Category Archives: Clergy

Respect the Gift: The UFC Light Heavyweight Champ on the Stewardship of Talent

UFC LHW Champion Jon Jones just dropped some truth at the UFC 165 Tickets On-Sale Presser yesterday to promote his upcoming title bout with contender Alexander Gustafson.  Following the stunning knockout of Anderson Silva at UFC 162 last weekend, Jones indicated this was a bit of a wake-up call:

“I think that Anderson Silva is a magnificent fighter,” he said. “I think he has extraordinary gifts. I think he’s gotten to the point where he really believes in his gifts, and he’s comfortable with the gift and he abused his gift. He disrespected the gift by disrespecting his opponent. Martial arts are traditionally a sport that’s based around honor and integrity and treating people with respect, and he somehow lost sight of that, and he paid the ultimate price for it.”

For the UFC uninitiated, Silva was KO’d because – depending on who you believe – either his showboating or his unorthodox strategy finally caught up with him.  As he has done many times before, he dropped his hands during the fight, goading Chris Weidman to come forward and engage him, even going so far as to feign being hurt.  As one headline put it, the former Middleweight champ was “slain by his own arrogance.

It strikes me that this is a danger for all of us.  Whatever your gifts, whether they are physical or intellectual, whether you are a leader or an artist, a professional or a student, we must beware of the temptation to “get comfortable” and thus “disrespect” our gift.  I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to his protege, Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

We call these talents and natural abilities “gifts,” because they come to us from outside of ourselves. Christians believe that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)  I found Jones’ words a humbling reminder of what it means to be the bearer of God’s good gifts. Let us not abuse our gifts, but rekindle them to the glory of God and the service of his kingdom.

St. Gregory the Great’s Advice to Young Clergy

I interrupted my current reading with something special for my ordination: Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.  With his description of the ideal pastor and rather cutting remarks on the temptations to which clergy are prone, it was a humbling read to surround the days leading up to my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection.

A large portion of his Rule is devoted to specific instructions for people with opposite vices or situations; while this section gets a bit tedious and repetitive, there are nonetheless some gems within.  Especially interesting to me was the section entitled, “Those who are able to preach with dignity but fear to do so out of humility [does anyone know one of these people???], and those whose lack of skill or age prevents from preaching but who nevertheless rush into preaching.”

In that section, St. Gregory elaborates:

“…those who are prohibited from preaching because of a lack of skill or age, but nevertheless rush into preaching, should be advised that in their arrogance to assume the burden of the office of preaching, they do not cut off the opportunity for their own future improvement.  Moreover, as they seize prematurely what they are not able to do, they should be careful that they not lose those very skills that they might otherwise have achieved at a later time…they should be advised to remember that if young birds try to fly before their wings are fully developed, they fall from the height that they sought.”

He goes on to use – and really, who could be better? – the example of Jesus:

“And so it is that our Redeemer, though as the Creator he remains in heaven and is always by his power the teacher of the angels, did not wish to become a teacher of men until his thirtieth year on earth.  Clearly, he did this to instill a wholesome fear into the hasty by showing them that even he, who could not err, did not preach the grace of the perfect life until he had reached the appropriate age.” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007 [163-164].)

I am struck by how much this is the opposite impulse of many churches today, including that of my own (United Methodist) tribe.  Denominational authorities tell us everywhere that we need more young clergy, and many claim (or at least imply) that our time to ordination should be faster/simpler/easier.  I have my own thoughts on why “The Process” is so complex, and why it should be so in every corner of the Body, but here I am mostly interested in the age factor.

St. Gregory regards it as a vice that one would seek to preach at too young an age; we seem to act and think the opposite.  Mirroring, rather than challenging, the cultural assumption that everything new is good and the way of the young is the way it should be, the church too quickly and too often runs after the young like a drunk stumbling for a lamppost. Thus the values of the market win out over wisdom, and we effectively despise those whom most healthy societies have revered.

I am almost 31.  I am about to enter my 5th year of full-time ministry, and I have much to learn.  I have no illusions that I have achieved the heights of pastoral wisdom or preaching excellence, and I am horrified that anyone my age or younger would already be showing interest in the Episcopacy.

Wisdom is the fruit of years, and more specifically years of prayer, study, discernment, experience, and some serious grace.  While the young should be cultivated for spiritual leadership, and I understand that the investment the church makes via ordination (if for no other purpose than the rather mundane reasons of insurance and other benefits) means that younger clergy may be preferred by the system, we who are young should not seek to speak of God too soon or too lightly.  We should not presume that being young gives us some kind of monopoly over leading well or preaching with power and conviction.

In short, we could use a dose of Gregory’s advice: don’t be in a hurry to speak the words of salvation, to presume to speak for God.  Jesus didn’t get going until he was 30.  Don’t be too proud to walk before you run, or to sit in the chair of the apprentice before assuming the role of the master.

Thoughts Upon Ordination

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United Methodists don’t do this as part of the Ordination rite, but I kind of wish we did…

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

Paul, 2 Timothy 1:6

As I went through last week’s Annual Conference (the yearly gathering of United Methodists from a particular geographic area, in my case Western North Carolina – aka the best Annual Conference), I was continually reminded of the many people, places, and experiences that were important during my journey towards ordained ministry.

I was reminded especially of:

  • Karen, who invited me to Youth Disciple;
  • Gloria, my youth pastor, who made sure I felt welcomed even though I didn’t know a lot of the kids in the group; she tried to tell me I was going to be a pastor years before I even began to study matters of faith and theology;
  • Marc, who showed me the importance of living the faithfulness and trust that we proclaim as pastors;
  • Phillip, who introduced me to “the process,” and walked with me when I stumbled;
  • College professors like Warlick and Norwood and Akinade, who helped me learn that there were other ways to be Christian than being a narrow-minded fundamentalist;
  • Dr. Stoneking, who was wise enough to advise me to pursue an M.Div at a place that taught me to think with the Church rather than outside of or against her;
  • Seminary faculty like Smith and Campbell, who taught me to think deeply about the Christian faith while not treating their students like machines on an assembly line;
  • Drew and Kirk and Mike, who taught me the day-to-day of work of ministry in its pure, unvarnished beauty.  They taught me to love the local church, in/through/with/despite its failures;
  • Mike, who told me I could be a pastor when I wasn’t remotely convinced;
  • Dr. Phillips, a professor who played a pastor when necessary;
  • My parents, who have been my cheerleaders the whole way, and told me from a young age – with no evidence to speak of – that I was a leader;
  • Brittany, who has supported me more kindly than I deserve, even though she often loses out to the vocation. She has carried me through the valleys and kept me from being conceited on the mountaintops.

Most of all, I found myself continually marveling at the Triune God for his bounteous, unending, surprising grace.  His strange, unmerited call is the chief reason I now find myself as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. That grace was mediated to me through various means – worship, prayer, sacrament, service – and the people and places that have graced my journey.  Thanks be to God.

Tornadoes, Theodicy, and Calvinism

David Bentley Hart is like Barth to me.  That is, my claims to appreciate his work are far too grand compared to the amount of his work I’ve actually read.  Nevertheless, what I have read of his I have greatly enjoyed.  With the usual Calvinist claptrap being thrown around once more in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, Hart offers the kind of strong medicine we need.  The following was taken from a Christian Century interview about his book on theodicy in the light of the tsunami, The Doors of the Sea.

On the Calvinist Anxiety Over God’s Sovereignty:

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

What Pastors Should and Should Not Say in Times of Tragedy:

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t a pastoral bone in my body. But I would implore pastors never to utter banal consolations concerning God’s “greater plan” or the mystery of his will. The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So Where Was God?

“Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

Spiritual Kaizen with Bishop Grant Hagiya

I just finished Bishop Grant Hagiya’s newly-minted Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader and I happy to commend it to your own shelves.  As I’ve written already, there is much food for thought within.  Hagiya’s brief volume, which draws heavily on his doctoral work, combines decades of church leadership experience, lifelong study of the martial arts (I like the idea of a Bishop that can break boards!), and the latest in organizational development studies.  His central thesis is that great leaders practice kaizen, a Japanese term that basically means “constant growth.”  One illustration of this concept comes from a story he tells about a retreat center (not institutions that are usually known for their entrepreneurship) that his annual conference frequented:

“Every time I returned to that retreat center some small new addition was noticeable. One time it was the addition of card holders on the sleeping room doors so people could put their business cards on the door to identify where they were located. Another time they had a seasonal prayer card placed on the desk in each room. Still another time there was the addition of a dessert cart. Each time I returned, there was a small but noticeable improvement present. This is kaizen at its best!” (104)

Giving this excerpt and describing his basic thesis, while accurate, do not due justice to the depth and breadth what lies within.  Compared to most of the paint-by-numbers church leadership books (you’ve read one, you’ve read them all), Bishop Hagiya’s work feels like a crash course in advanced leadership theory.  He sums up a massive amount of current literature in concise manner, and is well worth the read in that regard.  Combined with his insights from martial arts training and personal experience as a church leader at all levels, Spiritual Kaizen will make an enjoyable addition to your summer reading plans, whether laity or clergy.

The Entitlement Plague in the Church

From Bishop Grant Hagiya’s brand-spankin’-new book:

“This leads to another deep-seated systematic constraint of The United Methodist Church, and perhaps other denominations: namely, the culture of entitlement over service in ministry.  With the professionalization of ministry in North America and the setting aside of full-time vocationally compensated clergy members, a culture of entitlement over service has crept into our clergy orders.  It works in two ways, one for the clergy and one for the laity of local churches.  As it plays out for clergy, there is a built-in expectation of a livable salary and accompanying benefits for full-time ministry.  Because The United Methodist Church currently has a guarantee of full-time ministry employment for life in its polity, there is the expectation of that entitlement by the clergy.  As it applies to the laity, there is the built-in expectation that they will receive a full-time minister, even if they cannot sustain the cost of that minister.” (pp. 64-65)

It would not be difficult to twist this into a screed about a culture of entitlement writ large over 21st century Western life, but that is not my purpose here.  Rather, it is to name what is a great part of our problem in the church: entitlement.  While the above quote hints at the entitlement mentality of churches (and he does develop it somewhat), as a pastor I want to focus on the clergy.

General Conference 2012 was disappointing in many respects.  I remain hopeful that some lessons will be learned and that meaningful changes can grow from the seeds planted last year.  What we know is that the one meaningful thing that passed – ending the (yes, admittedly, “so-called”) guarantee of appointment – was later rejected by the Judicial Council.

As Bishop Hagiya concludes, “entitlement has become embedded in the fabric of the church culture itself.”  Culture doesn’t change overnight, and evidence suggests it may not change from the top down.  It starts with me and with you, it starts with a focus on the responsibilities of the gospel and not just the benefits of the church.  Changing the culture of entitlement means focusing more on my duties and my God-given call as a pastoral leader than my rights as a member of the clergy; it means thinking more about what I owe (and to Whom I owe it) than what I am owed.

One person, one church, one conference at a time.  That is how the entitlement plague ends.  As the old hymn goes, “Let it begin with me.”

Thoughts On Not Shutting Up

Dr. Steve McSwain over on the Huffington Post Religion Blog asked me to shut up recently.  Actually, he wants all of us who preach to shut up: the title of the piece is, “I Wish Christian Preachers Would Just Shut Up.

To be fair, he says he didn’t mean to be “unkind,” but I’m not sure how asking someone to shut up can ever be done kindly.

Of course, his real beef is not with all preachers, but just those who align themselves with right-leaning politics.  Strangely, he does not seem to have any issue with Christians who align with left-leaning causes.  So while he calls out Billy Graham & Co. for a pseudo-endorsement of Romney, he does not bother to name that the exact same thing happens in the left-leaning churches with their candidates.

He continues by telling us that none of us read the Scriptures as well as he does:

If Christians were to actually study the Scriptures, which of course most of them do not, and so were to develop their own understanding of the sacred text itself, they would discern between truth and the nonsense that is preached from scores of pulpits in Christian communions across this country. Instead, however, many of them get their beliefs more from the spurious notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” or the equally spurious B-grade movies they watch as in the “Left Behind” series.

A couple of issues.  Being a Christian does not mean developing one’s own understanding of the sacred text.  That way is madness.  That way does not recognize Divine revelation for the whole of God’s people, but a blank canvas to be interpreted to one’s own tune.  As part of John Wesley’s posse, I recognize that Scripture does not stand alone, but rather as the primary source for truth alongside tradition, experience, and reason.

Also, how exactly does one know what is preached in “scores” of churches across the theological spectrum each Sunday? This seems presumptuous.  While there is a strong strand of Darbyism/dispensationalism in American Protestantism, it is (despite all the TV exposure) a minority opinion.  Roman Catholics, Orthodox christians, and most Mainliners do not subscribe to it.  Informed evangelicals do not. I have preached against this kind of eschatology myself, and blogged on it here and here.

I actually think the whole notion of the rapture is just as silly as Dr. McSwain does, so perhaps his “shut up” proviso does not apply to me?

On the whole, this entire screed seems really to be little more than a cheap shot at the Grahams.  They have their flaws, Franklin in particular, but there are much more problematic and influential individuals in American Protestantism at present (here’s looking at you, Mark Driscoll and Joel Osteen).  On the whole I like Billy, but to each their own.

For now, perhaps we can encourage Dr. McSwain to offer something more constructive to his theological opponents than “shut up.”  At the very least, don’t apply your disdain for a few to all of us.

Near the conclusion, he writes:

Maybe it’s just me, but many religious leaders today seem contradictory, confused and, well, just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail.

True enough, Dr. McSwain.  I too loathe much of what is said from certain pulpits. But I’m trying hard to be the solution, and I’m not going to ask your permission to continue doing what God has called me to do.

By the by, that thing you said about being “just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail”?

It applies to bloggers as well.

Jesus Wants Us to Break Some Rules

 

 

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Q: “How many United Methodists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

A: “CHANGE??? WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT CHANGE?!?”

The Judicial Council of the UMC recently met and reversed an action passed this year at General Conference that would have ended the so-called “guaranteed appointment.”  Per the United Methodist Reporter:

“Security of appointment has long been a part of the tradition of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies. Abolishing security of appointment would destroy our historic plan for our itinerant superintendency. Fair process procedures, trials and appeals are integral parts of the privilege of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of appeal and is an absolute right which cannot be eradicated by legislation.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a people-pleasing, rule-following only child by birth, nature, and inclination.  I hate rebellion for the sake of rebellion (and let’s be honest, nothing today makes one less of a rebel than self-identifying as one).  But sometimes rules become self-serving, stale, and rusty.  Boundaries are important, but when they become an impediment to organizational vitality and, in the case of the church, a barrier to the mission of Jesus – they gotta go.

In Back to Zero, Gil Rendle has an excellent chapter on rule-breaking.  He makes a great point:

“Bad behavior may be hard to change but not so hard as trying to change policies once they are established and applied to all.  Institutions and corporations easily can make new rules but do not have the natural capacity to break those rules once they are made.” (21)

The whole of General Conference 2012 was proof that our particular corporation does not have the capacity to change rules despite institutional decline and overall ossification.   Rendle is part of a growing chorus within the church that seeks to reclaim Methodism as a movement rather than an institution.  This means change, though:

“When a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero.  Former practices are found to be ineffective.  Old rules don’t apply.” (24)

The tenure system that rewards clergy for time in the system and emphasizes the security and rights of the clergy (notice the language of the decision above) over the call of Jesus and needs of the church has indeed proven to be ineffective.  Is it all the clergy’s fault? No.  Is our system of deploying clergy defensible any longer? No.

Rendle offers three questions (via an Army general, no less) to guide potential rule-breaking:

What is the purpose of the rule?

Is this rule still appropriate?

Does the rule serve or prevent the mission?
(29)

 

So, given the questions above, what do you think? is it time for us to break some rules – even if they are “restrictive“?

 

Source:

Gil Rendle, Back to Zero (Nashville: Abingdon Press 2011).

 

Tenure and Preachers’ Unions with Chris Christie

From tough-talking Governor Christie’s RNC speech tonight:

“We believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete.

Teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children.

We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what’s best for our nation’s future – demanding accountability, higher standards and the best teacher in every classroom.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about tenure these days.  Christie, of course, has been in the news for pushing education reform in his own state.  Not one to shy away from controversial issues – love him or hate him, he isn’t a political coward – Christy knows that “sacred cows make gourmet burgers.”

I also watched the controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman” recently, which advocates for educational reform through more choice in education (especially in the form of charter schools) and against the purported stranglehold that teachers’ unions have on education.  Among the more alarming statistics given in the film is the shockingly low number of teachers relieved of their jobs in any given year as compared to, say, doctors or lawyers.  To be fair, many pro-union voices have come out against the film and questioned its contents.  Still, the anecdotes  we hear on a regular basis are enough to inspire big questions about tenure.  Whose interests does tenure serve, that of the students/community/nation or the teachers and the union leaders themselves?Moreover, the differences between tenure at the university level and tenure at the secondary and under level are important.  University tenure could take a decade or more, and some professors will never get it anywhere.  Tenure in an elementary setting, for instance, can come after only three or four years of teaching and lasts for life.

In the United Methodist Church, ordination and “full connection” as a clergy member of one’s Annual Conference functions as tenure does in a non-university setting.  Ending the so-called “guaranteed appointment” (and yes, there is a mountain of meaning in the phrase “so-called”) was a major plank of the reformers at General Conference this year (also, curiously, in Tampa).

You know the arguments.  You’ve heard them already.  Those who emphasize fairness and security for teachers argue that the GA (guarantee of appointment) is important to maintain freedom in the pulpit, to prevent discrimination based on age/race/gender/theological school/favorite basketball team, and to discourage a vindictive executive from abusing their power by not appointing, under-appointing, or poorly appointing a pastor who is otherwise in good standing.  The focus for all of these arguments is on the good of the employee.

Those who emphasize excellence in ministry and effectiveness (and yes, these are notoriously hard to quantify or judge) point out that a de-facto tenure system does not encourage either of these.  To use the language of economics, tenure does not incentivize hard work or quality work and can, instead, incentivize laziness and substandard work.  Those who question the good of the GA are generally more concerned with the well-being of the church and the mission of Christ in the world.

Of course, it would be a cheap shot to call defenders of tenure (and/or the GA) selfish and narrow-minded.  I’m not really even attempting here to make a comment about education because that is far out of my wheelhouse, but I do think the argument about tenure bears heavily on our discussion of the guarantee of appointment.

Christianity Today recently asked a number of random churchy people, “Should Pastors Be Guaranteed Job Security?” and the results were interesting.  While some of the respondents didn’t seem to grasp what the question was getting at, Bishop Willimon can always be counted on to provide a worthwhile soundbite:

“Pastors have to be willing to lead a precarious existence. When we no longer are of service to a particular congregation and its mission, or to a living, demanding God, then we must seek ministry elsewhere. Tenure and contracts are out of place.”

Here is an excellent interview in which Willimon elaborates on his views of the GA.

To close with the good Governor, what are we in this for?  Is it about making a living, putting food on the table, or is it about Christ and his Church?  Will we expect the best from our clergy, rewarding excellence when we find it but demanding accountability when it is lacking, or must we perennially protect everyone’s job barring egregious misconduct such as a sexual or fiscal scandal?

All of this is very much on my mind as I look forward to my annual review this week.  If the work we do is important – be it in education, or law enforcement, or medicine, or in the church – then surely it is worthy of our best efforts.  In holding us to that standard, God and God’s people do us a great favor.

What does a pastor look like?

A woman came to my church today asking for help to get to a neighboring town to visit a loved one who had just been in a car accident.  It was one of those who-knows-if-this-is-the-truth-but-as-the-church-we-are-supposed-to-help moments.  One of my active members brought her to the door as I was preparing for VBS tonight and introduced us.  Her first comment?

“You don’t look like a preacher.”

My reply?  “Thank you.”

What does a preacher look like?  Is there a standard garb I’m unaware of?  Were my jeans and t-shirt (yes, a little more dressed down than normal for me while at the office, but this was right before VBS was about to start) a giveaway?

Was it an age thing?

Maybe the Episcopalians have been right all along, and we should all wear crisp, white collars to aid identification! (If you are in a more contemporary – or even contemporvant! – setting, the uniform of choice would be a soul patch, leather wristband, graphic t and tattered jeans.)