>More and More the Desire Grows


HousingImage by james.thompson via Flickr

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.
“My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.
“But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes and hugs that you do not simply like them- but truly love them.” – Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!

I’m not sure if it’s “more and more,” but it’s clear to me that some of the holiest of times in ministry come too infrequently.  The most holiest of times are the most intimate, when I am entering into the life of those around me, when I’m breaking bread, not leading communion…when I’m listening, not teaching…when I’m participating in life, not planning for it…when I’m celebrating successes and mourning losses…when I’m connecting most deeply with those around me…when, I feel, my life is most “incarnational.”
I’m not sure if it’s “more and more,” but I know the list of things I have to accomplish in a day of ministry can seem to pull me away from things that matter most.  Yes, I know there are things which just must be done.  There are tasks that just have to be accomplished.  There are reports to file.  There are web pages to update.  There are meetings to be held.  And I do them.  But, at the end of the day, I ask myself where have I connected with those around me?  Where is it that I have truly loved?  Perhaps that’s why I really go to the coffee shops…
I’m not sure if it’s “more and more” but I am feeling a great need…a great pastoral need to love persons deeply and to share life with them.   I feel a need to give myself up in love and not hold back.  And I feel a need for our church to do that as well…our church which has increasing bills to pay, ministries to plan, work teams to house, worship services to conduct.  How do we love…more than “plan to love”?  How do we participate in a ministry of presence…knowing that the stuff of life and business and work still happens around us and in us?
More and more, deep inside of me, I feel a call to love those whom God has given me…those whom he has placed near me, or placed me near them.
And the ironic thing is that the meetings, the planning, the work of the church is the way in which I go about doing this.
This…is how I know to love.
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>Some Things I’m Learning About

>ABC LearningImage via WikipediaI saw a couple of blog posts last week from clergy type folk talking about what it is that they are learning about at this point in their ministry.  I thought I’d share some of the stuff I’m learning at this point.

1)  MISSIONAL THEOLOGY — How the church participates in the MISSIO DEI — The sending of God.  This is looking at the church as a place from which we are sent.  You have the church gathered (on Sunday AMs for instance) and the church sent (as we go from that place).  So primacy is placed on how people are the embodiment of Christ on the “other” days of the week.

2)  COMMUNITY BASED MINISTRY — I think this comes before the missional theology.  For the last few years we’ve been working to turn Girdwood Chapel outward and be a place that is involved in ministry in the community.  Now that we have a new building, we’re looking at how that space can be used to “be Christ” to the community and how we can love our neighbors through that space.

3)  MONEY —  We are in debt as a church.  I’m learning about the various ways we got to where we are and am part of conversation about how to get out, knowing that we need to continue to be involved in ministry as we do this.

4)  SMALL GROUPS — Yeah, I’ve always known they are important for “disciple-making” and support, but it is taking on an urgency as I question how good a job we’ve been doing at making disciples.  And since I’ve been around over 10 years I can’t say I haven’t had time.

5)  ADMINISTRATION — You don’t go through a church-building process and not learn some of this.  There is a whole lot of coordination that has had to happen to get us where we are.

6)  RELYING ON THE POWER OF GOD — The longer I’ve been in Girdwood, the less I’ve felt like I have the tools, the gifts to make stuff happen.  When I first came into ministry in 1994, I was pretty sure I could do this all myself.  I don’t have that belief anymore.  I am dependent upon the power of God to do anything.

7)  TAKING CARE OF MYSELF — I’m 41 years old, gettin’ on 42 (where I think I’m supposed to learn the meaning of life, the universe, and everything).  I’m overweight.  I’m in a high stress job as I enter into people’s pains and have administrative responsibility for a 1.5 million dollar facility and the care of the spiritual lives of about 75 persons, not counting community responsibilities for those who won’t ever come to church.  Our family’s been struggling with schedules with our 5 kids.  I haven’t been real good at delegating.   I need to do better at taking care of myself. I’d like to be around for a while.

8)  JESUS — Yeah, not a bad person to learn from.  But I’m finding the current sermon series on the person and work of Jesus to be refreshing.  Tough stuff.  Good stuff.  

I’m sure I could think of others if I took more time.  I’ll probably do a little more reflection on this over the coming week and come back with some revisions. Now I need to go and get ready for worship.

God is good.  All the time.

And he ain’t done with me yet.

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>Social Media Changes in 2011 and What it Means for Me as Pastor

>Social Media Life - WorkstationImage by the tartanpodcast via Flickr

ReadWriteWeb has an article out, “10 Ways Social Media Will Change in 2011” which I think can be important for ministry and how we look at our own use of social media.  Just take a look at Ravit Lichtenberg’s opening paragraph:

With more than 550 million people on Facebook, 65 million tweets posted on Twitter each day, and  2 billion video views each day on YouTube, social media has become an integral part of our connected lives. But this is just the beginning.

Whoa !!  That kind of blows my mind.

There were 10 changes that the article points to.  I’m going to highlight several that are at least of interest to me.  Plus I’ll provide a very brief interpretation by me:

1)  Social Media Will Be Supersized — Lots of things are going to be connected with each other.  For instance, even right now, this blog post gets put on my Facebook page and all of my Tweets (which I really don’t understand but do anyway) get put on Facebook as well. But then Facebook notifications get sent to my e-mail inbox.  And I can do all of this on my little iPod Touch.  This will change as Social Media sites do more and more stuff.  Says the article:

“By the end of the year, using today’s à la cart solutions will seem as efficient as buying a pocket knife with only a bottle opener in it.”

3)  Mobile Will Become Our Gateway to the World — iPhones, iPads, Androids, Tablets.  How will your church reach those who are getting most of their information and connection via mobile devices and not at their computers at home?

4)  Video Will Be Everywhere — People will be looking at Video as a connecting tool and as a worship tool and as an advertisement for your church.  We don’t do near enough with video.  Perhaps I should learn.

5)  The Next Big Online Social Network Will Not Be a Network at All — People are looking for more intimate, private experiences online.  This can play right into where the church needs to be.  Think of Facebook as a big net…that then feeds into more personalized experiences. If this is true, this is important for the church to be one of those ways for persons to connect in a more intimate setting.

7)  Psychology is Shifting — Not sure about this one.  But I think the following paragraph sums up what the author was trying to say:

As the constructs of relationships, privacy and our ability to influence others evolve, we will also face important questions: How do we respond to the changing definition of relationships? How does the elimination of behavioral cues, only available face-to-face, impact our ability to connect? How does our need for emotional balance get addressed in the face of constant change?

I know this is a question I’ve looked into as it pertains to death and grief.  What does it mean to grieve via Facebook?  Is that enough?  Should we be concerned?  I don’t know.

8. Citizen Activism Brings Back Purpose and Power — Through social media we can actually work together (if only financially) for change.  Haiti’s earthquake.  Tea Party.  Environmental issues.  Obama’s election.  Water.org.  How can the church tap into this for some of its activist issues?

9. Social Business Intelligence Will Heat Up and So Will Privacy — I think we’re already there on these issues.  The “Big Brother” who is watching us is the business world.  Companies want to know our habits our histories and sell us their stuff.  How much information out there is too much?  I think the church needs to have a voice in how this information gets shared. And, clearly, the church needs to be aware that privacy is going to be a concern for people in the church as well.

Well, what do you think?  Do these changes affect ministry for next year?

Read the whole article over here.

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>"Should We Have Constructed This Church at All?" — A Look at N.T. Wright


As readers of my blog will know, I’ve been pastor at Girdwood Chapel for 10 years so far and much of that time has been spent working towards constructing a new church facility.

This new building was a dream of the congregation’s before I got here.  They’d been planning for a new building since even before their last pastor, their first full-time pastor, showed up in 1996.  After I got here they’d already pushed back plans to begin construction twice, each time having to turn away work teams from the lower-48 that were very eager to help with the construction.  The congregation had been planning to build with the good folk of the local Catholic congregation on some property together, but kept getting delayed as they worked on issues with the property.

Well, why was a congregation that averaged only about 35 people so eager to construct a building?  Was their ministry really, in a any way, intimately tied to a “brick and mortar” facility?  Couldn’t most of their ministries take place outside of a church building?

These are good questions.  And I’m not really sure how to answer them for the time before I was here as a pastor.  My guess is that a lot of the construction talk was, perhaps, a little premature.  However, even though they only had about 35 in attendance, they shared the small 30-foot by 30-foot building with the local Catholic congregation, effectively doubling the size of the congregation that was worshipping in that very tiny (some call it “quaint”) building.  Plus, I think we need to understand that the present focus on “house churches” wasn’t quite as strong.

However, a couple of years after I got here, we started averaging above 50 in worship and we had to add a second service to accommodate the growth.  This is because, with an average of 50 in worship, we were having some Sundays at 60…which stressing our space.  That was a problem.  Also, we were having trouble meeting the educational needs of the congregation as we were beginning to have Sunday School in three different facilities:  children at the Chapel, youth off-site at a restaurant, and adults at a member’s home.  We were finding that the ministries we wanted to be involved in were having trouble because of the lack of space.   Moreover, not having a restroom limited the number of user groups that wanted to use our small space.

We looked around at other options in the community–the school, rental property–but couldn’t find anything.  The monthly rents seemed just too high for what we’d be getting out of the deal.  There was no “community center” (as there is now) and there was no “Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church” building (as there is now).  We didn’t seem to have any options.  And so, we started planning for a new facility and, probably 8 years after that time, we’re still trying to get into the new space.

I feel, in a way, that I have to make excuses for why we’re building a new facility.  I know that the amount of time we’ve been taking on this construction has worn down, emotionally and energy-wise, our congregation.  And I know that we’re going to be dealing with the debt to pay it off for some time.  And, furthermore, I know that a lot of new ministries and churches are finding that they really don’t need “brick and mortar” buildings to engage in ministries and build relationships.  And, perhaps, if we’d been a brand-spanking new ministry, we would have found that we could have evolved on a more “house church” model.  But we were a church that had been around for 50 years…now 60…and already had identified with a church facility.  That facility was just too small for it.  And, after all, we knew that the building was not an end in and of itself but was a “tool” — a tool to build and foster community and a place from which to send people out in ministry in the world.  I think we’ve been clear about that all along.

I recently received some help in my reflection on this on buildings and ministries through an interview with N.T. Wright in “Faith and Leadership” called “N.T. Wright: Working on a Building.”

Although he was Bishop of Durham in the Church of England for seven years, N.T. Wright doesn’t think about the church in terms of institutions. He thinks in terms of community.

“The institution is like the scaffolding that you need to be working on the building,” Wright said. “The scaffolding isn’t the reality.”

The General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, for example, is basically like plumbing, Wright said: “When you go into a friend’s house, you don’t expect to see the plumbing, but you need to know that it’s working, because if it’s not, fairly soon there’ll be a bad smell in the house.”

That is, the church’s institutions have to work well, or things can go wrong. People can get hurt, Wright said. Church leaders may sometimes feel like they’re working on scaffolding all day rather than living in the house, but “somebody has got to do that stuff so that the mission of the church can go forward.”

What we are building is part of the institution.  We’re building a structure, a part of the institutional church. And it’s a beautiful part of it.  Thanks be to God, we’re going to have a beautiful facility–the walls, the roof-line, the office space, and, (thank you, Jesus!) the bathrooms.  But that structure is there merely to shape the underlying reality which is a church body that is growing closer to God and each other in community.

That building we’re building, that debt we’re taking on, all of the energy that we’re putting forward…well…it’s all so the mission of the church can go forward.  We’re not building a building, even though it may look that way.  We’re supporting and expanding a ministry.  We’re not constructing walls.  We’re building a place to construct disciples.  And while I do hope, unlike Wright’s metaphor for the institutional church, that people “see” our plumbing and the heavy timbers in the sanctuary and our beautiful front entrance, I hope what they come here for is the life of community that springs up from this place.

So, should we have constructed a church building at all?  Yes.  For this ministry.   For this town.
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>"Pastor Appreciation Month"– Pastor’s 24 Tweetup


Pastor Appreciation Month is coming to a close this week.  While the consecration of our facility made me feel appreciated, nothing formal was done at Girdwood Chapel (although I did drop some hints that lattes are always appreciated).  And, the important thing, regardless or any “month” is to recognize that us clergy-folk are most likely engaged in a whole lot more activity than the one hour a week that may be assumed…or, in my case, three hours per week (2 in worship and 1 in Sunday School).

One of the reasons clergy work is misunderstood is because much of our job can happen at odd hours…like my Bible studying last night from about 10:30 PM to 12 Midnight…or my financial work for the church from then until 12:45 AM.  So, I can spend some quality time with my kids and family or go on Bike Rides or hikes during the sunny hours of the day…if there is any sun.

I know there are some who joke about the amount of time I spend writing blog post or updating Facebook statuses.  But, in my defense, I’ll say that I have found these activities spiritually and socially rewarding and a tool for connecting people that I’m still learning to use.  And while I seem, as of late, to spend a great deal of time in play practices, for the Alyeska Resort’s “Halloween Train Murder Mystery” and for the Girdwood Community Theater production of “Once Upon A Mattress,” these are ways for me to be involved in the community, something I preach repeatedly to my congregation.

And, yet, maybe among some persons, the assumption remains…pastors do very little work.

Well, we’ll show them!!!!!

Jeremy, over at Hacking Christianity has an idea which he took from the Manchester (UK) Police who tweeted their activity over a 24 hour period just to show that police work was more than eating donuts.  What if pastors tweeted their activity so their congregations could see what they’re involved in?

Here’s how it’s proposed…

  • Pastors or people in ministry work would have twitter accounts that they would update with every single ministry-related thing they do in a 24 hour period, from the big to the mundane.
  • Obviously, details would be kept to a minimum. If a meeting is over a sensitive topic, the tweet might just be “met with parishioner” or “finance meeting”
  • Try to post as close as possible to the time it completed, either by the twitter web interface or a cell phone (you can setup tweeting by text message here).
  • Do this for 24 hours so the world has a better idea of the (1) complexity of pastoral issues and (2) the diversity of our ministry contexts!
  • Use the hashtag (say what?) of #pastors24 at the end of the update so we can follow everyone’s work.

You can sign up at Jeremy’s site.

I’ll do it.

I know I’ll have a meeting, a Bible Study to prep for, and two play practices.   We’ll see what else will be done.

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>I Want to be a Giant Killer

>David gegen GoliathImage via Wikipedia

Let’s see.  Two weeks ago we introduced our “Good Samaritan” theme to the congregation and told them that we’re going to be addressing the plight of some of the world’s most needy people.  This was not going to be small task.  These were going to be big issues.  A week ago we talked openly and honestly about AIDS and pandemic disease.  We threw out facts and figures with the hopes that persons in the congregation would get a sense of just how many people are dying of diseases that we can actually do something about.  Yesterday we dove head first into issues of justice, highlighting the growing world slave trade, including sex trafficking.  As I look to next week, I’m excited to be looking at poverty.  That’s something that hits a little closer to home for our folks and for me as well.  Here is something that we’ve actually seen in some of its forms…a more familiar enemy.

These are big issues.

These are bad issues.

These are issues that are clearly not what God wants for the world.

However, their size and their scope can make us feel so very small.  In fact, I think the issues are so big that we have this natural flight response that makes us want to run away from them as fast as we can so that we can deal about those issues which are more personal to our own situations.  Give us something smaller.  How about talking about trying to be Godly spouses or our need to read the Bible more frequently?  Tell us some nice stories of Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.  When’s Christmas?  At least these are issues we feel like we can do something about.

But next week I’ll be in that pulpit with sermon in hand and I will try with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength to have our congregation get passionate about the poverty issue that face so many of the people in the world and so many people in our own country and, really, so many persons in our own community as well.  And I’m not sure where we’ll be at the end of the hour (or hour plus).  Will anyone be moved?  Will anyone have their eyes opened to little things that can be done in our own backyard?  Will lives be changed?  Will a new generation of advocates rise up? 

Or will everyone get a glimpse of the size of the issue at hand and run the other way?


One of my favorite prayers is the prayer of a fisherman that I had heard years ago.  It says:

“Dear Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”
That gets at some of what I feel as these issues are addressed.

From Scripture we also get the account of David and the giant, Goliath.  It’s in 1 Samuel 17 and the Wikipedia account of the battle goes like this:

Saul and the Israelites are facing the Philistines at the Valley of Elah. Twice a day for forty days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, comes out between the lines and challenges the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat. However, Saul and all the other Israelites are afraid of him. By chance, David is present, having brought food for his elder brothers. Told that Saul has promised to reward any man who defeats Goliath, David accepts the challenge. Saul reluctantly agrees and offers his armor, which David declines, taking only his sling and five stones chosen in a brook.

David and Goliath confront each other, Goliath with his armor and shield, David with his staff and sling. “The Philistine cursed David by his gods,” but David replies: “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that God saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is God’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

David hurls his sling with all his might, and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead. The Philistine falls on his face to the ground, David takes Goliath’s sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines flee and are pursued by the Israelites “as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron.” 

We’re facing some giants on these Sundays. These are big beasts.  Our ammunition seems so puny in comparison.  I mean, how are we to do battle against AIDS, and injustice, and slavery, and hunger, and poverty, and all the damage that’s been done to our earth?  How are we to deal with these big issues that have a way of making us feel, rightfully, so small and insignificant?  What could we possibly bring to the fight?  Here we are, waging battle, and we have a sermon and a video and a Sunday School class, and a take-home devotional.  Can anyone take us seriously in this fight?

We need to remember as we do all of this that David didn’t have much either.  He was just a kid who was pretty good with a sling shot and had the faith of God that he’d be victorious.  He just found a few good stones right as he goes off to the fight.

Says David right before the battle:  “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”  (1 Samuel 17)

And we know of that turned out…for both David and that menacing giant that he faced.

So, next week, once again we’ll gather and we’ll hand our our little stones…small changes in life, ways to get involved, bits of information to spread the news about the issues at hand so that we can better know our enemy.  Together we’ll fling these with all the faith and strength we can muster…praying that we hit our enemy right where it hurts…and that we win through the grace of our God.

And, when all is said in done, perhaps we will be giant killers and the world will see the glory of our Lord. 
It’s something I pray for.
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>The Dilemma of the Cigarette Butt

>Cigarette butt.Image via Wikipedia
Last week our local Lions Club went out on the Highways and the Byways…or at least Alyeska Highway…for our last highway cleanup for the year.  There weren’t many of us and it took a little longer than expected.  It’s three miles of highway and people can be real slobs.  As you’re picking up piece after piece of garbage, you can’t help but think to yourself…”Really, someone threw this on the ground?”  Let’s see, this time around we found a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, some balls (no golf balls this time), a wooden cut-out of a man, a couple pairs of gloves, and, of course, lots and lots of run-of-the-mill garbage–cups, bottles, cans, papers, wrappers, plastic bags, etc.

Now, as we’re out there we have a dilemma on our hands.  There are billions (maybe slight hyperbole) of  cigarette butts on the ground.  They are everywhere.  They’re so very small.  And so, each time, we’re out cleaning we have to ask ourselves if we’re going to pick up the butts.  One could definitely say that they are garbage — no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  They are trash that some careless person flicked out their car window or dropped while walking or whatever.  The person doing it thought (if they thought at all) that the butt was so small that it just didn’t matter.  After all, how dirty could one little cigarette butt get the entire state of Alaska?

However, as was said earlier with only slight exaggeration, there are billions of those things lying around.  It adds up.

And the problem for us cleaner-uppers is that it takes a lot of energy to bend down and pick up butt after butt after butt.  I confess for myself that I start out each time pretty convinced that I’ll pick up each butt I find.  But, it doesn’t take long to get overwhelmed at the sheer number of butts out there and how much bending over and picking up would be required to get them all.  And so I give up…except if the butt is nearby another piece of garbage.  I let it go unless it’s convenient for me to deal with.

How often do we fail to do the little things so that they become bigger?  I have piles of paperwork to be filed here at our house.  And, you know, if I’d just been doing it all along, it would be no big deal.  But now the task is overwhelming.  And in the church do we do the same thing, with letting things like a lack of hospitality or a lazy approaches to worship slip until they go to a point from which it’s hard to recover?

Next time I’m out there cleaning the highway, I assume I’ll start strong again and finish weak.  Those little things add up.

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>How to Thrive: Be True to Yourself

>ThrivingImage by Jason A. Samfield via Flickr

Prince Raney Rivers (cool name!) has a post over at “Call And Response Blog” entitled “What Makes Pastor’s Thrive?”
This is not an easy question.
See, in the United Methodist Church we’re famous for moving our pastors every few years…it used to be fewer than it is now.  And, with frequent moves, when the spiritual or intellectual well seems to be drying up, we move on to a new location where everything is fresh and new again.  The problem with this, of course, is that we often start at the beginning…all over again.  We need to learn the tricks of our new environment.  We need to build rapport with congregation and community.  We need to adapt our styles and “learn the ropes.”  We need to go through all the trauma of moving families and spouses, sometimes with new jobs and new schools.
This is not an unimportant question for me.  I’ve been very clear with our own congregation that United Methodist pastors are appointed on a yearly basis.  I know where I’m going to be this year.  I can speak to nothing else at this point.  I’m here and I will serve as best I can where I am…even though I admit that I could get the word that I’m going to move at any time.  I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder for the Superintendent or Bishop coming after me.  But I am honest about it.
But I have wondered about how to thrive in the ministry to which God has called me. I’ve been here ten years.  How do pastors stay in churches for 10 or 20 or 30 years?  How do they keep fresh? 
I know some of the basic, safe, and very true answers to this:  Pray…stay in The Word…never stop learning…take care of yourself and your family…make sure you take time off…find your passions.

But I like what Rivers writes:

When I entered the ministry, I went to visit my childhood pastor to ask his advice. This is a man whose study is filled with journals he’s kept for decades. I expected him to send me away with a note pad filled with wisdom for the journey.  Instead, without any hesitation, he said, “Be true to yourself.”

I asked myself, “Is that all?” 

I realize now that was all I needed to hear. I can’t tell you how much this simple phrase has blessed me over the years. Ministry often entails trying to be all things to all people. But there comes a point where you really do have to draw the line and be authentic. The more I’ve practiced that, the more I have enjoyed the gift of being accepted for who I am.

One of the very great gifts of Girdwood Chapel UMC has been their ability to accept me for who I am.  For 10 years I have not felt like I’ve had to be someone I’m not.  I haven’t felt a need to apologize for my colloquialism.  I haven’t felt like I’ve had to have a different persona when I’m with church folks and when I’m not.  I’ve felt like the community has allowed me that as well.   It has been a great blessing.
And, as I look toward the years ahead I need to see what it is that God is calling me to in this place…recognizing that, if I’m true to myself and my God, good things will happen.

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>"Yes Men" and "Yes Women" in the Church or a Loyal Opposition

>Line art drawing of a pulpit.                                                         Image via Wikipedia

As the only pastor at a small Alaskan church in a small Alaskan town, I wield a lot of power.  Now, I don’t mean that in any nefarious way with an evil laugh added for effect.  What I mean is that I have found little opposition to my hopes and dreams and visions for the congregation I serve.  Most smaller churches tend to be “Pastor-Led.”  And people, I think, genuinely like me and respect my opinion (at least I hope that’s the case).  I think I prayerfully consider my approach to ministry and where it is that the church is being called by God.  And, I’ll humbly say that I think I’m a pretty bright guy and able to make some pretty good decisions.

More or less.

Moreover, I think I can be pretty persuasive.  This can be a good and a bad thing.

This is not without a large asterisk noting that I have made mistakes along the way…some that have hurt individuals (by words and actions) and some that have hurt the church (through some brash decisions or not following through).  I have made many mistakes and I know I will continue to make them.  I’m not going to get into detail here because I just don’t want to.

However, one of the things I know I’ve had difficult time with is making sure I have folks around me who are able to challenge me–to try to keep my feet to the ground when I’m dreaming and force me to think big when I’m being cautious.  These are the folks who need to remind me of budget restraints and point out when a study or sermon or worship idea has fallen flat or is not what the church needs right now.  These are the folks I can turn to, early on, to help me shape an idea before “going public” with it or can tell me to scale back my activities or get more involved in the community of which I’m a part.  These are folks who speak the truth in love…whether or not I’m their pastor or friend.  I think there is a need for this to help with discerning God’s will and direction for myself and the church.

I’m not looking for trouble or rudeness or persons who just want to fight.  Those people do exist and I confess those same feelings rise to the surface in myself when I come face to face with them.  But I do think it is good to have persons who can engage the pastor in creative conflict.

When I do premarital counseling with folks, we talk about how conflict in marriage can be a very good thing.  It gets more than one opinion out there.  It allows for growth.  It helps in the decision-making process in life.  The same thing goes for churches.  We’re not looking for a fight.  But we are looking to move beyond “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” for the sake of the church.  We’re looking for a creative give and take with the pastor and not just a give.

I remember the first church I served where we had some pretty destructive conflict over hospitality and Hispanics.  Some wanted to welcome Hispanics into our church facility.  Some did not.  In our denomination we have a “Pastor-Parish Relations Committee” in the local church and at one of those meetings during the heat of the conflict one of our members angrily said, “This isn’t a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.  It’s a Pastor Committee and you all know it.”  She was saying that the pastor had surrounded himself with those whom he knew would agree with his vision and ideas.  I believe she was wrong about not welcoming Hispanics.  I believe she may have been right about the pastor (me and a long line of predecessors) surrounding ourselves with those who would agree with us.  It may not be helpful to the church but it is easier.

When I was first starting out in ministry, one of my mentors told me, “Jim, don’t think for an instance that you’re not getting into this, in part, because of your ego.  We all believe that we’re called by God to the ministry.  But we all like the attention.  We all like to be in front of people.  We all like the positive strokes.”  He was right to some extent.  We all like it when people agree.  It can even make us pretty sure that we’re doing what God wants us to do.  After all, when you’re surrounded by Yes-Men and Yes-Women it can give you a false sense that everyone prayerfully agrees with you.
But is this right?

Says Nathan Kirkpatrick over at Faith and Leadership in a blog post entitled “The Leader and the Loyal Opposition”:

A radio interview with a recently re-elected president of an African nation caught my attention recently on my way in to work. The interviewer was asking him about the results of his re-election (which he won by more than 90 percent of the vote). She asked whether the final tallies were the result of repression of opposition voices, and, after some back-and-forth, she asked pointedly, “Don’t you, as the leader of your country, have a responsibility to cultivate a viable opposition party?”

Such an interesting question! Setting aside the larger geopolitical and human rights implications, it made me wonder if leaders of institutions have a responsibility to cultivate opposition to their own leadership.

Frankly, I’m not sure most leaders even think about it, because it seldom feels as though they suffer from a shortage of opposition. Further, most have been trained to believe that central to their work is “gaining alignment,” the building of strong coalitions within their organization (and beyond) to achieve a discerned vision. In many leader development programs, days-long sessions are dedicated to the art of attaining and maintaining organizational alignment.

Perhaps, even in a small church, we “have a responsibility to cultivate opposition to [our] own leadership.”

I’m not sure how to put this entirely into practice, but I do know there are persons in our congregations I seek out to get an honest and informed opinions with no expectation that they are just going to agree with me just to agree.  I don’t think I would qualify them as “loyal opposition.”  But they are definitely not “yes men” and “yes women.” And I don’t think it’s enough.  We need to instill in all of our folks that their opinions matter and that their prayerful consideration is important for the overall direction of the church.  It’s part of our communal discernment.
Churches and clergy need to be reminded of this.  I think it’s even more needed in the smaller churches where there may not be a staff with whom ideas are shared and shaped.

Therefore it’s even more needed for myself and the church I serve.

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