Thinking about the solo pastor

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My body’s punishing me for my time in South Carolina. I miss so many things about the Deep South: the grand architecture, the Spanish moss, and the rich food. When I go to Charleston, my diet basically consists of comfort food. Which, for me, is fried okra, fried chicken, grits, lard biscuits, and barbecue. Now my stomach has been revolting to the concentrated deep-fat consumption, asking over and over again, “What have you done to me?”

It’s time for a little self-care, which includes getting back to normal food. But, before I do, I have one more Southern culinary tradition I must indulge in–I have to have black-eyed peas and greens. In the New Year, we eat black-eyed peas for good luck and greens for money. (There’s only one problem. Today I have to find some of that pepper vinegar. We had some, but it’s always so full of peppers, that we use up all the vinegar in no time. Then, I forget to refill it, and we don’t use it as much. I eventually throw it out, and then I forget where we bought it the last time….)

I’ve been eating black-eyed peas and greens on New Years as long as I can remember. And it works. I’ve been very lucky. I have a whole lot of gratitude in this New Year.

I’m thankful for my voice. I know I’ve written about this before… but as an introvert and the third child in a loud family, I found it was easier to be quiet most of the time. I was also the peacemaker among my siblings, which gave me some wonderful pastoral skills. I can read faces easily, I can negotiate, I can compromise. But all of those things rarely allowed me to form and express my own opinions.

The discipline of standing in a pulpit week after week did allow me a space to form my own viewpoints. Knowing that I needed to say something every single Sunday, and that most Sundays I needed to say something interesting, was both a huge responsibility and a wonderful gift for me.

Although, it’s exhausting–especially at this time of year. I used to get myself through it with the mantra, “Advent will be over soon.” But just as Mary and Joseph hardly have any time to bask in the glow of the manger before they’re running away from Herod, there’s hardly any time for pastors to breath before Lent planning begins.

I don’t think a lot of people in the pews understand this completely. As the only pastor on a church staff, those Sundays can hit like relentless waves–week after week. Sometimes you surf them. But other times, it just feels like you’re gasping.

So, in the spirit of self-care, what about this idea? What if Solo pastors had it in their contract that they could hire pulpit supply twelve Sundays out of the year–just six more times on top of their vacation/continuing education time. That way, they can have roughly the same preaching schedule as a Head of Staff has. Or, at the least, what if the minister could hire someone to preach on the fifth Sunday of the month?

The HOS and Solo have challenging jobs, each in their own way. But as many churches move from multiple staffs to single pastors, we can become aware of those particular challenges that a single pastor faces. And, we might be able to keep Solos engaged in their jobs longer that way.

I assume that many pastors wouldn’t always go for the option. But, wouldn’t it be great if a Solo pastor could get two full consecutive days off in one week, at least once in a month? Think about those weeks when you have a wedding scheduled and three people in ICU, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to call someone in to preach?

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What’s wrong with preaching?

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We’re on a road trip, which means that within the Merritt truckster, we have thoroughly discussed everything from the virgin birth, to the definition of progressive Christianity, to the problem of modern hermeneutics. And I’ve got one thing to say about all of this: our poor daughter.

Thank God she’s patient. And before you think that we’re terrible parents, in our defense, I’d like to report that we also listened to They Might Be Giants’ “Here Come the ABCs” album all the way through. All 25 tracks….

So, here’s a question that we talked about. I often hear that our seminaries aren’t training good preachers. And I wonder, what is wrong with the way we learned to preach? Is there a better way?

In Presbyterian seminaries, we learn to preach with the Historical Critical method. It is a six-step process in which we take the text, translate it into the original Greek or Hebrew, look at the grammar, look at the historical context in which the text was written. We read what great theologians and scholars have said over the ages. We ask questions of the text, and then we think about the “hermeneutical bridge,” what links our time to the biblical time. The goal is to get to the original intention of the author.

It was an important process, because it made us interpret the Scriptures with a realistic lens. We began to see passages on slavery, ethnicity, birth control, women, and homosexuality within a culture, and we began to understand what would translate into our own. We became more honest about our tendency to be anti-Semitic. We began to understand the intricate layers of the text, the possible ways in which the words could be understood, and we realized the great number of leaps that translators make from the ancient language to our own.

But there are problems with this method as well. The biggest is that we think have the sense that we can know what the author intended. I have difficulty understanding what my husband intends on a grocery shopping list, and we’ve lived with each other for fifteen years, how can I know what John, the beloved, intended when he wrote in an ancient language two thousand years ago? There is no way to get to the author’s original intent. Instead it’s usually what we intend the author to intend.

The second is that it takes an enormous amount of time. It makes me wonder, did pastors have less other work to do back in the day? Or did pastors always lie about doing all of this study on the text? Of course, now that I’ve worked through with the lectionary the third time in my ministry, it’s a lot less difficult, but still, I don’t do every step either. If I did it by the book, I’d be swamped. And I have virtual libraries at my fingertips.

Third…well this is debatable. I’m wondering if the method just creates really bad preaching. I mean after a pastor works through all the steps, then s/he doesn’t want to disregard all of it as mere prep work. And so we hear sermons about the historical context, the original Greek, all the other theologians. But we rarely get to the point–how these great words of wisdom instruct our lives.

I’m wondering if the nature of interpretation is evolving. The historical-critical method was an important step, in order to unbind the text from some of Christianity’s most deplorable thought. But is it time to move on? What do you think? Does this method of preparation make us poor preachers? What do you do to prepare? Do you ever do all of those steps? What about in other denominations? Do you have similar methods? Would it be better to go to a liberationist model? What did you learn about preaching after you got out of seminary?

photo’s by _xtian

Another year passing

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I’m turning thirty-six today, which used to be considered mid-life, but not now that we’re living longer. Now the middle point’s at forty-five, and perhaps it’s even later for women. So I won’t be getting a red convertible this year. Not that I’m going to want one when I’m forty-five either….

I feel far from crisis. In fact, thirty-six feels like a comfortable age, a forgiving age. I handle myself with a little more grace than I used to. When I look into the mirror, I no longer rush in to examine every flaw. I step back a bit, and I don’t allow myself to focus on every imperfection. And even with the deficiencies in view, I have a strange gratitude.

When I was in college there was this guy–an international student–who would always try to pick me up (along with countless other women) by using the unforgettable line: “Aahh… now you have child-bearing thighs.” He continued to use the opener, even though I’m sure the look of horror on my face could translate across all cultures.

But I think of the words now, and they have new meaning. They still make a deplorable pick-up line, but I smile when I think about them. My belly’s never been flat, but now wonder has replaced the self-hatred. I have more fascination when I look at it. Mine was never supposed to be flat. It was supposed to be the place where my daughter was formed. It did its job well.

And the grace extends to the interdependence of my being.

I remember first reading Karl Barth, the words moved me deeply as I began to understand God as an act, more than a being. I had a childhood full of harsh, abusive images of God as an angry patriarch. But as I read, I learned to release my vengeful noun for loving verbs. I began to relate to God’s self-description, “I am who I am.” Even more than that, I embraced to the beauty of the words, “God is love.” I started to understand that the very being of God is ever-flowing action.

While growing into adulthood, I longed for independence. But just as I came to that freeing understanding of God, I learned that my own being is made up of action. I can no longer be myself without the interdependence of community–the connection of friends and family–because that’s where love abounds. I understood that just as I am in the image of God, so my being is made more full in doing, in loving and being loved.

And on this Eve of the incarnation, I feel another shift, as the nouns and verbs are beginning to mix together. God’s skin allows God to walk among us, to get entangled in the human messiness of love, with all of its passion and betrayal. And as love takes on bone, I can begin to understand the beauty of imperfect flesh and the allure of living in complicated community.

photo’s by nerdvin

Q & A

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Conversation with a Wonderful Visitor at church:

WV: Why did John the Baptist ask if Jesus was the one that they were looking for? I mean, if he was preparing the way, shouldn’t he have known the answer to that question?

Me: [Excitedly] That’s a great question! Why do you think it was?

WV: Well… I don’t know. That’s why I asked you. You’re the minister! You’re supposed to have all the answers.

Me: Oh. Oh yeah.

That’s when I remembered, some people are excited by the questions and some people just want to know the answers.

When she asked me, a hundred questions popped in my mind. Why was she wondering about this? Did she hear a sermon on it? Does it make ever make sense to people in the pew that these strange John the Baptist texts always pop up in Advent? Did it bother her that John might have lost his faith in Jesus? Did she think he lost his faith in himself as well? What was worse for John, losing his faith in Jesus, or losing his faith in himself? Was he worried that his life was a complete waste?

Why did the gospel writers include this bit? Why was it important to keep it in the story? Why’s John considered to be the man who made the paths straight for Jesus, when he questioned Jesus in the end?

How would she have felt if she were in the jail cell? Is there something about confinement that hinders faith? Why does it seem that some people are called to die untimely deaths? Why do prophets so often die early?

Why does a young woman have so much power in this situation? Why was Herod willing to give her half his kingdom? Was there that much power in the art of seduction? Was this sort of thing common in the King’s court? Did women have more power than we think they did? Was seduction the only way they could get it?

And what about prophets? How much did prophets actually know? How much do they know today? Are there any alive today? Who are they? Could an early death make someone a prophet, who would have never been one if s/he lived to a ripe old age? Is there some power in the death, in the martyrdom?

We could have talked for hours. The discussion had endless possibilities and I could have learned a great deal. But, she just wanted an answer and I was running to teach a class, so I gave her one.

I explained that I don’t know why John the Baptist asked that question. I can imagine what it might have been. I figure that John was sitting behind bars, knowing that he was about to get his head chopped off at the bequest of some floozy dancer. Even as a great prophet, he certainly didn’t predict that ridiculous ending. So, he started questioning himself, his message, Jesus. I mean, if we sit beside John in that dirty cell, while he’s eating his final meal of locusts and wild honey, he’s probably thinking that the Kingdom of God was not supposed to turn out with his head on a platter.

I eventually give her that answer…because I’m the minister. But I would have much rather had the discussion. I know a lot of stuff because I’ve studied this passage for years. But I don’t know the important things. I don’t know John’s feelings or motivations. I don’t know how the WV was interacting with the text, what it was doing inside of her, why she needed to ask the question. I hadn’t really thought about what the words were doing inside of me. When she asked the question about John’s question, I realized that a lot of things were shifting internally.

But it did remind me of an important shift in our roles and people’s expectations. A good pastor used to be the one with all the answers about the text. He would expound upon them, definitively, in the pulpit. Now, most pastors are good because they understand how to ask the questions.

So what you think? How do you answer these questions? You may answer with a question.

Futurama II: The Millennials

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In yesterday’s comments, Neil wrote:

If I have to sit through one more seminar or class in which a “boomer” talks about “Gen X’ers” or “postmoderns” in the abstract, as if I wasn’t sitting there, I’ll go crazy!

To which I say, “Amen,” and then I turn write about the Millennials (born 1982 to 2005)… so I’m a hypocrite. Actually, if I were teaching a class, I could think of a few amazing Millennials who would do an eloquent job speaking for themselves, but since I’m writing this in my PJ’s on Thursday morning, I’ll just continue to discuss what this article has to say and write as a pastor to college students.

The Millenials were born at a time when our attitudes toward children were changing in huge ways. Hollywood’s portrayal of children went from demonic little girls sitting in front of the television set, to adorable kids who inspire adults in new ways. Our society went from an age of latch key children to attachment parenting. Child safety, education, and family values became incredibly important. Political discussions hinged around the question, “What about the children?”

As Susan O commented yesterday, “There are mini-generations within a generation.” That’s because somewhere along the line, a very positive shift occurred. These children were “wanted” (Freakonomics picks up on this. Levitt has a really controversial argument that links the declining crime rate to the fact that these are “wanted” children). Overall, highrisk behaviors have declined: drug use and pregnancy rates. Sports for girls have made a huge difference, so has after-school programming.

When I was a teenager, rock stars were biting heads off of bats to get a little attention. Now, we freak out when Brittney ties up the front of her Catholic schoolgirl uniform or shaves her head. “What are we going to do? Is she a good role-model for our children??”

If you’re still not convinced of the shift–let me tell you something interesting. There are no swings on my daughter’s playground. NO SWINGS. They’re too dangerous. And we’re not even going to discuss the monkey bars….

For all of our careful support of this generation, our society has let them down economically. The Millennials are carrying unprecedented educational loans. Something which we will have to address.

The important thing for our mainline churches to know about this generation: while the Xers are anti-institutional and innovative, the Millennials are much more conventional. As they enter the workplace, they gravitate toward government work, or large corporations that can provide protection against risk and a solid work-life environment. They have close relationships with their extended families.

Our churches can’t give up in this important time. While the Xers are screeching against hierarchy, beauracracy, and denominationalism, our mainlines can’t afford let the X factor (of which I’m a part) drown out the adults coming up after us. We’re not the final word on this. Millennials are finding great comfort in institutions. In fact, among young adults, the mainlines losing, the evangelicals are losing, but Roman Catholic Church has been gaining the most ground. There’s a deep longing for ancient traditions and spirituality.

The mainline denominational church is in the perfect position to minister to this generation. But not if we continue business as usual. We’ll need to make some serious changes and put some careful time and attention into making space in our intergenerational congregations.

Futurama

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One of the cool things about pastoring a church in D.C. is that our members do incredibly interesting work. For instance, one woman is a part of a consulting firm that specializes in foresight, strategy, and innovation. They have job titles like “Futurist” (How about that? I’ve decided I want to be a futurist when I grow up).

Anyways, I’ve found that her work has some parallels to mine, especially as she thinks about generational issues. She gave me this article (sorry I can’t link to it) from Harvard Business Review, which talks about customer and workforce attitudes in the next 20 years.

The article points out a lot of interesting things, for example:

People do not “belong” to their age bracket. We can’t understand a 20-year-old today by remembering what it was like when we were 20. Furthermore, we can’t anticipate what 20 years olds will be like by looking at today’s 40 year olds. Instead, we must recognize people as members of distinct generations. As generations, we have deeply felt associations to certain events, and how old we are when these events happen form who we are as people.

So, in our churches, we won’t get far if we keep saying, “Well, when I was a young mother, I loved going to Thursday night suppers….” Our expectations have to be different for another generation, because they’re distinct. I’ll talk about Gen X today and discuss the Millennials tomorrow.

According to this study, Generation Xers (My apologies. I hate using the term, but for sake of this conversation, I will) were born in 1961 to 1981. We (I was born in ’71) grew up during failing schools and failing marriages, surviving as latchkey kids. We distrust institutions. We’re tough, gritty, and practical. We prefer free agency over corporate loyalty. We’re constructing our families late, but we’re building them with fierce strength. We’ve made little impact on civic life (will Obama change that?), and we believe that volunteering or working one-on-one has more impact.

So how does the church relate to GX? Three things.

First, we can begin to understand that Generation X is “already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history.” That’s not me being arrogant. That’s a quote from the Harvard article. Our “high-tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.” We create, dissolve, and reorganize overnight.

This is obvious in our churches. All of a sudden, we have a crop of thirty-somethings who are itching to start their own congregations. They don’t need a lot of money, or land, or any of those things that we’ve always had to have. They just need a computer and a couple of rented hours in a building space.

So denominations can respond by letting innovators go. Let them start congregations. Let them create, dissolve, and reorganize. After all, we’re closing all kinds of churches, and at the very same time, we have an entire generation of pastor/innovators who know how to start-up. It’s part of our DNA.

Second, we can build up our social justice ministries. Since volunteering and working one-on-one is important to the Xers, this is an important place to focus energy and opportunity as congregations. By and large, we’re not checkbook missionaries. We like to get our hands dirty.

But make sure that the volunteering is meaningful. If you put an Xer on a board where s/he is debating a dead issues for hours and hours, s/he will flee. The important idealism that the Boomers have can be incredibly frustrating for Xers when debates go on forever (i.e., homosexuality in the church). Most of us don’t want to sit around a table and discuss and discern.

Please, please, please, don’t make me sit with a bunch of anti-gay people to try to find some common ground. It’s not that these things aren’t important to me, it’s just a waste of time for me to try to paint a red person blue. We spent our lives fighting, and we’re tired of it. For me, I would rather tell you where I stand, and if you’re still willing to work with me on poverty, environment, and AIDS, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. We can find our common ground in our action.

Third, if we look into Harvard’s crystal ball, Generation X is going to be Generation Exhausted soon. I’m feeling it. With our economic pressures, we’ll be going into midlife focusing “on reconstructing the social frameworks that produce civic order.” Our aversion to institutions may subside a bit, as we’ll be working on fortifying our social environment.

And where does this happen? If we’re smart and we make some space, it could very well happen in our congregations. That’s what Tribal Church is about, making the social connections strong in our denominations.

I’m putting my money on Harvard. We’re going back to church.

Another Gen X trait? We hate when people label us with certain traits. So what do you think? What resonates and what doesn’t?

The hopes and fears of all the years

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During this time of year, when our breath is full of the longing, “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” I cannot help but remember what those words meant to me as a child.

Growing up as a conservative evangelical, we didn’t talk about Jesus coming back much during Advent. And I couldn’t be happier about that fact. You see, there was a year-round sense that Jesus was going to come at any moment. But this time, Jesus was all grown up and furious. He was returning to judge with that double-edged sword coming out of his mouth. The end of the world was drawing near; the thousand-year gloaming would begin, as the sun would grow as black as ashes, and the moon would be full of blood.

These disturbing images haunted me for eleven months of the year. They grew up inside of me along with the news of nuclear bombs, the cold war, and arms races. The apocalyptic visions made too much sense as our country was learning about the long-term effects of radiation. I was actually pretty happy to get a break from them during December, when we would sing carols and talk about the first time Jesus came, as a baby in a manger.

For the rest of the year, I never understood the glee that the preacher had when he talked about the second coming. He couldn’t wait for the day–the dispensation when Satan would roam and rule the earth. Of course, there was a good chance that we would be raptured, taken up into heaven before all of the destruction. That way we could gloat. We could watch all the suffering from our cloudy pillows, and finally get some payback for all the persecution that had been heaped upon us.

That was a tenuous “we,” because from the preacher’s calculations, there were only about a handful of people who were going to be taken up. There weren’t a whole lot of people who were saved enough. I always felt like I was in limbo. Strangely, the rapture option seemed even worse to me than living with all the wars.

Every few years, someone would come up with an actual date when all of this would occur. I always tried to laugh it off. But I’d be scared. To calm myself, I would ask, “What will I say to Jesus when I see him?” And then I’d try to imagine a Jesus without the white hair and fire eyes.

Of course, my experience was probably unique. I was growing up in the South, in a very conservative, religious family. But, then again, I can’t be the only one with these childhood fears cooked up in my congregation.

I couldn’t help but notice how the Left Behind series sold millions. Jerry Jenkins was the writer in residence at Moody Bible Institute when I was there. When I was in Louisiana, some members of my congregation couldn’t get enough of the books. LaHaye and Jenkins obviously tapped into a very vast stream of fear and thrill in our country.

For me, the prayer “Come, Lord Jesus” is scarier than just about anything I can imagine. Of course, I’ve reconstructed my view of the Kingdom of God, tapping into the hope of Moltmann and the inspiration of Rauschenbusch. But, even as I write, as a grown woman, I have that same fear growing up from my belly and clenching my throat. It has become a part of my emotional intelligence. And it makes me wonder: How many people in our congregations had this experience?

The photo’s of a Japanese clock that was melted by a WWII nuclear bomb, taken by maebmij