation. Or as one pastor admitted, “I go from ‘I am so privileged to be doing this,’” to ‘I want to get out of here.’”

Ah, “ego” is the word. Our ego loves the excitement of roller-coaster rides. That’s not bad, but it is so limiting . . . and exhausting. There is another larger part of us, sometimes called the Self or inner observer or inner Witness or Christ within. It’s that part of us that can sit back, stroke our chin with curiosity, and ask, “What’s going on here? Where is the kernel of truth is what’s being said? What’s being ‘hooked” in me that needs the light of day?”

In my case, often lurking in the shadows was my need to be needed, to be loved, to be applauded. So these projections, if I allowed them, could invite me, once again, to thicken the truth of being loved as gift, not achievement.

Working with projections, ours and others, can be this kind of inner soul work. The “highs” and “lows,” like the weather come and go, while the mountain rests secure in its grace. At our deepest identity, we are the mountain, not the weather.


Getting to the Balcony

July 5, 2010

It’s summer, a good time to reflect on “getting to the balcony” above the “dance floor.” This provocative metaphor is Ronald Heifetz’s way of challenging leaders to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation can look like noisy activity on a “dance floor.” Some members are into “line” dancing, others dancing in two and threes, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to dance the same tune. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And there we are, (staying with the metaphor) moving in and out of these dances, frequently not sure of next steps. The pressure to stay focused on the immediate is severe: deadlines to meet; phone calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; tasks to complete. All apart of the dance.

The metaphor is theologically suggestive. Only the Divine Music makes dancing possible. In multiple, creative responses, we dancers seek through movement to embody (incarnate) God’s vibrations of shalom.

Heifetz laments the failure of leaders to frequent the balcony. From the balcony, you can see the big picture — notice patterns, sense discordance, detect direction, gain perspective, observe movement.

This helpful as far as it goes.

As pastors, we go farther. Once in the balcony, we look within as well. We ask, are we still able to hear the Music? Just as the pressure of immediate demands can undermine larger perspective, so can the noise of the dance floor drown out our “ear” for the Music. In these moments, we allow into ourselves again the joy and gift of our calling. The balcony is for both: other-observation, self- observation; or, external assessment, internal renewal.

You know this practice. In sermon preparation you withdraw from the dance floor and place yourself in the balcony. You ask how does the Word in this text address these people at this moment in our life together. You have the congregation in mind.

But there is more. In preparing a sermon, you are prepared. You allow the Word in the text to address your longings for approval, for brilliance, for appreciation or other ego claims on the pulpit. The sermon in formation is rightly your soul in formation. A musician without an “ear” for the Music is a “noisy gong” or “clanging cymbal.”

Then, in rising to the pulpit to preach, you return to the dance floor, the dance with God.

This is the challenge: working this rhythm—moving between balcony and dance floor—into our way of leading. Sometimes it means removing ourselves physically to a different kind of space. At other times, it means removing ourselves for a moment in the midst of the dance in order for the outer and inner work to occur. Perhaps in time a “double vision” develops, keeping one eye on what is before you and one eye on the forces within you and the larger system. I submit this is a skill worth aiming for, one I wish I had treated as priority during my years of pastoral leadership.

Your thoughts and experience?

[The metaphor, “getting to the balcony” comes from Ronald Heifetz in his books, Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.]

Friends That Form You

June 21, 2010

“You and I are different because ____________  lived among us.” I liked to include this sentence in the opening statement of a funeral or memorial service.

Andy, my first long-term friend died last week. Suddenly that sentence became intensely personal.

It’s true. Without Andy I would not be me. I am different because he lived. But how? How has our friendship of 46 years formed me?

I have begun the pleasure of living that question. I mark his disciplined naivete, leading with curious questions; his gift of listening others into being; his relational understanding of reality; his discovery of dying as birthing; his authority/authenticity that authored hope in others. There is more, much more to be harvested from my grief. But this awareness startles me: these are not primarily ideas. These are embodiments that, to some extent, are being embodied in me. I see him in me. These, and other revelations to come, hint at the difference in me because Andy and I were friends.

I confess. I am an “idea” junkie. I relish, like the bite into a fresh peach, new “insights” or fresh perspectives.  Over the years I have fallen in love with theories, and only with stubborn reluctance have I been able to acknowledge the limits of each one. I’ve assumed that it was ideas that formed me.

More to the point, I am suggesting to you, we are being formed by friendships. Maybe the ideas and theories that stick to our bones, those that become transformative, are the ones embodied in relationships. Maybe our friends create us. Or better said, they provide containers in which God’s on-going creation and creativity occur. Friends are “believing mirrors,” to use Julia Cameron’s phrase. They mirror back to us our competency, craziness, possibilities, limits, options, and encouragement — all marinated in laughter and wonder.

Intuitively I have known this. From the first “cell group” in university days, I have always been a part of a circle of peers that met regularly to befriend our lives and work. And now in retirement, I am still at it, fostering clergy collegial communities — yes, named AnamCara (soul friend). In addition, there are the less structured friendships along the way, nurtured by an occasional e-mail, coffee or vacation together, or telephone call. It’s clear to me now  — friends, including familial friends, are our truest social security.

We are trained to think of the lonely artist or lonely pastor. It is their name we see on the book, or portrait, or sermon. But if you look closer and inquire, any artist or pastor “worth their salt” will talk about the circle of friends who make their work possible.

Not surprising, this reflection has been formed with friends.


Helping Without Hurting

June 7, 2010

Here we are, working in one of the “helping professions.” People expect help from us; we expect to give help. However most “help,” I suspect, is hurtful.

Sometimes, but not often, helping actually does mean rescuing, fixing, taking charge. Mary is paralyzed, deep in depression, unable to see options. You help by saying in some way, “Mary, you need a doctor. I will make the appointment and go with you.” Or, someone is controlling the group that you are facilitating. So you say, “Joe, there are others who have not spoken. Let’s hear from them before you speak again.” Or in a crisis, you say, “We don’t have time to process this as we usually do. Lee, will you do this . . . Ellen, would you do that . . . and Eric, do you have time to check with . . . ?”

But most times requests for help and our impulse to help can be saboteurs to genuine helping. Co-dependence looms. “Helper” needs the “helpless;” the “helpless” needs the “helper.”

So what is genuine helping? Recently I was invited to join a healthy, redemptive example of helping. Roy, let’s call him, was struggling with a huge self-defining decision. He came to Jack for help. Jack suggested that Roy invite a few trusted friends to sit with him as he struggled with “what to do.” I was invited to join the small circle of five that met about every other week.

Here is what struck me about Jack’s helping. We began each time with a few minutes of silence that allowed me to get myself out of the way, namely, my desire to interpret, my tendency to offer solutions, my investment in Roy making a particular decision. I needed to be reminded that this is about him, not me. Then Jack, more by example than word, honored, without diminishing, Roy’s suffering. He invited us to be a holding circle, a space without judgment, without advising, without analysis, without fixing, offering instead a prayerful place of trust and not-knowing. Our occasional questions and mirroring kept the inner work with Roy. And work he did! After many months, Roy came to a clearness that empowered courageous action. From his suffering was birthed a Soulful clarity.

This experience reminds me of a question I carried with me as a pastor. When I was in a relationship where I was in the role of helper, particularly when there is no movement toward resolution, I found this question revealing: “Am I working harder than he/she/they are?” If so, I knew my needs—possibly the need to be needed or right or admired—were in the way of their inner work. Then, if I were having a mature moment, I would back off and hold the relationship in grace, asking curious questions, not giving answers, trusting their capacity to discern Spirit, Soul at work in their depths.

Are we not talking about “agape” love here?


The Courage to Show Up

May 17, 2010

Let’s think about those times when you enter those human spaces where, in Paul’s thought, the “sighs [are] too deep for words.”

Roy, let’s name him, was presenting his pastoral challenge to his circle of clergy friends. On a snowy day in February, just as he was settling in for sermon preparation, the word came that Bill Lowery, friend and community leader, had suddenly died from a massive heart attack. Roy rushes to the hospital to be present to the shocked family who look to him for words. Two months later, the heart broken widow commits suicide. Again Roy rushes to the place of death to be present to the surviving sons who look to him for words.

In both situations, Roy spoke of having no “right” words, feeling inadequate, uncomfortably vulnerable, standing, it seemed, naked before a Mystery “too deep for words.” Priding himself as a professional crafter of words, he was lost for words.

You can imagine the responses from his colleagues: “But Roy, you were authentic, not mouthing pious platitudes that discount the anguish and deny the mystery” . . .”You were present with touch and feeling” . . .”You must have invited trust because the sons later wanted time and conversation with you.”

I drove away from this conversation thinking about the courage it took for Roy to show up in such a surreal place, a space extraordinary, corded off from the ordinary, a timeless moment oblivious to the clock on the wall.

I remember—as I suspect you are remembering—the dread in driving to the hospital or home knowing you will be walking into a “sighing too deep for words.” You anticipate expectations you cannot meet. You assume eruptions of feeling you cannot predict. Yes, there will be words, but they must be few and carefully parsed.

But . . . you go.

Physicians go into these holy places with a stethoscope and other tangibles. The nurses, funeral director, and friends show up with things to do. You don’t have much to do. You don’t have much to say. But, and this may be the point, you have much to be.

Being present, representing a “with us” Presence, may be the wordless Word declared that really matters and comforts.

In retrospect, Roy might turn to Paul’s assurance that Spirit is in the “sighing.” “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8: 26)

But let’s not smooth over Roy’s angst: his felt weakness, inadequacy, left to share the sighs too deep for words. I want to honor his courage, and yours, to show up, offering Presence within so much not-knowing.

—Mahan Siler