Friday, August 27, 2010

Is a Day off the Answer to Clergy Obesity?

Taking time away sure helps, especially if you can give yourself the freedom to do so. That seems to be the upshot of all the reporting of the portly North Carolinian United Methodist pastors. An article in the NY Times mentions several other clergy ailments such as depression and suggests that we find a way to take more sabbath.

While I think taking the time is extremely important, the reporting never really addresses the fact that, because of the nature of the pastoral life, most of our lives are structured in a way that 's inherently unhealthy. Whatever the "written" responsibilities are, the reality of the pastoral life is that we run the church while also being there for people in crisis. The nature of crisis is that it happens whenever it will, 24/7. So clergy are more stressed out than the general population. Do ya think?

I'm not sure clergy health has ever been that great. Let's not use this or any research to romanticize the clergy health of yesteryear. Don't believe the fiction that if clergy were somehow more committed, they would be happier. That somehow more Jesus should take the place of more Prozac. That kind of thinking makes the patient worse, not better. An illness is an illness. In truth the needs of our world and thus our parishes are multiplying at an unbelievable rate, and this certainly has a ripple effect on pastors.

The answer, I believe, is self-awareness and self-discernment. Knowing your limits, as well as your gifts. Receive for yourself what you are offering to others: compassion, understanding, mercy, truth. Of course, you may need to take a day off to get to that place. But, it's not heroic or "sacrificial" or unselfish to live in denial of your health.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is "Unworthy" Worthless?

The question's relevance is found in the way we hear the references to our being unworthy in the Bible and in the liturgy of the church: "Say, 'We are worthless slaves,; we have only done what we ought to have done.'" Luke 17: 10, NRSV The CEV reads, "Say, 'We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.'" The traditional UMC Communion liturgy has, in the prayer of humble access, "We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table..."

The use of "unworthy" does become a stumbling block. Other words, biblical and otherwise, exist. "Fear of God" is a hindrance to many as well. Should we just use different words now that so many hear them as curses rather than blessings, as nullifying, rather than amplifying, our access to God grace in Jesus?

For me the answer is yes, especially if by the words we automatically do more harm than good. This is much easier to do if your theology embraces our being created in God's image to love and be loved. And that the object of following Jesus is not to diminish us but to restore our true humanity.

Being told that we are worthless? It's worthless. Of course the essence of grace is that it comes unearned and with no entitlement. When it comes to grace, God always makes the first move. But God initiates covenant love because we are worth redeeming, created in God's image.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Study Leave, 2010


Like Garrison Keillor's Pastor Inqvist, I've spoken about the importance of leave- taking in many of these posts. In 2010, it was time for me to walk the talk. Clergy persons need to be creative. There are few prepackaged opportunities for time away for personal, spiritual, and vocational renewal. And while both the D. Min. or a Spiritual Direction program can be renewing experiences, spiritual renewal is the by-product of such courses, not the purpose.

My goal of reading, prayer, study, and rest fit best into a few weeks' of study leave. Within about a month of the start of the time away, shaping up to be two weeks of reflection and discernment of "what's next," I was asked to lead our church's older adult ministry, and continue with existing responsibilities. So the new ministry actually delayed as well as re-framed my time away. The following is a narrative account of what actually happened while omitting some of the plans that changed.

A Spiritual Director from the Houston Cenacle and Dr. Elaine Heath, a faculty member of Perkins School of Theology acted as resource persons for this study leave. I am deeply appreciative of their time and availability. The emphasis for the time became more reading, study, and prayer while in Dallas and retreating at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston. Although scaled back some, I managed to visit two very different Christian communities at worship, and interview their leaders.

Reading, Study, and Prayer

I've been in the habit of reading and reviewing new releases. That's why, in part, I chose The Resurrection of Ministry by Andrew Purves and The Radical Disciple by John Stott. In addition, I read A Letter to the Soul Jesus Loves, a spiritual classic by John of Landsburg. Finally, reading Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life in its entirety called me to the deepest reflection and prayer. I will draw upon the well of his wonderful spiritual direction for years.

As part of the focus for the time away, I met with Dr. Elaine Heath of Perkins School of Theology. When I read two of Elaine Heath's books, The Mystic Way of Evangelism and Longing for Spring, my curiosity to know more about NEW DAY in Dallas led me to seek her out for the direction of the sabbath time. NEW DAY is a network of United Methodist communities in the monastic tradition.

New Day and Lakewood Experiences

NEW DAY has about seven neighborhood or house churches in various stages of birth throughout the Metroplex. Like popcorn in its organic-like emergence, each community is based on a monastic-like "rule," a clear covenant to live out the gospel life in solidarity with and in service to the immediate neighborhood. and community. A newly formed foundation is responsible for purchasing and maintenance of each property. Community members include seminarians, or older undergraduate students. They're learning how to pastor this kind of house-church network. Some actually serve their intern year of seminary leading one of the NEW DAY communities. The seminarians receive rent for their agreement to live under a rule of life.

"Anchor" churches are other United Methodist Churches in the Metroplex which agree to assist a NEW DAY community in their ministry, a symbiotic relationship where each congregation respects the integrity of the NEW DAY mission. Financial independence, a goal that many larger churches have for the congregations they birth, is not the goal of this relationship. The NEW DAY experience suggests that they will always need their anchor churches. Thus, bottom line is not creating a financial unit or apportionment -paying entity, or even adding a slot on the conference ladder, since all NEW DAY leadership is bi-vocational and all groups meet in borrowed space.

The objective of NEW DAY is to offer to the UMC seminary graduates who are equipped with the vision and who are dedicated to leading intentional Christian community. Worship consists of sharing simple meal, singing, thanksgiving, praying for each other and the world, a homily or message, and Holy Communion. The gathering I visited at the SMU Wesley Foundation was made up of Perkins former or continuing students (Anglo and African), faculty, African immigrants, and family members and friends. The language used was Swahili and the message was translated into English. They were in summer-mode, with the attendance down to about 50% instead of the normal of 45-50.

Besides the opportunity to really delve into some new releases and spiritual classics, I found the NEW DAY experience refreshing. Most of my experience in the traditional church has used all variations of the top down model. But that is not the only way of growth that the Holy Spirit uses or that we can employ. I also visited Lakewood Church in Houston, and visited with Joel Osteen.

Mary and I sat in the "upper deck" where there was plenty of room. I especially liked the mid service Gospel pieces and being served Holy Communion in my seat. Fathers were recognized and prayed for (after all it was Father's day). Pastor Nick (he looked like a surfer) introduced the new youth and young adult gathering starting that evening. Joel spoke about their upcoming VBS, an evening affair, while the camera panned on the children's pastor and his wife. Joel's message was on running your own race. Use and develop your gifts and free yourself from harmful comparisons. I noticed that "healing," "deliverance," and "restoration," and being "set free" all were used frequently throughout the service.

The hardest part of my first Lakewood visit was the getting parked and into a seat. Greeters seemed to serve as ushers at each section. They were neither overly friendly nor aloof, but seemed to go about their ministry with the goal of getting you into your seat without delay for the main show. I will say that the post service hospitality was excellent. Joel invited newcomers to a class, a series that was starting after the service. The location of the class was easy to find and very close to the worship center. There was a place to meet Joel. Folks were available to answer your questions too.


In the end, I'm extremely grateful to Chapelwood, especially my colleagues and supervisors on the staff, Bob Johnson and Jim Jackson, and the Staff Pastor Parish Relations Committee, for the opportunity to take this study leave. As a result, I enter this new sphere of ministry with a deepened sense of spiritual well-being and vision for ministry to others.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Would "the Beave" Lie About Today?

What next? Did Beaver Cleever lie again about eating all of his school lunch or did he actually trade it out for a bunch of sweets and candy? How can he claim he didn't jaywalk when half the neighborhood saw him do it? Next, in order to be popular with the older, bigger, cooler kids, the Beaver takes the blame for some of their own misdeeds.

Sure would be nice if that early 1960's level of moral turpitude was around today. Each episode stood alone as a mini-morality play.

In my boyhood, I loved hanging out with the older kid across the street. He, like many of the people that I grew up with, went to the nearby parochial Catholic school. It was connected to one of the larger parishes in our city. It's hard to believe that so many these suburban communities are gone. Their schools and gorgeous churches, are for sale, doors closed.

But in the season of tagging along my older buddy, I learned why intention, not necessarily action, is what makes a sin so bad. Saying "darn" and "dang" was, in its own way, just as bad as using the real "D" word because everyone knew that's what you really meant. Other such lessons about being good on the inside abounded.

The nature of the act is really about the deceitful spirit, even if it's just about whether or not you ate the lunch June packed for you. Somehow the thought of a contemporary Beave lying about cyber-bullying or smoking up behind Eddie Haskell's house doesn't really obscure the message that truthfulness is the same today as it was then. It's about dependability in the big, as well as the small, things of life.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why Join the Church?

Some of the better material in books I find in the appendices. Such is true of Fusion by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Dykes Henson. Subtitled "Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church," the authors address a topic that is a day-to-day challenge for anyone engaged in evangelism and disciple formation.

I found that the "Membership Tools" in Appendix C generated a helpful reflection for anyone who is asked why church membership matters. To put it another way, what difference does following Jesus make? The authors give several reasons. As they assist regular attenders down the road to full membership, they regularly teach, and I slightly amend, their four primary reasons for church membership:

  1. We need healthy relationships
  2. We need our gifts to be accepted and used.
  3. We need to feel like we're growing, making progress in the spiritual life
  4. We need to belong- to something bigger than us.
#1 requires that we relearn healthy ways of being in relationship with God and others. It's about knowing God as loving and being equipped to love others. Both are life-long and joining the church, if anything, is just the beginning of this journey. Guests or regular attenders need to not only hear about God's love but also, discover and experience it.

#2 relates to the importance of belonging and acceptance. The need to make a contribution and to make a difference is there. If regular attenders are blocked from discovering their ministry and mission field, then they will look to be equipped somewhere else, or not at all.

#3 means that it's important for guests to see that members are expected to grow. The commitment to full membership is a personal decision to begin and continue growing as a Christian disciple. Membership is not the goal or the end, growing is.

#4 guests should be able to say "I belong here, I'm wanted here" in all their experiences in church worship, various groups, and in interaction with other members. Are the conversations and behaviors observed kind and gracious?

Oldies but Goodies