Discipleship v. Leadership

The Church has a love affair with leadership. It seems that it is something we are obsessed with and that the best leadership practices will lead us into a bright future. From my observation, the church seems very focused on learning the best practices of leadership from the business world. It’s not to say that we can’t learn from the business world, but is that really where we should look for the foundation of our pastoral and church ministry?

I often look and search for continuing ed opportunities to see ways that I can continue to learn and grow while serving in full time ministry. The vast majority I always find are based on leadership. There are leadership institutes, certificate programs, cohorts and everything else designed to grow you as a leader. I have found it very difficult to find programs, that aren’t apart of getting a new degree, that help pastors continue their deeper study into the Old and New Testaments or that can help a church focus on spiritual formation. I don’t believe leadership is a bad thing, but I’m curious why we have become so obsessed with it as a church. We want great leaders, whatever that means. As the church we don’t seem to talk about wanting people who are contemplatives, or prophets, or great pastoral care givers, etc…We want people who are great at leading and managing a church to become a mega church.

It seems that Jesus didn’t really care that much about leadership. His only leadership advice seemed to be that if you desire to be great, known, a leader, then you should be one who serves. And be careful not to exalt yourself, which is often a strong temptation in leadership; if you do exalt yourself, watch out because humility is coming at you, and it won’t be fun. As a leader you have some form of power and authority over others and as we so often see and hear, in business and in the church, that power can often be abused. Jesus also seemed more concerned that we would be followers instead of leaders. Followers of The Way, and not leaders of our own way.

What if the church spent as much time as we focus on the newest leadership ideas (i.e. 7 practices of the best church leaders) and turned that focus towards discipleship and focusing our lives on the patterns of Jesus? Perhaps there was a reason Jesus didn’t give us the top 5 habits of highly effective leaders. I remember years ago hearing a pastor say that the church of the future would be more effective for the times, and the direction that we are going, to have pastors have MBA’s than an MDIV. I hope and pray this is not the place our church comes to. An MDIV is not perfect. But I would much rather have a pastor who spent years studying theology and ministry than to have their foundation be in business practices only. What does that say about our ecclesiology? It means we do not have a strong one.

I have seen church staffs spend time reading articles and books about how to be a great leader, but very seldom, if ever, see church staff read and reflect over thinking theologically, how to be a more faithful practitioner of the faith, or anything related to Christian ministry that is not tied to being a great leader.

Being a leader is not inherently a bad thing, but there is so much more to focus on as the church, and I pray that we stop caring so much about being great leaders, as we would about being great prophets, great at cultivating space for people to encounter God through the practice of our means of grace, great at fostering authentic and life-sharing community, great at being engaged in the missional work of our neighborhoods, and great at being life-long students of the Bible, of spiritual practices, of the faith.

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The Character(s) of the Pastor

As is true of most people, I love TV. And I love TV characters who inspire me to be a better pastor. Here are my most favorite characters in TV shows who have traits and qualities that I hope to continue to cultivate in myself. None of these characters are perfect, as none of us are, but they push me to be more faithful.

Leslie Knope (Parks and Rec)
Leslie is tenacious, devoted, loyal, faithful, passionate, a planner, and a dreamer. She pushes people to be their best and loves her work with all of who she is. She believes deeply in their purpose of her work. She never settles and she loves binders, as do I!

Dr. Richard Webber (Grey’s Anatomy)
Chief Webber is the best. Not only is he funny, but he is an incredible teacher and mentor. He has trained and shaped many people to become excellent surgeons. I would love to have his wisdom and gifts of teaching not only people in the congregation, but maybe one day being able to teach and train pastors.

Chris Traeger (Parks and Rec)
Chris has the best pastoral presence of anyone. He is so devoted and caring to the individual in front of him. He is a great inspirer, emphatic listener, and embodiment of pastoral care. He believes in people and pulls out the best in them.

Phil Dunphy
Phil is someone I easily relate too. He is goofy, passionate about things that most around him are not, and not many people laugh at his jokes! He is loving, kind, and not afraid to be himself. He is a great dad, husband, and friend and he is hilarious! Plus he wrote his own book, which is one of my dreams!

Dwight Schrute (The Office)
Dwight is one of my all time favorite characters in TV. But he is harder to find good pastoral qualities. (What I found hilarious about him are oppositely qualities of a pastor). I will give him this though, he is dedicated and believes that there is unlimited possibility for his company. Though our methods would vary widely, I appreciate his commitment to help Dunder Mifflin (for us, the church), to be its best self, and most faithful to its purpose. Dwight is also deeply loyal, and values loyalty; you wouldn’t have to question his commitment to the church.

If you combined these five people, you would sure get an interesting pastor, haha!

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Church as Formed, Deformed and Reformed

Last weekend I had the joy of hearing in person one of my most favorite theological and biblical scholars, Walter Brueggemann. His teachings and writings continue to challenge me, inspire me and give me hope for a community called church to live differently in this world reflecting compassion, neighborliness and holiness. Below are some notes/quotes,paraphrase from his lectures as he focused on the church as formed, deformed, and reformed. They are most likely not in any real order. To hear the full context of each quote check out the lecture below.

“The story of the Bible and the Church is about a people who are formed as God’s people, who have been de-formed by ideology, fear and money, and who are being re-formed by teaching and witness. We become de-formed when we forget to love God and love neighbor.

The prophetic moment (i.e. Amos, Isiah, Jeremiah, etc…) was recovering the ancient covenantal vision/ethic of Moses – economic justice and neighborly love. We are to reorder the life of religious order based on Deuteronomy which is about neighborless in God’s community.”

On the passages of Deuteronomy 23:10-13; 24:14-15; 24:17-18; 24:19-22; 25;1-3
“Not charging interest on loans was a very radical idea as it gave a vision for a neighborly economy. Wage theft is a violation of the neighborly economy. Three groups of people who were most vulnerable in a patriarchal society: immigrant, orphan and widow because they had no male advocate. Deuteronomy says that neighborliness requires you to be an advocate for those who have no normal advocate and that your memory of being a slave in Egypt shall dictate your ethic. We see evidence of the first social safety net as we are asked to make provision for those without provision. If you have a dispute with your neighbor, you must not degrade them in sight, speaks to prison reform. This book is a reform movement in the Old Testament and there was much resistance to it.”

“Wherever you are, it is probably Egypt, and there is a promised land there, and the only way to get there is through marching. God is mobilized by pain coming out as speech in public ways.

“Jubilee is the most radical teaching in the Bible.” When Dr. Brueggemann was asked if there is evidence it was every practiced in Biblical times, he responded ‘the Bible is filled with things that haven’t been tried yet.'”

The 10 Commandments are 10 rules of neighborliness and 10 acts of resistance towards the predatory economy. If you fail to follow these rules you will fall back into the predatory economy. Moses is proof that if there are enough courageous people, a neighborly economy can happen. The whole prophetic movement is about a vision for a neighborly economy. When you forget your faith, you can get comfortable in the predatory economy.

Holy Communion is the great sacrament of an alternative community. Bread is a gift of abundance and it is not self-made. All good gifts are sent from heaven above.

Much of the deformation of the church comes from money. We have to get away from the money and economy and get back to the neighborly economy. Churches and Synagogues are the custodians of the jubilee tradition. The Bible is preoccupied with economic issues. Pharaoh is a metaphor for the predatory economy of extraction. Eucharist is a sign of abundance in the scarcity of the predatory economy.

To help the church lead into our prophetic imagination, we need: good study, so much so that it inconveniences us, and to give priority to things important to our faith; being a Christian is an inconvenience. We need good study and good teaching and to hear the stories of those who are being left behind.

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Reflections on Confirmation

Over the past couple of years, confirmation has become on my most favorite and life-giving parts of youth ministry. Confirmation has been an area that has grown in significance and thoughtfulness in each year for me that I have been in ministry.

One of the gifts Confirmation has is that there feels a freedom to create a meaningful and well-rounded experience that for some reason is not often found in other ministries or programs (this deserves more unpacking, but is not the point of this blog).

It’s fascinating that confirmation looks so different in every church. Some churches it last from 9-12 months, and others it is done on a couple of Saturdays. In the early church candidates for baptism and life in the church, called Catechumens, were in a strict 3 year process. Ideally, I would love to lead a program like this that is three years! Think of all you could do in that time and how greater the meaning of it would be.

I often feel that I begin every Confirmation class with by sharing that the topic being covered today is only a very brief introduction. There is simply no way to convey all that we should or desire to about any topic, especially when you only get an hour to do so. The challenge is that confirmation can quickly become about the dissemination of information. If we are not careful Confirmation can easily become about us talking to the youth for an hour about  things that they will very quickly forget. It can become lecture based when instead much of the aim of confirmation is about introducing teens to the way we as Christians live in this world. While knowledge of our history and learning about our doctrine is important, it cannot and should not be all that we pass on.

I think ideally it would be great if Confirmation could entail weekly reading and spiritual practice engagement throughout the week. What if we could give the confirmands a one page introductory reading about the topic that they have to read during the week? This can also help teach and communicate that faith formation is not only on Sunday mornings!

Let’s say during the weeks the confirmands read one page summaries about John Wesley, Church History, Methodism, how the Bible came to be, etc… and then in our weekly gatherings we begin with reflecting and having conversation over what they have read. Our learning and reflecting is now conversation in our time together and the leader doesn’t have to spend the majority of time talking and teaching the information that can be read.

Once we spend 15 minutes or so reflecting over the topic and reading, we have the rest of the time to introduce youth to the many ways that Christians live out their faith. During the week they are being formed by the theology and history of our faith and on Sundays together we are learning how to practice our faith.

This frees up our weekly time together to deeply explore spiritual practices. This also allows the opportunity for more trips to visit other communities of faith and to experience how others worship. These kids of trips can be difficult to do if you are not doing a year long confirmation program.

Its inevitable that some youth would see the reading as homework, but its imperative we help them discover and see that much of our faith formation is about taking ownership of our faith and learning, reading, praying and giving everyday.

In Confirmation I believe we have the opportunity and responsibility to introduce and provide youth to a variety of resources and gifts that help youth encounter God in a diversity of ways and experiences. One of my favorite parts about leading Confirmation is giving them gifts of the faith that help them continue to learn and experience God in new and sustained ways such as prayer books, a Bible, guide for missional engagement in their community, a hand sized cross and I would do much more if I had a budget for it!

Confirmation is such a true joy to be a part of. We get to walk weekly with a group of teenagers and help them discover a God who is calling them and shaping them. If we only teach in a way for them to learn information, then I feel we have missed a great opportunity. We do not get much time with them each week, so why not spend that time inviting them into conversation and to the practice of the Christian faith in the context of doing it together in community.

I am grateful for every confirmand I have been able to journey with and I believe so deeply in this part of the church’s life. I am hopeful to continue to be able to be a part of and shape confirmation programs in the churches I work in.

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Activism for Introverts

Yes!

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Powerful Photos of 2017

Each year Buzzfeed publishes the most powerful photos of the year. These photos tell powerful stories. I have often used them for prayer nights with youth groups. Youth journey around the sanctuary prayerfully reflecting over the stories and those represented in the photos. Here are some of the ones that most powerfully moved me from 2017.

How heartbreaking are the things that we as humans choose to do to one another. It seems that humanity craves violence. These few photos show us the devastation of war and genocide in Syria, Iraq and Myanmar. They show the pain and consequences of our obsession with guns and gun violence, and the continued oppression of indigenous people. We also see hope, from thousands gathering to resist white supremacy and racism, to hundreds of thousands protesting oppressive and hateful world leaders, calling for a new way of living and being

A man carries the body of a dead child after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on April 4.

The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs was turned into a memorial to honor those who died on Nov. 12, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman opened fire and killed 26 people. Each chair is placed at the location in the room where the victim died.

An exhausted Rohingya refugee cries for help to other refugees as they make their way from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Nov. 2.

The city of Mosul, Iraq, is seen in ruins following an ongoing conflict to retake the city from ISIS, on July 14.

Protesters walk during the Women’s March on Washington, with the US Capitol in the background, on Jan. 21 in Washington, DC. Large crowds attended the anti-Trump rally a day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US president.

Police move in to clear the Oceti Sakowin camp at the Standing Rock protest site in North Dakota on Feb. 23.

Thousands gather with candles to march along the path that white supremacists took the prior Friday with torches on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 16.

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The Ministry of Dancing On Our Own

I love the version of the song Dancing on My Own by Calum Scott. It feels deeply passionate and emotional. For me the song is a great prayer for those times in ministry where we feel beat up, over looked and worn out. I want to share the lyrics and how for me they are expressions of the Psalms – deep expressions and prayers from the heart.

Somebody said you got a new friend
Does she love you better than I can?
There’s a big black sky over my town
I know where you’re at, I bet she’s around

And yeah, I know it’s stupid
But I just gotta see it for myself
I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh oh oh
I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, oh oh oh
And I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the guy you’re taking home, ooh
I keep dancing on my own

To me this song begins with the trap that many of us in ministry fall into, comparing ourselves and comparing our ministries to other churches. Often this comes from the phrase “well the church down the street is doing this…the church down the street has a 100 youth every week.”

This first verse and chorus paints the work of ministry, whether paid or volunteer, as a dance. We give so much of ourselves, we give our all – we are dancing and longing for the attention and presence of God in our work. But at times it feels that in our desperate plea to have God speak to us and give us wisdom for how to do this thing called ministry, God seems busy dancing with someone else, working in another ministry that is going great and what everyone else sees is a beautiful dance and a “growing” ministry because that is really all most people care about. So as ministry leaders we give into the temptation to compare ourselves with other ministries and we always lose, it feels that we are dancing on our own and that God is “at the church down the street” and doesn’t seem that interested to be in our church. And we pray “God, we are here, why don’t you see us and work in the same way – please ‘take us home'”

I’m just wanna dance all night
And I’m all messed up, I’m so out of line, yeah
Stilettos and broken bottles
I’m spinning around in circles
And I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh
I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, oh
And I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the guy you’re taking home, ooh
I keep dancing on my own
And oh no

We want to be in ministry, we feel called to it, we desire to give our lives in this work because we believe it deeply matters. And yet, we are struggling, and we are hurting because God sometimes seems absent. We strive to give all of our hearts, minds, and energy to this work and perhaps we feel that we keep coming up short. We cry out “God, we are giving our all, why can’t you see us? Why are you dancing with someone else? We love the dance and want to dance with you. Why are we still dancing on our own?

So far away but still so near
The lights come up, the music dies
But you don’t see me standing here
I just came to say goodbye
I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh
And I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the guy you’re taking home, ooh
I keep dancing on my own

When it seems that God is far away, we are reminded that God is here. But we still struggle and yearn to feel God near us. We have the days where we feel we have come to say goodbye to the dance, to say goodbye to this meaningful work because God seems to prefer dancing with someone else instead of us. But we keep dancing. And even when it feels that we are dancing on our own – we have the privilege of being able to voice our pains, our frustrations, our questions and our longings through song and prayer.

And when it seems we are dancing on our own, may we be reminded that God is always in the dance. When others compare our ministries to others who exhibit the qualities that a consumeritic society deems valuable, may we be reminded that God’s values are different. And in this continual dance of ministry God is there breathing life, perhaps in ways we may not recognize or see for a long time. Our theology gives us permission to lament and hurt and share these painfully honest questions and fears to God. But our theology also reminds us that God is life and breathes the Spirit into our dance. May we be quiet enough to listen and wise enough to see God’s imprints on the work we do.

I love this song and love the invitation from God to engage in this type of honest prayer. And I find healing and comfort through praying from the depths of my heart through song and I hope you can too

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