Oaths of Office

On Friday I received my commission as a Chaplain (First Lieutenant) in the US Army and in the Indiana Army National Guard. Here are the oaths I swore.

I, Christopher Thomas Duckworth, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Indiana against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and Governor of the State of Indiana, that I make this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of First Lieutenant in the Army National Guard of the State of Indiana upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.

I, Christopher Thomas Duckworth, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of First Lieutenant do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; SO HELP ME GOD.

April 25, 2014
Lawrence, Indiana

Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

Read More

Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

There's lots of love out there right now in the religious world – well, in the Comedy Central-watching religious left world, anyway – for Stephen Colbert.  Several outlets have picked up on a Religious News Service (RNS) piece, Behind Colbert's right-wing funnyman, a quiet faith, and it is making its rounds among my friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook.  But count me among the less-than-impressed.

Stephen Colbert is funny and has good hair, and he often makes great and biting commentary through the faux smile of his conservative caricature.  Those who know religion can catch his subtle references to maters of faith and can appreciate that his comfort with matters of faith is rooted, by all accounts, in his own deeply-held personal faith commitments.  Most recently, Colbert went before a congressional subcommittee and, after a testimony offered in persona as the right wing commentator blowhard, he offered what seemed like a heart-felt and authentic plea for the better treatment of migrant workers, who he identified with "the least of these" in Jesus' famous words from Matthew 25:40.

Stephen_colbert-9310 But there's one problem: Colbert is phony.  For someone who is a comedian, authenticity isn't Goal #1 – laughs are.  Phoniness is part of the gig, making him funny … in an exaggerated and contrived way.  There's almost a Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat quality to Colbert when he is in persona.  But, when isn't he in persona?  We don't really get any sense of who Stephen Colbert himself actually is – except, perhaps, when he laughs at his own absurdity, temporarily falling out of character.  We don't know where the line separating his eponymous role from his own self is drawn.  It is this inherent quality of caricature in Stephen Colbert that makes him unsettlingly funny … but which, by contrast, prevents us viewers from having any clue with whom we're actually dealing. 

When an actor portrays a role in a movie or television show, the rules are clear – the actor is acting.  But when Stephen Colbert "acts" in a role named after himself, and when he comments on political and social issues of current interest in that role, we're not sure what we're seeing any longer.  Where does the shtick end and the reality begin?  Again, it's funny.  But – and now in reference to this RNS piece about his faith – it is this inability to trust just who or what we're dealing with when we watch Stephen Colbert that diminishes any impact his unique testimony of faith might have.  For how can we tell if his faith is part of the act or perhaps something authentic?  That too was the problem with his testimony before Congress.  His testimony was an act.  The form in which he offered his testimony detracted from any serious message he may have had to share with our elected leaders.

That's why, in the contest between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I'm on the side of Jon Stewart.  Stewart isn't a caricature.

Jon Stewart is a comic, but he is also more than a comic.  He is either "the smartest funny man or the funniest smart man" on television, as Paul Begala described him on an ill-fated episode of Crossfire six years ago.  But he's even more than a smart social commentator mixed with comedic relief.  Stewart is, dare I say, real, in a world full of fakes.  What is real?  I'll leave that question to the philosophers and to Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix.  But whatever real is, I believe that Jon Stewart is it. 

Six years ago Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's Crossfire, not in any persona, but as himself – a comedian, yes, but also as an American passionately worried about our nation and the state of its political discourse, insisting that shows such as Crossfire are "hurting America."  Whatever you think of him and his views, Stewart that day spoke honestly and earnestly and, almost single-handedly, brought down a show that epitomized the worst of American political discourse.  That's his appeal, and that's why I like him so much.  When on The Daily Show Stewart is blasting FOX News on one hand and is exasperated at the Democrats on the other, we sense that this is not an act but the brilliantly-delivered insights of a left-of-center comic who is one of the few people willing to say that none of the political emperors are wearing any clothes.

Shift to the church.  Who are we ministers when we step into the pulpit?  Are we phony preachers putting on a show, trying to portray a particular persona of faith and piety?  Or are we able to be ourselves in our own skin, trying less to play a role than we are trying to share a message in a compelling yet personal way?  We follow a script, yes, but are we following one that makes room for and gives voice to authenticity in message and in self?  I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8; italics my emphasis).

In his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers a commentary on preachers through the observations of a cynical Holden Caulfield.

If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback edition, 1991), pg. 100.

How often do we who lead churches try to play the role, speaking in our best "Holy Joe voices" (literally or figuratively) when a good ol' "inside voice" without any bravado or vibrato would do just fine?  And how many people in the pews and in our neighborhoods see right through the phoniness of our clergy and our churches and opt instead for the authenticity of other relationships, communities and causes?

May we who lead churches steer clear of Holy Joe voices and leave faux personas behind.  Instead, may we strive to conduct our ministry authentically, honestly, and faithfully, for in so doing we follow the way of our Lord Jesus, the Word of God, who came not with bluster or grandeur or in any "role," but who came to us in the simplicity and down-to-earth authenticity of a crying baby, truth-telling storyteller, and the suffering of one dying unjustly.

Ministering to < 27.5%

Render.php A few weeks ago Dr. Roger Nishioka, professor of practical theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke at our synod assembly's fall session on the topic of young adults in the church.  He had lots of wonderful, challenging, and insightful things to say, many of which were captured in a series of blogposts posted from the floor of the assembly.

But it was one simple fact, I'm ashamed to say, that just shocked me.  Only 27.5% of young adults have a college degree, yet we Lutherans often conduct our ministries in ways that assume that the people in the pews will have at least a college education, and an interest in the theological and Biblical scholarship of the church.  Lutherans, he said, easily appeal to the head with their approach to ministry, concerned with good theology and good liturgical practice.  (As a Presbyterian, he also included in this assesment his tradition, many of whose ministers use an academc style gown when preaching and presiding at worship.)  And not only are we concerned with such things, but we often lead with such things, preaching and teaching and holding conferences about the importance of theology and preaching and liturgy while, perhaps, giving less attention to the life-giving Lord himself, who is the sole purpose and foundation of any good theology or liturgical practice in the first place.  As I confessed in these pixels two weeks ago, I have often attempted to preach in a way that would appease the intellectual gods that I fancy seminary professors and Christian Century editors to be, at the expense of the people who are actually – or who potentially could be – in the pews.

And more.  As our Lutheran pietist sisters and brothers have often highlighted, to what extent does an emphasis on orthodoxy often fail to warm the heart in the way that our Lord's presence warmed the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus?  Orthodoxy and heart-felt faith are not polar opposites – such an opposition would be a false dichotomy – but we who value good order and right doctrine must remember that human beings are whole bodied beings, able and yearning to experience God in all facets of our being, not just through intellectual assent.  For the Word became flesh, took on the entirety of human experience, and lived among us.

But back to the 27.5%.  According to data from the 2000 census, young adults have obtained college degrees at a higher rate than the rest of the population.  That is, the proportion of Americans who have college degrees drops when we factor in older Americans (and by "older," I mean people as young as their late 30s, and older).

For the sake of discussion, let's pretend that this 27.5% is stands for the whole population (which it doesn't).  If in the way we conduct our ministry we're appealing to 27.5% of the population (represented by the green area in the pie chart, above), what about the other 72.5% of the population (represented by the blue area in the chart)?  By the way we conduct our ministry, are we essentially narrowing our proclamation of the Lord of all peoples to only 27.5% of the people, excluding – intentionally or not – the other 72.5% of God's people?  Classism and educational elitism comes into view …

Though I'm suspicioius of Paul's claim to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – that's a pretty darned hard thing to do if we're honest with ourselves – I like what he says in these verses nonetheless.  "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews," that is, in order to speak and teach and minister in ways that make sense to Jews.  Same thing "to those under the law," "to those outside the law," and "to the weak" – Paul became as one of them, "that I might by all means save some."  He knows that he cannot "win" any – that is, that he cannot proclaim the Gospel in ways that draw people to Christ – simply by staying within his own worldview.  He is willing to change the manner in which he conducts his ministry, "for the sake of the gospel."

Are we willing to try and follow Paul's lead?  Are we willing, for the sake of the gospel, to change the manner in which we conduct our ministry?  Are we able going to become weak for the weak, under the law for those under the law, outside the law for those outside the law?  Are we willing to view the world from the perspective of 72.5% of the population who does not have a college education, and conduct our ministry in a way that might speak to even some of them?  Are we willing to believe that God might care less about the framed degrees on our office walls than He does the people who never had the ability, opportunity, or luxury to accumulate such learning?  And if so, how does that belief shape the way we conduct our ministry?

As this last paragraph attests, I have more questions than answers.  I'm more convicted of my own failure than I am convinced about what to do.  I'm humbled by Paul and all the saints who have gone before me in genuine service to all God's people.  I'm awed by the God who chooses weakness and foolishness as his way in the world.  I'm weighed down by the sin of my own pride, the storing up of academic treasures framed on my wall and stacking up on my bookshelf, and I ask God to change my heart and my ways, so that I might more faithfully serve all his people.

Trying on Millstones

MillstoneColor Yesterday I updated by Facebook status to read, "Chris thinks he ought to get fitted with a millstone."  This was in reference to Luke 17:2:

It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

I'm increasingly convinced that the way we do ministry is a stumbling block to the vast majority of people in this world, and that we all – myself included – ought to get fitted for millstones.  In fact, I wondered as much in my Sunday sermon, assuming that my sermon itself was a stumbling block for some who were bored by my droning.  This increasing awareness is causing me to seriously re-think the tasks of ministry, including – the topic of today's post – preaching. 

If I'm honest in analyzing my preaching, I have generally begun each sermon with some sort of in real life story – about my family, something I saw in the community, or an event from the news – but after this opening image, I inevitably shift into what I hope is an accessible but intelligent theological reflection on what the Good News is for my congregation and the world that day.  Now, I think that I've generally done an adequate job in the pulpit.  But still, I'm questioning this method – in part because after the down-to-earth opening image, my sermons often become theological essays.  And I wonder – do my people really need a theological essay, or are my pseudo-intellectual attempts at theological sophistication just a stumbling block along their walk of faith?

I did something different this past Sunday.  I strived, with mixed success perhaps, to stay in real life rather than shift into some other theological realm.  Not that the sermon was devoid of theology – quite the contrary!  But my goal was not to write for seminary professors, colleagues, or The Christian Century readers – a vanity to which I (and perhaps many Lutheran pastors) must confess – but to speak to people who, more often than not, are intimidated by Bible Study or prayer, or lost within the ritual acts and proclamation of worship itself!  Yet, at the same time, these same people are drawn to our Lord and to his church because of a faith that is planted within them.

I'm going to continue fiddling with my preaching style.  Surely, each sermon will not contain large quantities of personal testimony, as did yesterday's sermon.  And surely some of my sermons will be lousy dribble.  But nonetheless, I am striving to preach somewhat differently than I have in the past, to more honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel in real life rather than escape into the comfortable – to me, and to many in the clergy class – confines of orderly theological paradigms.

All this being said, I think I had better go get myself fitted for a millstone.  Even if I don't wear one around my neck for a swim in the sea, having a millstone in my office (or a miniature – they're quite large!) would serve as a good reminder of the care I must take when proclaiming the Gospel and carrying out my ministry.

Woe to me if when I become a stumbling block to my neighbor!  Lord, forgive my sin, and grant that in all I do I might lift up my sisters and brothers, rather than cause them to fall down.

When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.

Pastoral Identity and Authenticity Online

A wonderful article by Lynne Baab in Spring 2010 issue of Lifelong Faith explores how various e-communications platforms – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, regular congregation-wide emails, and a good website – can work with established forms of communication – sermons, printed newsletters – to support and enhance the task of faith formation in the congregation.  It's a well-done piece, and worthy of your attention.

[Note: link to the article sends you to her personal website; Lifelong Faith is an excellent journal, and should be on the reading list of every church leader involved with faith formation ministries.]

In her article, Baab talks about the importance of the congregation – and the pastor(s) – having an online presence.  Baab writes that she has been "increasingly impressed with the strategic use of both Facebook and Twitter by congregations and by
Christian leaders," and she suggests that "every minister should consider having a blog."

Which – departing from her article now – got me to thinking about the identity and authenticity of pastors online.  When I started blogging over five years ago, many pastors and seminarians blogged anonymously or under pseudonyms.  I blogged semi-anonymously for a while myself, but then I shed anonymity in March, 2007, feeling a bit awkward about trying to keep quiet about things I was posting online for the world to read.  Some folks still blog anonymously, though it seems to be a less frequent occurrence (thanks to the rise of Facebook, blogging itself has declined in our Lutheran blogosphere).  Furthermore, many blogs that technically remain "anonymous" are much less anonymous these days, thanks to linking from Facebook and Twitter accounts. 

Yet the presence of those anonymous church-oriented blogs poses a question of authenticity – can we trust the words of someone who won't stand by their words?  No pastor can preach or teach anonymously, so why should they blog anonymously?  Can a pastor be anonymous and authentic at the same time?  I'm not so sure. 

"Authenticity" is not the same as "letting it all hang out," or revealing every last detail about your private life for all to read and see.  An authentic pastoral self is one that is honest about the brokenness of the human
condition, one that doesn't hide behind theological or liturgical phoniness, but instead uses the gifts of faith, scripture and tradition to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to bear through the caregiver's life and presence on the ministry of walking with God's people in their daily lives.  Indeed, the ministry is not just tasks and words, but tasks and words shared in real life … as we read in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: "We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also
our own selves
" (emphasis mine).  [Three years ago I reflected on this verse during my 9-month hospital chaplain residency.]

Surely we all have filters that we use in our
professional and personal lives, revealing ourselves more to some people
than to others.  But how we manage ourselves online – what we share, what we don't, and how we share – is important for pastors and church leaders to consider, since we are interacting with our members and communities both online and "IRL" (in real life).

But more.  There are pastors who keep two Facebook accounts – a "personal" account for use with family, friends, and personal acquaintances, and a "pastor" account for use with their congregation.  I don't get this, to be honest.  This practice, like the anonymous blogs above, seems to present a question of authenticity.  Who is the pastor presenting himself to be through the "pastor" account?  Is this the image of the "pious pastor," constantly posting Bible verses and faithful insights?  What, then, is the pastor hiding from church members that he posts on his "personal" account? 

Rather than create two profiles – rather than present himself in two different ways on the same social network – a pastor should have a single personal profile and a separate Facebook page for the congregation.  Having a Facebook page for the congregation would create a Facebook destination for church members that is distinct from the pastor's profile, thus encouraging patterns of online communication that are tied with the congregation rather than with the pastor.  Pastors come and go, after all …

But assuming that you only have one Facebook profile – with which you're connected to high school friends, past co-workers, and distant cousins – do you become Facebook friends with people at church?  Do you set up different Facebook groups among your friends, being a little more judicious about what information the folks in your "church" group have access to?  Or do you simply deny Facebook friend requests coming from church members altogether?  

I am Facebook friends with people at my church, and I have found Facebook to be a great way to connect with folks about life and our shared tasks in the ministry.  Admittedly, I am fairly judicious about what I post on my Facebook profile (those of you who are friends with me might disagree – I do post a lot on Facebook!).  As my number of Facebook friends has grown – including among church members, long-lost high school friends, and people I've met only once at a conference – I've become less inclined to share my politics online, for example.  [UPDATE: Full disclosure: when I got ordained, I did some cleaning up of my blog. See details a few paragraphs deep, here.]  I simply don't see the need to get into political discussions/debates with a growing group of folks, many of whom I'm glad to be connected with online but with whom I have little, if any, personal relationship.

Twitter is a slightly different animal than Facebook, and it makes sense to me that pastors and church leaders would have multiple Twitter accounts.  Twitter is less personal than Facebook.  On Facebook you become "friends" with other Facebook users, and you share all kinds of personal information – from schools to relationships to pictures to your answer to the famous question, "What's on your mind?"  On the other hand, on Twitter you "follow" feeds of information – brief comments and quotes, links to articles, updates on a live event such as a conference, speech, or a baseball game.  Twitter is about sharing ideas and information, especially with hashtag searching

I've been "tweeting" regularly for several months – after some fits and starts for over a year – and most of my Twitter followers are church folk, people who connected to my twitter account via my blog or our shared work in the church.  Yet most of my tweets are about baseball – I can easily send 20-30 tweets as I listen to a baseball game, whereas tweets about church or local community issues come along much less frequently.  So rather than clog the feeds of my churchy followers with comments or re-tweets about the #Phillies, I created a new twitter account for my baseball tweets: @getyourpeanuts

So whether for personal or ministry use, multiple Twitter accounts with clearly-defined uses – one for congregational announcements, another for Bible reflections, another for your love of NASCAR, for example – can be both effective and very helpful to those who follow you on Twitter.  Because of the nature of Twitter, I don't see as much of an authenticity concern with Twitter as I do with multiple Facebook profiles or anonymous blogs.

—–

Holden Caulfield, the great angst-ridden American prophet who could call out phoniness a mile away, yearned for an authenticity of life and love that was ultimately illusive for him and for so many people who have identified with him over the years.  He saw the phoniness not only in his teachers and classmates, but in ministers, too.

"If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers.  They
all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons …
I don't see why the [heck] they can't talk in their natural voice.  They
sound so phony when they talk."

– Holden Caulfield
(of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and central image in a
recent sermon of mine
)

Online and in person, let's give up our "Holy Joe voices," and replace them with a "natural voice" that is authentic and honest … a voice which opens us up to conversations and relationships that become places of holy encounter with God and with others.

Reporting on Weather and my Ordination Anniversary

In my monthly report to council I include a section I call "narrative highlights" before I list the various pastoral acts, meetings and events in which I was involved over the previous month.  I'm not thrilled with the "listing" I do in the report, but I enjoy writing the narrative highlights (if any of you have monthly report formats that you like, please share!).

Here is the narrative highlight I wrote in my January report, reflecting on the ministry we shared together in December through the lens of the record snowfall we had on the 4th weekend of Advent:

It's a good thing that I don't read divine messages into meteorological events, for on December 20, the first anniversary of my ordination, Arlington was all but shut down.  18" of snow covered our area the day before in the largest December snowfall ever recorded in the DC region.  It was a fitting anniversary, filled with the challenges and joys and quirks of pastoral ministry.  A day earlier I spent hours shoveling the church sidewalk.  On Sunday I preached wearing blue jeans and snow boots (something that you may never see ever again!), while men from our church continued to clear the sidewalk in service to church members and neighbors alike.  On Sunday evening I stayed inside with my family, since our caroling of good news in the neighborhood was canceled.  We also regrettably canceled the Young Adult wine and cheese scheduled that evening at the parsonage.  December 20 was an exhausting and somewhat disappointing anniversary.

But that day also highlights just how vibrant our church is.  Despite the snow, we worshiped and we worked hard to make ours the driest and clearest sidewalk in Arlington.  A devotion was emailed to the congregation via our new email system, and a Sunday School teacher sent her lesson to parents to use as a snowed-in activity.  The wine and cheese event was rescheduled to shortly after the New Year, and was a success.  By Christmas Eve, enough snow had been cleared and melted that worship services went off without a hitch.

I'll always remember December 20, 2008, the day I was ordained here at Resurrection.  But I'll also always remember December 20, 2009, the day that we stepped up in faith to a snow storm that threatened to close us down.