Monday, July 25, 2011

Braeswood Assembly Welcomes All in SW Houston

Braeswood's steeple is easy to find and has been at its present location for many years. Not far from the corner of Braeswood and Fondren, surely this area of town has seen its share of change over the last 30 years. It was easy to find a parking space even though I saw no signage for the existence of visitor spaces upon entering. On my walk to the building, I discovered about 30 "VIP" parking spaces designated for visitors. All were used except one or two. There is a more distant shuttle lot as well.

Led by Senior Pastor Steve Banning, who is Anglo and son of the former Senior Pastor Earl Banning, Braeswood is multi-cultural: there are two full Sunday Hispanic services in their Fellowship Hall. The congregation was largely African American and African immigrant at the 10:45 Contemporary service in the sanctuary. This congregation numbered approximately 350, maybe more. The sanctuary with balcony looks like it will hold between 700 and 750. According to their website, the church averages 2,500 weekly.

The bulletin called the "Weekly Planner" consisted of an assortment of
announcements, the month ahead and weekly events. The front featured a graphic of the pastor's sermon series, and a recognition of "Urban Essence," the church's Dance Troupe that had recently won an award. On the back was a personal invitation from Pastor Steve Banning to come up and meet him after the service.

The worship music was almost all up-tempo, hard driving, rock or gospel- not at all the Assembly of God hymnal that I recall from my visits to an Assemblies church when I was in college. The full choir was in the background, the band, composed mostly of rhythm instruments) had a section on the stage left (with some younger string players out front on stage right). The vocalists (8-10) were front and center and were frequent soloists. During one of the worship songs everyone was invited to praise in whatever words they choose. There was no interpretation of tongues during the service.

For the greeting time, members were asked to stand, and the guests remained seated. An usher gave me a Connection Card and I was asked to complete it and return it to the visitor center for a free gift. I was greeted by those around me, and an usher guided me down to meet the Bannings, Steve and Donna, during the greeting time. That was cool.

When it came time for the offering, Steve Banning spoke for about 7-8 minutes of introduction. First he welcomed visitors and told us about the Connection class (three meetings for those interested in more information and when you attend that, you're a member). While he spoke, the ushers remained standing in place with offering plates. An interesting note for visitors was that guests are not expected to make an offering, that it is something for the members only. Well, until at least your third visit anyway. During the offering, one of the members of Troupe danced to the song.

The message from 2 Kings 3 was part of a series by Pastor Steve Banning on "Digging a Ditch: An Expectation of Prayers Answered." This particular message was about God making pools of water in the salty desert of Edom - and delivering the armies of Israel. The NIV states "Make this valley full of ditches." The message was about how we can choose the spiritual atmosphere of worship regardless of our circumstance. The message went immediately into an invitation. People were asked to stand if they were making a first-time commitment to trust and obey Jesus. Those around them were asked to lay their hands on their shoulders and pray repeating the words of Banning. These new believers then came to front to be recognized and welcomed.

One of the things I noticed about this church is that it's very children and family friendly. Youth using their gifts is really lifted up. There are upcoming blessings of college students, children, students, educators, and parents on five separate dates in August. The other thing I noticed is the way this community is reaching out, with real intention, to the unchurched in their mission field, which they define as southwest Houston. The services are webcast off of the website. You can also get a copy of the messages on CD or DVD.

Braeswood Church exists to...

A commitment to a personal and growing relationship with Jesus Christ through Worship, Prayer and the study of God's Word.
A commitment to identify and develop God's strategic plan for our lives through our gifts and talents used to build His church and strengthen fellow believers.
A commitment to strategically share the good news of Jesus' love with the unchurched in southwest Houston

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dr. Oz is not my doctor

Nor do I find community in the blink of an eye or a snap of my finger. For that matter, a click wishing a happy birthday is nice, but not very enduring. Jesus' blessings are not to "the friended" or the "liked this." (Matt. 5: 3-12)

I'm thinking about how the Amish, are, according to Weird Al, " just technologically impaired," but in a good way. The telephone makes my convenience more important than the act of face to face community. In the heyday of 1980's televangelism, an ad for the Episcopal church read, "With all due respect to TV Evangelism, have you ever seen a Sony that could give Holy Communion?"

Like pretending Dr. Oz is "my doctor" by watching his program, "community" has become the least common denominator where the road of least resistance is encouraged, and one size fits all. Telling me I have "notifications" is not going to change the fact that I lack motivation in the area of extending real friendship love to others, even those whom God has already placed in my life. God hopes more of me than to sporadically comment on, or "like" what he's doing, and being the church to each other is NOT just a viral finger tap away.

The bad connections I suffer from are not technological, but personal and social. They are a result of attitudes and behaviors we have chosen, me included. Words wound or bless on the internet -or anywhere. Inviting a friend into your life probably requires more of yourself and is more an act of evangelism than offering a quick invitation to church.

The church syndrome is that we don't even think we need to make space for new friends and new people. We assume we can stack people up like our FB friends. But to really make room, we would have to let go of the stuff that clutters our lives- both the unhealthy and at times, what we think is good.(John 15:1-2)

The body of Christ, the living and breathing witness of Jesus and Spirit, teaches me that the two or three gathered is irreplaceable and foundational to community. The 525 or 25,000 "friends" you might accumulate on your free facebook account? Like watching Dr. Oz telling you the obvious, you get what you pay for.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Let's be honest about "clergy health"

Let's take a look at a recent stab at this topic, courtesy of the Board of Pensions of the UMC. I know these recommendations are the fruit of hard work, long hours, prayer, reflection, and concern. I appreciate the committee's effort and energy. Their work should start a conversation at least and hopefully bring about some positive change. The task force’s recommendations are set forth below, with my response in the last three paragraphs of this post.
  • More help for those entering licensed or ordained ministry: Stronger screening of candidates for ministry, standardization and strengthening of the residency program during the provisional period, and providing a provision for a career‐long mentor, apart from the district superintendent.
  • Guidelines for healthy work/life balance: Champion and monitor clergy health and wellness, promoting annual (regional) conference resources, and providing support to clergy, spouses and families.
  • Changes to itinerancy and appointment making: Use longer-tenure appointments to mitigate the stress on clergy and, by extension, stress on the connection; encourage use of interim appointments.
  • A redefinition of district superintendent’s role: Prioritize the district superintendent’s supervisory role as someone who proactively coaches, provides feedback and embodies and intentionally monitors clergy wellness.
  • Help for those exiting ordained ministry: Providing career counseling, temporary health coverage and assistance with final moving expenses for clergy who no longer feel God’s call to ordained ministry to make “a grace-filled exit.
Be more honest about money- we can understand why the Board of Pensions did this study as they are driven by economic stewardship. "Helping" clergy to exit early would "help" to lower the church's bottom-line in pension payments. What about the wisdom of continuing a life-time salary for future members of the episcopacy? Can we afford it or is that the elephant in the room we just agree to ignore?

How about more transparency and less manipulation in making appointments?
Lack of honesty multiplies stress. Just be honest that appointments are a combination of many factors. We need to stop confusing the descriptive (how things really are) with the normative (the way we want them to be).

Focus on what the D.S. can do in practical, on the ground, help.
To be coaches, their gifts have to fit and the job re-structured to match. How about offering regular sabbath/brake days sponsored by Districts /the D.S. Being on call 24/7 casts the unhealthy structure of the pastoral life like nothing else. Empower the D.S. (equipped with a team of retired pastors?) to offer real help by covering one or two days every 6 weeks.

Oldies but Goodies