From Formation to Transformation: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 30, 2017

Religion has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self; two, religion has also served radical transformation . . . a transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer. — Ken Wilber

I submit this as the key possibility of our lives: the shift, again and again, from our primary identity as separate self (small self) to our essential identity as beloved of God. This key unlocks the capacity to participate in God’s love that connects all that lives, a relating and reconciling compassion most visible in Jesus. This transcending of the separate self, while including the separate self, is the personal transformation at the heart of the Gospel that has gripped you and me for life.

Ken Wilber is a current philosopher, wisdom teacher and mystic who I began reading in 1992. I value his distinction between two important functions of religion noted in the heading of this reflection. I’m translating his insight for our purposes. I’m assuming that most congregants look to their Christian experience for meaning and purpose. They find in church a resource for coping with the challenges, often overwhelming, that come at them week after week. I call this “formation.” They expect from worship, community, and learning events sustenance for forming a strong sense of self as self-understanding and for courage, moral guidance and motivation for living.

Some congregants, likely a minority, long for more. For them the ideal of a strong separate self breaks at some point along the way. This break may be sudden or a gradual yearning for more. For whatever reason the person is cracked open for the possibility of trans-formation, that is, the transcending of separate, egoic self however well formed it may be. It’s waking up from the dream of separateness and discovering ourselves to be vitally connected with all that lives. This felt communion with God, other humans and all creation, once realized, will no longer let us rest in the illusion of being separate persons. The egoic self dies as the center of our lives through repeated practices of surrendering, self-emptying, self-giving. It’s what Wilber calls “the death of the believer.” This radical transformation, so foundational to our vocation, is the topic of this re-frame.

Both my personal faith and professional vocation began with finding a meaningful purpose for living — the first of the religious functions named by Wilber. This life-altering pivot in my life happened during university years. I’m indebted to some older students for pointing me in a new direction. Simply, conversations with these seekers opened a curiosity about Jesus. His radical vision grasped me. His “follow me” felt simple, direct, demanding, mysterious, adventurous and total.

At the time I was well along the path of fulfilling a family script for my life. Being the only son, it was assumed by everyone, including me, that I would “go into the family business.” It looked that way—first, working in the warehouse, then later as a salesperson and finally the dutiful “major” in business administration. The further I traveled down this expected path the less it seemed like me. It was not a path with heart. It was not a path with my heart.

I was ready. I was restless, yearning for a new way forward. The word was “purpose.” Just maybe, I thought, I had found a purpose that’s much larger, more challenging and exciting than the one scripted for me. Within months a fire was laid, then lit, that ignited a desire for learning that astounded anyone who knew me. Staying up late to study, until 11:00 and 12:00, even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning was unprecedented. This fired-up interest soon took me to the seminary with no clarity at that point about vocation. It was enough at that time for the seminary to provide a container, community and Table where food was served to satisfy my hunger. In time, as described in the introduction, the pull to become a pastor took hold and I spent the next seven years becoming formed in our vocation.

When I was graduated I felt well formed in pastoral knowledge and skills. To a comfortable degree I had digested understanding of scripture, church history, pastoral care and congregational leadership. I enjoyed some practice-runs as pastor in a few small congregations. As I moved to more demanding challenges my work as pastoral leader continued to be purposeful, full of meaning. Each morning I would leave my bed excited about the day. In Richard Rohr’s words (with depth psychologist Carl Jung whispering in his ears), I was completing the work of the “first half of life.” I felt established in the role. I felt confident. I had formed a strong sense of self to offer to the world. That worked well until it didn’t work well.

This formation was not enough. I was not enough. My developed self was not enough. Likely a deeper, older, more primal sense of not being enough erupted through the surface of my everyday living. Regardless of its origin my work began to exhaust the love that gave birth to it. The struggle of institutional leadership nibbled at the meaning I had previously found so purposeful. “Burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” are clever labels that gloss over the desperation and humiliation beneath them. With growing dismay, plus the needs of our young family, I resigned. I left the role, finding another ministry for ten years, only to return fifteen years later to serve a congregation until my retirement. The return felt like a second marriage, a second attempt, a new chance to be what I most loved—a pastor.

During that in-between decade a re-frame began to emerge. I saw the contours of a movement from formation to transformation. I began exploring the second function of religion that Ken Wilber describes — “radical transformation . . . the transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but the death of the believer.”

It became clearer to me that personal transformation was at the core message of the New Testament. The awareness was gradual like a photo print revealing itself in a darkroom. From Jesus: lose your life to find it; take up your cross and follow (Luke 17:33, Matthew 16:25); a grain of wheat falling into the ground, dying, husks broken open, yielding a rich harvest (John 12:24); not my will but Thine be done (Mark 14:36); love as I have loved you (John 13:34). And from Paul the same themes of transformation—in baptism a dying to rise in newness of life (Romans 5:3-4); not I, but Christ the one living in me (Galatians 2:20); being transformed by degrees into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18); taking on the mind or consciousness of Christ as kenosis, a self-emptying, non-clinging, self-giving love no matter what (Philippians 2:4-11).

Perhaps a clever parable can scrape away the glaze from these overly familiar passages and reveal just how breathtaking this change really is. This parable devised by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950’s has been then revised by Jacob Needleman, next by Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Way of Knowing, and now slightly by me.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They were busy developing their human potential, taking advantage of books and conferences that enhanced self-actualization. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the sky” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward toward the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns any more.”

This we know about acorns. They are seeds. Their nature and destiny are to become oak trees. Acorns, to be true to what they are, must fall into the ground and die as acorns, allowing their shells to be cracked open, thus taking into themselves the nourishment of soil, water and sun. In time they become oak trees.

Let’s place this parable alongside of Jesus’ words and note the parallel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12: 24)

Could this be true? Are we made for a transformation as amazing as the acorn becoming an oak tree or a grain becoming wheat or losing one self for a fuller, more authentic one? Is that magnificent possibility coiled within us? Is there an identity in us that is beyond a strong, polished personality (acorn)? The gospel narrative says “yes,” a resounding “yes!”

Martin Laird offers two metaphors of transcending this separate self while including our egoic self. A sponge in the ocean, like the egoic self, is immersed in the transcendent water that flows through it. Or, our core identity is like a mountain that we picture as being centered, firm while witnessing the unruly weather of thoughts, feelings, reactions that come and go. “We are the mountain, not the weather,” Laird imagines.

This core, transformed identity goes by a variety of names that include Beloved, Spirit, Kingdom or Realm of God within, child of God, Christ-ness, Christlikeness, Christ living in us, True Self, or image of God.

In Thomas Merton’s conciseness:

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

This means falling into divine Love. Falling in love, we know from experience, changes our consciousness. It changes everything. This love is joyful but also unsettling. You never know where it will take you. The cost is your ego as your center. Transformation is waking up to and falling into this reality, a gift already given but seldom recognized. This awareness is a secure starting point, a different foundation from which we can interrogate and change the lies we tell ourselves about earning our worth. From this deeper center we find both the freedom to let go of binding attachments and the freedom to risk extravagant self-giving.

This transformation occurs always in relationship. Love is a relational word. A focus on the individual alone simply mirrors our cultural flaw of individualism—the illusion that you and I are separate individuals. Reality is relational. We are part of an interconnected web, an “entangled universe,” as quantum physicists name it. We live and move within mutual relationships with God, with nature and one another. Only within caring relationships can we differentiate as unique individual persons who in turn can offer their unique ways of giving. Relationships provide the context for transformation. To be is to be with.

This shift to our primary identity changes the way we carry ourselves in the world. A few examples:

You have a ministry but you are not primarily your ministry. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have a personality but you are not primarily your personality. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have weaknesses and failures but you are not primarily your weaknesses and failures. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have racism (and other “isms”) as a wound to be healed, but you are not primarily a racist. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have successful achievements but you are not primarily your accomplishments. At the core you are beloved, Love.

Let’s take my racism as an illustration. If my identity is primarily Mahan (my ego, personality, gifts/abilities, etc.) and you call me a racist, I’m defensive, unable to hear the full truth. But if I am grounded in my God-given identity as Beloved then I am freer to acknowledge the truth of my racism. From that inner grace-full place I am more able to admit my white privilege and work to minimize its destructive force in relationships.

The same goes with other obstacles. To be rooted and grounded in Love (our True Self) is to be freer to work on changes in our personal selves. This core identity gives us leverage, a place to stand while participating fully in God’s transforming energy, both within us and within the world.

This movement—from formation to transformation—is the overarching re-frame that has mattered. The next re-frame addresses the critical place of practice in our inner, personal transformation. Then a third re-frame unveils our work, pastoral leadership, as the prime context for our own transformation. These three re-frames provide the foundation for all the other re-frames.

 


Collegial Friends: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 3, 2017

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it … when any function is privatized, the most likely outcome is that people will perform conservatively refusing to stay far from the silent consensus on what works — even when it clearly does not.  — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Isolation is your vocational reality. Being a pastor, embodying this role, colors the water of every relationship, including neighbors, family, and particularly, of course, church members. In these relationships the role is a significant factor. Our ordination sets us apart as different, inviting projections, mostly unconscious. Expectations unnamed are always in play. Indeed, you are living symbols of More than you are. This question inevitably lingers: How will I manage this isolation?

I have come to believe that there are two kinds of pastors: those who conclude, “It’s up to me,” and those who say, “I cannot do this vocation without collegial community.”

Pastors in the first group offer their ministry in virtual isolation. They are on their own to give shape to their work. It is up to them. It’s up to them to interpret the gospel, read the “signs” of our time in history, intuit feedback, determine their use of time, judge appropriate responses to congregational crises, establish practices of self-care, worship while leading in worship, and integrate the learning from the plethora of resources available to us. No doubt these pastors have warm and effective relationships with members but, as is the case with all pastors, there is so much of themselves they cannot share. This includes the secrets they carry with confidentiality. These pastors, I observe, tend to be competent and self-confident, qualities that, while strong, can undermine the need for colleagues. For these pastors, their isolation, already a component of our vocation, will likely harden and over time encourage a fusion of personal identity with vocational role.

Those in the second cadre intentionally form relationships in which they are out of role with colleagues who understand the role. That’s a critical distinction: being both out of role and closely connected to others who understand the role’s promise and complexity. These deliberate relationships take form in various ways — unstructured cultivated relationships with peers, structured small clergy groups that meet regularly or in scheduled meetings with a coach, spiritual director, therapist, or consultant. All these examples meet the criterion of this re-frame: out of role with those who know the role.

Many of you are in this second category. You meet this criterion. You have deliberately sought out peer relationships in which you are both not in role and yet experience the support needed for exploring your role. This might happen with a friend, perhaps a clergy friend or others you meet with regularly over coffee or phone or internet or time-away together. Many of us have benefited from therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction. Consultants are another resource. I developed a relationship with a consultant, a former parish priest, with whom for twenty years I would occasionally review a pastoral or congregational dilemma. Perhaps you are fortunate to have staff colleagues with whom you can be open and trusting, but note the limit — you are still in role. The common factor in all these relationships is this: the isolation is broken; you feel not so alone; and your ministry seems less on your shoulders. Some of you have initiated such relationships. It may be enough.

For me it was not enough. I became inspired to reach for a deeper expression of collegial friendships during my decade on the staff of the Department of Pastoral Care at North Carolina Baptist Hospitals, Winston-Salem, N.C. The department had developed over the years a strong program of Clinical Pastoral Education. I am not a CPE supervisor but I was an active participant in this model of theological education. I experienced its genius: a small community of practicing clergy peers committed to each other’s mutual learning under skilled facilitation. During those ten years I kept asking, “Why is this model reserved only for preparation in the practice of pastoral ministry? Why is it not the way of doing pastoral leadership and ministry?” The question, never answered to my satisfaction, kept buzzing around my head like a persistent mosquito.

I took this question with me when, in 1983, I moved from being a director of pastoral care in a hospital setting to being a pastor again, serving Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N. C. The immediate contrast was striking. In my former role the boundaries and accountability were clear. Not so in my new role. At first I reveled in the freedom to construct my own life in ministry, but soon unspoken agreements and unnamed expectations had me scrambling for a clearer role definition. Within broad limits I was on my own to create its contour.

With my question of collegial community in mind I joined a circle of friends, a small group of men who had been meeting for over ten years. For two hours every other week we gifted each other with an acceptance close to unconditional. It was a container I needed. With these friends, I found support for my life — but less so for my life as pastor.

I needed more. I wanted to be with pastor friends who could focus with me on our efforts at priestly and prophetic leadership. The question was still alive from my years with Clinical Pastoral Education: Could some variation of this collegial learning be possible in parish ministry? I began the search for peers who might be interested in this experiment. After a year or so, I sent this letter to a circle of clergy friends:

I fear we have internalized the hallmark of our American culture — individualism. For all our talk about communion and indeed for all our efforts in building community with others, we tend to craft our work by ourselves. What Alexis de Tocqueville said of our forebears in Democracy in America could be said of us: ‘They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’

Instead of continuing like this, I wonder whether you would be interested in being part of a clergy Sabbath Day — a time to nurture our souls with colleague-friends, a time to return to our first love, God, a time to be reminded that the ministry of the church belongs to God and not to us.

Three pastors responded. Another joined us later. Each Wednesday for several years we set aside a Sabbath day for silence, prayer, conversation about our work, rest, laughter, celebrating Eucharist, and walking in the woods. Never in my years as pastor have I felt so balanced between inner work and outer work, contemplation and action, play and work, self-care and self-giving. We were not alone in our need to step back and tease apart our tangled ministries. Together we reflected, played, prayed, and imagined by learning off of each other’s experience in ways that yielded clarities that surprised.

Yet, over time, the full day became a half-day, then an occasional half-day, and finally no day at all. Our clergy Sabbaths, like sand castles, gave way to wave after wave of pressing congregational needs. This fragile container of sacred space cracked, and finally crumbled after four years or so.

Absent was a clear covenant among us that could have withstood the pull of competing commitments, both from church and family. Absent was a covenant with church leaders who would support and appreciate this expression of vocational and self-care. Also absent was a facilitator, which I came later to regard as important. Although we felt its value, we stopped short of declaring that this way of offering pastoral ministry, namely, a few pastors committed to mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability, is non-negotiable.

The question, now a tested possibility, stayed alive within me until retirement. In 1998 I retired a bit early at sixty-three in order to continue the experiment. And I have. During these two decades of retirement I have tested this hypothesis of collegial communities that I came to name AnamCara, Celtic for “soul friend.” This was my working definition:

AnamCara as a network of small collegial circles of five to eight clergy leaders of congregations who meet regularly to offer mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability in their practices of theological reflection, leadership, and soul care.

The experiments took different forms. From a Lilly grant I organized and either led or co-led four ecumenical, inter-faith clergy groups, each of eight to ten participants, who met in retreat settings regularly (monthly or bi-monthly) for either a year or eighteen months. I was consultant to three other clergy groups. For twelve years I have led a group of Episcopal clergy who still meet monthly for three hours. All in all I have worked with approximately sixty clergy leaders of congregations.

My underlying question in forming these collegial groups was this: Will these clergy leaders complete this way of practicing ministry saying, “This has been another valuable continuing education experience, thank you very much.” Or will they say, “Being in some expression of collegial community must be a primary context from which I offer ministry.” In other words, will they regard the experience as an educational “add on” or will they see and embrace another way of being in ministry?

A small minority, about twelve of the sixty, continued to commit to a practicing community of peers. Steve spoke of this shift in his self-understanding:

“I can no longer imagine doing pastoral ministry without my group of soul friends. Our time together often feels like a taste of the Kingdom, a feast of deep laughter and friendship among competent peers who respect each other. In a wonderfully paradoxical way, the worship, study, and conversation we share make me a better pastor and remind me there is more to my life than ministry.”

Briefly, this is what I learned:

  • The recruitment and organizing requires a person or two called to this possibility.
  • A skilled facilitator frees the pastors to be completely out of the leadership role.
  • Pastors are more willing to participate fully if the facilitator knows pastoral leadership personally.
  • AnamCara is a radical alternative to the deeply internalized individualism in our culture.
  • Once trust is felt the hunger for collegial friends is intense and generative.
  • Ecumenical groups of clergy, with their commonality of serving congregations, offer the richness of differing traditions.
  • To be led in worship and common prayer is an experience some pastors seldom experience.

In 2009 this vision was published as AnamCara: Collegial Clergy Communities, which can be purchased through this website.

In this reflection I have traced my engagement with the isolation that accompanies our vocation, both as a pastor and a pastor in retirement. As I have noted, this way of being in pastoral ministry is only one context in which to define our vocation. Its appeal is limited. But for me this model — a small community of practicing clergy peers, gathering together in a facilitated environment — has been a re-frame that I have explored through the years. It has mattered.


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.

 


Symbolic Exemplar: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 25, 2016

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought being a pastor was similar to being a teacher or social worker or father. These roles give you a position from which you can contribute. That’s the way I saw it.

I went to seminary with the excitement of a seeker who had just discovered a new map of unexplored terrain. This joy of a larger purpose freed me from an earlier vocational direction assumed by my family. I knew no one at the seminary when I arrived. Being Baptist had little substance. Church experience was limited. My knowledge of clergy was almost nil. To be “called” felt strange and remote. But the idea of some kind of paid work that allowed further exploration into the realm or kingdom of God was promising.

Surprise happened in an introductory class on pastoral care. The professor had recorded on tape his pastoral conversation with a grieving widow. I heard his gift of empathic listening and skillful questions that helped her find a measure of release and hope. On that day, in that moment, sitting on the fourth row of a large class in the “Map” room at Southern Baptist Seminary, I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for forty-eight years.

What I felt then, and never lost, is this: the role gave me a way into those holy places of people’s lives, where I could offer a presence with a caring curiosity about their pursuit of meaning. A reporter once asked me, “What do you like most about your job?” I heard myself say, “I love having a ringside seat on how people make sense of their lives.” This was the constant joy—the role unlocking doors to these sacred places of presence and conversation.

You can anticipate my shock at running into the full complexity of this vocation. Immediately I protested the “difference,” the “set-apartness” that came with the role. I resisted the various titles—Brother Mahan, Preacher, Reverend, Pastor Siler, Doctor Siler. “Just call me Mahan,” I sometimes said. “I’m just a regular guy with a huge curiosity about life and faith in God.”

My ordination, with its language of “being set apart” to serve the church, declared more about my future than I could absorb at the time. I was wonderfully challenged by the vows yet felt broadsided by the loneliness and projections that came in their wake. The new role changed how people perceived me, including my neighbors and larger family. Even my pre-ordination friends didn’t quite know what to do with my new identity. I felt placed into a separate category I didn’t understand.

Eventually a re-frame came to me, in the form of a gift from a rabbi friend, which described with clarity the role I was assuming. The gift was a book from another rabbi, Jack Bloom, in which Bloom describes the tension: as rabbis (or pastors) we are both living symbols of More than we are and ordinary human beings. We are both. Both at the same time.

A symbol points beyond itself to some other reality from which it draws power. Take our national flag, for instance. We know it’s not simply a colored piece of cloth. It draws our attention powerfully to the “republic for which it stands.” Or, even more familiar to us, we regularly participate in the transforming symbolic power of water (baptism) and bread and wine/grape juice (Eucharist).

But acknowledging our symbolic power is another matter. Imagine the scene: rabbis, priests, or pastors in the pulpit beneath a robe and stole (or dark suit) with Scripture in hand. Note the symbols. Note the symbol we are. Yes, we remain very human under the robe, with all our peculiar human traits. But we are so much more. We feel it. We know it. We are symbols of More than we are, signs of a narrative and worldview we call Gospel. Or to say it boldly: You and I are symbols pointing to God, the ultimate Mystery. By just being a clergy person you announce a huge wager. You and I dare to wager that God is real, a loving presence in us, with us, and through us, active in the world making love, making justice, making shalom. And furthermore our symbolic identity deepens with each passing funeral, wedding, worship service, and pastoral visit. We are walking, talking representatives of More than ourselves. The projections abound. The symbolic role opens doors; it closes doors. We are different. Not better, but different.

And, if that is not enough to carry, as pastors we are not just symbols, we are symbolic exemplars. Certain ethical behaviors are expected of us. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such additional moral pressure. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

Bloom puts the two together: The pastor or rabbi as symbol and as exemplar. Then he mixes in the third reality: we are symbolic exemplars and ordinary human beings. It’s a re-frame that has mattered.

Let’s place these truths on a continuum — symbolic exemplar on one end and human being on the other end. The extremes are easy to see. On the symbolic exemplar end we have observed pastors and priests overly identified with their symbolic role. Behind the role so much of their humanity is hidden. Their sense of self is fused, it seems, with their pastoral identity. “He must sleep in his collar,” I recall hearing about a Lutheran pastor in my neighborhood. At retirement these ministers have the toughest work of discovering who they are apart from the role that has identified them for so long. I admit, when I retired this inner work was necessary for me as well.

The other extreme is protecting our humanness, so much so that we discount the authority and appropriate power invested in the role. To insist, “I’m just me, a person like everyone else,” is folly. I found, as you have, that there were times when this transcending power was undeniable. You know it when, on occasion, while preaching, the message comes more through you than from you. Or standing by the bed of a very ill parishioner, or sitting across from a person in crisis, you palpably experience being a symbol of More than yourself. When they see you they see the faith community you represent. When they see you they “see” the un-seeable you represent, namely, an invisible Reality. In those times it’s so clear—the person is relating to you but also to so much More than you.

There are times when we consciously, intentionally call on the full authority of the role. I am reminding you of those times when you are face-to-face with persons, usually in the safety of your office, who pour out their sense of “not being enough,” who are feeling particularly victim to relentless, self-condemning voices rising from their depths. In those times we deliberately wrap the role around us like a robe. Our voice is up against the self-despising voices we are hearing. In those moments you too would claim your pastoral authority and say something like, “What you tell yourself is not true. Your deepest truth is this: You are a child of God, loved and loving, totally forgiven and full of worth just as you are.” By claiming this authority we hope that the Power we symbolize undermines and eventually replaces the power of these self-condemning voices.

Or, the best example is the obvious one. Every time you and I rise to stand behind the pulpit to lead in worship, we intentionally wrap ourselves around the privilege and courage of being both our authentic selves and More than our authentic selves.

We know multiple examples of those in our vocation who have abused this symbolic power to the great harm to others, to themselves, and to their congregation. The examples are legion. But the longer I was a pastor the more I understood and appreciated this power to bless and speak in the name of God. But it always felt uncomfortable. The audacity never left me. Each deliberate attempt was not without a good measure of “fear and trembling.” I was flirting with danger, and I knew it. Speaking from ego, for ego, or speaking from God, for God—which was it? No doubt it was a mixture of both. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Precisely; that’s the point! When we embrace this tension of being both symbolic exemplar and the very human person we are, you and I are reduced to prayer. We are driven to our knees. The chutzpah demands mercy; the mercy makes possible the chutzpah.

Naming the un-nameable Mystery … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Putting on, like a robe, the privilege, ambiguities, set-apartness, projections, and loneliness of this work … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Embracing the tension of being both living symbol of More than I am and a human being not more than I am … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Being a flawed leader of an imperfect institution that frequently contradicts the compassion it espouses … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Bearing the symbols of God, even being a symbol of God, at the perilous risk of playing God … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

I leave you with a paradox — being both fully, uniquely human and fully, uniquely a symbolic exemplar. Embracing, not resolving, this paradox became for me a re-frame that mattered.

Reference: The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me, Jack H. Bloom

 


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.

 


Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 13, 2016

Life’s theme—walk, stumble, fall, up again, dust off, move on. In big and small ways that’s a drama we know.

This particular re-frame rises from a fall, felt as a huge failure. It may be an example of what current elder Richard Rohr calls “falling upward.” In my case, while the fall was abrupt, the upward part was gradual and uneven, its trajectory only clear from this perch of time and distance.

I live by the verse, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Possibility thinking. Long-range planning. Defining expectations. Goal orientation. I register as a strong intuitive on the Myers-Briggs Indicator, one who relishes “big picture” thinking. But surprisingly, along my vocational path I tripped over the visionary’s counter truth: “By attaching to a vision, people—including myself—can likewise perish.” That danger hints at the nature of this re-frame.

I came from seminary fresh with a vision of what church could be. During those seven years I built a solid platform from which to launch my vocation. After graduation a Washington D.C. suburban congregation became a willing partner in this good work. Beginning in 1967 my partner and I entered a season of suburban flight, rising black power awareness, the push for fair housing, assassinations of leaders, the Civil Rights Movement embodied for us in the Poor People’s Campaign, and, most of all, the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands, fathers, and sons away for a year or more at a time. Some came home in “body bags.” It was a turbulent season for families and nation. The exhilaration of this vortex was addictive. I found seductive these reverberations moving through our little congregation, so eager, as I was, to be a “light set on a hill.”

The congregation was collaborator in my visionary dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man joining a young, seven-year-old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We became a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, as I came to see, primed for the lure of lofty self-ideals.

At about the five-year mark I hit a wall. I had never encountered a barrier that I couldn’t scale or circumvent, due, in large part, to privileges from being “born on third base.” But this wall was different. Trying harder only deepened the ruts of physical and spiritual exhaustion. My usual ways of coping, such as taking a few days off, didn’t dent the hardening mixture of depression and bewilderment. Something had to give.

The “give” was resigning my position with no vocational place to go. Our family of six retreated to the mountains, moved into in a friend’s empty trailer, and pieced together a “living” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce from a vocation and congregation I loved. And, like a divorce, most friends and family didn’t know what to say. And, truthfully, I didn’t know what to say either.

An epiphany came early in this year of withdrawal. It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, with a gentle breeze near as breath. Only a month had passed since my resignation; I was still seeking sense of what had happened. Sitting on a bench, absorbing the beauty, I began re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. My eyes fell on these searing words:

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

I asked myself, “Is that what happened?” and quickly answered, “Yes!” There it was, painfully clear. I traced in my mind the downward spiral Bonhoeffer named. First, fashioning a “visionary ideal of community”; then, when it wasn’t realized, blaming the church, then God, and finally the self. I don’t recall ever blaming God, but I sure did a “number” on myself, accusing myself of inadequate self-care, over-functioning, and not being enough—in other words, for failing at my first full-time gig as pastor.

My ending at this church was not that simple. My resignation was many-layered, as all of them are. But that autumn day on the bench something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. My lofty expectations, for self and others, lay exposed like shards from a broken pot. How clear it was, my deeply ingrained need to produce results. I remember thinking, “Have I loved our dreams, our goals, our possibilities, more than I loved the people? Was I so focused on ‘getting somewhere’ that I missed the marvel of being who and where we already were?”

Simply, the re-frame is this. Focus less on outcomes; re-focus on the here-and-now complexity, truth, and beauty of relationships. I faced a new awareness: dependence on results had become a primary source of personal satisfaction, robbing me of the joy in simply doing the work.

It was a turning. A clarity surfaced from those months. Being well formed—having dreams, developing leadership habits, honing pastoral skills, developing self-awareness, and working out my pastoral identity—is what Rohr calls “first half of life” work. But this good work proved insufficient as an adequate base on which to build a vocation. It was not enough. I was not enough. We were not enough.

There is more, namely, trans-formation, transcending while including ego. Forming a strong ego is imperative, but only as a conduit for the transforming power of Love. So, having visions is crucial. Dreams give direction. But attaching ego to them is fatal. To do so not only jerks us out of the present but tempts us to wed our well-being to their realization.

This failure in 1972 offered a gift. From this fall I saw clearly on a deeper level what I had been preaching all along, namely, that ministry, as is all of life, is grace, not achievement. What I most wanted was already given. Visionary dreaming could then take its rightful place as playful longings of “what ifs.” From that “gap” year I began a gradual, wavering shift of awareness from living my life in ministry to a sense of being lived through by a larger Life. Paradoxically, ministry continued to be mine, yet not mine.

I can still see myself sitting alone on that bench, the distant mountains in view, feeling the sun’s warmth and the soft breeze, reading the words from Bonhoeffer. I closed the book gently, knowing that I had just taken a turn in my journey.

 


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.


Visionary Dreamers: Be Warned

January 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Preaching as Conversation

December 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Powers

October 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meaningful Evaluation

August 27, 2014

Meaningful evaluation—an oxymoron? Well, maybe not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do I Have a Witness?

May 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eschatology as Provocative Re-frame

April 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?


A Spiral Upward

November 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swan

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

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

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


The Pastoral Prophetic Edge

August 27, 2013

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

I have been thinking about the prophetic edge of pastors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

July 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since that day I have been pondering two questions.

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

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

Thanks, Jacob.


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?”


No Separation — Really?

April 3, 2012

I have been pondering a lot these days the so-called delusion or illusion of separation. If true, the implications are enormous. You and I keep hearing from various quarters today, including quantum physics, that everything, as well as everybody, are profoundly connected. Here are some quotes that have been rolling around in my mind and heart.

From Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest . . . a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace ALL living creatures and the whole of nature into its beauty.”

Then there is the Trappist,Thomas Merton, who wrote an autobiography as a young monk about leaving the evils of the world. Years later a sudden epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville seemed to turn him toward the world.  He was on a routine visit when he found himself in the middle of a shopping center staring at a group of strangers. He writes, “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs . . . It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” With joy overflowing, he continues, “Thank God, I am like other men!”

According to Jim Marion and others, this “no separation” way of viewing the world is what  Jesus was about. In his book, Putting on the Mind of Christ, he suggests that the central message of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for a unitive or non-dual state of consciousness. This awareness sees no separation — not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans (and I would add, between humans and non-humans). No separation as in the image, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you.” No separation as in “Love you neighbor as yourself (not “as much as you love yourself”)

Are we that connected? Are we to be continuations of each other? Is the power, the juice in  relationships found in the connection of “in between,” and not either-or? I have heard this in the voice of feminine thinkers. I hear it in the voice of leaders calling for collaboration, partnership and cooperation.

The lower consciousness we know well. We live by seeing differences, by separating this idea from that idea, this person from that person, this option from that option. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, we cannot get very far in our world without this capacity for binary thinking. But the starting and ending place for us in the West has been the single, separate person or part or group. That’s changing, it seems.

Truly I am trying to sort this out. Some suggest a multi-level approach. Perhaps on one level of consciousness we see separation and value differentiation. But we appear also to have a capacity for another way of seeing. If I understand those quoted above, on another level of consciousness, separateness is a prison, a delusion, a dream from which we must awaken if widening circles of  compassion have a future.

No separation — really?


Non-attachment . . . But How?

January 3, 2012

Not to be attached to outcomes — was our subject last time. But how? How can we do that?

Those of you who responded agreed on the importance of not identifying with outcomes. But you likely said under your breath, as I did, “Sounds good, but it’s sure easier said than done!”

So, what practices help us find that inner freedom from detaching to particular outcomes? What helps us keep from “nailing” (attaching) our well-being on what we cannot control, like particular results?

I’m suspect you have some practices that work for you. Here is one that I practice occasionally. I encourage you to read it slowly, perhaps many times until it sinks in. It is all about detaching, or dis-identifying, and realigning with our deepest identity. This is my adaptation of the exercise from Ken Wilbur in No Boundary.

I have a body, but I am not my body. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that is not my deepest identity. I have a body, but I am not my body. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they are not my deepest identity. I have desires but I am not desires. I am, beloved,  graced . . . unconditionally.

I have anxieties, but I am not my anxieties. I can feel anxiety and other emotions. They pass through me, but they are not my deepest identity. I have emotions, but I am not emotions. I am, beloved, graced . . .  unconditionally.

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me. Egoic thoughts are not my deepest identity. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I am, beloved, graced. . . unconditionally.

I have a work/vocation, but I am not my work. Work comes and goes, sometimes exciting, sometimes discouraging. Work is not my deepest identity. I have work experiences but I am not work. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have hopes for outcomes, but I am not any outcomes. Outcomes come and go, sometimes realized, sometimes not. They do not form my deepest identity. My well-being is not attached to results. I have aspirations, but I am not my aspirations. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

If you continue to repeat this exercise, you may notice subtle shifts in your sense of “self.” Our deepest identity, as I understand the gospel, is being a delight, graced, unconditionally accepted, a participant in the flow of divine compassion in the world — always gift, not our achievement. But to get to this core identity requires dis-identifying from other attachments (“idolatry” would be the biblical word). It’s the shift from nailing our sense of self to particular results to holding lightly hoped-for outcomes. It is the difference between “I have to” and “I want to.”

I hear a lot these days that spirituality is about “letting go” and “letting be.” And I agree. But how is that possible unless we are rooted and grounded in an identity already given? It seems we spend a life time learning to accept and live from what’s been true all along.

My dog, Katie, has no problem living in grace, from grace. I sure do.


On the Dark Side: Attachment to Outcomes

December 5, 2011

I don’t know where this truism came from, but it stays stuck to my frame like a worn out label. It goes like this. Life consists of four challenges: show up: be present; speak your truth; and don’t be attached to outcomes.

The zinger for me is in the last one—don’t be attached to outcomes.

I am such a future oriented person, off the Myers-Briggs chart on “intuition.” I love to plan and prioritize goals and dream of possibilities. I delight in casting the anchor way out in front of my boat and pull the rope in that direction. There’s good in that. Besides, it is just who I am. I can’t help it. But, as with all things good, there is a shadow side.

The dark side is attachments to outcomes. Of course, we hope for outcomes. I’m talking about our identity, our well being being attached, “nailed” to results. For instance, when I was pastor, I could be so caught up in where the church ought to go that I would miss appreciating where it was. I could be so invested in someone’s growth that I, laying aside evocative questions, would focus on where they needed to be. With regard to myself, how often my expectations, plans and goals could conveniently distract me from the messy, difficult, vulnerable present. Underneath, way down deep, I suspect attachments to results come from feelings of not being enough, not loving enough, not doing enough, not worth enough.

Wendell Berry, as he often does, gets to the deep place of loving. He describes this kind of “nonattachment to outcomes” love in his character Dorie Carlett’s relationship to forever-drunken Uncle Peach. “She had long ago given up hope for Uncle Peach. She cared for him without hope, because she had passed the place of turning back or looking back. Quietly, almost submissively, she propped herself against him, because in her fate and faith she was opposed to his ruin.”

Sometimes we love just because we have to in order to be who we are. That’s what I see in Dorie. Being true to her core self, loving, not changing Uncle Peach, is what motivated her.


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.


Fussing with the Text

September 26, 2011

I asked a Monday morning sort of question: “How did it [the sermon] go yesterday?”

This pastor, in his first years with his first congregation, is finding his way of preaching. His response: “Well, its weird. I’m scratching my head. I got more positive comments from that sermon than any of the others. Usually I don’t get any specific comments. But I didn’t feel good about it. When I finished and sat down, I felt awful. My sermon was disjointed. I rambled around, but it wasn’t for lack of preparation. Rather, as I worked with the text during the week more questions surfaced than answers. And it showed, I guess. So, I’m bewildered. I don’t understand. They liked it, at least some did. I didn’t.”

Here is my hunch about what happened. And, of course, it is only a hunch. This we know, mystery of the spoken word (written word as well) defies neat explanations.

In my friend’s head, by his own admission, are ideals of “good” preaching. A sermon is to be a polished, clear, poetic, eloquent. It is a packaged message from pulpit to pew. That’s the way it appears — preacher speaking to congregants, a performance no less.

My hunch is that his vulnerable, honest wrestling with text drew his listeners into their own engagement with the biblical text of the day. I bet that he was naming their questions and their “what ifs.” With considerable courage, I imagine him publicly fussing with this biblical passage, or, better worded, allowing this Word in words to fuss with him. Perchance his curiosity whetted their curiosity; maybe his yearning for truth ignited their yearning; perhaps his longing for meaning awakened their longing. I like to think that his out-loud conversation with the text was like every other engaging conversation, that is, stumbling for right words, anguished pauses, reaching deep for breakthroughs of clarity. Not polished. Not compact. Not a neatly wrapped package. But authentic, reeking with authority.

Perhaps listeners found themselves more caught up in the storied biblical text than being caught up in him — and they loved him for it. “Thanks, Rev, your sermon really spoke to me this morning.”