Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bi-Vocational Pastor: Thinking about “Transitional Ministry”

Interim Pastor.

Take a second and think about all the initial thoughts you had as you read that title – what came to mind?  Most of it probably not very good.  While I’m one of those people who see a great benefit and need for interim ministry and pastors who serve as interim pastors, congregations often have different reactions, and think of it something like this:

Interim Pastor: someone who is retired (or near retirement), and spends up to a year “holding down the fort” while the church’s call committee (or whatever body that is for your denomination) finds the next pastor – “our” pastor.  A long-term pastor; a full-time, present all the time pastor.  An interim is just that – the “in the meantime guy (or girl)” while we wait for the coming of the one who will lead us into the next 30 years of our church life. (Ok, maybe not 30, but most think it’ll be a “really long time”)

Does this sound familiar?  To be fair, many congregations realize the gift of an interim pastor and the interim time of ministry – it’s a chance to reflect on the current state of things, and to think deeply about what the “next steps” might be.  There are congregations that graciously and courageously allow themselves to be led by this person, and this person faithfully leads them in healthy and important discernment during this transition.  However, all too often there is a sense of anxiety during the time of the interim pastor – fear over a loss of momentum in mission and ministry, an identity crisis in the wake of the departing pastor’s absence, and the decline in participation of communal life and worship.  The interim pastor is not the “real pastor.” The interim  is a time that must be quickly moved through in order to resolve this anxiety, usually by calling a pastor as quickly as possible.  Then there’s the whole issue of an ineffective interim pastor/leader; congregations’ stigma is based in an unfortunate, but true, reality.

I think all this is problematic on a number of levels.  One, decisions are made out of anxiety and fear, which usually never produce positive, long-term outcomes.  Two, it creates a stagnant, “stuck” period for churches that often takes the new pastor years to rectify (the road to recovery is long after a period of “backsliding”).  Three, it becomes a year of wasted resources (back to that retired interim pastor – “we just paid a full year’s salary and benefits for a guy with 30 years ministry experience to preach and visit people?”).

However, there is another reason I think this falls short, which ties into the present reality of our changing religious context in society and congregations struggling to understand and engage it. Churches in transition need more than just a one-year interim period to figure these things out.  They need a leader who will walk with them through an internal transformation and culture shift. They need a pastor who will lead for a set period of time with clear goals and outcomes in mind.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Model Constitution, paragraph C9.11 of Chapter 9 states, “While the approval of the bishop of the synod, the congregation may depart from [normal calling procedures] and call a pastor for a specific term. Details of such calls shall be in writing setting forth the purpose and conditions involved.” This provides the opportunity for a new type of pastoral ministry: Transitional Ministry.

Transitional Ministry would be similar Interim Ministry in that it would likely be short-term (1-4 years).  However, it would differ in that rather than just provide a person as “placeholder,” it would provide a focused period in which the congregation would call a pastor to lead them through a set period of transition with specific goals and purposes in mind.  In addition, the pastor wouldn’t just be someone present solely to perform functional tasks (preaching, teaching, sacraments, pastoral care), but rather would be called with a particular role with specific skill sets to best serve the congregation during this period of discernment and change.

How would this look? Think “John the Baptist.”  Someone who can help “prepare the way” for a new chapter as Christ’s church.  Someone who can proclaim both good news in Word and Sacrament yet also speak prophetically  and honestly into the reality of the community of faith and community at large.  Someone who, when the time is right, would decrease so that the congregation might increase in its mission and life to the world for years to come.

This is where Bi-vocational pastors would be an excellent fit for transitional ministry.  Constraints on time require the Bi-Vocational pastor to more clearly and distinctly define their role within the congregation he or she serves.  A decreased financial commitment to a pastor during the transition would allow congregations more freedom in developing a more realistic and relevant budget for mission and ministry.  Bi-Vocational pastors have the ability to shift the paradigm of congregations away from the notion that fully present relationally means “fully employed.”  There is also the benefit of having a pastor who has one foot within the context and one foot in the congregation – the pastor is an interpreter and advocate for both communities.  Bi-vocational pastors also bring specific skillsets and expertise from their other professions and work.

Here’s a few ways to imagine this: A larger congregation, in need of developing a strong Children, Youth, & Family ministry, but with limited financial resources to grow staff could call a bi-vocational pastor as a 1/2 or 3/4 time Associate Pastor.  They could then use this savings and call a full-time Director of Youth & Family Ministry to develop the ministry. The bi-vocational pastor could serve for a 2-4 year period, supporting the senior pastor by sharing certain pastoral roles and ministry oversight, and perhaps focus in on a particular ministry need (outreach, evangelism, social justice, vocational discernment, etc.)  In time, in concert with enhanced ministry and increased staff, the financial resources may increase to call a full-time associate that the congregations needs down the road.

Or, a medium-sized congregation that also recently established a non-profit as a ministry could call a bi-vocational pastor for a period of 2 years with non-profit management and community engagement experience.  The last pastorate was 30 years, and the pastor was full-time in the congregation.  However, finances now only allow for a part-time pastor and the congregation wishes for the non-profit to be “a ministry of the congregation” but don’t currently have the resources to hire a full-time non-profit manager.  The pastor could serve in this dual role, helping establish the ministry and its relationship with the church and community.

Or, a congregation set near a military base, but not understanding the context, could call an Armed Forces Reserve chaplain to serve the congregation and help establish a ministry that supports military service members and their families through the deployment cycle for 3 years, at which point the chaplain would then mobilize for a one-year deployment and the congregation would call a pastor who would serve them long-term.

Or, a congregation having dealt with serious conflict and a split may agree to a 2-3 year pastorate that would provide the stability necessary to understand and heal.  The congregation would agree to pay the pastor full-time, allowing that 20% of his or her time would be open to pursue personal ministry (young adult, college, synodical, churchwide) as a means of self-care for the pastor and as a missional act of sharing the pastor with the wider church.

These are just a few of the possibilities….but what would such transitional ministry mean for congregations in our present day and age?  And what would it mean to raise up pastoral leaders with unique skillsets to serve congregations in this way?  Transitional ministry would provide stability to congregations in anxious times, focus in their discernment of God’s mission, and innovation and financial freedom around the pastor’s role.  And of course, we trust the Spirit at work….and maybe that transitional pastor might be the right one to stick around for the long haul.

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Sermon 17 May 2015: “It’s about a death.” Romans 6:1-14.

Text: Romans 5:20-6:14

Last September, my older sister and her family came out to visit Kelly and I over Labor Day weekend.  It was good to see my sister and brother-in-law, but the real highlight was seeing my nephew Charlie.  At the time he was only 1 1/2 years old, so his mastery of the english language was pretty limited!  Charlie voiced every displeasure, and negative reaction by saying, “No way!”

We took Charlie to the beach on their visit, taking him down close to the water and the waves. And at first he seemed ok with it, until we set him down in the sand.  The wind was blowing, the he started sinking in the sand, and the waves, while not that big, probably looked like a Tsunami to little Charlie.  He didn’t like it, and he looked at us with this scared look on his face and said, “No way!”  Despite our encouragement and giving him time to get used to the beach – the sand, the waves – Charlie got more desperate, and just kept pleading “No way!” “No way!” “No way!”  as he reached out for his momma.

In our reading, Paul talks about while sin just seems to build and build in the world, the grace that comes in Jesus Christ covers all those sins and more – as sin increases, grace increases all the more.  And if that’s how it works, then maybe we have an unlimited free license to just keep sinning, right?  If he was here today, Paul would probably take a cue from Charlie and respond, “No way!”

Paul saw sin as a force that holds people captive, and it’s grace in Jesus Christ that sets us free from sin.  In the ways that sin leads to a life of death and destruction to ourselves and others, faith in Jesus Christ leads us to “walk in newness of life.”  We are raised to live a new life, free from our old ways of sin.

Now that’s good news.  But is turning from a life of sin really that easy?  Grace and new life in Christ often gets understood simplistically, in two ways.  One, we make a commitment; we just turn form all those bad sins and habit we have, and simply go on living a new, better life.  A life of faith is making a commitment to overcome or resist sin.

The other way is that new life in Christ is just one big, happy celebration.  New life means eternal life…..a spot reserved in Heaven.  And since we got that, there’s nothing to worry about in this life – all that sin, brokenness, suffering?  It’s really not that bad, you have Heaven to look forward to, remember?  Be optimistic; pretend like sin doesn’t really exist.

But I wonder if sin is something else.  We find ourselves standing on the beach, the sand shifting and unstable underneath us, the wind blowing and the waves crashing in.  We’re standing there on that beach and honestly, it’s terrifying and scares the daylights out of us.  And so in our desperation we cry out – at first a weak confession like “I just have to have more faith” or “Jesus never gives us more than we can handle.”  But the truth is we’re crying out in despair because we realize, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get ourselves off that beach, and we can’t simply pretend it doesn’t exist or that it’s not so terrifying.

That is the sin Paul is talking about in the reading today.  That’s the sin that holds us captive – the brokenness and suffering and the horrors that come with being part of the human race in this world and in this life.  Let me give you a couple examples: a teenage girl who struggles with her body image and develops an eating disorder.  A military veteran who returns from combat, and feeling so disconnected from the “normal” world around him, falls into depression – post traumatic stress.  The person who go through failed relationship after failed relationship because every time they experience a healthy, intimate relationship, the immediately push that person away.

Let me give you one more example.

I think I’ve told most of you, but for those of you who don’t know, I was adopted at 6 months old.  According to my adoption documents, I was found by someone in a nearby bush near the adoption agency and placed in an orphanage from there, and the rest is pretty much history – I was adopted by my parents in Minnesota, and here I am today.

But as good as my life is, as many times as people have told me how blessed I am, how God must have had a plan for me – my grandmother always used to call me a “modern day Moses” – as many times people have said my birth mother must have really loved me to give me up for adoption, I can’t shake the feeling that somehow, I just got lucky.  Because the truth is there were lots of babies in South Korea during that time that were left in bushes, on doorsteps, and who knows where else – because they were abandoned.  Discarded.  Unwanted.  I can’t shake the feeling that my mom probably was a scared teenager – and I don’t blame her for this whatsoever – discarded me in that bush like a piece of trash, left for dead, and that I really shouldn’t be standing here before you today.

And that feeling comes up from time to time in my life – more than I care to admit.  There are times I can’t shake or avoid that feeling that I was discarded, unwanted, abandoned, and that while I got lucky, I’m ultimately worthless and insignificant.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake or avoid that moment at the very beginning of my existence, the force it is in my life today, and how it holds my life captive.

Paul talks about baptism in this reading today….and most of us look at baptism as a commitment ceremony, a display of the commitment we make to live for God, to be a Christian and live a life of faith.  And others look at it as a celebration of life – eternal life we get because we’re saved in the waters of baptism.  But both are pretty simplistic ways of understanding baptism.  Baptism is more than that. Baptism is really about a death.  Our death.

It’s about a death each and every one of us die.  Whether we sprinkle water on someone’s head or completely immerse them, baptism is about God putting to death the sin that’s so enmeshed in our being, the sin that holds us captive.  God puts to death the sin in us that breaks us and leaves us terrified, scared, and alone – the kind that leads to the diminishing and even the death perhaps – of our own lives. But it’s put to death so that by grace we might be freed, and by grace we are given a new life – life as a child of God, with infinite worth.

Martin Luther was fond of saying, “Remember your baptism.”  And it’s not just a nice little Lutheran cliche we say.  It’s a powerful statement that reminds me that when the sin that holds me captive – those feelings of worthlessness and abandonment – creeps in and terrifies me, there is a God who puts that to death.  There is a God who beyond all my failures to put that moment in my life behind me who puts that to death, and raises me up and says that in the grace of Jesus Christ “I have claimed you, you are mine, you are precious in my sight, so go live and be free and remember that your life is a gift.”  You’re freed by grace because your life is a GIFT.

What holds you captive?  What really holds you captive?  As you ponder that question this week, remember that there is a God who in the terror and brokenness and sin that hold you captive who by grace can put that to death.  And by this wide and all consuming grace, God has claimed and freed you so that you might live and walk as a child of God.  Amen.

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What the 1% teaches us about the problem with the Millenial Obsession

 I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the Army and Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) commissioning ceremony at Old Dominion University.  69 young men and women raised their right hand and took the Oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America and defend our nation.  They were commissioned to serve as leaders, not to serve any one person or group, but to defend the principle that all are created equal and have a right to a life of freedom and liberty.  These young, newly commissioned officers made a conscious choice, pledging to place themselves in harm’s way and dedicate their lives, even die if asked, for such an idea.

They are the 1%.  And they have a lesson to teach us.

Statistics show that less than 1% of the United States’ population serves in the Armed Forces.  They are the 1% in our country, and they come from the Millennial generation.  Yet unlike their peers – the other 99% – they are not chiefly concerned with their individual entitlement to status in society or campaigning that they are bringing the gift of authenticity to the world.  Instead, they simply raise their right hand, say a few words, and pledge to live out their military service as best they can, “So help them God.”

For those who oppose war, our military, and the use of it, what I am NOT saying is that we should glorify what these young men and women will do.  They will give orders to take life; they will take life if it’s called on them to do so.  And their military actions are done in the shadow of uncertain and questionable agendas.  The sober truth is there is little glory in the reality of war.  But we should glorify their choice.  Their choice is a selfless one – it is a choice to serve, not to be served; a choice to sacrifice, not to demand; a choice for discomfort, not comfort; a choice to love others, not love themselves.  These 69 men and women – the 1% – teach us that our obsession with the Millennial generation’s needs and demands is a real problem for our society and our world.

The problem is simply a power transfer; the power that Millennials criticize and accuse older generations (Boomers, Silent) of misusing for their own gain is simply being shifted to the Millennials to misuse just the same.  No matter how “noble” they think the cause, the problem still remains: the cancer that is individualism in our society –  but individualism gone wrong. It is individualism poisoned with egotism and self-centeredness and self-preservation. It is this individualism that corrupts the ideals and values we hold dear: liberty, freedom, prosperity, justice, community and love.  It is this individualism that causes us to demand to be heard at the expense of others and at the same time allow us to delude ourselves as pious champions in the cause for the marginalized. Individualism in this way turns us into power-seeking madmen that must destroy the opposition with that power.  It is that extreme view of individualism and our obsession with it that makes the 1% who serve in the Armed Forces necessary in the first place.  That is what is behind the Millennial Obsession leaders in every institution are desparately trying to tap into…..and that Millennial opportunists are quick to peddle to all who will listen.

I don’t discount the need for an increased sense of integrity in our society and its institutions. On that, I’ll agree with majority Millennials.  But integrity is a choice, not a set of credentials.  Integrity comes not from the acquisition of power, but rather the choice to do what is right even at the cost of oneself.   I am reminded of this passage from the Book of Romans in the Bible,

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that
suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,” (Rom. 5:3-5a)

The 69 men and women – the 1%, and  Millennials themselves – who joined our Army, Navy, and Marine Corps teach us that the real hope for our world comes when we turn away from manic individualism and instead choose a life of service and sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.  True hope is realized only through an integrity that gives the courage to willingly suffer and endure – agenda free and with no reservation of the heart.

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Filed under Children, Youth, Family & Young Adult Ministry, Culture & Social Issues/Ethics