Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Things I Sometimes Forget – And Need to Know

During Spring Break this year, I will be on a team that will be interviewing men and women undergoing examination for ordination in the United Methodist Church. I used to think that I would enjoy such an honor. I think I am growing to hate the job. Being a pastor is hard enough. But judging and discerning whether someone is qualified to do so? Some days, I feel like grabbing some of these folks, and like the NS-4 robot on “I, Robot” that grabbed Will Smith by the leg, I want to say to these folks, “Run!”

I read the following from Brent Olsen, a layman who serves on the Minnesota Conference Board of Ministry:
I recently spent a few days at a retreat for the Minnesota Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry where about 30 of us—mainly clergy but a few lay folks such as me—interviewed people wanting to be pastors.

It's an awful job. It really is. And I mean that in a couple of ways. The dictionary offers up a couple of definitions of "awful" including "causing fear or dread or terror," but also "inspired by a feeling of fearful wonderment or reverence." I wavered between the two all week.

On one hand, preparing to be an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church is not an easy task. It takes the better part of a decade and no one really enters into it on a whim. When you read their stories and then see their earnest, eager, nervous faces, the inclination is to say, "Sold. Let's get you signed up and fitted for your robe."

On the other hand, you think about every congregation, eager child, puzzled teenager or heartsick parishioner that this person will come in contact with for the next 20 or 30 years. You think about how they will work with their colleagues and the larger church, and you consider whether their particular talents are best suited for the fairly specific job of being a pastor. It's a brutal job to tell someone that, just because every fiber of their being yearns to be a pastor, it doesn't mean they should be one…

Because do you know what I want from my pastor? I want him/her to be a good person. That's it: genuine, caring, and concerned. Hard working and involved. I want a smile when they look at a child and warmth in their tone when they talk to the old guy who smells bad. Those skills are a little harder to nail down in an interview.

That's what makes the board of ordained ministry an awful job, in all senses of the word. Anyone we green-light has a job until they retire, and we're charged to evaluate people based on what we can measure and confirm, instead of on what matters.
- from UMR

So what do you think? What do you want from your pastor? I’d love to know. Call me and let’s talk. I’ll even buy the coffee.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Holy Week Schedule

Monday: Morning Prayer, 9:30 AM, Church Choir Room (coffee to follow)
Tuesday: Morning Prayer, 9:30 AM, Church Choir Room (coffee to follow)
Wednesday: Morning Prayer, 9:30 AM, Church Choir Room (coffee to follow)
Holy Thursday: Service of Word, Table, and Servanthood, 6:30 PM, Sanctuary
Good Friday: Service of Tenabrae (Shadows), 6:30 PM, Sanctuary
Holy Saturday: 36-Hour Prayer Vigil, Midnight Fri/Sat thru 6 AM Easter Morning
Easter: First Service: Community Sunrise, 7 AM, Reidland Baptist Church (serves in lieu of the 8:15 service)
Second Service, 10:45 AM, Church Sanctuary

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Where Are the Methodist Women?

Anyone Googling "Methodist Women" may come up on this page and have me hanged for posting such a heretical and inflammatory blog title. Please, give me a few paragraphs before you call my district superintendent.

There are a lot of successful bible study series these days, but the most successful ones have been authored and led by women. Consider the following:
  • Beth Moore. Very articulate. Petite. Engaging speaker. Master's degree in biblical exegesis. Promotes biblical literacy, and, in her words, "Doesn't do the Southern Baptist political scene." She has authored and led numerous bible studies, and often holds simulcast teaching venues throughout the year. Very well known throughout the denominations.
  • Liz Curtis Higgs. Grew up Moravian in a rural area. Down-to-earth. Not petite. College party girl and radio personality turned Christian writer/teacher. Best known for her book, Bad Girls of the Bible. Excellent speaker and eloquent writer.
  • Elizabeth George. Former schoolteacher, bible study teacher, and curriculum developer. Non-denominational. Best known for A Woman After God's Own Heart and A Woman's High Calling.
  • Kay Arthur. She and her husband began as missionaries, went on to co-found Precept Ministries. Her "Precepts for Life" radio and television program reaches nearly 100 million people. Big proponent of inductive biblical study. Has been criticized by fellow evangelicals for her speaking engagements in United Methodist Churches.

  • Ann Graham Lotz. Daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham. Very sought-after speaker, well known for her revival series, "Just Give Me Jesus." Has weathered the criticism of being a female who teaches women AND men. Got in the middle of controversy in 2001 when SBC President James Merritt was asked on "60 Minutes" if Lotz could preach from the pulpit of the church he was serving on a Sunday morning, Merritt said, "I would personally not have her." He went on to say that where the household and pulpit were concerned, men are to lead. However, I think Anne is listening to God rather than the Rev. Merritt.

I personally have little problems with any of these folks. I've been to a Beth Moore study, and they are not "Baptist-y" - it's mainly just basic biblical knowledge. In fact, I know the church I serve has used the above resources for several studies.

Now a few years ago, I would have said, "Absolutely not. That stuff's not Methodist, Lifeway sells it, and we're not Baptists." But I soon realized the void wasn't being filled, that we were coasting way too long on DISCIPLE Bible Study, and then someone I know flat-out asked me: "Where are Methodist women leading and writing bible studies? Why do the Baptist have all the great women's bible studies?"

Well... where are the Methodist female evangelists today, in the tradition of Anna Howard Shaw, Belle Harris Bennett, Georgia Harkness, and Sarah Crosby? I have no problem with the United Methodist Women/Women's Division doing a study on Israel/Palestine peace relations. But if we are a denomination that is losing membership and increasingly biblically illiterate, should we not be in mission with our own in teaching basic biblical principles that would (incidentally) guide us in matters like Israel and Palestine?

I'd say we better give thanks for Beth Moore, Liz Curtis Higgs, etc., for filling a void that we Methodists obviously haven't. I can take care of the minor doctrinal issues that might arise once in a while. The trade-off for basic biblical grounding is well worth it.

Belle Harris Bennett, a laywoman from the old Methodist Episcopal Church, South, lead Bible studies and raised money for the Church, preached against racial prejudice, and aided in the training of missionaries. She died in 1922. T.M. Eugene wrote this about her:
Bennett's ministry tended to the Reign of God on earth in very practical ways. After learning of a woman whose attendance at school was endangered because she was pregnant, Bennett immediately wrote the institution's president suggesting that the school start a child care program. She well embodied a sentence from a letter she wrote in 1918: "It takes a heart life - a lived experience - to interpret the Word of God." - from For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists, p. 154

"It takes a heart life - a lived experience - to interpret the Word of God." Now that's Methodist - I don't care who you are!

Don't let the Baptists have all the fun.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Peculiar Prophet? Heck, He's Nuts... But He's Right.

I was a Southeastern Jurisdictional Delegate in 2004, and I wanted to elect, for sure, three persons to the episcopacy: Hope Morgan Ward from North Carolina, Jonathan Holston from North Georgia, and Will Willimon from South Carolina. Hope was elected first, hands down - everyone knew she was right for the job. Jonathan was what the UMC needed, I thought: someone who was enabling present leadership and equipping them to be effective in the present and future. Although a district superintendent with a proven track record, some said he was too young, some said "We already elected a black man," others said, "We need to elect another woman," and, to make a VERY long story short, he wasn't elected.

But we did elect Will (excuse me, Bishop Willimon). Will can come across as arrogant. However, I have always had a very hard time countering many things he's written and said. I hope my present bishop won't be offended, but Bishop Willimon was my first pick as the bishop to bring home from Jurisdictional Conference. Of course, he was the first pick of many annual conferences. He went to North Alabama (his blog can be found here).

I'm at the point now where I could care less how someone comes across in church leadership. This is what I want to know: can this person lead, are they effective, and are they prophetic? The Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, our denomination is dying, and I'm no longer in a mood to pacify causes, caucuses, Good News, the Confessing Movement, MFSA, and any other of the special interests groups of the Church. We have so many interests that it seems we've forgotten the Main Interest.

So it was with a lot of interest, and a few amens, that I read what a layperson, Kim Edwards of San Diego, CA., had written recently in the United Methodist Reporter in a question & answer session with Bishop Will Willimon (the whole article can be read here).
Let’s change gears, to General Conference. Any concerns in particular you’ve got your eye on?

Not one single thing. I think two weeks is too long to be in a church meeting, and it’s too much money. I will have to be convinced that it is important.

It costs millions to meet. We spent $300,000 last year on coffee! I just don’t know any Methodists who think they’re giving for that purpose. This is just me. I don’t have a voice. I don’t get to vote. I get to sound off through you.

Any issues you want to see discussed at GC?

I’m not being cute when I say that General Conference is distracting. The real stuff for our church is your local church. It’s what happens on Sunday morning and Monday morning at your local church.

And I just think where we’re failing is in this grassroots level. We’re going to have an address from youth at GC this year. OK, but the backdrop is that we have been killing youth. We’ve got something like 20 percent of the youth we had 15 years ago. Are we doing something wrong?

I wonder where we’ll be in 10 years. Of course, I know where I’ll be in 10 years—in the home!

What’s your advice for bringing church back to the grassroots level?

The best work Jesus does is local. It’s congregational. We are failing dramatically. The decline is huge. And I think none of you lay people would put up with this in your own business or your own life to say, “I made 25 percent less than I did last year. I wonder if I’m doing something wrong?”

We have to do the very Methodist thing of worrying who is not here this morning.

"Two weeks is too long for a meeting... The real stuff for our church is your local church... The best work Jesus does is local. It's congregational. We are failing dramatically.... None of you lay people would put up with this in your own business or life..."

A bishop who "gets" it. Imagine that. But he's going "in the home" in 10 years. Will we pick up the ball?

I'll come visit you in the home, Bishop. I suspect we'll still need you.


Friday, March 07, 2008

You're Never Done - Nor Is God

As you read a few posts below, I've had a nagging problem with my car. After weeks of checking vacuum lines, spraying choke/carb cleaner around to check for leaks, and nearly running the batteries down on my multimeter testing wiring and equipment, I was ready to give up and go to a mechanic. I gave it one more shot, and finally tracked down my hesitation problem - a loose pulse sensor connection. Easy fix. After 16 months, my 17-year old car was restored! Finished! Done!!

So I left for Kansas yesterday to help bury my last great aunt, and drove the Bimmer. It ran like a charm. I listened to great music. When I got west of Van Buren, Missouri, into the Ozarks, I was driving it like the sports car it was meant to be; hugging corners, feeling the speed and thrill of doing so - as well as making great time. I didn't set any land speed records, nor drove recklessly. I was just able to do a little more with a car that was built to do so.

When I got to my destination yesterday evening of Pittsburg, KS, I picked an aunt up at the motel we're staying at and went to the home of my great aunt's only living child (in downtown Curranville - dare you to find THAT on a map!). She and her husband, Phyllis and Eddie, have always been very gracious people and got the gift of hospitality that my great aunt was so well known for very honestly.

When I was a kid, I always thought Eddie was one cool dude; he was a star football player in high school, he worked on cars, and restored a classic car for each of his children and gave them to them as a gift - a super guy. So it was with a little bit of irony that after he went outside to help a neighbor get her car turned around in the yard, he came back inside and said, "Sky... I just backed into your car."

Uh oh.

I went outside with him, got a flashlight, and surveyed the damage. It wasn't really that bad; the SUV was much higher than my car, and the receiving hitch had struck my car mid-grill and wrinkled the hood a bit. With a little wire, I put the grill back together. It'll get me home. But crap... I just finished fixing this car up. What rotten luck! I thought I was finished and done!!

Of course, Eddie was sick - in fact, I think he was a lot sicker than me about it - being a guy who's been fixing cars a lot longer than me. But as I told him, heck, any of us could have done it, and it didn't help that my black car blended perfectly with the pitch black of the Kansas prairie. All in all, it's not bad, and could have been a heck of a lot worse. Material things can always be fixed. But it dawned on me on the way back to the motel... I'm not finished with my car after all.

The good news is, God isn't done or finished with us yet, either. We are all in various states of imperfection, and we all succumb to various sins from time to time. I am glad God doesn't give up on us, nor thinks that He's ever "done" with us.

The prophet Jeremiah said that the word of God came to him, saying: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart."

God knows us very, very well. And even when we think we're finished and done, God is not yet finished. And when we fall or crash - God picks us up again, heals us, and indeed, fixes us.

Thanks be to God.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Take Thou Authority

"Take thou authority as a deacon in the Church...Take authority as an elder in the Church to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments..."

With those words, I was ordained a deacon and elder, respectively, in June 1990 and June 1993. I was licensed as a local pastor in 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. (The pic is fellow blogger Andrew Thompson's ordination, not mine)

I've been privileged to serve in several leadership capacities since then, and been blessed to represent our denomination at both jurisdictional and general conferences. In the process, I think I have witnessed the demise of leadership into a state of crisis. Vision and direction are lacking. As I read a paper Richard Heitzenrater wrote, it confirmed my sinking feeling about leadership:

Within the church, in an age when shared governance, mutual ministry, lay rights, and making people feel good have taken center stage, the concept of strong leadership brings to some minds the image of oppressive, hierarchical structures with glass ceilings and procedures that implement repressive policies, The very word "authority" is tainted in some minds by the most pejorative meanings of its derivative "authoritarian." Leadership positions can be lonely positions-it is much easier to be just one of the guys or gals. Clergy are increasingly prone to abdicate leadership responsibilities in an ecclesiastical culture that emphasizes the role of the laity and highlights the concept of "general ministry."...

Wesley was usually able to relate to people where they were-if not on their level or from their perspective, at least aware of where they stood, Nonetheless, he was never hesitant to speak strongly, howbeit in love, against any position that he felt was wrong or inadequate. The current situation would present him with a real challenge, however.
These days, no one wants to hurt anyone's feelings; everyone wants to be liked and accepted; many feel immediately victimized by any words of criticism. And the assumption is that the strong exercise of authority in positions of leadership is likely to jeopardize the comfort level in some lives, a situation that must be avoided at all costs. John and Charles Wesley would have had difficulty with such an approach to leadership.
- Richard P. Heitzenrater, "Take Thou Authority": Ministerial Leadership in the Wesleyan Heritage, from Pulpit and Pew Research on Pastoral Leadership, Duke University. This paper was prepared for the United Methodist Council of Bishops' Task Force on Theological Education and Leadership Formation.

That certainly is harsh. It's also true, I believe.

We have to be very careful and realize who gives us our power for leadership. A bishop may ordain us, but the source of that authority is God. And in all of the questions ordinands are asked, they boil down to this: are we (1) spiritual, (2) talented, and (3) effective? And do we look at those who are being ordained, and are ordained, in these terms? Or do we select leadership based on people who won't hurt other's feelings and won't let authority "go to their heads?" I think as a rule, we Americans have dumbed down leadership... and the church has been no exception. We get exactly what we expect... and, I fear, deserve.

It is amazing to me how much energy we have put into some things, while nearly abandoning others. Do I think sexual and professional ethics for clergy are important? Absolutely. Clergy do not need to be predators nor abusers.

Do I think that Safe Sanctuary policies for children's ministries are important? Absolutely. Our children need to be safe and have the assurance of safety. A lot of time, work, and money has been expended to develop and implement these types of programs.

But somewhere, we missed the mark. Badly. If we were aiming at the bull's eye, we didn't even hit the outer ring when we shot.

Inadvertently, I think we became the sex police instead. We dumbed down expectations of leadership... and may have created the very problems that we are now trying to solve. All in the name of "shared governance" and "everyone having a place at the table." We act as if God told us to bring the Kingdom in by mob rule. Just a biblical observation: when Pilate asked the crowd about who to let go and who to crucify, they yelled, "Free Barabbas!" When he asked them about Jesus of Nazareth, they yelled, "Crucify!"

Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't have ethical and moral standards. And a lot of money, time, and effort went into developing these policies. But when we become the sex police yet say little or nothing when it comes to pastoral ineffectiveness and leadership voids, I'd say we are missing the mark... and worse, we are causing the very problems we are seeking solutions for by not insisting on leadership standards. When we dumb down expectations of leaders, we get the leaders we ask for and deserve.

We certainly don't rank sins. But to continually deal with the sexual misconduct of some of our clergy while IGNORING clear leadership voids and ineffectiveness among ALL clergy seems to be akin to spending our time writing speeding tickets while ignoring murders, rapes, and burglaries. Before you are too critical about that analogy, consider that churches are dying and closing and congregations continue to pay higher salaries and clergy benefits and are getting incompetent and ineffective leadership in return.

Everyone is NOT supposed to get a say. Leadership, especially strong leadership, requires that we speak the truth in love, even if it is critical, hurts people's feelings, or makes someone -as Heitzenrater says - "feel victimized by any words of criticism."

Am I being mean? Have I turned into "the man"? Am I marginalizing those who don't have power? And are some of my seminary professors going to be disappointed in me now?

Off and on for the last 24 years, I have officiated baseball and basketball, from youth league to the college level. I love being close to the game, love being around young people, and love the challenge. One of the things I absolutely hate doing in basketball is assessing a technical foul to a player or coach. I like being part of the game, but I prefer it to be in an accompanying role. The best parts of the game are when a kid threads a needle on a pass, or a player blocks a shot, someone nails a 3-pointer at a clutch moment, or a coach sits a team down to execute a beautiful play for a score. People don't come to a game to watch a player or coach get "T'd up." (OK... I'm sure someone does, in a I-watch-NASCAR-because-I-like-to-see-car-crashes sort of way)

Technical fouls immediately set folks off. It gets the crowd hostile. It creates an adversarial environment between the official and coach or official and player. Communications become strained. But at the same time, an official isn't on the floor to make people happy. He or she is paid to officiate and adjudicate the game. You use a balance of knowledge of the rules, discretion on the use of power, experience of management of the game, and common sense to make good decisions and proper actions. While coaches want a floor that is slanted toward them, the official's job is to keep the floor on an even keel - and that means doing what is right, regardless of criticism or who it will offend or whose feelings will be hurt.

I can only imagine what would happen if officials were advised to be liked and accepted by everyone, and not jeopardize the comfort levels of those around them. Would that be an effective approach to officiating?

I don't think it's an effective approach to leadership either. Even in the Church. Perhaps, even especially in the Church. Isn't the Kingdom and the salvation of our brothers and sisters at stake?

As Heitzenrater reminded us, both of the Wesley brothers firmly believed that preachers should have minds and abilities capable of understanding the faithful witness of Christ and have the ability to clearly communicate biblical truths to the people. Charles Wesley, it was noted, did not hesitate to expel preachers for incompetence. Here were his words about a Michael Fenwick, whom John said was "a tolerable preacher.":
I went to the room, that I might hear with my own ears one, of whom many strange things had been told me. But such a Preacher have I never heard, and hope I never shall again. It was beyond description. I cannot say he preached false doctrine, or true, or any doctrine at all, but pure, unmixed nonsense. Not one sentence did he utter that could do the least good to any one soul. Now and then a text of Scripture, or a verse quotation, was dragged in by head and shoulders. I could scarce refrain from stopping him. He set my blood a galloping, and threw me into such a sweat, that I expected the fever to follow. Some begged me to step into the desk, and speak a few words to tile poor dissatisfied hearers. I did so, taking no notice of Michael Fenwick.

I talked closely with him, utterly averse to working, and told him plainly he should either labour wish his hands, or preach no more. He hardly complied, though he confessed it was his ruin, his having been taken off his business. I answered I would repair the supposed injury, by setting him up again in his shop
. - Charles Wesley, Journal, August 5th, 1751

You think someone's feelings got hurt?

I don't think there is any contradiction between strong leadership and a strong theology of grace. Above all, the Wesleys called all of us, clergy and lay alike, to be imitators of Christ. What that means is this: when we meet the woman at the well, we are honest in what we say, even challenging. At the same time, we are full of grace and have the love of God in our hearts that allows for transformation. That is the true and Godly use of power. It may initially offend, but it transforms offense into redemption and salvation.

Boards of Ministry... General and Jurisdictional delegates - remember this when you approve candidates for ministry, and when you elect bishops. Don't listen to caucuses and factions. Don't see which quotas have been fulfilled or not. Insist on these questions being asked and answered: Who is competent? Who will be effective? Who is knowledgeable? Who is willing to serve? Who has vision? Who will give us direction... even if we don't initially like what they may say?

Who will lead us in the power and presence of God?