Ending one Project, Beginning Another: A Spirituality of Preaching

Many of you know, I’ve been working for awhile on a manuscript on the book of Acts, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us. That is now in the hands of readers. It’s been a rewarding process thus far and hopefully I’ll have it published soon. I’ve got other writing projects simmering which I work on here and there. I’m at a place in my career where I kind of know if my ideas are ripe.

This week, I spent an hour or so seeing if I could express the main idea behind my next writing project. Let me know what you think.

I know the pressures of preaching every week. While I have preached somewhat regularly since I was eighteen, for the eleven years I preached each week Sundays came at me like fence posts on the interstate. It was hard to catch my breath. I would preach a sermon Sunday morning, suffer post-sermon depression Sunday night, and be faced with a blank page Monday morning. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Add to the relentlessness of sermon preparation the pressures of weekly congregational ministry—a mixture of the sacred and numbingly mundane, all of which take on the mask of urgency—and the amount of time for sermon preparation is squeezed even more. I know people who have never done ministry have little appreciation for what it involves from day-to-day. I’ve had people ask me if I spent forty hours a week writing my sermons. What else could I possibly be doing? Truth be told, some weeks five hours on sermon writing seems like a luxury.

Also, preaching is just a high wire act. It takes nerve to say something on behalf of the gospel to a people who are dying to hear good news. The pressures for the sermon to deliver health and life come from all sides. The preaching moment brings together simultaneously the demands related to representing God, Scripture, and congregation. The pressures related to these kinds of responsibilities are daunting to anyone with a lick of self-awareness.

But I also know the thrill of the sermon–the way the preaching moment fills me with something life giving in ways that nothing else does. I’ve spent the past twenty years in the academy, which offers fewer opportunities to preach. I don’t miss preaching much until I do it. Then I remember. I remember what a fulfilling thing it is to connect people’s lives to God through the medium of speech. I remember how my body feels as every fiber of my being reaches for both a word and a real connection with listeners. I know the satisfying feeling of being spent and poured out, and yet of being filled and sustained. I feel alive when I preach.

I remember the way that preparing sermons invites me into creative, imaginative work. I need this kind of creative outlet, which can be elusive in the increasingly bureaucratic world of academia, filled as it is with reports and budgets and assessments of student learning. I need a creative encounter with an “other,” a reality greater than myself, that calls to me and longs for an expression through me. When I write a sermon, I remember my love for how texts move and do their work, and the corresponding task of figuring out how the sermon could similarly move and take up the work of a living text. I remember what it is to be surprised by a sermon as it takes a direction I didn’t anticipate. I love ink on a page.

This book is an attempt to express these two realities related to preaching in the form of a spirituality. Preachers are often torn between the limits of their capacities, and the unequaled sense of fulfillment that preaching provides. As I will point out, both sides of this tension possess temptations powerful enough to undo a preacher. But I also believe that this tension is built in to preaching and, if attended to, both requires and produces a spirituality. 

This book is not a spirituality for preaching, though that would be a worthwhile book as well. I am suggesting instead that the practices related to preaching comprise a spirituality. It is possible that the ways we conceive of and practice sermon preparation and delivery can hold our lives before God. The sermon can be a real participation in the life of God.

I know from my own life that I’m in a better place when I’m preaching regularly. My life has focus and shape when I’m preaching week in and week out–focus and shape that are more elusive apart from the regular practices of sermon preparation and delivery. I have found that preaching can be a way of loving God and neighbor that centers one’s life in the mystery of knowing God. It’s not just that preaching involves Scripture or is necessarily speech about God, though these aspects of preaching are spiritually significant. Beyond these realities, I believe the sustainability of a preaching life requires perspectives on the self in relation to God, God’s people, and God’s world that constitute a stance, or a posture, that is healthy and God-centered. And that this perspective on the self has methodological implications. It matters, spiritually speaking, how you prepare a sermon.

It is, of course, possible to be a good speaker and deliver effective messages and be a spiritual wreck. One of my preaching heroes is the British theologian, P.T. Forsyth. In his 1907 work, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he writes about preachers whose sermons are felt to be “productions,” as opposed to “real doings with the living God.” It’s possible to read texts strip mining for sermon gold and not be seized by them or drawn up into the mysterious worlds they describe. It’s possible to care more about how the sermon reflects on you and your reputation, than to care about the people who are listening for a word of hope.

I’d like to think that this kind of preaching isn’t sustainable over the long haul. I know enough former preachers to think this notion has some credence. But even if it proves not to be the case, who wouldn’t want the practice of preaching to be spiritually enlivening? If the way we approached preaching from beginning to end was a way to attend to God, not just to a sermon, wouldn’t that be a desirable thing?

I’m not offering here “prayers for effective sermon preparation,” or “songs to inspire great sermons,” or anything along those lines. I offer instead a way of moving from text to sermon around the word “form.” The text wants to per-form. The preacher seeks to con-form to the movement of the text, so that the sermon might be an embodied per-form-ance of a living word. This might sound too simple, even contrived, to deliver what I’ve proposed. Maybe so. But I hope I’ve created enough curiosity to bring you into a conversation about preaching as a form of spirituality.

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The new thing in an old story

In the previous post I talked about the “narrative” nature of adaptive, or cultural, change in organizations. New cultural identities form around a new organizational narrative that is tethered to the actual conditions on the ground. I also suggested that there are two ways to invite a new congregational narrative: 1. re-narrating significant past narratives and 2. inviting people into new experiences from which narratives might arise through reflection and articulation.

So, let’s look at option one in this post. One of my favorite parts of the bible is Isaiah 40-66. The setting is the end of exile and the bold suggestion that the return of God’s struggling, dispirited people to Zion is nothing less than a new Exodus. The story of the exile hangs heavy over Israel’s identity. Exile is punishment for covenant infidelity. Exile is a story of shame and loss. Exile is a faith-shaking narrative that calls every premise of Israel’s identity as God’s people into doubt.

The prophet has a word of consolation. “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” are the opening words of this section of Isaiah. But comfort cannot ignore the realities of the exile. This experience will have to be a part of the story going forward. The prophet is persistent, “God is doing a new thing.” A new story will emerge. How will you know it? The details will look a lot like the old story. The new thing will emerge as a re-narration of older stories.

In particular, the experience of exile will have to be reinterpreted. The prophet does not ignore the “exile as punishment” narrative, but uses the length of the exile to suggest God was doing something more than punishing Israel. The exile was also formation for vocation in God’s mission for all of creation. This daring theological move makes Israel’s worst story a hopeful one for the sake of a new future.

I’ve seen this happen with organizations as well. In the consulting work I do with Church Innovations, we have an exercise we call the “Timeline Event.” Participants are given different colored sticky notes (yellow, red, blue, and green) and place them on a timeline placed on the wall. The blue sticky is for “blue days,” times that were disappointing or painful for the congregation/organization.

One group I did this for had a very painful experience in their recent past. Nearly every blue sticky was placed on the timeline in that time period. It was a shameful and accusing memory. But there were younger people present who had been a part of the organization as students, but had no idea any of this had happened. Hearing the stories of pain struck them, not as shameful, but as heroic as the organization had served them well through these darkest of days. Though painful events were happening, people still showed up and performed their roles, did their jobs, and served others with passion. They gave their best in the worst of circumstances.

You could feel the room change as the most shameful narrative became reinterpreted as their best moment as an organization. While this is a very dramatic example, I have seen this happen with other organizations as well. And I have experienced this personally. I had a therapist who helped me see that a narrative that filled me with shame and a sense of personal weakness was actually a story of resourcefulness and strength. I could hardly believe it could be a true story about me, but they were the same exact details, only re-narrated. I had a new possibility emerge precisely out of the accusing details of the past.

This kind of work requires artful care. It can’t be imposed, but has to emerge. This kind of re-narration is also in keeping with the gospel that calls strength “weakness” and weakness “strength.” The “word of the cross” is precisely an invitation to perceive our world differently and to tell a new kind of story about ourselves.

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Leading cultural change

If we could program our way out of this mess, we would have already done so. If changing our organizational culture came through writing a new mission statement, doing a SWOT analysis, developing goals, and determining measurable outcomes, we would have changed our organizational culture multiple times already. If we could change our culture by managing people better or differently, a few power of positive thinking sessions and we’d be done. If it were just a matter of posting new organizational values accompanied by an attitude adjustment, we’d already have accomplished it. Changing an organizational culture happens at a fundamentally different level than the approaches listed above.

An organizational culture represents the meaning proposition of a shared life. Culture is ultimately about the ways that humans organize their lives around meaning. And meaning, at it’s core, is a narrative enterprise. In other words, we live and behave in relation to the authorizing narratives that define our common life. Sometimes these narratives are explicit and public, but often they are implicit and unspoken. This is why, for instance, that a congregation might sharpen its mission statement and align all of its strategic values and still not get any push. There might be a more powerful narrative under the surface that is authorizing non-compliance or apathy or a competing set of behaviors.

So, changing an organizational culture requires new authorizing narratives. And these narratives must be related to the organization’s actual life. Let me give you an example.

I went to high school in West Texas during the time Odessa Permian (Friday Night Lights) was winning state title after state title. When the came to play us, this Oregon boy was stunned by the religious fervor that attended everything they did. The caravan of cars for 180 miles, with shoe polished windows displaying the word “MOJO,” the 240 piece marching band who entered the stadium chanting “mojo, mojo, mojo,” the sea of black and white clad fans who rivaled the numbers of the hometown crowd.

“Mojo” was the chant for the Permian Panthers because it related to some Native American tradition. So our genius of a head coach decided we needed the same. At the Friday pep rally, always a rowdy affair, he told us the legend of Akela, a native word for “Eagle,” our school’s mascot. After telling the story, he tried to get us to chant “Akela, Akela, Akela,” which went over like a lead balloon. No one except the coach and a few embarrassed assistant coaches participated. Why? Because we knew this story was not connected to the reality of the situation. Mojo didn’t “work” because of some mysterious native magic, but because Permian had a history of mastery in blocking and tackling. “Mojo” was expressive of a true story. Akela was being imported as a story to replace the reality of our mediocre football performance. We knew it wasn’t true.

So, how do you change an organizational narrative in a way that is still true to the organization? You don’t do it by importing someone else’s organizational narrative or mimicking their practice. (This is where the discussion around best practices becomes problematic. Best for who?) Rather, it comes by finding and developing the life giving resources within your organization’s experience. This happens two ways. 1. Stories of the past can be re-narrated. The events are the events. But the re-narration of those events can yield new meanings. 2. New experiences can produce new stories that can over time authorize new practices and attitudes. Increasingly, I’m learning that it requires both of these things in tandem, not simply one or the other.

This cultural/narrative aspect is why a primary task of leadership in the midst of adaptive change is “narrating the change.” How is the future we are seeking in keeping with the best aspects of our past? What vision of a hope-filled future is in keeping with the best aspects of our identity? How can we keep telling that future story in such a way that people are willing to tackle tough problems now for the possible benefits that will come? How is what we are doing presently connected to both the best aspects of our past and the future we hope for?

I want to fill out aspects of this narrative aspect of changing an organizational culture in subsequent posts. And add to these temporal aspects some spatial ones.

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Jesus, the prodigal

A few weeks ago, the lectionary was in Luke 15, the chapter where we find the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Yet, the lectionary selection included only the first two parables, leaving the prodigal in a “distant country,” rhetorically speaking.

I was in Napierville with grad students the following weekend, and my friend Shon Smith asked if I would preach at the church there. The omission of the prodigal son had been rolling around in my head and so I wanted to take a crack at it. Shon gave me the opportunity.

Here’s the thing about preaching a familiar parable. It stops functioning like a parable, which is supposed to surprise the reader into a new way of seeing things. All of the images of this parable are so familiar: the ring, the robe, the fatted calf, the distant country, the pig stye, the father’s field, the party. Even non-Christians no want it means to be a prodigal son. And we know the meaning of the story. The Father is always joyful to welcome the repentant home. Oh, and, don’t be like the older brother who can’t rejoice over the repentance of the younger son.

With all this familiarity, is this still a parable? Has it become something else? A morality tale? A fable? A Disney movie? My goal was to see if I could preach it as a parable again.

I had one piece of disrupting information already at my disposal. I read Amy Jill-Levine’s interpretation that the phrase “he came to himself” is not indicating an existential awakening, but is simply internal dialogue. In other parables, the rich fool, the dishonest manager, and the judge who does not fear God, internal dialogue is the way the parable reveals the less-than-scrupulous motivations of its character. Has the prodigal son had a change of heart, or is he conniving? Is he repentant, or is he hungry? I am convinced that he’s conniving, which makes our common interpretation of the parable problematic.

But what grabbed my attention in a new way was the father’s reaction to the return of the son. Twice the father says, “my son who was dead is now alive?” Again, I had interpreted this as a figure of speech. The father had given up on seeing his son again, yet here he was! And maybe that is right. But in the story, the son doesn’t die and the son is not brought back to life. Not in this story, but there is a son of a Father in the gospel of Luke who dies and comes back to life. Is this a way of referring to Jesus? Is this foreshadowing? That would be a surprising twist.

Ok, here me out. In favor of my interpretation I have two pieces of corroborating evidence. First, in a parable later in Luke, the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who sends servants to collect the profits from the vineyard only to have them beaten and sent back empty-handed. Finally, the owner sends his own son, thinking the tenants will certainly respect him. But they kill him thinking that somehow this will allow them to inherit the vineyard. This is the story of Jesus’ death in Luke. Like the God’s servants, the prophets, sent to Jerusalem from “Abel to Zachariah,” Jesus will suffer their fate and be killed. Could this kind of self-identification be going on here in the figure of the prodigal son?

Second, the parables in 15 go together, the prodigal being the climactic story. They should never be told separately. They are doing something as a collection. Specifically, they are Jesus’ response to the way Luke introduces the parables in 15:1. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” The characterization of the “sinners” as “coming near to listen to him” is contrasted with the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling. The grumbling Pharisees are clearly the intended audience. So, how does this work?

The parable of the lost sheep ends with “‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.'” A few things to point out here. We have a shepherd and sheep, not a father and son. And in the next parable we have a woman and a lost coin, not a father and son. The figure of a father and son in the last parable is being saved for the big finale. And while we have rejoicing in both of the first two parables over the repentance of a sinner, we do not have grumbling–the occasion for the parables in the first place. Jesus is drawing them in for a big reversal. After all, who would’t rejoice over something lost, a sheep or a coin, being found? We’re not yet in surprising territory.

But notice that in the conclusion of the lost sheep story Jesus contrasts the one sinner in need of repentance to the ninety nine righteous who need no repentance. Clearly, Jesus is inviting the grumblers to identify with the righteous who have no need to repent. The trap is set for the telling of the third parable. The reader knows that Jesus is the hero of the story, the prophet of the kingdom of God. So, who are the ones far from the kingdom of God, not the tax collectors and sinners who have drawn near, but the grumblers who critique from a distance. Who is need of repentance?

There is a grumbler in the third parable–the older brother. And we know his take on the events of the story. “This son of yours” has left the father’s field, gone into the far country, squandered the father’s wealth with prostitutes, and come home to take advantage of the father once again, and yet has received the royal treatment–the robe, the ring, the fatted calf, the party. While the older son has never left the father’s field, served him like “a slave,” been “obedient” to every “command” and hasn’t even had a small goat given for a party for him and his friends. This is clearly the pay-off, where the parables have been heading, to unmask the grumblers. And it gives us the proper vantage point for understanding Jesus as the prodigal.

Let me be clear, I don’t think the parable is presenting Jesus as dissolute. This is a parable, not a morality tale. But this is how the Pharisees in this story view Jesus. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee for a meal when a woman identified as a known “sinner” breaks into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet with both ill-gotten perfume and her tears, and wipes his feet with her hair. And the Pharisees grumble, “if this man were a prophet he would know who this woman is.” The grumblers don’t recognize the kingdom of God and so don’t recognize Jesus as God’s prophet.

This final parable is being told from the grumblers’ point of view–from the perspective of the righteous who have no need to repent. To them, Jesus has left the father’s field, where they have dutifully and obediently stayed, and is consorting with the unclean–sinners. He is no better than they are. He is taking advantage of the Father, claiming to be a prophet, yet tying God’s reputation to prostitutes. He has dishonored the Father. To them, Jesus is the prodigal, underserving of the robe and the ring.

The shocking conclusion of the story is that the prodigal gets the fatted calf. The conniving one, the one who squandered his inheritance in dissolute living, gets the robe and the ring and the sandals. The prodigal becomes the occasion for a great party, because “my son who was dead is now alive.” And the older brother will refuse to go in, grumbling at a distance while others come near and celebrate. The parable works if the Pharisees recognize God in the figures of the shepherd and the woman who rejoice in finding what was lost. That same God now honors the one they think is squandering the Father’s reputation, the one they see as a sinner.

There are so many Lukan echoes here, I don’t have space to run them all down. But I think there’s a lot of internal support for this reading. Such a reading would definitely make this a parable again, rescuing it from the status of fable or disney movie.

It’s told for the older brother in all of us who refuses to see Jesus in the disguise of the prodigal, the prisoner, the hungry and naked, “the sinner.” Too bad. There are going to be some great parties.

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What to do when trust is low

So, can your church change? Is there enough trust between the congregation and its leaders to take up this work? Is there a tolerance for conflict? Can members identify things they’d be willing to trade for? Again, not every church can, which nonetheless does not disqualify them from being loved the way God would love them. But let’s say you are in a congregation that does have the capacity to change. Many congregations that have the capacity to take up the work of adaptive change fail to do so nevertheless. Here’s where a certain kind of leadership can make a big difference.

But before I get into that, let’s get back to the churches that can’t change. This is not necessarily a terminal condition. I think if they can’t find anything worth trading for (the third thing on my list), then you’re in a world of hurt. But the first two problems stated above may be amenable to repair.

In fact, these two things (trust and conflict) are connected. Handling conflict well engenders trust. Trust makes it easier to engage conflict. You get the idea.

I think the place to begin, however, is restoring trust. It’s probably not the best strategy to incite conflict in order to establish trust. Let’s do it the other way around. I am again indebted to Heifetz and Linski for language and concepts that help me think through these things. I like their suggestions, in particular, for “raising and lowering” the temperature and “creating a holding space.”

Before I unpack these ideas, however, let me begin with something I learned from the Appreciative Inquiry folks. People are willing to take risks when they feel most stable. The problem with lack of trust between congregations and their leaders is that people don’t feel secure. While ultimately you can’t get transformation apart from conflict and the energy that comes with it, in times when trust is low you have to “lower the temperature.”

There are several ways H&L suggest to lower the temperature, but the big one in terms of restoring trust is to slow the rate of innovation. I know the frustration of being a leader who senses that certain things have to change before progress can be made. But if the congregational temperature is already too high due to lack of trust, it is still the better part of wisdom is to slow the rate of innovation. Lower the temperature and live to fight another day!

All other trust building measures have to do with what I would call the “communicative environment.” When trust is low, people build alliances as a way of preserving for them what seems to be at stake. A holding environment, according to H&L, allows people to talk to each other again, hopefully without flying apart. So, what constitutes a holding environment?

Several things. Here are a few. 1. Clarifying shared language, values, and perspectives. What would everyone salute if you ran it up the congregational flagpole? Live in these for awhile. 2. Establishing ground rules for discourse. For example, “We won’t assign motives to other people, even if we’re sure we know what they are. We won’t gossip. We will seek to understand before we respond. We will avoid “you” language.” You get the idea. 4. Drawing on positive stories of working together. 5. Identifying lateral bonds of affection, trust, and camaraderie. Even in a divided congregation, there are still likely persons on either side of an issue who still trust each other or like each other.

Of course, you may attempt to do all these things and still not be able to have a civil conversation. If the issues are highly personalized (in other words, “so-in-so is the problem and clearly not to be trusted”) around leaders, then it is likely you will need mediation–someone from the outside that both sides feel will be impartial.

It is tempting to think of a holding environment as something you construct when you’re in the midst of conflict. In other words, you might think of it as episodic rather than as a regular part of your congregation’s life. But I think this is just good ministry all the time. I think of leadership in ministry not as “getting things done,” but as tending to an environment that allows the Spirit to move freely between people, and the living Word of God to continue to be spoken and heard person-to-person in community. Call me old fashioned, but I truly believe it is God who gets things done.

Well, here I’ve started to talk about leading through adaptive change. But we’ll have to wait for subsequent posts for those.

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How change Comes to the church

The title of this post comes from the title of Pat Keifert and Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s forthcoming book, with the capital C on “Comes” added by me for emphasis. The book isn’t out yet (we hope to have the first copies at Streaming), and so I haven’t read it. But I know the authors, especially Pat, and so think the word “Comes” in the title is signaling an important aspect of what the authors think about change and congregations.

I can imagine other titles on change and churches. For instance, “How you can lead change at your church” Or, “Habits of highly successful churches,” or “Your best church now,” or “A (specified) number of laws that will make your church grow.” Do you see the difference? The alternate titles I’m suggesting here assume that change is the predictable outcome of certain strategies. An expert leader(s) or coach(es) can direct the change your congregation needs. Change is something that originates with you. You make the change happen.

But Pat and Wes’ title suggests that change is a visitor who comes to your church. Change comes in unfamiliar or surprising forms that lie outside of your expertise or strategic plans and knocks on your door. Change is a refugee, an orphan, a widow, a Holy Spirit that crashes your party. I’m spinning a metaphor here to suggest that change often comes apart from your best plans. It shows up as a possibility for those who are paying attention. And I’m convinced of this, it’s hard to pay attention when you’re working a strategic plan.

This is my guess. And I’ll eat pages from their book at Streaming if I’m wrong.

This way of viewing change protects the space necessary to live into the conviction that the living God has a promised and preferred future for the congregation. The church can live responsive to the calling of God discerned in the emerging circumstances of a congregation’s (and its immediate environment) life. Leadership in this case is less about being a visionary genius or change agent, and more about maintaining a communal posture of attentiveness to the God who visits us. God’s change comes to us. Will we find ourselves hospitable?

So, if I’m right, you should come to Streaming and hear more about this, or to watch me eat pages from a book.

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Can your congregation change?

In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.

I am convinced that not all congregations can negotiate adaptive change. Even those who might be able to will decide not to, leaving the number who will adapt even smaller. This may sound pessimistic, but I think it’s a part of the moment we’re in. Any good therapist will tell you that people will change when they’re ready. Eventually, the situation we’re in will be clear enough that more congregations will be able to take up this work.

Still, it would be nice to know going in if a congregation has the capacity for this kind of work. I look for three things: 1. Is there a high degree of trust between the congregation and it’s leaders? 2. Do they have a tolerance for conflict? 3. Are there things they can identify that they would be willing to trade for?

A few weeks ago I quoted Heifetz and Linski who suggest, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face…” (Leadership on the Line, p 20). They also point out that beliefs and practices come from somewhere and to give them up seems like disloyalty. So, adaptive work cannot be done apart from resistance and conflict, making all three of my criteria extremely important.

Leaders have no more important resource than trust. It is the currency of adaptive change. Most congregations I am invited to consult with lack enough trust to take up adaptive work. And there are some typical reasons why. Trust is diminished when leaders exceed their authority. Too often, becoming part of a congregation’s leadership is seen as “being in charge.” I don’t care what the org chart says, in a voluntary organization like a congregation, leaders are “never in charge,” and whatever authority they have is relational. You can’t fire your members. Never mind that Jesus says it’s wrong to lord it over others in the kingdom of God.

More common, however, is poor communication. Most congregations lack reliable feedback loops, which means what feedback leaders do receive is in the form of complaints, which in turn leads to defensiveness on the part of leaders, which is the quickest way to appear weak and diminish trust. This also means that communication is primarily one way–from the leaders to the congregation. I have to remind leaders all the time that just because they’ve said it doesn’t mean they’ve communicated.

The overall result of lack of communication is that members feel like someone other than themselves knows whats going on. Plans are being made behind the scene. The leaders know what they want, and are trying to manipulate the congregation into going along. This may or may not be true. But perception is everything, if not reality. And its hard to dig out of that hole if the congregation thinks the fix is in.

Other reasons for squandering trust exist, obviously. The point is that losses like these related to trust diminish the leadership’s ability to lead through conflict. You may get the changes you want, but you’ll likely be accompanied by a different congregation, probably smaller.

Since, conflict is a part of the deal in adaptive work, I’m very interested in congregational stories of recent conflict. If the congregation reports that they don’t have conflict (and the majority do), there are three ways to interpret that: 1. They’re lying. 2. Conflict is done in secret, fostering a passive aggressive culture. Or 3. They’re telling the truth, which means they don’t care enough to fight. All three are bad. The congregation needs to know that they’ve endured conflict and come out on the other side alright. They’ll need this collective muscle memory to take up adaptive work.

Finally, they need to be able to identify things they’d be willing to trade for. Some congregations are content to leave things just the way they are and hope they can find more people just like them. Many congregations want things, but can’t identify things they’d be willing to leave behind to get them. They want a more diverse congregation, but are unwilling to trade aspects of their denominational or congregational identity to get it. You get the idea. And the thing is, adaptive work requires you become something new. Your identity will have to be fluid and malleable.

This list is not exhaustive, but in my experience pretty predictive. Clearly, there are corresponding leadership abilities that match these congregational capacities. And they’re often the difference in whether or not a congregation that can do adaptive work will actually do it. More on that next post.

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Giving and Receiving in Ministry

There’s no greater challenge in ministry than managing expectations. I have in mind here more the ways we feel obligated to one another. For example, at the end of my first year with a congregation I served, the leaders distributed a survey to the entire congregation to find out what kind of job I was doing. (That’s a whole different post). One person faulted me for not being friendly enough. People who know me are probably thinking, “nailed it!” True enough, I’m probably not the warmest person in the world and have come to realize that I have a foreboding resting face, but all-in-all I think I’m friendly enough. I have friends.

But I failed to meet this person’s expectations of what it meant to be friends. This person volunteered for everything. Our exchanges had been pleasant. I was grateful for the help and had communicated that. But evidently, the return did not match the investment in this person’s eyes. More was expected in terms of social interaction. All of this volunteering should have made us friends. What else could it be? I simply wasn’t friendly enough.

These kinds of obligations related to reciprocity can create resentments. Paul knew this. He lived in a world built on gift giving and reciprocity. His refusal of the patronage offered by the church in Corinth was a way of circumventing the obligational norms of gift giving in a patron-client relationship. Paul’s sense of calling to the gospel created inherent conflicts with the cultural norms related to gift giving. God was his patron, not wealthy Corinthians. So, he worked with his hands to avoid these kinds of expectations.

I think this is going on in Philippians as well. I am convince that this letter written from prison was to let the church know that though he appreciated the gift he had received from them, this did not obligate him to return to Philippi. More, they had all they needed even if Paul never returned. This letter begins with the assurance that “the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ” (1:5) and ends by reminding them that just as Christ supplies all his needs, so all of theirs will be met in Christ as well (4:19).

Paul is working tricky turf here. He has exceedingly warm regard for this church, but he’s not sure if he will ever be able to meet their expectations of a return visit. The end of the letter is a master class in managing expectations.

10 I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h] 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I think Paul’s logic goes like this: Thanks for the gift. Not that I needed the gift. Christ satisfies all my needs. I am content in any circumstance. Still, nice gift and appreciated. No one shares in giving and receiving like you guys do. Not that I seek the gift, but I want you to see how the gift accumulates to your account. It’s not a gift given to me, not really. It’s a fragrant offering to God. And God is the one who will repay your gift by supplying all of your needs as well.

In the “economy” of the kingdom of God, there is no direct exchange between persons. What I offer, I offer through Christ who supplies my every need. I give freely out of the abundance of knowing Christ. This breaks the sometimes vicious cycle of reciprocity or obligation and allows giving and receiving to continue without resentments, but with thanksgiving. It’s not your gift that binds me to you, but the gift of Christ that obligates me to love you and others the way I have been loved.

The trick to all of this is learning the secret of contentment that comes from knowing Christ. The key is living daily in the mercies of God, receiving our life daily as a gift from God, and practicing thankfulness. That’s the trick.

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They make much of you, to exclude you

I’ve been thinking about biblical texts that have informed my practice of ministry. The potential list is long and most of the texts are familiar, but one of my “go-to’s” is a rarely noticed text in Galatians 4:17ff.

You’ll remember that in Galatians Paul is resisting the influence of “Judaizers” who are insisting on some sort of Torah observance, including circumcision, for Gentile believers. For Paul, this is not only not in keeping with his understandings of faith and grace, but is also pastoral malpractice.

He describes their practice this way: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them.” Here’s how I understand what’s going on in these verses. Paul’s opponents, using the law, are constantly fussing over the Galatians to see whether or not they measure up. This seems like care because of the constant attention required to make sure standards are being met. But for Paul, this “making much” is for no good purpose. The result of this fussiness is exclusion, which serves the power interests of the one doing the fussing.

If we do pastoral care according to fixed standards of measurement, then the one being cared for is constantly at risk of coming up short, and, therefore of being excluded or diminished, even if this is not the intent of the one providing care. The power in this exchange is now solidly in the hands of the one who can pull the excluded back into the circle of acceptance. “They make much of you…so that you might make much of them.”

I had a bad therapist once who kept me in constant crisis. I left every session feeling like I was coming up short, which in turn made the next session all the more urgent and the therapist all the more powerful. So, this phenomenon is not just limited to those who would require adherence to matters of the law, but any kind of “making much of” that makes the pastor, or the discipler, the standard keeper. It’s why I’m skittish about accountability groups that are constantly measuring performance. “How are you doing with (fill in the blank)?” The answer determines your level of meeting the standard, and, therefore, your wellbeing related to the group.

Paul goes on to say that it is “good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you.” And what is that good purpose? “Christ formed in you.” Notice that Paul sees this work of formation as ongoing even in his absence. The thing about fussiness as a pastoral strategy is that is only works in presence.

I love Henri Nouwen’s little book, The Living Reminder, that talks about the interplay between presence and absence. Spiritual care requires presence, what Paul calls “making much of.” But it also requires absence. Even Jesus told his disciples that it is best for them for him to leave them so that the Spirit might come. In the same way, our absence leaves room for the Spirit to do the work of forming Christ in others. Our presence, then, serves the purpose of pointing not to ourselves as the effective agent, but to Christ. We are a “living reminder.”

Here’s the thing. For Paul, grace is not simply a way to “get saved.” Rather, it is a certain kind of power in the world that works in certain ways to form people and communities. His opponents’ pastoral style keeps people as children, clients, dependents. But grace works differently to form people. It works in freedom and love, in faith and through the Spirit. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love” (Gal 5:6).

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A place to stand

You should hug your minister today, because ministry’s hard. It’s baked into the very nature of the endeavor. Think about the various angles of pressure. A minister represents the living God. Talk about pressure. I know there are people who talk about their relationship with God like it’s a cardigan sweater, warm and comfy. I find this a view too lightly considered. A cardigan God is not a holy God, not a God that would invite us into the awful business of tending to all the tragically broken places of the world. Like Jeremiah, God is as likely to be my troubler as my comforter.

A minister represents the living God, to people. I don’t want to talk out of school, but some people are not kind. More, there are people who think I’m unkind! I tell my students that one of the hardest things about ministry is that each Sunday someone is miserable at church because you’re the preacher. I had a member who for eleven years I could count on to give me the head-toss-eye-roll every Sunday. Every Sunday. I can say this here because I know there’s no way this person would darken the door of my blog.

As a rule, ministers are people pleasers. We get into it in part because we want to feel loved and needed. At the very least we carry the pressure to be appreciated, if not loved. Our sermons are often juggling acts on unicycles designed to secure our audience’s admiration. And this can only kill you in the end. It’s a high-wire act with no net.

And then there’s the work itself, the business of inviting people into change they don’t want. I find Heifetz and Linski to be on the mark when they write, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they don’t want to face…” (Leading in Dangerous Times, p 20). I think seminarians should be required to write that on the board a thousand times before they receive ordination.

I think, however, that Paul describes a place to stand in ministry that is realistic about the dangers while still making ministry sustainable, and in the end, rewarding. In 2 Cor 4:1-2, Paul provides my creedo for ministry: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”

Three things worth noting. First, it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. While there’s no way around ministry as a wrestling with God, it proceeds only in God’s mercy. I am reminded of Jesus’ statement, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” If we can stay in the sweet spot of God’s tender mercies, the burden is light. Which leads to two other observations.

Paul is not interested in securing an audience by being entertaining. He’s commending himself here to those who admire sophistry, who like speakers who flatter and demonstrate rhetorical flourish. Paul will not resort to what amounts to in his estimation to cunning or to falsifying God’s word. Rather, by the open statement of the truth, he appeals to the conscience of everyone. This is the place to aim with people–the conscience–without lapsing into the temptations associated with pleasing. The conscience, for Paul, is like a muscle of judgement or discernment, a place to be formed for the sake of becoming fully adult in Christ. It’s potentially the best place in people. Aim for that.

While standing in the presence of God. Here’s the audience. Not the congregation. And because we do this ministry only by the mercy of God, there’s no audience to secure. I decided long ago that ministry was only survivable within a vivid sense of calling. It’s too damn hard otherwise. To be called is to know what you’re called to and to whom you’re responsible. If people have expectations beyond that, they can do the head-toss-eye-roll until they need a neck brace. It can’t be my problem. This might not keep you from getting fired, but it will keep you from getting crushed.

By God’s mercy. In the conscience of everyone. In the sight of God.

Go hug your minister.

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