Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Avoiding Toxic Relationships

Working within a framework of pastoral and congregational health and wholeness, the pastoral-congregational relationship can be nurturing and encouraging when enough participants are seeking discipline in the spiritual life. However, when there is a conspiracy between the pastor and church to run the congregation as a small business, pastoral relationships can easily become distorted.

What is healthy pastoral self-care? According to Lloyd Rediger in The Toxic Congregation, most of us think we are modeling time and commitment and energy to ministry when what we are really doing is mostly neglecting self care, making ourselves vulnerable to mind-body-spirit breakdowns while missing the chance to show parishioners what they really need: someone to show them a sane, balanced life-style. He then defines the clergy syndrome as such: depression, burnout, role confusion, boundary violations, addictions.

Most clergy have learned to cover these afflictions very well and in fact the danger is not that they exist, but that so many seem to be functioning normally without ever seeking help and health before breakdowns in wholeness occur. On the positive side, wholeness is utilizing the best resources in four ares: modern medicine, psychology, alternative therapies, and spiritual salvation. Wholeness is relational, functional or purposeful, corporate, transforming, and NOT perfection.

The best part of this chapter on Clergy Self Care and Detox are the prescriptions given:

1. Guidelines for Health (how we eat, exercise, drink water, think freely, and pray),

2. Self-Observation, which is more about improving ourselves, our unhealthy behavior and thinking. Be comfortable observing yourself, and how we are thinking about what we are thinking. The spiritual discipline of meditation can help us, Rediger maintains, in self-observation. When used honestly, few skills are more helpful.

3. Energy Management, where a way to name your energy drains and sources is offered. How to discern whether you are functioning from a deficit or surplus is also critical and makes good sense.

4. Ethics of Consequences, where no matter what we claim, actual consequences of our behavior are always the reality check. Here we ask what consequences we have on others and the world, as long as ourselves.

5. Boundaries is the ability to place limits of time and our role as pastor. Decision making is an essential skill for setting appropriate boundaries.

6. Pastoral Presence where inner peace is the result of the spiritual disciplines. Listening actively and good facial expression is part of projecting peace to anxious, stressed out others.

7. Persistent Training of Leaders, since untrained leadership, according to Rediger, is one of the most vulnerable aspects of congregational health or sickness.

8. Mentoring is important since being alone is one of the major factors making clergy vulnerable to the syndrome of burn out. Finding a mentor that works for you is the important thing: who can help with your role as well as your person?

9. Don't Do Dumb Stuff like betray a confidence, injure or confuse. First do no harm.

Rediger talks about toxicity in a system in terms of control issues of a group; dysfunction seems to be more about diverse agendas and general role confusion. The exercises in the appendices are also helpful. One of the best ideas I came across was from chapter 6 (Instruments of Peace). Here is offered a membership vow renewal which I found interesting since UMC's do that every time a new member joins. But making the renewal the main focus of a worship or series of worship gatherings would be helpful, I imagine, when inviting the unconnected member back into active participation. The process offered for grievances is worth a look as well.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Alarming Sameness

The Christian spiritual life is very unspectacular, in spite of the ways we tend to market the exotic spiritual experience. On his television spots touting why you should visit his church, one mega church pastor claims, "You'll feel right at home in a second." If most worship guests decide in the first few minutes whether or not your church is for them, then what this pastor hopes is that most people will find community or a sense of belonging within the first visit to his church. Sure it feels good to be welcomed and greeted- to be noticed.

But the spiritual life is also about not being noticed. It's about finding within the purpose and motivation for serving others. Sameness doesn't have to be boring, far from it. It can be freeing to simplify what our motivation is in the spiritual life: to draw closer to God, to experience more of God, to be motivated out of love for God and others, etc. The challenge never goes away. The world system and our own ego always tries to seduce us into using our gifts in ways that undercut our spiritual health and others in the name of building up the self.

Jesus, in commenting on various uses of spiritual disciplines, explains that those who are gratifying ego needs "already have their reward." In essence he is saying that subverting the spiritual life to meet our self-centered needs serves no greater purpose, and certainly no spiritual purpose of connection to God or others. So when you're asked who sabotaged your spiritual well-being, you have only to reply, "It is I."

Church systems are certainly not immune from using the spiritual practices for their own ends and not always for the spiritual health of others. When clergy are burnt-out from their work, might it be because we have become so used to attaching our own institutional goals to the spiritual disciplines that we lose sight of our unique gifts and those we serve? The best book I know about clergy in spiritual direction is Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson. It is more prophetic, but it should shake you up, even if you are returning to it a second or third time. Peace.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Which "Second Half" Clergy Interventions Work for You?

Even as my denomination laments the dearth of entering clergy under the age of thirty-five, there is another issue often left on the back-burner, the one of retention of middle aged clergy. For me, surviving in life seems to be related to the sense of growth versus stagnation. If I feel I am learning and useful, I usually feel that I am doing well. So I have been drawn to educational routes for renewal. And, generally, the church has offered educational programs as well.

Other than a two-year mentor program for younger pastors that Perkins School of Theology offered twenty years ago, most of the programs (most of which are D. Min.) are geared for more experienced clergy. (By the way, if more schools had spent the money to offer programs specifically for younger clergy, you might have seen an increase in retaining them. But even for Perkins, the program, which is no longer in existence, was renamed as a program for "new" as opposed to "younger" clergy).

It seems much has been done to train new second-career clergy. What about lifers whose only crime was that they were in seminary in their twenties? If you haven't attempted any kind of educational or spiritual growth experience that is more than just the two day CE event, then how do you stay alive in ministry? Most programs with any impact go from 2-3 years.

There are many excuses for not engaging in a program of self-development as a pastor: cost, time away, frequent moves, an already loaded schedule, fear of the unknown. Yet, most of the second-career clergy I know have had to balance an almost full time school load with full time work. Depending on denominational culture, a sabbatical or doctoral program is more popular or supported.

As a second half clergyperson, or as one preparing for your second half, let me say that the reasons and benefits for engaging in a program far outweigh the potential pitfalls. The biggest one is fighting boredom and rediscovering challenge! Unless you want to attend Willow Creek-styled three day conferences the rest of your ministry, you are on for a boring second half if you do not engage in something that calls you beyond the day-to day acts of ministry. All you will be doing is learning about whatever that year's fad is- until the next big thing comes along. There is a place for the Willow Conference or even the Seminary-sponsored CE week, but they just aren't designed to work long-term, they are flashes in the night.

Take a look at the survey on the blog and share what works for you! We might be able to start a dialogue and start something new!

Peace in Christ!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Wintery Openers: A Day with Dad

The opening of baseball season brings back tons of memories. Dads are in the business of making good, happy memories.

My Dad would get us out of school before noon so that we could make it down to old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in time for the first pitch. When we were older, we would get the bus from the corner nearest the school and meet him in front of the County courthouse. We often took a buddy from class.

Doing this of course irritated the teachers to no end. They would whisper and point at me the day of my dismissal. I remember our music teacher, whose personal calling was to make my life miserable throughout gradeschool. She made an accusatory announcement to our class that Scott Endress would soon be leaving her (precious) classroom for a baseball game. The tone clearly indicated a criminal offense.

Most openers in Cleveland- make that all openers there- were ice cold, even if the sun happened to be shining. It was all over in the blink of an eye. And I would have to face the same testy teachers the very next day. But it was absolutely worth it. One memory that stands out to this day was Frank Robinson, Cleveland's Player-Manager, homering in his first at bat the 1975 game. Robinson was baseball's first African American manager. It was a high drive down the left field line right past our third base seats! Wow- the place shook as the Indians eventually downed N.Y.

Dads, you are fortunate if you can take your son to a ballgame or even particpate in another rite of spring, such as a fishing trip. It will benefit him more than anyone and it will do so for years to come.

Play ball!

Oldies but Goodies