Who or what leads?

Leadership is well considered in terms of concept over action or role, but let’s think about roles and activities first.  During most activities, someone is probably leading, one way or another.

In most traditional ballroom dancing, the man leads.  His female partner may be more assertive off the dance floor, but she does not lead there.

In team sports, there are leaders.  You got your quarterbacks, your point guards.  In baseball, a team captain may be a noteworthy leader, in addition to managers and coaches.  Major league baseball has sometimes enjoyed player-managers who both led the team from the bench and contributed actively on the field.  It can get more complicated, though, if we think of activities and not only identified roles.   ◊ ◊ ◊

When Jackie Robinson entered the majors, 73 years ago Wednesday, who was it who led the team?  General Manager Branch Rickey?  Interim manager Clyde Sukeforth?  Shortstop Pee Wee Reese?  Jackie himself?  Someone on the Boston Braves (the opposing team)?  Depending on the moment, it could have been any one of them.

Conductors are musical and artistic leaders, but, even in a conducted instrumental ensemble, it is often good practice for individual players or sections to take the lead from time to time.  Dr. Lauren Reynolds, now Director of Bands at one of my alma mater institutions, speaks to this aspect of leadership in ensembles within the first three minutes of this fine pedagogical video.

Leadership by players is even more necessary, if not more advantageous, when there is no conductor, e.g., with chamber groups such as brass quintets and string quartets.  It isn’t the same person who is the actual leader in every moment.  Just as in baseball, the nature of the music (or other practicalities such as a line of sight) might suggest who should lead at a given time.

Now to move toward the conceptual and invisible (as opposed to the more observable) actions of leadership.  When we ponder something, there are primary thoughts that take the lead.  Who or what leads us in ways of faith?  Who or what takes the reins as we think about God—and how to live in Him and for Him?  When we think about something, there are primary thoughts that take the lead.  Hear N.T. Wright as he differentiates between theology and text:

I have long had the sense that theology, especially philosophical theology, and perhaps even analytic theology, has tended to start with its own abstract concepts and, in expounding and adjusting them, has drawn in bits and pieces of Scripture on the way.  That is to say, it’s often system first, scripture second.

That, I suppose, is better than nothing, but it can provide the illusion of engagement with the text rather than allowing the text to lead the way.   – N.T. Wright Online  (emphases mine  -bc)

We ought to be alarmed by the common “illusion” that Wright spotlights above.  Personally, far more often than weekly, I see the effects of a theological-system-driven Christianity.  It has far more dangerous ramifications than a baseball team driven by the team owner’s greed, or a band led by an errant bassoonist.  It is our scripture texts that ought to steer our ships.  The effects of the illusion of scripture’s primacy run deep.  They are difficult to discern, and even more difficult to admit.  People will speak of theology and text as though they are part of the same ball o’ wax, and they are, in a sense.  Still, it is someone uncommon for a person to realize that theology is driving things for him; it is rarer still for someone to allow the scripture text to lead.  Conductors these days¹ will typically allow the musical text to steer, over and above their personal philosophies or other factors such as the perceived needs of the moment.  Such conductors are admirable . . . and Christians ought to let their texts guide, too!

A recent study opportunity from Coffee With Paul did allow the biblical text to set the agenda.  In the process of examining and applying the John 2 text about the upsetting of the traders in the temple courts, one of our study partners in that group commented, “The thought of ‘God is constantly at work turning over evil in the world’ is comforting and reassuring!”  And in saying that, she was leading, in a most welcome and conceptual sense.  Her thought was primarily philosophical, but she had been guided first by a focus on the text.

What or who should lead in churches, practically speaking?  That’s a different topic, and one I’ll reserve for a different day (or maybe never again!).  But I’ll say this:  it is a philosophical theology, not a text, that assumes that the leader in a church should be “the pastor.”


¹ In a bygone era, conductor Eugene Ormandy once said, quite disrespectfully of the composer or his musical text, “That’s the way Stravinsky was—bup, bup, bup—The poor guy’s dead now.  Play it legato.”

Comparing Grahams (not crackers)

Two years ago today, Billy Graham died.

Back when Graham was in his mid-70s, a longtime friend volunteered at one of his “crusades.”  I thought my friend’s supportive service to the Crusade was interesting since she was not of the Graham tribe per se, but I respected her work nonetheless.  She was simply supporting a relatively pure gospeling effort by a good, believing man.

Since that time a quarter-century ago, I’ve come to respect Billy Graham (and a few others not of my bent on this or that) more deeply.  As far as I’m aware, Graham had no scandals during his lifetime, and he was obviously a committed Christ-being.Image may contain: 1 person, closeup  There was perhaps not another like him in the latter half of the 20th century.  His crusades were held internationally, and he surely preached “live” to more people than any other human.  Incidentally, I knew the nephew and niece-in-law of Graham’s evangelistic vocalist, George Beverly Shea.  Those Sheas were also fine Christian people.

Even before the death of Mr. Graham (not “Reverend” for me¹), his son Franklin was preparing to take on Billy’s mantle.  However, each bit I’ve read about Franklin Graham in the last decade or two tells me he is not exactly his father’s spit and image.

Having come across an AP article² about Franklin’s book Through My Father’s Eyes, I immediately became biased against him:  I look with suspicion on anyone who appears to be cashing in³ on another’s work.  The article mentions Billy’s fear that Franklin would become partisan and even political at all.  Franklin’s response?  “I made it clear [that I wasn’t partisan] by making it a prayer rally [and didn’t tell anyone] how to vote.”  There, I see a smokescreen!  The article proceeds to note that Franklin “has become an outspoken Trump ally and writes in the book that he thanks God the Republican was elected.”  This is obviously not Billy Graham.

I know Franklin’s charity organization Samaritan’s Purse as one that has done much good, and most of its causes appear quite well-placed.  (Only one is inappropriate and arguably partisan, in my view.)  The organization, like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has a worldwide vision, which is clearly a good thing.  But Franklin’s alignment with Donald Trump, and his interspersing of Trump quotes with Billy Graham quotes in the book, shows that he has little clue that American as a country has nothing to do with God.  He’s on track with some of the views noted in the article, including the observation that negative influences are rampant in our schools and our nation.  He warns that “Republicans shouldn’t take Christian voters for granted,” but he almost seems to equate Republicanism with Christianity.  Whoa, Franklin.  “God and country” are not a real pair.

I later saw this blog with several quotes from Franklin indicating his nationalistic emphases.   Franklin seems so much more politically motivated, i.e., not nearly as focused on the making of Christian disciples or even on the preaching of the good news of Jesus.  Wanting to be fair, I listened to this recording in order to “get to know” Franklin . . . .

I heard Franklin say “Christians should stand strong.”  That’s good.

Then I heard him say he’s sure “we’re in the last hours on God’s clock.”  That’s not well founded and tends to pigeonhole him with fear-mongers and questionable eschatologists.

Subsequently, there were more emphases along these lines . . . and I tuned him out, because he sounded like a parrot without much conviction in the voice.

Franklin’s nationalistic emphasis is the negative clincher for me.  Not that Billy Graham was unconcerned about the U.S.A.  He is known to have met with and counseled a whole string of presidents.  But Billy’s overall emphasis seems not to have been on the country so much as on the soul and its relation to God.

In the end, the “Getting to Know Franklin” session didn’t make me want to know him any more.  Image result for image "franklin grahamI’m a Billy Graham admirer, despite a couple of serious practical/doctrinal differences.  Franklin?  Not so much.  I’m sure he’s also a good and honest man, but he is not as focused, and his political speech and lack of careful biblical teaching suggest that he is neither the thinker nor the leader his father was.


¹ I won’t call Mr. Graham “Reverend” since the idea of reverence is better reserved for God alone, and I see no point in pandering to the human notion of denominational “ordination.”

² Jonathan Drew (AP), “Book Shares Son’s Look at ‘America’s Pastor'”

³ A casual observer might say I’ve done something similar in “trading” on a couple aspects of my family history in my writing and composing, but I’ve made it clear where I differed instead of being aligned, and I have in no way benefited financially.

Dogma

Lately there have been several homeless cats darkening paths around me, and one menacing dog.  Dogs are categorically better than cats, so I’m naturally more drawn to the former.  A friendly dog can make your day, whereas cat pawprints on your motorcycle seat can make you want the sleeping cat not to wake up before the bike screams off into the wind.  Hey, they always land on their feet, right?  A dog, not so much.  A dog needs you, but a cat couldn’t care less.  (This may sound dogmatic. So be it.)

What about dogma in churches?  Dogma may be deeply held, in the background, or it may turn out to be codified.  In churches, I’d rather there not be a statement of beliefs at all, but if there must be one, let it be a simple statement of belief in God and respect for scripture texts.  Once it goes beyond that, there are pitfalls.  (In a recent “Bible study” visit, I quickly detected underlying, dogmatic assumptions that affected everything the teacher said.)

Below I will paste in a list that comes directly from a Christian university in the Southeast.  This “Community Covenant” is a list of expectations for students.  That such a list exists anywhere may surprise a few.  An esteemed former grad professor of mine once also expressed shock that a Christian college could “still” hold certain “Religious Right” positions regarding its employees.  Some secularist music people, including a confessed agnostic-or-atheist, expressed (on social media) their incredulity that something like this could exist, and that they would be unwelcome to teach at said university.  In so speaking, they manifested their provinciality and lack of tolerance for belief systems other than their own.  They themselves actually became dogmatic.

Not only do various positions exist throughout the conservative-liberal spectra, but I suppose they all have “rights” in a society and politic such as ours.  Again, so be it.

Now, on the surface, this “Community Covenant” is not a dogmatic statement of beliefs, but it could be said to be just that.  Beliefs and dogma underlie such “covenants.”  I quote directly here:

Since members of this faith-based community have voluntarily chosen to be a participant, all students are obligated to a code of scriptural and community standards and behavior.  As a Christ-follower and member of the community of Southeastern University, I will:

    • Practice the spiritual disciplines—regular reading of God’s Word, prayer, etc.
    • Understand that regular attendance at church services is expected
    • Uphold the community standards
    • Pursue integrity and practice professional ethics
    • Adhere to guidelines of dress code
    • Respect the dignity of all persons and highly value the diversity of the body of Christ
    • Respect the rights and property of others
    • Discourage bigotry, slander, and gossip among the members of the community and will refuse to engage in such behavior
    • Refrain from the possession, use or distribution of beverage alcohol (except for communion), marijuana, or other intoxicants either on or off university premises
    • Refrain from the possession, use or distribution of tobacco products either on or off university premises
    • Refrain from the possession, use or distribution of illegal substances and the abuse or illegal use of legal substances, including prescription and over-the-counter medications either on or off university premises
    • Refrain from all sexually immoral behavior including: premarital sex; adultery; lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender behavior; and involvement with pornography in any form.  (Biblical marriage consists only of a faithful, heterosexual union between one genetic male and one genetic female, and biblical marriage is the only legitimate and acceptable context for a sexual relationship)
    • Resolve conflict according to the model in Matthew 18:15-20
    • Honor the servant-leaders who watch over this community and cooperate with their leadership
    • Demonstrate compassion for others and a passion for the lost as a representative of Christ

As with any statement of beliefs, list of “community expectations,” or creed, there are strengths and weaknesses in the above list.  I note a couple of interesting additions to the norms of such collections, and I wonder if they arose out of past events at this institution.  I also note the areas that seem to spawn the most verbiage:  substance use/abuse and sexual behaviors.

I take issue not so much with any specific details, but that such statements are made so prominent.  They are often required reading, with required signatures.  It’s as though one must submit not only to Jesus as Lord, but also to someone’s superimposed codes and opinions.

Professing and practicing

A job posting advertises for a new “Assistant Professor of Worship.”  Something about that rubs me the wrong way, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

A few years ago, an associate was working on a doctorate in “worship studies.”  Nothing against that person, but something about that endeavor still chafes me.  Historical and theological studies in an area such as worship will obviously be valuable, but we mustn’t presume that certain historical realities of what has been termed “worship” can be directly correlated to that which pleases God as worship.  Similarly, the realities of church history might throw us off track.  We shouldn’t, for instance, look at two millennia of history and attempt to elicit some sort of average.  It’s not that the average, most common practices should be normative—not without the application of critical analyses, anyway.

I was once accused, in a friendly way, of leading “didactic worship.”  To the extent that I was perceived as practicing, articulating, professing, and fostering worship, I’m pleased with that.  On the other hand, if I were professing principles and procedures, while presenting myself as some sort of connoisseur, I repent.  Far better to worship, to be a worshipper, than to talk, theorize, and study about it.  Put another way:  if “professing” means doing it and advocating for it, great.  I want to be a mouthpiece for genuine worship.  If on the other hand professing means putting on an “expert” hat, getting “tenure,” or actively giving the appearance that one thinks he out-ranks others, count me out.

The notion of studying worship as an academic discipline makes me draw back, concerned that such a pursuit might lead to a false validating of all historical practices.  Yet I do see value in studying just about anything.  The gracious smile of God, shown in accepting sincere worship, is compelling.  Whether a learned professor or a simple, devoted disciple, it’s possible to be a pure worshipper.  Let us all be practicers—doers—of what we profess.

Verifiable words on real, organic church

Following up on recent thoughts on being vulnerable and real, I’d like to share “Strategic Words in Facilitating Movements.”  I take these thoughts as dealing with real church.  This isn’t to say that non-organic, hierarchically organized churches aren’t real; rather, it is to accentuate some positive qualities of a genuine, scripture- and discipleship-based movement.  In other words, this is not about a denomination’s regional staffing decisions or a megachurch pastor’s move to establish another “campus” a few miles away.  This is about something that appears to move on a smaller scale and yet possesses great potential.

Since I am currently in Africa working with phenomenally fruitful leaders, I thought it would be good to share a few “key words” on church planting movements.  These words are adapted from Galen Currah who adapted them originally from David Watson.  Each “word” listed here has so much meaning and power when walked out.

[Selections mine — bc]

1. Prayer:  . . . Know the mind of God and join Him in His work.  Deep intimacy with God is the foundation for everything else!

3. Disciples:  Make Disciples, not converts.  Converts focus on religion.  Disciples focus on Jesus and obedience to His teachings.

5. Churches:  Communities of Believers.  Form new believers into minimal Bible practice groups that will become Communities of Believers (churches) who transform families and communities.

6. and 2.  Authority and scripture:  Authority of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit are all that is needed to start.  Church Planting is an act of God and His people who are obedient to the Word and the Spirit.  ||  Scripture is foundational and the source of all teaching and preaching.  Scripture → Principle → Practice

9. Plan:  Act Intentionally:  Organic does not mean the same things as “accidental.”  Crops are grown through intentional sowing with wisdom.

14. Culture:  Redeem local culture by embracing all you biblically can in a culture and transforming or redeeming the rest.

As I read and revise this for the last time, I am struck most by the phrase “minimal Bible practice group” in #5 above.  Minimalism tends to be tiresome to me in music, but “keep it simple,” “less is more,” and the “tiny house” bandwagon are contemporary cultural examples of related values.  The “minimal practice group” concept draws me.  How about you?

→ Roger Thoman’s original blogpost, quoted above, may be found here in its entirety.  For more, read this post:  Underground Revolutionaries

Being real & vulnerable

Some topics I touch are ones I should probably stay away from.  “Vulnerability” might be one of those.  Inimitably and famously, Brené Brown has given talks on this topic, touching something deep within many of us.  Surely no one like me could add anything worthwhile to her research and insights on this topic.  On the other hand, it might just be that I can note and transmit something very important, being an under-informed but sincere, sometimes-earnest observer of people and culture.  I’m betting many of you will agree that the following material about vulnerability and the pressure of social media is on track.

A book by Donna Freitas is titled The Happiness Effect:  How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University Press).  Freitas, also the author of Sex and the Soul, “comes from an epicenter of sociological research on adolescents and young adults, Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.”  She conducted 200 interviews of university students.

The Happiness Effect is organized around the topics covered in these conversations.  Each chapter overflows with personal stories, making the book an enjoyable read.  But on a deeper level, Freitas has a theory to test.  She contends that headline-grabbing abuses like bullying, stalking, and sexting are not the greatest dangers that social media poses for young adults.  Rather, they distract from a more insidious phenomenon:  the drive to look perfectly happy, all the time.  (emph. mine   -bc)

. . .

As Freitas puts it, Facebook and Twitter are, in a way, the anti-confession, the places we pretend that we have it all together as though we were the gods of our own future.  The gospel challenges the assumption that confessing weakness and need makes you a failure. . . .

– Andrew Root, Reviews, Christianity Today, March 2017

“Church” has for decades (centuries?) been a place for facades, for hiding.  The age-old story of the stereotypical, churchgoing family yelling at each other, slamming doors, stewing in silence all the way to the church building, then putting on fake smiles and acting as though “God is good all the time” is anything but humorous.  Despite encroaching reports of the likes of emotional illnesses, divorce, pain from LGBTQ concerns, human trafficking, and more, some Christians are still fixated on the need to “celebrate Jesus.”  This celebration sensibility comes from reasonably good, yet partly shallow theology and from good-hearted people.  I, on the other hand, resonate more with the need to be communicative, “real,” and vulnerable, sharing every emotion and experience, not only the nice ones.  I’d go further, too:  lament and other negatives need some affirmative action in churches.  In other words, there’s already enough celebration and praise, way too much slap-happy trivia and hype, and not nearly enough honesty.¹  Let the vulnerability emerge.

Facebook is not the only venue through which anti-confession (falsely presenting oneself and one’s situation as marvelously in control and persistently happy, as though there is no weakness and need) rears its head, but it’s a nearly omnipresent one.  Most of those I know are both well acclimated to FB and/or aware of its limitations and potential fallout.  Let us use it well (and not too much).  Let us share the great pics of our kids and our food creations, and maybe an interesting selfie or two (up to two, not two hundred, thank you very much).  Let us share our inspiring thoughts for the day and our scriptures.  But let us also share² our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and even our griefs.


¹ Our chosen, local church takes as its moniker “Historic Faith – Honest Fellowship – Humble Service.”  It makes quite a nice triumvirate, I think, and here, I would call every reader to the “honest fellowship” part—honest both with God and with other believing journey partners.

² Facebook allows one to share selectively, i.e., via private message and to specific individuals or groups.

If we took the microphones away

  1. If we took the microphones and the electronic effects away from half the vocal “artists” in the world, we would hear something far less impressive.  (This assertion begs questions around artistry.)
  2. If we took the microphones away from those with the gift of gab who are in leadership positions, they might talk less, and the rest of us would waste less time.  I regularly observe a lack of audio-consciousness on the part of those who would probably do better if they were only made aware.  Conference calls with poor microphone placement and paper shuffling and people muttering….  Processes are sometimes hindered, and the experience can be frustrating.  I digress.
  3. If we took the microphones away from half the men who pray aloud and read scripture publicly in many churches, we would hear little to nothing, although many of us have probably heard such machismatic mumbo-jumbo as “Hey, I don’t need a microphone.  Heh-heh.”

Did you notice that I referred to “men” who pray aloud and read scripture publicly?  What about women?  If we took the microphones away from church venues altogether, much of the “official” sense would fade from the minds of those who have concerns about women’s roles “in church.”  I myself care about such things, but not necessarily with the same level of concern, or for the same reasons, as many of my historically closest siblings.  Today, I’m wanting to pay attention to only a side aspect of this age-old struggle:  the physical setting.  I would put it this way:  The more informal the setting, i.e., the less official and pulpit-like (with microphone), the less present the women’s-role issues.  Of course, the size of the venue can be an issue; if it’s a large hall or other acoustical factors are present, amplification is necessary.

Thoughts of pulpits and microphones are surface-level thoughts, and people’s actual concerns are not necessarily so shallow.  Or are they?  If such physical items are removed from the scenario, and if a guy’s concerns then fade a little, I’d say he wasn’t sure what really mattered to him in the first place.  Did the bare fact that a woman spoke create the issue for him, or was it the setting in which she spoke?  Is it her voice when there are men present that disturbs, or is it the audible voice amid pulpits and microphones and pews?  Perhaps a conservative or narrow-minded person doesn’t need to ignore his conscience but to ponder why he feels the way he feels.  If the issues seem to fade when the surroundings are less official-looking, less institutional . . . then I’d suggest that the woman’s voice wasn’t the only concern in the first place.

A particularly traditionally minded person once spoke for many of his mindset while on a youth retreat.  He noted a few nontraditional elements in what we were doing in that setting and commented setting, we could “get away with” more where we were (in a big cabin in the woods).  The praise team didn’t bother him there, for instance.  See what I mean?

Not an elder, but older (and wiser?)

In our day, the notion of “church leadership” appears as something of an overlay on New Testament principles and scenarios.  For some, the disconnect (between the status quo and the original info) is tantamount to heresy; for others, it’s just the way things are, a non-issue.  As for myself, it’s complicated (I know, like many other things).  I have some definitive ideas, but there are gray areas, and I don’t care about all the same subtopics anymore.

For starters:  I find the contemporary use of “pastor” to represent a human misdirection, sometimes running counter to God’s purposes, although almost always well-intended, at least at the outset of a “pastoral ministry.”  In the NC scriptures, I don’t see the word “pastor” referring to a role that’s much like today’s pastoral roles, and I think that’s worthy of note.  Primarily, I’m interested not in a strict-minded, narrow approach but in an awareness of the kinds of leader roles that emerged in the early church.  In other words, it’s not about the title or label, really; it’s about what people are and what they do.  One problem arises when a Bible word is used to refer to a current role, thereby linking the two and imbuing the modern practice, title, or role with supposedly biblical authority.  Such labeling doesn’t mean a practice, title, or role is necessarily bad; it just means we have jumped to a conclusion.

I’d say we ought to differentiate roles and titles in each unique situation, and we ought to explore nuances, and we ought to engage in word studies and historical studies, too.  Is it possible that (the Greek antecedents of) “bishop,” “overseer,” “shepherd,” “pastor,” and “elder” might describe similar (but not necessarily the same) roles in the first-century church?  And aren’t these labels commonly distinguished differently today?  John A.T. Robinson has commented that the letters to Timothy and Titus “do not presuppose monarchical episcopacy” (ruling bishops) that appeared at least by the 2nd century.”  Pauline writings, on the other hand, appear to assume the “equivalence of bishop and presbyter”—or overseer and elder, in alternate translation. °

At this juncture I could be found betraying a mentality that’s now part and parcel of Church of Christ operational doctrine.  I am not particularly interested in whether two centuries of sectarian history in this respect have been on target, nor do I care much anymore about a patternistic re-appropriation of first-century titles and labels.  After all, we are separated by millennia and language, and this whole scene ought to benefit from more thorough, careful examination.  I am after an honest assessment of church leadership roles that I see as having run amok.  I think Christians should all be deeply interested in meaningful leadership roles, quite apart from the titles and routines of tradition—no matter whose tradition, and how deeply or widely it is entrenched.  With all that said. . . .

Once upon a dream
As a child, I never envisioned myself becoming a preacher, despite being a “good kid” and a good Bible student who was always at church.  (I developed a moderate stutter that stayed with me into high school and beyong, so perhaps no one else wanted to see me turn out to be a preacher, either!  I could always have done better than the devoted but poorly spoken Mennonite man who muttered, sometimes unintelligibly, for 50 minutes two Sundays ago, but that’s beside the point.)  I do recall wistfully that my youthful vision for later adult life involved being a church elder.  That role seemed important to me, and the men I knew as elders were worthy of respect.  I knew of a couple of elders who were also preaching ministers, and that was generally viewed askance in my tradition because one could be viewed as one of those “pastors” who had too much power.  Although I retain some of the same philosophy of suspicion, most of this was in a very different time and place for me.  Worlds apart, really.  Elders were elders, and preachers were preachers, and I didn’t know anyone personally who went by the title “pastor.”  I did know fairly well a man who became a church elder when he was 35.¹  By the time I passed that John F. Kennedy age, I was already past thinking I would ever be an elder.  Soon after that, I decided I never wanted to be one.  It was moot, really:  I was soon to be a divorcé and had no children—that those facts would disqualify me in most churches I cared about.

Background understandings
But what is, or was, an elder?  A pastor?  A minister?  A “clergyman”?  A childhood anecdote should help to illuminate some of my predilections.  There was a period in which my dad was visiting people hospitals fairly regularly, and he apparently noticed there were “clergy” parking spaces . . . so he had the wood shop teacher in his school make him a “C L E R G Y” block.  It stayed in the glove compartment, but Dad put it in his window when he was at the hospital.  A schoolteacher by vocation, and also a servant of God and of the church, my dad was somewhat more narrowly read than I in Christian matters.  Nonetheless, he stood on solid ground in conscientiously believing he was a minister or “clergyman” just as much as someone with a salary and a title on the letterhead, and I believe he was right.

It was later that I learned from my parents to be suspicious of the notion of “church staff.”  I was not completely on their side at the time:  once, I sided with a “junior minister” (with whom I was working closely) in the reality that there was a de facto church staff, and it probably needed to have a meeting periodically.  For as long as I can remember, though, I have given absolutely no credence to the clergy-laity distinction, seeking to overturn that supposition in the minds and hearts of anyone over whom I have any influence.  However, specified roles will naturally exist.  What if one person works primarily in administrative/secretarial capacities, another is the primary teaching minister, and another serves and engages with families of young people?  In a large church, their roles will interact and overlap, and it certainly doesn’t hurt for the three to talk together every now and then.  They should be on the same page about procedures, philosophies, etc.  Now, if one of them came from the “staff meeting” and declared to the whole church, “In our staff meeting this week, it was decided that X,” I would smell something going awry.²  Neither a staff nor a staff meeting ought to become invested with power and influence—an institution itself, we might say—but just talking isn’t a bad thing.

Surely Paul, who couldn’t have envisioned seminarians or sound systems or elevated pulpits or “senior pastors” or parking lot ministries, would be supportive of dialogue among those who lead and teach.  However, that which is acceptable in a modern scenario might never have been imagined by New Testament writers.  It’s hard to imagine Jesus’s or Paul’s approving of an in-charge “pastor” who makes business decisions.  Don’t fool yourself thinking that your senior pastor is different from the rest—a real spiritual leader and carer-of-the-flock, you say?  He is on a pedestal and a platform, “elevated” to clergy status.  You likely don’t even call him by his first name, or if you do, you prepend “pastor” or “brother.”  He is surely a good man, but he is in a different class in your mind.

I remember that Dad once “pranked” our church’s preacher by asking for “the reverend” on the phone, so I learned that there were jokes to be made, but I don’t recall much else specific along these lines from my early years.  I do tend to “blame” my parents (particularly, my dad) for maybe half of my negative inclination toward pedestalizing church staff.  I don’t think it’s off-base, mind you, but it is quite a strong bias that has probably kept me from getting a hearing in some situations.

For a couple decades, Dad had a deacon role that primarily involved making arrangements for assemblies and brief devotionals on Wednesday night.  Mom taught ladies’ the Bible class.  Neither of them would have been considered among the official leadership per se then.  Later, Dad did become an elder/shepherd, and he could have been called the “head elder” in a couple of respects, although he would not have liked that at all.

Conclusion (next post):  my continued, apparently irreversible “morphing” with respect to “church leadership,” and my relief that I will never be an “elder,” so to speak


° John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 68.

¹ Being an “elder” at 35 sounds as silly as being a “senior pastor” at 30 or even 40.  Hey, at least it beats the Mormon Church practice of college-aged “elders.”  In the case of the man I knew, he was one of the two oldest men in a very young church, he had four children, and he was relatively experienced in the faith (or in church matters, at least), so his having been named an “elder” made some sense, speaking relatively.

² And something did go awry, with the “junior minister” mentioned above, in multiple ways.  I think he became jealous of my influence, and my personal life took a decidedly negative turn, and I began to annoy him, and he rejected me, and he popped open a can of ego.  I perceived that he was the primary purveyor of the “official clergy” mindset among the three “church staff” members, and he began to rub a few of us the wrong way, although he had an intensely loyal following.  I wish he hadn’t later made a point of the logo he created, claiming it was his intellectual property and denying the church the use of it after he left.  I’ve actually experienced similar feelings in my vocational world, so in a sense, I get it.  And some of that would never have come to mind if (1) the other guy had not been a staff minister and (2) I had not learned what I had learned.

To lead and serve (Houghton Philharmonia “officers”)

In thinking about some students of a decade ago, I came across a document that evidenced one of my somewhat creative approaches.  The orchestra at Houghton College was the “Philharmonia”—a bit of an aged designation, I thought, but it was what it was.  The two other “major ensembles” on campus were the Symphonic Winds and the College Choir,¹ and each of those had a slate of student officers, but the Philharmonia didn’t.  So I thought, I’ll get some student leadership going, but it needs to be special.  Not run-of-the-mill.  A new approach that melds the college’s Christian philosophies, my own scripture-moored take, and my penchant for heading off the beaten paths and ruts, making sure what was did was meaningful.

We would not have a president per se.  Nor would we call someone a VP.  A secretary of sorts was possibly indicated, but there was no need for a treasurer.  The very word “chaplain,” in use with the other groups, brought to mind the military, law enforcement organizations, and hospitals, and I wanted no association with those.  Further, and on the positive side, I did want to capitalize on connections to scripture and my own philosophy of leadership in groups (including church congregations), so I added the following as a footnote on the poster I prepared:

It is interesting to note that the single Koiné Greek (the New Testament language) word diakonos is alternately translated deacon, minister, and servant in our English versions of the New Testament scriptures.  Biblically, there is no conceptual distinction between deacons, ministers, and servants.  In all these word-concepts, service to the group is implied.  The British government terminology (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Housing, etc.) might originally have had this fact in view, and we are following this nomenclature with the Philharmonia officer/servant roles.  You may also note the non-hierarchical order in which the offices are listed.  Ministry is service, and our officers will serve.

Below is a list of the roles I presented for student elections.  Each one was tied to another in partnership in at least one way.  These were not to be “offices” as such (note that they are not listed hierarchically) but would be roles for service:

Coordinator of Devotional Activities (replacing “chaplain”)

Ministers of Hospitality (plural, primarily to coordinate post-concert receptions and friendly interaction when prospective students visited)

Lead Organizational Minister (communication among orchestra members, problem solving with director, etc.)

Minister of Organizational Promotion (working closely with the LOM and giving special attention to development and growth)

Advisory Ministers (appointed, not elected, at the discretion of the Director)²

I note now that the only overtly “spiritual” role is the only one that didn’t have the word “minister” in it.  That was probably subconscious on my part, but perhaps not.  I might have intentionally avoided the perception that a devotional coordinator was an institutional staff minister-in-training.

As a student ensemble and college entity, the Philharmonia was hurting because of events that occurred during the prior two years.  It was depressed when I arrived; it had bought into a kind of step-child syndrome, playing third fiddle (to mix metaphors) to the Sym Winds and College Choir.  Those ensembles had little to no trouble gaining members and feeling good about their rehearsals and performances, but that was not the case in Philharmonia.  The ensemble needed promotion, energy, and a better self-image.  The group stayed depressed for a year and a half or so, but it began to experience growth in terms of musical achievement and esprit de corps after that.  I would not say that this particular approach to “officers” or student leadership had too much to do with the growth, but it might have contributed a little.  It did provide opportunities for students to lead and to serve—even as it showed my commitment to meaningful organizational roles and an egalitarian philosophy.


¹ Each of those appellations seemed somewhat uncommon, as well.  At Houghton, they did not seem old or “out of touch.”

² I tend to use the designation “Conductor” as opposed to “Director.”  The former goes to musical leadership.  “Director,” by contrast, while it can be used to refer to musical direction, tends to refer more often to organizational leadership.

Youth, service, and “God time”

In connection with what gets labeled as “God time,” I think of two youth group “mission trips” to Mexico.  I was not involved, so I know only second-hand of how the lives were affected, but I suspect those who went on the trips would agree that it was an entirely positive experience in terms of relationships with each other and with God.  If you asked Bret or Mark or Matt or Holly or any number of others, I’m sure they’d echo the last sentence.

Thom Schultz’s (Group Publishing) polls show that young people tend to draw strong connecting lines between service opportunities and relationship with God.  There is a downside, though.  Schultz mentions how these “service opportunities” are typically framed:

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate.  Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip.  I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

– Thom Schultz (Group Publishing, Holy Soup blog), “De-compartmentalizing your Disciple-Making”

Right he is.

Of course, the Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the church or the institutional church, either (heavens, no).  Not one of those should be thought of as involving pigeonholes.  Even the institutional church is better conceived as having a reach outside the walls of a building.

Despite the influence and good intent of songs such as “Take Time To Be Holy,” it should be understood that no devotional or church assembly is inherently more holy or more “God timey” than helping people.  This reality does not downgrade the assembly or prayer or listening to Christian radio or studying the Bible.  It does, however, allow a higher berth for other Kingdom activities.

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.

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.”