Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Much Do We Love? Sacrifice? Give? Or Is It Just Leftovers...

I am preparing to lead a spiritual formation time in the midst of a difficult season. Like most district superintendents, I am in the midst of projecting pastoral appointments for the next conference year. I find myself in more prayer and introspection than at any other time in my life. I think this is a good thing. It is also frustrating.

I read the book Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Francis Chan) a few months ago, and found myself convicted and rebuked of things I thought I had grasped: sacrifice, agape love, surrender, taking risks. The reality is, we are always on the journey to master these, and usually come up short. We Wesleyans love to talk about the process of sanctification, and going on to Christian perfection (lessening or abolishing our bent to sin), but more often than not it results in resignation that we can't do it, instead of adopting prayerful mindsets and disciplines that might actually help us attain such. I am as guilty as anyone.

Chan asked some very direct and harsh questions in his book: Do you grasp the beauty and deep joy of walking in genuine intimacy with God, our holy Father and Friend? Do you want to see God more than you desire security? Do we have enough faith to do what others might see as crazy but God would see as faithful? Are we willing to do things that might cost us in this life but worth it for the Kingdom? Are we willing to give, being motivated by nothing except love? Are we willing to 'downsize' so that others might 'upgrade?'

I bought a very modest house last year - something that I can pay off fairly quickly. All of my vehicles are paid for. Yesterday, on a day when I really needed to be able to work in quiet and peace, I was having work done on a chimney that needed repair. It was loud; a mortar-mixer was running, old brick was being knocked out. I was perturbed that my quiet, safe sanctuary of a home was loud and overrun with people everywhere. This morning, I now find myself ashamed, because I am complaining about a little noise and having repairs that I can afford being done to a house that more than meets my comfort needs. Because I make more than $4,000 a month, I make one hundred times more than the average person in this world. I have a roof over my head. Running water. Climate control. High def television. As Chan points out, the sin is not in making that money - it is in not realizing how rich I really am. Rich in money, rich in comfort, rich in gifts and grace.

In dealing with pastors, I've wrestled with how to deal with our bent to sin. If a pastor is projected for a move, they want to know how much their salary will be. Can I continue to live in my house? Do you think the church could maybe pay a little more? Why am I getting a cut? (a downright sinful response from those who agreed to itinerate, and in a denomination that is in rapid decline). Rarely a question about a church's ministry and needs. Rarely does a pastor ask, "What do you think the church's main needs will be?" We sound like agents trying to negotiate the best salary and perks for a new job, instead of those availing themselves to serve. We find ourselves in competition with other pastors rather than in competition with Evil. It makes me want to ask the question: "Would you be a pastor if you got paid next to nothing? Would your heart still burn to preach the Gospel, to serve the Church in Word, Sacrament, and Order?" I think the answer to that question tells us loads about our call.

Dealing with churches is no less frustrating. They want to know, can we get a younger pastor, with a family? What did we do wrong to get this pastor? Do we have to pay our apportionments? Or the newest one: "We don't want to be part of a charge or a parish - we want to be on our own!" And when a pastor is asked to be moved, a litany of complaints follows. But when I ask, "Have you prayed with and for your pastor? Did you talk to him/her about these concerns?", I usually get silence. Pastors are expected to be spiritual leaders, but they are often treated like hirelings.

Of course everyone has frustrations - we are human beings, flawed and imperfect! But I wonder how often we examine our frustrations to see if they are founded in truth or founded in sin and self-absorption. Sometimes, there is reason to overturn the tables in the Temple. But many times, there is more reason to get on our knees and confess and repent of our thoughts and attitudes.

It seems like we only give God our best when it comes to lament and complaint! I wonder: do we really love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength - or just part of it? The First Commandment often becomes more like the First Impediment. As Chan remarks, "We give Jesus a section of our time, money, and thoughts, but He isn't allowed to control our lives." Our love of Jesus is at best conditional, comes with strings attached, and very selective.

United Methodist pastors vowed to itinerate regardless of income. We vowed to serve the church above our own comfort and to make sacrifices. Church members vowed to serve the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and services. We all said that we would put Christ first, and minister to the least and the lost. I think it may be time to quit giving God leftovers and start giving our best. A little sacrifice and contriteness wouldn't hurt us a bit.

I am glad our God is a forgiving God, full of grace. We can be a hard-headed bunch.


Friday, March 02, 2012

REVISITED: Things That Have To Be Revisited

I wrote this not quite a year ago... thought it was worth a repost... (Originally posted May 26, 2011)

"After living with their dysfunctional behavior for so many years (a sunk cost if ever there was one), people become invested in defending their dysfunctions rather than changing them." — Marshall Goldsmith, from Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back If You Lose It
Some lessons learned very quickly as a new district superintendent...

If you want to get United Methodist clergy bent out of shape, mention some of these things:
  • salaries/remuneration
  • guaranteed appointment
  • parsonage/housing allowance
If you want to get United Methodist churches bent out of shape, mention some of these things:
  • rising apportionments yet little accountability from general agencies
  • being sent ineffective clergy
  • being "sold" on the idea that a housing allowance will be cheaper than maintaining a parsonage
This highly unscientific survey is one that many superintendents encounter all over the Connection. And the recent Call to Action reordering to the United Methodist Church has folks from everywhere bent out of shape about change, rules being broken, and the going against principles previously held dear.

Has anyone ever given any thought to the fact that maybe, just maybe, some of those things we have held dear just might be part of the problem?

Guaranteed pastoral appointments sounded like a great idea: women and minorities would be assured of a place in the pulpit instead of prejudices dictating church leadership. The unintended consequence? Exiting someone who is an elder in the church yet ineffective in ministry is a tough row to hoe, and regardless of how well the letter of the law is followed and how much documentation you have, it is an even bet that you'll be sued (or at least threatened with such) as an annual conference.

Most pastors want/expect/require a raise in salary and a larger church whenever they receive a new pastoral appointment. Problem? In a denomination with shrinking resources and membership, this is becoming less and less of a possibility. It is becoming more common in pastoral moves that there is little or any "raise", and sometimes it is even to a smaller church or a church that pays a lower salary. In most cases, it's not punishment, but a simple reality of availability and congregational need.

Apportionments sound like a great idea too - doing more with a dollar in mission nationally and globally than you would ever be able to do as a single church. However, in some cases general agencies morphed from being missional agencies working for the local church into entities to themselves, often with agendas that run tangent to the very congregations that support them (as well as sometimes playing footloose with the Book of Discipline, making it hard on superintendents like me to defend paying some apportionments).

Giving housing allowances in lieu of parsonages also sounded like a great idea: church and conference trustees could get out of the housing maintenance business, pastors could build equity not previously had. But it soon led to making it more difficult for pastors to itinerate. Churches started doing the math and realized it wasn't always cheaper to sell off their parsonages and pay housing allowances after all, and some now face the real possibility of not being able to afford to pay a housing allowance OR buy a parsonage. Some preachers found out that selling their house or recovering their investment wasn't as easy as the realty experts told us.

All of these things were done by committee. All done with good intentions. Problems? Lack of vision. No long-range planning or direction. Unwillingness to adjust and say, "That was a good idea at the time, but no longer works well."

These are just a few of the things we have to revisit as a Church and denomination - not because of what we did before was bad, but simply because it no longer works or is effective.

The good news is that Jesus Christ is still Savior, and still very much alive - and can redeem anything. There are a lot of churches and people who are doing marvelous work and walking by faith!

So what do we need to be willing to change? What no longer works? And how do we muster up the courage to change? I invite your responses.