Archive for May 2013

Clery Performance v Years of Service

In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.


Like the Church Lifecycle that I drew last week, the Pastoral Lifecycle that I have drawn here is without statistical support. Considering the fact that the average United Methodist clergy person has been providing a negative membership gain for the denomination for the last thirty years, what curve would you draw? Take an incoming class of probationary members, say the class of 1979 (mine). Which part of their careers are they most likely to have been in negative territory?

I only draw this out to say that any policy which seeks to replace aging workers with young ones will have these difficulties:

  1. Most clergy become workaholics and our attitude about the above curve may be accentuating this psychological problem. The seminary graduate enters the field expecting to rack up double digit membership gains. Each time they have to submit a negative statistical report or confess that their church is falling behind on apportionments, they feel the denomination’s lash upon their back. Soon they realize that certain intractable problems and location issues prevent this particular church from growing. The only way to get a better appointment is to work harder. What they rarely do is settle in and accept the bottom half of their learning curve. They don’t seek for the core understandings and deeper insights which will help their current congregation become healthier and their total career be more fruitful.
  2. As workaholics, many clergy become depressed in midlife when their statistical values drop again. What made them productive in their thirties, no longer works. Depressed people tend to be risk adverse. They reject social media as a ‘time waster,’ failing to realize that we are in the community building business. More significantly, the denominational system with its mythical career ladder doesn’t encourage older clergy to do the work where they may be most fruitful. Mature, wise, leaders are needed to help legacy (or hospice) congregations transition into an appropriate state of closure. Other transitional leaders are needed to provide healing for congregations in conflict or some other form of collective trauma. 
  3. Given the current climate, healthy clergy with thirty years of experience, will exit gracefully and transition into productive midlife in another field. Unhealthy ones will stay and demand continued increases in salary. The denomination may lack the resources to transition through the period when the newly recruited young pastors are in training and the unhealthy clergy are failing to exit. We may be digging both negative valleys of the productivity curve deeper.

The unintended consequence of policies that focus on clergy age is that adaptive and well rounded pastors will consider their church work to be a short term career. Sports teams that focus on having young players lose their talented ones when they become free agents. There is a reason why the fifth command is the only one with a blessing (Deuteronomy 5:16). Those who intend to live long in the field of church service, choose a denomination that isn’t abandoning their elders on an ice floe.

Luke 7:1-23

+ I have not found such great faith even in Israel +

“The Great Gadsby” is really about faith and character. Nick seems to be searching for something to believe in, a guiding-principle for his life. He has left the stable confines of his mid-western upbringing. New York is chaotic in its rebellion against prohibition. New York is problematic in its failure to deal with social issues or provide an examples of great persons living noble, charitable, lives. Nick begins the book (or the movie) in need of a Christ-figure. This is what makes it a good launching off point for discussing people like the centurion, and ourselves, that put their faith in Jesus. 


Nick’s first New York friends are Tom, Daisy, and the golfing pro, Miss Baker. He observes with horror their lack of faith and their failure to develop anything that approaches an ethical system for life. In a great quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes:


“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made"


One can ask, is it possible to live a good life and not have something to believe in? There is a God-shaped vacuum driving the party scene on Gatsby’s Long Island. The point is not that they are great sinners. The point is, as Fitzgerald writes, they are careless people. We can identify the careless and faithless people of our lives by observing the trail of broken relationships that they leave behind them.


Of course, what makes the book great and worthy of so many movie attempts is Gatsby’s perfect following of his faith. His entire life and character is molded to serve a single ideal, a faith that the perfection of a past moment can be returned to. In the last line of the book, Nick confers sainthood upon Gatsby. The man is a martyr to his faith, because “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter— tomorrow we will run faster...”


We are left with the realization that having faith isn’t enough. One has to have faith in the right object. People today often speak about faith as if it is a quantity, like gasoline, that one puts into one’s gas tank. A person who is low on faith, might go to a spiritual place to get topped off (it doesn’t matter which religion).  A person with too much faith might go out and buy a lottery ticket. Gatsby had faith in his own ability to build a perfect life. Such faith is tragic and unsustainable. Preach it!


Now we come to the story of faith in Luke 7:1-10. A Roman centurion comes from the midwest (of the Mediterranean world) and settles in Palestine. Like Nick, he needs a Christ figure. His situation, though, is the reverse. He comes from a culture that has few human heroes and no ethical guidelines. The gods of the centurion’s home world are flawed human beings on steroids. He finds the Jewish faith in a holy, transcendent, God appealing. He begins to reshape his life around the ethics and values of his Jewish neighbors. When Jesus passes through, this centurion is ready to receive him as the needed Christ figure. Jesus compliments not just this man’s faith, but his capacity to direct it towards the right object. This faith towards the right object theme, is continued in the next two stories and concludes with Jesus saying "Blessed are those who don't stumble (or misplace their trust) in me."  

The Great Gatsby
Pentecost 3
Life Cycle of a Congregation

The life cycle of a congregation is often described a bell curve, mapping out membership growth over time. Martin F. Saarinen (The Life Cycle of a Congregation, and others, chart how a congregation is born with enthusiasm, has significant yearly growth for a decade or so, enters into a long period of stability, then falls into decline, leading in time to death. My first response to seeing this curve was to ask, what about Canterbury Cathedral? Obviously there are outliers, that is churches whose lifespan is so unexpected that it skews the chart. Best, perhaps, to disregard both those new congregations that die in less than 5 years and those historic churches that grace the centuries. The lifecycle itself is a hypothetical construct, blessed by the fact that most aggregated statistics form bell curves. At any rate, you can’t look at a chart of average church lifespans and predict where your church will be ten years from now. Every regional cluster of congregations, like a synod or district, forms a messy scatter plot, with older congregations unexpectedly growing and solidly stable mid-life churches crashing. The more individual narratives you know, the less you believe in statistics.


What if we draw a similar life cycle curve for the productivity of a clergy person as they age? This curve might be more sinusoidal; a drop at the beginning, a rise in the middle passing through neutral (doing more good than harm), then a drop off to grey near age 65. A young pastor enters his or her first church full of enthusiasm and the capacity to fail large. Because they both lack wisdom and are likely to be serving in a situation with limited resources, most clergy will find their first decade to be unproductive. Eventually, they move on to serve a church with more resources that matches their now tested leadership skills. Suddenly, they are highly productive. When rewarded with a more substantial church or an administrative post, an average pastor becomes less productive but more dependable. In time, physical aging and the accumulated reluctance we all develop towards risk and needed change, causes a decline in productivity. The life cycle curve plunges downward as the clergy person dreams of retirement.


Of course, this pastoral productivity curve is also a hypothetical construct. Real pastors are so diverse that even a sinusoidal curve constructed from a large sampling would have limited value.   We can’t put our finger on a chart and predict how many members a clergy person will join this year. Nor does knowing a person’s age qualify us to guess whether they are productive or ready to be put out to pasture. Life cycle curves, however, may be helpful starting points for individual congregations and mature pastors as they begin a prayerful self-discernment process. 


Churches and pastors need to begin by charting their own statistics and reflecting upon the context of their good and bad times. Every congregation and every individual is on their own path. At times they will follow the general life cycle curve. Where they, as an individual or as a distinct congregation, leave the pack is important. All and all, the life cycle curve is deflating to our ego. Some situations require working to beat the odds and choosing to be an exception. Others require faithfully accepting God’s grace for this present time and making the appropriate adaptations. 


Churches will note that a period of enthusiasm and a period of stability is something that they share with all other congregations. Their experience of these times may have been enhanced by the leadership of a former pastor, but he or she did not cause the good times. In a sail boat, the captain sets the sails and marks the course, but the wind and the currents are beyond ones control and tied to that particular time and place. Further, churches that recover from decline, do so by discovering a specific calling or vocation from God. This requires spiritual discernment and is the subject of my new Reality Check 101 book.


Pastors also need to think of productivity as more than just metrics. Who they are will always be more than what they do. Integrity is everything. Leadership cannot be exercised without transparency. If they are in the front end of the learning curve, they need to admit that to the lay leadership of the congregation. Throughout their stable years, the process that pastors use to discern the specifics of their calling will parallel the process their congregation needs to follow to discover their vocation and prevent decline. Mature pastors need to search for ways to overcome the natural effects of aging, particularly; risk aversion, work addiction, and the reluctance to embrace new technology. When a pastor discerns the approach of retirement, they owe it to the church to announce it two years in advance and intentionally prepare their congregation for the transition.


Finally, denominational leadership should consider the implications of the congregational and pastoral productivity curves, but only after running the numbers for the last thirty years of their own judicatory. Do the math carefully, recognizing that denominational entities are dynamic systems with many interrelated parts. False assumptions and their resulting prescriptions can do more harm than good. Be aware that the clergy and congregational life cycle curves will interact:

  • Many church leaders are advocating the rapid retirement of aging clergy and the active recruitment and placement of young pastors. If we don’t know the shape of the pastoral productivity curve, we may be causing a double whammy. Wise leaders may be exiting too soon and not providing needed transitional support for declining congregations. Young pastors may be working through their decade of inexperience and low productivity at the very time the denomination doesn’t have the resources or flexibility to support the low end of their learning curve.
  • On the whole, congregations of a certain age are likely to be in decline. You need to do the math to see what contextual factors support the outliers of your district. Do rural churches live longer than suburban ones? How does the size of congregation relate to its overall percentage of gain or loss for the last twenty years? Other than a change of pastors, what factors support congregational rebirth in your area?
  • Perhaps it is time to burry the myth that a clergy person’s career should move up a ladder, serving bigger churches and deserving a higher salaries as they approach retirement. The post modern age and the rise of mega-churches has broken that system. Denominations invested in it will die. How can we encourage people to not be risk adverse and to keep current on the use of technology in the church, no matter what their age or leadership post?
  • How can we discover and support those clergy and congregations that do better than average? Does our current use of metrics get in the way? How can we relate pastoral productivity to real disciple making skills and leading congregations towards greater health? How can we prevent the negative predictions inherent in these curves from becoming self-fulfilling prophesies?
  • Other ideas?
Romans 5:1-5

We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. +

This passage gives us the great equation of life; suffering leads to perseverance, this persistent patience then leads to our having an improved character, this, in the end, leads to hope. The three terms of the equation can be variously translated and this is one of the passages of the Bible that becomes more transparent when you look at a variety of translations. There is a form of group wisdom (mass Holy Spirit group-think) when you lay the various words side by side. Paul is reaching to describe something that is so universal that a single English or Greek word cannot contain it. Yet each committee when they translate brings some aspect of the jewel to light.


Suffering is probably the best word for the first term. Though some Bibles use tribulation, troubles, or trials, suffering is universal. As the Buddha would say, the human condition is defined by suffering and we only become enlightened when we face it head on. I like Scott Peck’s bluntness, “ must be willing to meet existential suffering and work it through. In order to do this, the attitude toward pain has to change. This happens when we accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.” I think we need to be honest and open about the indispensable role that suffering has had in our personal lives.


Suffering, but not all suffering. Suffering so bad that shakes our faith like an alder in a tornado leads to embedded, steadfast faith, also called perseverance. Suffering that we wrestle with all night like Jacob, and then emerge doing the sciatic shuffle; that kind of pain. Here is first truth; only people who embrace pain become models of patience or capable of making great ethical choices under duress.


People who live out of this perseverant love of God even in the dark times, become changed. They become trusted elders in their context. They become characters in the good sense of the word. There is an integrity about them. Their inner being and their outer actions are one. The impossible prayer of John Hunter’s hymn is answered for them:


Though what I dream and what I do 

    in my weak days are always two, 

    help me, oppressed by things undone, 

    O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!


The equation of Romans 5:3 ends with the word ‘hope,’ though I think the merged word hope-faith would be better, provided you are talking about faith in the sense of sanctifying grace. I mean real hope-faith is something that comes through the living of the Christian life, not the thing that saves us when we first believe. We keep working and reaching for hope-faith. Unfortunately, both hope and faith are watered down in today’s world to mean wishful thinking. Wishful thinking isn’t worth the time it takes to do. “Just have faith,” is Hollywood’s most disastrously turned phrase. The golden prize that Paul puts at the end of the equation is the thing that Abraham sought when he left Ur, that Moses glimpsed in the burning bush, Elijah heard in the silence, and Jesus lived out of everyday. It is the real, holy grail.



Interestingly, the equation works in reverse.  Those who mistake wishful thinking for hope or faith often accentuate the flaws of their character. They think they can be good people just by thinking good thoughts. It ain’t so. Character flaws lead to flighty-ness, undependability, and emotional impatience. These things will always cause a person to suffer. Without real faith or hope, all suffering leads to bitterness. The end of the human condition is the pits. Unless we are saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. This is the heart of what Paul is writing. The equation only works in the right direction if you view it in the context of the Gospel that Paul is presenting in Romans. Follow the Roman Road, as a friend of mine used to say. Good time for an altar call!

Daniel and the Lions
Pentecost 2
Flowers in Kemp Yard

Jesus said, “Consider the lilies...” (Matthew 6:28) Why?  Please note that these flowers have three strikes against them:

  • They are cheap; especially if you translate lilly as wildflower
  • They are apolitical; they seek to influence the world or force others to march to their drum.
  • They are independent and self directed, that is, they don’t wait for someone to tell them when to bloom.


Small congregations are a lot like lilies. They have limited assets. They rarely have aspirations beyond caring for the people of their immediate community and the one or two missionaries they may support. They are often resistant to being told what to do. This is both the beauty and the frustration of the small membership church. I think Jesus invites us to appreciate the beauty and reconsider the source of our complaints. 


Like wildflowers, small congregations are plentiful. Two-thirds of the churches in the US average less than 100 in worship. Denominational leaders and seminaries should take note that most clergy will spend their entire careers serving small and mid-sized churches. Worse still the average congregation today can no longer afford an ordained, full-time pastor to serve them alone. Perhaps, we should consider better ways to train and supervise laity to provide pastoral  leadership for the average congregation. Perhaps we should also appreciate the role God has intended the small church to play in the economy of His kingdom.  


Healthy small churches provide social capital and a real witness to Christ in rural, inner city, and marginalized contexts. Like wild flowers, they are also resilient. They survive economic crisis and leadership failures that bankrupt larger congregations. Further, they have a tendency to develop and train disciples of faith that go on to serve larger congregations. A disproportionate number of ordained clergy and effective lay leaders in my own denomination (United Methodist) grew up in small churches. 


Consider then, the small church. In our materially focused world, their efforts are often under valued. In our bottom-line, business obsessed culture, fails to comprehend what Jesus is pointing to. There is beauty in places we often fail to look for it.

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place... tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each of them +

I went to a large used book sale this past Saturday. Reading is such an individual thing. I usually get in trouble when I read over someone’s shoulder or read my book out loud when others are trying to sleep. So, when I shop for books, I shop for my personal enjoyment. Yet, as is often the case, my book shopping this weekend was very communal. I had four other family members with me. As we rambled through the aisles we kept separating and coming back together in little clumps of twos and threes to compare finds. Together, apart. Apart, together. The mix and match of the Kemp family’s communal love of books.

The day of Pentecost was a group experience with an individual dimension. As you read Acts 2, you bounce back and forth between the communal and the personal. The first Christians are all together, yet the spirit falls upon each individual as a personalized tongue of flame. The disciples go out on the balcony to speak to the crowds on the street. Yet each hearer experiences the Holy Spirit’s communication in their own language. This really should be known as the gift of individual ears rather than as the gift of a common tongue.

This is perhaps a good time to think about your congregation and ask if it has a balanced understanding of the Holy Spirit. Many churches treat the gift of Pentecost as an individual right, and fail to grasp the communal nature of Christianity. Other churches celebrate what this day means for organized religion and fail to offer the gift of spiritual formation to those who are thirsty to drink from the one to one relationship that God offers through the spirit.

Both aspects are important, but this week we should focus on the one the people of our congregation need most to hear.

Pentecost day
Pentecost 1
plowing & preparation

Most things that fail in the church, do not fail for lack of trying. They fail because the groundwork was not done to prove the project worthy of the required effort.  Here is how it goes; one or two leaders become excited about a new program for their church. They work hard to get the votes needed to initiate it. There are stories told about how well this program worked elsewhere. It sounds like fun, and perhaps a little mysterious. The vote passes through council and money is set aside for it. The innovators wipe their brows, thinking the hard part is over. The new program now requires broader support. The various church leaders who ‘liked the idea’ before, back away. They didn’t think this thing would require anything from them. Who understands the next step? When it gets put in the bulletin or an announcement is made, how many church leaders will connect this item with what was talked about last month at council? Who in the pew will think the item is directed at them? The pastor and other spiritual teachers might suddenly realize that they haven’t checked off on the program’s underlying theology. It may also be that not enough people have given the idea the room it needs in their calendars. Like the seed that was planted on a busy footpath; the program will die for lack of depth (Matthew 13:5).

When this happens, those who initiated the effort will become discouraged. They will say, “This was such a great idea. It’s too bad that our folk lacked the commitment to get it done!” This is unfair. The people of your church know enough not to eat a cake that is half baked. Why should anyone sacrifice for a mission that is poorly interpreted?

Months before entering Jerusalem and offering his sacrifice, Jesus tested his disciples to see if they had sufficient understanding to fulfill their mission.  Inventing church would require a great deal of focus and sacrificial effort from each of them. He took them aside and asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-24) Jesus knew that understanding his divine nature and the importance of the cross, were key to starting his church. Peter got the quiz right. Jesus responded, “…Upon this rock I will build my church.” It was only after affirming the bedrock of key understandings, that Jesus went on to talk about commitment to this new thing we called ‘church.’ 

The rule is clear:  Understanding precedes action

Building sufficient digestion time into church planning is important. Wise leaders know how to nurture their ideas until the appropriate groundwork has been done.

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-55

In my former book...

What if Luke had really wanted to only write one long book, instead of the Part 1&2 of Luke-Acts? There were serious publishing restrictions on written works in the first century. A single book the length of Luke-Acts would be too long for standard scrolls and  create problems for copyists. If it were really intended to be one book, then is it possible that it really has one plot, one theme, and a single central element. I want to propose that the focus is Church, with a capital ‘C.’ 


The center passage in a combined Luke-Acts is Acts 2:42-47, where we see the ideal first fellowship of Christians. They are gathered into ‘Church,’ in Jerusalem in the days that follow the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Like Adam and Eve in Paradise they live a short paragraph without sin. They do all the things that Church will do everywhere; they study, they pray, they live in community meeting the needs of the weakest among them, they witness by their simplicity and charity towards those outside the faith. Never again will a church be so purely Church.


Luke gives us previews of this coming moment in his Gospel. You have the women joining the disciples in ministry in Luke 8:1-3, and a church on the road being Church with a capital ‘C.’  You have Jesus’ parables, particularly in Luke 15, where Church is defined by its efforts to reconnect with the lost. You can probably find hundreds more, but these pop into my mind.


In Acts, all the adventures of Peter and Paul flow out of a desire to form fellowships for faith in every place that look like the Acts 2:42-47 Church. Perhaps we should note the things that don’t show up in this model of Church, yet seem to have become our idols today. Nowhere in Acts is a church reduced to its membership role, nor is there much hand wringing over statistical reports. Finances, budgets, and trustee meetings seem to have fallen off the Acts radar. Church buildings are also absent, and there doesn’t seem to be much hurry to get under roof. In fact, flexibility and being the Church among the people of the community seems to be the watch word.


What then is Church? Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship, who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

Easter 6
Reality Check uses card suits to explain church vocation

An important promise in the Bible reads, "Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart." - Psalm 37:4  But, where do the desires of my heart come from? I suspect the significant ones come from God. When He promises to give me my desires, He is not agreeing to buy me a Porsche. He is instead agreeing to fulfill the very impulses that He has already wired into my being. Something has to change in me so that I delight in God, however, before I discover the deeper desires of my heart. I have found in my own life that there is a circularity to what is being promised here. God is glad to give me the things he already wants me to want. If my deepest desire is to communicate, God helps me to learn how to write. Other people have discovered a desire to see beauty and become artists, or to care for the sick and entered into medicine, or to teach, etc. Very tricky, isn’t it? 

In the same way, if your congregation delights in the Lord, the deepest desires of the collective body which is your church will be fulfilled. Is it the desire of your congregation’s heart to have a beautiful building and happy members? Or is your congregation more interested in insuring that the next generation finds a church where they can experience authentic worship and Christian fellowship? Or does your congregation’s heart lean towards mission, that is, working with the poor, befriending the oppressed, and being a transformative force in the community? Or, finally, is your church wired by God to be a key player in the region, capturing religious market share while it provides quality programs and worship?

Careful, before you answer: Each of us as church leaders has a personal preference for one the four suits or pathways to success. Chances are good that your personal desire is not the same as your congregation’s group desire. This doesn’t mean that you should part company. Every person’s individual passion is needed by a congregation as it moves down its path. One of the things that has to happen before we can help lead the church on its path is we have to set aside our own desires, and prayerfully ask to hear the Holy Spirit speak through the small groups of our church.

Reality Check 101 book provides two tools (Suits of Cards, Roundabout) to discern the desires of a congregation's heart.