Having Fun Yet?

July 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Locating God

March 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A 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?


Shepherd and Manager

March 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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