Archive for October 2015

Integrity and Spirituality are not age dependent

Laity will often say that their church needs a young pastor to attract new people, or win back the lost generation(s).  There are three problems to this:

    •    Chronological age is not a good predictor of a pastor’s ability to minister to young families, nor does it correlate with either church growth or a clergy person’s skill at evangelizing borderline Christians.

    •    All clergy get old, and recently, the average pastor’s career has been starting later. Even as many denominations actively recruit the young, the best, and often only available  candidate, for an open pulpit may be an older, second career, person. Who are we to argue with those whom God is calling? Why are we so reluctant to honor those who have gained valuable experience in other professions?

    •    Even though clergy know that they have received most of their training on the job, and no congregation is prepared to bear the losses associated with pastoral incompetence, experience has a negative correlation with clergy appreciation today. Clergy changing churches after age fifty have a hard time receiving a call. If you are United Methodist, you don’t have to worry about receiving a church, there are plenty of minimum salary situations to go around.


In general, we all tend to accept the leadership of someone who has either been at the organization or workplace longer than we have, or who is older than ourselves. For laypeople in church, this means being more receptive to new ideas that are being presented by pastors who are older than themselves or who began their ministry with this congregation before they joined. This aspect of human nature remains true, even though our current culture is youth obsessed.


If you are a young pastor who has newly arrived at a church, you have the double whammy. What are you going to do about it? First, intentionally form relationships with every age segment of the church, carefully showing honor to those whom honor is due. Second, take with a grain salt the encouragement you receive to do wild and wacky things. Those who expect you to act young, are not likely to be representative of the whole congregation. Further, being associated only with the young and disenfranchised will diminish your overall effectiveness as a pastor.


If you are over forty years old, recognize that agism is a part of the current religious context. Make peace with your own aging process. Never present yourself as older than you feel, but don’t be afraid to bow out of things that you no longer enjoy. Exercise and take care of yourself, but don’t boast about your fitness regime. Know that the gifts of stability, experience, and wisdom, that you provide to the congregational process have value, even if they are not appreciated by those who expect the young to save the church.  


On a personal level, how well is your call to ministry adapting to your aging process? It is normal for people in mid-life to receive a call to a new career. When I was 47 and had been in the pulpit for a quarter century, I felt myself pulled away from traditional ministry and towards my current writing career. It was important that I honor this shift, even though it took me another decade to gain clarity as to what it involved, and to leave parish ministry. If, on the other hand, you are not sensing any diminishment in your vocation, then don’t pay any attention to those who are clamoring for you to reverse nature and grow younger.

Ruth 1:1-18

Some people can summarize their entire life’s story in one line. One thinks of Nixon saying, “I am not a crook,” or the hypochondriac who was buried under the tombstone, “See? I told you I was sick.” For Naomi, in the book of Ruth, the line is, “The Lord has turned his hand against me.” Imagine how hard it was for this woman to live with her own interpretation of events. This is one definition of insanity, when we believe our own internal messages, and those messages aren’t helpful.


When we seek to explain Ruth’s behavior, her leaving her home in Moab and going to Bethlehem, we tend to imagine Naomi to be a very lovable mother-in-law. There isn’t any biblical support for this rumor. My experience is that once a person believes that they are cursed, that is that God himself is out to ruin their lives, they tend to become difficult to live with. “It’s my cross to bear,” are not the words of a desirable traveling companion.


The only way to explain Ruth’s behavior is to suppose that both God’s prevenient grace led her to believe that Moab was not her true home. She also had her dead husband’s witness to his God and the role that the land of Israel played in that his faith journey. These thing caused her to choose to love Naomi and follower her to Israel. From time to time you run into people who are attending your church, not because they found the pastor a great preacher, but because they had a family member who in an authentic way witnessed to the faith and spoke about that particular congregation as the place where it could be nurtured.


That being said, we need to speak about God’s grace in a way that the Naomi’s among us can hear it. The Lord doesn’t turn his hand against us to shame us. The adversities we face are not punishments. From time to time, though, the Lord does allow circumstances to push us. We sense God calling us… or should I say, forcing us, to turn and go a new direction? To leave Moab and go up to Bethlehem, whether we be young like Ruth or old like Naomi.

Was Naomi really  so winsome?
Pentecost 26
All Saints Day
Outward beauty has little to do with Gospel

Simone Weil said, “A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.” Fortunately, many church leaders know their church’s image is not her reality. Well to do, suburban, congregations often are deluded into believing that their church’s charismatic pastor and modern facilities makes it a great church. Intuitive and theologically aware church leaders know that the congregation’s mission, hope, and strength, lie elsewhere.


Isaiah speaks about Jesus:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,

    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain

    and bore our suffering…

(Isaiah 53:2-4)


Why do we assume that the church that Christ created will look different from her master? There is a core process that the Gospel offers. It moves people from trauma (or sin), through transition (or salvation), to new life (or sanctification). Outward beauty has little to do with how a fellowship witnesses to this gift.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is easy to outline: It starts in the past, with praising God, then touches on the present which isn't going so well and needs prayer, then sings about the future (prophesy)

Part 1 -- past & praise

There is a good remembering of the past, and a bad one. The church spends most of its time doing bad remembering. Bad remembering includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Making the biblical era a special miraculous era, and not expecting God to be at work today
  • Making past people into heroes, and diminishing our expectations of ourselves as people of faith
  • Telling Bible and Church History stories in boring ways
  • Opening the Bible without expecting it to be relevant to today
  • Not doing the math to translate past sacrifices into current dollars and relevant actions

Years ago, I pastored a church that had a big building project to do. I looked up the contributions that the founding generation had made in 1906 to build the existing building. Then I multiplied this by inflation. It staggered the congregation to hear how much a similar sized group of their ancestors had given. 


Part 2: Present needs prayer.

Psalm 126 begins with a neat line. Those who experience God in present tense, are like “those who dream.” Obviously, the present for the writer of these verses was a nightmare. That didn't prevent them from dreaming of what god could do. It also didn't keep them from acting in the present. This Psalm talks about planting seeds. Sowing with the expectation that God bringing about the harvest. Verse 5 says that sometimes you sow those seeds with tears in your eyes. A man may go out with his precious seed bag with tears in his eyes, and spread his seed and wait, and wait, and wait and only much later comes the harvest and the rejoicing. Sometimes have to part with what you would have like to have kept for yourself.  For farmers in primitive places, the only way to plant a seeds, is to take some of the precious food that your family would have eaten and to take that wheat seed that your wife could have made into bread for today, and cast it out upon the field. In order to farm you have to be willing to give away what you would have like to have kept.  Sacrifice and seed planting, go hand in hand.


Part 3: Future -- Prophesy

What are your hopes for the future? Describe your dreams.


What are your dreams?
Pentecost 25
Why does honesty matter?

Recently, I attended a church where the pastor told a story that I suspect he got from a homiletics service. The problem was, he told the story in first person, i.e., “This is what happened to me.” He then proceeded to use the story to reinforce a theological point that I found questionable. I doubt that anyone else was as troubled by this as I was. First, because most people of that denomination are okay with the theology which I found questionable. Second, because the average church goer doesn’t expect their pastor to lie. Yes, I think saying that something happened to you when it didn’t, is a form of lying. 


Last year, we watched Brian Williams fall from being one of TV’s most respected newscasters. Why? Because the news is worthless to us if we don’t trust its source. The same can be said of the gospel. In fact, the whole business of church is heavily trust dependent. When we counsel a parishioner in our office, it is not our opinions or the accuracy of our facts that matters, but rather our prayers and our capacity to offer personal assurances, based upon our own struggles with life’s ambiguities. People need to trust that we are giving them an authentic response to what they have been vulnerable enough to share with us.


Right preaching and teaching is not about theological orthodoxy, but about sharing our personal experience of faith. We witness to the good news that we know. Church leadership and administration is not about being smart or respected, its about the trust the system places in us to ensure that all voices are heard, that all decisions are made by the appropriate process, and when conflicts come, that we have already earned the trust that enables us to act as a mediator.


Most pastors work hard to be entertaining in the pulpit. We can’t hit a home run every week. We should accept this fact and choose instead to be honest every week.

Mark 10:35-45
Psalm 8

I think we should pay attention whenever Jesus makes a direct comparison between how his people do things and the standard procedure of the rest of the world. In Mark 10:37, Jesus gets asked a simple question, “When you take over, who are you going to have as your right hand man (or woman)?” It’s the kind of question that we’ll be asking the 2016 field of presidential candidates when it gets winnowed down a bit more, “Who’s going to be your running mate, Jesus?” His two-part answer pleases no one.


Part 1: Jesus says that among his people, the person at the top of the organizational chart empties the trash and cleans the toilets. The first place person is servant to all. The pyramid of power is inverted. This is not a token performance, such as when the Pope washes the feet of a peasant on Maundy Thursday. This is a fundamental aspect of the church, all christian mission organizations, every committee, and even of our families and the places where we mix with those  outside the faith. The higher we go in a work environment, the more humble our attitude and approach to every decision must be. In politics and in our families, we are always mindful of the Psalm 8:2

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants

You have ordained strength…


Part 2: Jesus says that his title, Savior of the World, reaches its zenith when he is hung on the cross. So it is with every one who bears the mark of Christ, in those moments in life when we are sacrificed and living entirely for others, we are at His right hand. Life doesn’t have any greater honor than that of servant of all.

You can't have humility without service
Pentecost 24
How much do I have to pay for this pastor?

It’s fall, time to set the pastor’s salary. When I reflect back on my career, my most painful moments revolve around this ritual. In my first two situations, the compensation package was literally at the poverty level. I had to plead to get a few dollars above “minimum.” This was in spite of the fact that the churches were doing better than they had under my predecessor. If it wasn’t for the real needs of my family, I would have kept silent at the committee meetings where my salary was under discussion. It was hard to serve with love people who treated my livelihood like it was a negotiation at the used car lot.


In the mid-ranged churches of the middle portion of my career, I had some breathing room. I began to approach the fall salary negotiations as an educational opportunity. I now had a few small business owners and professionals on the key committees. I was able to demonstrate to them how consistent raises were essential to pastoral tenure. In the long run, its cheaper and safer to over-compensate the pastor that you know than to low-ball the salary and get someone new every three years.


This got me in trouble in 2001. An economic slump had hit community and the financial gurus at the church were adamant about imposing a wage freeze on all church employees. Coming off of a sabbatical, I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. But I did, because I had a youth director who was a new hire and the best person for the job. The board assumed that I was just fighting for my own salary, again. Within weeks, both the youth director and I were looking for other employment. The church did okay on the situation. The next pastor served them well, though repeated my experience of having dismal luck filling the youth director’s position. 


What advice can I give from all this? While I have learned a lot about human nature from three decades of salary negotiation, I haven’t learned how to succeed at it. You do what you need to do, but you don’t let it effect the way you minister to the people. It is the Gospel in practice, turn the other cheek and be thankful that it comes only once a year.

Mark 10:17-31

I sometimes tell people that the reason I am a writer today, is because I bought a computer in 1984 that had Spell Check installed. In grade school, I would get the weekly spelling test back with three or four out of the ten words marked wrong. As classes progressed and I was given essays and creative writing assignments, they would always come back with some variant of “nice story” or “interesting points” at the top, and then such a multitude of red marks and grammatical mistakes that the net grade barely passed. I didn’t know that I could write, until a mechanism allowed me to stop focusing upon the rules. In Mark 10:17-31, a rich young man comes to Jesus claiming to have kept all the rules. He is like the teacher’s pet at my grade school, a perfect speller. But something has brought him to Jesus. He knows that he is spiritually lost. He is like the novelist who writes a perfectly composed story, with each sentence grammatically correct, but fails to unfold a plot.


Many in the church are like this rich young man. They have kept all the rules, or at least enough of them to pass if you grade on the curve. But, they realize in their hearts that they have missed the path. Jesus says, “You are not far, you only lack one thing.” Most people in church today, only lack one thing. Often, as in the case of the rich young man, that one thing is compassion. By selling everything and giving to the poor, the rich young man would be set on a path where he saw his neighbor’s affliction as something he could and should do something about. I don’t think Jesus was testing him. He was saying, “here is the plot for the story of your life; live with generosity.”


For each of us, the step back to the right spiritual path is a small one. But, it is exactly the step that we find in our hearts to be the most difficult one to take. The challenge of finding meaning in life is like that. It is both easy and hard.

Jesus could see how close the man was to finding his path
Pentecost 23