Tag Archives: ELCA

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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Sermon 29 Jan 2017, Grace Lutheran, Chesapeake, VA

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:-12

“Adversity does not build character,  it reveals it.”

I’m a big fan of quotes.  I like to write them down for inspiration, and this one is in the top 5 of my all-time favorites.  The idea that adversity is not some test where we make ourselves better – building character – but rather it simply reveals what’s at the center of who we are.  That actually sounds a bit theological, doesn’t it?

But before I go there, let me pose this question to you: what is adversity revealing about our society these days?  Now maybe you disagree with me, but I think we are facing quite a bit of adversity in our nation these days.  And that adversity is revealing something about our collective character. We’re obsessed with human character.

We’re preoccupied with human character: namely, the complete poverty of others’ character and the not quite as impoverished state of our own.   I think we see that playing out in society….on a large scale, it’s over the social and political issue of the day.  Or on a smaller scale, it’s that random driver who doesn’t let us merge onto I-64 on the way to work on any given day.  (Ok, that’s really about me….but I’d like to think I’m not the only one!)

Here’s the thing: this obsession, this preoccupation with human character colors our worldview, how we see things. It also colors who we interpret things…..take scripture, for example.  Take our texts for today.  If we think they only reveal something about human character, then these texts are either a definitive list of who’s side God is one or a set of rules to make ourselves better people, namely, a better Christian. The Beatitudes in Matthew, the call to “love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God” in Micah, and the “wisdom of suffering” in 1 Corinthians are nothing more than ways to validate ourselves while at the same time cast absolute judgment on others.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine this past week about the joys and valleys of marriage.  He and his wife have been fighting over the past couple months.  At first, he was judgmental, pointing out to his wife the ways she wasn’t measuring up.  That in turn led to him beating himself up, and thus trying to please his wife…but really trying to absolve himself of his guilt, which would eventually make him feel resentful and the cycle would begin all over again.  The cycle: character assassination, which lead to character suicide, and then circling back and repeating itself.  It drove my friend and his wife further and further apart.  But then my friend had a revelation: he decided to stop trying to please his wife, and please God instead.  When he did that, he remarked, things got better in their marriage.

Now, my friend is Pentecostal, so my cynical, Lutheran side says “it’s not that simple; it’s never that simple!”  But what if today’s texts are not so much fixated on our character, but rather the revelation of God’s character?   It is a God who loves kindness, a God who is just, and who humbles Godself in in Jesus Christ in order to walk with us.  It is a God who blesses people in their weakness and vulnerability, not their self-seeking and self-sufficient ways, blessing them in the recognition of their own poverty of spirit and body.  It is a God who regards vulnerability and weakness as power that draws us closer to each other and to God. God’s character in the face of adversity is total, unconditional, complete love, mercy, and grace for those who know all too well the impoverished nature of human character.

Which brings me back to the adversity we face these days. A new President has been sworn in and already in his first week in office the country is deep in controversy that’s revealing the darker side of human character: injustice, hate, fear, and violence towards others.  There are a lot of preachers this morning, and rightly so, who are boldly proclaiming to their congregations to take a definitive stand against injustice and hate,  telling them exactly what that looks like and what is Christian or unChristian.  Funny thing is, that message sounds exactly the same from both sides of the argument.  It an obsession with human character.

Well, I’m not going to do that this morning.  I’m not that good of a preacher to pull it off but if I’m really being honest, it’s because I realize the own impoverished state of my own character.  Life is complex, life is messy, decisions have consequences we and others have to struggle and live with, often for a long time.  So as I thought of what I could offer you this morning, I thought the best thing I can do is leave you with this question:

What would it mean as people of faith – both individually and as a community – to fixate on God’s character?  It probably doesn’t lead to a whole lot of answers, but in my relatively short life I’ve learned this much: when we receive God’s love, we become more capable of loving others.  When we receive God’s mercy, we become merciful towards others.  When we accept God’s justice, we in turn become more just towards others.  When we accept God’s graciousness, we become more gracious towards others. We become less fearful, and much less fixated on our own goodness and the not-so-goodness of others.  We fixate on the character of God….and our character is changed.  

What would it mean to fixate on God’s character?  In the face of injustice and hate, perhaps our words and actions reveal the very character of God.  In the face of adversity and all the uncertainty of what we should do….perhaps that is enough.  Amen.

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The Politics of the Pulpit: Preaching on Sunday, 9/11

September 11th, 2016 will be somewhat of a rarity for preachers: it is the 15th Anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. For most of us, we can recall what happened and where we were on that morning in 2001. Some have called it our generation’s defining event, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War was for their respective generations.

However, it’s defined us in a completely different way. We’re not like the Pearl Harbor generation, who collectively rallied together as a nation in support of the nation’s involvement in WWII. Yet we’re also not like the Vietnam War generation, who collectively divided as a nation to its involvement overseas. I’d like to think today we’re somewhere in between. Instead, we have collectively rallied together as a nation – and caught a case of amnesia.

Perpetual war and violence has become our new normal. Two articles I read recently highlight this: one by a retired general suggesting that there is no endpoint to the post-9/11 war, and another explaining that the devastation in Louisiana has received little attention because ratings show we’re more captivated by who the next President will be, rather than another story about death. News about war and violence have become just another news article to post on social media, a footnote in our lives rather than a reality that shakes it and turns it upside down. However, I don’t think it’s because the majority of us have become indifferent and apathetic. Perhaps the reality is so painful that instead, we push it completely out of our consciousness. When someone does bring it to the center of our community, the result is conversation often turns into a fight over ideology where fingers are pointed, lines are drawn, and a war of words ensues where no one wins.

It’s no wonder that we then get political about the pulpit.

We get political about what we say because we’re always measuring the effect our words will have on our hearers. A good number of pastors and preachers do this as a means of good pastoral care. Yet it’s a completely different thing when one weighs the effect in terms of personal risk and cost. One only has so much social capital they can draw from, and one divisive comment or topic from the pulpit can bankrupt you in a moment’s notice. Having amnesia ourselves as preachers becomes an enticing alternative when faced with prospect of addressing 9/11, the following war, and violence on a Sunday morning. A colleague posted on social media: “Just like the Sunday near Veterans Day or Memorial Day or July 4th, ignoring it [9/11] is a missed opportunity. Yet over-doing it risks the idolatry of patriotism masked as religious faith.” It’s a delicate line and the stakes are high for one’s ministry. What’s a preacher to do?

I ask you indulge me in a bit of testimony: as I sit here and write this, I realize that I have 15 years of service in the United States Navy as a Submariner and Chaplain. My whole Naval career has been spent at war, and I recognize I have classmates, shipmates, and friends who have died in combat, died in training, and live, but do so bearing scars and wounds both on the outside and within. It is a sobering reality, but I at least know this: it’s real.

What’s not so real to me is when I take off my uniform and join society around me. To see the rest of the nation living as if war and its effects don’t exist creates a tension that’s difficult to live in. From time to time I receive a “thank you for your service” or someone buys me a cup of coffee, but overall life outside the Navy feels odd, disconnected, artificial, and lonely. I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck around as a chaplain; because I think the best part of my day is when the service men and women who frequent my path share with great honesty their stories, struggles, and experiences. They share why they chose to serve – those reasons often connected to the events of September 11th, 2001 – and things  feel a bit more real for me.

And when I sit in the pew on Sunday, I need to hear more than just a petition in the prayers. I need to hear something from the pulpit, but not a word that romanticizes my military service as some sort of sacrificial act of Jesus-love. Nor do I need to hear a word that condemns the motivations and forces behind my military service as some sort of message of prophetic justice.

I need to hear about a God who is incarnate in the sobering reality of the last 15 years and likely the next 15 and beyond. I need to hear about a God who still comes to seek the lost and somehow is still present long after the fantasy of Eden vanishes from our sight. What I need to hear is that there is a community outside of the uniform I wear that doesn’t have amnesia when it comes to the reality of these last 15 years of war. I need preachers to be honest: both about the fact war and violence is a reality we can’t turn away from, and that it is a reality that God in Christ is fully present with us in.

That’s no easy thing for a preacher to do for reasons beyond just the politics of the pulpit. It would be easier for you to have amnesia that day. However, if there ever is a time to eschew the politics of preaching and to snap people out of their collective amnesia, this might be the Sunday to do it – from the pulpit. It’s likely people will be really listening….I know I will be.

The thoughts expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or Navy Chaplain Corps in an official capacity. 

 

 

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Sermon 14 August 2016:The Problem of Loyalty

Text: Luke 12:49-56

Grace and peace from God our Father, and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. I’m a guest this morning, filling in for Pastor Harry and as a guest I come bringing peace to you! (Note: I picked this up drew it and started waving and pointing it at people!) 

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I bring peace and unity, not division! I come to bring comfort, not uneasiness and fear!  Now perhaps you’re not really believing my message of peace….which might have to do with me waving this sword around and pointing it at you. Words of peace are pretty thin when accompanied by fear, aren’t they? In fact, it probably feels more like coercion; they feel more like a demand.  And it seems, at least to me, there’s a lot of those messages going around these days:

“Let’s make America great again!”

“It’s time to put a woman in the White House.”

“hashtag: [fill in the blank] lives matter”….filling in the blank how we see fit.

And Christians seem to be caught up in it as well: “As Christians, we need to unite and take a stand.”

I’m one of those people who likes to engage on social media, and I get drawn into some discussions online…..probably against my better judgment. At least that’s what my wife tells me! This past week I found myself in such discussion where a lady was asserting – no, insisting – that very last sentiment to me.  There’s a war on Christianity in America, and we need to rally together to make sure Jesus and the church don’t lose.  I pushed back on that notion because as a Christian, I just don’t think I’m at war with anyone.  In response to my pushback, she questioned my loyalty to Jesus.

A couple things came to mind as I hear Jesus’ words from our text this morning: one, we got it backwards.  He said, “Do you think I came to bring peace to this earth?  No, rather I come to bring division!”   I think Jesus is giving us a warning: there’s a danger when the promise of peace and unity is connected to a demand for loyalty. Yet there’s another danger here: if we somehow reason Jesus’ words as a challenge to where our loyalties lie, then the demand for loyalty shifts from humans to God. If God demands our loyalty in exchange for peace and unity, then it has implications for God’s character – who God is.  God is one who demands our complete and total loyalty – or else. And unlike the demand that comes from humans, the implications aren’t just for this world….they’re also eternal.

I wonder this morning if Jesus isn’t asking us where our loyalties lie, but rather Jesus is challenging the very notion of loyalty itself.

Some of you may have seen the movie “42”.  It’s the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, breaking the color barrier in baseball. I re-watched the movie recently, and what struck me is that the rule about no African-Americans in Major League Baseball was an unwritten one.  Actually, it wasn’t a rule at all: it was loyalty to the long-held belief that Major League Baseball was and should remain a “white man’s game” and there was no place for the African-American in it.  Loyalty to that belief lasted until Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to sign Jackie Robinson – against the better judgment of his advisors and peers, and despite warnings and threats by many.  During the movie, it was apparent that Ricky wasn’t sure how bringing Robinson into baseball would turn out.  All he knew was that the loyalty to the idea that black players should be excluded from Major League Baseball was killing his love of the game. And so he took a chance, a leap of faith perhaps, on playing Jackie Robinson….and the rest is history.

The thing about loyalty is that comes at a cost.  We tend to judge and seek sameness, limping along fearing that if we let the unknown or that which is different into our lives, it’ll be the death of us.  But the thing about loyalty is that sides are taken, lines are drawn, and we entrench ourselves with the group.  All this sounds a lot like….war. And in war people take up arms, whether it be words, which do damage but have their limit, or what’s becoming too common in our world today, people are choosing to pick up real weapons.  One thing’s certain when it comes to war – pain and suffering.

Perhaps this morning, God isn’t demanding our loyalty. Instead, God invites us to be faithful.

Faith calls us to look beyond ourselves and our sameness to a greater world around us, a world that God created, loves, and redeems…all of it.  Faith calls us to a life of sacrifice and love for the sake of others – especially those we fear and things we don’t understand.  Faith calls us to stop doing violence to ourselves and others.  Faith calls us to run the race – not to win, but with perseverance. Faith is the call to trust – and nothing more.

In a time where powers and forces are preying upon our fears, creating paranoia, then demanding our loyalty under the premise of peace, let us look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Jesus, the One frees us from the bondage of loyalty and its demands. Jesus, the one who is faithful to us….and that faithfulness is a promise that costs us nothing but gives us all – the very peace and joy and freedom we seek for ourselves, for each other, for our nation, for our world.  Amen.

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Just another blog on leadership….

….or maybe not.

Talking to most pastors, leadership conversation usually centers on the quality of what one does.  It’s about HOW one leads, HOW one gets people or an organization to do what it’s supposed to, or how we put it in my line of work, what they’re called to do.

But I believe leadership is about YOU – the leader.  It is fundamentally about WHY you lead and WHO you are.  That is what is known as character, or integrity.  The best leaders are able to answer the “why” and “who” questions, and aren’t afraid to honestly reflect and wrestle with them.  I ask myself: “What can I learn?” versus “Was I successful or a failure?”  I know the first question is an exercise on reflecting on one’s character.  The second, I’m not sure what it’s about fully, but the temptation to be dishonest with one’s self and shift blame is present.  Considering the last almost 3 years of pastoral ministry, I thought I’d pass on some of my learning to you leaders out there for something to chew on.  So without further ado…..

1. There are usually 2 sides to every issue….or 3. Or 5.  When people bring their “issues” to me, I remind myself that it’s simply their perspective.  You know the old adage, “there’s your side, my side, and the truth.”  While it’s important to always here someone’s story and perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should accept it as objective, absolute truth…..because there’s always another side to the story.  In today’s world, it’s acceptable to overreact to every issue,  and we’re learning the outcomes are divisive and tragic.  I’ve learned not accepting the first, second, or even the eighth side I hear slows me down and allows me to be a non-anxious presence, rather than an anxiety-producing one.

2.  Don’t let people steal your joy.  I am one of those rare pastors who doesn’t derive my sole joy in life from my job. (Note sarcasm) Each of us has something that brings us sustained, unlimited joy in our lives.  It’s that thing that keeps us going.  No one but you and I are responsible for making room for it, however; it’s ours, and if we’re not careful, we can let people and distractions steal it from us and we become a shell of who we really are.  Worse yet, we become unhealthy and unfit to lead.  Sure, there is a degree of sacrifice that comes with being a pastor, but you’re not called to be a martyr. Don’t let people steal your joy.

3.  Lead out of acceptance, not affirmation.  I used to be one of those people who sought affirmation of others to define my self-worth.  However, affirmation often is hitched to the wagon of success.  What happens when that wagon departs and you’re left holding failure?  I’ve learned that people’s praise is often fleeting…tied to their expectations, their level of satisfaction, and their definition of success.  Acceptance is taking things at face value.  It’s knowing who you are, your limits and capabilities, what you can offer and what you cannot.  It’s also knowing – and accepting – the same in those you lead.  Acceptance is not holding on to things too tightly, because they’re not really yours to begin with.  Acceptance is understanding leaders aren’t in total control, which leads me to a couple supporting ideas:

  • Accept failure as simply consequence of decisions/actions vice an indictment on you, and learn from it.
  • There are limits to what’s within your control; but be ok taking control of what is within the sphere of your role.
  • As a leader, you often get what you earn, good or bad.

Finally, acceptance has led me to understand that only standard I need to evaluate myself by is God’s.  The minute I cannot be true to who God has created and called me to be, is to be in denial of what’s truth.  Acceptance is accepting that good news as…truth.

4.  Whether you succeed or fail, know why.  Any fool can get lucky and hit the jackpot.  Conversely, fools also tend to pass blame when failure comes.  In either case, it’s leadership by shotgun approach and totally random.  Good leaders at their core are intentional about learning – they take the time to know why something succeeded or failed.  When success comes, they can replicate it.  When failure results, they can learn and change.  Leaders who know why things succeed or fail (or take the time to discover it) provide stability and wisdom to the people and places they lead.

5. It is important to have a fundamental belief in the people you lead and the community’s mission/vision.  Perhaps a softer way to say this is “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”  But it’s deeper than that.  People and the church deserve your best.  If cynicism sets in to the point where you don’t believe in people or the community’s ability to give their best or to fulfill what God has called them to, then it’s time for you to leave.  That doesn’t mean you’re a jerk nor that there’s something wrong with your people.  It’s just a sign that perhaps it’s time for you both to part ways before apathy – or worse – sets in.

6.  Compromising doesn’t mean compromising who you are and who you’re called to be.  Know your “why.”  This has two parts.  Let me start with the first one: compromise.  There is a big problem in congregations, and that is the idol of “nice.”  People hold up this idol and compromise becomes the sacrifice at the altar of “nice.”  What it means is that the leader always should “be nice” and thus be a compromiser.  What this compromising ends up being is that the leader and their decisions are subject to the expectations, satisfaction, and definition of success of others.  Over time leaders compromise what they are about and the ministry they feel called to do.

That leads me to the second part of this.  I think compromise runs rampant when leaders forget their “why.”  One’s “why” is as simple as what makes you get out of bed in the morning.  It’s the motivation behind what you do, your call, your reason for existing.  Whether it’s comfort, apathy, fear, or a host of other things, the result is we tend to forget our “why.”  That’s when we start compromising – ourselves and our vocation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  What other things do you think are important when it comes to thinking about leading with character or integrity?  What does it mean to you to lead with one’s character and integrity intact?

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Sermon 8 May 2016: “Jesus rose from the dead: A confession.”

Text: 1 Corinthaians 15:1-26; 51-58

“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again….”  On the third day he rose again.  Jesus rose from the dead.

These words might sound familiar to you: it is our confession of faith, the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We say them every Sunday, and we’ll say them again later in worship today. But I wonder, what difference does this confession that Jesus rose from the dead make?  Why is it so important that Paul insisted on the Corinthians’ faith was in vain if they didn’t believe it?  What makes the news that Jesus rose from the dead so powerful and life-changing for our lives today…..what makes it gospel?

I wonder if the notion of Jesus actually coming back to life after lying for 2 days in a tomb isn’t a bit ridiculous for us today.  This isn’t some story of resuscitation in the news where someone was clinically dead on the operating table and then miraculously comes to.  Jesus suffered and died.  His body was beaten and broken, and they stuck a spear in his side and all his blood and fluid came out, and it lay there wasting away for two days.  Jesus was dead.  And then he came back to life.   Jesus overcame and was victorious over suffering and death.  God is certainly powerful enough to resurrect Jesus, and certainly is powerful enough to resurrect us too one day.

Yet, I think we still remain skeptical.  We spend so much time in this life avoiding the reality of death.  We exercise, eat right, avoid putting certain chemicals into our body or breathing them, and take medicine and undergo procedures that will in theory keep us alive as long as possible.  Or, we try to cram as much “stuff” as we can into this life – you only get one life, is how the saying goes.  Yet, death and suffering still exist in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid and we’ll all face it someday.  I think whether consciously or subconsciously, we know that.  Death and suffering is a part of this life.  We see it in the news, and it comes near us as well.  That is true for me; this past week, for example.

One of my wrestlers, a great kid, and who’s looking forward to his senior season, learned his parents are separating and divorcing, and he’ll have to face that.

Countless friends and people I care about face illness and disease that bring with it the reality that they face death – their own mortality.

A friend of mine celebrates this Mother’s Day mourning her stillborn child of a couple month ago.

There are sons and daughters who mourn because they have no mother to celebrate and honor today.

And there are congregations facing uncertain futures in unfavorable circumstances.

It makes you wonder…..is there any hope found in trusting in the news of Jesus rising from the dead?  Is there any power in the notion that a man, who was God, rose from the dead?  What kind of victory did Jesus win for us exactly?

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, spent a portion of his life doing humanitarian work around the world after he left the Navy.  His travels took him to India, where he worked in one of Mother Theresa’s homes.  Now you probably know that Mother Theresa served the poor in India, but did you know that the beginning of her ministry, and a good part of it that still exists today, was running a home to help the poor die?  Greitens served in one of these homes, where the nuns who worked there would help the poorest of the poor die with dignity.  Patients were seriously physically ill, some severely mentally ill, and all coming from the streets and sewers of India.  The nuns cared for these people, tending to their illnesses, washing them, and feeding them, but also living with them – laughing, singing, doing chores in the home together, and praying together – as these poor faced their death, and eventually, dying with dignity. Greitens came across one little boy who could barely walk.  He had come in from the streets, crippled at birth and so malnourished he contracted an incurable disease. But every day he would greet Greitens by saying “namaste.” Fascinated with Greitens, he would follow him around the home, brightly exclaiming “namaste” over and over.  Saying “namaste” is a greeting in Hindu, much like our hello, but it translates to“The Spirit in me sees the Spirit in you.”  It is saying, “I see the divine in you.”

To see the divine in another, perhaps, is to see Jesus in another.  And to minister and care for others in the face of death so that they may die with dignity – it is a mystery, but perhaps that is the victory that’s won.  Jesus rose from the dead so that we might know that the divine exists in this life – God takes on human flesh.  God is with us in this life.  God is with us in death.  And Jesus overcame death so that we might know that death is not the defining end of human life, but rather, just another step in it.  Our lives are much bigger in the eyes of God, and the promise is we will one day be raised from the dead along with our loved ones and all people just as Jesus has been raised.  Death is not an end, and in this life we simply face it – with God, with each other – caring for each other, and living with each other.  Mother Theresa understood this in her lifetime….she had faith in the power that one day, God will raise us all just as God has done with Jesus.  A mystery indeed, but a victory won.  The victory is that we have been liberated from the clutches of death; we have been liberated from the fear and pain that death causes.  We have been liberated from death, so that we may life NOW.

So let us confess today and every day that Christ has risen from the dead.  Yet in saying these words, let us also confess the power in them: “Oh death, where is thy victory?  Oh death, where is thy sting?”  Amen.

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The Bi-Vocational Pastor’s Manifesto

The other day, I watched this super fascinating TED Talk by Emilie Wapnick.  It’s worth the 13 minutes to watch it.  Watching it, this thought caught my attention:

“It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?”

What if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?

My response?  “I’m not wired this way.”  My life right now is proof of that.  I have three great callings in my life: pastor, Navy chaplain, and wrestling coach.  (I don’t forget also that I’m a husband to my wife Kelly as well, so make that four!) I love each of these callings for what they bring to my life, how they compliment each other, and for how I see God at work in and through not just myself, but those I interact with.  I hate that I feel pressure to conform to our current understandings of vocation and work, that I have to choose between them and prioritize them into a fixed structure that then becomes my career.

That just doesn’t work for me. As I’ve stated, vocation is more about who I am versus what I do.  Such a notion of “vocation as one true calling” doesn’t seem true to who I am.  Moreover, as someone who truly loves being a pastor and believes that at the heart of ministry is relationship, it’s hard to reduce all of that to the realm of religious convention – the provider, performer, and manager of programs and services that happen in the building called “church” only.

A bit of a rant:  I get tired of colleagues and churchgoers who, when I tell them about my other roles as coach and chaplain and that I’m part-time in my call, make passive-aggressive comments that imply that I’m either not committed to being a pastor or that I’m not a “real pastor.”  I can read between the lines of comments: how overly busy I am, that I’m not in my office, or that I seem to care more about the non-members than the members.  The sentiment is I’m not 100% dedicated to being a pastor simply because I’m not physically around 100% of the time.

As I sit here and read what I just typed, I am sympathetic to an extent.  I can understand that it seems like I’m not 100% committed to the people I’m called to be pastor to.  They’re the ones who pay my salary and so isn’t there an expectation for the goods and services they’re paying for?  Shouldn’t they get their money’s worth out of my time?

I think we’ve done a poor job as pastors and leaders in ministry by equating physical presence with relational presence.  The truth is, your rear can be physically planted in the office 40 hours a week, but you can be totally checked out relationally. Fact is, I am committed to my congregations relationally.  Yet relationship implies that there is a mutuality to the arrangement: congregation members have a commitment and responsibility to their relationship with their pastor and to the life and ministry of the church.  For me, the vocation of the church is inherently relational.  It’s just as much if not more about our commitment to living out who we are as what we do in the name of Christ.  In the end, if we truly understand vocation as identity, then we shouldn’t have to choose.  For pastors and leaders like myself, we shouldn’t have to choose.

So what are bi-vocational pastors all about?  What do they have to offer congregations that the conventional full-time pastor or ministry leader may not provide?  I offer two “big ideas” about what bi-vocational leaders provide in ministry: Discipleship through modeling and “being church” as “co-conspirators” of mission and ministry.

Discipleship through modeling.  We are “multi-vocational beings” in that we have many roles, or stations (as Luther stated), in which our Spirit-given gifts, skills, and abilities are put to use.  I am a Christ-follower whether I’m behind the pulpit and altar on a Sunday, ministering to the sailors in my command, or on the mat at 3pm for practice.  My faith informs what I do, and those I am with inform my faith through the sharing of experiences and life.

Most pastors and ministry leaders feel it is their responsibility to help people in their walk with Christ – discipleship.  We not only want to make disciples, but be better disciples ourselves.  Traditionally, we’ve done that through bible studies, excellent sermons, ministry events and programs, and providing learning resources, to name a few.

But what if we modeled discipleship for people?  One of the great lessons I learned both growing up on the farm and in the Navy was “lead by example.”  Bi-vocational pastors and leaders are at the very heart of their ministry modeling discipleship; they are modeling how to integrate faithful living into the everyday commitments and passions of life.  I juggle schedules just like everyone else does.  I am more than just a guy who stands in front of people on Sundays or visits them when they are sick or have a problem.  Such modeling, I believe, communicates to people that their faith is made up of more than just what they do in the name of X Lutheran Church or Y Methodist Church, or within its walls.  Faith is something that encompasses their whole lives, the whole of who they are.  That is vocation.

Being church as “co-conspirators” of mission & ministry.  So the logical question out of what I just wrote about discipleship is “who’s making sure that church happens then?”  A fair question….particularly if the pastor’s not around the building as much.

Confession: I just don’t like the expectation that I am somehow solely responsible for the successes or failures of a congregation.  Yes, the secular definitions say that ultimately, accountability and responsibility of an organization resides with the leader.  This line of thinking also leads to the justification that leaders then have ultimate authority within the organization.  Both sentiments fall short within the understandings of church as community.  Being church must fall under a more relational, shared model.

Congregations that call bi-vocational leaders are committed to this way of being church.  Bi-vocational pastors and leaders are called to be “co-conspirators” of a congregation’s mission and ministry.  They are called as resources, advisors, and coaches who accompany congregations in carrying out God’s mission in being church.  Leadership within a congregation becomes shared, and thus, decisions more communal.  Yet I think there is an even greater benefit to bi-vocational leaders: it fosters the idea that all within the community are missionaries.  Vocation, then is about being a missionary – one who shares Christ’s love in relationship with the world.  Being church is about being a community of missionaries who share this primary vocation of being Christ-followers in the world.  Being church is about being a community of missionaries who gather, weary from their labors to give praise, learn, and care for one another.  The responsibilities of the community within and outside the walls of the church are mutually borne together.

I am a missionary as a pastor who encounters newcomers who walk through the doors of the church, who talks with those familiar folks facing new experiences of faith in their lives.  I am a missionary who serves young adults 18-22 serving in our Navy and Marine Corps all over the world.  I am a missionary who bears the ups and downs of wins and losses, cutting weight, and who wrestle not only with opponents, but with themselves in a particular context – on a wrestling mat.   My vocation calls me to ministry within and outside the boundaries I call “church.”  And I suspect, that the same is true for people in congregations across the United States.

I am not wired this way; for one set line of work, at least.  I have too many interests and frankly, don’t see any benefit in giving any of them up in favor of the other.  I don’t expect every congregation, colleague, or person to totally get it or even agree with it.  But when I think of everything the church is facing these days, my belief that this Christ who died and raised for us still matters, and my vocation proclaims Christ crucified and risen, even though it’s strange….I guess I’m totally fine with that.  Even more, I think God is too.

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