{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Read the Gospel of Mark in a Year (A 52-week reading plan)

One of the emphases of my annual conference in South Georgia is to have people gather to read one of the gospels in a year. Besides the fact that it’s a conference initiative, reading Scripture is also a means of grace. John Wesley taught that the means of grace were works of mercy as well as works of piety (or spiritual disciplines). He describes those disciplines as: “… prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.” And as pastor, one of the crucial tasks of my job is to do what I can to put people into contact with the means of grace that they may grow in their love for God and their neighbors.

Below you will find a 52-week reading plan for the Gospel of Mark. I’ve worked to keep pericopes together so that each week’s reading is a solid story or set of stories that work together. We will be using this plan at Aldersgate UMC here in Savannah and I invite you to take this plan and put it to use in your local church, small group, or circle as you feel led. The readings are short considering you have a full week to do them. So read them slowly and read them often.

52-Week Reading Plan for The Gospel of Mark

  1. Mark 1:1-15
  2. Mark 1:16-31
  3. Mark 1:32-45
  4. Mark 2:1-12
  5. Mark 2:13-22
  6. Mark 2:23-28
  7. Mark 3:1-12
  8. Mark 3:13-19
  9. Mark 3:20-35
  10. Mark 4:1-9
  11. Mark 4:10-20
  12. Mark 4:21-34
  13. Mark 4:35-41
  14. Mark 5:1-20
  15. Mark 5:21-34
  16. Mark 5:35-43
  17. Mark 6:1-13
  18. Mark 6:14-29
  19. Mark 6:30-44
  20. Mark 6:45-56
  21. Mark 7:1-23
  22. Mark 7:24-30
  23. Mark 7:31-37
  24. Mark 8:1-10
  25. Mark 8:11-21
  26. Mark 8:22-38
  27. Mark 9:1-13
  28. Mark 9:14-29
  29. Mark 9:30-37
  30. Mark 9:38-50
  31. Mark 10:1-12
  32. Mark 10:13-31
  33. Mark 10:32-45
  34. Mark 10:46-52
  35. Mark 11: 1-11
  36. Mark 11:12-19
  37. Mark 11:20-33
  38. Mark 12:1-12
  39. Mark 12:13-17
  40. Mark 12:18-34
  41. Mark 12:35-44
  42. Mark 13:1-4
  43. Mark 13:5-27
  44. Mark 13:28-37
  45. Mark 14:1-26
  46. Mark 14:27-52
  47. Mark 14:53-72
  48. Mark 15:1-15
  49. Mark 15:16-41
  50. Mark 15:42-47
  51. Mark 16:1-8
  52. Mark 16:9-20

Moving the Church from “In Here” to “Out There”

church-outside-the-walls-logo-3

It’s the end of summer. Vacation is over. It’s time to get back to the business of being the church. Odds are you’re holding leadership meetings and addressing various issues in your local church. Odds are worship attendance has felt the summer slump. Odds are you’re behind on your budget and seeing a lot of red in the financial reports. It’s time to rally the troops and make that end-of-the-year push that we all know must happen every September if we’re to continue surviving.

Have you ever wondered if things could be different?

One of the biggest lessons I’m continuing to learn as I grow into my first senior pastor position is that we must do more than just show up on Sundays. The status quo can’t keep churches going. Folks are tired of doing all the work it takes to go through the motions of simply existing as the church. The church, in our decline, is being faced with the reality that people need a compelling reason to join a faith community. It’s no longer the cultural norm. And that might just be the very best news we could hear.

I recently read an article that said reporting average attendance numbers really doesn’t tell the story of congregational health that it once did. The reason for this is that the definition of “active member” has shifted over the last generation or so. It used to be that you were considered active if you attended worship services three or four Sundays a month and rarely missed an opportunity to get inside the doors of the church. Now, if you’re present once a month you’re considered active.

We can mourn this shifting reality. We can pine for the “good old days.” Or we can see this as an opportunity to ask ourselves big questions. We, as local churches, can dare to risk being self-critical and even entertain the notion of changing in light of the changing landscape of church involvement. The problems aren’t always the fault of others or “those people” or the culture – sometimes the problem can be us.

Instead of working so hard to keep up buildings and expecting people to come to us (and then mourning when they don’t), maybe we should think about more ways we can get out of our buildings and go out into our neighborhoods, meeting and engaging others. Instead of watching people age and move out of our neighborhoods and then complaining that the church has lost its relevancy, maybe we should consider ways to change in order to better adapt to a changing neighborhood or community around us. Instead of focusing on ourselves, our needs, our frustrations, our children, our budget woes, and our needs, maybe we should turn our vision outward to discover what God is up to outside of the walls of our buildings. It’s ironic that we sing, “The church is not building…the church is a people,” and yet local congregations disband and close every year when they reach a place where they can no longer financially support a building.

As painful as it is to admit, the future of the church will be less about buildings and more about relationships; less about meeting budgets and more about giving of ourselves in ministry to the world. And on our most faithful days, it will be less about us and more about how we can better fall in love with God and our neighbors.

[This column was originally published in the 9/1/14 edition of The South Georgia Advocate]

In Transition: Learning to Preach Every Sunday

circuit-rider

Probably the biggest question I’ve gotten from people as I’ve transitioned from being an Associate Pastor to a Senior Pastor is how has the transition affected or changed my preaching. You see, I was one of those Associate Pastors who preached 4-5 times a year. Now that I am 9 Sundays into my new role, I’ve effectively preached more Sundays as a Senior Pastor than I did over my last two years as an Associate Pastor. Naturally, people are curious about how this has affected or changed the way I preach — after all, preaching every 7 days and preaching every 90-120 days are two very different beasts.

Below are a couple of things I tried to do while I was still an Associate with the hopes that I would be better prepared for living in the rhythms of preaching every Sunday:

  • Get advice from skilled and seasoned preachers. It’s very important you go out and find BOTH skilled AND seasoned preachers and ask advice. In the days of the Internet, don’t believe any pastor who tells you there’s no time to listen to preaching from other people. Be a student of preaching and find out who some good preachers are nearby. Ask members of other churches and even other denominations. Ask around among your colleagues. But don’t make the mistake of asking just any preacher — just because you preach every Sunday does NOT mean you do it well. You want advice from skilled preachers because they will more than likely have the best preparation and study habits as well. It’s not an accident that they are good preachers. They’ve honed the craft well. Those are the preachers you want to learn good habits from.
  • Read books on preaching but also read books on effective public speaking. I re-read Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life and it was just as exquisite as I remembered from the first time I read it. But I also read How to Deliver a TED Talk because there are tons of very effective speakers who come from outside of the preaching world. Preachers would do themselves a favor if more would read about effective communication from authors outside of the preaching discipline.

The hardest lesson I’ve ever learned (and am continuing to learn) is how to find and cultivate MY preaching voice. My preaching professor in seminary was Dr. Tom Long and for the longest time I wished I could preach like Tom. Tom has the sort of voice that could inspire you if he read the menu at Wendy’s. But here’s the thing — I’m not Tom Long. I’m not Adam Hamilton. I’m not Billy Graham. I’m not Andy Stanley. And I’m not any other wonderful preacher you can think of. I’m Ben. It’s taken me a long time to be okay with that. I’m convinced that great preaching comes from a place of authenticity — you will bring your personality, the way you see the world, your sense of humor, and all of who you are to the preaching moment. If we believe what we preach when we say we are made in the very image of God, then there’s nothing to be ashamed of in bringing exactly who we are to our preaching. People will hear us more clearly the more we are clearly being ourselves.

Now onto the good stuff. Below is my basic preaching routine moving from planning sermons, preparing, and then delivering them. Feel free to follow the links provided below and check out the various resources I use on a weekly basis. However as I said before, I’m only 9 official weeks into preaching on a weekly basis. This routine could change at any moment as I continue to grow into a more effective preacher (the goal every preacher should have):

  1. The biggest favor I did myself while I was still an Associate Pastor was that I sat down and planned sermons in detail for six months into my new role as a Senior Pastor. This was helpful for our music director at my new church because I was able to walk in and hand her an aid for planning music through Christmas (a courtesy not enough preachers offer their musicians). But it has also helped as the onslaught of learning a new role has unfolded. I didn’t have to worry about coming up with a sermon title or text — it was already planned. I’ve simply had to keep the discipline of preparing my sermons each week.
  2. I keep a Moleskin notebook on my person most of the day almost every day. In it, I have notes jotted down for sermons weeks out. This way I’m never working week-to-week. I’m always working on this week and on weeks to come. The notebook helps for ideas or illustrations that offer themselves up as I go about my daily living and study.
  3. My new favorite app is Evernote. I keep all of my sermon outlines in this easy to use app. And the beauty of it is I can access the app or the site whether I’m on my smartphone, iPad, or laptop computer. My notes are always there and I never have to email myself back and forth depending on my physical location. My sermon is always with me. The app also has a cool “web clipper” feature that lets you grab articles and other things off the web. While we’re talking about grabbing stuff from the web, Pocket App is also a new favorite. If I read an interesting article or find a great quote, this app serves as a place to deposit and tag it for later use.
  4. Practice. Practice. Practice. I often speak in front of a mirror. This comes from a great tip James Howell (a great preacher I sought advice from) once gave me at a preaching conference. There’s no move I make that I haven’t already seen in a mirror during the week. You need to see yourself preach from the perspective of the person in the pew. I also time my sermon using the outline — once being dependent on the outline and then once on Saturday evening and (at least) once early on Sunday morning not being dependent on it. I’ve found that the more I practice being less dependent on my outline makes the sermon more conversational in tone.

A couple of things have changed in my preaching over these last few weeks. First, I’ve officially made the move from being a manuscript preacher to being an outline preacher to being an outline preacher who leaves the outline behind in order to preach with no notes at all. It’s been an incredibly freeing and exciting transition. Because of this change, I’ve found my preaching has become more focused and shorter in length (two things I hope the congregation enjoys). Truth is I can’t trust myself to remember too many points or too many moves in a sermon. I used to preach 18-25 minutes when I was an Associate Pastor. My sermons are now 12-15 minutes. Secondly, I’ve found that I’m more of an observational preacher. Every preacher has an angle they preach from. Some are teachers. Others are great orators and classical preachers. I’ve found that through the ways I plan and prepare, I sit with a text in different ways depending on when the sermon is coming. This lets me use it as a lens to live my life and see the world around me. So by the time Sunday comes, the text serves as a jumping off point for how we can see God and the world around us (hopefully) in new and exciting and faithful ways.

In other words, my weekly goal is to allow the beauty of the text give me eyes to see and ears to hear the beauty of God in the world around us and then to share it boldly, clearly, and hopefully effectively with others.

In Transition: The Leadership Lesson Not Easily Learned

circuit-rider

Two months ago today I officially transitioned from the role of Associate Pastor at a large, historic, downtown church in Macon, GA to that of Senior Pastor at a small, urban, neighborhood church in Savannah, GA. In some ways it’s hard to believe two months have already gone by. It seems it was only yesterday that I was saying farewell to good friends and a loving church while anxiously awaiting the joys and challenges that awaited me at a new church in a new city. In other ways (for example, the increased number of gray hairs I’m finding when I look in the mirror) it seems like a lifetime has already gone by.

I’ve been blogging under this unofficial series title, “In Transition,” for sometime now. Mainly it’s because I can’t really think of other topics to blog about — everything I’m focusing on has something to do with my transition and ensuring that I start well in a new church. The increased workload of pastoral care, weekly sermon planning, and meeting new people also doesn’t help with allowing for time to blog on issues outside of my day-to-day life in the local church.

I’m struggling to learn leadership lessons daily it seems. So after 8 weeks or so in a new position, I figure it’s time to blog on what I believe to be one of the toughest leadership lessons that pastors will struggle with throughout their career. Namely, how do you lead in such a way that your high moments don’t get you too high and your low moments don’t get you too low? In other words, how do you find emotional balance as a leader?

In his book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, Bill George writes:

“Balanced leaders develop healthier organizations…Their employees make higher levels of commitment to the organization, In the end they achieve better results on the bottom line.” 

Here George is emphasizing the importance of managing your time and making sure you balance your work with your personal life. But I think he also speaks to a deeper emotional and even spiritual problem among leaders, and especially pastors – we have to learn how to balance our emotions so as to not let successes get us too high or setbacks get us too low.

And as a new leader, I find this especially difficult.

Pastors by nature are a people-pleasing bunch. We rise and fall on the affirmation and criticism we receive from others. And it can become easy to let those two things – affirmation and criticism – shape our worth as a leader and as a person. Our egos can drive us as leaders. The worst-kept secret in clergy circles is that we are a people of larger than normal egos. But I suppose this is true among most any leader. However in ministry, we’re led to believe that ego refers only to something bad. The truth is, ego is a very normal thing among leaders so long as that ego is channeled and expressed in healthy ways that benefit others and not the leader themselves.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes:

Level 5 leaders channel their ego away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.

But this also means that our value cannot be measured by moments of success or failure. We must find a balance between affirmation and criticism lest we go crazy trying to work ourselves into happiness. Value comes from a place deeper than the expectations and feedback of others. It comes from a deeper place than the successes we enjoy and failures that set us back.

In No Man is An Island, Thomas Merton writes:

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

I think the same is true for leadership. We cannot spend our entire vocational lives trying to live on the praise of others and avoid being killed by criticism. We must seek the “one thing necessary” and then faithfully live into our role as leaders. Is that “one thing” affirmation or the avoidance of criticism? Or is it something deeper? Are we leaders because we like the feeling of success or the joy of people praising us? Or are we leaders because we are living into a deeper sense of calling — a calling that is hard to put into words and yet, in our most honest moments, serves as a force to acts upon us, shaping us, and giving us the vision we need to be faithful to that calling. Balance inevitably comes when we lead out of a sense of a deep sense of calling and not to please or win people over. And we can find this balance once we discover that our personal value is not found in our status as leaders or the impression others have of us. Our value is found solely in the fact that we are created in God’s image – we are God’s beloved children and nothing can ever change that. 

I am new to this whole leadership thing. And I confess that I care too much about what people think of me. I let success take me too high. And I let setbacks get me down, sometimes for an entire day or two. But I also know I am not alone. God is always with me and nothing can change the fact that I am a beloved child of God. All personal value and meaning is rooted in this reality. I also know that many others struggle with this same issue. This is why I titled this post, “…The Leadership Lesson Not Easily Learned.” It’s a lesson we all struggle with. As one friend who’s now retired from ministry told me, “If you learn how to strike that balance now, you’re doing pretty good. It takes most of us an entire career to learn it.”

And so the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single, stumbling step. But it’s a step taken remembering that I am not the product of what I do or achieve. I am a beloved child of the God who creates and redeems all things — even me.

A Prayer for a Blessing of the Backpacks

blessing-of-the-backpacksIt’s that time of year again. The kids are heading back to school and churches everywhere are looking to mark this time of transition in the life of children, families, and the church as a whole. One way to mark this time is to observe an annual Blessing of the Backpacks which has become a common tradition in many churches. Below is a prayer I developed during my time as an associate at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, GA and I plan to use it in my new appointment as senior pastor here at Aldersgate UMC in Savannah, GA. As with all liturgy I share: feel free to adapt it, change it, and don’t worry about citing or giving me credit.

The Lord be with you .

And also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal God,

you have called us to love wisdom and understanding.

Use us, we pray, as you will,

always to your glory and in service to one another.

Bless these bags and the ones who use them

as we learn and grow this year.

Show us all how to serve you.

May we grow in holiness of heart and life together,

young and old,

as we continually teach and learn from each other.

Bless these children and all of us entrusted with their care,

that we may grow in knowledge and grace,

to worship and serve you from generation to generation.

Let us live to make the world safe

for the dreams of all God’s children;

may we all participate in the transformation of the world

as we witness to God’s compassion and justice. Amen.

 

In Transition: When Priorities Begin to Shift

circuit-rider

I’m now a little more than 3 weeks into my new appointment and my first solo pastor gig. It’s been a whirlwind of paperwork, sermon preparation, meeting people, and trying to remember what day it is. It’s funny when people ask how things are going, all I can say is that it’s the most fun and exhausting thing I’ve ever done on a daily basis.

It’s also funny how priorities or things I give attention to have shifted dramatically.

It seems the more I am immersed into solo pastor work, the less I care about the politics, debate, and strife at the general church level.

I have to confess that in a former life, I was a political science major and a political junkie. It seemed that following General Conference and the political back and forth of the general church fit right into my political passions. And these last 4-6 weeks or so have been especially interesting as there seems to be a new blog post or wrinkle in the United Methodist Church’s debate over human sexuality. Blog posts are exchanged. Clergy are being defrocked and then reinstated after appeal. Caucus groups are getting louder and louder (and taking in more and more money in support).

But for some reason I’ve found myself reading fewer and fewer of the blogs, writing even less about it, and feeling exhausted about even the idea of engaging in another back and forth when no one will ever have their mind changed. Now before you think I’m being a little self-righteous, let me confess that I have read a few posts and I have engaged in a few discussions — but my concern is more for the unity of the church and less for waging war on someone who doesn’t agree with me. Frankly I’m even finding the whole unity/schism discussion to be another dead-end because most of us have our minds made up as to what we think.

I consider one of the biggest signs of grace in my new pastoral appointment to be this: Every day I find that I care more and more about what’s happening in my local church and in our neighborhood and how lives can be changed. And I care less and less about the politics of General Conference or even squabbles in my annual conference. 

You see I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that people’s lives are not changed at general conference. And annual conference or district meetings can’t make disciples. The local church is where the average person comes to hear God’s word proclaimed and to discover how that word can breath new life into their everyday life. You can’t legislate that. You can’t structure it across a district or annual conference. It happens as an act of grace; a gift of the Holy Spirit. And it happens at the most local and simple level of gathering for worship, sharing in study, and giving of ourselves in service through the life of the local church. 

Look, the truth is I’ll follow the work of General Conference next year. And I’ll support our annual conference and probably serve where I can make a difference. But I thank God for the ongoing revelation that those places are not where lives are changed and the gospel is lived out in its purest and most faithful beauty. I needn’t go any further than my front yard (which connects to our church yard) to find that beauty. It’s happening in my neighborhood and community. And my best energy, I’m finding, is to find how our little church can join in and share in such beauty.

In Transition: Making the Move from Associate to Senior Pastor

circuit-rider

I’ve been a little quiet lately due to the fact that we had our annual conference and my family has been hard at work packing our house, saying our goodbyes, enjoying a final Sunday in one place, actually moving to a new city, unpacking, and enjoying a first Sunday in a new place. The last 3 weeks or so have been a whirlwind to say the least.

Now that I’m a full week into my new position, I thought it was time to share some of my initial reactions to the monumental culture shift that is moving from an associate pastor position to a senior pastor position.

In other words, this goes out to all of you fellow former associates who, like me, now find yourselves buried under a mountain of work ranging from renewing church insurance policies, to preaching plans that come every week now, to requests for handouts, to pastoral care calls that you can no longer share with other clergy on staff.

1. It’s pretty scary to realize you’re now the senior pastor and the final word on many decisions.

My first official day in the office began with a 20-minute meeting with the secretary who ran down a list of forms to sign, decisions that have waited to be made, and plans that need to be finalized. About halfway through the meeting, I looked behind me hoping a senior pastor would walk in to do the heavy lifting of this hodgepodge of “things we need to go over.” Alas, they didn’t come. As one friend reminded me, there should have been a mirror on that door. It was a scary and humbling thing to realize in real-time that you now have the duty to exercise leadership skills your previous position didn’t offer.

2. All of the problems now come solely to you. 

One of the things I sort of enjoyed about being an associate was that I was largely sheltered from the muck and mire of church problems. I could do ministry, share with others joyfully, be celebrated for my contribution, and not have to worry about the downside of ministry — real people with real problems and squabbles. Things have now changed. Yet I’m also hopeful there is a big upside to this change. Can you truly celebrate with others if you can’t also mourn or gripe or listen or help to resolve conflicts? Sharing life with others in ministry means experiencing everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. So I’m hopeful there will be a big upside (and I’m grateful no major squabbles have arose…yet).

3. Preaching comes every 7 days…seriously! 

I love to preach. I love the creative act of preparing for a sermon. I’m a big reader and surveyor of pretty much anything and everything around me. I’m always fascinated with the plethora of ways God’s presence and grace is among us — in both big loud ways and small seemingly quiet ways. But I’m also transitioning from the sort of associate pastor role where I preached 4-5 times a year. Now (I’ve been told) I will preach every week. And as much as I enjoy the preaching task, I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated by this responsibility. For me, this means I will need to be even more focused on my own spiritual growth and daily life. I will need to be more and more aware of the needs of others and the ways God is moving among us. I don’t agree with the old adage that preachers need to separate “preaching material” from “personal material” (as though that were even possible). It’s not that we look for a sermon everywhere. However I do think preachers need to be aware of the ways God is speaking and moving in the things we read, the places we go, the people we meet, and the life that happens all around us. Sermon material will come as a gift of grace. But I truly believe this comes only because it was first a gift to the life of the preacher.

4. The laity can teach us a lot!

I’m reminded that Bishop Ken Carter told us this during his sermon at our ordination service in South Georgia. And now that I’m living into this new role, I can testify that it is very true. It is daunting to think we’re all alone in ministry or that everything depends on what we do or say. Leadership is key, but that leadership comes from the very life shared among those you are leading (thanks be the God!). When I’m extra worried about how I’m going to do something or change something or carry something out, I’m delighted to know there are so many lay people in my new church who have strong and vital faith lives. They live what they believe daily. They’re already teaching me how to love and nurture others. And they’re already teaching me ways to serve and give myself for the sake of someone else. Ministry doesn’t solely depend on the pastor!

5. Prayer and study matter..a lot.

This sort of goes with #3 but I wanted to offer it in a different light. I’m a fairly capable person with a lot of energy. I can be easily fooled into thinking everything I can accomplish anything and everything on my own. This transition has taught be there is no possible way I can do everything that needs to be done by my own merits or strengths. I must find time for study and prayer because I need the constant reminder that I’m solely dependent on God’s grace. Pastors need the reminder that we must depend on God for everything. I keep books on my desk to inspire me — the bible, Thomas Merton, a devotional book. I’ve already found that I need to ground myself both in scripture and in the pursuit of the inner life (through prayer). You can’t do one without the other and be an effective leader in the church. Scripture reminds me of the values and patterns of how we are to live as the church. But the life of prayer and solitude guide us to listen and find where the Holy Spirit is at work around us. Prayer and solitude alone can become a self-serving task. And reading the bible only can lead us to agree with points and principles yet we’re void of how to explore, question, and discover where God is and what God is doing among us. We need both and we need to make exploring both a daily task.

I’ll stop for now but there will be more later. I’ve got my door open and there are things to tend to on the other side. But maybe I’ll begin by closing my computer and diving into one of the trusty books on the other side of my desk. The journey of a thousand miles begins with baby steps (wisdom I now know to be very true!).

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