Archive for August 2014

Small Churches are like crop dusting planes

Every good, or should I say, surviving pilot watches their altimeter. The very definition of flying involves being above the ground, and the very definition of being a church involves having a number of people in the pew. In an airplane, the number of feet above sea level is a statistic, a number which we are glad someone is watching. In the church, the number of people actively in worship, is also an important statistic. Some airplanes have a smaller gauge beside the altimeter labeled “rate of climb” (it also measures how fast you are falling). Churches, especially small churches, need to be aware of how quickly they are gaining or losing worshipers.


But, what is important is not just absolute altitude, but the altitude relative to the terrain. 10,000 feet seems like a safe cruising height, unless you are flying over the Andes. How many people are enough people? Well that depends upon where you are being a church. Every church has a context and that context determines the number of people who are needed to be in worship in order for that church to fly. 


If that church is ministering in the context of a growing suburb with rising home values, then that number is likely to be quite high. Why? The people of that upwardly mobile setting will tend to place a high value on quality music, ministerial credentials, as well as, upon the church’s appearance. When the choir is a few struggling voices, and the preacher looks homespun, and the building lacks functioning air-conditioning, these same neighbors people who by-pass the dollar store, will by-pass the church. 


Not every congregation is located in an upwardly mobile suburban context. Some are in rural contexts that high altitude churches can’t fly. A congregation in a prison or nursing home only needs two or three worshipers. Ultra small churches are like crop dusting planes. They are used to low altitudes and small worship attendances. Worship statistics always need to be viewed in context.


This is a good time to explain the name of God. It’s a pun. God will be who he will be. Like particles in quantum physics, he will appear as necessary, according to his own mysterious laws, in the midst of the situation. On the flip side of the pun, he has always been the unchanging one. This is a good time to say nothing. I follow the Hebrew convention of not uttering the name.  


If we speak of anything, we should point out how God’s name criticizes conservatives and liberals equally. In fact, we should share how Exodus 3:14 speaks against our own cherished belief system. 


If we are liberal, we should admit that our God is a jealous god. He brings his people out into the wilderness to purify them. He gives them ten commandments, the first of which forbids them from choosing their religious beliefs ale carte. No matter how modern we get, we can never forget that we deal with a particular Holy One, who calls us to be holy. Situation Ethics is a slippery downward slope. The one with whom we have to deal, does not change.


If we are conservative, we should admit that our God is always about becoming what the next generation needs. The God of Exodus allows the traditionally minded elders die in the wilderness. Miriam takes up a tambourine and dances to contemporary Christian music. I suspect that Joshua and Caleb used powerpoint to tell about their mission trip to spy out the promised land. Too often, church leaders lack the courage to follow the mysterious one who is our God, out of their enslavement to the past.

Moses before the burning bush
How do you design a better bomber, or a better church?

In WWII, allied airplane manufacturers used to send their design engineers to the runways to examine the wounded planes which limped back after action. Often a bomber would have a gapping hole in its wing or fuselage or even an entire section of its tail missing. The engineers would carefully note where each of these damages were, and then go back and design reinforcements for future aircraft. This is similar to the process that good church leaders use when evaluating programs and designing the church for change.


The counterintuitive trick, though, was that they did not reinforce where they had seen damage, but rather where the planes were untouched. The logic was that the all the planes they looked at were survivors, who in spite of their extensive damage, made it back because they had not been hit in a vital spot. One can assume that the planes that didn’t make it back were hit in other places. Those other places are what need reinforcement. By reinforcing where the surviving planes were untouched, the designers were taking into account the silent witness of those planes which didn’t make it back because they were mortally wounded. So the counter-intuitive rule was, “fix what you don’t see broken, because what you do see broken isn’t vital.


Innovative church leaders are always trying to fix what isn’t broken.


This past week, I heard a pastor invite his 8:15 congregation to stay after worship and give feedback on the service. The church leadership was trying to decide what needed done with this time-slot. The problem was, they were seeking input from those who already utilized the service. If they want to save new souls, they need to ask those who don’t attend. The people who are choose this service like its time, music, and casual feel. If they have any complaints, it will be about things that don’t prevent others from coming. Don’t poll the survivors, poll the lost.

Exodus 1:8-2:10

If your life or your congregation is in transition, you would do well to study the Exodus cycle that runs through the fall season of the Common Lectionary. As a story teller, I’m mindful of the four parts of a good plot-line: 1) Character introduction, 2) Conflict, 3) Development, and 4) Resolution. At the end of Genesis, we are introduced to Joseph and Jacob/Israel. We are also given insights into the motivations and Character of God’s people (through Joseph’s brothers) and of their Egyptian hosts. Exodus throws us into the conflict between an immigrant people and their fearful neighbors. A break occurs. The answer God provides is a transitional process where Israel recovers identity and acquires the tools they need to overcome life’s adversities, while in the wilderness. The Thanksgiving Celebration of Deuteronomy 26 (the Lectionary misses this by a few chapters) and the entry into the promised land concludes the cycle. 


Exodus begins with a Pharaoh who forgets. Santayana had only half the story when he said that a people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. The truth is, a people cannot progress spiritually until the come to grips with their history. Both slave and master are subject to irresolvable conflict and internal loss of soul, until they remember who they are and how life has brought them to this place. Transitional process always begins with a look in the rearview mirror.


This is critical. The key word of the Passover/Communion ritual is ‘remember.’ If you say, the Exodus story isn’t your story, but instead, happened to other people back then, then you are not a member of the people of Israel. Communion becomes a meaningless ritual when it is disconnected from our personal experience of the passion story. The new Pharaoh forgets that the arrival Joseph’s people saved his nation.


So, we see the US Congress fearing to enact new immigration policy. Why? Is it that we have forgotten our personal history as an immigrant people?


The current movie, The Giver, highlights a people’s need for remembrance. Segregating history to the purview of a few academics, or to one “Giver,” always leads to loss of spirituality. Color drains away from a people focuses on avoiding reality. We should welcome conflict, diversity, and connection with the outside world.


The story of Moses in the bullrushes follows the four part rule for a good plot-line. The characters of a forgetful Pharaoh, a resourceful people, and prophetic hero (Moses) are introduced. The conflict is presented, involving a government which does foolish things out of fear.  It is developed through women who rebel and take risks for the life of their people. It is resolved with the prophetic hero being lifted from the water and taken into the heart of the Pharaoh’s family. When you tell this story, say, “This is my story. I am Pharaoh, Miriam, and Moses.”

What does this movie have in common with Exodus?
Pentecost 16
Standardized tests and Clergy Metrics have a lot in common

All across our country, school districts are in an uproar over metrics. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, they are short 200 teachers for this week’s first day of school. Why? Because the state has adopted a Metrics system which evaluates teachers on the performance of their students in standardized tests. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church should observe this mess before we wade deeper into using metrics (statistics, such as the change in church attendance) to evaluate pastoral performance. 


I don’t have a problem with accountability. I have a problem with lazy metrics. In an ideal world, supervisory personnel would frequently visit each classroom and observe teachers first hand. Testing would only be done as an aide to the student, as they seek master the material. Teamwork would be encouraged, not replaced by metrics driven competition. Recognizing the flaws of lazy metrics, some professions are investing in evaluative systems based on peer review. Current advances in sociology and organizational theory are pointing the way towards accountability processes which develop the passions that are latent in all good teachers and preachers. 


The United Methodist Church desperately needs to recover its call to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Keeping the main thing, the main thing (that is, the love of Christ), is likely to become more difficult if we continue down the metric road. Pastors will fight to be placed in situations where numerical growth is easy. They will, like some teachers, give up on the Gospel and learn to teach to the test.


The driving passion of the Wesleyan movement in post-colonial America, was reaching marginalized people and providing them with Christian fellowship, the sacraments, and social healing. The question wasn’t, how do we get more members, but how do we address the particular needs of the people in this particular community. Wesley’s metrics weren’t helped by his tendency to stand by the coal mines as the shifts were changing and preach to the miners filing by.


To be fair, the current public education system in New Mexico is broken. The legislators and governor needed to do something. I wish, they could have had the resources and courage not to do the lazy thing. The cycle of poverty in New Mexico, and in other states, needs to be addressed using the best methods available. Community development and parental participation need to be addressed.


The thing is, we are in a better place to do the right thing in the United Methodist Church. Transitional process needs to be taught. Pastoral accountability needs to be based on teamwork and involvement in the community. Peer review needs to replace metrics. Supervisors need to supervise proactively with compassion, not simply wave sticks and carrots. Most of all, the task of sharing the Gospel needs to be made central.

United Methodist Church
We must love those who depend upon us

Someone has said that life isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an adventure to be lived. One can extend this concept to ones personal relationships. My spouse, and how we live together, isn’t a problem to be solved. My spouse is a blessing to be loved. Our children and the people who depend upon my nuture, aren't problems to be solved. My church isn’t a problem for my denominational leader to solve. Even if the church decides to burn me at the stake and renege on their mission share (denominational apportionments). They are a congregation of Christians, who deserve support as they form a nurturing fellowship that works for them, require the sacraments, and should be respected for their missional vision. So, I ask the question, “Does my district superintendent (denominational overseer) love my church?”


Jesus taught us to love our neighbors. He said this in a time in which neighbors depended upon each other. There wasn’t a police force in the villages of first century Galilee. We are called to love those who depend upon us. This means our spouse, our children and close relations, our friends, and those we are personally responsible for at work. We are not called to think of them as problems to be solved. In fact, relationships can either be founded on love or founded on contractional obligations. The contractor who fixes my roof, isn’t obligated to love my house or my family. The roof is a problem for him to solve. He can’t be a lover and a contractor.


Jesus connects Christian service with loving ones neighbor. He says this in front of the religious leaders of his day. The Palestinian people depended upon them for spiritual guidance. But, the leaders saw the peasants of Galilee as a problem. They didn’t love these people. Jesus tries to clarify this love of neighbor issue, by speaking about a Good Samaritan. The priest and the levite saw the broken man as a problem that interrupted their important work. But the Samaritan, had compassion (Luke 10:33). The Samaritan saw the beaten man as someone who depended upon him. This made the stranger his neighbor. He loved his neighbor. So, I ask the question, “Does my district superintendent (denominational overseer) love my church?”


Looking back over the various District Superintendents I’ve had, I made an interesting discovery. Many didn’t love the church I was pastoring. They approached every interchange with the people of my congregation as if it were a problem to be solved. They emphasized the importance of tough leadership. I enjoyed their business savvy and felt supported as I shared my issues with them. 


I had one District Superintendent, whom I considered to be totally incompetent. I would go to him with the problems I was having with the people, and he would ask, “How is so and so, doing?” He refused to see the people as a problem. He had a big heart. Charge Conferences (annual meetings) with him, were like old home week. It has taken me twenty years to realize that he was the he was one of the best District Superintendents I ever had.


What is it about Love?

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

They drive you crazy and yet you can’t get rid of them. The Abraham to Joseph story cycle (Genesis 12 through 50), makes you wonder if God made a point of choosing the most dysfunctional family in the Middle East. Perhaps we are meant to be assured that having insanity practically gallop (see Arsenic and Old Lace) through your intimate relationships will not disqualify you from being God’s people. What is it about family?


One thing to start with: the theme of a family’s particular difficulties tends to be repeated from generation to generation. The only way to break the cycle is to do what Joseph did at the end of Genesis; confront, bring out into the open, and then forgive. Family systems work often begins with drawing a genogram (see John Bradshaw, Family Secrets) so that the broken relationships of the family can be shown repeating from generation to generation.


We don’t know about the family systems that Abraham and Sarah came from. Even after accepting God’s plan for their lives, they acted in a sinful way, breaking the brotherly relationship that Ismael and Isaac were meant to have. Some see the story of Sarah’s hatred of Ishmael as foreshadowing the animosity that underlays today’s Moslem-Jewish conflict in the Middle East. To me, the more interesting thing to speculate on is how the banishment of Ishmael became a family secret that permeates the rest of the Old Testament.


Isaac becomes father of Jacob and Esau, twins who are born fighting. Instead of working with these two wayward boys, so that they understand that they are both loved and encouraged to be different from each other, Rebecca and Isaac take sides and polarize the family home. The animosity builds until Jacob is banished from the promised land.


The lectionary skips over the complex and powerful soap opera of Jacob’s blended family. A second thing that we might want to say, is that relational skills are teachable. We need to talk about how raising children from different parents in the same home, or having children raised in multiple homes due to divorce, requires an additional skill set. The church should stand ready to help the modern family find its way with integrity, mutual respect, and sacrificial love. 


In today’s passage (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28), the older brothers are out grazing the sheep past Dothan because it is a long ways from home. They have decided that the best way to deal with their dysfunctional family is to stay far, far, away.  Like many in your church, escape (or self-banishment) is the least emotionally traumatic course. Family system problems get repeated until someone has the courage to confront, bring out into the open, and then forgive. In this story, Joseph gets banished to Egypt where he faces a choice: he can die in self-pity and anger over how rotten his family has been to him, or he can embrace the dream of reconciliation.

A Genogram helps family systems counselors visualize multi-generational conflict
Pentecost 14