Archive for August 2015

To be sustainable, churches must serve the community

It’s important not to get caught up in America’s current political polarization. There was a day in which Republicans were promoting the Fourteenth Amendment instead of seeking to get it repealed. Support of particular political candidates, movements, or parties, often gets the church coopted into simply providing the people to serve someone else’s agenda. 

    The goal of Christian education is to help people think like disciples. Disciples care about justice and the healing of our society. They expect political process to serve the needs of all people. We cannot afford to relinquish our  witness or our organizational strength. Today’s world demands reasonable leadership. With this in mind, our preaching, teaching, and mission work, should support sound public policy, even when opponents demand that we seperate church from state. Our focus is always on the capacity of all people, no matter what their current political stripe, to think with compassionate hearts.


  With this in mind, I seek to express my social concerns in non-partisan ways. As a matter of intellectual integrity, that is valuing reason over ideology or political expediency, I expect the candidates from both parties to present arguments aligned with the following assumptions:


  1. Science matters. Whether the issue is climate change, reproductive health, or the teaching of evolution in school, the best information that scientists can provide should appear in our public policy arguments. In today’s technology driven market place, we are no longer served by politicians who feign ignorance in order to pander to inefficient industries and popular opinion.
  2. Zero-sum game thinking is often unethical and rarely justified. Arguments relating to immigration reform, free-trade, affirmative action, affordable health insurance, etc., often become unconscionable when a speaker shouts that our country only has limited resources and that these need to be jealously guarded. In our history as a nation, has providing new opportunities to a disadvantage class of people (be they the poor, the disabled, the children of immigrants, people of color, or those who hold differing religious beliefs) ever taken away from our collective strength or endangered our productivity? Further, zero-sum game thinkers tend to downplay the ongoing problem of race and classism in our society. 
  3. Foreign policy should be focused on humanitarian concerns. Our goal should be to work collaboratively with other like-minded nations to reduce global violence, end hunger, improve literacy and infant mortality rates, guarantee the rights of women, children, and minorities, and address environmental concerns. Other interests only lead to unnecessary wars.


The above assumptions are neither liberal nor conservative, but rather are radical, taking us back to the Jeffersonian principles that began our nation. I would ask each candidate to affirm these principles. 

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  • Bill Kemp


Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The great physicist Richard Feynman once described what he and other scientists were doing this way: “[The Universe] is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules.” I think he was right, but his analogy scares me a bit. People who attempt to learn something, like chess or swimming or religion, often get fascinated with irrelevant customs and nonessentials. A child may think that it is impossible to learn to swim without a blue bathing suit or that chess (or science) is only played by boys. Further, if we were to describe chess to someone who has never seen it, we might mention that the pieces are black and white, that the opponents sit on opposite sides of the board, and that it is played by two humans. None of these things are required, and drawing a novice’s attention to petty rituals can interfere with their grasping the game’s brilliant simplicity. The same is true of religion.

Jesus says:
There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

The essential rules of religion involve creating and maintaining a heart of compassion and acting in loving ways. Not only is all ethics boiled down to the simple, and universal among world religions, command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but the very motivation for being religious relates to developing the inner core or soul that enables us to live by the Golden Rule.

Remember this the next time someone asks you why there are two candles on the altar.

Often our dogmatism origenates in a failure to ask questions
Pentecost 17
Goal setting can often exclude the more basic need to be compassionate

I have learned a spiritual rule: Whenever my expectations for others cause me to treat them in a less than compassionate way, something is wrong with my expectations. This rule needs to be consistently applied whenever we act as church leaders. Before turning something sticky, like staff management, consider the following examples:


You find yourself shaming your child because you want him to do his homework. Consider this, your true expectation should be that your child finds his path in life and accumulates the tools to live fruitfully and with compassion. Shamed people rarely establish healthy egos and develop to their fullest potential. You must adjust your expectations, so that your actions as a parent have a deeper motivation than just wanting your child be an “A” student.


I’m always yelling at telephone solicitors. I know this is wrong. They are human beings (when they aren’t recorded messages). My expectation that my morning be uninterrupted is interfering with my greater expectation, that I always treat all people well. Perhaps my pride in being a writer needing quiet is a false expectation.


Now consider the last time you reprehended a staff member. What expectations were you acting out of? Which ones should have been primary? Even when he displayed anger and cleaned the temple, Jesus acted on his higher expectations, i.e. that the Temple be a house of prayer for all people. Will your church become more of a place of peace and a home for prayer if you get your way on the this matter with your staff? Is is possible to tailor your expectations so that they do not cause others to be shamed or treated badly? Changing your expectations may change your temperament.

I Kings 8
Matthew 21:12-17

Do this: while you’re reading Solomon’s dedication prayer for the temple, take a can of Pledge and dust the altar rail. If your church doesn’t have one, take a few moments to complain about that fact (the architect must have been a pagan). Solomon admits that God doesn’t need an altar rail to be worshiped — in fact his great temple didn’t have one. Actually, his whole temple was an altar rail and the courts around it equivalent to the kneeling pads we place before our rail. In church language, people come to the altar during prayer time, even if they don’t leave their pew. Similarly, those living at a distance in Solomon’s day, lifted their hands towards Jerusalem and the Temple when they prayed.


Solomon admits that God is not limited in time and space the way we are, nor does he need a “house to dwell in.” This is a key developmental moment for religious thought, God is greater than the places we construct to honor him. But, we are geographical people —needing particular times and places to incorporate the sacred into our lives. Even couples who were married in a cabbage patch by a drunken sea captain, honor the particular day of the year that is their anniversary and speak of how they said their vows before God’s altar, such as it was. Even the most web savvy techies, use geographical constructs when they go online; having home-pages, ISP addresses, and browsers named Safari. Our worship of the omnipresent god, is diminished when we lose respect for sacred space, sacred time (sabbath), and the altar rail in particular.


Even though it’s two and a half to three millennium old, Solomon’s dedication prayer sounds very current and relevant to my ears. This is because the gap between human religion and eternal realities remains about the same. Solomon’s humility, when he admits that God doesn’t really need this Temple contrasts the bombastic attitude Herod and the Sadducees had about the Second Temple (Matthew 21:12-17  is a complimentary scripture to 1st Kings 8). Many of our church members evidence the same spiritual stupidity. 


Solomon, however, takes a great leap, and imagines the role the temple and its altar rail-like courts might play in the lives of foreigners. The temple he has built is a “house of prayer for all nations.” We too, need to catch Solomon’s vision. People today needs places they can go, and scheduled times they can trust, to say their prayers. They don’t need to have our same theology or ethnicity to be permitted to use our sacred space.

How can we encourage altar prayer?
Pentecost 16
Discernment deals with both dreams and reality

Bill: When a married United Methodist clergy is up for a change in appointment, how much consideration should be given to the spouse’s career?


Joe: Spousal employment is becoming more and more of a challenge to appointment making by cabinets.  It is just the way of the world these days.  I'm not sure there is any simple solution. We clergy persons need to remember that we can't have it all.  If we are committed to supporting our spouses' career path, we will have to make sacrifices and compromises in our ministry path.  On the other hand, if a couple is fully supportive of the value that the ministry must come first, then as a family we must be committed to be fully itinerant. 


Bill: Over the course of my ministry, I have seen three distinct eras relating to this issue. When I began, in the early 70s, none of the cabinet members or elder statesmen of the conference had working spouses. The cultural bias was that whatever the wife did outside the home was of little consequence. On the other hand, female clergy were always asked about their husband’s work. As the general culture shifted, the church lagged. The second era, which still holds sway in some regions, was to consider clergy spouses that volunteered in the church, or worked in a staff role, to be assets. These pastors were promoted, whereas, those whose spouses had significant secular careers were assigned to financially struggling congregations, with the explanation that priority had been given to providing a location near to the spouse’s employment.


Joe: Having it all isn’t a realistic option. There’s only so much that the cabinet can do as it tries to meet the expectations of both clergy and congregations.


Bill: But, our growing awareness of justice issues has ushered us into a third era. Today, conferences are developing tools to enable clergy families to list their priorities. It is inequitable for the cabinet to appoint a clergy couple in such a way that one is earning less than what they would earn if appointed separately. In a similar vein, it is wrong for a district superintendent to ‘sell’ a pastor to a church by saying that their spouse will play the organ for free. Further, a new ministry is unlikely to be fruitful if it begins with significant clergy family needs being unmet. But, in each of these cases, the unusual thing about the clergy person can be viewed as an asset, rather than as a barrier to full itineracy.


Joe: With a limited number of positions available each year, certain sacrifices need to be made. Honest dialogue in the off-season, before any particular appointment is being considered, enables pastors to clarify their priorities with the cabinet, and say what they are willing to give up in order to get what they need.


Bill: Both clergy persons and congregational situations are becoming increasingly diverse. If appointments continue to be made in the old, paternalistic, way, where a group met in secret to determine what was best for the churches and clergy persons on the table, then United Methodism will become untenable. If however, new forums are developed for both clergy person and congregations to discern the difference between need and want, priority and like-to-have, missional and optional, then there is hope for progress in this third era.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
United Methodist Church
I Kings 3, Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20

Today if you want to know something, you Google-it. Works for discovering the lyrics to the song in your head, knowing how to tell if your pomegranate is ripe, and for looking up the population of Canton, Ohio. Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia dispense a lot of useful knowledge — people even buy smart-phones so as to never have this wealth out of reach — but, where is wisdom? What is Wisdom? People should hear about wisdom in church often, because it is our business. Internet-based information sites out perform bricks and mortar religious institutions when it comes to answering peoples’ questions. What keeps us competitive, is our claim that we can help people live better and live with an assurance about eternal realities.


It hits me that many of my most life changing moments, occurred in small, Christian, fellowship groups. The foundation of today’s church is a variety of small group experiences where wisdom is shared prayerfully, in relevant and personal ways. Lions may suffer want, but those who seek the Lord — and attend Sunday School — lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). What needs to be said, is that the message of wisdom is best transferred in the medium of face to face contact.


There is a value statement being made in the many scriptures dealing with wisdom. It is possible to be smart and clever and successful in this world and be woefully spiritually bankrupt. Those who fulfill the world’s lust for bobble-headed insights, garner the most twitter followers. Those who wrestle with life’s inequities and seek to live with compassion and wisdom, find sweeter fruit.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise…

- Ephesians 5:15

Lions represent the powerful of today's information economy
Pentecost 15
Is this attitude permanent?

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years. Plus, giving is down and an anonymous parishioner has sent you another message complaining about your sermons. What do you do when you get to one of these “I’m at the end of my rope” periods?


Bill’s response: I always put these stories in the context of what is happening to the church in America today. Two funerals may be bad news for your calendar and the church’s membership role, but funerals are our most consistent form of evangelism. Every funeral gives you a chance to share deep spiritual truths with dozens of people, many of whom rarely attend church. This is “low hanging fruit.” Rejoice!

    Every pastor is plagued by building issues. Our task is to remind ourselves and others of two truths; first, that church buildings aren’t meant to be perfect or lovable, they are meant to be functional. Second, these structures are tools for ministry, caring for them is a spiritual task. All of our ministry tools need to be sharpened, maintained, and, when they no longer serve the church’s mission, replaced. The same thing is true of long-term staff. The bad news is that staying on target is expensive, and the worse news is, offering real leadership today is often controversial. You must be willing to post transparent budgets, receive professional assessments of structural issues, be honest in reporting attendance figures, and clear in stating shared expectations. These things separate the okay clergy, from the great ones. They should cause us to raise the bar on our own plans for professional growth.

    When people are critical, its hard not to take it personally. Often, there are underlying church issues that haven’t been adequately dealt with. You may have stepped on a land mine. Now are you willing to dig up the other buried problems and make this church a better place? Your job is to educate and gently lead your people through today’s theological and cultural shifts. This task will be quickly derailed if you adopt a defensive or authoritarian attitude. Further, today’s culture also expects you to be willing to receive feedback on your sermons. 

    Each of the components of a bad week are indicative of the problem ministers face everywhere. Still, these negative experiences may lead you to question whether you are due for a move. 


Joe: We all go through occasional rough stretches.  If we truly believe that things will likely get better soon, it’s possible to maintain a positive attitude. But what if it’s more than just this week? It may be months since you caught a serious break. You feel tired, fed-up, and discouraged. This is when the thought continues to creep into your mind, “Is it really worth it for me to keep grinding it out here?”


Bill: I think it is important that we reflect upon why we feel burned out. Is it related to our failure to manage our time well and to fulfill the expectations people have of us? A simple change in ministry locations is unlikely to fix this. Or is it instead, that this church is requiring of us new skills and we are struggling to develop these tools? I often say that Bradford was my favorite church to serve, because when I arrived, it was ready for the skills that I already had in my tool box. My next appointment was more of a challenge. I felt less productive there, but I learned more. God seems to believe in on the job training. Burnout can also be a sign that we have accomplished or learned what we needed, and now it’s time to move on.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
John 6:35-51

In John 6, Jesus causes a scandal by claiming to be the bread of life. The word bread itself is problematic today; many people are on gluten-free or low carb diets. This leads to three sticking points around Jesus and bread.

  1. Is Jesus a fad, like the latest diet, which one can join or dismiss? Many at the time of Jesus saw him dangerous cult leader, a magician who was leading the gullible away. Even today, the critics of Christianity liken Jesus’ popularity with the snake-oil dealers and tele-evangelists that grip popular imagination, for a time, and then are shown to be frauds. Is Jesus optional? Is he a choice one makes, like to go on a diet or to back a certain political candidate?
  2. By doing the miracle where he provided bread to feed a multitude, Jesus was inviting comparisons between himself and Moses. The religious leaders and the establishment, loved Moses. They were also, extremely territorial. Since Moses was long gone, they could interpret him in ways that supported their position of power. Moses, not like Jesus, would never act with compassion and show them to be frauds.
  3. Jesus scandalized them by saying ‘eat my flesh, like bread, and you shall live forever.’ This sounded like an invitation to cannibalism. The promise of eternal life, was even more difficult. Today, many downplay this pivotal component of Jesus’ message. Many preachers only mention it at Easter and funerals, if then.

A three point message could be arranged as follows:

  1. Jesus is meant, like bread or some other gluten-free modern example, to be a daily and essential component of our lives.
  2. By both his teachings and actions, Jesus leads us to live lives of compassion.
  3. Eternal life is assured. Live with heaven in mind and Jesus internalized.
Traditional Navajo home, bread is made each day in ovens
Pentecost 14