On vocation and friendship

Last night we watched At the Death House Door, the story of Carroll Pickett, a death row chaplain in Texas and another Austin Seminary alumnus.

Wow. I have never seen the struggles and beauty of a sense of vocation played out better than it was here. This was an ordinary man who prayed with the convicted, escorted them into the room, and held their hand as they died.

He began the job believing fully in the death penalty, but then he saw innocent people die and developmentally disabled people who had no idea what was going on. He said that he would escort them into the room to be executed, and they would be asking for crayons and a coloring book.

After each person was executed, he would record himself telling the story. And he had all of these tapes….

After years of this, even though he was described to be many degrees to the right of Rush Limbaugh, he began to speak out against the death penalty, explaining exactly what was going on.

The thing that struck me was Rev. Pickett’s sense of call. Here he was, a part of this system that he so strongly opposed, and he often struggled. Silently, without any hint to his family, he wrestled, not knowing if he could do it any longer. Yet he stayed with it because he believed that every person should have a friend next to him when he dies.

He was called to be that friend. 


Globo-chem visits the Merritt’s

Conversation with Lawn Chemical Guys trying to sell me treatment for my yard:

LCG: Hi! I’m wondering if you are interested in some lawn treatment.

Me: No. Thanks.

LCG: But have you noticed? You have clover in your lawn.

Me: Yeah. I noticed. I figure as long as it’s green, it’s good.

LCG: Well, we can take care of that.

Me: I don’t like to use chemicals on my lawn.

LCG: Well, we do use chemicals, but it won’t harm your children or pets.

Me: Mmmm. I’m not interested.

LCG: (Dramatically, triumphantly pulling out a leaf with holes in it) Oh yeah? Well are you interested now?

Me: (Looking to the side.) Nnnoooo.

LCG: Do you know what this IS? (Pointing to the leaf, even more emphatically.)

Me: What is it? (Expecting news of a plague of biblical proportions.)

LCG: THIS is a sign of insects! I just pulled this leaf off of your tree seconds ago. YOU have INSECTS living in your tree!

Of course I have insects living in my tree. That’s where insects live. What has the world come to? I’m supposed to be upset by that? I’m supposed to buy chemicals to get rid of them? Do my neighbors buy this stuff?


photo by tanakawho    

The Wright stuff

Continuing our conversation, here’s a post from Adam Copeland at A Wee Blether:

There’s several different theories as to why Wright emerged from his press hideout to throw grenades at America, the media, our political system, and Obama’s campaign. On one extreme, pundits posit that Wright knew exactly what he was doing: throwing himself under the bus of public opinion so that Obama would have to completely cut off their relationship. According to this theory, Wright’s imploding was an act of martyrdom for a parishoner, and for America’s best interest. One other other extreme, the theory posits that Wright was out totally for personal gain and his ten minutes of mass media fame–and to sell his upcoming book. While this theory is familiar, it doesn’t seem to jive with what I know of the man in terms of the Christian circles in which he hangs, the theology which he reads, the social justice programs which he organizes. Overall, I don’t subscribe to either of these theories. I’m just confused.

But Carol, over at Tribal Church, asked me specifically,

When a member leaves a church, it’s always difficult. And watching this pastoral relationship dissolve in such a public way has been particularly painful. What are you learning, as in intern and seminarian, about the relationship between pastors and members?

Carol tends to write beautiful blog posts with a illustrative story intro and her brilliant perspective at the end. Not so with me, especially with three evening commitments this week and my parents in town. At A Wee Blether you get ugly, simple, boring, but hopefully somewhat helpful numbered points.

What I am learning–and what I still need to learn–about the relationship between pastors and members.

1. Pastors and members don’t need to be best friends, but they need to respect one another as fellow sojourners in the Christian faith. In any community, some folks will bond quickly with some, and not become fast friends with others. In a congregation that’s fine, that’s probably healthy, and it’s at least to be expected. The pastor’s job is not to become everyone’s best friend, but to be a pastor. A pastoral relationship is based in mutual respect, dialog, kindness, and love. That said, a pastor must also be careful not to distance some members because of her relationship with others, or to allow cliques to function unchallenged. If mutual respect is a governing doctrine, many a predicament may be averted.

2. Pastors are people too, but they’re still pastors. It’s a fallacy–functioning in some seminary circles–that pastors can be “on” from 9-5 plus Sundays and meetings, and then be islands unto themselves for the rest of the time. Perhaps this sounds appealing on paper, but it just doesn’t work. Congregation members shop at the same stores, drink at the same bars, and are on the other line of the phone when you’re angry at the local government. How a pastor treats her son’s soccer referee reflects on herself, and on her congregation. If a pastor writes an editorial, or endorses and political candidate (in her public citizen part of life), or sends an angry email, the pastor will find it very difficult to explain to the session, “But that had nothing to do with you, it was after hours.” Politicians get this; old school pastors too.

3. When you screw up, say so. Mike Huckabee, though I disagree with many of his positions, is a decent person and was probably a great pastor. When he screws up, he says so. I love his line, “That’s not the first stupid thing I said, nor will it be the last. I’ve apologized to _______, and reiterate that apology again now.” It’s not just effective politicking, it’s faithful to the gospel. When we sin, we should confess. Pastors who admit their many faults to their congregation contribute to strong, real, and faithful relationships with members.

4. Finally–because it’s weird to preach about pastors when I’m not yet ordained and have only served as one for 11.5 months–I’ll leave with my questions about this subjectHow has the role of pastor changed as society as a whole has become more educated? (A pastor’s master degree is not as impressive as it once was in smaller town pre-21st century America.) To what extent, in a society suspicious of institutions, is a pastor’s relationship with her denomination helpful or hindering in pastoral relationships with members? When is it okay for pastors to accept gifts from members? When is it okay for them to ask for a favor?

I’ve greatly enjoyed this blog tit-for-tat with Carol regarding Jeremiah Wright. Many thanks to Carol for her wise words, and for you readers. Until the next religion-related controversy–or Wright flare-up–I’m going to take a break from Jeremiads.

Deep and wide

I met with the Adrian Pyle and John Emmett, two mission specialists from the Uniting Church in Australia, recently. They are taking a tour of different innovative churches in the United States, learning from what we’re doing.

Adrian and John explained that they are taking in a great deal, but most of what they’re witnessing is confirmation of what they’re already doing. And they said that there was a lot that the church in the United States could learn from congregations in Australia. Adrian explained that they have been in decline for a long time. They have a lack of resources and much smaller congregations. With that combination, there’s much more willingness to try new things.

(Speaking of resources, they told me how many people read Tribal Church in Australia and I asked why. I was surprised because so much of the data in it seems particular to the U.S. First, they said it’s because it’s from a progressive viewpoint, and most books on reaching out to young adults are more conservative. But they also said that the church leadership market is so small in Australia that it’s hard for Australian writers to get published. They often have to rely on material from the U.S. I take so much for granted. I had no idea.)

Another thing that John noted that we could learn from the church in Australia: many churches here are looking to build a megachurch, but in the UCA, they are less interested in growing bigger and more interested in going deeper. They seemed pretty perplexed by our church growth movement.

I know what Adrian means about the willingness to change. I have worked in two small, declining congregations. We were able to turn around both of them and begin a process of spiritual revitalization and growth. But I learned that there was a world of difference between serving a church that knows it’s dying and will do whatever it takes, and a congregation that thinks they’re fine as they are and will reject every new idea.

I am afraid that we have too many churches in the latter category. And so it will be our jobs, as church leaders, to walk a careful balance. We need point out the decline, to make sure that people understand the urgency, without continuing a vicious cycle of despair. Somehow, we need to make sure our congregations understand that we’re not reaching a new generation, and yet offer them hope and some possibility.

I am not a mega-church person. My parents are. They usually attend churches that suddenly appear, out of no where, populated with hundreds of people, like a mushroom village that suddenly grows up on our lawn. But I’ve also seen the same churches split, and split again, and again. There have been pastors run out of town, and some who should have been, and endless sex scandals…. Way too much drama for me.

I have always been interested in churches growing a healthy bit every year. Actually, in every church I’ve served, it’s been a necessity for me. I mean, my job has always depended on additional income, which usually depends on a church growing. Even in my current position, where there’s a healthy endowment, I learned very quickly that I needed to make church growth a goal if I wanted to keep my position. And then the church grew, and we needed a DCE, and money for that…

But then, a church doesn’t grow because it needs more money. More than the necessary income, the congregations have that passion and desire to make sure that we reach people. I love the church and I think it’s good for people to be in community. So, I usually make spiritual and numeric growth a goal. It doesn’t happen every year, but I like to see an overall steady increase.

What do you think? How do you approach church growth? Nationally, our churches are declining. It’s not the 1950s. Usually, it has very little to do with the pastor. So, is the idea of growing wider a healthy goal for us? Or is it just part of our American bigger-is-better mentality? Should our focus shift more to going deeper?  

photo’s by supercamel

Let the journey begin

So, there’s a pattern in most of our churches. And working with campus ministries, I’ve noticed it even more. We love to confirm our youth, send them off, and never talk to them again…until they have children of their own. It’s the life cycle of our church. We get that early branding in, make sure our children can identify our logo, then we figure that they can come back in time, you know, when their own kids need to be baptized.

But it doesn’t work so well anymore, because people get married later now, if they get married at all. Then they usually marry someone outside of their tradition, someone of another religion, or someone who’s agnostic or an atheist. The denominational label doesn’t mean anything. So the chance that anyone’s wandering back into our church is pretty slim. 

In the FTE seminar that we had last week, we talked about this, and one pastor described the beautiful ceremony that they had for their youth, complete with white graduation gowns and red carnations, but he realized that they were saying something with the ritual. The congregation was saying, “You’ve graduated! It’s time to move away from home. See you later!” And the youth heard the message, loud and clear. They disappeared from church after confirmation.

So what can we do as churches to change this thinking, both on the part of the families and churches?

At the meeting to form this learning exchange, I learned what Roman Catholics do. Tim Muldoon and Lee Nagel introduced me to the practice of mystagogy. Mystagogy means to lead into deeper mystery. And (ideally…they admittedly have difficulties in practice as well) each person who goes through catechism is not considered a graduate, but a novice in the faith.

You notice the shift? For them, the journey into deeper faith is beginning, for us, it’s ending. For Roman Catholics, there’s a mentoring process inherent in the training, a relationship of pastoral care. In our discussions, there was not a sense that this was age-related. The novice could be older than the mentor, but rather, there was a sense of deepening the mystery.

We have done this in churches that I pastored, in the way of sponsoring someone who just went through confirmation. But, I think we could do a better job. If we could begin to change the culture of our congregations, so that we can begin to understand that the journeys and the mysteries are only just beginning.

the photo’s entitled, “The ideal confirmation photo” by druzli

It’s not a swamp monster…

I just got back from Chicago last night, and the experience was pretty amazing. It was a lot different from what I expected, but a lot better. I gathered with twenty other people, who were all scholars in faith formation. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who didn’t have a Ph.D. There were a lot of people I’ve admired for a long time, read their work, and used their ideas, so it was good to meet them in person. I also met a lot of fascinating people, and became newly intrigued with their scholarship. So, I spent most of my time picking brains.

We want to create a learning exchange, for two reasons: (1) so that we can begin to learn spiritual practices from each other across religious traditions, and (2) because there’s a disconnect between the academy and the congregations. 

The opportunity for dialogue between traditions is ripe right now. We’ve been working in our own corners of the faith for five hundred to two thousand years or so, but at this moment in history, we can begin an exchange across religions of our best practices. There is, for instance, a lot of work being done in the area of synagogue renewal that we could learn from as Protestants. Or, in the Roman Catholic church, there are a lot of women who are running congregations, but they don’t have the support systems that women do in our mainline denominational churches.

Also, we want to do something about the logjam between the schools and the congregations. Academics often write for academic journals, they present papers to other academics, their concern is for their own audience, and then the research and information rarely gets to the congregations. Likewise, the needs and realities of what’s happening in churches don’t always get communicated to those who conduct research. The exchange would be so that we could learn from one another more effectively.

I’m already learning a great deal. For one, just the methodology of how to begin an organization. Watching John Roberto synthesize the creative energy of twenty people into a workable plan was incredibly insightful. And I think it will be a useful method as we walk farther along the Presbymergent road.

Here is one “best practice” that I learned (Although “best” was up for a lot of debate. How do you quantify a spiritual practice? How do you measure the effectiveness?). I’ll write about another one tomorrow.

There’s this concept that I’ve always wanted to articulate, and yesterday I found out that the Jews have been articulating it for a long time. Hayim Herring taught me the practice of hedorah, and I’m guessing on the spelling. I thought I could google it, but evidently google’s more interested in the swamp monster…. My Hebrew dictionary’s at work…. Anyone know the spelling?

Anyways, the idea is a practice of bringing the best of aesthetic beauty to faith. As spiritual leaders, we are to be constantly engaging our congregations in the life of beauty. He was careful to delineate that he wasn’t talking about the most expensive, but the best that a congregation can offer.

I think this is why I often reject the thrown-together contemporary worship service that some mainline congregations attempt in order to reach out to young adults. If contemporary worship is an authentic expression of who the congregation is, then it’s great. But, if the church decides to half-heartedly toss together a praise band (complete with drum machine) in order to reach a younger audience, and they don’t put any thought into the quality of musicians or music, and they think that the only key to it is singing a chorus a hundred times, well then that might not work out. In the business, we call it the “slappy happy” service, and we know it can have some awkward results….

So, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not the style that gets under my skin, it’s when we’re not bringing the best of beauty to our faith. Hedorah. It is the sense that our worship together should include the creative endeavor to deepen our theological imaginations. That we aspire to bring the finest artistic expressions of poetry, music, and visual art into our spiritual communities. That the spiritual practice of writing a sermon is not only an intellectual exercise, but also an artistic expression.

the photo’s by geozilla