Archive for March 2015

Pastor's need a two minute drill prepared before they get the call to move

Football players learn something called the Two Minute Drill. This is a package of plays for the two minutes before halftime and the final possession of the game. These are the game’s most valuable seconds. United Methodist clergy need a similar package of plays for the days that follow a call from a cabinet member concerning a new appointment. If you don’t have a personal action plan prepared, it’s easy to feel out of control in this hustle-to-move-the-ball time.

    When your District Superintendent says, “I need your decision by…” remember that it could be worse. Just a generation ago, bishops and cabinets met during the week of Annual Conference and worked out all of the pastoral appointments behind closed doors. These were read, often without forewarning, on the last day of the Conference. Even today, some appointments get sealed without real consultation or time for negotiation. Until the phone rings, it is impossible to predict how much time and latitude will be afforded to your part of the decision.

    Your personal package of plays, then, begins with an intentional remembrance that you are a man or woman of God. The circumstances of the next few months will not change this in any way. Your decision to remember this one fact must color every conversation and undergird every choice. Faith, not fear or selfish career concerns, needs to guide how you share this process with your loved ones. Wisdom needs guide you, both as you seek advice from others and as you verbalize your feelings. Deep, persevering prayer for discernment from the Lord is and must always be integral in your decision making process. I am convinced that pastoral changes made without real prayer (and here I speak to both clergy and cabinets) are often bad appointments. The Spirit of God belongs in the process. Prayer should be the “alpha and the omega,” the beginning and the end, in our appointment decisions. Decide before the phone rings, how you will pray and who will be your trusted prayer partners.

    The second component of your two-minute drill, needs to be a tool for evaluating the role you and your family will have in the actual making of the decision. Is this appointment is a “done deal,” or an opportunity that you can decline without consequence? How you frame this question depends upon your relationship with the cabinet and bishop. Has this move been initiated by you, your current church, the cabinet, or some mixture of all three? If you don’t know or you aren’t sure how relevant this backstory is, you need to ask. Consider the following ways to broach this subject:

    “Before I pray about this, I’d like to be clear as to whether I have the option to stay here if the appointment doesn’t feel right.”

or    “I understand that it is important for me the move on from… if I, or my spouse, discern a problem with this new appointment, will the cabinet be open to reconsidering and offering a different place?”

    However you word the above question, your intent is not to prejudge the new appointment. In fact, getting clarity regarding timing of this appointment and your latitude in the decision before you have looked at what is being offered is meant to establish you as a team player. What you need is additional insight into the state of the cabinet. Are they heavily invested in making this move happen? Do they have only a few, or no, other places to put you? How is your move part of the big picture? Is this move part of an effort by the conference to address some external issue, such as, salary inequity, diversity, or the creation of opportunities for younger clergy? Clarity here will allow you to develop your own role in the decision making process.

    Often the window for your decision is short; a few days, or even twenty-four hours is not uncommon.  Therefore, besides praying mightily you must be prepared to gather as much meaningful information as you can so as to make a decision that will be a good one.

    If the appointment under consideration is within your present district, the superintendent should be able to offer pieces of relevant information over the phone.  If not, always request to speak with the DS within whose district the prospective appointment is located.  They will usually be able to give more information about the charge than your DS will.  Here are some potential topics that you may want to cover in the initial phone call:

    Share honestly where you were in terms of any move this year. Do you have a family concern, such as having a child about to graduate from high school, could make the prospect of any move, not just this particular move, challenging? Is there unfinished work at your current appointment that might influence your decision?  Sometimes out of expediency cabinets ask pastors of short tenure to think about moving.  I have witnessed this many times. You are the only one who can responsibly stand up and say, “I’m honored, but no thanks.”

Ask for a general description of the charge. Is it urban, suburban, town, or rural? Is it a community in transition — one where the church lay leaders may be out of touch with demographics of the neighborhood? 

Ask how has the ministry of the church been going recently? Push to learn the things that the statistical report can’t tell. What are the church/charge’s strengths?  Where has this congregation struggled in the last few years? What history needs to be known? 

The DS may not be able to answer these questions, but they at least should be able to name the gifts and skills in your ministry tool kit that made the cabinet choose you for this situation. This is not the time to set your record straight, but to get insight into the dynamics of this appointment. 

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be accumulating an image of how your approach to ministry and skill toolbox differs from the church’s current pastor. At your initial interview with the PPRC you will be sharing part of this assessment and checking it for accuracy. The emphasis here is the fact that neither of you wish to be unpleasantly surprised during the transition. If there are unreasonable expectations, they need to be talked about early in the process.

[This is an excerpt from chapter two of The Guide for Clergy in Transition book that Bill Kemp and Joe Fort (Texas Conference) are writing. Expected publication date, January 2016 - other sample chapters may be found at ]

additional author: 
Joe Fort
Mark 11:1-11

There a number of movies and plays that provide a false ending. Into the Woods, has four interwoven plot lines that seem to be resolved just before the intermission. Then the curtain comes up on Act two and everyone finds another reason to go into the woods and face even greater dangers. Palm Sunday is the same way. We see Jesus come into Jerusalem and be honored as the Messiah, no longer hidden away in the backwoods hillsides of Galilee. He gets to teach in the temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, deceive us into thinking that Jesus has passed the finish line of his race. If this were a book, I’d look at the remaining pages and wonder why they were there.


John’s Gospel uses the false ending of Palm Sunday to link two different books about Jesus; the first book tells seven miracles, beginning with the Wedding of Cana and concluding with the raising of Lazarus. Each miracle, or sign, separates Jesus further from our expectations of a “normal” religious leader. The seeds of Jesus own death, portrayed in the second book, are sown in the new life he gives to Lazarus just outside the city gates. John has Jesus get anointed for burial in Bethany, then asks us, do you want to go with him into Jerusalem?


Most people don’t bother to read further. They know that Jesus is a great teacher, so they expect his teachings in Jerusalem won’t be a problem. Lent has been a tough slog through winter, but hey, it’s spring now. Yes, Judas does betray Jesus. But, it all gets fixed, and it’s a short hop between Palm Sunday and Easter. Nothing good comes from this abbreviated Christianity. It is better not to know the story of Jesus at all.


Our Lenten journey begins again on Palm Sunday. We cover less territory, its only a few miles back and forth to Bethany, but travel much deeper into the human soul and God’s transformative grace. Before Palm Sunday, the Gospels give us a bunch of short stories about Jesus, that can be read piecemeal and dealt with in fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning. After coming with Jesus into Jerusalem, we are caught in a continuous narrative that has no easy stopping points. The passion story is like a pregnancy — it can’t be shoe horned into an otherwise full life.

We enter a dark wood on Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday
Reality Check 101 uses four suits of cards to explain competing visions

What is the one thing your local church is uniquely called and equipped to do in your context? You may expect a variety of answers to this question, but they all boil down to four visions or unique callings:

    1) A church may be called to care for its members and buildings

    2) A church may be called to share Christ with the next generation

    3) A church may be called to give itself in love and service to those in need

    4) A church may be called to be the best quality church in the region

These four visions are presented in detail in my Reality Check 101 workbook. But, what if the leaders of your church are evenly split between two visions?  Church conflict often has a vision or a “this should be our one priority” aspect to it. I am currently consulting with a congregation that is evenly split between sharing Christ with the next generation (#2 or Clubs) and giving themselves in love and service to those in need (#3 or Hearts). My advice is:


1st — The competing parties need to realize how much they need each other. If they choose to make serving those in need their church’s one priority, they will need some leaders from the other party to shape their mission to the next generation.  If they choose instead to prioritize evangelizing young adults, they will need people who have a service mindset, because the postmodern generation is very mission oriented.


2nd — It is possible for a church to equally share their efforts between these two visions, but very few are successful in juggling two priorities equally. The problem may lie in the fact that they need very different pastoral leadership for the two visions.  

 + Service focused churches need a pastor who can keep the home-fires burning and provide a stable worship environment for people to recharge before going out to serve. Their pastor needs to be both good at pastoral care and administration. The pastor’s job is to keep people working together and express appreciation for everyone’s pet mission project. They don’t have to do the mission work, they instead help each person find where they are called to serve.

+  Evangelizing the next generation churches need pastors who spend a lot of hours outside the church walls. These pastors listen to what unchurched people are saying about their spiritual needs. They are like investigative reporters, explaining to their members how those outside the church see the world. They have a passion to evangelize. They work best in churches that already have a good administrative structure and can function with a pastor who thinks (and lives) outside the box.


3rd — When a church shifts from having mixed visions to having just one vision, it needs to undergo a period of transition. If they are called to be in service to their community, then they need to train their pastor to provide the worship experience that recharges their batteries. They need to come to trust his or her administrative and pastoral skills. Further, they need to study stewardship and missiology and learn how these concepts are relevant to today’s church. This may take some time. 

  If they are choosing the path of evangelizing the next generation, they will need to develop lay-lead administrative and pastoral care. They will need to transition their expectations of their pastor, freeing him or her to be an evangelist. This also, will take some time, and the process should begin before a new pastor is called.


Shifting priorities requires preparation. Consensus needs to be built. The new vision communicated clearly and people given a chance air their concerns. Most importantly, care must be taken to involve and express appreciation to those people who were championing the vision that wasn’t chosen.

The Three Stooges remind us not to be ignoramuses

As mentioned before, HBO’s Bill Maher has laid down a challenge to all Christian Ministers. He states that our religion creates an urgent problem, namely sin, and then sells a solution, salvation and/or the regular support of the institutional church (see He compares today’s ministers to an episode of The Three Stooges, where the guys have an extermination business. Moe, Larry, and Curly are seen planting mice and bugs in the homes that they hope to sell their services to. Maher implies that Christianity has planted the glitch of guilt into our nation’s collective conscience. Personally, I don’t think organized religion is that organized anymore.


Perhaps we are like The Three Stooges, but not in the way Maher says. I remember the guys getting themselves in trouble in each episode by selling themselves as experts in something they know nothing about. Whether it was pest control, painting, or laying brick, The Three Stooges were ignoramuses. There is similarly, a great danger when we pass ourselves off as religious leaders and understand little about human psychology or the mysterious ways of God. This is precisely the context of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John Chapter 3.


I am amazed by how few of my colleagues understand family systems theory or attempt to apply it to their church. How do you defuse congregational conflict if you don’t know the consensus building tools behind Getting to Yes? Do Jungian archetypes inform the narrative arc of your sermons? What about Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More? (Remember H.E. Fosdick’s belief that the pulpit should be used for personal counseling on a large scale?) As Jesus tells Nicodemus, the ugliness of the human psychic condition can be symbolized as a rattle snake on a pole. Those who look upon that snake will find healing for their inner traumas (John 3:14).


Nicodemus was running for Bishop in 32 AD, but he had little grasp of the grace of God. His theology lacked mystery. He focused on what could be said in legal phrases and declarative sentences. He would have no trouble with the Apostles’ Creed or the 39 Fundamentals. He had a problem with Jesus describing the Holy Spirit as being like the wind. He had a problem with the impossible; Christianity deals with the miraculous rebirth of individuals by the saving power of God. The gaps in his personal theological experience made Nicodemus as ineffective as Moe, Curly, or Larry in matters of religion. When will Jesus teach us how to pray?

John 3:1-21

This past week (3/6/2015), HBO’s political commentator/comedian, Bill Maher, spoke about salvation in this way:  “Take any religion, let’s say, Christianity. First they invent a problem, like sin. Then they sell you a solution [getting saved].”*  This was in the context of Bill and his guest, Lawrence Wright, discussing Scientology, a religion that certainly has a questionable marketing strategy. But, before we laugh with Bill and Larry, we ought to ask how Christianity is different.

    My gut level response is with an image. Jesus on the hillsides of Palestine, healing the multitudes. People didn’t come because Jesus had primed them with an imaginary affliction. Jesus did the opposite of bait and switch. People came to satisfy curiosity. They left with a a free healing of some critical component of their complex spiritual/physical-life-journey. This is religion at its core, identifying the particular hollow part of an individual’s soul and helping that need be resolved. What each person needs from their religion is different. Most of us have a hard time verbalizing where we hurt. Theological concepts like sin, shame, guilt, grace, and salvation, are designed to help.

    No legitimate religion sells a problem and then offers a solution. Mr Maher challenges us to do some real apologetics. How is my daily work, as a Christian leader, more like Jesus and less like the boogey man that he presents as the face of Christianity? Bill Maher deserves our respect — he has greater name recognition that Bonhoeffer, Bart, and Charles Schultz (the creator of Peanuts), combined.

    Jesus might respond to Maher’s HBO show with; “You have heard it said, but, I say to you…” He would recognize that many people have had a bad experience of our religion. Then he would following up with a parable demonstrating radical love and forgiveness. For Jesus, God doesn’t need to be marketed or encased in shrink-wrap plastic. God’s grace and love are meant to be freely offered to all. The Spirit blows where it wills, not where the money is.

    With this in mind, it is interesting to eavesdrop on Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:1-21.  More on this in my next blog: Nocodemus and the Three Stooges (3/12/2015).

Sharp critics help us to define our faith
Lent 4
We move from ashes to fire

    In the United Methodist Church, decisions to move a clergy person from one church to another are usually made during Lent. This habit has many practical advantages, and one glaring fault. It disrupts the key spiritual process of Christian life. Lent is the process of moving from ashes to fire. We do it in our personal lives, as we embrace the fact of our mortality on ash Wednesday, follow Jesus to the cross, experience grace on a gut level, carry his body to the tomb, have our hope renewed by miracle, then rediscover the ways we are each called to utilize the fire of Pentecost. Without the yearly repetition of this pilgrimage, all that we know about faith is gibberish. The local church, as a human organization, risks becoming a petty social club if it abbreviates this season. The Bishop and cabinet become ineffective whenever they focus more upon their own power to change things than upon the power that stirs the collective heart of Methodism in this period of the year.

    I’m not advocating that we disband the practice of working on new clergy-church matches in the spring. We just need to be aware that our move from place to place isn’t the biggest show in town. Further, if you are planning to move to a new parish, redouble your prayer life and practice of the rituals related to Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Set aside personal time for fasting, journaling, a short retreat, labyrinth walking, etc.; with a focus on:


    1.    Where am I right now in terms of my relationship with God, my loved ones, and my own soul? Is burnout sapping the energy from my essential relationships? Am I still enthusiastic about my calling into ministry? 

    2.    Is there affirmation of this move (or my desire to move) from those that I trust? How would I rate my relationship with the denominational authorities involved with this change? Is my faith leading me to be more isolated or more connected?

    3.    What am I, and those in my household, being asked to let go of? Are my hands, and the hearts of those with me, open to receiving something new and unexpected? How do we deal with our grief and our fears? Note that anxiety, grief, and fear, are three separate emotions and will involve differing paths for each person as they head towards acceptance. 


Remember that Lent itself is a transitional process. Like many spiritual things, the journey is as important as the destination.

John 2:13-22

Why do I like Caravaggio better than Carracci? Two paintings, both about 1600, by Italian artists.  Annibale Carracci paints the Virgin mourning over Christ for the altar piece in Naples. Here, Mary represents the church, her extended hand inviting us to grasp her role in the passion story. She is serene, wise, and still. Jesus lays on her, like some waxen Adonis, perfect and inert. There are cherubs darting around the stonework, adding a little religious froufrou. I hate this painting.


Jesus goes into the temple and, as John chapter two tells us, gets rid of the cherubs. He doesn’t need a church that is full of holy froufrou. His disciples will gather people together, in simple buildings and homes, for prayer, study, and worship. They will relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires. They won’t need an altar paintings where the Church looks serene, wise, and distant from the world. The also won’t need goats, money changers, and fifty-fifty raffles to pay the heating bill.


Caravaggio paints a picture of the post-modern church.  A small intimate circle gathered for an intense learning experience. Thomas sticks his finger into a new reality. Christ crucified, but alive. Death present, but life triumphant. The Jesus of this painting is the one who went from village to village bringing healing to people. He touched the body of those who were wounded. He allowed his own wounds to be seen. Transparency and vulnerability marked his every movement. He ducks inside the great Temple in Jerusalem and what he experiences there makes him angry. He is not the inert, waxen, form, laying on Mary’s lap.


Caravaggio paints us a picture about relationships. Four men gathered in close, loving each other in a way that is seldom experienced on this earth. Thomas is loved by Jesus, even though his theology needs some correction. Peter hovers over Jesus, his bald head wrinkled as he attempts to understand. And we, the viewer of this painting, are invited into this loving circle. Bring your doubts, bring your sins, bring your broken lives needing to be healed.

Lent 3