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.

Non-Negotiable: Women in Ministry

The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday made his most outspoken challenge to
the Roman Catholic Church since the Pope invited disaffected Anglicans to
switch to Rome.

Speaking before he meets Benedict XVI tomorrow, Dr Rowan Williams told a
conference in Rome that the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women was a
bar to Christian unity….

[Y]esterday the Archbishop made clear that there would be no turning back
the clock on women priests in order to appease critics.

– From Archbishop tells Pope: there will be no turning back on women priests (TimesOnline)

I am glad to hear that the Archbishop has strongly reaffirmed the Anglican Communion's commitment to the ordination of women, and, perhaps more significantly, has thrown the burden for Christian unity back on Rome.  If the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics will ever come into full communion, Rome will have to accept the ordination of women.