Friday, August 25, 2006

Minister Stuff

When we were still newlyweds, and I was serving my first congregation in Midland Texas, my former wife came home from work one afternoon and asked her daughter "Where's Tim?"

"Oh, he's gone to a motel to meet a girl," my eight-year-old stepdaughter replied, then quickly added as she noticed the change in her mother's expression: "Don't worry mom. It's Minister stuff."

The girl was a sixteen-year-old runaway I'd met the previous evening while working as a volunteer hospital emergency room chaplain. I'd given her my card, and told her to call me when she was ready to be helped. I ended up bringing her back home with me, where she lived as part of our family for about three weeks while I negotiated long-distance with her mother to give Ruth one more chance. As I was taking her to the airport, just before Christmas, I noticed the six-inch Bowie knife she'd been carrying in her handbag while living on the streets, and later in my home.

"You can't take that on the plane with you," I said calmly. Ruth looked a little confused, then took the knife out of her purse and handed it to me. I put it in the glove box of my car, where it remained for years, until I sold that car and the knife disappeared somewhere into a box in my garage.

That was then, in Midland Texas...when I was young and idealistic and full of hope, and my pastoral boundaries were perhaps not quite so well-defined as they are today. Yesterday, I was in my car and called my now thirty-year-old stepdaughter just because I felt the need to talk.

"I'm on my way to the hospital," I told her...then quickly added "Don't worry Hon; It's Minister stuff." A parishioner of mine had fallen from a ladder and struck his head on a rock while helping his daughter and son-in-law build an addition on their new home. He was not going to survive this accident; in an instant, a heartbeat, a blink of an eye his life was over and the lives of everyone who knew and loved him would be dramatically changed forever. The rest of the details aren't really that important. I cleared my calendar for the next few days, and drove for an hour to be with this family as they navigated this terrible tragedy: to help guide them spiritually when I could, to support them emotionally as best as I was able, to represent all of the other members of their faith community who would have liked to have been there to help as well if it were somehow possible.

This is the kind of thing a minister can do in a congregation of only 100 households, at the tail-end of a long, slow summer. Still, it's a helluva way to make a living. I guess I keep doing it because I can, and because I know that it's important. Because after a quarter of a century in this strange and outrageously demanding profession I've experienced some things in life and about myself which make me of service to people who are facing this sort of crisis themselves, maybe for the first time, maybe even for the only time in their lives. And I don't want to make it sound sentimental or melodramatic, because it's not. It's just matter-of-fact life and death in its devastatingly uncompromising simplicity.

Minister Stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Heart of the Matter


Which shall it be?

Light and Soft certainly: that's just the way I'm wired. Hard when I have to be, but never whole-heartedly; and heavy-hearted when I have to be hard. Often half-heartedly, which is its own tragedy: to discover your heart just isn't in it. Seems like there is so little these days worthy of giving our hearts to.

Hearts and Minds. Body and Soul. Heart and Soul. But for some reason mind and body often appear at odds with one another, until the Heart brings them together and creates a Soul that unites them as one in the mind and in the image of God. The Spirit is willing but the Flesh is weak without the Heart to encourage them.

It takes courage to take heart in the face of the discouraging -- disappointment, frustration, dissatisfaction, despair. This is the real Heart of the Matter. Where do we find the courage to surrender our hearts to God? A God who softens the hard hearts of a stubborn, stiff-necked people...and leaves us feeling light-hearted again.

Simply a handful of heart-felt thoughts before heading over to church this morning....

Friday, August 11, 2006

Our Trust in Things Not Seen

Overheard one of my people the other day describe Faith as 'belief without evidence." This upset me a little...basically made me feel like I haven't really been doing my job very well, but then here's the kicker: for half my lifetime (25 years - which is essentially my entire life as an adult), I have "served" as an ordained clergyman, even though most days I don't really believe in God...or at least not anything that would pass for God in 98% of the so-called "Christian" churches on this planet. I CERTAINLY don't believe in the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection, the Substitutionary Atonement, the literal Inerrancy of the Scripture, and Christ's Bodily Second Coming...much less that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God in any sense other that we are all metaphorically God's Children, and thus brothers and sisters to one another. In fact, if I were re-writing the creed it would go something along the lines of: I Believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a bastard, born of a young woman in the usual way, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and that he was never buried at all, but rather his body hung upon a crude Roman cross until it had been entirely consumed by ravens and wild dogs, and that people have been trying to turn him into something he never was for their own purposes ever since. Not exactly the most inspiring set of beliefs, I know. Maybe it's a good thing I wasn't a First Century Christian.

What else do I believe? Well, I believe in Evil -- in cruelty, selfishness, deceit, deception, greed, avarice, lust, pride, gluttony, and all the rest -- believe in them because I see the evidence of them with my own two eyes almost every day. In a word, I believe in Sin. But not Original Sin; rather, just the plain old-fashioned ordinary sin...and I hate it, which means that often I also hate myself, and feel ashamed to be a member of the human race. Yet I also know (in large part THANKS to a healthy sense of shame and self-loathing) that "sin" and "hate" will NEVER be "conquered" by more of the same, and that the ONLY way to overcome them is through the Transforming Power of Love: through compassion, generosity, gratitude, trust, forgiveness, mercy, and random acts of kindness.

And yes, through Sacrifice. Like Jesus. Like Socrates. Like Abraham. A sacrifice which trusts the unknown mysterious power of a reality larger than ourselves, and submits to that reality in order to become at one with it. And yet, this act of self-sacrificing submission to the unknown is incredibly frightening and requires unbelievable much that often we tend to "chicken out," telling ourselves instead that it is irrational, illogical, naive, foolish and stupid...because (frankly) it is. Yet this is precisely the difference between "belief without evidence" and "a trust in the reality of things not seen." Because, let's face it: who could attempt this work of Ministry at all if we didn't believe in the Unseen Power of Transformative Love? And more to the point, why would we even want to try?

There are caveats, of course. There are always caveats. Being only human, there is naturally a dark side to our Love as well. When we allow our blind faith in the Transforming Power of Love to encourage and support the self-destructive addictive narcissism of others, we become enablers rather than healers. When we attempt to use the power of Love inappropriately to manipulate the behaviors and limit the freedom of others -- to keep them powerless and under control rather than allowing them to discover the liberating power of their own potential for transformation -- we become instruments of oppression rather than messengers of Good News. Not only must Justice be tempered with Mercy, we must also learn to temper our Mercy with Justice, to balance compassion with accountability. An honest sense of where we leave off and the other begins, together with a humble appreciation and acceptance of our own human limitations, create the kind of "healthy" boundaries which allow two souls to meet and touch, rather than fusing and becoming lost in one another. The slogan "hate the sin but love the sinner" has often been shamelessly twisted in horrible ways to justify all kinds of terrible treatment of our fellow human beings. Perhaps it is better merely to remember to "Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged," and to do unto others as we would have others do unto us....

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

First of all, let me just say right off the bat that the only thing I hate worse than whining clergy is being one of them myself. Ministers have the most magnificent job in the world, and simply because it is also impossibly difficult doesn't give us the right to complain. We are so privileged to be given the opportunity to do this work, and those of us who are lucky enough to be able to make an honest living doing it are even more fortunate.

Still, we're only human. None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes...or at the very least decisions which in retrospect might have been better. And because of the visibility of our office, when our imperfections finally do reveal themselves we are also likely to hear about them. At some point in every ministry, the honeymoon is over and one begins to discover all of the various ways in which people have been disappointed by your multitude of limitations and shortcomings as a religious leader. As someone who has been through this process many times (and is going through it again even as you read this) here are some helpful hints for weathering the storm.

1) Don't Take it Personally. Trust me: everything that is being said about you now has been said about clergy from time immemorial. It just comes with the territory. We've all heard these same criticisms about ourselves, and we've all struggled to address them. There's even a technical term for it: Authenticity Testing -- you can learn all about it from the Alban Institute. No one EVER "masters" the "skills" of ministry -- it's the kind of vocation that will literally take everything you have to offer it, and still it won't be enough. So simply endeavor to do your very best, and know that you will get better in time.

2) Do Take it Seriously. It IS a test. But what is being tested is not so much your expertise as your character. People are trying to figure out whether or not they can trust you, and whether or not you care enough about them to take their concerns seriously. Often they are dissatisfied with their own experience of church, religion, spirituality -- and are hoping that you can somehow make it right for them. So take them seriously, because it's the only way you will ever get them to take YOU seriously.

3) Don't Become Offensive by Getting Defensive. Not even a little. Don't make excuses, don't try to explain: just listen carefully and empathetically, and try to draw them out a little more. Ask them if they can be more specific, or give you examples; ask them also about things they may have liked or that they think you've done well. (I once had to ease the mood of a particularly vocal meeting of critics by asking "have I done ANYTHING right since I got here?") Remember, it's not really about your shortcomings as a minister; it's about how you are coming up short as THEIR minister. So listen and learn.

4) Try right away to do something very visible and very tangible to let them know that you've heard their concerns and are trying to address them. If they complain about your sermons, enroll in a preaching seminar. It may not make you a better preacher overnight (we all eventually become better preachers with practice anyway), but at least it shows that you want to improve. If they feel like you don't really know them, or don't visit enough, make a point of at least trying to learn everyone's face and name, and of calling people by their name whenever you do see them. It takes a little effort, but it's not as much work as you might think. And take advantage of opportunities like you newsletter column to communicate your vision with the people you don't see in church every Sunday. It may not help you get to know them, but it will help them feel like they know you.

5) Cultivate some sort of personally meaningful devotional or contemplative practice. Anything you like, so long as it feeds your spirit and keeps you centered and focused, humble, grateful and generous, (Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent...or whatever the equivalent Girl Scout values were). As I said earlier, this is incredible and amazing work we do, and we are incredibly luck to get to do it, but it is also amazingly difficult work, and will drain us to empty unless we find ways to renew our own sense of amazement and personal spiritual credibility.

6) Remember the difference between spiritual and secular cultures, and the so-called "speed of church." In the secular world, business leaders are advised to hit the ground running with a vision and a plan in place, to clear out the deadwood and promote their own people, and to try to show a positive impact to the bottom line in the first 90 days by adding value, solving problems, improving efficiency and creating new opportunities for growth. The "old school" conventional wisdom for ministry was not to change anything in the first year, and that it is only after seven years with the same congregation that clergy truly come into their own as effective leaders. In a church, anything less than three years is considered a "failed ministry" (or, more kindly, a "mismatch" or "involuntary interim"). In business, more than two or three years in the same job and you are off the "fast-track" and "in a rut." These paradigms are both shifting a little, but both clergy and laity who are familiar with business culture can find the speed of church unbelievably frustrating. And although it seems a little counter-intuitive, smaller churches actually change LESS quickly than larger ones, which again can be frustrating to recently-ordained ministers eager to try out all of their new and innovative ideas on an actual congregation. But resisting all the young ministers and their new ideas that have come down the pike every two or three years is how these congregations have survived (in some cases) for two or three centuries. Yet even as you feel you are beating YOUR head against the wall, remember that there are OTHER people in the congregation who are frustrated with YOU for not moving more quickly. Why does it take seven years for a minister to become effective? Because that's how long it generally seems to take for the change-resistant people to trust the new minister enough to move to the sidelines, and allow a new team of leaders who share the ministers vision to step up. It can be a difficult path to navigate, I know. But the authority of a minister is different from the authority of a manager. We lead through trust, authenticity, inspiration, encouragement, a shared sense of commitment to a common vision, and the desire to forge profoundly meaningful relationships with our people, our vocation, and the transcendent. Managers often lead solely through the incentive of promotion and the threat of termination. Yes, I know how tempting it can be to want to fire half the congregation and bring in your own people But the good news is that even business leaders are starting to move away from the carrot and the stick, and discovering the value of shared inspiration and a compelling vision.

* a note on the title. I saw this phrase printed on the back of a tee-shirt in a Nantucket tee-shirt shop last week, and it made me laugh out loud... Haven't enjoyed a tee-shirt so much since the classic "Hellfire and Dalmations" shirt of the Hot Springs Convo....

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Washed Ashore (and Back Again)

Just got back from a ten-day vacation on Nantucket, where I served two years as an interim minister before being called here to Carlisle in 2003. The Island is lousy with clergy this time of year: visited with my successor, my predecessor, two Island colleagues from other denominations (Methodist and Episcopal), the visiting "summer" minister (who arrived while I was there to fill in for the current minister while she and her son enjoy a little well-deserved vacation OFF-Island), plus a former intern of the minister emeritus, who had come to the Island to reconnect with HER call before heading off for what promises to be a difficult interim ministry in Eugene, Oregon -- the city where I earned my PhD. So the old saw about whether our movement is best understood as a small religious denomination or a large extended family remains intact.

For me this was supposed to be a "real" holiday -- didn't even bring a pair of long pants (which was actually a packing mistake, but worked out OK) and had no intention of doing anything even remotely "ministerial" -- yet even so, everywhere I went I was introduced as "our former minister," "our interim minister" "the guy who used to be our minister" and the like. Eventually I just started describing myself as "the Temp," which seemed to go over pretty well. Yet once again I was reminded that ministry is a vocation that depends as much on who we are as what we do -- and that (like it or not) we remain ministers in the eyes of others even when we are not actually "doing" ministry.

I love it on the Island -- felt at home there in a way I have rarely felt anywhere else, especially in the dead of winter when the weather closes in and the rest of the world "off-Island" fades into obscure insignificance. But after two years there, I also knew that it was time to move on -- that like Brigadoon or Shangri-la, Nantucket has a way of making time disappear and leaving little to show for it other than enduring friendships and fading memories...which are generally considered good things, but which (as Odysseus discovered in the arms of Circe) have an addictive, dreamlike quality that can easily consume all other considerations.

In any event, left for the Island in a bit of a hurry, playing cat and mouse with boat schedules and a tropical storm...and returned to discover that in my haste to depart I had left my refrigerator door slightly ajar, which meant that much of my first night back home I spent throwing out spoiled food and cleaning up a puddle of warm water from my kitchen floor. Thursday I begin my career development consultation in Dedham -- the "25 year check-up" which was part of the original inspiration for this blog to begin with. Meanwhile, I've got a week's worth of work to catch up on in the next two days...and the "excessive heat warning" here in "America" begins at noon....