Sunday, August 28, 2011

On imagination and theology

A conversation with our youth pastor today has me thinking about how we deal with theology in the church. We seem to think of theology as a science, or as legal testimony, as I suppose there is something to that kind of understanding. We want to understand God, and so we describe God as we see God, and we report on our experience of God. But there is a difference between religious testimony--which tells a story--and legal testimony--which must stand up to strict scruitny and requires precise speech.

But theology is not science. Theology is art. Theology is a way of speaking, and it does do some reporting, and some interpreting, but it is unlike any other form of speech in that it proves nothing. In fact, the more specific theology gets, the further away from God we find ourselves.

Theology is painting, not photograph. And yet we get so bent out of shape when we talk about God that we do not even let ourselves imagine. Before long, God is some concrete being we've carved and put on display. We argue back and forth--and get downright angry--over descriptions that are, in the final analysis, not worth arguing about because they do not actually amount to much. We latch on to an understanding of God that fits with our experience, and we assume that everyone has the same experience--even if we do not assume so explicitly, the assumption is inherant in our passionate defenses--and if we hear an argument that does not match with our own understanding, it is as if we are chewing on aluminum foil. You feel a shock deep within you, and nothing else matters. It becomes time to fight.

But imagination is the cornerstone of good theology! The God who imagined the world is the God who calls us to love with all our mind. When did we get the idea that to imaginatively engage the Divine is a bad idea?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The work of rest

In recent months, I have taken to gardening. Let me simply note that this is a remarkable development. I was born with no green thumb. I did not grow up in a gardening family. My grandmother always kept a garden, but she did not subject her grandchildren to the laborious work of tilling the soil, planting seeds, watering religiously, pulling weeds, or the other work involved in keeping up a garden. I was not offered this tradition as some are given a family heirloom. There is no sociological reason I have taken to gardening.

But I am beginning to wonder if there is a biological reason, because I am finding that gardening offers me more comfort than nearly anything else I do. There is just something about starting seeds: something about ensuring they have the right soil and the right temperature and the right amount of water, planting them and watching the plants as they grow, produce, and ultimately die. When I began this project, I thought that perhaps my interest in gardening was a control issue. In the life of ministry, there is much out of my control. I suppose my job is to--forgive me--lay seeds and hope they will one day sprout. I thought that my gardening interest was then about control, because so much of ministry is beyond my control.

Then the plants started to grow, or rather, some of them started to grow, and I learned that while I could control some elements of growth, most were beyond my control. I could not control the rain, though I could water the plants accordingly. I could not control disease or bugs, though I could keep an eye out for them. I could not control how much fruit each plant put out, though I could plant them in such a way that they were given the best chance to produce.

I am realizing, as I write this, that I have become a plant parent.

What is most striking to me about the work of gardening, though, is that it is indeed work. It is much easier to go to the store and buy tomatoes and carrots than it is to begin them from seed, water them and care for them and hope that they produce. I am constantly checking on the next season's seedlings, looking at the weather forecast, puttering around the garden, picking fruit, pulling bugs off of plants, pulling weeds, thinking about what to plant next.

There are times I get too busy to work in the garden. Last week I had a meeting every single night, and I was out of town all weekend at the church's annual men's retreat. Sometimes, there is just no time to work in the garden. And when I come back from those times, as I did Thursday afternoon, it is quite clear I have neglected my responsibilities. Weeds are everywhere, vines are growing out of the raised beds and into the gravel, fruit begins to rot on the vine. Want to know how busy I have been at the church? Just come walk through my garden. If it is so overgrown that there is no room to walk, you can bet I've been neglecting my holy duty to rest.

It takes work to rest. This sounds strange, of course, but it is true. It takes work to slow down, to admit that I am tired, to find activities that nourish my soul. And even the rest itself is work, because it takes work to allow myself a few moments of not thinking about all the things I need to be doing at the church. It takes work to rest, and if I neglect that work, the garden becomes overgrown, unworkable, and it bears fruit that has rotten by the time I get to it.

So, if you will excuse me, I have some vines to wrangle.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Rev. Twitter

As the school year gets underway, and as things pick up at the church, I am finding out something quite interesting about myself. It happened this time last year, too, and so this is not just about starting a new position. What I am learning is this: when things get hectic at the church, I have trouble making myself read.

Perhaps this sounds strange. Let me say that this is not a physiological response. I can read (and obviously, write) and I do: the newspaper, the news, the blogs I follow. But when church life gets so crazy that I am forced to do one thing, and then another, and then another, and then look up and its time to go home . . . well, it does something to my brain. I start to think in thirty second increments, rather than in longer thoughts. I can give you three sentences on any topic you like, but don't ask me for sustained thoughts. I just don't know that I can offer them to you at present.

This constant changing-of-the-subject may be a survival mechanism for large church ministry, but it absolutely wrecks my reading life. I cannot read for more than a few minutes before I lose focus, feeling as if I need to move on to the next thing, as if I am missing doing something very important. I get so wound up during the day that when it is time to come home and settle in with a book, I lose focus.

It is as if I am turning into Twitter. I can give you 140 characters, but that's about it.

This mindset, of course, is not only unsustainable: it is ridiculous. People are not three sentences long; at best I can scratch the surface of thousands of people, like an evangelist who promises life-saving medicine in exchange for professions of faith. "Yes," is, of course, the answer to that question, and then you go on your way as if nothing happened other than receiving the medicine.

I can give you three sentences, but it is much harder for me, when this mindset hits, to go any deeper than that. When I am constantly on the go, thinking in short bursts, one after another, I am not much good to everybody and even less good to any one person.

Now, this is not to say I don't find the ministry life-giving. On the contrary, nearly every day in minstry confirms my calling.I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I am genuinely happy, in a way that I did not know I could be. But I am having trouble making myself settle down, relax, and read. At best, I can plop in front of the television, and good grief, I'd rather be working.

What strategies do you use to "turn off?" I am happy to take time for self-care, but if I am not "turned off" during those times, what good are they?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Some fascinating reads

I am off to Glisson this afternoon for the church's annual men's retreat. I leave you with some summer reading:

John Meuneir stands Tillich next to Wesley and draws some conclusions. I don't always agree with Meuneir, but he is nothing if not thorough.

James Howell bemoans clergy evaluation time and wonders if there might just be another way.

Keith Anderson does some incisive thinking about what social media is (and can be) for the church.

And, finally, here is a Facebook exchange I find absolutely fascinating. It is incredibly rare these days to see ANY kind of dialog between conservatives and liberals in the church. I know this can be a false dichotomy sometimes, but even then, we refused to talk to one another about real theological differences. I don't know that the tone of this discussion is terribly helpful, but I do find it fascinating.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The longer I am in ministry--and, in the grand scheme, it has been about five minutes--the more I am certain that in the American church, the greatest threat the church faces is a general lack of integrity.

Now, you should know that I erased the previous sentence five or six times before I felt as if I got it right: before I was willing to finally commit to the language of "a lack of integrity." I am very cautious about speaking in such bold language, especially because everybody these days has an elevator speech about what the biggest threat to the church is. Perhaps the church is most threatened by relativism, or a lack of scriptural literacy, or by money, or by politics. I have heard it all. So I approach this matter with fear and trembling, knowing that everybody knows what the biggest threat facing the church is, and it's always something different.

I've thought long and hard about this. I am convinced a lack of integrity is the biggest threat to the American church. Now, before you dismiss this conversation as some high-minded hoopla about a "lack of character" or a "lack of respect," I'd better define the term involved, because when I talk about lack of integrity I am thinking of more than one definition of the word.

The first definition of integrity, of course, involves sticking to your principles, even in difficult times. This is very important, of course, and I see so many folks who just give up on their principles when times get though. There is a difference between having integrity, though, and in being obstinate. Having integrity does not mean you are not allowed to change. It just means that you cannot forfeit what you believe when it becomes easy to do so. Change is difficult, while betraying integrity is always the easier path. Integrity is about being true to who you are.

But there is another definition of integrity that matters for the church, and that is this: the state of being whole: as in the integrity of the ship, the bridge, the union. Whenever I hear conversations about integrity, I never hear about this dimension of integrity, but we forget about this dimension of integrity at our own peril. We are called to have a holistic worldview, a holistic theology, and we are called to reconcile that which we see against that which we believe.

The problem with encountering things that do not match up with what you believe, of course, is that you are faced with a dilemma. You have three options: 1. ignore that which you see, 2. change that which you believe, or 3. compartmentalize, such that you make exceptions for that which you see but are unwilling to question that which you believe. While I have seen many who have fallen victim to number 1, it is number 3 that I think offers the biggest challenge to the church.

I see this issue most often as it relates to mission and the church’s involvement in the world. I believe that a church's engagement in mission—done well—can be the magic bullet as it relates to solving problems of giving, involvement, and ecclesiology. When we are involved in mission, taking time to reflect on our experiences and talk about that which we are seeing, we cannot walk away unchanged. But what a simple mission trip cannot do is make people have integrity, such that even if they are changed—even if they do see poverty as they have never seen it before (that is to say, even if they have smelled poverty as they have never before), even if they talk about fixing the need, doing continued work, that change does not spread towards other areas of their life.

We compartmentalize. We allow the Spirit of God into one small portion of our lives, and I suppose this makes sense. If we were to, you know, actually allow the Spirit of God to fill our whole beings, then we lose control of who we are. If I just let God into my earlobe, I can deal with that. My earlobe does not drive my body. If it gets too inflamed I can just cut it off, and it will be painful, but it is survivable. But if I allow God into my entire life, into my body and my home and even my savings account, then I am in danger of losing control.

We compartmentalize, because it is easier. The only problem with compartmentalizing is that it is not sustainable. You either lose that part of you which has been changed, or you split right in two (just ask these two folks).

To have integrity, then, is not only speak in such a way that people can believe you. Having integrity means being who you are in all areas of your life. Accept ambiguity—I do not mean to suggest that everything must be cut and dry—but do not lock your God in a cell. Do not allow yourself to be changed only a little bit. You might as well not bother.

If you do allow yourself to be changed--if you do recognize, for instance, that what you see in one country may actually have implications for your own—you may just find yourself in the presence of God. There are worse things.

Or, you can just miss that opportunity. That is also an option, if it is what you prefer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Church work

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

Wait. You need to read that sentence in a sinister voice, imaging haunting music in the background. Let me try again.

I spent today in an all-day staff meeting.

It was our annual knock-down, drag-out plow-through-the-next-year-and-a-half staff meeting, and so my Monday was spent around a conference room table, planning and talking. Maybe I've oversold it with this business about the haunting music. It was an all-day meeting, but I have had worse all-day meetings. I mean, the day wasn't all cupcakes and unicorns, but it was not torture, either.

It was work, is what it was. It was not terrible work, but it was work: the kind of work that leaves you cross-eyed and stiff, but the kind of work that is necessary for ministry to get done. You have to do the work--the office work, the paperwork, the guesswork, and the teamwork--or else nothing gets done. You can't just go play all day, every day. You have to do the work.

And it's funny, because one thing we ministers like to talk about is that professional pastoral ministry, being a pastor, is actually not a profession at all. You do not go to work, be a pastor, and then come home. If you are a pastor, YOU ARE A PASTOR. You don't easily change professions when you are a pastor, because being a pastor is who you are. It is a calling, of course: something to set against a profession, not in and of itsemf a profession.

I feel fine about this kind of highmindedness until the 14th and 29th of the month, at which time I look expectantly towards the next day's paycheck.

It is a twice-monthly ritual that reminds me that for everything else it is--and it is a lot of things, for sure--being a pastor involves actual work, actual toil. It is (mostly) not physical work, though there are connections to those who work with their hands. As a farmer plows the fields, I plow through emails. As a carpenter builds, sands, and finishes a table, I craft the occasional sermon. As a doctor, as a cook, as a baker, as a fieldhand . . .

In ministry, we spend lots of time talking about what it means to "be" something: be righteous, be faithful, be careful, be incarnational. I suspect all of this "be" talk has its root in the setting of ministry against other forms of work. We live in a society, you are aware, that often values work more than family, time at the office against time at rest. In a time when 12-hour days are the norm, there is something to be said for a prophetic "be."

But even if ministry is not a profession, per se, there is a "doing" of ministry that is very important. Perhaps in our reticence to be a part of the hyper-working culture, we have focused so much on the "be" that we lose the "do." I do not imagine this has always been the case. You know, of course, which word preceeds "work ethic." I will leave the general theology of work to the esteemed theologian Kyle Tau, but I do know a little something about "good" works.

The church has always, in one form or another, valued good work. Before the Protestant Reformation, the Church--having read the book of James, I would imagine--valued good work as a part of the salvation story. Once the Reformation took hold, the Protestant Church--having read the letters of Paul, I would imagine--saw a shift in the understanding of work, such that good work moved from something necessary for salvation to something that results from salvation. It a classic over-reach (the church always seems to over-reach), we've lost this work because we worry it takes away from the gift of grace, as if, you know, actually responding to grace does grace an injustice.

I am actually not all that interested in the conversation about "good work(s)," at least not for the sake of this discussion. Let's take it as a given that in response to God's grace, we are called to what John Wesley called "acts of mercy."

I am concerned with the work of ministry, which I suppose I hope is good work, but when I am signing expense forms and filing emails and spending Monday around a meeting table, it can be hard to see. It is hard for me to see filling out a check request for as an act of mercy.

But it is, right? The work if ministry is good work, and it is necessary! You can't just "be" a minister. You have to "do" ministry. And of course the works flow from the being. You "do" because you "are." If all you do is "be" then you are no minister at all! You are a guru, perhaps, a sage, and there is a role for the sage in society.

There is just no more room for the sage in the Church.

There are already plenty of sages in the pulpit, and it is killing the church.

This is not to absolve the "doing" minister of taking time to "be." Even those uf os who "do" must have sufficient "sitting-like-a-dope-in-your-chair time" (as the writer Grace Paley calls it) in order that we might connect with God, rest our brains, and become open to new ideas.

Ministry requires doing and being, it requires of us that we take stock of who we are and then respond accordingly: not because we are worried that grace is insufficient, but because we take seriously the gift of grace. Hard work does not undermine grace; hard work gives testament to grace's power.

I am fortunate to serve in a place that takes work seriously (as evidenced by the day-long staff meeting!), but I knowthat there are some ministers who simply preach good sermons and then feel as if their work is done. Talk is cheap, of course. Even well-crafted talk is cheap. Please understand that this is coming from someone who sees preaching as a foundational part of his call. But preaching is an insufficient response to grace. I am reminded of the various Facebook campaigns which encourage users to copy and paste a short advocacy statement as their Facebook status. While I often appreciate the sentiment, I am left to wonder what good it does. If you merely speak something, and then do not live it out--if you talk about the problems of the world but do not do something concrete to help God's people--then why speak it at all?

For if the actuality of my life show what my priorities are, what does it say about how I understand God and the world if I do nothing, preferring to simply be?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Art of Ministry

The New York Post recently ran a fascinating report about the New York Public Library's phone-a-librarian service. Apparently, there are librarians on call twenty-four hours a day to field all manner of questions from all manner of people. As an associate pastor whose on-call day is Thursday, I am given hope for humanity knowing that just as one may call upon a pastor or a physician in case of an emergency, one may call upon a librarian at three in the morning in case of a dispute about the rules of croquet.

One librarian interviewed in the report spoke about an instance in which the producers of the television series Mad Men called to ask about whether a taxi in 1964 would have had a lit "Off Duty" sign on its roof. The show is set in the 1960’s, and its producers are famously fanatical about staying true to period details. They call the librarians a lot.

Mad Men, of course, is a critically acclaimed, lucrative program, and as such, the producers could have gotten by with whatever old-looking taxi the prop department had on hand. The studio could have saved a little money instead of creating an entirely new prop, and only one or two people out of the millions who watch that show would have noticed. Maybe nobody would notice: I have seen the episode in question and the particulars of Don Draper’s taxi certainly had no bearing on the plot of the show. But because they take their work seriously, the producers of Mad Men go to great lengths to ensure that the taxi cabs on the show are just as they were in 1964. They go to these lengths because they see their show as art.

Ministry is an art, too, or at least it is supposed to be. We pastors like to talk about the “art of ministry” as if it were a craft to be set beside painting and composing, as if the sanctuary were a museum built to house genuine (if transitory) works of art.

The problem is not so much that we do not view ministry as art. The problem, it seems to me, is that as ministers, we do not take the art of ministry as seriously as the producers of Mad Men take the art of television.

I am in my second year of pastoral ministry. As I look out over the years of ministry ahead of me, I find myself spending a lot of time asking “what if” questions. This is a time of great change for the Church, after all-- Phyllis Tickle calls this time a great “rummage sale”--and I am finding that the Church I expected to enter is not the one to which I have been given. Much is in flux, and while uncertainty can be scary, it is the ability to freely ask the “what if” questions that I find most liberating about my first year in ministry.

What if we served the church in such a way that we truly saw ministry as art: as messy, difficult, life-wrenching art? How could we ever even dream of ripping off a sermon, or of getting bogged down in minutiae, or of stretching some warmed-over church growth strategy to fit a situation completely unlike the megachurch from whence it came?

What if we took the art of ministry seriously, remembering that the composition is not a self-portrait but a representation of that most Ultimate subject?

Comparing the ministry to a television show is, of course, unfair. When there is a problem off set, the cameraman can simply shut off the camera, while the minister must put down her sermon and speed to the hospital, doing her best to avoid red lights, small animals, and the police. But the distractions are not so much an excuse to turn in sloppy work as they are yet another opportunity to practice the art of ministry, to bear witness, to create in the hope that God is pleased.

Ministry is art, after all, and not just for the professional minister. One is in ministry because one wants to honor God, and within that honoring lies the artist's hope: that every breath in the making of art is art itself, that striving for excellence is not about furthering one's career or looking like a martyr, but about being an artist, about living art, about doing as much justice to the love of God as can be done by human hands. As a painter paints a scene, knowing that there are within that painting differences between the actual scene and its representation on canvas, so too the minister goes about her business, practicing that which we appropriately call the art of ministry, knowing that she can neither do full justice to the love of God nor replicate it exactly. What she can do, however, is use what she has. She can strive to live and practice ministry in such a way that the God to whom she bears witness can be seen in the art of her life. She can live in such a way that the Imago Dei that infests her being spills out onto those she loves and cares for and serves.

Perhaps it is this spilling that is the aim of all art. Perhaps art aims to make us all spill out, and to examine the resulting puddles for signs of that which makes us human and, I would add, signs of that Who makes us human.

I stand at the beginning of my ministry, working within an institution already left for dead by so many for so long, yet I cannot help but be hopeful, for I know that the God who created humanity in God’s own image is creating still. I may have no skill at painting, nor composing, nor sculpting, but I am in ministry, and I know that this same God expects me create anyway, to be an artist in a world—and in a Church--in desperate need of art.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Some quick thoughts on Call to Action

The Connectional Table has voted to endorse the recommendations of the Call to Action report, a series of proposals designed to restructure the United Methodist Church, reverse declining trends in the US, and help focus the UMC into an outcome-based denomination (I think these are fair and accurate descriptions of the report).

You can see a PDF of their recommendations here, and a blog post from the head of the Connectional Table summarizing their actions here.

I will say, as these conversations have played out, I have been far less appalled than I thought I would be. As I have written before, I have been concerned that the language of crisis would give cover to those who want to make huge changes to the way the United Methodist Church functions, such that what Jeremy Smith has called "creeping congregationalism" were allowed to take place. I have little tolerance for the language of crisis, because it seems that whenever we talk about "crisis," we figure that we should make changes and evaluate later, rather than moving slowly and deliberately.

Sure, there are issues that need to be addressed. I don't think you can deny that, but there are always issues that need to be addressed. The General Conference meets every four years for a reason; the world changes, the church changes, perhaps even God changes. We need to be able to change the way we understand the church, so we meet every four years to do so.

So when I read the relatively measured steps of the Connectional Table's recommendations, I breathe a sigh of relief. I do have some issues with this analysis, though, and I do have concerns that I hope will be addressed in the actual legislation before General Conference.

1. As the General Conference looks at weakening the language of "guaranteed appointment," or eliminating the language altogether, how can the annual conference implement structure that holistically evaluate clergy effectiveness (that is, protecting clergy from, God forbid, a Bishop with ulterior motives) without creating another Methodist logistical nightmare? There are, of course, already in the Book of Discipline guidelines for dealing with ineffective clergy, but my understanding is that the guidelines are so difficult to implement and complicated that they are almost never used. Put another way, as someone new to ministry, I want to be encouraged to be effective, and I want to be dealt with if I am showing ineffectiveness, but I don't want to be kicked out of the ministry for ideological or political reasons.

2. How can the General Conference realign the General Agencies, necessarily reducing staff, without putting too much of the work of these Agencies on the local church and its pastor? As someone who has worked for a jurisdictional agency, as well as someone who serves the local church in addition to some conference responsibilities, I am particularly sensitive to the workload associated with carrying out the mission of the larger Church. Local churches, pastors, and laity ought to have a role in promoting the mission of the Church, but there are benefits to a connectional system. The UMC needs full-time staff devoted to these matters. Pastors simply do not have time to carry out their duties in the local church and spend a large segment of their time driving denominational (or conference-wide) goals.

3. As the denomination looks to evaluate how we allocate apportionments, what happens NEXT General Conference once we have spent the $60 million proposed to help restructure the church? I have seen the church, time and again, simply eliminate these resources when it comes time to put together another budget, rather than reallocate them to the mission of the UMC. Also, as we look to income-based apportionment giving, will we bring in far less money than the current system? What does that do to our mission?

4. Finally, as has been admitted by the head of the Connectional Table, where is the theological basis for any of these recommendations? To quote Mary Brook Casad's own analysis of the Table's actions:

I've heard the challenge of showing the theological underpinnings to these recommendations. I would like to thank each person who is making the effort to raise these important questions. While the Connectional Table, in collaboration with the Council of Bishops, has set the process in motion, it will take all of us in faithful conversation to discern where the Spirit of God is leading us.
I commend the transparency of the Connectional Table in all of this, but I note that what you will not find in that analysis is any kind of answer about why the language of the Call to Action report--and the work of the Connectional Table--includes nothing theological, nothing scriptural, nothing noting that the Church is any different than a big business looking to maximize its earnings. Again, I don't mean to shoot down these recommendations, nor the good work of the Connectional Table, but when you say something like "I've heard the challenge of showing the theological underpinnings to these recommendations" and then don't actually show the theological underpinnings, I begin to wonder if there are, in fact, theological underpinnings.

This is an interesting time for the UMC, and an interesting time to be a young minister. I would hope these questions help to clarify the implications of such sweeping changes.

(In the original post, I neglected to link to today's post from the aforementioned--and quite reasonable--Jeremy Smith. Obviously it was his thoughts that got me thinking today. Go read them.)