Centered Set

(Welcome to Credo Friday where I am trying to make a record of the things I believe, the things that shape me, not things I’ve shaped myself. These are not original thoughts they are only core beliefs that have made me who I am, fuel how I do what I do and are the ‘why’ behind choices I make and directions I take.)

I’ve come to believe that the illustration of a “Centered Set” is the healthiest model for sharing life together as followers of Jesus. I also concede that it is hard and messy. By its very nature, Centered Set requires us to communicate in healthy ways, emphasize interpersonal relationships (which don’t come easily to most of us) and to pursue spiritual formation over the information/education approach we typically associate with discipleship.

This is a helpful but imperfect illustration of the distinction between a Bounded Set in which we draw the lines based on the metrics we choose to measure and the Centered Set where the emphasis is on relationship to the center. Also to be considered in this (mis)appropriation of set theory is the Fuzzy Set.

As human beings we love metrics and certainty. A centered set makes both of those more elusive. In a Centered Set approach to life together, calculating the number of baptisms or number of “decisions” for Jesus is not an accurate metric for how many new followers of Jesus have become a part of your church. Our felt need for measuring things and comparing ourselves is hindered by the Centered Set approach and I acknowledge that this approach then is unattractive to Type A individuals, people who need to keep score in order to enjoy a game, people who are driven by accomplishment and achieving measurable goals.

And to be honest, that’s what a whole lot of life in pastoral ministry, church life, for pastors and parishioners, is often all about.

Once upon a time I was part of a non-denominational denomination that published a weekly magazine. After all the articles and updates, at the very back of the magazine, space was always reserved for reports – how many new members, how many baptisms. We were all supposed to turn these in to the publishing office and be listed by city, state and church name. A missionary friend in the same “movement” of churches always called this the “Scoreboard.” He had been around long enough and been to enough churches and churches meetings in our “non-denominational denomination” to know what he was talking about. He understood how we all looked at the entries on those pages.

Early on in ministry I was part of a meeting that took place, a fly on the wall, where I heard the pastors of large churches talking to the pastors of other large churches in a “safe space.” As everyone started whipping out their stats to measure, a common expression around that room was “giving units.” Behind those closed doors, the pastors weren’t talking about congregants, parishioners, adherents, members, followers of Jesus or even sheep. They referred, no doubt affectionately, to the people who attended the churches they pastored as “giving units.” It was not the last time I heard pastors use this term when referring to the people they pastored.

All of this to say that I understand that the Centered Set model I’m talking about is problematic because it never makes room for reductionistic labels like “giving units.” It doesn’t make metrics easy. It makes it almost impossible to verify who is in and who is out in a moment as it relies on a trajectory over time as much as or more than it does a single instance. It’s almost, if I can use an analogy from farming, as if a farmer went out and sowed some seed in a field. And then, if you can imagine this, that night another person, a scoundrel, came and sowed a different kind of seed but ultimately one that looked close enough as it grew to the other that it was impossible to uproot the scoundrel’s plants without doing damage to the good seeds. So the farmer, who is wise in the way of growing things, declares to his hired hands, an angelic bunch, wait until the harvest and then we’ll sort them all out.

Of course we can immediately see all kinds of problems with this approach, no matter how wise that farmer might be. This story also illustrates the Centered Set.

When I first discovered the Vineyard denomination/fellowship of churches, a few things captured my heart, mind and spirit immediately. First was the authentic, accessible worship, I could relate to the songs – the lyrics, the style, the heart. I could also appreciate the no-hype way in which they were led – the only experience being aimed for was between God and people and putting on a show, using techniques to manipulate the crowd were not painfully obvious. I deeply appreciated not being told to smile, sing louder or that there were angels flying around the room in the glory cloud. Second, I was drawn to the kingdom theology I heard being articulated. It made sense to me. It connected the dots. It resonated deeply for me and what was on the edge of theology 35 years ago is now mainstream via N.T. Wright. Third, I loved the centered set approach I heard from the leadership about how we do life together. It sounded like Jesus to me as I emerged from a world in which doing life together often didn’t.

I was moving into Vineyard life from a Movement that said, “We have no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” and “Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” And at the Bible College I attended as part of that Movement, I could get kicked out for growing a beard.

What was clearer and clearer to me as a part of this Movement that sought unity by a return to “the Bible only” was that it wasn’t the Bible but our interpretation of the Bible that was the basis for our unity. As long as you agreed with our reading you were in, if you followed an alternate reading of the Text you were out because there was only one right reading, we knew it, we had it and if you didn’t agree with ours, you were out. We made allowances for pious brethren in error and we hoped they might one day receive the whole gospel from us (from which the Holy Spirit retired after penning his best seller) so we tolerated their presence when we gathered.

I think this becomes the challenge to any movement in regard to unity. Our entropy seems to involve line drawing. John Wimber, who led the Vineyard to being an international movement of churches, talked about our sweet spot being the main and the plain in Scripture – even as people used then and now their “main and plain” reading of Scripture to call the Vineyard apostates, deceivers, a cult and new agers (we probably qualify as “old agers” now though, eh?). But even in the Vineyard, there is a compulsion to draw lines. And over time, draw more lines. To sort out those bad seeds, the nasty weeds, and purify ourselves so God won’t have to.

Because this is too long for most people to read, I’m breaking off this post here with Part One. Next week, God willing, I’ll post a part deux that actually explores Centered Set and how it functions (or doesn’t) and why I would leave the Vineyard (or any other movement/denomination) in order to practice this way of doing life together if it ever became necessary.

Camino Diary, Day 10

(Sorry for the delay, life has been rudely interrupting my plans. Day 10 was our last day with Derrick on the Camino, a day we chose to take slowly and to savor.)

This was a day for sleeping in. Derrick had been celebrated the night before and rest was very welcome. We had a room with our own bathroom and shower and our own beds with sheets and pillows. It’s funny now to think about how beautiful those things seemed at the time. A small taste of heaven.

My feet had been soaked in natural disinfectant bath the day before to help treat my blisters. The best word to describe them is “epic,” like the burning of Rome. I was relieved to have a day ahead that did not involve climbing up or down any mountains.

I woke up at 8 am. Then stayed in bed until 9. Finally, Bill asked if everyone was awake and we all decided the time had come to start Derrick’s last day with us on the Camino.

Part of that “day of rest” was spent walking around “old Logrono” together. We visited 3 Cathedrals that were all amazing and all felt like thin places to me.

A thin place

Besides taking in their beauty, I was praying a lot for my friend Carole and for her whole family and praying for my fellow peregrinos on the way. Bill looked for help with a malfunctioning hearing aid and despite his smashed toes and a reduced ability to hear, he maintained a cheerful and engaged disposition that was very encouraging. At the same time, he was growing a little anxious about losing Derrick at this point on our journey – in part because of friendship and in part because he had become so proficient as our translator that other peregrinos on the way had mistakenly come to believe he was our hired guide. What would we do without Derrick? I was feeling the weight of that question in my own heart as the day moved towards night.

A Map of the Way Ahead

That night we ate supper at 8 pm. Because Spain. The siesta system was still baffling me at this point on our walk. The gelato we finished supper with that night was a highlight and it would become the preferred way to end a day on our Camino.

That day was also a turning point for the rest of our journey. I had been encouraged by things I had read about the Camino to not book rooms or beds in advance. To take the Camino day by day. But our experience up to our tenth day had taught us that while this may have been the way to do it in the past, the competition for beds now made the walk much less relaxed and contemplative when you were hurrying to make sure you had a place to rest. So on our tenth day I planned the whole next week of our journey and made bed reservations as much as I could so that when we started out in the morning we knew that no matter how long that day’s walk would be it would end with a bed in a place we would like to stay.

It meant re-arranging my expectations for my Camino. One of the things that frustrates or irritates me most is when plans change. I remembered the old proverb, “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be broken.” I tossed out my original plan and we started making a new one. As Bill pointed out, “what’s the point of sticking to the plan if we end up too dead to enjoy it?” When I first started mapping out our Camino I saw “rest days” built into some pilgrim’s schedules. “Wimps!” I thought. “We’re just walking.”

I was an idiot. I am less of one now.

“Rest before you need to.” This was a bit of wisdom we learned on the Camino and now we made sure we would put it into practice.

Bill and I both pulled things out of our packs to send home with Derrick in order to lighten our load. Not much, but it was feeling like every little bit helped. I took Derrick’s belt as my shorts no longer could stay up on their own. He kindly took a shirt, my life-straw, a pillow and my Camino guide (because Bill had his) for me. Bill gave Derrick a few of his things and took a pair of pants from his for the rest of our walk. We transferred ounces but we noticed the difference.

It is really impossible to overstate how much we had enjoyed Derrick on the Camino. Impossible to overstate how much I learned from him. Impossible to overstate how much I depended on him. Impossible to say how much my time with him on the Camino meant to me and will mean to me in the years of reflection to come. As we went to bed that night, Bill and I knew we would wake up early, well before sunrise, and get back on the way both lighter and heavier because of Derrick’s return home.

As we tried to sleep, my phone pinged. I had no service but while on wifi I could receive emails from home. This ping came as I was contemplating my consolation and desolation for the day. The ping turned out to be a message from a friend back home who was aware I was on the Camino and had just come across something she thought I might appreciate. Her message read, “This popped up in my feed today & I thought of you on the Camino! Praying for you today.” And it became my main consolation for the day:

David Whyte

September 11, 2019 · 

CAMINO

But your loss brought you here to walk
under one name and one name only,
and to find the guise under which all loss can live;
remember, you were given that name
every day along the way, remember,
you were greeted as such, and treated as such,
and you needed no other name,
other people seemed to know you
even before you gave up being a shadow
on the road and came into the light,
even before you sat down,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:
pilgrim they called you
again and again. Pilgrim.

Excerpt from ‘Camino’
From Pilgrim: Poems by David Whyte
©2012 David Whyte

Trailblazers and Opportunists

(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday when I share a post about life as a pastor and some of the things that make this life so challenging. I’ve been a little busier than usual but hope to be back on track with posts this week.)

One of the beautiful and horrible things about email is that I am accessible to a lot of people. It’s beautiful when they are new friends, old friends, current friends or soon to be friends.

It’s horrible when they are selling me something or asking me to pay them for something they are offering to do for me – service selling.

This pandemic has amplified what was already a weekly occurrence.

I’ve had an endless stream of offers for online seminars, subscription newsletters and “free” Zoom calls with 120 other pastors to learn how to pastor our church in these “unprecedented times.”

“Unprecedented times.” You know, times we’ve never been in before in which we pastors have no idea how to do what we do but these special gurus can tell us all we need to know (for a very modest cost) to get through these “unprecedented times.” That’s like volunteering to be a passenger on an airplane when no one has ever flown before… “Hi, I’m Jerry, I’ll be your pilot for this journey on this unprecedented method of transportation.”

Pass.

I’m all for brainstorming, idea sharing, workshopping but don’t try to sell me an expert opinion on unprecedented times. Don’t try to take advantage of my feeling of unpreparedness or inadequacy for a situation that most, or all of us have never faced before. Offer me your “free ideas that may or may not work but have so far worked for you…” but please don’t sell me your seminar and how to guide for a time none of us have faced before. It make you sound like an opportunist, not a trailblazer.

You’re banking (literally) on my desire to good for the people I am pastoring while you’re making stuff up that we’ve all been thinking through and praying through but you’ve managed to overcome humility to offer us solutions you have no idea will work. That’s what “unprecedented times” means.

But this isn’t new. These offers have come to me weekly (sometimes daily) since the advent of email and me acquiring my first published church email address.

When you are less than 3 months in to an “unprecedented time” and you get an ad for 4 books about the churches response to a pandemic by 3 major Christian publishers it means they either had been anticipating this for months or years and had books in the bin ready for the moment or they rushed through books that probably should have been given a lot more thought or they took a manuscript that could, with some careful and clever editing, be made to apply to life in a pandemic.

Psychologically, I think this plays on those in pastoral ministry in a couple ways.

First, it reinforces what we already believe: we don’t have a clue about what we should do next. The truth is, we’re doing fine and we’re finding our way just like everyone else in these “unprecedented times.” But the endless stream of offers and adverts erodes our sense of well-being and confidence that we can navigate this time with a little help from our friends. We need a lot of conversation with one another in all this, we don’t really need “experts” helping us through “unprecedented times.”

Second, it subtly suggest that we are never enough. I’m all for ongoing education and staying on the growing edge. There are always new things to learn and new skills to be developed. Most pastors I know have been doing this through the pandemic. We’ve all been on a steep learning curve and we’ve all developed skills we never even dreamed of needing. But the endless stream of adverts and “opportunities” that have been coming long before this pandemic and will continue to come with whatever comes next creates the impression that a select few “get it” and they are kind enough to help the average stumbly-bumbly pastors find their way.

For a price.

Once upon a time, the Spirit empowered us and led us. But in these last days, God has given us gurus who will, if the price is right, tell us how to manage the house of God and possibly, if we take their course, become like them in nature and purpose. World without end, amen and amen.

To my brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry I can only offer my encouragement. You know your place and your people and the Spirit of God is the same Spirit we all share. He’ll give you what you need when you need it for these “unprecedented times” and it will be free. You know when you need to learn something, don’t feel pressured by those offering THE answer. Find a good coach who will help you discover the answers you need and avoid the gurus who don’t know your place, don’t know your people and are taking the opportunity to turn you for a profit.

And can we all agree collectively to never say “unprecedented times” again?

Black Lives Matter

(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. This is what is on my heart and mind today about pastoral ministry in America.)

I live in fear for all of my black friends. I fear for their physical safety and for their emotional and mental well-being as they experience an endless stream of threats and the daily additions to the 300 year record of slavery, Jim Crow, the human trafficking we call mass incarceration, violence and lynchings, and cultural insensitivity of a dominant white culture that insists black people behave like white people in order to be accepted.

I live in fear because the lives of my black friends don’t seem to matter to my dominant white culture. We have been taught to fear black people, so we do. We white people tend to feel threatened by their existence, their appearance, by the mere experience of black people’s presence in white spaces. And our tendency is to act violently towards what we fear.

And act violently, we have.

My first trip to the North Carolina Museum of history here in Raleigh was a shocking and eye-opening experience for me seven years ago.

I knew slavery existed; I knew it was an ugly part of our history. I did not know or understand that slavery built the States. I did not know that slavery existed in the States for hundreds of years. I did not know that after emancipation, whole communities of prosperous black businesses and prosperous black families would be burned down and murdered by the jealous, greedy, white population in their towns and cities.

I had heard about Jim Crow but did not have friends who lived through desegregation. Friends who have living memories of being yelled at as children for attending a public school with white students. I had never lived in a place where friends were afraid to stop for gas in certain communities because to stop and get out of their car meant risking their personal safety. I didn’t know that some of my black friends and their parents had to rely on the Green Book to find safe accommodations when they traveled by car through the South.

We hadn’t lived here for very long when my daughter, then in her late teens and who was born and raised in Canada, came home from seeing the movie, Selma. She walked through the front door visibly upset and she asked for my wife and I to reassure that the movie was a work of fiction and not of historical accuracy. It may have been the earliest seeds that were planted that would eventually result in her moving north. Growing up with a cleft lip and palate, my daughter knew what being persecuted for your appearance felt like. She knew what being an outsider to the dominant culture was because she wasn’t born looking like everyone else did to her soul and she wanted none of it.

At the end of February, several people from our church and a few friends from outside of our church went on Sankofa. A journey of looking back, of remembering, of reaching back into our collective past to bring forward something beautiful and meaningful and important. We started at the Edmund Pettus bridge (named after a Senator and Klan leader) and walked across that span where the blood of black men and women had stained the pavement from the blows of clubs and fists and rifle butts of white men on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965 when I was 1 and half years old. They were punished for wanting the right to exercise their freedom to vote.

We walked together, black, Latino and white, through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. We saw the pictures and read the stories of injustices against black people and upheld by the white governing powers up to and including recent times. I was struck by the faces of black men and women, heroes, leaders, history makers who I did not know, could not name, had no knowledge of and whose pictures filled a room from top to bottom but had had no place in the history books from which I had been taught.

The rest of Sankofa reinforced a painful truth. The struggle for the civil rights, the basic human rights, for some of my dearest friends was just a footnote in my own story, the story of white people settling and making something of this continent. And my own story as a white person in America was a fabrication – a lie – an edited version of reality that covered up the truth that the prosperity of America was built on the bloody backs of black men and women, slaves. First we made them slaves by commerce and then we maintained them in subservience by rules, laws, economic disadvantages, ghettos and mass incarceration.

The myth of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is that not only do some people not have boots, but I stole them, my people stole them from them so we could have boots for our children.

And what do you suppose this does to a human being? 300 years of slavery. And then ongoing oppression. Being reviled for the color of their skin, being lynched because the white lady thought the young black man looked at her the “wrong way?” What soul damage is done to a people group when your family can be taken from you or you from them at any moment? What soul damage is done when a man takes his family into a restaurant and is told they can’t be served in that restaurant because they are black or can’t set there on the bus because they are black.

And I can assure you, living here at the edge of the South – this still goes on today – overtly and covertly. I’ve been with black friends, I’ve felt the vibe, I’ve seen the preferential treatment of white people by white people and the ignoring of black people by white people who were in line before me. We all want to excuse these as one off events or mistakes. If that is so, the South I live in is a miracle of one off events and racially motivated mistakes.

4400 black lives lynched from 1877-1950

I live in fear for all of my black friends. I am sick and tired of watching this unfold and I am in admiration of the black women and men who are my friends who have lived this story their whole lives and still keep going. I believe there are better days ahead but I want to help those days get here more quickly by doing all I can to nurture a community that is a beach head of the incoming kingdom of God. I want to continue the journey of Sankofa. I want to oppose the injustice of racism and all the evil it brings into the world. I want my black friends to feel that my wife and I are a safe place. I want our church to be a place where people of all cultures and ethnicities can feel safe, feel seen, feel empowered and feel loved.

I’m 56. I’m white. I’ve been a pastor for about 35 years. And I feel like I’m just learning, day by day, how to pastor the WHOLE body of Christ and not just the white body of Christ that people of color are welcome to attend. I lament today over Ahmaud Arbery but not because his lynching was a shocking exception to our otherwise peaceful life together. I lament because Ahmaud represents the 4400 documented lynchings that occurred in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950. I lament because it feels like black lives still don’t matter. I lament because my sisters and brothers of color are exhausted in every way by this ongoing evil. I lament because I have been complicit through fear and participation in systems of racisms and countless sins of omission. I lament today because I fear for my black friends who are still not safe and I love them.

Ordination (the process)

(Today is Credo Friday. The Credo entries are meant to give a glimpse into or an explanation of the things I believe. The things that shape me. The thoughts that lead to practices that form who and how I am.)

It has been more than a week but I’m finally back for part two – my thoughts on the process of ordination. (Part One is HERE.) In the gap between then and now, I’ve been made to realize just how wide the gap is between my own thoughts about this and the group of churches of which I am a part. That means something but I haven’t been able to figure out what.

But it does lead me to stating a part of my credo: I have come to a sacramental view of pastoral ministry. It is a sacred trust. It doesn’t make someone better than, it confers no inherent authority or powers other than those that are conferred on anyone who lives out their vocation for the glory of God and the well being of souls. I am not arguing for a priestly class anymore than I would argue for a plumberly class but I do know I’m grateful for plumbers and nurses and teachers and mechanics and I defer to their authority and I accede to them power over me in the healthy function of their vocation.

There’s malpractice in every vocation. The remedy for malpractice isn’t pretending there is no special call for pastoral ministry, that pastors hold no special place in the life of the church. The remedy is accountability and healthy church systems. Wolves will rise, we’re called to be on guard against them – that requires action – that’s what shepherds do. And here’s the thing, you can say, “Everyone gets to play” or “The priesthood of all believers” and you will still have individuals who will get double honor (to borrow a biblical phrase) for the work they do in the body of Christ. And you will still have individuals who will attempt and often succeed because of their personal presence or charisma, to tell all the other everyones how to play, when to play and what to play. Healthy systems can help us avoid, as much as possible, unhealthy actors.

Moving on before this bunny trail becomes a whole post…

Here’s the system I would put in place if it were up to me to put such things into place.

This system would be administrated by the local church or through the local church as empowered by their denomination or movement. It would be an exercise of discernment and community.

A small group of people would be recruited who demonstrate a level of maturity in faith, spiritual formation and relationship. This would be the “discernment team.” They would be equipped with information and questions. The information would be in the form of a spiritual biography prepared by the candidate and shared with the pastors/elders of the local church and the discernment team. This would be submitted at least 3 weeks prior to the first meeting with the candidate so that the church leadership team and the discernment team could read and pray and listen and make notes from the spiritual biography for the upcoming conversation.

The leadership team of the local church, with some direction from their denomination or movement would create a document that provides the answer to these questions: What is our story? What do we believe pastoral ministry looks like? What are the essential elements of pastoral formation? What story elements should we look for in the life of a candidate that would indicate a calling to pastoral ministry in our particularity? What skills does a pastor need (along with their calling and gifts) to prepare them for pastoral ministry? What education/training does a pastor need (along with their calling and gifts) to prepare them for pastoral ministry?

There would be three mandatory meetings with the candidate and the discernment team before a decision would be announced. These would take place several weeks apart and cover three seasons of a year. During this 9 month period, the candidate would be meeting at least monthly with a spiritual director approved by the church.

The first meeting would be all about relational connection. Conversation and clarifying questions from the discernment team about the spiritual biography, would be the agenda. The team and the candidate would spend time together in listening prayer.

The second meeting would be mostly about asking story questions. First, the team would ask the candidate if they wanted to continue the ordination process and then they would ask what the candidate felt God had been speaking to them. Then the discernment team would ask the candidate questions like:

Tell us about the circumstances and story about how you became of a follower of Jesus…

How have you seen God working over the course of your life to prepare you for pastoral ministry?

Who are the most important influences in your life and in what way have they influence your sense of vocation?

Please tell us what a pastoral vocation means to you. As a pastor, what would your life look like?

Please give us five reasons whey you want to be engaged in pastoral ministry.

Tell us about a time when you have felt discouraged or depressed. How often do you feel that way and what do you do or how do you react when those feelings are strong?

Tell us about your current experiences and efforts in pastoral ministry in the local church…

What’s the worst situation you’ve ever been a part of in a local church?

What role does education play in the vocation of pastoral ministry?

This is not an exhaustive list. The flavor and direction of these questions does indicate the direction this conversation should go and the type of content that it should have. It needs to be the longest of all of the meetings. After this conversation, both the discernment team and the candidate should enter a time of very intentional discernment and journal what they sense God is saying to them.

The third and final meeting (unless more are needed for some reason) should be the briefest of the three. This is an opportunity for a final round of clarifying questions and for a relational conversation. The candidate should be asked about their own journaling and discernment practices and what they feel God is saying to them. They should be asked about the successes and failures in pastoral ministry over the preceding three seasons and how both were handled by the candidate. At the end of this final meeting or very soon thereafter the discernment team should meet and discuss:

Do we collectively see some or all the elements of a pastoral vocation in the life of the candidate?

How would we feel about the candidate being our pastor?

What are our specific concerns about this individual?

What are the specific reasons we feel confident about this candidate’s call to pastoral ministry OR what are the specific reasons we would discourage this candidate from pursuing pastoral ministry as vocation?

Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, this is simply an indication of direction and flavor.

This discernment team would write up their unanimous recommendation and present it to their local church leadership team. The elders or leadership team would take time to read it before meeting with the team in person to discuss their conclusions. Collectively they should spend time in listening prayer together in this meeting. Unless the work of the eldership or leadership team has found sufficient reason based on their own examination of the candidate and prayerful discernment, they would accept the recommendation of the discernment team.

During the preceding three seasons of this discernment process, the eldership (let’s just assume I also mean leadership team if you don’t have elders) would also be examining the candidate:

To identify their spiritual giftedness,

And their leadership gifts and aptitude,

their educational preparation,

their mental health issues (everyone has them),

their strengths and weaknesses,

where they fall on the APEST survey,

know their Life Language assessment,

know their Myers/Briggs Temperament Analysis,

know their Enneagram profile,

understand their family system profile,

and share an evaluation by pastoral staff of their observations of the candidate – concerns and kudos – during their internship.

Again, this is not meant to be exhaustive, simply an indication of the direction and flavor this process should take.

Elements that I have come to believe are essential that might otherwise not be considered:

Cross-cultural experiences.

Demonstrations of empathy.

A measurable record of spiritual formation.

Travel experiences outside their country of origin.

Professional therapy/counseling.

Situations designed for the candidate to fail (without their knowledge) and an evaluation of their response to things going differently than planned.

Reading across a spectrum of authors on topics related to pastoral ministry and a demonstrated ability to synthesize the material.

Learning how to have difficult conversations and demonstrating the ability to willfully engage in them.

Training in basic aspects of mental health and a commitment to make referrals to those with professional training.

Doing the 12 steps of recovery.

Again, not an exhaustive list – even if it exhausted you reading it – but an indication of what I have come to believe about pastoral ministry in our day and in our way. Ultimately, I would argue that this should be a slow process and we should not rush to “lay hands” on anybody. I realize how inconvenient this is. I realize how much more work this creates for the local body. I realize that this does not prevent wolves from rising. However, I have come to believe that a process like this will help us identify the right people AND the wrong people in a way that will mitigate the incidents of malpractice and impostors within pastoral ministry.

I have come to believe that ordination is sacramental and should not be something that happens between three people who bump into each other in a hallway at a national conference. It should involve the whole church and be a process of discernment through relationship that gives both the candidate and the congregation a sense of “it seemed right to us and to the Holy Spirit” verified by the shared story of the one called and those who will be led.

I’d love to have your comments on the problems or positives that you see about the model that I’ve described here.

Getting Out of Bed

(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday, time for a mostly weekly post about pastoral ministry – the life and the challenges, the highs and lows of living this pastor’s life. Step up and take a look behind the curtain.)

There’s an old joke that goes something like this…

One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, “I’m not going.” 

“Why not?” she asked.

I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me, and two, I don’t like them.”

His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why you SHOULD go to church: One, you’re 59 years old, and two, you’re the pastor!”

There are a lot of reasons people go into pastoral ministry but why do people stay in pastoral ministry?

I do not think I’ve ever met anyone who has been in pastoral ministry for more than a couple years who doesn’t have a painful story to tell and “war wounds from friendly fire” to compare with other pastors. It’s an occupational hazard, and while all our vocations may include them, the risks that come along with pastoral ministry cut especially close to the heart and bone.

When you are responsible for the well-being of souls and part of the present day system of how we do church, your normal workday can look like a busy month for the bomb squad. There are fires to put out, bombs to diffuse, landmines to navigate and help others avoid. An average day can be the kind of experience that keeps a therapist in business for years to come with questions about your competency from people who have never done your job; people complaining about a message or prayer or conversation in which you felt like you had been led by God; contacts from people in the community who want to know what you’re going to do about the member of your church that has been doing them wrong which makes them wonder what you’ve been teaching them as their pastor.

The want to be wanted is a powerful force in anyone’s life. It is as powerful in a pastor’s life as it is in yours. And many pastors are made to feel by the members of the governing body of their local church, that they are the opposition, the force to be resisted, the agent of change or progress that requires them to be an equal and opposite influence to pull in the opposite direction back towards the familiar. Feeling unwanted by the people you mean to pour your life out for can cause us to turn to some unhealthy and illegitimate sources to satisfy our need or to collapse in on ourselves becoming darker, heavier and so dense we can no longer shine.

To be fair, there are some people in pastoral ministry whose proverb is, “Ministry would be so much easier if people weren’t involved.” Their motivator is about power, influence, income – the stuff of earth – and they have the capacity to carry on getting the job done oblivious to or without regard to the quality of relationships they share with the flock of God of which they are a part but to which they have been called as a shepherd.

Sometimes the joke – there seem to be a lot of jokes around this – is that the pay for what we do isn’t much but the retirement plan is “out of this world!” Which is a little like what Carl the groundskeeper (as played by the brilliant Bill Murray) was offered by the Dalai Lama in leu of a tip for caddying… “So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”

It’s not so nice.

Again, there are pastors who make a lot of money. Like obscene amounts of money. Pastors who make it onto “Preachers in Sneakers” (check it out on Instagram) who either have sweet endorsement deals or fat paychecks, or both. I’ve watched the Youtube depositions of pastors giving testimony to the IRS about the silk shirts, tailored suits, Gucci belts and multiple houses and vehicles they’ve tried to claim as “ministry expenses.” But these are the outliers. These are not normal people engaged in pastoral ministry.

Occasionally someone will ask me, “How do I know if I’m called to pastoral ministry?” And eventually I always tell them the same thing, “If you can do anything else, do it.” There are too many forces that will come against you in everyday life that will make you doubt yourself, doubt you should be doing what you are doing, shake you to the very center of your being with accusations, innuendo and judgment. If you can find peace doing anything else, do it. But when you find your heart is restless, when you realize people keep coming to you, when your heart is drawn over and over and over again to people who need a shepherd, hold on to that inability to do anything else – embrace the call – bear the burden and find Pete’s words true for you, “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.”

You pastors, my friends, you are soon to be crowned, soon to be honored by our brother and great shepherd – who knows EXACTLY what you are going through, has not only felt it all in his own lifetime but now feels it all over again with you in yours. He knows what it’s like to bear the weaknesses of others and have them scorn you for it. He knows how it feels to be weighted down with sorrow for what others are going through. He knows what it is like to contend with fakes and phonies that make it all that much harder for you to do what you do the way you do it. He knows what it’s like when people would rather have the strong man instead of the suffering servant.

He sees you.

He is with you.

And he knows your name. He call you, “the soon to be crowned.”

“The soon to be honored.”

“The soon to receive never-ending glory.”

It’s not total consciousness, but it’s not too bad either.

Blessings on all of you, my sisters and brothers – the road is full of stones but may you walk tall knowing there are even better days ahead.

Camino Diary, Day 9

We left Torres del Rio in the darkness of the early morning. The three of us rolled out of our bunk beds and packed our gear to get an early start for our walk to Logrono. The skies were overcast, and we relied on Bill’s headlamp to illuminate the way.

This was our last day with Derrick on the Camino. He had to return to home for work and we decided that we would spend a whole day in Logrono together to celebrate him and our journey together before we had to say, “good-bye for now.” Derrick was our main connection to nearly everyone we had met on the Camino. He ordered our food for us. He read directions and street signs. We were not only saying good-bye to our friend, we were also losing a companion who had been mistakenly thought of as our tour guide more than once by Spanish pilgrims.

My diary from this day has this highlight: “The up hills are still killing me. If I go slow and steady, I can make it.”

By this point on the Camino we had met people who were not able to continue on because of injuries or because the whole walk had become just too much for them. If all I had ever seen about the Camino was the Martin Sheen movie I would have come with the wrong idea about how difficult some parts of this walk would be. It was not just the physical demands of the walk but the mental and emotional demands as well – being far from home, disconnected from family, having so many miles ahead of you with unknown challenges still to come.

On our way into Logrono it started to rain again. I got into my pack and pulled out my rain poncho. Just as I got it free from my pack there was a gust of wind that caught it like a sail and tore it out of my hand. I gave chase, caught it and looked up to find that the 3 Irish ladies that we had met our very first night in St. Jean, were standing right in front of me. It was a gift to see them again and have a quick bit of catch up while I pulled on my poncho.

In my diary I note that we were almost a full week into our walk and I had already lost track of what day of the week we were on. The days were jumbled and I was telling time more by geographical location than by the calendar.

This was the day I thought I would be leaving the Camino early.

I received word from the daughter of some very good friends that one of them (I’m keeping this intentionally vague as the details are theirs and not mine) had had an aneurysm. They were in a medically induced coma and it was looking grim. The coma was to allow them to do treatment and surgery in as safe a manner as possible.

I was gutted.

I wrote, “If *** passes, I am almost certainly headed to ***. Praying for 100% healing and recovery. Having been down this road with others (an occupational hazard) it’s hard.”

My wife and I were supposed to be meeting up with these two friends of ours after I finished my Camino. I would leave for Dublin to meet Donna and then after a little time, we would cross over and meet up with them in the Yorkshire Dales for a reunion and holiday together. My heart was heavy. My prayers took on a new sense of urgency and intercession.

Logrono was huge and beautiful and welcoming. We entered the city by crossing an amazing bridge as the rain caught up to us. The welcome center at the bridge provided us with maps and information to help us find our way into and around the city. There were spectacular wall murals and statues around the city and my eyes were soaking it all. The rain arrived, encouraging us to get inside.

Once we found our accommodations and showered using the real towels they provided, we set out to find a coin operated laundromat and get our clothes washed and dried. Our GPS let us down and we were ended up chasing laundry phantoms all over Logrono. Finally, we gave up and walked into a local café – during siesta – to get out of the rain and eat a bocadillo if we could buy one. As we looked around the small shop, Derrick recognized a young, Asian man that we had met earlier along the way. He called himself, Ryan for us. I would never have remembered him. Derrick never would have forgotten him. We started talking and we told him about our unsuccessful search for a laundromat. Smiling, he told us that he was in this particular café because he was waiting for his clothes to dry in a laundromat just a block or so away.

Another Camino miracle.

Ryan took us to the laundry and we sorted out the instructions and tossed our dirty, wet clothes into the wash. Ryan gathered his dry clothes and said good-bye and was off again. As our clothes swirled and tumbled and got clean again, the three of us, Derrick, Bill and myself, made our way over to an oasis just a block away. Siesta was over and the local Spanish Domino’s pizza was open. We just happened to stumble on this gift. We sat, ate, drank and talked about our journey. I ran back over and put our clothes in the dryer, deposited more coins and rejoined by friends to eat a real pizza while it rained outside and we savored all the journey had been for us so far as we looked out the window  on Logrono.

That night, we had another gift of the Camino. Antony, Loli and Jesús new Camino friends met up with us for a celebration for Derrick. We met at a wine bar where Jesús treated us to a delicious local wine and then Bill and Derrick went with the trio for dinner while I retired to our accommodations for the night. We had splurged on a nice place with our own room and real towels to make the most of our last day on the Camino with Derrick. My feet were killing me. Bill’s smashed and no doubt broken toes might have been recovering in a miraculous way but my blisters had blisters and every step was painful.

I hated to retreat from what promised to be a beautiful night but it seemed wise to get off my feet, treat my blisters and toes and get some extra rest. The next day we planned to spend in Logrono with Derrick, making the most of our last day together before sending him back to America.

Driving the Bus

(Every Tuesday I try to post something here about pastoral ministry. Sometimes I’m reacting, sometimes sharing from my experiences and sometimes I’m spouting off about my philosophy of ministry. And sometimes it’s all 3 or none of the above.)

During this season of pandemic there have been a lot of voices coming at us with information, plans and procedures. As one Facebook meme said, “Last week, all my friends were political scientists and this week they’re all immunologists.” But it’s not just Facebook friends. It’s our government leaders, medical professionals, scientists, TV personalities, news outlets and people protesting for their right to play golf.

For all my friends in pastoral ministry we call this, “Monday.”

I’ve already written about the way in which Pastoral Ministry is like coaching football or refereeing basketball – everyone has an opinion they feel qualified to share about the job you’re doing. And at least half of everyone seems to think they could do it better than you. People who have never taken a course in hermeneutics, homiletics or the original languages can all understand, interpret and apply the Bible as well as you can – which makes a person wonder why they bothered with that degree (or degrees) in the first place. People who have never had to look after the well being of a dozen souls, let alone 144 souls, or 1400 souls, seem to intuitively know what you should be doing instead of what you have been doing.

BUT

One thing that 35 years of pastoral ministry have convinced me of is that a vital aspect of pastoring is making sure the person driving the bus is the one most qualified to get you where you are going.

I don’t know everything. I don’t know how to do everything.

I’m not supposed to.

And even when I do know a lot of “thing,” I still might not know the best way to do something about it.

Some of my friends in pastoral ministry, especially normal size church pastors, tend to pick up a broad range of skills that range from plumbing to discipleship, sound systems to inner healing. But I am convinced that one of the most important aspects of this vocation of pastoring is making sure the right person is in the right place to get us where God is leading us.

Sometimes that’s me. Often it’s not.

There are people much better with people in our local church than I am. I need to get out of their way, empower them and watch them exercise their own expertise or gifting.

There are people much better with strategic planning in our local church than I am. I need to get of their way, empower them and watch them exercise their own expertise or gifting.

My friend Jason is much better at leading worship, worship teams and pastoring our creatives. My role is to get out of his way, help him thrive and excel and stay in my own lane (to mix a metaphor) while he drives for our worship times.

Now, some of us do this, but we do this in a way that leaves people feeling like puppets on my string or with a hand up their backside.

I ask you to lead the group tonight and then I show up and tell you what to say to them, what the agenda is, how to wrap things up…it’s still ME leading this meeting, I’ve just stuck my hand up your backside and made you my puppet.

And that’s not cool. And it doesn’t help people grow up. It takes away their agency and their power.

Or I ask you to lead songs because I suck but now I’m going to tell you exactly what songs to sing, how long to sing them and what you can and can’t do during and in between the verses.

Again, this is the difference between leadership and puppeteering. Leaders need to stop putting their hands up people’s backsides if they want them to grow up.

In the wise words of Elsa, “Let it go!”

You can still have standards.

You can still inspire people with a vision.

You can still come alongside people and work together for the common good.

But we need to relinquish control over outcomes and trust the Spirit to work through the Beloved Community.

I need to have people who are really good with money making decisions about what we do with our money.

I need to have people who are really good with children working with our children’s ministry.

I need to have people who have a passion for worship – for whom it is a vocation – leading our worship – not just singing it but driving the worship bus.

There are people in our local church who are better preachers than I am. I need to regularly get them behind the wheel of the preaching bus.

What this all requires though is one of the most important and yet most difficult things every person involved in pastoral ministry needs to develop or grow or discover – an unshakeable sense of their own self-worth in light of God’s love and approval of who they are.

Otherwise, I will fear letting others behind the wheel because their success – their doing well – threatens my own sense of worth, value and importance. I will fear others as long as my sense of well-being is based on the admiration, adoration and approval of the people with whom I pastor. And pastoral ministry is rampant with men and women who have come to think so little of themselves that they feel motivated to protect whatever bits of “position” and “power” and “authority” the feel being a pastor or a leader or a boss gives them and builds up their sense of self.

A pastoral team (I think a better way to go than a lone individual) works to discern the route our local church is called to take to express the incoming Kingdom of God. The next step is getting the right people in the right places to drive their part of that route – without back seat drivers jumping in and making it harder. They may take a route different from the route I would have chosen but as long as we are getting to the place we started out for, I need to trust that there’s a very good reason they decided on the route they did. They may do a much better job driving their part of the route than I do – everyone might cheer for them and make a fuss about how amazing they are doing.

That’s wonderful.

It does not diminish me to magnifying someone else.

I don’t know everything, and that’s o.k.

I can’t do everything, and that’s o.k.

Some people can do better than me at aspects of what I do, and that’s o.k. But no one is better at being me than me.

Others may be the first leader that people in our local church turn to for help or expert guidance, and that’s o.k. In fact, more than o.k., it’s good and healthy.

When Paul said he was all things to all people, he didn’t mean in his vocation he was the best or the first or the only at anything. Brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry, my friends, don’t be afraid of the gifting and leadership in the flock of God of which you are a part. Take a seat and watch them go.

Flock of God, please don’t make your pastoral ministry leaders afraid of you by insisting they should be experts on everything, know how to be in every situation, never have or disclose their weaknesses, and never rely on you for the gift and ministry God’s put inside of you.  

Clarification

I hate that I am writing this today. I hate that I feel that I need to.

Here’s the story – I have received a few private messages from friends and colleagues in ministry who have kindly stopped by to read a blog post or two. Their takeaway from some of my posts is that I am unhappy, that I am frustrated with our local church, that I am posting passive aggressive messages to my own congregation. They kindly feel bad for me but wonder if posting some of the things I post is really the way to build the kingdom of God (or a similar phrase that calls me to think of the “higher good.”)

So I’m posting this to be as clear as I can be.

I am posting my Pastoral Ministry Tuesday posts because 35 years of pastoral ministry have filled my heart and head up with experiences that I feel like I need to share. First, because I want to leave a written picture for my kids to be able to look back at and say to their therapists, “see, this is my old man and some of this explains some of him and therefore some of me.” Second, I hope to be a help to people just getting started in pastoral ministry or somewhere far enough along in that journey that they are starting to ask some questions now and they may be able to benefit from my mistakes and observations. Third, I can’t not write. I’ve tried.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone or get back at anyone or complain about anyone. I’m telling stories, sharing reflections, mining my own memories for helpful thoughts and perspectives on life in pastoral ministry.

And I’m really happy with our local church. Are we perfect? I’ll say we’re perfectly imperfect. I love who we are and even more, I love the glimpses of who we are becoming. I’m the weird kind of pastor who doesn’t turn to colleagues in ministry for my closest friendships. My closest friends are in our local church as they were in the local church we were a part of before this. I think that’s how Jesus modeled it. When I have issues here with friends, we bring them up and talk about them, because we’re trying to grow up.

Do we always get it right here? Nope.

Do I always get it right here? Hard nope.

But I’m not going to vent on here about issues in our local church unless those issues are already being discussed or have already been discussed here and they are universal issues that we all face or might face.

Sometimes I refer to the movement of churches of which I am currently a part. I am frustrated with my movement. I have been for almost 7 years now and I’ve communicated my frustrations, in detail, to everyone in the food chain above me to the very end of that line. I’m not saying anything here that I haven’t already communicated to my benevolent overlords.

A few comments from friends or colleagues in ministry indicate that I’m coming across in some of my posts as being very cynical about the Church. In my experience, that is possible. In my experience, it’s also what people tell me when I’m just being honest about what I see when I point out the Emperor has no clothes on. I do try to run things by my wife and/or other close friends, coach or spiritual director if I think what I’m writing on is pushing the cynicism line because I know I can go there. But just as often, it becomes an ad hominem argument with people who don’t want to engage with what I’m writing about…ie. if I’m “cynical,” they don’t have to think about what I’ve written.

I like it when people read what I write. I like it even more when they respond to it, positively or negatively. But I’m writing what I write because I find I can’t not write about it. At least in this season. But I’m feeling very strongly today that I need to step up for my local church and be as clear as possible that I consider myself blessed to be part of our local church and to be in relationship with some of the dearest and best people I have ever known. My life is rich and thriving because of the people with whom I share life together.

I love our local church. I love the beloved community.

Camino Diary, day 8

We left Estella and sadly, we left behind Derrick’s pilgrim credentials. A sign he would have to return another day to finish the Camino. The time was coming up quickly that he would be leaving us and returning home. To stay on our schedule, we used a “fast forward” and took a bus ahead to Los Arcos and then walked an additional 8km to our albergue for the night.

I was on the Camino as part of my sabbatical season from my vocation as the pastor of a local church. I was given two months of time off and had planned for 3 weeks of that to be spent with my wife in some of our favorite places in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. This influenced our walking schedule and some of the choices that were made on the Camino to “fast forward” in order to stay on this predetermined schedule when I would need to fly out of Santiago and onto Dublin to meet my wife.

On the Camino

This was not the reason for today’s fast forward but it was a reality that day by day was causing me to become aware that the walking schedule I had set was not a schedule that we would be able to follow as planned.

The issue today was that accommodations in Los Arcos appeared to be scarce or non-existent and I had taken on the role of sorting out our accommodations. You could always take your chances and there was usually a municipal albergue that would have beds without reservations on a first come/first served basis. But already on the Camino we had learned that my companions and I were not, let’s say…prepared for what many of the municipal albergues offered.

Pilgrims ahead. Pilgrims behind.

Bill and I were both on Vitamin I today and picked up some extra extra strength Ibuprofen at the Farmicia along the way. These were a gift. My feet were killing me and his toes, still black from being smashed, were bad – likely one (at least) was broken. It was still early in the day and the albergue in Torres del Rio had beds – and a pool. I stood in the pool and cooled my feet off. Bill soaked his foot in ice water to reduce the swelling of his toes. And at the pool we discovered Antony, our new friends, was also staying in this same albergue.

Derrick had been feeling badly that he likely wouldn’t see Antony again before he left for home and suddenly, unexpectedly, and very randomly, here he was. Another gift of the Camino.

We sat in the lobby waiting for cleaning to be finished for the day and beds to open. A man and woman walked in, pilgrims, looking for beds and after finding out they had room, the woman asked our innkeeper about getting rid of bed bugs. Our hostess stopped everything else she was doing and focused on the question by asking her own – “Have you been somewhere with bed bugs?” When the pilgrim said she had, just the night before and wanted to know how to kill them, the lady behind the counter came around and ushered them back out of the lobby and onto the patio outside. She gave them large, black garbage bags and told them to put everything – EVERYTHING – into those bags and sit down on nothing.

It became very intense, very quickly. She gave them all the instructions they need to de-bed bug but nothing of there’s could come inside the albergue that night.

In my diary I recorded the following:

“So much about this has reminded me of Bible College. I went with so many expectations, especially about the spiritual aspect of what I was doing and what we were doing together – only to have all those expectations quickly smashed. God does that, the great iconoclast. The Camino has been what it is and the way is full of people who come with as many motivations as there are stars in the sky.”

There were a lot of reasons people were on the Camino. Many were out for an adventure. Many were there for the challenge. Some were on the Camino again because, and I will attest to this, once you’ve walked the Camino it becomes a felt need to be on the Camino again. One peregrino called it, “Topping up.” And some  of the pilgrims were there to connect with people – for dating, friendship or just as “people people” who loved the comradery of the Camino.

It was on our way to Torres del Rio that I developed very strong feelings about bicyclists on the Camino. Simply, why? I don’t object to bicycling as a way to do the Camino but I do object to the way some people ride. The only time I felt in danger walking the traditional Camino path was when bicyclists would go flying by at high speeds and had I slipped into their path or if they had accidentally veered a couple inches towards me, serious harm would have been done to one or both of us. Some on bikes were friendly, bell-ringing and practicing safety. Most, in my experience, were not.

At our albergue for the night I wrote this: “So many languages and people represented here. The value is on finding our similarities and not our differences. We exchange nods and smiles as we limp down the hall of our albergues to the bathroom.” The multi-cultural experience of the albergues was one of the many gifts of the Camino. The instant connection it creates with people you have never met before, whose language you may not speak but who limp like you limp, is beautiful.