The crisis of ministry

Unprompted, our son prayed one Sunday for us to find a church home, because, and I quote, “I’m getting pretty tired of going everywhere all the time.”  We feel your pain, son.  Well, not exactly the same way, but we do feel it.

I can think of at least five churches (some connection exists in four of them) in which I have felt a significant level of interest.  Unfortunately, I also experience a lack of ability to minister within them.  There is little “chemistry” with the majority of the people in each of these groups.  The scenario constitutes an inner sense of uselessness:  I feel that I would be unable to “minister” there.  In my own tiny world, this is something of a crisis.

There was a time when I was more likely and equipped to reach to the under-served, the underprivileged, the down and out.  One time, I almost got done in by helping the down and out . . . .  I let an acquaintance borrow Picture of 1977 Dodge Colt, exterior, gallery_worthymy old car while I was out of town on vacation, and when I returned, I discovered that he not only had had an accident but had also left illegal drugs in my car!  On several occasions, people have needed temporary places to stay.  Those friends were not in the same category, really, but still, they were in life-places of need, and I was capable of ministering to a few needs . . . so I did just that.  Then.

When I consider my life situations right now, it is abundantly clear why I am not as inclined to get involved.  I have my hands full taking care of myself.  (This sounds awfully selfish, doesn’t it?  One friend who knows a fair amount about me recently suggested that I must take care of myself.  Popular self-help malarkey aside, there is some truth to the notion of not being able to do much for others unless you are OK yourself. I probably need to listen to those with insight into my scenario.)

Back to the churches—and my disinclination to minister within them.

  1. Church #1 is composed of about 15 or 20 people, about three of which seem educated.  Those three are more or less disorganized and show too laissez-faire an approach for my taste.  Several others seem to have come from places in life that I can’t seem to connect with or help with.
  2. Church #2, where leadership is much more overt and capable, has a somewhat similar clientele.  Probably half of the 60 or 70 folks seem very “other” to me.  (I can think of five couples/families to which the above description does not apply.  There is a serious doctrinal disconnect with at least one of those, depending on the day.)  To be quite frank, I don’t recall ever having heard such a fine, well-conceived mini-lesson at the immersion of a new believer ever (not in Restoration Movement churches or anywhere else).  Sadly, there is evidence that two more of the families with which I could have shared chemistry have decided to skip by me, rather than the other way around.  This church recently put forward an opportunity to get involved with re-integrating prisoners into local society.  This notion sounded like something very worthwhile.  I am just not sure whether I, as an “at-large” Christian who knows several folks at this church, could be involved.  There is also a looming sense of “I don’t have the wherewithal anymore, anyway.”  (See above paragraph on “taking care of myself.”)
  3. Church #3 carries the moniker “biker church.”  Now, many of my readers who knew me only a dozen or more years ago might have a difficult time seeing me as a motorcycle enthusiast, & I’m not a crazy or obsessed one by any stretch, but I do enjoy short rides and have owned four motorcycles in my life.¹  Anyway, the Bluffs Biker Church already has a pretty good thing going, and its leader/teacher does not need any help from me to continue what he is doing.  Nor would I have as good a manner of ministering to the unique clientele as he does.
  4. Church #4 is a more traditionally formed one.  It meets in a modest, well-apportioned building about 35 minutes from us.  We found a couple of arm’s-length connections.  This is a reasonable group that uses a rotation of traveling public teachers.  While there can be benefit in this structure, and while we have appreciated some of the presentations on some levels, it differently perpetuates the preacher-centric mentality.  This setup, along with a permeating sense that this church is staid and set in its ways, combine to limit the possibilities for me to minister there.  Eventually, perhaps I could be one of the teachers, but I am not at all sure that I’d actually be ministering to anyone if I were.  Even my ability to lead worship in song would sort of fall on deaf ears there, if you know what I mean.
  5. Church #5, just visited a second time after an initially split impression more than a year ago, still puts me in two minds.  On the one hand, I like the personality of the group as I walk in, and there are two leaders besides the recognized pastor—unusual in such a small group.  I was even oddly impressed with the simple, unassuming music (over which no one was embarrassed—they were all participating).  The problem here is not the potential chemistry with the “people in the pews” with with the current preacher-pastor, who has a sort-of irritable manner.  He has seemed persistently, mildly annoyed and punchy both times.  He’s also more wordy than he should be.  Something about the group’s “look and feel,” despite the apparent normalcy and pleasant diversity of the people, makes me feel I’d be intruding.  Or travailing.  Or simply wasting my time and theirs.

Maybe it’s just me.

After a year-long wait, we did begin an intensive study in our home last fall.  This is my primary place of “ministry” right now, I suppose.  As I type those words, the thoughts of Will Campbell about so-called ministry echo in my head.  He believed that the very idea of “ministry” tends toward arrogance—as though I can do something better than you.  Despite being better equipped and more experienced in teaching than anyone else in the group, I wonder if I truly do “minister” or not.

Perhaps I should simply be content in little connections here and there:

  • showing someone that I remember something about a past tragedy in his life
  • intentionally verbalizing, in the presence of an acquaintance of unknown or affiliation or belief structure, that I distinguish between worthwhile Christian books and patently dogmatic ones that serve the denominational interests as opposed to God’s interests
  • expressing sincere sympathy when, in the course of my job, I meet or talk with people who are undergoing hard times

Those are such tiny, tiny things, but could they be viewed as ministering?  (Potentially, I suppose.)


¹  The present bike is the best fit for me, and it is an added nicety, that no helmet is required in my state; plus, a child (with helmet) is allowed to ride on the back.  So, Jedd loves riding with me.

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The crisis of introversion

Bible study, score study, thought and planning—all these are done with a view toward helping groups of people later.  I prepare for the purpose of helping others.  The helping activities appear inherently somewhat extroverted, but the preparation activities are mostly rather introverted.  I often do my clearest-headed thinking while walking or driving alone.  Even work-related memos sometimes need quiescent thought before dissemination, so I’ve been known to repair to a different chair or to ponder important writings in the quiet hour before anyone else arises, before such things are finalized.

What if I have so few opportunities that the introverted, energized time ends with no purpose in sight—or with frustrating roadblocks?  If the introverted activities do not have an outlet, they are forced back into themselves, and the whole enterprise become preparation for nothing, really.  This, at times, is my crisis.

I know a woman who seems even more introverted by nature than I am.  This woman is my mother.  She has seasons of rather intense lesson preparation for a class full of women.  Her need for silence and focus is like my own.  Can she, and can I, be pleasing to God even in our introverted times of preparation, of thinking, of dreaming and wondering?  Or do the times of sharing in groups present the only fulfillment?

In the next post, I’ll discuss—in some detail with respect to church groups where I feel no real opportunity—what I experience as a “crisis of “ministry.”

Technology and instruction (1 of 2)

With regard to technology in education, I am becoming more skeptical¹ . . . an admission that in itself would likely cause Millennials to become skeptical!

Skepticism does not preclude engagement and even enthusiasm.  I am involved in a distance learning enterprise—a high-quality, exceptionally focused one through which learning occurs and goals are reached (and I’m not just saying that because its founder and chief teacher will likely see these words).  The existence of online education does not confirm its superiority, though; it merely means there are additional possibilities these days.

I consider that distance and online learning are concessions—nods to the global, mobile society in which much of the world lives.  Programs of instruction can now be offered online and can enjoy successes.  Many of us can now take advantage of educational opportunities when we don’t live close enough to the instructor(s) to learn face to face.  I would suggest that most teachers would prefer, if they could, to be able to look into students’ eyes than into a screen.  They’d rather speak into air and ears than into a sterile mic attached to a camera, all while wearing headphones.²  Sure, good teachers will often use appropriate technologies in the classrooms, but most teachers and most students will prefer the ambient sounds of voices than the glitches and limitations of GoToMeeting connections with people in multiple locations—people who cannot all experience the same facial expressions and mannerisms of the one who is talking at a given time.

Several years ago, when presented with an opportunity, I jumped on board with a pilot group that was learning and experimenting with online course delivery.  I do not regret that for a minute.  I will also tell you that the means had not been researched or developed enough, and the technology failed about as much as it succeeded as I attempted to teach a few brave, intelligent, committed souls.  I called the course “Musical Topoi, Character, and Gesture:  Studies in 18C-19C Instrumental Literature.”  In hindsight, I’d say it was quasi-successful in that people learned things, but those things could have been learned better in a studio setting.³  The teaching method (hybrid/online) was experimental and was also a concession to the fact that the four students were in different locations during the summer.  I do think it’s important to be able to use things that are available, if they make sense.  But I continue to find that education is best (read more likely to result in learning) when it occurs face to face, with live visuals and aurals.  Sure, some of those sights and sounds may employ technologies.  Technology-based educational opportunities can prove to be real blessings, but rarely will distance learning scenarios prove more effective than classrooms, living rooms, and even coffee shops and restaurants.

I think now of another friend who is also more tech-savvy than I, at least in some areas, and this one’s perspectives and energies are more given to traditional church ministry.  How does he conceive of and exploit technology in his setting?  Many other readers and their friends could be considered, as well.  My own interests in Christian circles tend toward the smaller-scale and the more informal.  In other words, I think “small group” and “living room” more than “church sanctuary,” and even in my home, I sometimes use the internet and Google Drive and my own reasonably sized smart TV.  (Far better to use a tablet with a bluetooth speaker in my living room, I say, than to roll out a portable pulpit.  I kid you not:  I actually experienced that in someone else’s home church setting once.)  Established, brick-and-mortar church groups I’ve visited recently include two that use technology well.  One of them is the best example of timely song-slide changes in recent memory (you have to change to the next slide before the moment the new words are to be sung, or else it’s too late for people to breathe and sing!).  Another used video clips well and did not amplify the sound too much.  In both cases I’m thinking of, the technology did in fact seem to serve the purpose, and that is obviously a good thing.

Many of us care about teaching well.  We use technologies that aid in communicating about God—and even to God, all for what we earnestly think are God’s purposes.  Where technologies assist, and where they are not cost-prohibitive, many of us will naturally be predisposed to their effective use.  I’m interested, though, in distinguishing between using technology and letting it use us.  Maybe you have also seen that the means can sometimes become the end.  Is a pastor or preacher a better one merely because he gets on a particular technology bandwagon?Image result for online pastor

I am not only skeptical about financial-services technology that Millennials trust (see here for the precursor).  I suspect few there are who understand technologies’ fragile bone structures or their vulnerable circulatory or nervous systems; I myself know little more about financial technologies than the fact that risks to functionality and information security exist.  I am also cautious about the assumption that computer-based education, whether in the secular or sacred realm, is viable.  Note that I did not say computer-based education and technologically driven methods are not, or cannot be, valuable.  What I challenge is the presumptive approach that makes new/cool technologies the goal.  “Let’s use this technology,” some church growth person will say, “because it will appeal to the Millennials.”  That motivation, taken at face value, is shallow.  Likewise, I challenge the assumption that online education in academic is viable merely because it is modern technology-based.

The notion of skepticism about technology provides my segue to something I’d written two years ago to another ensemble instrumentalist.  (Please see the next/final installment in a couple of days.)


¹ If I had spelled “skeptical” “sceptical,” would the British-aware think I was a different sort of mix of conundrums than I am?  Would my little essay here be pigeonholed differently by readers—or by technological algorithms that “feed” the post through social media sites and search engines?  I’m irked by the very notion of an algorithm that makes decisions for me, and I would say Facebook feeds me the “right” things less than half the time.

² As I am finalizing this post, and after I inserted those last words, I recalled with pleasure the teaching experience I had on Sunday evening.  My experience testifies to what I just wrote.  I’d used technology in teaching the week before, and I’d sat in a fine online class the previous day.  Technology can and should be used in this day and age.  Can you even imagine a professor worth his salt sitting in his office teaching to a computer while the students are sitting in a classroom down the hall, watching him on a big screen?   The point is that, if given a choice, teachers will probably choose face to face.

³ As I was finishing the draft of this essay on Jan. 11, I asked my 8-year-old son what he thought it would be easier to learn on a computer:

  1. Spelling words
  2. Word problems in math
  3. Conducting
  4. Surgery

He thought for a moment and decided in favor of #2.  I would have chosen #1, but he has had good experience with #2, and he might be right.  Anyway, he recognizes that #3 and #4 would not be easy to learn on a screen.

MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.

Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age.  The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one:  “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.”[1]  Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:

  1. The moon landing
  2. JFK’s “Ask not …”
  3. The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote

I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight.  That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me.  King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational.  To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact.  The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work.  Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.

Image result for will campbell
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013)

In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode.  I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either.  Allow me to introduce you to him.

Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956.  He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:

Campbell still has much to teach us all.  Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…

In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation.  The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives:  “Unrealistic!”  “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!”  . . .  Most often, however, another word is best:  Gospel.  Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.

If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat.  The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.

Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:

The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows:  Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom.  They have done something about it.  In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites.  In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action.  That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)….  Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time.  (177)

It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age.  Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.”  (back cover)   “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers …  that divide and dehumanize.” (vii)  “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover)   I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.

Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks.  He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South.  After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group.  Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31)  I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so.  I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.

Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one.  Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ.  Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment.  For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city.  “Seven hundred and eighty church houses.  But religion is a dangerous thing.”  (77)  “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.”  (back cover)

In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.”  He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there.  Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:

He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law.  Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel.  (89)

The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.

I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?”  (93)

It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism.  The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.”  In that event, there would be some hope.  Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.”  His stinging rejoinder:  “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.”  (93)

My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what.  He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):

I don’t like the word ministry.  It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic.  I don’t have a ministry.  I have a life.  (123)

In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar.  (xi)  Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals.  In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.”  That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process.  Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time.  I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.

For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here.  Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.


[1] On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.

Impressing pastors, parishioners, and accountants

The card shown below (front and back) appears in the pew of a large institutional church near us.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to the appearance of these cards in the pews, I imagine there was an extended conversation in the regular Tuesday morning church staff meeting.  Let’s listen in on the meeting. . . .

Pastor Being:  So I assume most of you have noticed that our offering is dropping off.

Staff of 19 (not including the custodial staff of 5) [in unison, sighing ] Yes, we know.  What can we do? 

Advisory Accountant:  So glad you asked.  Here is a graph of the weekly and monthly figures leading up to Reformation Sunday.  We are off 20%, especially after that sermon series on Ecclesiastes.  Ahem, sorry, Pastor Being.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, A.A.  Now let’s get down to business.  We at RLSC¹ need to find a way to ensure that everyone feels the tug to give.  I mean, it’s good for people to be involved, and to hear sermons and all that, but we can’t do any of this unless we put forward a new pitch for pesos, if you know what I mean.  A decisive dash for dollars.  A bigger buttload of bucks.  (Smiling winsomely) . . . hey, this Christmas, if there’s no cash-y, there’s no creche-y!

Staff of 19:  [collectively, aggrandizingly]  Hahahahaha! 

Advisory Accountant:  Projecting out current trends, it is a distinct possibility that we’ll have to cut 25-35% on holiday expenditures.  The issue, if you ask me, is accountability.  Everyone’s concerned about privacy and identity theft, so donation practices are more private then ever.  I mean, how can the left hand know what the right hand is doing if all the giving is done on an app in the privacy of one’s home?  That doesn’t make a good impression on visitors . . . and what are the pastors supposed to think when the plate is passed through the pews and only 40-50% of the parishioners are dropping in cash and checks?  We need more accountability!

Pastor Being:  Based on A.A.’s recommendation, I support the notion of accountability.  Something doesn’t smell right about the left hand and right hand thing there . . . I’m not sure why . . . but I agree that the impression left when fewer hands touch the collection plates is a downer.

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Growth class last semester that if funds are being contributed by less than 75% of the membership, there is less than a 25% chance of growth during the next two quarters.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, P.I.  We definitely need a steady growth rate if we’re going to break ground next year on the new office annex, and if we don’t increase the rate, we can kiss the organ loft and pastor bonuses goodbye.  

Staff of 19:  [Collective sigh and downcast countenances]

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Methods class last fall that organs and choirs . . .

Pastor Being:  [interrupting]  For the moment, we can’t expect to have much esprit de corps unless we all have a shared sense of everyone else’s giving.  You know, like the workplace that displays a United Way contributions thermometer, coloring in the increasing level as it moves toward the goal. . . . 

Staff of 19:  [collectively]  Hahaha! 

P.B. [continuing] I’ve been wondering about those internet-savvy hipsters, working in tech companies and carrying the latest devices.  How do we know if they’re contributing regularly?  

Lead Tech Pastor:  Some of them might have encryption devices, or they might know how to disable our spyware so we can’t track their use of our new donation app.  For the run-of-the-mill donor, we are working on flash projection, using the robotics we use with the cams for the worship team.  When the team is taking a break, we can live-stream the contribution amounts in real-time, moving the screen down the row on the robotic arms in sync with the collection plate.  Later on, we can add the number of new donation app users as a sort of soft incentive.

Pastoral Accountant:  Studies have shown that people feel more obligated to give if everyone around them is giving.

GenX Involvement Pastor:  Seriously?  We’re going to make people feel uncomfortable?  I guess so, if we have to.

Creativity Pastor:  I was talking to the Pastoral Accountant after I saw the contribution figures last Sunday—thank goodness for our lay accountancy team that counts the money during worship.  Anyway, the P.A. and I both think we need to develop a card or some object that everyone who contributes online can drop into the collection plate on Sundays.  It would be symbolic, but it would increase the pressure on others to donate, too.

Pastoral Accountant:  Absolutely.  I think it should be a card that says “I give electronically.”  A card is heavy, so the sound of them being dropped into the plates will add sonic stimuli.  An additional benefit of a card would be that it gives the lay accountancy team something more to count, and that makes them feel more involved, and then they’ll probably give more money, too.  

Pastor Being:  What biblical passages can you think of that support such a card?

Biblically Learned, Subservient Pastor:  Hmm.  None, really.  Not even a principle that I know of.  Come to think of it, not even 1 Corinthians 16 . . . 

Pastor B:  [interrupting] Well, we can keep researching that.  Surely there’s something. . . .

Devoted Sheep among the Staff:  There is another way, you know.  Has anyone read about Francis Chan’s new movement? Check this out.  According to this report, “Chan leads a house church movement in San Francisco called We Are Church.  There are currently 14 to 15 house churches, he said, and 30 pastors (two pastors per church) — all of whom do it for free.  Each church is designed to be small so it’s more like family where members can actually get to know one another, love one another and make use of their gifts.”

Pastor Being:  [Never having considered a simpler, less costly way]  That seems sort of pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Assistant Pastoral Advisory Accountant:  You can’t be serious, little follower-sheep!!  What would that kind of model do to our cash flow and our end-of-decade projections?  We would experience more decline in our contribution income, and we would default on our installment notes.  Two or three banks would accelerate the balances on our loans.  We’d probably have to tap into our investment funds—or worse, go into hock with HQ.  The tax returns would be a nightmare!  Who would want to consult for us next quarter or serve as our independent auditors if we’re right around the corner from filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy??!

Pastor Being:  [continuing and calming the others]  Okay, okay. . . .  We all know we have this wonderful facility, and we’re not going to lose it just yet.  You know what?  Look around you.  There are some really well-to-do people in our immediate vicinity.  I see no reason the Lord wouldn’t want us to reach out to them just as much as to the lower classes. 

To inspire and to impress—our twofold mission.  We as a pastoral staff do the inspiring, and that impresses our parishioners to the point that they in turn are inspired to impress all those around them by giving more.  Everyone is inspired by all the giving, and more giving is the result of that, and that surely impresses our visitors and God, too.

All:  Amen.

P.B.:  All right, it’s settled then.  Let’s develop these contribution cards and roll them out in first month of the fourth quarter.  Then we can engage independent teams of auditors and church growth consultants to study the effects on cash flow and institutional involvement. . . .


For the complete blog referred to by “Devoted Sheep among the Staff” above, click here.

For a prior blog specifically about e-giving, click here.  Near the bottom are two additional links to posts about 1Cor 16:1-2, often cited in support of Christian contributions to churches.

Annnnd . . . I had last written about contributions and tithing in institutional churches here.  That piece was a protracted tearing-apart of a very poorly done brochure.  At the end, I expressed that I hoped I had the restraint, when coming on this topic again, merely to refer to that post.  Unfortunately, the sighting of the cards above brought the topic back, and I was compelled to speak against it.


¹ RLSC:  Reformed Large Swanky Church

Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

Over-emphasized (?):  Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus

Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought

The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants.  Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.

It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹  I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud.  Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them?  Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles?  Put another way:  could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?

Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons.  From an institutional standpoint, I get that.  But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship.  A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive.  Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.

I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent.  Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power.  Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another.  Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones.  The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.

In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business.  Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation.  I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries.  By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.

Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?

I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight.  [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.]  I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture.  There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.

We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church).  I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice.  So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people.  I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view:   Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades?  More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?

In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.

B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17


¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance.  They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.

 

Brief debriefs

Here are three reactions for posterity after various church visits.

After the middle-aged “Bible” class at “Athens” Church:

If that was text study, I can see why the younger people wanted something different and started their own discussion group.  I wish I’d found a different class upon walking in the door.  But then there was the assembly proper (beginning with the third of the three triple whammies described here) and that would’ve put me into a spiritual fit, anyway.

After “Bible” class at “Western Farms” Church

If some people weren’t so insistent on continuing to talk in order to prove they know something they don’t know after all, God might be able to speak through the text.  (But, boy, was I pleasantly surprised and gratified when the sort-of-teacher’s-helper came to me as I left the room and thanked me for bringing him “back to the Bible” in my 2-minute comment toward the end of class.  [Sorry if that comes off as boastful. I mean mostly to call attention to a little oasis in this particular desert.  Once in a while I need to remind myself of a tad bit of personal worth.])

After Creektown Church’s “singing”:

Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities.  The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those.  It wasn’t even embarrassing.  It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.

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Did that make any sense?  Didn’t think so.  The singing at this place was like that:  nonsense.  The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue.  This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country.  “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened.  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.  And that in itself should be embarrassing.  Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph.  Nah.


I have purposefully avoided identifying any of the three churches with its actual name; no human soul will be able to figure out the actual name of more than one of them, and I can think of only one person at one of these churches that has even a remote chance of seeing this post.  The point is certainly not to make anyone feel bad.  I mean mostly to blow off steam, I suppose . . . although it would probably be advisable for a good number of my readers to stand back at their churches to measure the purposefulness, effectiveness, and quality of various aspects.

Maybe you have some influence where you are?

B. Casey, 12/11/16

Tending

Another blogger once referred to “tending” her blog; that expression has stuck with me for years.  Earlier this year, when I added two additional blogs to my framework, I had to consider seriously the “tending” factor.  Would my felt need to “tend” exceed the actual need to tend?  And would either one of those exceed my available time and energy?

There are many things to be tended to—too many, I think, for most people.  We tend to our houses/homes, our cars, our relationships, our personal finances.  Some of us add community groups such as service clubs, churches, sports organizations.  We tend to our health (more or less).

Where the pastor role exists in a local church, that person should by all rights “tend” the flock in some real sense.  I would go so far as to say that the basic meaning of the word “pastor”—both etymologically and contextually—in pretty much every NT passage in which the word “pastor” or “shepherd” appears is in fact tend (or, in the noun form, one who tends).  Yet when most staff pastors refer to having “pastored” a church, they seem often to be referring to administering facilities and institutions and programs more than to tending to people.

And I see that as a problem.  [Aside:  this observation demands further challenge to amalgamated titles like “executive pastor” and “administrative pastor.”]

I suppose those institutions and programs also need tending to, if they are to survive and thrive.  But the existence of institutions is not by any means essential in the kingdom of God.  Ironically, the most institutional churches and their “tenders” combine to constitute a major reason I tend to wander (1) away from them and (2) toward more organic groups that do not have, or need, official titles and roles.

I figure this way:  if the institution makes it difficult to envision a relationship with the One Tender and Guardian of our souls (1Pet 2:25), that group is presenting an obstacle that this particular sheep doesn’t need to try to hurdle.  Can this be indicative of a b-a-a-a-d attitude?  Maybe, he acknowledged sheepishly . . . but he doesn’t enjoy wool over his eyes.

Crossing lines (or, none of my business)

The crime drama Crossing Lines is intriguing in that various countries are involved.  (Donald Sutherland always seems to draw me in, too.)  The principal characters work for an international agency and regularly cross national boundaries in order to halt multinational criminal activities.  Those lines should be crossed at the right time by those people.

Some other lines probably shouldn’t be crossed at all.  Some matters that draw our initial attention turn out to be none of our business.  And it’s probably a sign of maturation when one can discern what’s what, turning his attention away more often than not, not crossing the line by meddling in someone else’s business.  I myself am a recovering meddler.

Once upon a time, I recall (immaturely) sneaking a peek at a letter—a letter sitting out in “plain sight” but which I shouldn’t have read after the initial, unintentional glance.  The letter was from a preacher in a little church an hour away, addressed to the elders in my church; it was warning of impending infiltration by recently divorced/remarried persons.  Those remarried people were coming our way, the preacher warned.   I think that preacher meddlingly crossed a line by informing our elders like this:  “Here’s who these people are, and here’s what we did to them, and this is why you should refuse them in your congregation.”  It’s not as though there were child abuse or embezzlement involved; it was a matter of “doctrinal” opinion.  The warning letter amounted to meddling at best, and I might even go so far as to depict it as vindictiveness enveloped in “Christian concern.”  I really don’t think it was any of that first church’s business.  And it wasn’t mine, either.  Not at that point, anyway.

That was a couple decades ago.  In the intervening years, I have often become troubled, and sometimes have offered unsolicited suggestions, to church leaders and others here and there.  These days, when I discover an issue in a church I visit, unless it involves egregious fraud or illegal activity, I figure it is probably also none of my business, so I rarely will cross the line, not meddling unless a door is opened to me.  Whether it is

  • evidence of tyranny or something else authoritarian
  • the stubbornness of warring parties, or some other sinful attitude
  • nepotism or something similar (congregational in-breeding can be divisive)
  • something technical, such as poor use of PowerPoint or lack of proper equalization settings on the sound board
  • something procedural or logistic, such as the inconsistent restriction of women from certain serving roles (when they are freely allowed to serve in other roles)

… it is probably not my concern to help straighten it out, unless asked.  At one point I needed to hear myself saying this out loud.  I am an analyst, a fixer, and a critic by nature, and my strong inclination is to approach folks about problems and issues, with a view toward improving the situations, rooting out the erroneous influences, and correcting the flaws, no matter how minor.  Now, I generally leave other institutions’ problems alone.

Even as I was drafting this little essay while sitting at a professional conference, I was thinking of a minor detail or two that the conference venue could have improved, such as a speedier refresh-rate on the electronic signage, and keeping traffic away from the break-out lecture rooms, so the hallway noise wouldn’t distract those inside the rooms as much.  But I refrained from making any un-requested suggestions.  To bend someone’s ear about things like that would’ve been crossing a line.

At least, when the matter doesn’t directly concern me, i.e., in a church I’m visiting, it’s better just to let it go.  It’s none of my business.

B. Casey, March 2014 (rev. Sep 2015 & Jul 2016)


[1] I got the impression that the now-remarried man and woman were on the receiving end of so-called church discipline and had been withdrawn from (a/k/a “dis-fellowshipped”).  This action would once have been quite common in the denomination in which I was raised.[1]  Basically, if you didn’t toe the line on any of several dozen issues, and didn’t respond to a private conversation or two with minister and elders, you were considered for surgical dismemberment.  I witnessed one of these actions in my own church, for much greater “cause” than the one referred to above, and it did not have the slightest positive effect at the time.

[2] I’m pleased to say, given my moderate view of some aspects of divorce and remarriage, that my church did not continue the pattern of withdrawal of fellowship.  The new couple was accepted, and they became relatively active members.

On Conducting (7): Leading

P1120278A conductor is a leader.  He leads.

He also monitors, responds, and facilitates, but he certainly guides and leads every time he is on the podium.  Each musician’s individual capabilities contribute to the whole, and a conductor realizes both the aggregate and individual gifts of the ensemble, working to enhance and synthesize those capabilities.

The conductor’s leadership involves words and nonverbal guidance.  It involves relationship, communication, and perception.  The conductor’s leading is simultaneously a practical and psychological—and perhaps even spiritual—enterprise.  Here, I should acknowledge that many have undertaken to speak and write about leadership, and some of the common (or uncommon) wisdom is applicable to the conductor’s leadership.  It is not my purpose here either to re-appropriate or critique the counsel of corporate leadership gurus, no matter how apt that advice might or might not be.  I will rather speak more specifically to aspects of leadership widely and specifically recognized as central in the conducting enterprise.

The elements of music have been collected into lists; while these lists do differ, here is a solid one:

  1. timbre (tone color)
  2. frequency of vibration (melodic pitch, harmony)
  3. intensity (dynamics)
  4. time (duration, tempo, rhythm)

When a conductor aurally apprehends a given timbral combination, or if he detects a nonstandard, uncharacteristic timbre, he may wish to influence it.  I recall that, as a young horn player, the faculty conductor of my college band gave me a back-handed compliment, speaking to timbre in such a way as to influence me but not embarrass me in front of peers.  It was sort of a “he who has ears to hear” sort of thing in that only a few would have been cognizant of what he was saying to me.  My timbre was strained and thin, and he said something about liking that “tense sound you’re getting” in a lyrical, upper-register solo.  I have never forgotten that, and I’m perhaps more recalcitrant than I need to be these days about any hint of strain in my high range.

A harmonic aberration may fairly leap out of the acoustical environment into the conductor-leader’s consciousness, demanding attention.  Many conductors hear harmony well, experiencing vividly as a vertical reality.  Others seem more attuned to melody.  Few there are  who work as devoted phrase-influencers—at the nexus of melody and harmony and dynamics and other expressive aspects of music.  Narrow is the gate that leads to phrasal leadership!

Dynamic relationships—both the combined ones heard 1) in an instant and the kinds perceived 2) over a period of time—are significant in terms of pedagogy, decibel-measured quantity, and expressive potential.  Although even the highest-level ensembles need dynamic guidance, the wind band institution stands in particularly frequent need of serious dynamic reshaping.  Choirs and orchestras need help in achieving effective dynamic expression and balance, but bands notoriously play too loud too much of the time, rarely exploiting softer dynamic levels or giving meaningful shape to crescendos or diminuendos.

While all of these elements are significant in terms of musical “product” and leadership, the time-related, rhythmic aspects are the most readily addressed and influenced by the conductor.  It is rhythm and tempo that I will address next.