...self care is never a selfish act- it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Covenant Friendship- are you a rescuer?

We are not the messiah  
But I have heard many people tell about having people stop recuing them, coming to the end of themselves, and finding God and sobriety at the bottom. In fact,  rescuers have often been the thing that kept these people from hitting bottom, finding God, and sobriety! Jim Jackson, Covenant Friendship

In Covenant Friendship: An Ex Loner's Guide to Authentic Friendships (2015), Dr. Jim Jackson brings his many seasons of pastoral ministry and recovery to bear on the topic of friendship. The result is a rare coalescing of rich biblical insight and pastoral wisdom hard won.  

The persistent theme of the book is simply put: "We need friends- people- who choose to share their lives with us. Without this chosen intimacy, we are spiritually and emotionally malnourished." p.68
Jackson admits that there's only space in our lives for a few covenant friends, so while the book is about friendship, most of the content will relate to intimate friendships: "We all need four intimate friends who would not allow any obstacle to prevent them from helping us." p. 168 Why four? Read the story in Mark 2 about the paralytic's four friends.
Jackson finds the origin of covenant friendship in Scripture, in the covenants made between Jonathan and David, and Naomi and Ruth. He maintains that Jesus had only three such friends among all the disciples and multitudes: James, John, and Peter. Church tradition is filled with examples of covenant friendships from Paul and Barnabas to Saints such as Francis and Claire. Wedding vows, according to Jackson, have their origin in the Early Church, when covenantal rites were made between friends.  
Pastors, whether in recovery or not, may find the discussion of "friendship fatality" (7) one of the more interesting and helpful chapters. Co-dependency is not friendship. It is where one is controlled and the other is controlling. The fruit of covenant friendship is freedom and growth. It's counterfeit (co-dependency) ends in rescuing: "False Messiahs easily slip into the roles of ... help-aholic,  protector, provider, fixer, and martyr. Playing these roles makes us feel important. We get hooked on the need to be needed." p.137 
Rescuing others can easily be the drug of choice for any helping professional. By focusing on others, we never have to look at ourselves honestly. Neglecting our own self care and focusing on others keeps us isolated and exhausted. At one point, a friend had to confront Jackson, asking him, "Do you have anything left to give to all of those people?"   
Much of the content of the book was first presented in a sermon series. Maybe that's why the chapter on choosing friends (5) seemed a little how- to-ish: "Look for new ways to connect with people. Use social network opportunities...Take advantage of Starbucks bulletin boards, and even free publicity in community newspapers to find like-minded potential friends." p.98  Sure, but simply connecting with an old classmate across the country is sometimes just that.
Jackson's paradigm for covenant friendship is taken, in part, from the sponsor/sponsee relationship in AA. The sponsor is the giver and the sponsee is the receiver. Adult Children of Alcoholics mentions "fellow traveler," in addition to sponsor. It would seem that many aspects of covenant friendship, such as accountability, require mutuality. We could consider being equally accountable to each other as a kind of safeguard against co-dependency.

The role of pastor comes with a power differential which makes mutuality with those we serve more problematic. Too, looking to cultivate intimate covenant friends among parishioners may be considered a conflict of interest- since ministry is about serving others instead of our needs for friendship.

Clergy groups would do well to use Covenant Friendship as a guide for greater transparency, self-awareness, and mutual accountability with peers. We pastoral leaders need to drop the false masks of our finely tuned personas in a few safe and non-judgmental relationships- so that we can grow in wholeness and joy.    

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Replacing Church

In Church Refugees, Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope have written a ground breaking analysis of the "dones," those who are done with church but not with God. These folks are not dropping the Christian faith- just their affiliation with churches. The book does introduce us to the Dones, and more importantly, what we can begin to learn from them.  

The study summarizes the themes that coalesced from 100 in depth interviews. Interviewees were of all ages over 25, included laity, former church staff members, and clergy. This is not a book about numbers, but rather, a "description of the processes people go through when they decide to leave the church, what they do when they leave, and what they ultimately want out of church."
Who are the Dones? They are reluctant to leave, and try many churches before leaving church altogether. They are not angry, nor are they driven by one negative experience. Authors discovered, "almost without exception," that they were "deeply involved and devoted to their churches up until the moment they left. They were integrated into leadership structures and church life, often organizing daily life around the church and attending some kind of church function two or more times a week. They're the kind of people who are drawn to activity." 
What do the Dones really want? Community based on authentic relationships is an overriding theme of the dechurched who were interviewed. In fact after leaving the church, the dechurched will go to great lengths to find genuine community, but they will not put up with any of the judgment they may have felt in church. The interviewees consistently said they left church because it's set up to be self-sustaining rather than outward looking. The cause was not theology, the worship service, or irrelevant message. Those are reasons people switch churches, not the reasons why they leave church altogether. (p.135)
The Dones also want:
  • More participation as equals in church decision making
  • More ministry with (not for) others in the church and community
  • Flatter hierarchy, less emphasis on organizational control  
Why do the dechurched matter? Once churches begin to lose their most devoted and engaged members, then they will also lack relevance for anyone who is looking for a more active and engaged faith. The same structures that work for the larger segment of the less engaged folks in congregations DO NOT work for the most active. In fact, this arrangement is what's driving the most devoted away. 
Where do the dechurched go? They move to things that "look nothing like the activities that consume the traditional church. They move onto community gardens, art therapy, meals in living rooms around a communal table, internet chat rooms, and quilting groups. Nobody...mentioned replacing church with a worship service or with a sermon series or with committee work. They are replacing church with meaningful activities that engages their communities and builds relationships, things they find missing in church." 
Suggestions for preventing an exodus take up the last part of the book. Most of the strategies address the need to make room for those who are at risk of leaving, the most active, engaged, and devoted. Working together on short term ministry projects like VBS- things that have a beginning and end (and are not on-going or self-perpetuating) can go far in utilizing gifts of leadership and passion of others. Whatever the parallel to Google's 20% time, "the data about the dechurched suggests that it makes sense to devote some organizational resources to provide an outlet for the church's most ambitious congregants."     
One of the more helpful insights is the critique of how we spend our resources. The dechurched saw the Sunday morning gathering as a huge resource hog. Sacred cow?  "The problem is in claiming a missional and outreach focus, or a teaching and small group focus, when the vast majority of resources are spent elsewhere. From an organizational standpoint, this lack of understanding means, functionally, that it is very difficult to make room for worship, small groups, and outreach." Or it's much easier said- and included in mission frames- than actually done.   
This is an important book because, until now, there existed scant research on the dechurched as a category all its own. While numbers are just beginning to show, most research has lopped the dechurched into the same category of the unchurched, or Nones. See for example, Churchless.

What's more, there's an integrity between the focus and rationale for the book. Instead of one more book about capturing the youngest adult generation to feed the institutional machine, it's more about what we can learn from seasoned Christians on the other end of all our assembly line  like schemes for discipleship. If what we are left with is more dechurched, then there's something inherently misguided in our approach, and with the structures that result in more Dones.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Whatever Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger- really?

God, save me from ministry- by- slogan
Even if these words of Nietzsche function as an encouragement for some, their actual truth is debatable. Too, the phrase is not necessarily helpful to anyone who does not gain strength from trauma.  

Because trauma is stored in the body's memory, the "limbic loop," one does not just "get over it." Repeated head trauma does not make the brain stronger but rather, it can severely and permanently disable it with certain dementias.
Hyper- vigilance can be a lingering effect of surviving traumatic events. Hyper- vigilance places the body in default fight or flight mode. Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who pioneered the physiological basis of the stress response, concluded that stress hormones do not strengthen the body but weaken it. With the body on regular high alert, panic attacks break through- seemingly out of nowhere.   
There's a thoughtful post in support of this quote, suggesting that, while Post Traumatic Growth is possible, it is not automatic. We have to choose to engage practices in order to heal. Even then, there is not one practice that works for everyone with the same results. Anything can make us stronger, but only if we let it.

Malcom Gladwell, in David and Goliath, discusses the impact of the many near misses during the London Blitzkrieg of W.W. II. For Londoners who began to realize that their chances of surviving the next bombing were actually good, the repeated bombings had the opposite effect of empowering, rather than weakening, the resolve of the surviving population.

Nietzsche wasn't a medical professional, therapist, or spiritual counselor, but rather a philosopher and son of a Lutheran clergyman. I would seriously question using these words anecdotally or as a substitute for the hard work of recovery. We do well to remember that recovery from trauma is not a given, nor is it easy. And it certainly does not come from the slogans gleaned from dead philosophers. 


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Clergy are frequently present for others, but no one can offer what we don't have.. That's why if you're a clergy person, you need someone who will listen to you. Not the next closest person available, but rather someone like a spiritual director, a therapist, a peer who can be fully present to you. I hope the links and posts you find here will give you ideas, humor, hope and encouragement. Scott Endress

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If you want a formula for making the best of the less-than-perfect and making the most of what you have been given, then begin to compare your lot to what you were before you were born, and it will empower you with wonder every time. John Claypool

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