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.

 


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Dis-establishment: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 24, 2016

The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.

In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!

Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.

Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.

Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.

During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.

But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.

Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.

But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?

Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”

Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.

Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”

I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?

The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.

The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.

With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:

  • What does following Jesus look like in our time?
  • What is the church for?
  • What is the pastor for?
  • What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
  • What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
  • How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
  • Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
  • How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)

To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.

This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)

Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me 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.

 


Liminal Space: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 16, 2016

I first heard of the concept from anthropologist Victor Turner. From his study of primitive rites of passage, Turner describes the trans-formative space in between being a boy and becoming a man as “liminal space.” It’s odd to me, and perhaps to you, that this learning from another time and distant culture could be a frame for understanding pastoral work.

Limen is Latin for “threshold.” Turner observed young males being taken from their mothers by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into the “wilderness,” an open, uncertain space where their capacity for manhood was tested in multiple ways. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

What about the girls? What rituals mark their transition from young to adult women? I don’t know the answer to this good question, a question perhaps more difficult to explore in a patriarchal society. It’s the concept of liminal space that I find so transferable to the work we do.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable . . . to a time for questioning and challenge within a contained space that’s unfamiliar, unpredictable and yet protected . . . then re-crossing the original threshold as a new person, a different person. In short: from separation to liminal space to re-assimilation. It’s that trans-formative, numinous space beyond the threshold that fascinates and engages me.

This is the connection. Our work, in large measure, is creating liminal spaces or naming the liminal spaces into which life crises thrust us. That’s what we do. We invite others to enter or see these trans-formative places and stay awhile, long enough to engage some aspect of the essential religious questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How will I live? And with whom? Then, after a period of time, they return to their familiar, more ordinary lives. But they return, in some measure, different persons.

It’s a frame, a re-frame, a way of seeing what we do. I invite you to pick up this concept, as if it were a pair of glasses, and notice what you see.

Let’s look at corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you are creating liminal space. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold, a limen. Ideally they are leaving behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of space, liminal space, designed for reflection on their lives in relationship with God and others. For an hour or so the phone doesn’t ring, the computer screen is blank, and no appeals beg for attention. Congregants settle down into a sanctuary, a protected, safe container, with clear boundaries amid a plethora of pointers to the Transcendent.

In this liminal space, you and other leaders, as liturgical guides, provide an array of symbols—written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied—that kindle the experience of the mind and heart with the Sacred. In this safe environment each person is invited to ponder the meaning of their lives, who they are and what they are about.

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, back to their ordinary lives, as changed persons. No one leaves as the same person who entered. To be in a safe, contained space with others who are also engaging essential questions is trans-formative. It has to be. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives as different persons.

If I were again a pastor, I would mark these thresholds more clearly and sensitively. It’s so difficult, given the pace and busyness of our lives, to leave behind the agendas pressing on our minds. Without a conscious crossing and returning, the space between will be neither liminal nor trans-formative.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming, or framing, the liminal space the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe, liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, but not the same person. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. Transformation happens.

Leading weddings is creating liminal space. It’s so obvious. The individuals, engaged to be married, literally enter the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar before the priest/pastor. Within this safe, holy space they ritualize their union, to be broken only by death, whether relational or physical. Then they exit down the aisle, through the threshold, back into the community no longer as just separate persons but as a new unit, a couple, a family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

In pastoral care, the dual aspects of both creating liminal space and naming a crisis as liminal are ways to see this work. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold—whether a door to your office or door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the unknown occurs. Without the fear of judgment, life is shared, questions are raised, healing is invited, decisions are made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives, somewhat different, somewhat changed.

On the other hand, in crises people may be in liminal space and not know it. The crisis takes them out of the ordinary to a place where the primary questions of identity and meaning are being raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them frame their disruptive experience as liminal, full of trial, testing and change.

Consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving is liminal space. It is a heart-breaking, soul-making place. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace and new life. It’s the in-between place where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface and letting go is demanded.

Pastoral care has these two dimensions: we regularly invite people into liminal space; at other times, we invite others to see that they are already in liminal space, providing a caring and curious presence within clear boundaries.

Even in our role of managers and leaders of the congregation we offer liminal space. That’s what the opening prayer or opening statement of a committee or business meeting is about. You are saying, “This meeting occurs in a sacred space. We gather as disciples seeking to embody the spirit of Christ as best we can discern.” You are inviting them to leave behind their ordinary “business as usual” assumptions, to cross that threshold into business as worship and embrace presence, God’s and each others’. Then, at some point, the meeting will end, some summary stated and benediction offered before members re-cross the threshold, returning to their various worlds. But changes have occurred in perceptible or imperceptible ways.

This privilege of ritual leadership, more than any other reason, accounts for my return to a congregation as pastor. But let’s admit that rituals can be deadly and deadening. They may not be strong enough to break us open to the new. The container with pointers to the Sacred can fail to hold our attention. Simply, our preoccupations may be so charged that leaving them behind is impossible. But sometimes, even often, the soul is stirred. Unexpected breakthroughs, fresh clarities and new decisions occur. Rituals are that powerful. When they are led with sensitivity, the church is at its best, and it’s at its best for this reason—rituals invite transformation.

It was Victor Turner, through conversation with a friend, Dick Hester, who helped me see the connection between the early human rites of passage and our current multiple rites of passage within congregational life. The common thread—liminal space as trans-formative—became a re-frame that mattered.


Being a Leader: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 10, 2015

Why would “being a leader” qualify as a significant re-frame? Isn’t it obvious that pastors are leaders of congregations? Why would this re-frame make the list of those shifts in perspective that mattered? For me, this shift in self-understanding made a profound difference in the way I came to practice ministry.

“Being a pastor” was my first compelling identity. The memory is vivid when that possibility fell into place. The setting: an introductory course in Pastoral Care, in the large map room, Norton Hall, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1957. The professor, Wayne E. Oates, was up-front unpacking a typical pastoral incident — as I recall, a pastor’s response to a grieving widow. I leaned forward, intrigued and curious, saying under my breath, “I want to do that!” And I have ever since. For me, the title “pastor” has a depth of resonance not found in other titles often assigned to me, such as “senior minister,” or in early days, “Rev,” “Brother Mahan,” “preacher,” or, on occasion, “troublemaker.

My seminary experience gave me additional identities: preacher, teacher, prophet, manager, and liturgist. So, during my first years in pastoral ministry I juggled these roles, valuing them all, attempting them all, but feeling fragmented most of the time. During those years, if someone would have asked me, “Are you a leader?” I would no doubt have answered, “Yes, I am.” But functionally, that is, the way I functioned during those first years was to regard leadership of the institution as the rent I paid in return for the joy of preaching, teaching, leading worship, and offering pastoral care.

This arrangement didn’t work. For a number of reasons my first five-year chapter as pastor came to an unanticipated, precipitous, humbling end. One reason was that my vocational self-identity was fragmented, not integrated. Being pastor proved to be an insufficient pole around which to wrap the many functions of parish ministry. The fragmentation led to over-functioning; over-functioning led to emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

During the ten years between serving congregations as pastor I learned to see myself as a leader. For most of that time I was director of a department within a medical system that included both hospital and medical school. When I returned to congregational life, picking up once again the mantle of pastor, I had changed. I saw myself as pastoral leader. This re-frame, from pastor to pastoral leader, included these shifts:

  • from attempting to define others to defining self and self-expression
  • from self-defining and losing connection to self-defining and staying connected, particularly with those who differ and resist
  • from attempting to change others to changing self in relationship with others
  • from preoccupation with content to attending to emotional, relational processes
  • from personality-led leadership to position-led leadership, claiming the position in the system (body/church) as “eyes” over-looking, scanning the congregation (body), seeing connections and patterns that others cannot see (aware that others in different positions in the body/church see what the leader cannot)
  • from avoiding resistance to valuing resistance, appreciating the energy of inevitable push-back from the challenge to habits, worldviews, and beliefs
  • from reacting to others to responding to others
  • from the limits of management, Are we doing things right? to include the challenge of leadership, Are we doing the right things?
  • from leading confined to problem-solving with current know-how to leading with challenges without current know-how, requiring engaging questions, difficult choices, experimental actions, risking toward what is not yet clear
  • from a place of anxiousness (showing up in the congregation as blaming, herding, re-activity, pushing for quick-fixes), to a disciplined effort in non-anxious leading from a Center, an inner freedom from attachment to specific outcomes
  • from seeing only pastor and congregation in relationship to frequent triangling in the church’s purpose/mission under which both pastor and congregation respond with curiosity and faithfulness
  • from leading for God to leading from God

You might recognize in these statements a number of my influential teachers about leadership: Edwin Friedman, Larry Matthews, Rod Reineke, Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson, Margaret Wheatley, Ronald Heifetz, and Marty Linsky. These resources showed up just when I needed them.

I entered my last fifteen-year stint with a congregation having internalized this re-frame. Being a pastoral leader, alongside of lay leaders, became my primary vocational identity. I had found a pole around which to wrap the various functions of ministry.

As preacher and liturgist, I was leading, intervening weekly in the congregational system with challenges to hear and embody God’s movement of shalom in the world.

As pastoral “carer” in crises, I was leading, knowing that change in one personal relationship affects change in the larger network of relationships, however slight.

As manager, I was leading, influencing the ways we work together including the decisions we make.

Through my involvement in community concerns, I was leading the mutual impact of church and world.

In each of these functions I was leading; only the forms of expression changed. For good or ill, the spirit-culture of the congregation was impacted by each ministry action. In all of them I was functioning as pastoral leader.

Looking through the rear-view mirror, this shift is noticeable. 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.