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

Two Roads Diverge in the Woods…

Leadership has quickly become the buzz word in the church today. As we declines (rather as we come to terms with the long-term decline that’s been happening for 50 years) a growing desire to cultivate effective leadership has gripped the priorities of our churches. It doesn’t help matters that a very large generation of leaders are about to retire in mass so you can add a heaping dose of urgency to this growing recipe for effective leadership.

One of the fun and frustrating transitions from life as a seminarian to full-time life as a pastor is the transition we make from the theoretical lessons we learn to the application of those lessons. I’ve just come back from our annual conference’s annual RIM Retreat [RIM stands for Residence In Ministry] required of those of us undergoing the ordination process. It was a great time of fellowship and learning together with friends and colleagues who are all at the same stage of their vocation in ministry as I am. We gathered and heard great speakers share on a variety of topics ranging from leadership to worship to preaching. But I would say that leadership was, by far, the connecting thread across the series of talks.

Interestingly, I walked away from the retreat both energized and confused. I’m energized because it’s renewing to share and be with those who are learning and growing along with you. I’m energized also because frankly I’m nerdy enough to get energized by the exchange of ideas that happens in a learning environment. But my energy is not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I also feel a sense of being confused, now more than ever, about what it means to live out a vocation of ministry in the local church.

Maybe it was because it wasn’t too long ago that I sat in a seminary classroom, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of whiplash in how the concept of leadership is presented once you’re out of seminary. It seems as though there are two worlds of thought when it comes to leadership and ministry: 1) the world of the practical, real-life experience found in the everyday life of the church; and 2) the theoretical world of leadership found in the academy. These worlds aren’t our own original creations, mind you. No, they’ve been here since before most of us showed up to learn what it meant to be a leader. Interestingly enough, these worlds seem to be pitted against each other at every turn you come to. Before I go into my confusion between these two worlds, maybe it would help to expound on them a bit more.

Leadership: An Academic Understanding

Most anyone who’s been to seminary can testify to the fact that you get into a sort of rhythm of thinking in the larger, more general sense. Theology is an invitation into an abstract world where ideas and platitudes exist in the place of people. Professors are accused (and some even admit to it) of isolating themselves into “the ivory tower” of the academy where they spend a life expounding on lessons for leadership and ministry that they’ll never live out.

On the one hand, some of the greatest minds the world has ever known have written from those ivory towers of academia. These minds have shaped the world as we know it and we can’t pretend that those who devote their lives to such work aren’t doing so out of a greater service to the world who would put to practice their ideas.

On the other hand, I get the criticism of this approach–I really do. If theology is not embodied in one’s life then it becomes an opportunity to excuse yourself from the world where God actually lives. Pontificating on theory becomes an excuse to avoid the reality of life itself. And so an imaginary world where ideas reign supreme is easily created.  That’s not to say that theologians in the academy aren’t disciples. It’s simply to say that there’s a real temptation for that discipleship to be reduced to the very small world within the academy if we’re not careful. Here the problem rears its ugly head when leadership is more about points and theories than people and circumstances.

Leadership: A Practical Understanding

There’s also a world that have us believe that to lead, we must solely rely on experience. This sort of “trial by fire” approach to leadership is very popular among many who spend their time primarily in local churches, dealing with real people who have real problems. One can’t learn the kinds of lessons offered in this approach from books because you have to live it to learn it. And the beauty is that when you live these lessons, you will inevitably have a chance to grow with them.

I get the criticism of this approach as well. If you simply learn by living you surely miss out on a great deal of knowledge available by brilliant minds. I also admit that we have to be careful not to be prejudice towards knowledge out of some false sense of humility. Being smart is not a bad thing and we shouldn’t encourage mediocrity among leaders in favor of “not coming off as too smart.” Too often leaders who subscribe exclusively to this approach inevitably shrink their worlds as well–the context in which they lead becomes the center of the universe. If hiding one’s self in an ivory tower of theory is a dangerous form of isolation, then shrinking the world to only my context for leadership is navel gazing at its finest. 

What’s a Young Leader to Do?

I’m reminded regularly that I’m still growing into this identity of pastor. And with that comes an identity as a leader. I’m aware that I’m still very young and inexperienced which means I have both a lot to learn and a lot to live. But I do want to bring to the surface the struggle that has plagued me for the past few months because surely I’m not the only victim of this struggle:

Why do we have to decide which world we want to exemplify as leaders? Why do we have to choose whether we want to be experienced-oriented or academically-oriented in our leadership? Why can’t we simply growth as both?

I know too much time in theological texts will leave me little time to be with people and learn to lead. I also know that I can grow dry and wilt when I’m not nourished by life-giving knowledge. These are questions I suppose I’ll struggle with between now and the time for my ordination interviews in a year. Maybe by then I’ll some better grasp on both approaches so that I don’t have to sacrifice either. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see…

“Say What?”: The Vague Call of Reform

If you’re a United Methodist, you’ve probably heard about the Vital Congregations movement that’s begun to help reform our denomination. A lot of money has been invested in studies, marketing, and analysis to come up with the conclusion that if we, The United Methodist Church, are to survive as a denomination and overcome a 50+ year decline, we need to “equip and empower people to be Disciples of Jesus Christ in their homes and communities around the world” (See homepage of Vital Congregations website for full quote).

Our agencies have gotten fat and our budgets are suffering the effects of malnutrition. The thought is it’s time to reform the larger denominational structure in order to empower our congregations to put action behind the mission statement of the church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve put this mission statement on every poster, brochure, website, program agenda, and banner–we know it by heart, it’s now time to perform it.

As we get closer and closer to General Conference 2012, there is growing buzz around the denomination about the extent of reform that will come out of that important meeting of our church. How much of it will be centered around this massive renewal spelled out in the Call to Action Report and Vital Congregations Initiative? What will these new initiatives mean for the life of church as we know it? If we’re equipping congregations in order that they may be called “vital,” what does that mean?

Let’s review some of the proposed characteristics of congregational vitality, shall we?

We’ve identified key drivers that include:

  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. A mix of contemporary worship and traditional worship
  3. A large percentage of the congregation involved in leadership
  4. An assortment of small group opportunities for all ages

We’ve made some key proposals in how our structure should be aligned:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

All of this sounds great if you’re a fan of reform. I’m a big fan of reform and personally, I see a great deal of this only benefiting the way we operate as a large denomination.

However I do have a problem. My lingering question throughout this entire process is yet to be answered clearly and with the same depth that the rest of the analysis has been put together. That is, what does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? We spend lots of time, energy and ink going into great depth on the need for congregations to become vital organizations. And we even believe this is done by “making disciples.” So if our mission is to “make [or form] disciples,” then what constitutes a disciple? 

Let’s go back to our new source for all things “vital: Vital Congregations webpage. There you’ll find at the bottom right of the homepage a box named “A Disciple of Jesus Christ” and you’ll read 5 characteristics that characterize a disciple:

  • worships regularly
  • helps make new disciples
  • is engaged in growing his/her faith
  • is engaged in mission
  • shares by giving in mission

Now before you get swept off your feet by the excitement of these characteristics [insert sarcasm here], there is biblical backing for such a description. The site notes Matthew 22:36-40 as the source for this description. And I would argue that the twofold law of the gospel is a great place to start when talking about how we view and grow our faith.

But I also have some major issues with this description [you knew that was coming]. For starters, why do we like to reduce everything down to bullet points and simple statements. It’s almost as though we don’t think the members of our churches want to get bogged down in an overly wordy and in-depth description of their discipleship. I reference us back to one of the great scenes from my all-time favorite show, The West Wing, for a better diagnosis of this flaw:

Gov. Ritchie: We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.

Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.

Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. [Season 4 Episode 71 Originally aired 10/30/02]

You see, as a young pastor in The United Methodist Church, I’m not looking for short, simplistic answers to the great questions of how to live as the Church in our world. And frankly, over my short career in ministry I’ve found that most laity long for something deeper as well. I want the complexities that come with admitting that discipleship is hard. I long for the words of liturgy over the words of a grocery list rendition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When do we get to the parts about “resisting evil, injustice, and oppression” in all forms? When do we talk about “confessing Jesus Christ as Savior” and “putting our whole trust in his grace”? And when do we get to the part that reminds us:

Through baptism we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we [are welcomed] as members of the family of Christ.

When you put these vague statements on discipleship together with the clear, direct statements on what the church needs in order to reform, you get little more than a plea to save our institution without the cost of doing just that. We want to convince people that they should “be engaged in growing their faith” but we fail to say how to do so. We want people to “help make new disciples” but we fail to say that comes with a price–or rather, a cross. We want people to “attend worship regularly” and “give to missions” but we fail to disclose the truth that the life of a disciple is a life where worship is embodied everyday and missional is a description of a life given for service to the world.

I want to believe that the Vital Congregation Initiative is a positive step for the church. And maybe it is a good place to start. I want to believe that realigning resources accordingly will better enhance the ministry of The United Methodist Church to the world. But until we move past these neatly packaged, banal, vague statements into something with depth and [dare I say it] life-changing qualities, I suppose I’ll remain a skeptic–a skeptic devoted to the ongoing, transformative work of the church nonetheless.

What Does Family Really Mean at Christmas?

I was reminded this past weekend of just how difficult it can be to let Christmas truly be a Christian observance. We spend the season fighting against the hustle and bustle of a commercialized rhythm that can leave any church in the dust.

We did 4 worship services over the course of the weekend (3 on Christmas Eve and 1 on Christmas Day). I figure the vast majority of churches probably followed a similar pattern. It wasn’t until I read an article via the Patheos blog that I even realized just how many were not planning to hold worship on Sunday, December 25, at all. In fact, around 10% of Protestant pastors polled by LifeWay said they did not plan to hold worship on Christmas Day. Why? Well, many churches cite the need for the staff and ministers to have a day to spend with their families. One church’s website I found (and won’t disclose) even said that “Christmas is a day to love and appreciate family, we will not have worship on Christmas Day so that families can do just that.” Very interesting.

I hear the tension that exists for pastors who try to balance their family life with their vocation of ministry. I now know first-hand just how much work goes into Christmas Eve services so I get the fact that many would rather hold the very best services throughout Christmas Eve and then take the next day (Sunday) off. It’s hard when much of your logistical work is done by volunteers who have conflicts on a holiday weekend. It’s hard when you consider the paid staff who would like a day off as well. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.

But let’s at least be honest that underneath the family needs on Christmas Day, we’re also canceling church because we think no one will attend. The truth is, if we were guaranteed the same crowds on Christmas Day that we see on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t consider canceling worship even if you paid us. So yes, there are family needs at play here. But there’s also a marketing mentality that informs us to believe that low crowds don’t merit our best efforts so maybe it’s more efficient to close up shop instead.

So in that spirit, I wonder what sort of message a mass canceling worship sends to those outside of the church?

The author for the atheism section of about.com makes the ironic connection in his article titled, “Christmas: So Christian that Churches Close for Christmas Day.” It is a bit ironic that we spend so much time preserving some sense of religious observance throughout the season just to say that we’ll close on Christmas Day itself in favor of “quality time with families.”

Rather than trying to make the point that short of natural disaster or weather that makes it unsafe for travel you shouldn’t cancel worship–period, I want tease out this idea of family. What constitutes our sense of family? And how is that sense informed by our identities as Christians?

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship contains the wording of the Baptismal Liturgy we practice in the life of the church. In it, there are some interesting ways this idea of family is reoriented in light of one’s baptism:

“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church…we are given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [BOW p.87]

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God…” [BOW p. 89]

“Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as member(s) of the family of Christ” [BOW p. 92]

You see, while canceling worship might be more convenient for pastors in our observance of family time, we are, in fact, neglecting the family time of the community of faith. Limiting family to one’s immediate family at Christmas is not Christian at all. We have to be honest about that fact. As members of the baptized community of faith we have to hold fast to the idea that for us, “family” has been expanded to touch the far-reaches of the church universal.

So is an hour on Christmas Day really a sacrifice when it comes to spending quality time with our family in light of our baptismal identity? I guess that’s a question pastors, members, and churches should ask themselves. But don’t worry, I hear 2016 will give us another opportunity to respond to such a challenge.

Bringing Advent Closer to Home…

Have you ever noticed how much of the Christmas season is defined by the feeling of being rushed? We’ve coined the term “christmas rush” to describe the pace of the season. It all seems to be a rush; a race to get somewhere as fast as we can. The sad part is, when we declare it to be Christmas before the actual day gets here, it makes December 25th sort of a let down. By the time it comes, we’re already celebrated out and ready for the songs, decorations and festivities to be over and done with. It’s a bit ironic, but that’s reality for most of us.

I want to admit that I’m traditionally more of a “Christmas rusher” during this season than I like. But this year it’s a bit different. Advent has taken on a new meaning for me–it’s been brought closer to home than I’ve ever experienced before and I now have a new appreciation for the season. You see, my wife and I are 7 months into the pregnancy of our very first child! This event, even in its lead-up, has begun to reshape me as a person. And it’s offered me a chance to celebrate Advent, the season of expectant waiting, in a way that I never thought was possible.

Advent Means Waiting and Mystery

Nine months can feel like an eternity sometimes. Sure, there are days when it seems like you blink and you’re 7 months in. But there are also days when you think that special day will never come. Advent is a season marked by waiting. It’s a season that calls for us to stop what we’re doing and wait for something new and life-changing. The beauty of it is, we can’t rush the day of birth here anymore than we can rush Christmas Day along. It will get here in due time–in God’s time.

My wife and I are opting to be surprised on the gender of our baby. So this only amplifies the season of waiting because this “thing” she’s carrying around is wrapped in a deep mystery. God only knows the “innermost parts” of what’s being “knit together” in the womb of my wife (Psalm 139:13 CEB). The journey of faith, like the journey of Advent and the journey of childbirth, is wrapped in a deep mystery. We have to resist the temptation of buying all of the commodified ways of gaining certainty in our journeys. Faith is rooted in a trust that grows in the rich soil of mystery.

[Note: I know there are those who will advocate very passionately that finding out the gender of the baby in advance never spoiled a surprise and was a great experience. But just go with me on this for the sake of the analogy]

Advent Means Expectation and Journey

Advent is a season marked by journey and expectation. In a similar way, childbirth is a season marked by journey and expectation. As each doctor’s visit comes and goes we complete legs of the journey. We can go online and see progress of our pregnancy through pictures of what our baby should look like in size and shape. All of this is part of a journey that will culminate in a miracle.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves: childbirth (like the Advent journey to Bethlehem) comes with many risks and dangers. I always thought life was precious but I have a new appreciation for that idea. Anything could go wrong at any moment. That’s why the journey of childbirth is a risky one. And when a child is born, it is nothing short of a gift of grace–a miracle that words cannot contain. We no more control this gift than we do the mystery of life itself. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “we have to recover our ability to pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a world we do not control” (Hannah’s Child p. 237) Advent and childbirth are journeys that help us do just that.

Advent Means Complexity in Life

The great complexity about our faith is that it’s often a lot bigger than we acknowledge it to be. Too often we treat faith as a simplistic rendering of the world. The church becomes a club of persons gathered who believe like me and subscribe to the same brand of spirituality that I do. In this climate, Advent becomes a quaint observance of lighting candles in between declaring the Christ child to already be here through the carols we sing and the sermons we offer about peace and love in the hustle and bustle of the shopping season.

If Advent is to truly be characteristic of who we are called to be as Christians, then it has to become a season that celebrates the complexities of the unknown. We mark this season by acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers for the journey ahead. We celebrate the season by naming the darkness that is present in life, those seasons where answers aren’t available, and we look to the light of God that comes as a gift to our darkness. And in doing so, we truly celebrate and appreciate the gift of the newborn baby found in the manger.

Part of the excitement of being expecting parents is learning to embrace the complexity of anticipating life’s inevitable tectonic shift that comes with a new baby. It means learning to live in the “in-between” time–the promise has been made and the journey has begun but it’s not yet fulfilled. And it also means being okay with not knowing all of the ways you’ll parent a new baby, prepare for organization, or even which brand of diapers you’ll use. There’s time for all of that and it’s okay to not know every detail before God’s time has arrived.

Waiting Beyond Advent

I’m especially reminded that there are those in my life and in this world who wait for light amid their darkness beyond Christmas Day. Life doesn’t get fixed in neat little package wrapped in a nice bow. Waiting can seem like an eternity and darkness can seem to snuff out any life that’s left. We will still be waiting for our baby to arrive once Christmas has passed. And I’m keenly aware that the season of waiting and watching doesn’t end for everyone.

This is why we should take time out of our celebrations this weekend to pray for someone who is hurting this season. It’s easy to become consumed with our own celebrations and journeys that end, but there are those who continue to journey, often silently, through hard times. Call someone who’s hurting this weekend and tell them you’re thinking about them. Write someone a note or send them an e-mail telling them that they’re on your heart this weekend. Don’t let the end of your journey consume every bit of your time and energy.

The waiting and watching of Advent makes for a very complex season. The doctors visits, childcare books, instructions for putting a crib together, gift registries, etc. all make for childbirth to be a season of complexities as well. But the joy of both comes in the fact that because when God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, born as an innocent baby and laid in a dirty manger, we can learn how to recognize how extraordinary the ordinary is. Being Christian means being baptized into citizenship in a new age. This means the everyday events of our life–celebrating the Advent liturgy at church or welcoming a new baby into the world– are not only possible, but they’re pretty extraordinary!


On Serving the Eucharist

This is a wonderful poem written by Richard Russeth. You can check out this poem and others on Richard’s blog.

Standing next to my pastor,

holding the wine,
I have this thought:
“I do not belong here.”
The clay cup is heavy
and cool in my hands.
The wine is dark
and brooding.
Declaring to the gently
stooped woman standing before me:
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,”
I feel a sense of loss.
When she whispers “amen,”
I hear my doubts on her lips.
Handing the cup back,
she smiles, but not at me.
And I realize that she has received
something that was never mine 
to give.
I turn to the next person in line,
and the next and the next,
blinking back tears,
feeling holy
and undeserving;
with each “amen,”
that both are true.

Advent Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance

A prayer of confession and assurance of pardon for the season of Advent

Prayer of Confession

God of the Messiah, you have saved us, yet we adamantly sin. We make the holydays about stuff and not about sacredness. We fret about the wrongs things. We allow dysfunction to dominate instead of the divine. You fill us with Christ, but we act empty.

For the sake of Emmanuel, forgive us. Prepare us for the comings. Amen.

Words of Assurance

Good Christian friends, rejoice! Christ was born to save! God forgives you every sin. What a present!


This prayer comes from a service written for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Lectionary Year B found here

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Christmas has a special way of really bringing out both the best and worst in many of us. I was reading an article the other day about how we can “save Christmas” by demanding that retail stores drop their conventional, “Happy holidays” line for the more religious, “Merry Christmas.” And it made me think of one particular experience I had that has just stuck with me.

I vividly remember one particular day of the Christmas season a few years ago when I was trying to finish my shopping. I was at a local retail store in the town I was living in at the time and I was behind a man who seemed to be growing more and more impatient the longer we stood in the line. I figured it was merely a symptom of the typical holiday anxiety — long lines mean blood pressure elevations for many of us. But he surprised me when he finally got his turn to check out in the line and decided to speak up to the frazzled sales associate.

“Ma’am, please do me a favor and save your ‘Happy holidays’ line. I’m a Christian and I’d appreciate it if you told me ‘Merry Christmas.’ I just hate how you stores try to take Christ out of Christmas.”

There I was, with my own front-row seat to this exchange. And actually I thought the man made a lot of sense, really. Who did these stores think they were reducing the true meaning of Christmas down to a bland, innocuous notion of “Happy holidays?”

As the man left, I quietly agreed with him and even felt very justified in my seasonal discontent. I left the store that day wondering if I could help start a revolution to take Christmas back from department stores who would dare to remove Christ from the holiday. I buzzed out of that store, bags in hand, ready to take over the world and rectify this injustice.

It was a cold day and snow flurries had begun to fall. The traffic was slow and I was enjoying the Christmas music playing in my warm car. As I was exiting the parking lot, I was so excited about this revolutionary idea that I almost missed noticing a man who was standing at the entrance of the shopping complex. Since the traffic was slow I was able to get a good look at what he was doing. He was a disheveled man who looked like he hadn’t seen the right side of soap and water for some days. He was staring blankly at the traffic leaving the shopping complex holding a simple, handmade sign that read: “Will work hard for food. Very hungry.”

Yes, even at Christmas people find themselves hungry and hurting and hopeless. It’s such a wonderful season for so many of us that it can be easy to forget this. That day I was excited about a mission to “put Christ back into Christmas.” It never occurred to me that I might be driving right past the best opportunity to do just that.

[This article ran in the Macon Telegraph on Saturday, Dec. 10]

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