Category Archives: Ministry

What My Wife’s Job Taught Me About Ministry

betterI used to think my job was hard, and then I got married.  My wife is a physician, and I’ve been blessed to be her partner through MCATs, interviews, medical school, match day, and (most of) residency.  United Methodist clergy go through a period of formation called “residency” before we are ordained, but trust me, it’s nothing like medical residency.  I am constantly in awe of what my wife and her colleagues do: not just the technical mastery needed, not just the massive amounts of knowledge one is expected to hold or the crazy hours doctors work – but the fact lives are in their hands day in and day out, and at risk in decisions great and small.

The work of clergy is in some ways similar.  If we believe that spiritual health matters at all, or that it somehow intersects with physical, mental, and emotional health, then the care of souls is critically important as well.  In our democratized age of religion, many of us try to “go it alone.”  But I’m here to tell you: the self-guided information about physical health available on the internet is of the same dismal quality that one finds in the spiritual realm.  The care of those called to these ministries thus has some things in common, not least in the importance of formation for doctors and clergy, but also in the challenges they face.  I resonate with Atul Gawande’s description of medicine in Better:

“But success in medicine has dimensions that cannot be found on a playing field. For one, lives or on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations. In medicine, our task is to cope with illness…the steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely, with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance in medicine that makes it so interesting and at the same time, so unsettling.” (4)

I contend that one could replace “medicine” with “ministry” in the above, and the description would still ring true.  As a friend of mine says, the work of a pastor or priest is full of both “blessings and bedevilments,” which is of course true for most, if not all, vocations.

My wife has given me newfound appreciation for medicine. Gawande has helped me see some fascinating connections between my wife’s calling and my own.

What other connections do you see? Have I overstated my case? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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Relevance As Temptation in Ministry

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Acting like Jesus is often highly irrelevant, and yet beautiful, like Pope Francis washing feet.

When Henri Nouwen found himself among the mentally disabled of the L’Arche Community, he learned something about himself: the skills, knowledge, and “value” that he thought he had were all meaningless to that particular community. This caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Christian leadership, which is spelled out in his marvelous little treatise In the Name of Jesus:

“I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love…Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.” (17)

Of course, this is almost the exact opposite advice many Christian leaders are given today. We go to workshops, drown ourselves in piles of books, and rack up CEU’s as if they are lottery tickets (one of them will be the key to a life and ministry of ease!) all in search of new skills, techniques, and methods. Most of all, we want to matter. Such is a tragic, if not pathetic, position for pastors in the twilight of Christendom, when many in the West view the church at best as little more than a vendor of religious services (marriages and burials, crisis intervention, a baptism to keep grandmother happy, etc.). Pastors are faced with the temptation to be something more, something objectively useful: a “real” counselor, a life coach, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, a master of conflict resolution. We want something to show that says, “I promise I really DO matter!”

But all of this may be deeply misguided:

“The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” (24)

For Nouwen, the cure for this temptation is a discipline both ancient and (to the astonished ears of hipster pastors everywhere) relevant: contemplative prayer. Such prayer takes us back to the heart of God, the place of our true identity, meaning, and value:

“To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love…contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite.” (28-29)

To put it another way: church leaders would do best to begin any task, goal, discussion, study, or discernment not by asking “what works?” or “what must we do?” but rather by seeking the face of God.  Amazing things happen when we refuse the temptation to relevance, and instead act, not out of calculated strategies and therapeutic utilitarianism, but out of an encounter with the living God of Scripture and the Church.

We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller

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I count myself a fan of Donald Miller. I am particularly evangelical about Blue Like Jazz. I think the church needs his voice: a Christian able to laugh at Christianity, who is non-ideological, and yet deeply committed to Jesus. But he lost me in a recent column which concluded:

“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?

Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.

In some ways, this is patently false. Most church leadership, as I have experienced it, is held by people who have shown themselves to be effective leaders. Often times, these folks are not the most scholarly, but (hopefully) the most effective.

This is also indicative of something I thought Miller would have rejected from his fundamentalist background: anti-intellectualism. Granted, his is a more friendly, postmodern form, but at least here he seems to have an anti-scholarly bent with which fundamentalists of the early 20th century would be sympathetic.

In another sense, he is correct: “professional” church people and new Christians, clergy and laity, both have roles to play in church leadership. In fact, one of the most important, and oft neglected roles of the scholar-pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  (Eph. 4:12) These saints would include plumbers and lawyers and housewives and grandfathers.

Donald Miller may not care much for fights about doctrine, but there will be doctrine regardless of whether or not it is discussed or named as such. This is one of the fundamental lies of the “non-denominational” church movement: there’s no such thing as untraditioned (Miller might prefer un-storied) Christianity. It never has been “just the Bible and God’s people” and never will be. The fact that most Christians don’t know the megachurch they are attending is functionally baptist (most practice believer’s baptism and local church autonomy), and these churches can get away with the claim, is evidence not of too much scholarship but of too little.

All Christians are theologians. In the Christian East, there’s an old saying: “the one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is one who prays.” Not all Christians are professional scholars (thanks be to God), but we are called both to think through and practice the faith. To pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, for they are mutually reinforcing.

So study theology. There is a good case to be made that even atheists should study theology; how much more should God’s people! Dig into the doctrine. Don’t accept just whatever your pastor or parents or “Christian” bookstore claim. Dig deep. Think. Pray. Wrestle.

Every Christian is a theologian; the question is, are we good theologians?

A friendly P.S.:

My own UMC denomination was not formed by an “academic” over doctrine, but over practice. Wesley began an evangelical order within the Anglican Church to reach those that were not being reached, through methods that were being successful in other parts of the Body of Christ. Was he doctrinal? You bet. But this fed his missional drive to all the people that the Anglicans seemed content to leave in the dust. This story brought to you by…scholars. 🙂

 

P.P.S.:

The Miller article is not as new as I initially thought. My bad! But better late than never.

Discerning a Call to Ministry? Ignore the “Do Anything Else” Advice

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How often do we send this message to people discerning a call to ministry?

There is a piece of advice I heard in seminary that is oft-repeated, and one that I have come to dislike.  It originates with Spurgeon, as pointed out in a great article over at Gospel Coalition:

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.

I have two problems with this view, especially since it is so often regurgitated. (Don’t believe me? Check out here and here and here and the comments section here.) The two are:

1. This advice assumes that ministry requires only one skill or ability.

2. This also implies that ministry is uniquely difficult.

First, the “do anything else” advisers seem to want to drive away anyone from the pulpit that has any real skills! Of course an authentic calling – both internal and external – is greatly important.  But calling does not imply a dearth of talents.  There is no one “ministry gene” that someone needs to faithfully heed the call to church leadership.  Instead, ministry requires a group of diverse skills, which will vary depending on the context.  In my own setting – pastoring a small church – a normal week could requires skills in writing, oratory, management, long-range planning, counseling, caregiving, conflict resolution, research, coaching, and staff development.  Even more specific ministry roles (for instance, youth ministry or executive pastor positions) will require a wide range of personal and professional skills.  Does anyone possess them all? No, that’s why we focus on our strengths and manage our weaknesses.

But all this goes to show that someone who will excel in ministry could likely succeed in a wide variety of fields related to leadership, communication, education, etc. To say to someone discerning a call to ministry that they should only go through with it if that cannot possibly do anything else is to drive away a great deal of talent and promise from the church.

Second, pastors are good at complaining talking about how difficult our work is. This is what the table conversation at an inordinate number of clergy gatherings might consist of, if you don’t choose your seat wisely. For me, implied within the “do anything else” advice is a warning: “This work is so arduous and frustrating that you won’t make it unless this is your last resort, unless God has made sure you ABSOLUTELY can’t do anything else!”  Much of this way of thinking leans tends to this direction.  One of the above advisers puts it this way:

On the whole (with exceptions) the hours are long, the people are a problem (indeed without the interaction with people the Pastorate world be great!) and the pay is poor. I am not even sure about the retirement benefits.

As one of my mentors taught me to recognize, “everyone works hard.” Especially in today’s economy, there is no work that is not difficult, that does not have unreasonable expectations, long hours, and little reward.  Every company – for-profit or not – is attempting to get more out of its employees while paying less.  No one makes what they are worth, with very few exceptions.  Pastors would do well to remember that our people are in the same boat we are, and often (here I’m thinking of ordained UMC elders) we have more job security than they do.  Our work is not uniquely hard.  It would be more accurate to say our work is hard uniquely.  In other words, ministry is not hard the way that a factory or office job might be, but is difficult because of the various skills needed (enumerated above) and the emotional toll that the week-in, week-out grind of church life can take – especially when funerals, sickness, conflict, and other emotionally draining parts of our vocation begin to pile up.

In closing, we should close with a word of hope.  Vocational ministry is not easy, but then, no one has it easy.  We would do well to remember that all of us look to the same source to sustain us.  Easter reminds us that death and meaninglessness do not win, that our work, when tied to the work of God (any work done for God’s glory is ministry, after all), will finally find its consummation in that Kingdom that is to come:

Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime. What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, teaching the ignorant, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when  it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so. We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world. As prisoners of hope, we keep working in the expectancy that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will is going to be done on earth as in heaven. (Will Willimon, Calling and Character, 55)

Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

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.”

Holy Saturday, Failure, and Seth Godin

When it looked like Jesus has failed, he was actually on a rescue mission. From a 15th century Italian master, courtesy of http://www.geopolicraticus.wordpress.com.

“…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom
of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
-1 Cor. 1:23-25

“Only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes
the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the
crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and as foolishness.
Today the church…must return to the crucified Christ in order
to show the world the freedom he offers.”
-Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

According to Frederick Buechner, the resurrection means that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” In Christ’s victory at Easter, sin and death are destroyed, their power is gone, and we are freed in Christ to live new lives that boldly testify to the risen savior. Paul tells his young protege, Timothy, “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) As Christians we must discipline ourselves to fail well.

I was lucky enough to see Seth Godin give a talk at High Point University recently. Godin is a writer and entrepreneur who has some insight on failure that Christians should take to heart. In a blog post titled “How to Fail” he writes:

“There are some significant misunderstandings about failure…
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else. Two habits that don’t help:
• Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
• Not signing up for visible and important projects” (1)

Godin pushes us to see that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. If we are only doing “sure things,” if we are only traveling well-worn paths that we think are guaranteed to work, then odds are we aren’t jumping in with both feet. Like Edison discovering 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, we make often make breakthroughs only after failing a lot. Like Godin says, successful people fail along with everyone else, but they learn from it more than everyone else, too.

As Christians, we know what God can do with an apparent failure. The cross is still a stumbling block and foolishness to the world because it is shocking that death has been conquered by death, that the moment when it looked like God had failed became the place of God’s greatest triumph.  Drawing on images from 1st Peter, Christians have long pondered how Jesus spent Holy Saturday, and prayerfully considered that Jesus was in fact in the realm of the dead reaching out to the righteous in Sheol.

To live in light of the resurrection means that we, too, are free to fail, free to risk, because we know that our efforts are not in vain. We know that we work for a Kingdom that will come, regardless of our faults and failures. We work for a savior who can do marvelous things with shaky disciples and a few loaves of bread.

Thanks be to God.

Daniel Day-Lewis and The Art of the Holy “No”

I said no to something today, something pretty cool.  Not because I wasn’t interested, or because it wouldn’t be beneficial in some ways.  I just knew that saying “yes” meant I could not do that, and probably many other things, as well as I should.  So I said no.

It felt weird. But also good.  I’m not good with “no”.  I like it in theory.  I know that boundaries are important.  I know, as the saying goes, “every time you say ‘yes’ to something you are saying ‘no’ to something else.”  But it’s so hard to practice that.

Christians are often bad with “no”.  We are so infected with the culture of nice, and often so motivated by the twin demons of people-pleasing and guilt, that we can’t utter it.  But there is such thing as a righteous, healthy, and holy “no”.

I found some inspiration from Daniel Day-Lewis via Ain’t It Cool News.  It seems that initially the acclaimed actor was going to turn down Steven Spielberg’s offer to star in the now-successful Lincoln.  This is the email he sent to the director before he, in the end, accepted:

Dear Steven,

It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant. That’s how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can’t be sure that this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility. I do hope this makes sense Steven, I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.

That’s how you say “no”.  Of course, since he relented in the end, maybe it isn’t the best example.  But the language is there.

A great question for everyone, especially those in the caregiving business, is this:

When was the last time you said no?

Langford on Tradition, Preservation, and Idolatry

 

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At what point does the preservation of tradition – particularly organizational patterns and structures – become little more than idolatrous self-preservation?  Do we in the Church cling to old models more out of anxious fear and idolatrous calcification than a concern for the message, will, and work of Christ in the world?

“Tradition,” said Jaroslav Pelikan, “is the living faith of the dead.”  On the other hand, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Is the Methodist movement, particularly as instantiated in the United Methodist Church, representative of a valuable, vibrant, living tradition, or have we devolved into a virus-like self-replicating traditionalism?

On these and similar questions, I culled a helpful tidbit from one of our greatest theologians in the last half century.  In his classic Practical Divinity, Tom Langford makes the following insight:

Further, it may be argued, there is no value in continuing a tradition only to perpetuate its life.  Indeed, there is a pernicious idolatry in sustaining an organizational form only in the interest of self-preservation.  As the vitality of purpose within a movement declines, there is often an aggressive effort to reinforce the organizational structure that earlier served its dynamic life.  A developed church order may be confused with the initiating and ultimate cause it was intended to serve; and by subtle shift, structure may be perpetuated in the name of the cause.  If the Wesleyan tradition no longer possesses a distinctive contribution and no longer enriches total Christian witness and life, then this tradition and its ecclesiastical structure have no reason to continue. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1983, 270)

There are dynamics here that play out in every organization, of course.  But given the current state of the church in North America, they are particularly applicable for discussion by contemporary Christians.  These are questions that come up at every level of ecclesiastical life, from the local church struggling to “get back to what it used to be” to denominational officials clinging to structures whose original purpose and meaning have been lost.  I see both flexibility and fearful preservation in my own denomination.

We see evidence of flexibility – for better or worse is a matter of judgment above my pay grade – in a recent Call to Action report suggesting some pretty major changes to polity and ministry.  Most interesting is the end of the so-called “guaranteed appointment” and the suggestion to do away with the language of “commissioning” in the ordination process (an obvious move given that no one, outside or inside the UMC, has ever understood exactly what is meant by a practice that amounts to de facto psuedo-ordination).

One aspect of preservation that is clear to see is the traditional(-istic?) insistence on itinerant ministry.  As one hoping to be ordained as an itinerating Elder, I wholeheartedly assent to this practice as is currently implemented by the church.  The issue as that what we now call itinerancy bears primarily a nostalgic resemblance to the itinerancy of of the Wesleys in England and Asbury in the US.  The ideal itinerant was a single male travelling  a “circuit,” not staying in one place very long.  He generally lodged with laypeople on the road, was expected not to marry (to do so would require “location” usually), and his primary ministry was preaching, organizing small discipleship groups, and administering the Sacraments.  We have retained the language of itinerancy while absorbing the larger practices of Mainline Protestant ministry: the professionalization of clergy with its corollary educational requirements, credentialing process, and cultural respectability.  Clergy went from traveling a circuit for a number of years to being in a parish for a number of years.  Even now, when all the stats point to longer pastoral appointments being healthier for all involved, we insist on calling our form of “sent” ministry itinerancy.  We are dangerously close to Papa Wesley’s warning about seeking the power without the form.  Why cling to something just to retain the name?  I think Langford’s warning about “structure being perpetuated in the name of the cause” may ring true here.

At what point does tradition become traditionalism?  When is preservation not idolatry?  If our efforts at excellence/effectiveness/fruitfulness/(insert-cliche’-quasi-business-terminology-for-growth-here) are driven only by a desire to preserve existing structures, to what extent are we serving ourselves rather than Christ?

Langford’s words are interesting fuel for thought for those in any organization facing the specter of decline.  Why keep it going?  If we in the Church don’t know what (read: Who) we are about – and at the local church level this question is often pathetically lacking – then we have a bigger issue than trying to find new and clever ways to grow: we don’t deserve to.

Eugene Peterson On Contemporary Worship

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Just finished my first Eugene Peterson book.  Well, unless you count The Message – but I hear he had help with that one.  I decided to start early in his writing career; admittedly, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work did not sound exciting to me at all.  This is probably because the Old Testament books he based these reflections on did not, at the outset, interest me.  How stupid of me!  The hype about Peterson’s pastoral writings is dead-on.  This is balm for the pastor’s soul.  There is so much that could be highlighted, but what I found juiciest was the discussion of Hebrew/Christian worship contrasted with Baalism in his chapter on Ecclesiastes and the work of ‘nay-saying’:

Pastors are subjected to two recurrent phrases from the people to whom they give spiritual leadership.  Both are reminiscent of Baalism, enough so as to earn the label “neo-Baalism.”  The phrases are: “Let’s have a worship experience” and “I don’t get anything out of it.”

About the call for a “worship experience”:

…neither the Bible nor church uses the word “worship” as a description of experience…worship is neither subjective only nor private only.  It is not what I feel when I am by myself; it is how I act toward God in responsible relation with God’s people.  Worship, in the biblical sources and in liturgical history, is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless how how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all.

About the complaint that “I don’t get anything out of it.”

The assumption that supposedly validates the phrase is that worship must be attractive and personally gratifying.  But that is simply Baalism redivius [yeah, I had to Google it], worship trimmed tot he emotional and spiritual specifications of the worshiper.  The divine will that declares something beyond or other than what is already part of the emotional-mental construct of the worshiper is spurned.  That worship might call for something beyond us is shrugged off as obscurantist.  And so the one indispensable prsupposition of Christian worship, the God of the covenant who reveals himself in his word, is deleted.  A Freudian pleasure principle is substituted and worship is misused to harness God to human requirements…we may be entertained, warmed, diverted, or excited in such worship; we will probably not be changed, and we will not be saved  Our feelings may be sensitized and our pleasures expanded.  But our morals will be dulled and our God fantasized. (Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1980], pp. 183-185)

Whew.  Now, nowhere does he come out and say this is a direct reference to the worship wars.  But I don’t see how it could be otherwise.  This is clearly a dig a the feelings-centered, emotionalistic worship that is widely assumed to be the only legitimate form of worship in certain Protestant circles.  At the end of the chapter, he does make a note indicating that not anything is to be tolerated in worship, that the pastor must be sensitive to the felt needs of the congregants, and that worship should be intelligently executed, vital, creative, and passionate.  But still, the bulk of the arguments seems to be against non-liturgical worship; the kind of worship that somehow draws a line between “praise” and “worship”; worship that assumes the gathering of the church community is only worthwhile if everyone leaves on a “high” and is planned as if Christians have only been gathering for worship since the Macintosh.

This is probably one of the best indictments of the philosophy behind contemporary worship that I’ve read.  But still, questions remain.  More and more, I’ve been wondering about the sociological draw of certain kinds of worship.  It strikes me that certain forms appeal to certain folks.  I’m not willing to write this on stone tablets, but it seems to me that there is a class correlation to worship preferences.  Now, whether there should be worship preferences is a different question altogether.  I’m no Luddite, either; I lead a liturgical service that makes use of a projector, sound, and video equipment.  But I do it wearing an alb.  Yeah, call me strange.

I don’t recall having reading about this elsewhere but I’m sure I’m not the first one to think this.  Anyone know of any resources that explore this?

A working thesis: perhaps, just perhaps, folks who are at the margins of society, folks who do not feel empowered  or believe their views and experience are deemed valid by the wider culture, would be drawn to worship that validates and encourages personal expression.  I am aware this is oversimplifying, but my own observation is that charismatic and pentecostal (and in general, “expressive”) worship tends to attract people on the underside of the social order, while “high church” worship seems to appeal to folks who are empowered by and within the prevailing order.  Exceptions abound – but I think I have enough evidence to convict.  Thoughts?

At any rate, Peterson is awesome; don’t let the validity or invalidity of any of my commentary dissuade you.  Any pastor would benefit – spiritually, psychologically, vocationally – from this work.