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Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.

 

 

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Thoughts from the Bi-Vocational Pastor: “The church is NOT your vocation.”

While I’ve allowed a bit more time to go by than I wanted to between posts, Bi-Vocational Ministry is still on my mind. To review, vocation is more about identity and being than economy and task.  If you want to get the “full version” you can read back to my original post.

Let’s move on to the subject of this post. The New York Times published an article stating that families today are more “stressed, tired, and rushed” in their lives than ever.  The writer offers a lot of conclusions from recent Pew Center research: both parents working, pressures of traditional gender roles, and increased activities for children are just some of the many things filling and competing for people’s lives today .  Maybe it’s too obvious to state this, but people’s lives are busy. Now I suppose we could enter into a moral/ethical critique of “busy,” but I don’t see that as very helpful, because “busy” isn’t a problem so much as it is a reality.

The question I’ve heard most church workers and leaders asking isn’t “What does this mean?” But rather “What should we do?”  Is the church part of the problem? How can the church help?

Is the church part of the problem?  My response is yes, but not intentionally.  Most are well aware of shifts in American life in the past 50 years and how that is affecting churches across America today.  There’s much research that’s been done to say that ways of doing church simply aren’t in rhythm with the schedule and pulse of people’s lives.  In short, church simply becomes one more thing on the plate, another item on the weekly and monthly calendar. Churches create programs (ministry), initiate marketing strategies (evangelism), offer education and training programs (discipleship), and offer events and opportunities to gather (fellowship) in an attempt to increase participation in church life.

Let me say that I think churches do this out of the belief and commitment that a life of faith in relationship with God is vital and beneficial for the world today.  That isn’t the problem; that’s a good thing! The problem is that by creating and offering more things to do, the church communicates that for a Christian – “the church IS your vocation.”  Not only should church be THE priority in a Christian’s life, but it is fundamentally the image of who a Christian is: a frequent and regular churchgoer.  The question has to be asked, “Are we as people of God more than that?”  I think so; and that leads church workers and leaders into reflecting on the idea that people are multi-vocational beings, i.e. “The church is not your vocation.”

How can church help? The starting point is asking the fundamental human question: “Who are we?”  For Christians, we look to the One in whom our identity is formed: Jesus Christ.  For congregations, ministry to the people they serve invites them into reflection on this identity, or vocational reflection.  What does it mean that Christ is at the center of who I am as a parent? Spouse? Employee?  Supervisor? What does it mean that God created me with the gifts and passions that drive and fulfill me, that give me life? How do I see my very life as a God-given gift?  The identity of congregations then, should be communities of vocational reflection.

Of course, these questions to lead to the logical question of “what then do these communities do?”  That answer varies with context and dynamics of the congregation’s history, size, and structure.  However, I do think congregations would do best by taking a “coaching” posture – accompanying people along life’s journey, affirming and challenging the ways they live faithfully to Christ in love and service toward God and neighbor. I would advocate for a return to more “traditional” practices and away from intricately organized programs.  Provide devotionals via email or social media. Hold an early morning breakfast/devotional group before the work day.  Provide opportunities for people to discover their spirit-given gifts through Strengthsfinder 2.0, MBTI, or similar inventories. Connect young people with particular work interests with adults in the congregation who work in those areas to do mutual vocational reflection through questions and learning.  Even worship (particularly preaching) should disciple people in the task of vocational reflection as a response to the Gospel.

And my shocker: shift weekly worship/education from Sunday morning to another time.  (I suggest Thursday evening.  I believe it can be done with some creativity.) I’m not just talking an alternative worship service.  Create an entirely separate worshipping community.  For large churches, this is easier.  For smaller congregations, perhaps the challenge is to shift your entire worshiping community to a different day of the week!

For Christians, the church is NOT your vocation.  But the church can help you live out your vocation, and that might be the best gift to offer people desperately seeking a connection with God and meaning for their lives.

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Sermon 31 August 2014: “On Discipleship”

Text: Matthew 16:21-28

I can only imagine that’s how Peter and the disciples felt when they heard Jesus talking about having to go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and he’d raise up three days later. They were already at odds with the Jewish elders and chief priest for everything Jesus had said, but they still followed. This Jesus guy was different…he healed people, did miracles no one else could, and man, the guy could preach, what a message! The disciples followed him all over…and they even believed, Peter even confessed, that Jesus might indeed be the “Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But to go back into Jerusalem, into the “hornet’s nest” so to speak…and all this talk about suffering and death – no wonder Peter took Jesus aside and scolded him….maybe more of a reminder:

“We still think you’re the Messiah Jesus, but this….this is not what we signed up for.”

Kelly and I were flying back from our vacation time in Minnesota this past spring, and I sat next to this guy, probably had to have been in his 40’s or early 50’s. And it turns out he was one of those guys who like to talk to people on the plane….well, of course, I was nice at first – small talk isn’t that bad – and we talked a little bit about ourselves….he was an Environmental Engineer coming out to do inspections in Hampton Roads….and then the dreaded question came out: “So, what do you do?” I’ve learned that the words “I’m a Lutheran pastor” usually get two responses, “One, what’s a Lutheran?” or two, I ended up hearing people’s entire confession and life story.

Well, the latter happened for me. And I have to admit, as this man told his story, there were points where I simply thought: “Why me? I didn’t sign up for this.”

What does it mean to be a disciple, to follow Jesus? The gospel text today gives what a lot of people think is a clear command from Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And what we’ve all probably heard along the way is that what Jesus means is that Christian discipleship, following Jesus is about doing “hard things.” Be more religious. Do more at church. Be willing to suffer for your faith, like Jesus.

But I think that kind of mentality towards discipleship puts us in a really big pickle: discipleship, a life of following Jesus either becomes a burden, a royal pain in the ass, or it becomes a way to make ourselves righteous “do-gooders” who pat ourselves on the back for what good Christians we are…but either way, it becomes about us, and our ability to do – or not do, or we can’t do – the “hard thing.”

Yesterday, I got a call in the morning….a call informing me that Foy Greenwood, [a long-time member of Holy Communion] who’s been a resident of Dominion Village nursing home for some time now….has been placed on hospice. And so I jumped in my truck and drove out to see Foy in the afternoon…..and we talked. And while he struggled to get the words out, his voice weak and tired, he said something that simply struck me:
He talked about how much he loves his church, and misses coming regularly. He talked about how he wasn’t always Lutheran – he was raised and had attended a Baptist church for a long time before coming to Holy Communion. And he said to me, this part crystal clear: “Now I have no problem with Baptists….the people in that church were lovely people. But Holy Communion is MY church….I know and love the people there and they know and love me…..”

Now here’s the thing: these two conversations, my chat on the plane and my chat with Foy really aren’t different. Because this guy on the plane had questions – questions around the struggles of being divorced and trying to be a good father to his teenage daughter who is struggling with issues that a lot of teenage girls face: image issues, identity, and depression. And Foy had a question for me, “How is my church? I heard times are tough….are new people coming?”

And I wonder, does the call to discipleship, to follow Jesus, rather than a challenge to do “hard things,” start with a question: “For what will it profit them if they gain the world but forfeit their life?”

And I thought about this more…..Discipleship isn’t about doing “hard things” but rather, it’s about asking ourselves the question of what’s truly life-giving….what in this life leads to an abundant life of hope and possibility….and what in this life kills and forfeits that.

And I think that makes discipleship primarily about questions of time and space. What do we invest our time in? I think about those two visits…..and while I can’t make sense how or why, I think it was time well invested – because a space was created. It was a space where two people had their humanity recognized. A space where for a moment, they didn’t feel alone. A space where they felt belonging. A space where Christ was truly present in the time we shared with one another.

Jesus isn’t challenging us to a life of doing “hard things.” Jesus is simply calling us to follow him. That is what Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is about….Christ has entered into humanity – our humanity – so deeply because he loves us, and to reveal to us the truth of where abundant life is found….He is calling us to follow him deeply into the lives of others – to laugh, cry, celebrate, suffer, and hope with one another. Jesus is calling us to follow him into a life of time and space….where human beings are valued and loved so much that things like compassion and forgiveness and grace and belonging are more than just nice ideas or concepts in our heads. They’re things we share and experience together in real, tangible ways….in incarnational ways.

What does it mean to be a disciple, to follow Jesus? My hope for you, is that as you ponder this question about life for yourself, you do so knowing that you follow the One who is faithful to us for all time, and that in the promise of His death and resurrection, a space- a home – always exists for you in His love and grace. Amen.

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The Project: “Mistakes are not Good…”

……when you keep making them over and over.

I’m coming up on 4 months in with my congregations at the end of the month. And if I were to sum up how it’s going, I’d say overall pretty good – but with the usual ups and downs that come with getting to know each other. They make mistakes, I make mistakes – we’re learning together and trying to listen to each other the best we can.

But there’s one mistake I keep making over and over: I tend to “jump on them” when they say certain things that seem “out of the box” when it comes to understanding what the church is and what ministry is about.

Let me give you a little background: both congregations have recent histories containing conflict and unhealthiness. They are both experiencing what many churches are experiencing today – declining and aging membership, burnout among those present, limited resources, and little to no children or youth in their congregations. And, like most churches, they are accountable for some of that, and some of it is simply that times have changed and a disconnect exists between the life of their church community and the community that surrounds them. Part of the understanding in calling me to be their pastor is that I might walk with them, and push them as needed, to imagine God’s mission and ministry for them in new ways and to new people.

Because of all this, sometimes they say and do things that don’t make sense, or seem out of line with the wide welcome of God’s grace and love. And that’s when it happens: I make the mistake, I jump on them.

Now, two things: they are pretty gracious with me. They do get defensive from time to time, but they will listen and do their best to take things to heart. They appreciate the honesty, even if it is blunt at times. And, I’m usually pretty quick to apologize, to acknowledge I’ve pushed a bit too far, been too harsh, too insistant. I will usually pull back and say all things are a choice, it is not my way or the highway.

But honestly, I’m tired of apologizing over and over, and honestly, this is a case where mistakes are not good; making the same mistake over and over. It doesn’t matter if I’m right; it doesn’t matter if it’s explained away by my passion for ministry or that I see great potential in an opportunity. It doesn’t matter that I’m in my first call as pastor and that I will make mistakes. It doesn’t matter because it’s void of any love or caring.

So I’ve got some work to do….on myself. Time to start making less mistakes….the recurring ones. Time to start loving a bit more, and being right a little less. Time to start entering relationships with openness, rather than coming in, ready to fight. That’ll be hard for me – I’m hard-headed, and heck, I’m a wrestler, conflict and struggle are a way of life in some ways. But those are just excuses…..

…..excuses that try to dismiss the fact my mistakes are not good. And to keep making them will do a lot more harm than good.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this – perhaps through sharing my stupid mistakes, you might avoid them yourself. And that would be pretty damn cool if that’s what came out of all this….that, and me not making stupid mistakes anymore.

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Giving Thanks: Voices of Wisdom

I was checking out my Twitter feed this morning when I saw Luther Seminary tweeted an article about Professor Gracia Grindal’s retirement in June after 30 years of service.

While not the most well-known or popular among students of recent years, Professor Grindal is one of the reasons I stayed in Seminary, and am now a pastor. She’s spent time around central Minnesota, where I grew up, and has that way about her, like the people I grew up around: humble, matter-of-fact, salt of the earth. In her 30 years, she’s seen a lot of changes in the world and the church, and yet as continued to honor both the traditions of the church and share her passion for hymns and rhetoric.

One, she took the time to ask me how I was doing; because clearly something was bothering me that spring of my first year. Two, as I expressed my doubts of having a place in the church as a pastor, and my frustations over the church, she said,

“You know, in all my years there have been times I disagreed with and been upset about what the church does. But I still love the church.”

And those words, and that wisdom has stuck with me today. I give thanks for people like Professor Grindal, her wisdom, and her love of the church. And as I live as a pastor, husband, brother, friend, and wrestling coach, that serves as a good reminder:

Commitment is the sustained love and passion for something or someone, even through those times when conflict or difficulty arises.

Thank you Professor Gindal, and all those who have shared their wisdom with me. And for those of you out there, hopefully you’re reminded of those great voices of wisdom that have crossed your path as well.

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Getting Over Tattoos: My take on the “Nadia Phenomenon”

Well, I’m finally joining in on the “Nadia Phenomenon.”

Sort of.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church I am also a pastor in. In case you haven’t paid much attention, Nadia has been pretty mainstream these days, which for any Lutheran, is about as common as my Minnesota Vikings football team winning these days.

A couple things here: One, I have never met Nadia. So I realize I’m definitely doing a whole lot of assuming, which is dangerous. Two, it’s kind of hard to avoid that though, especially when said person is doing interview spots on TV, getting interviewed by Krista Tippett, and has had her memoir make the NY Times bestseller list.

And honestly, that’s the one thing about the “Nadia Phenomenon” that bothers me, and at the same time has kept me from responding: the “marketing package” that is Nadia, the subsequent rockstar-like status people have elevated her to, and her strange preoccupation (and neurosis perhaps?) with those who trash her and what she says. For me, why be another one of the mob? Think for myself, I say, see though the packaging and the bullshit.

But then I came across this article on Nadia in the Washington Post. It is refreshingly well-written, and it gets to the heart of what I like so much about Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Nadia embodies a Christianity that is full of integrity; a Christianity that is sorely needed in today’s world.

Nadia talks about being all about God’s grace, and she is. If you cut through all the “packaging,” past the profanity, the tough image, the tattoos….you’ll see honesty, courage, and joy: things that spring forth from the experience with God’s grace.

And that grace is lived out – she quickly points out when she misses the mark, when she needs to self-correct, ask for forgiveness, and move on. She sees that God’s grace isn’t just for her own self-enjoyment and affirmation, it also shapes how she sees and deals with others.

And it’s this that really convinces me of her integrity:
She doesn’t apologize for who she is, but she will apologize for what she does when it misses the mark. That is all God’s grace.

On a personal note, that’s how it works for me too. I’ve gotten there a different way and understand it through the sport of wrestling, but that is how it works for me. Honesty. Courage. Freedom. Willing to admit when I screw up and ask for forgiveness, but then moving on.

I’m not trying to, and have no desire to put myself on the same level as Nadia; the course God has her on is simply, not one I feel called to. But when I look past the packaging, I get it. And I appreciate it. And I’ll keep on doin’ what I do.

For her naysayers and critics out there: I say get over it. Get over whatever it is about her that pisses you off, and read her book. Listen to her interview with Krista Tippett. Read her sermons on her blog.

For the dismissive folks out there, the “that’s nothing that isn’t already happening in our congregations” crowd: look past the stuff on the surface and hear the integrity in her words. Chances are there’s something you can learn there about yourself.

For the record, I’m still not joining in on the “Nadia Phenomenon.” (I don’t think she’d want me to either, and it’s not my style)

I think it’s a pretty damn good thing though.

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My First Synod Ministerium Conference: Some thoughts…

Last week, I got a dose of reality that I am a pastor: Synod Ministerium Conference, or also known to some as a gathering of pastors. It was good overall; networking, getting to know folks, and of course, wrestling with things that were said and their implications for ministry.

1. The church has a language problem. An insider language problem to be exact. Words like “justification, sanctification, evangelical, stewardship,” and even words like “love, grace” hold all sorts of meanings and in some cases, come with a lot of baggage as well. These are words that “insiders” understand (or do they?), but those outside the church tradition/institution have all sorts of misconceptions about, or no clue at all.

We have to be better translators of these words. I don’t think it’s helpful to throw them out, just as it’s not helpful to simply keep hammering them into people until they “get it.” We have to translate them in a way the world will get their meaning. That means understanding context matters. Think of it this way: translation is the work of the church that participates in the Word of God speaking to the world, today.

2. There is no “social gospel” or “evangelical gospel.” It’s just the GOSPEL. Frankly I’m tired of the arguments and critiques on this one. In fact, I think it’s a nonissue for outside the church institution. Yes, I get that the social gospel implies that human action is equal to God’s action, and that’s problematic. Yes, I get people need to hear about what God does for them in Christ – the evangelical gospel.

But sometimes “good news” comes in the form of feeding – like 5 loaves and two fish. Sometimes gospel is heard through the words, “I found you a job” or “You have health care.” I think Lutherans overdo the “works righteousness” thing to a fault sometimes – and it leads to inaction. But, God is a God of ACTION. God loves, God forgives. Christ heals, Christ feeds. Christ died, Christ rose from the dead.

If we still believe that God is present and active in and through the world today, why is it so hard to believe that perhaps God might be working through our actions? I agree, our actions are inadequate and will not bring about total salvation in any way – only God alone can do that. But our action witnesses to the reality of a God who acts, to the good news that God actually is concerned with the reality of the world here and now, and we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God – where God is breaking into the world today, and a taste of the fullness of what God in Christ will bring.

Moreover, a church that enters deeply into the deep reality of suffering, injustice, and problems of the world – no matter how complicated or messy they might be – is being a church of the cross. It is a church that points to God’s presence in a suffering, injust, problem-filled world, and action to raise it to new life.

3. Partnerships are vital for the 21st Century church. I’m always energized by conversations about what other people are doing and thinking about. I’m not great at creating on my own, but rather, I’m one of those guys that can play off other’s imaginations and ideas. Like a musician who perhaps “fills in the notes” on the page, I love partnerships because sometimes, I need a sheet of music to get me going, to give me something to play, but in a particular way in my context.

And, I think in this day and age where the church is facing the reality of having to do “more with less,” partnerships are great, because we can also find ways to share resources. We can share information. We can help people find faith communities that draw them deeper into relationship with God, rather than be forced to try to fit them awkwardly into our own.

If our motivation as the church and in ministry is to draw people into a deep and meaningful relationship with God, then why would it matter where that happens? We rejoice…even if we don’t derive direct benefit from it. Partnerships are great….and perhaps seeking them out will energize people and congregations who are honestly, feeling a bit exhausted at being church these days.

Well, there’s where I’m at. Lots to wrestle with, and now that I’m a pastor serving two congregations, that wrestling really matters now. And I’m thankful for that!

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