Category Archives: Ministry

What makes a better pastor, youth or experience?

I have a bone to pick with CNN writer John Blake. His recent article ponders some new statistics about seminaries which, in part, find,

…the nation’s seminaries are enjoying a baby boomers boom – the 50-or-older demographic group is the fastest-growing demographic at U.S. divinity schools, according to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

The article glosses over the motivation for older individuals entering seminary.  Not to disparage my late-blooming colleagues, because many of them are excellent pastors, but I don’t think we can overlook the appeal of ministry during an economic downturn.  This, I think, is especially true in the mainline denominations, many of whom provide relatively stable jobs (sometimes, unfortunately, tantamount to tenure) once you have been fully recieved as a pastor in the ecclesial community.  We shouldn’t be ashamed of the economic motivation; pastors are human beings, after all, and we want our kids to have food like everyone else.

But near the end, the article descends into the realm of “maybe…” and annoys me.  Here’s what Blake asks:

The article brought a question to my mind, though. In athletics, age is a liability.  Older athletes lose strength and flexibility.

But could old age equip people to be better ministers?

For example, how can a young minister who has never been married or had children or even lost many friends to death counsel grieving couples?

And might an older minister do better at dealing with the temptations of ego, sex, and money?

Is it better to be a rookie minister when you have gray hair?

I shall respond to each question in turn:

A)  Possibly, at first.  An older pastor can potentially relate to older church members better.  Also, there is a feeling that an older person has the “wisdom of age” even if they don’t have church experience.  But my experience has been that, at under 30, I love spending time with my older members and have an excellent report with them. 

B)  I’m not sure what this question is asking.  It looks like it may be asking specifically about counseling a couple grieving the loss of a child.  But really, the question is nothing new.  It’s the same old, “How do Catholic priests counsel married couples?” issue, which misunderstands the nature of pastoral counseling.  A pastor is equipped to be present with people at any stage of life, pray with and for them, and share with them the wisdom of the Church as handed down through Scripture and tradition.  Serious counseling should only be done by pastors with serious training.  But, old or young, new or veteran, a good pastor can sit and grieve with anyone.  We are always dealing with situations we’ve never faced (because there are a lot of different things that go wrong in this life!); that’s the nature of the calling.  We might just as well ask, “How can a pastor who was married at 23 counsel a person who is single at 45?”  As pastors, we must do our work in the hope that the Lord will provide what He requires.  That’s faith.

C)  No.  Dumb question.  As we age, the temptations of ego, sex, and money do not go away.  Look at Hugh Hefner.  Look at Silvio Berlusconi.  There are a lot of ego-driven, sex-crazed, greedy old men around.  And women.  Think about all those “real housewives” shows.  I hope they use the term ‘real’ lightly.

D)  Perhaps.  But there is one big drawback: it takes time to learn the ropes of ministry.  You can read all the books you want to, get all the degrees you want to, but nothing replaces time in the pastoral office for understanding and effectiveness.  “Life experience” does not replace actual pastoral experience.   Pastors, old and young, can of course serve with faithfulness and effectiveness.  It is never too late to hear the call, and I appreciate all most who heed it.  But there is no denying that starting out early gives the pastor a chance to learn, over a lifetime, what the ministerial vocation is all about.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are pastors.

Wisdom From James Harnish,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg

Churches in decline, like any other institution facing the potential of a slow fade and eventual death, get stuck.  Any entity focused primarily on survival is not likely to thrive.  Yes, survival may take place – for a while – but eventually the survival mentality kills you.  For churches, this mentality translates to a self-centeredness  that is contrary to the gospel and the mission of Christ’s church.  The apostles, Bishops, and Fathers of the early church did not sit around asking, “How do we survive?” or “How can we get more money?” or “How can we get more people?”

They especially did not ask that unholiest of church questions: “How do we get more people so we can get more money and survive?”

The gospel is not an invitation to mere survival, but a call to new life.  Thus the message and focus of the Body of Christ cannot be an anxious struggle for survival.  Instead, it should be related to discerning the aid and call of the Holy Spirit to reach, welcome, equip, and send disciples in Christ’s name.

No ministry of consequence will come from merely a desire to survive.  In the excellent, theologically-grounded and accessible You Only Have To Die, James Harnish’s words to this effect hit me like a ton of bricks:

When a congregation becomes aware that it is in or on the edge of decline, the primary question can easily become, “What can we do to help our church survive?  How do we keep the doors open? How will we pay the bills?”  But when survival becomes the primary motivation for change, the congregation will inevitably turn in on itself and become so centered in its survival needs that it will be ineffective in responding to the real needs of real people in the world around it.

New people who come in contact with the congregation immediately sense that the church is not so much interested in using its resources to meet their need as it is interested in using them for its own survival.  In the end, the focus on survival easily becomes self-defeating. (99)

I wish I had these words at a recent meeting of church leadership.  He hits the nail on the head.  You Only Have To Die is a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to any pastor or concerned layperson.  The only question I have – and this applies to the vast majority of ‘church growth’/congregational health books – is how does this model apply to a small church?  My sense is that in a small church, the survival instinct will only be more keen and finding leaders who can see beyond survival considerably more difficult.  Any thoughts?  Where do we go for resources on turning around, re-missioning, and enlivening small churches?

Glenn Beck: Restoring Jack Squat

I am continuously astounded that many on the far right – which has a large contingent of fundamentalist Christians – have been more than willing to overlook Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because they like his brand of low-brow, popcorn-density “journalism.”  I think that his particular blend of civil religion – one that confuses any reference to “God” to an endorsement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and cannot distinguish enlightenment Deism from orthodox Christianity – is so vague than many of these Christians on the right honestly can’t tell he’s coming from a different place from them theologically.

A friend of mine pointed me to an article by Dan Webster over at Episcopal Cafe’ that makes some interesting connections between Beck’s Mormon faith and his political program:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, believes Christianity fell into apostasy when the original apostles died. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, believes he was called by God to restore the gospel that Jesus taught but had been radically changed by second generation Christians and those who came after.

So when Beck says America has been “wandering in darkness” and that he is here to help lead the country back to God he is emulating the founder of his religion. He wants to restore America’s greatness just like his church believes it is called to establish the “restored gospel.”

I don’t agree with Webster on all points, but he makes some interesting arguments that I have not seen elsewhere.  Webster also points out that, while Beck is vague on his own theological proclivities, he isn’t shy about attacking the details of others’ faith.

He’s expressed discomfort with Obama’s brand of Christianity (hey, props for calling Obama Christian!) due to its affinities with liberation theology, which he calls “socialist.”  And to an extent, he’s right.  Where he is wrong is finding any expressions of a strong faith in Obama’s policies.  It may be there, to the President, at least.  But Obama’s not really talking about it; whether because it’s not there, or he’s trying to distance himself from Bush, his outspoken evangelical predecessor, is not really possible to know.  Beck has made too much hay out of something he knows little about.

In his piece, Webster argues that Beck is channeling Joseph Smith moreso than Martin Luther King, Jr.  And so far as that comparison goes, he’s spot on.  But Smith wasn’t really a restorationist; he wasn’t restoring an existing church, he was making a new one.  The LDS church is a creation of his own mind, which I think makes him equal parts huckster and genius.

Like Smith, Beck isn’t really trying to restore anything so much as create something that never existed and in the process garner a great deal of attention, wives, money, and power: a pristine, just, and prosperous America that is simultaneously the sole superpower and completely God-fearing (though,significantly, the question ‘whose God?’ is never asked).

I think that makes Glenn Beck more like the Pied Piper of legend.  A man playing a flute, making pleasant noises, leading us away like children…on a journey to nowhere.

Charles Cousar on Galatians 3:28

In preparation for my sermon I came across a quote in Charles Cousar’s commentary from the Interpretation series.  He expresses a sentiment that I first learned from my teacher, Douglas Campbell, but puts it in a succint fashion that is worth sharing:

Galatians 3:28 has enormous implications which Paul himself could hardly grasp, much less implement, and which remain for the church to carry out. (Cousar, 87)

How true.  Campbell taught me to see that what Paul did to the division between Jews and Greeks is a far more radical shift than he often gets credited for.  Yes, Paul could in places be friendlier to women, and more programmatic in his (potential) opposition to slavery.  But if Gal. 3:28 is understood in its context, the place of women and other minorities in our churches becomes a no-brainer.  Alas, we still have a ways to go.

Our Odd (Methodist) System…

Soon, I will be comissioned as a probationary elder/associate member of my Annual Conference.  What this means, practically, is that in a few years with good behavior and successful interviews I may be fully ordained as an Elder with all the rights and privileges of conference membership.

But what does this mean theologically and ecclessiologically? I don’t know.  No other system – really, none other – allows the non-ordained to celebrate the sacraments.  Under the old system, ministry candidates were ordained Deacons and then Elders.  But we changed all that.

So I’m honored, but when my non-Methodist (or even, really, Methodist) friends ask me, “What is commissioning?” I have to say, “Umm…”  The best I can come up with is ‘ordination lite’.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m humbled and honored.  I’m also worried though, because ecumenically, I’m a problem.  Perhaps, as some say, “It’s all about the mission, and the orders and structures really don’t matter otherwise.”  But I want my church to, as much as possible, represent the norms and practices of the church catholic.  In this respect, we are not.

Here are two divergent views on the matter.  One in favor of the current system, and one critical.  To God be the glory.

Support and Training for Young Pastors

Young pastors need support that, in my experience, goes beyond what our respective denominations can provide.  And while the advice and friendship of trusted mentors is indispensable, I believe strongly that young clergy face particular challenges that make our meeting together for prayer, fellowship, and mutual support necessary.  There are, I’m sure, many places where this is possible, but I want to recommend one to you: the First Parish Project at the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, NC (think the corner of NC, GA, and TN).  Designed for clergy under 35 serving their first churches, I’ve met outstanding people in this program and it has meant the world to me.  My group has young clergy from many denominations, including Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and A.M.E, drawn from Connecticut to Alaska.

One thing we all appreciate is that this program forces much-needed time away from the parish, where we recharge with worship and get refocused on our calling as ministers.  Best of all, it is funded by the Lilly Endowment, so compared to many programs it is quite affordable.  I’d be happy to answer any questions, but for now, here’s an aerial shot of the facility, nestled in the mountains of Western NC on a lake:

Burnout is a major problem for all pastors, especially those of the young and idealistic variety.  Do yourself a favor – check out the First Parish Project.

Blessed are the flexible: improvisation and ministry

As the apocryphal addendum to the Sermon on the Mount goes: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.”

I’m rapidly learning the virtue of flexibility as a pastor.  I’m not sure it’s really a virtue, because it is more a matter of survival than acquiring a skill or habit, but that is a technicality.  What I am certain of is that no pastor will survive a congregation (sans a coronary) without a large degree of flexibility.

Case in point: arriving at church this morning, we discovered that the heat had not come on the sanctuary the night before.  The rest of church was warm and toasty, but the sanctuary was about 50 degrees.  What to do?  Make the church members, many of whom are older and generally colder anyway, simply deal with it?  Cancel worship?

Enter what is now designated “plan b”: we moved the altar, pulpit, and lectern to the fellowship hall.  Hauled up all the equipment for the handbell choir.  Rearranged the tables and chairs so they would all be facing front.  Made coffee.  Made a LOT of coffee.

My time interning at a church with a contemporary service taught me that church can look like a coffee shop.  It wouldn’t be the first choice of my parishioners, if you polled them, but it could certainly be done “in Spirit and truth” for one Sunday morning.

And you know what? It worked great.  God was with us.  If anyone griped (as I expected some to), I did not hear them.  Blessed am I, with flexible church members…

What’s the point: life really is made up of how you react, not what happens to you.  As a pastor, you have to keep your head about you.  Stress, like all emotion, is contagious.  If you project it, it will negatively impact your people and hamper the ability to worship together.  On the other hand, if you control your emotions, and view problems as opportunities, you’ll be amazed at how God can surprise you on a Sunday morning (or any morning).

Blessed are the flexible, my friends.

Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
West ____ United Methodist Church

Things I Never Expected as a Pastor: Jewelry Parties

After a meeting this evening, I was invited (unbeknownst to me) to a jewelry party.  One of my members was throwing a Mary-Kay-esque jewelry party and needed a 10th person to get some kind of bonus prize from the company rep.  She asked me to come by the room afterwords but didn’t say why.  Upon entering, I learned that I had filled out the magic number and she got a prize.

At first I was annoyed.  “This is what my time is being used for??”  But then I paused.  I was being arrogant.  I’ve been arrogant.  To an extent, I think, I’ve let an elite seminary education get in the way of my ministry.  After all, the Christian movement gained much of its momentum by the one who wrote,

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9: 22b-23)

Sometimes being a pastor means being a counselor.  Other times a teacher.  Sometimes it might mean babysitting, or video games.  Sometimes it is as high and lofty as Holy Communion.  And maybe, just maybe, sometimes being a pastor means being a warm body at a jewelry party. 

Why the hell not?