Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Board of Pensions and Me

Yesterday I wrote a post with a fictional – though quite common – ministry scenario in response to the Board of Pensions plan (pending approval) to eliminate full medical coverage for dependents of plan members. Today I tell another story – my own. It is not just my story; it is a story I have heard echoed in many others’ experiences, as well.

My husband and I are both ordained in the PC (USA), and we took our first call as Co-Pastors to a small church in central Kentucky. After three years working in that call together, for a number of reasons – including budgetary concerns – I left that position at the end of 2011.

I had a number of other projects on my plate, and so I knew I wouldn’t be bored, but I had no idea just how busy I would be. I was serving on the Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. I was chairing a Task Force to write a new Manual of Operations for the Presbytery. I was serving on a Special GA Committee, to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century, and I was serving with a few others within that group in the writing and editing of our final report and recommendations. None of these were paying positions, but they certainly kept me busy and engaged.

In addition, I quickly found a great demand for supply preaching. Over the past 10 ½ months, I have preached nearly every weekend at different churches throughout the Presbytery. I preached thirteen Sundays in churches that were without any pastoral leadership or in transition. On five Sundays, I made official church visits for the Commission on Ministry – being with congregations in worship, visiting and meeting with Sessions, sharing fellowship meals with church members, and providing presbytery support as needed. I preached four additional Sundays at churches where I serve as COM liaison. I preached an additional 12 Sundays in churches when pastors were out of town, sick, or otherwise indisposed. I gave three Sundays at events in service to the church, including General Assembly in Pittsburgh.  That adds up to 37 weeks of service to the church since early January – almost every single Sunday when I myself wasn’t on the road.

In addition, I have been grateful to find some contract work in service to the church, mostly writing curriculum for Adult Sunday School classes that is used extensively throughout the PC (USA) and other denominations. It is work that pays a bit, but is really still service to the larger church.

Including the paid work of writing and supply preaching, I have worked more than full time, on average, since I left my installed call, almost entirely without any pay at all. I am aware that it truly is a privilege – and I use that word very intentionally – to have been in a place of relative security to enable that service to the church, and yet it has been disheartening at times.

We live in a small town in a region full of small towns and high unemployment. Jobs aren’t plentiful, and each time I considered applying even for a part-time position to add to our family income, I held back because of how it would have interfered with the other work that I was engaged in, even if it was unpaid.

My husband barely makes above presbytery minimum right now, which is a major financial stretch for us, but a major security net has been full coverage for both of us in the healthcare plan of the Board of Pensions. If we had been in a position of having to pay part of my coverage, we would have had to have made some very different financial and vocational choices, any of which would have had an impact on our ability to serve the church as we feel we have been called to do.

Through these challenges, I have also been supported by the strength of a connectional church, including the communal system of care for its members and their families through the Board of Pensions. I believe that my service has strengthened the connectional fibers of a church that is feeling the strain of denominational discord, dwindling resources, and anxiety in changing times.

I have heard similar stories from many other clergy, particularly from clergy couples and female clergy. One spouse has a call in a particular geographic area that doesn’t have ample opportunities for full time work for the other spouse. Or perhaps one spouse is financially able to take a part-time call with no Board of Pensions coverage because the family is covered, medically, under the other’s call.

Again, I recognize and I am grateful for the privilege that I have had to have served the church for the past year without having a call and commensurate income, but it has also been a major financial stretch for us – it has eaten away at our short-term savings, nearly halted our retirement savings, not to mention pension credits that I haven’t been earning in my time of service. It really isn’t sustainable. And yet, I have been amazed at how God has provided for our needs during this time. One of those means of provision has been through the current Board of Pensions plan.

One of my colleagues on the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century has similarly given years of her time, energy, and gifts in service to the church, thanks to a spouse with a secular job and large income. We don’t have that.

I don’t know of any young adult clergy who have that kind of financial security. We are graduating with unprecedented levels of educational debt and entering the worst economic landscape in decades. We are postponing marriage and raising children, often for financial reasons.

And yet, we continue to discern our call to serve God through the church, knowing the bleak outlook for full-time ministry, knowing that we can’t rely on the same kind of vocational or financial security that our predecessors have enjoyed. Still, the benefit of participation in a plan that provides coverage for some of the basic needs of a clergy and family, goes a long way in providing the basic security that will enable more clergy – young and not so young – to answer the call to ministry in a rapidly changing landscape that will demand more creativity and flexibility than ever before. 

There is Enough

Sermon preached Sunday, November 4th at Hunter Presbyterian Church, Lexington, for their Consecration Sunday. I can't help thinking about how this speaks to the current Board of Pensions issue, as well.

Texts: 1 Kings 17:1-16 and Luke 12:22-34

“Why Give?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing, 11.4.12
When Jason invited me, a number of months ago, to preach for this consecration Sunday, I immediately said yes. “I love preaching about money!” I said. Besides, this might be a rare occasion when a sermon about money meets with some relief – at least it’s a break from politics!
Actually, Jesus had more to say about money than anything else, except for the kingdom of heaven. So the thought that we have a money sermon just once a year is quite out of step with the gospel that we preach! I trust that you have heard more about money and stewardship over the course of the year, but I know that it is often difficult to move from the sermon over to the bottom line.
Our relationship with possessions and money is about so much more than the bottom line. In fact, dare I say it, the budget doesn’t matter! I know many churches that put out a proposed budget and ask for pledges to support it, as if the budget is the goal of giving. But it’s not. A budget is important for good practices of stewardship, and it is also a moral document. One can, in theory, look at any budget – household or church – and tell where the priorities are. That’s pretty much what our final verse from Luke says – that we put our money where our hearts are. But, it’s not about the budget. So what gives? Why give?
Throughout our faith history, God has invited God’s people to give, at times even sacrificially. Look at the widow from our first reading. In a time of severe drought and famine, there is a widow living with her son, running out of food and time. She has done all that she could to keep him alive. Imagine the nights she rocked him to sleep, singing to him so that her song would be louder than his rumbling, empty stomach. Friends or family members, if she had any to begin with, had already given all they could, or so they said. There simply wasn’t enough. But at least she would give her son one final meal, see one final smile on his face, and hold back her own tears before holding him in a final, eternal embrace. This widow has nothing to her name but two fire-starting sticks, and a little oil and flour. And God, through Elijah, asks for it. God asks for it. For everything.
It is reminiscent of the story from a lectionary reading a few weeks ago, a familiar story about a rich young man who comes to Jesus. He asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and when Jesus says he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, this poor, rich, young man balks, and goes away, dejected. Jesus asked for it. For everything.
God invites us to give sacrificially, not just to support some good work, but because our very souls are at stake. It is so easy to find our comfort and security in our material possessions, rather than trusting in God’s providence and care for all of life. Remember the birds, and the lilies, and the grass of the field? Does God forget about them? No! God knows what we need, and delights in providing for us.
Imagine God’s delight in providing for the widow and her son, in displaying such a providential miracle of oil and flour that didn’t run out. What if she had missed out on that? What might we miss out on, if we resist God’s call to give, not just out of our abundance, but of our substance?
I’m not suggesting that sacrificial giving is rewarded with financial or material wealth. That’s not the gospel. But when we give with open hands, our open hands and open hearts are able to receive blessings that clasped hands simply can’t hold onto.
What a blessing to see an immediate impact that our giving can make, or even to trust the impact that we may never see. As a pastor, I’ve had perhaps more opportunity to see how the mission and ministry money of the church impacts others, such as the families in need of heating oil, or the communities who receive an outpouring of support and assistance through the Presbyterian Disaster Agency. To these people, the money and help is literally a God-send. And isn’t it, after all, sent from God? 
Another reason that God calls us to be generous givers is because it reminds us of where our help comes from – the Lord, who made heaven and earth, who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds. We recognize that what we have is not simply ours to give, but that everything belongs to God. We are entrusted with great resources not for our own gain, but to practice wise and faithful stewardship of God’s bounty. Giving back a portion of what we have helps to remind us that all that we have belongs to God.
Giving is also an important spiritual discipline. It helps us to cultivate lives and attitudes of generosity. We have been created in the image of a God who is lavishly generous, having freely given us all that we have, and more importantly, that which we could never secure on our own – grace, mercy, and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, who gave his very life in the ultimate show of loving generosity. Having been created in the image of such a generous God, we, too, are called to be generous people.
Those are all good reasons to give. But there is another very important one that we don’t often consider. We live in a society that is ruled by a mindset of scarcity. The message that we hear in society today is that there simply is not enough for everyone to have what they want or need. We hear this in the political rhetoric. We see this scarcity mindset at work in the economy. Executive compensation in the richest companies is as high as it ever has been, and economic disparity in the country is epidemic. Is there really not enough?
The scarcity mindset has very little to do with actual scarcity. In fact, studies routinely show that Americans with the lowest incomes – including those below the poverty level – give a higher percentage of their income to church and to charity than do those in any other earnings bracket. Those who genuinely have the least may struggle with scarcity, but by and large they see that there is still enough to give. The only correlation between true scarcity and the mindset of scarcity is that living in the mindset of scarcity encourages us to hoard and look out for ourselves, which really can diminish the resources available for the most vulnerable in our midst.
Our culture says that there is not enough. We hear it everywhere we turn. And we hear that more and more in the church. Many churches are struggling with budgetary concerns, having to cut down to the bare bones. We see this in congregations, in the Presbytery, and at the Denominational level. It’s easy to say, “There simply isn’t enough.” Of all the cultural lies that the church might buy into, this is perhaps the most pervasive, and the most damaging. Not only does it impact the ministries that the church can do, it also perpetuates a lie about God.
When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny the sovereignty of God. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that through God, all things are possible. When we say, “there isn’t enough,” we deny that it is God who calls us to, and enables us for, ministry as the body of Christ. I honestly believe that if God is calling us to particular forms of ministry, that God will provide abundantly all that we need and more than we can imagine.
I heard recently of a church in a very poor, urban area that has developed a huge outreach to the neighborhood, even though most of the people that attend the church live at or around the poverty level. One ministry of this church is a health clinic that houses a doctor, a nurse, mental health counselors, and more. The doctor who serves in this ministry was making good money in a private practice, but felt that God was calling her to do more. This doctor now joyfully gives of her time and money in full time work at this clinic. It actually costs her $12,000 per year personally to work there. A while back, it looked like funding was finally running out. The pastor of the church, meanwhile, had a lunch meeting that had been set up by someone in the church with a local business person. The pastor shared about what was happening in the life of the church, and the business person asked, “What’s got you down?” The pastor responded, “Well, we have this great clinic, but it looks like we’re going to have to close it unless we get some money, and soon.” This business person responded, “My company is looking for a place where we can make a charitable contribution. Perhaps we can help!” Later that afternoon, the pastor returned from the corporate office with a check for $5000, exactly what was needed to keep the doors open.
That isn’t to say that we have unlimited resources to do whatever we want. But if God is calling us to do something, there is enough.
It is remarkable that there are enough resources in the world to go around, so that no one would be without the basic necessities of life. God, who created the world, gave us everything we needed for life to be sustained and enjoyed. And yet, we don’t need to look far to see that there are so many people who do not have what they need. And maybe we start to believe that there just isn’t enough.
I am sure you have been moved by the images coming out of the eastern seaboard this week, particularly in New York and New Jersey. Some areas are receiving the aid that they need, while others are being ignored. Emergency supplies run out. The answer: there just isn’t enough. I’ve also heard inspiring stories of neighbors helping neighbors. They might not have much to give, but they are giving what they have. They aren’t worried about there not being enough; they are more concerned with sharing what they have.
In one way or another, we constantly hear the message that there simply isn’t enough. Because there isn’t enough, we have to compete for what we want, hold onto it tenaciously, and not let go. But we worship a God who created all that we have and all that we need, a God who, throughout history, has demonstrated abundance in the face of scarcity.
We already heard about the widow and her flour and oil. There wasn’t enough. There also wasn’t enough food for Jacob and his family, but they found abundance and reunion with Joseph in Egypt. There wasn’t enough food and water in the wilderness, and yet the Israelites had all that they needed – water from rocks, and bread and meat from heaven. In fact, if they tried to save it, to build up a stash, it rotted within a day. These Israelites, who left slavery in Egypt, had nothing, and yet when it came time to build the tabernacle, riches beyond the wildest imagination were brought forth as joyful offerings. There wasn’t enough food to feed the crowd of thousands who gathered to hear Jesus, and yet when one little boy brought forward his meager lunch, it was enough. Time and time again, the mindset of scarcity is trampled by the truth of God’s abundance. There is enough.
There are many reasons for us to give generously to and through the church, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is because it is an affirmation of faith. Our generous giving affirms that, contrary to what our cultural wisdom tells us, there is enough. God is sovereign. God calls us to faithful discipleship and action in this world. And for that call, God gives us all we need. Our generous – and perhaps, at times, sacrificial – giving, is a resounding, “Yes! There is enough.”
In a few minutes we will celebrate communion. Back in the early church, a full Eucharistic meal was shared from the gifts and offerings brought by the people. Leftovers were sent out to the sick or shut in. This was part of the way that the early church insured that everyone had enough to eat. The message at this table was, “There is enough.” We also understand this table to be a foretaste – just a hint – of the great feast that awaits us, the Messianic banquet, when Christ’s reign is established once and for all among us. We believe that there will be a greater abundance than we can ever imagine: abundance of life, of joy, and of justice. One day, there will be far more than we can imagine. But for today, there is enough. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

2% - the new 1%?

This week, the Board of Pensions of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), announced a plan to change the current medical coverage plan in what amounts to a radical way. 

First, I should say that the Board of Pensions is a wonderful service and safety net for Presbyterian clergy, active and retired, and in far better shape than the plans of many other denominations. One reason for this health is good management. Another reason is the community nature of the plan itself. All churches are required to pay into the plan a percentage of the salary paid to pastoral staff, regardless of church size or anything else. This covers medical care, pension, and death and disability coverage for plan members. A church pays the same percentage whether its pastor is healthy or chronically ill; whether the pastor is single with no children or married with many dependents. All pastors who are members of the Board of Pensions then receive the same medical benefits (varying by state), regardless of whether they serve a small, rural congregation or a large church with a multi-million dollar budget.

Imagine a pastor who is called to a small, rural church. The church can’t afford to pay much more than the presbytery minimum (a minimum salary that varies from presbytery to presbytery, or region to region), and that isn’t much money. She still has outstanding debts from her undergraduate and seminary education, and her husband has some educational debt, as well. They have one baby and hope to expand their young family in the near future. The salary the church offers isn’t much, and the couple knows that taking this call will require living very simply and making certain sacrifices. Despite a having a professional degree equivalent to that of a lawyer, this young woman has known that her salary will likely never be commensurate with her level of education and experience. Still, she and her husband feel called to serve in this particular place, and so she accepts the position, knowing that at least that their basic needs will be covered – food, shelter, and health care. 

The couple move, and the husband isn’t able to find full time work in the new community. In fact, the work he is able to find pays barely enough to cover the cost of childcare so that he can go to work. Money is tight, but at least their basic needs are met.

The church has been struggling financially for some time. The dues that the church pays to cover the pastor under the Board of Pensions are not insignificant, but they are at least scaled to the salary offered. A large church down the road pays its pastor twice what this small church can pay, but at least the small church can offer the same medical coverage to a pastor, making the playing field a little more level.

This scenario plays itself out in churches across the country. In the PC(USA), more than 50% of our congregations have fewer than 100 members, and more than 50% of those are under 50. While our church is working to establish 1001 new worshipping communities, these new worshipping communities are often ministering to the people who are most in need of the outreach, but often least able to financially sustain pastoral leadership. The disparity of salaries between ministers at “large steeple” churches and the rest of us is huge, even if education levels and years of experience are the same. There is still a wide pay disparity between men and women, and between white, non-Hispanic pastors and pastors of other races or ethnicities. For a church that prides itself on being “connectional,” we are full of inequalities that reflect both changing realities and institutional injustices.

I understand that the Board of Pensions dues are a financial burden for many smaller churches, in particular. This proposed change would reduce the medical portion of those dues from 21%, where it currently stands, to 19% of effective salary. This is being celebrated as a way to reduce the costs of dues. What this does is rather shifts the burden of the costs of medical care from congregations to the pastors that serve them.

The Board of Pensions coverage will still cover 100% of the costs of health insurance for the member (note that this does NOT include deductibles, co-pays, and all of the other costs associated with health care), but only 65% of the cost for dependents. The member can choose to add full dependent coverage by paying a “fixed premium/flat dollar amount” at different levels: member plus partner, member plus child/ren, member plus family (partner plus child/ren). The more dependents, the higher the cost.

This means that plan members will face the same costs regardless of salary, removing the protective aspect of percentage-based fees that churches enjoy. Whatever this fee ends up being, it will require a much bigger percentage of the salary of a pastor who is working at presbytery minimum than a pastor whose salary is two or three times presbytery minimum or more – a pay disparity that is quite common across the country. This means that those who have the very least to begin with are more disproportionately hurt by this proposed change.

Also, the change allows for the church to pick up the additional cost – something that is far more likely to happen in wealthier congregations than in most others. It is not uncommon for clergy who are well-compensated to negotiate these kinds of extras in the package – things like optional dental coverage, a larger “professional expenses” allowance, more money for continuing education. That is great, but what it means is that in many cases, pastors who are already making far less money also have more expenses out of pocket that aren’t covered by the church, such as this additional premium charge. This continues to give large churches an additional advantage in clergy recruitment and retention, while smaller churches (and the pastors that serve them) suffer.

Going back to the communal nature of the plan, it is true that churches who pay higher salaries and have more staff pay more into the Board of Pensions. But, there is a cap. So the churches that pay the highest salaries are actually protected from paying the regular percentage of dues. These churches are going to be least affected by raises in the dues structure.

It is usually the smallest churches that feel most acutely the burden of rising dues. So while it seems to offer some relief to those churches, at a second look, it is still the larger, wealthier churches that come out ahead. In my presbytery, the minimum “effective salary” (this is cash salary, including the housing allowance, or cash salary plus the value of the use of a manse, if applicable) is $33,600. For a person coming out of 7 years or more of higher education, this is not much, and yet at least 2/3 of the congregations in our presbytery are unable to afford even the minimum, resulting in many part-time calls, difficulty finding trained pastoral leadership, etc… At any rate, this proposed change would reduce the medical portion of dues paid for presbytery minimum salary from $7,056 a year to $6,384 a year, a savings of $672 a year. I don’t know what the premium costs will be for adding dependent coverage, but I am willing to bet that it will be more than $672 a year. Even if the church wanted to offer to cover the additional dependent coverage, they would likely be unable to do so.

On the other hand, for a pastor making $75,000 a year (and there are a few in our presbytery that make more than that), medical dues would go from $15,750 down to $14,250 – a savings of $1500. That would be closer to the cost of covering dependent coverage, and it probably wouldn’t make much of a dent for the church to assume those costs.

Of course, if the plan continues to go unchanged, the folks at Board of Pensions know that the medical dues percentages will have to be raised, perhaps up to 25%. That does add to the burden that churches have to pay, but it would allow smaller congregations to continue to offer competitive health care coverage, which would free more candidates to serve those churches.

What is being discussed is a 2% change in medical dues. This is a very SMALL savings for churches that are already at the low end of the salary spectrum – the vast majority of our congregations, and a larger savings for the wealthier churches. This increases the burden particularly on young clergy, who are more likely to have dependents, who are more likely to be working at or around presbytery minimum, who are more likely to have crushing educational debt, and who are less likely to have savings, established households, and other financial cushions.

I know that financial realities must be addressed, but this is the wrong way to do it. When we talk about our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in society, may we not forget about our own.

Update: If you would like to sign an online petition, please click here.

Additional blog responses are linked below. If you would like me to add a link, please send it in an email or comment.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Spiritual Lives of Church Leaders

I just returned from the final official gathering of my time in the Company of New Pastors, a wonderful program that brings candidates for ministry together into cohort groups that extend into the first four years following graduation from Seminary. The retention rate for ministers in the first five years of ministry is awful. Around 1/3 of ministers leave the ministry in the first 5 years, never to return to the vocation. Maybe it is wise discernment; maybe it is something else. At any rate, the Company of New Pastors and other programs have been established to try to reverse that trend, to provide the kind of support and nurture that sustains pastoral excellence through the early years and beyond.

CNP does this particularly with an emphasis on daily prayer and Scripture reading, continued theological engagement, and participation in cohort/covenant groups, which include two seasoned pastoral mentors. This program has been incredibly helpful to me in many ways, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift. It has been life-giving and life-sustaining, and our group gatherings a really critical part of my support network in my first four years of ministry. Participation in this group, along with regular engagement in continuing education, opportunities for my own spiritual nourishment and time for worship have all been crucial for me as a church leader, and as a disciple of Christ. What a privilege it is to go to a preaching conference for a week, for example, where I am able to worship and hear excellent sermons morning, noon, and night! What a joy to have time set aside for my continued education and spiritual development. It is a gift that I do not take for granted. My denomination requires churches to offer a minimum of 2 weeks of paid continuing education time away, and some amount of money to support it. Not every church or denomination requires this, and even among colleagues, I know of many who rarely use this time. What a lost opportunity to continue to be rooted and fed in the vine of Jesus Christ, to grow in the life of the faith to which we have been called in virtue of our baptisms, and to gird ourselves for the particular services of ministry to which we are called.

And yet... When we talk about empowering or training non-pastoral church leaders (Elders, Deacons, non-ordained individuals), how often do we think about spiritual nurture, time set aside from the business to which we are called to be refreshed and drink from the well of living water? How many leaders in our church see their "jobs" as custodians, managers, volunteer coordinators, non-profit agency board members, etc..., rather than as true spiritual leaders?

How do we help to cultivate the spiritual lives of all church leaders? What does your church do well (or do poorly)? What kind of difference have you seen with churches that prioritize spiritual formation for all church leaders?

In January I will be facilitating a spiritual retreat for a group of Elders from a church outside of Atlanta. Their desire is not to do any visioning, taking care of business, or anything like that; they want a retreat specifically focused on spiritual formation. What would you include or want to see included in such a retreat?

Feel free to converse in the comments below, or contact me directly (tweet me if you need contact information).

Monday, September 3, 2012


On this labor day, I look out my window into a sea of green. Green leaves, green grass. The kind of green that only comes after a long, hard, rain. The greens that are still glistening with fat drops of water.  It rained yesterday into the night. It poured. I thought of those who were so much closer to the eye of the storm. For those of us further away, the rain provided much-needed relief to a long, hot, dry summer.

Peeking out from the green, there are flashes of brown. A few brown pine needles that Crayola might call Burnt Sienna, and a handful of light brown oak leaves, clustered together at the end of a dying branch. There are some patches of brown grass, too. Grass scorched too deeply by the summer heat and drought to recover, perhaps for the season.

I don't know much about nature. I'm pleased to identify the pine, oak, cedar, and magnolia trees in our yard. The black walnut tree took a little longer to identify. I don't know much about nature, but I do know that trees and grass need water, or they will become parched, and perhaps even die. I know that it is better for that water not to come in periodic torrential downpours interspersed by dry heat, but rather to have consistent, gentle watering, along with the sun that feeds the chlorophyll.

It doesn't take a great leap to get from the movements of nature to the care of our spiritual lives. Torrential downpours, or mountaintop experiences, can do wonders, but it is the balance of daily, gentle watering that sustains our spirits through the seasons and through the years.

I have heard that if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. I find myself thirsting quite a bit. I tend to push myself too far, too long, ignoring my body's own signals that a break is needed, that nourishment is needed. And I tend to do the same with my spiritual care.

Jesus said that whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst. That water can come in many forms, but drinking regularly from the fountain of the Word will keep one hydrated before feeling the thirst. If you start to feel thirsty, that's an early sign of dehydration. But even in times of drought, there is water enough to quench the soul, and to make all things green.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


God, you know the desires of my heart. I pray with that assurance, and hesitantly ask for my desires to be transformed, that my chief desire would be to glorify you and enjoy you forever. Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stuck in the Middle With You

I returned from General Assembly a few weeks ago. During my first week back, I was busy recovering, not just from the week itself, but from a lovely upper respiratory/sinus infection that progressed rapidly on my way back home. The blogosphere, twitterverse, and internet in general were full of responses to what happened - and what didn't happen - at General Assembly. I continued to ponder my own response.

Though I am very involved in the denomination, it was actually my first experience at General Assembly, and I think it was far different from GAs of the past. I've been processing it ever since. Much could be said, and much has been said already, about the future of the denomination (or denominations in general). I'll refrain from doing so, at least here or now.

Instead, I was struck by a comment from a colleague about our past. He said that in the grand scheme of things, Presbyterians have historically been slow to respond with prophetic voice. So here we are in the middle, and though I don't want to characterize those on my left or right as clowns or jokers, here I am, stuck in the middle with you (the PC (USA)).

Don't get me wrong - I'm not in the middle, and I'm not neutral on many questions, and yet, I find myself constantly struggling to discern what to say. As a pastor, I have developed a general rule of thumb for what I say from the pulpit and what I post publicly: will those members of the congregation who decidedly disagree with where I stand on any given question still feel as comfortable coming to me for pastoral care after I say, write, or post the statement in question? Will my ministry be less effective than it otherwise could be, now or in the future?

It's not just people in the church that make me pause before I post, say on Facebook. I am friends with a number of extended family members with whom I disagree on some major issues. I don't really want to engage in the debate; I'd rather just be family and love them. If questions or issues are raised, I want to discuss those face to face, rather than online, but truth be told, I really don't want to address them at all. Not with family, especially.

And yet, I'm also convicted by those who are hurt by what I don't say. I'm convicted with questions of what I am called to say, and how I might be called to speak a prophetic word. I don't know what the answer is, and I don't feel in any better of a position than my denomination. Here we are - stuck in the middle. May we all continue to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we struggle to be the individuals and the Body of Christ that God created us to be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Update from the 21st Century Church Report

I am just getting back to the hotel after spending all afternoon and evening with Committee 16 as they considered the report of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. Overall, things went well from our standpoint. No single motion was struck down, though most were amended, usually in small ways, but in some cases, rather significantly. Now the amended motions will go to the floor of General Assembly for recommendation.

The one recommendation that was significantly amended was one to create a task force to study bi-vocational ministry on many fronts and to report back with recommendations to the next GA in 2 years. The amendment took out the task force language and instead charged the GAMC staff to study bi-vocational ministry, but without any specific deadlines or expectations. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the GAMC staff are already overextended in their work, and as Director of Theology, Worship, and Education Chip Hardwick said, passing this recommendation would necessarily mean not doing something that was already being done, which could involve difficult choices with unintended consequences. Second, the GAMC already has the power to work on this, but we are calling for a more comprehensive approach. Third, asking a bunch of well paid, full time employees to study the myriad of issues surround bi-vocational ministry just doesn't make sense. This conversation must include individuals currently working or those with extensive experience in bi-vocational ministry. Fourth, the GAMC is one of just six agencies of the PC (USA), and by restricting the work to the GAMC, there is a risk of foregoing intentional cross-agency collaboration, particularly with the Board of Pensions, which would be an important conversation partner. Fifth, without giving specific expectations or a timeline to report progress, the amended recommendation has no teeth. It is difficult to imagine how significant work will be accomplished in this critical area with the recommendation as amended. I hope that when this recommendation comes to the floor of GA, there will be some opportunity to restore the task force and salvage that important motion.

When Carol and I spoke to the recommendations at the start of the discussion, I devoted fully half of my time speaking to this particular recommendation, knowing that since it carried budgetary implications it would face a tougher battle. The text of what I said is at the end of this post. Overall, I am very grateful to the Commissioners and Advisory Delegates for their careful consideration of the paper and recommendations, and for their willingness to take the time to struggle with some of these issues rather than taking an easier route.

"We recommend creating a task force to study and make recommendations regarding bi-vocational ministry. You can see the specific charge in recommendation two.
Bi-vocational ministry will be a crucial form of ministry in the 21st century. A number of converging factors point to this necessity and opportunity. Over half of our congregations have fewer than 100 members, and over half of those congregations have fifty members or less. With the rising costs of living and the expense of participation in the Board of Pensions plan, fewer churches are financially able to support a full time minister. Even when they are able to meet minimum compensation standards set by Presbyteries, those are often not entirely sufficient for the minister nor sustainable for the congregation. As we heard yesterday, presbytery leaders estimate that roughly 600 congregations currently being served by a full time minister will likely have to go down to part-time or supply leadership after the current pastor moves or retires.
Those are the facts. They are stark. Churches who have had full time pastors but can no longer afford one often see going down to part time ministry as a failure. Teaching elders like myself worry about our current and future prospects for employment, and the idea of bi-vocational ministry, quite frankly, scares most of us. We have heard many discouraged Seminary students and other young people who feel called to ministry – the very ones we most need to nurture and support – voice frustration about being told by institutional leaders (who themselves have enjoyed careers of full-time employment) that there is no room for them at the table, that they are welcome to go out and engage in the kind of innovative and creative ministry that we so greatly need, as long as they don’t expect to be paid or have health care or other benefits. Though bi-vocational ministry is the norm for some denominations, for the PC(USA), it may as well be Antarctica – we know that some people live there, but we’d prefer not to go there ourselves.
On the other hand, there is growing excitement for the possibilities it presents. We have talked to many individuals who are open to and even excited about bi-vocational ministry, but hesitant or unable to explore it without the safety net of benefits, at a minimum. Those who feel called to bi-vocational ministry have met resistance from many COMs and CPMs, even when the intentions are good. Though there is a category of “Tentmaking” in the Church Leadership Connection, a recent search revealed just 19 congregations nationally in the system. I could probably name 19 congregations in my presbytery alone who would be interested in hiring a minister part-time. Other positions listed in the CLC might be part-time positions, but there is no way to search for those specifically. Seminaries also must be part of the equation in providing education and nurture.
We affirm and celebrate what the Office of Vocation is currently doing, but we feel strongly that more is needed. The issues, challenges, and opportunities are so multi-faceted that we need a systematic approach to addressing and preparing for this growing area of ministry. Such a task force must include individuals currently engaged in bi-vocational ministry. We recognize that their time for service to the church is more limited because of their ministry in multiple places, but we feel certain that the passion and excitement for the task would make it a priority. In addition, if this committee forwards this recommendation to the floor of GA, we recommend adding a provision for at least one member of this task force to be a representative from the Board of Pensions.
We recognize that this recommendation carries significant budgetary implications, but we feel that it is vitally important. It also fits right into the church-wide goal of 1001 new worshiping communities, most of which will be started and led by bi-vocational ministers. Given the economic realities and shifting understandings of the nature of ministry in the 21st century, this is a critical area of focus for 21st century ministry. We need a comprehensive way forward if we are to honor and nurture it, rather than simply seeing it as a new reality with which we must deal."

21st Century Church

The following is my portion of a presentation made (with Carol Howard Merritt) during the Riverside Conversations at General Assembly on Saturday, June 30th. We will be meeting with the committee that has been charged to review our report and recommendations this afternoon.

"Thank you for coming to engage with the committee to study the nature of the church in the 21st Century! We plan on leaving time at the end for questions and conversation, but we first wanted to share with you more about the work of our committee over the past year and a half.

As we began to meet and worship together, we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the second chapter of Acts. The disciples’ world had been forever changed by Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and they found themselves gathered in a room, waiting for what would happen next. As they waited, they prayed, and prayed, and waited. Suddenly, with the sound of a violent wind, the Holy Spirit rushed into the room and came upon those gathered together. These followers of Jesus became the Body of Christ.

The story could have ended there, with the followers of Jesus worshiping among themselves, but it didn’t. Instead, the Holy Spirit sent this group of women and men into the streets of Jerusalem, where a diverse crowd was gathered for the Pentecost holiday. They began speaking in the languages of those gathered,  and empowered by the Holy Spirit, these followers of Jesus witnessed to everyone, sharing the good news that they had come to know through Jesus Christ.

On that day alone, we read that three thousand were added to their number. They became brothers and sisters in Christ with a great diversity of people. Together, they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, sharing resources, and prayer together. And God continued to add to their numbers, day by day.

But what if they hadn’t left the room? What if they stayed in their small group, in the enclosed room, not venturing beyond those comfortable walls? Sure, they probably would have grown a little bit. They may have been welcoming, accepting visitors and new members – as long as they didn’t try to change anything, and especially if they looked like and talked like those already in the room. After a while, they would begin to fight over dwindling resources, fretting over the future. What if they hadn’t left the room?

As we prayed about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 21st Century, we asked ourselves, “Will we, as Presbyterians in the 21st Century, leave our rooms? Will we venture from our comfortable sanctuaries? Will we go out into the streets, learning different languages, embracing diversity, planting new congregations, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?”

As we gathered, we prayed, and prayed and continue to wait for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our midst."

Carol then shared some of our findings regarding changing cultural and church contexts, current roadblocks in moving forward, and examples of exciting worshipping communities around the country, including a few here in Pittsburgh. 
I continued... 
"In addressing the changing contexts and our challenges in this century, our committee has come up with a number of recommendations. You can read all of our recommendations on pc-biz, but we want to highlight a few areas of focus.

A number of our recommendations respond directly to the need to form and support a diversity of new worshipping communities. There are immigrant congregations coming into this country from Presbyterian denominations who want to be part of the Presbyterian church but face a myriad of obstacles. We need to address and work to remove those obstacles. We need to adequately resource the development of new churches and new worshipping committees, in money and other material resources, but also by working with our Seminaries and presbyteries to help prepare ministers to plant new churches and to minister in changing contexts.

Even as we are supporting and nurturing new ministries, we recognize that churches are not called to exist in perpetuity. As many congregations dwindle to the point of simply maintaining buildings, we call on leaders in the church to assist those congregations and communities in discerning their call in this time and place. Some churches will be revitalized in new ways; others may discern a call to close. As churches close, we call presbyteries to use the assets to support new church and mission development.

We recognize that there are still many inequalities in our society and in the church, and we call the PC(USA) to a role as social witness. We also recognize that we must continue to work to identify and support leaders in churches, in councils, and in our Seminaries from underrepresented populations, and a number of our recommendations address those needs. We call on the church to repent of our continued complicity in prejudice and find a need for specific training for all leaders in the church around issues of privilege, diversity, and cross-cultural proficiency. We also look at the current communication strategies of the denomination. While we have made great strides in translating documents and resources into languages other than English, including Spanish, Korean, and Portuguese, our overall accessibility to those who speak a language other than English remains quite low. We have concrete recommendations to address that.

As we look at changing needs in church leadership and ministry, we recognize that bivocational ministry will be a critical component of church leadership in the coming decades. This is often scary or threatening for many of us teaching elders, but this will be not just a practical need, but a missional need for the church. We are calling for the creation of a special task force to look at bivocational ministry from a holistic standpoint, and from each level of the church, so that we can better know how to foster and support this emerging ministry front in our denomination.

Bivocational ministry is tied into issues of just compensation. Also related are already-noted concerns of inequalities within our society and in churches, particularly as women and underrepresented populations are concerned. We offer a number of recommendations to study and better understand the extent of these concerns, and to address them through policies guided by a theological understanding of stewardship and compensation.

One of the charges given our committee by the previous General Assembly was the creation of resources that could be used in churches and councils. Given the timeline and scope of our work, we were not able to do this, and so we suggest empowering a group, including some members of our current committee, to continue that work to create and disseminate resources in the church.

That is an overview of our work as a committee. We have appreciated the opportunity to study these important questions, and the conversations that we have had with so many church members, elders, and leaders throughout the denomination. We look forward to continuing that conversation."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I think I smell something...

"Regardless of the decision you make, for you it will be the right one." If you're choosing between ice cream flavors or DVD rentals, maybe. But that was a comment made to someone who is thinking of leaving his family. Really?

"If it's hard, then it probably isn't the one." This would be excellent advice for me in selecting a toothbrush, considering that my dentist only wants me to use super soft bristles. However, it was also advice given about a relationship, in this case a long-distance one. Who said that relationships were supposed to be easy, especially long-distance?

"You should do whatever makes you happy." "As long as you try, that's enough." "You can do anything you want to do, or be anything you want to be!" All of those statements, in one way or another, are either products of or contributors to the overwhelming culture of narcissism. It's like "I'm ok, you're ok." Self-confidence and self-esteem are important, but I am not always ok and you are not always ok, and to continue to spout these platitudes perpetuates the idea that life is all about how we experience it, and the ultimate goals are to do what you like and avoid what you don't. I call BS.

Then, there are the theological platitudes...
"I can be a Christian without being involved in church." Actually, you can't. If you believe we're created in the image of a Triune God, then it kind of follows that we were created to be in relationship. If you believe that we are called to be the body of Christ on earth, that requires lots of different members. And if you think that you don't need the support or challenge of being in community with others who are struggling to discern what God is calling us to do, that's kind of like elevating your wisdom and discernment to God's level. It's asserting an independence that just isn't theologically tenable. Once you've decided that you don't need the body of Christ, how much longer before you don't really need God?

"The Bible says..." The Bible says a lot of stuff. It also doesn't say a lot of stuff. And some of what it says contradicts other things that it says, so it's really never as simple as saying, "The Bible says..." Scripture is authoritative because it reveals to us the living God, and that act of revelation is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. When I hear the preface, "The Bible says," my BS radar goes on high alert, not because I don't "believe the Bible," but because so often what follows is simplistic proof-texting that really just reflects what "I" believe, now elevated beyond reproach because it is found in the Bible.

"God only gives us what we're able to handle." I've heard this a lot. I've heard it in pastoral care situations, when someone going through a very difficult time is trying to look on the bright side, or worse, when a well-meaning friend or relative is trying to provide encouragement. Does that mean that survivals of the horrible atrocities of war, rape victims in refugee camps, children exposed to constant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, are all just that much stronger? Because God knows they can handle more than we can?

I'm calling BS. What other phrases would you include on the list?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The most beautiful sounds...

A week ago I was in Atlanta for the Festival of Homiletics, an annual event that not only showcases great preachers and lecturers, but also provides opportunities for us preachers to participate in truly amazing worship. On Thursday evening, we celebrated Ascension Day with a nearly 2-hour worship service in a cavernous sanctuary that was packed on all sides. Music was led by members of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and the joint choirs of the host church, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. The magnificent pipe organ added to the experience, and I think we might just have been taken up along with Jesus.

But, there was a baby somewhere in the sanctuary. I had seen at least one mama toting around her young child for much of the conference, so perhaps it was the same baby; I couldn't see from where I was sitting. During this magnificent worship service, at particular moments, silence was pierced by the coos of this pre-verbal child. Who on earth would bring a baby to a two hour worship service?

I thank God that she did. Of all the beautiful music I heard that night, none was more beautiful than the sound of that baby. In fact, I think that a baby in church might just be one of the most beautiful sounds I can think of.

I know not everyone will agree. As a preacher, I don't mind "competing" with baby sounds or even the people who can't take their eyes off an adorable child. Particularly in churches where those over 60 vastly outnumber those under 60, a baby in worship is a tangible reminder that life continues, that God is not done with us yet. It also reminds us that of all the beauty that we create in the world - the soaring cathedrals, beautiful works of art, and perfectly executed symphonies - God's created beauty was the first and will be the final word. If we are bothered by the distraction of a baby in worship, then perhaps we need to examine exactly what is holding our focus so tightly that is keeping us from seeing the beautiful distraction that is God's activity in the world.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Consider the Sparrows

Consider the sparrows... and all the tweeting that has been going on here at the Festival of Homiletics. I have been actively tweeting, rather easily from the Buckhead Theater, with more difficulty on my crappy cell phone at Peachtree UMC. Last week I was at another gathering of clergy through the Fund for Theological Education, and again, we were encouraged to tweet there. I’ve probably tweeted more in the past two weeks than the past two months.

I have enjoyed seeing the comments from others, particularly those in the other venues. It allows me to be in two or more places at once. I hope that there have been folks not at either of these gatherings who have gotten something out of my tweets and others. In that way, I saw my tweeting as a service, and I hope it has been that. It has also been an opportunity to connect with others virtually, most of whom I haven't connected with in person at the Festival. Maybe a Tweetup would have been nice, but with as many other things as have been going on, not to mention catching up with friends from across the country, I don't know if I would have gone.

And yet, my tweeting significantly changed and shaped my experience at these gatherings. I experienced being both present and not present. I got distracted by technical difficulties, page loading issues on my cell phone, and refreshing the tweetchat stream. On the other hand, during a certain worship service I was so exhausted and brain drained, but my tweeting somehow enabled me to maintain more focus on the message being delivered. At the end of Paul Raushenbush’s presentation on the Internet, he checked his own tweetdeck, and found that those of us who had been tweeting had sent him many good questions. Great opportunity for engaging the audience, but what if he had been following those updates during his presentation? He would have been all over the place and would not have covered 80% of what he had prepared. (I’m guessing. I'm sure he is a much better multi-tasker than I am, but there are human limits.) 

Towards the end of his presentation, Raushenbush mentioned a statement from another author that the internet is neurologically changing our ability to think deep thoughts. As a former philosophy major and current practical theologian, this is a deeply disturbing thought (or as deeply disturbing as can be, considering the time I have spent on the internet).  So what’s the verdict? Finding a balance? I’m not sure, but since I’ve been broadcasting live for the past two weeks, I thought I’d continue in my thinking out loud.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On the "Family Business"

I just read James Howell's musings on the "Family Business" over at Faith and Leadership at Duke Divinity. Though he married into the business, he now finds himself as the father of a daughter who will be a fourth generation minister. It all made me think about my own foray into the family business.

My dad is a pastor, and his dad is a pastor. My dad's mother went to Bible school and has functionally been a co-pastor for her whole life, and I believe was even ordained at some point - though I've not heard that from her mouth. My dad's only brother is a pastor, and all three of his kids have spent time in the International House of Prayer ministry in Kansas City. My mom and dad met at Bible college, and of my mom's five siblings, two are career missionaries and another spent a number of years in missions. In fact, on my mom's side, we've traced our lineage all the way back to one of the very first Lutheran priests, who came over from Catholicism during the Reformation in Norway. (or was it Sweden?) So yes, I'm in the family business.

So is my husband. He is the son and grandson of pastors, and his dad's only brother nearly became a pastor, too. So here we are, two third-generation ministers married to each other, having to negotiate problems in marriage that I think few people have, such as who would marry us (our dads co-officiated) and, if we have children, who will baptize them.

I can't speak for Andy's experience, but I believe that he had a lot of encouragement towards the ministry growing up. After all, he was a tall, good-looking young man, the first-born, well-behaved, a good listener...

I, on the other hand, don't ever remember anyone encouraging me to consider ministry when I was growing up. I was also very active in church from a young age, at least until high school, and while I exhibited strong leadership abilities of my own, I was often encouraged into teaching. A few particularly discerning folks said that they could see me as a "teacher of teachers." But a minister? I don't know that it ever crossed their minds. I don't think it ever crossed mine, either! I had never experienced a female pastor, though no one had ever told me it was forbidden (not until later, at least). My sister even went through a small stage of wanting to be a minister. I said to her, "Are you CRAZY?" It turns out that she is quite sane, and really enjoys her work as a clinical laboratory scientist.

On the other hand, once I discerned my call to ministry, it was quite difficult to emerge from my dad's shadow. And he casts a very big shadow. First of all, he's 6'4'', and more importantly, through the twists and turns of his vocation, he has worked in local churches, for the national denomination, with all of the Presbyterian seminaries, and with so many ministers in the Presbyterian Church and beyond that it was difficult to introduce myself in most church circles without being asked, "Are you by any chance related to Sheldon?"

I love my dad dearly, and I think that as apples and trees go, well, we wind up sharing a lot of ground. In terms of my vocation and ministerial identity, I've caught a lot from him, and for that and so much more I am incredibly grateful. Still, I've encountered quite a few assumptions and expectations all because I am Sheldon's daughter. Some Seminary classmates would chalk up my achievements to him - "Well, of course when you grow up with Sheldon as a father...," and on occasions when I didn't have some specific kind of knowledge: "How could YOU not know that?" I was pursued for my Seminary internship by a minister who was good friends with my dad. As soon as he discovered that I was in Seminary in Louisville, he badgered my dad for my email address and proceeded to recruit me to work in his church. It was a great experience, and I'm thankful for the doors that have opened through mutual relationships. But there are still expectations that I carry along with the stick straight hair that I can thank him for, too. I even find myself succumbing to the expectations. Like the time I was asked if I considered myself to be a "pre-Barthian, Barthian, or post-Barthian" preacher. I was embarrassed to say I didn't know enough to answer the question, and silently kicked myself. I should have known that - my dad's PhD was on Barth! It's a wonder that when he successfully defended his dissertation when I was 7 years old that the knowledge didn't transfer directly to me.

One of the best things about being in the family business is that it has introduced me to an even bigger family. Many PKs (and generations thereof) find themselves called into ministry, and PKs can find community with other PKs and other ministers that is quite unique. I call it PK-dar - we somehow gravitate towards each other. I don't know the statistics, but I think there are plenty of PKs who marry each other, or PKs who marry other ministers. In fact, I'm surprised at the number of other female clergy I've met - PK or not - who married sons of pastors. There is something about being in the family business that really unites the family. Perhaps the call into a ministerial family isn't accidental.

It's also not inevitable. Neither of Andy's two brothers are ministers, nor is my sister, so there is hope. Andy and I don't have children, but hope to some day, and then they'll be - wait for it - DOUBLE Fourth-Generation PKs (if I've got my math right, and it's entirely possible that I don't - I'm a minister, not a mathematician!). I pity those children already for the lines that they will have to hear growing up about following in our footsteps, the inappropriate questions about what kind of PKs they are (goody two-shoes or wild child), the boundary-stomping parishioners with all of the good intentions in the world, and the expectations that will be placed on them by others, by themselves, and hopefully to as little a degree as possible, by us.

To our unborn (and to clear up ANY confusion, not-yet-conceived) children, I write the following. I'm sorry. You didn't choose to be born into this crazy family business, but here you are. Your father and I have had lots of experience growing up in the church, and we will do our best to nurture you with the same love and support, cradling you in our arms and in our boundaries until you are able to establish your own. You will not have to go to every single church activity, sing in the choir, volunteer in the nursery, or sit in the front pew unless you want to. Though we will be criticized for it, we will not prioritize church work over you, even if sometimes we have to juggle things around. We will always be your parents first. We will do our best to teach you about God, to pass on to you this mantle of faith which we have received. We will fill our home with prayer and worship together, teach you the stories of the faith, not because people will expect you to know Bible trivia (though they will), but because we want you to know from the very beginning who you are and whose you are. We will strive our best to be great pastors, but we will not be pastor to you. To you we will just be mom or dad, but we'll help you find other pastors that can nurture you in your walk of faith. We will love you and support you, and we will never expect or pressure you to go into ministry just because we did. We will try to shield you from the things about church that no one wants to see, but we will be honest about the fact that the church is just a big group of flawed people, all in need of God's help - us included. It's not always easy growing up as a PK, but it's not all bad, either. You'll see. And just wait until you meet the rest of the family.
Love, Pastors Stephanie and Andy   Mom and Dad

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

I just returned from a Good Friday service at a local Episcopalian church followed by a walk through the stations of the cross. This particular meditation had fourteen stations, and as I made the journey around the stations, my perspective began to shift. No longer was I standing with Christ at the cross; I became more aware of Christ standing with us in the fleshiness of our own lives, in the dark places.

One: Jesus is condemned to death
Though there are surely times when we feel our lives as we know it are coming to an end, there are some who actually receive sentences of death - some in the halls of "justice," others in the sterile rooms of hospitals and doctors' offices. For others, the death sentence is a sentence of death to life as they know it - a sentence that can come in many shapes and forms. There Jesus stands.

Two: Jesus takes up his cross
Jesus willingly accepted his torture and abuse. Some who are tortured and abused today cannot choose otherwise; others who are caught in cycles of abusive systems or relationships feel just as unable to escape. Bearing the abuse and shame, with those who are tortured and abused, there Jesus stands.

Three: Jesus falls for the first time
Jesus fell. If the Son of God himself fell in his earthly walk, how do we expect to get through life without taking a fall every now and then? In our falls and in our failures, there Jesus stands.

Four: Jesus meets his afflicted mother
It was not just his own pain and suffering that Jesus had to bear. As he suffered, others suffered with him, and he looked out on their faces of pain, loss, anguish, and grief. We are created to be in bonds of love and compassion with each other. When we see those whom we love in the throes of pain and suffering, often we would gladly take it upon ourselves, or do whatever we could, to relieve their pain. It is a suffering of a different kind, and there, Jesus stands.

Five: The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene
Even Jesus had to ask for help. In the giving and receiving of help along the journey, there Jesus stands.

Six: A woman wipes the face of Jesus
There are times when we would like to be invisible, hiding our scars and wounds from the world. In fact, society in general is quite adept at shielding itself from what it doesn't want to see. We consider the "homeless problem" to be solved not when all are housed, fed, and cared for, but when we no longer see the homeless on the streets, with cardboard signs and cries for help. When we no longer smell the stench of urine, body odor, and feces in streets and alleys or at bus stop shelters. Battered, bruised, and bloodied, Jesus is before us, there to be served by a woman with nothing more to offer than a shroud, and the touch of humanity. There Jesus stands.

Seven: Jesus falls a second time
As we fall repeatedly, there Jesus stands.

Eight: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
To the sisterhood of women, a group with no power or status, Jesus speaks. With the powerless and voiceless in our society today, there Jesus stands.

Nine: Jesus falls a third time
With those who fall, and fail, and fall and fail, and can't seem to get back on their feet again, there Jesus stands.

Ten: Jesus is stripped of his garments
Naked. Bared and humbled for all to see. Spat upon. Despised. Ridiculed. Stripped not just of his garments, but of all dignity. With all whose bodies and souls are violated, with all who bear public shame and humiliation, there Jesus stands.

Eleven: Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus bore the punishment for guilt that was not his. We still live in a world where injustice often reigns, and with the victims of every injustice, great and small, there Jesus stands.

Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross
With the dying and with the dead, there Jesus stands.

Thirteen: The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother
With the grieving parents of the world, there Jesus stands.

Fourteen: Jesus is laid in the tomb
When it seems as though all hope is lost, the final sentence given, the fate sealed, there Jesus stands.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Contemplating the cross, we are reminded  of the depth and breadth of the pain, suffering, shame, humiliation, and injustice that Jesus experienced. The cross does not make any of that ok. It does not take away the sting of death, it does not justify abuse, torture, and injustice. It does not relieve the pain and suffering that we continue to experience. But it does redeem it. In the depths of whatever we may experience in the world, we know that Jesus stood there, and that God continues to stand with us today. We know that none of those things have ultimate power over us; they are not the last word. Even as we find ourselves in the darkness and despair of Good Friday, we recognize that Easter morning is just around the corner. Our hope lies in the risen Christ, but here, and now, in the depths of all human suffering and despair, we can find comfort, because there Jesus stands.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Inveterate Critic

This morning, Palm Sunday, was the first Sunday since I left my position at UPC that I haven't been preaching somewhere (or doing an official COM visit). My initial thought was to go check out an Episcopalian church in Lexington that I have wanted to visit, but the late night, high cost of gas, bad brakes on the car, and rain got the better of me, and I decided to stay closer to home and swing in the total opposite direction: from high church and sung liturgy to no liturgy at a local campus of a Lexington megachurch. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I find it difficult to simply visit a church, without critiquing what is going on, what is and isn't being said, sung, etc... Part of that is an occupational hazard, I'm sure, but I think it is mostly my J coming out in full force. 

It's not the first time I've been to a church like this, and I don't automatically dismiss these shopping center churches as I've heard others do. Still, I left feeling like I still hadn't been to church, and I really miss that on this particular Sunday as the prelude to Holy Week. 

This church is literally in a shopping center, sharing the same physical plant space as the movie theater, a restaurant, and a now-defunct Food Lion. The entrance to the worship space is bright, clean, and minimal, with computer terminals and information stations to help people connect with what is going on in the church. Upon entering the worship space, there are no visible signs of this being a church. It looks like the inside of a big box store or warehouse converted into a concert venue. Upbeat music is playing - the kind of music that you might hear at beginning of a sporting event. Lighting is pretty low, and so it is easy to be inconspicuous. Churchgoers have two seating choices - at round tables far off to the side, or at any number of chairs set up in rows in the main space. There are coffee urns and muffins available at the back, and two giant screens display announcements of an upcoming "Baptisms at the Pond" next Sunday and other information. 

My visit came at the end of a four week sermon series: The Fatal Four (of course referencing the NCAA tournament). Today's sermon: "March Madness: When the Call Doesn't Go Your Way." The service opened with two songs which most people didn't seem to know, or at least didn't sing along with, led by a full band and singers on stage. The lighting gets even lower for the worship, with stage lights of various colors illuminating the band up front. One can truly be a spectator here. If you don't know anyone, aren't sure what to think about the whole church thing, it is easy to come, sit, and not feel all eyes on you. 

After two songs, one of the pastors from Lexington comes out and welcomes us, gives some information, and makes a few digs at Louisville fans, cheers for UK's win and the fact that they are one of only two teams to make it to April Madness. I'm not surprised by this - we are in the heart of UK country - and he gets a few rounds of applause. He introduces the sermon and invites us to greet each other for a minute, and then it's showtime. I mean sermon time. 

Except that the video starts with a commercial of sorts - a play on the DirecTV commercials following the moves from getting angry at the cable company to ending up in a ditch, reenacting Platoon with Charlie Sheen, etc... This one starts out, "When you bet on Duke to take it all in your office pool, you end up with a busted bracket and at the bottom of the pool. When you... and so on, until the moral of the commercial: "Ditch Duke and go for another team in Blue." This video gets the biggest cheers of all. Setting aside the fact that I am a lifelong Duke fan, and that I did put Duke winning it all in my horribly busted bracket, the video has nothing to do with anything - not the sermon, nothing happening at the church, etc... So how is this the prelude to the sermon? 

Then the sermon video starts, and the piped-in preacher makes more comments about March Madness, the Final Four, pokes at other teams, and finally says, "Go cats!" More cheers. Clearly he knows his audience, and obviously this is just further proof of what is really religion around here. I can only judge this so far, having been a Duke fan growing up in Durham, a Red Sox fan living in Boston... I can understand the ethos of sport as religion. 

Diving into the heart of the sermon, which is at least half of the service length overall, he talks about anger. There is no central Scripture reading, rather a smattering of verses thrown up on the screen throughout the sermon, interspersed in roughly equal proportions with quotations from other sources, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Dallas Willard, Aristotle (in a paraphrase unlike any I've ever heard), and his own Twitter account. The scripture references come with just one or two verses at a time, and I counted at least 6 different translations (or paraphrases) used over the course of the message, including the New International, Today's New International, Good News, Living Bible, Message, and New Living Translation. 

Anger is a tough topic to tackle, and I was pleased that he recognized that not everyone deals with anger in the same way. He brought in some pop psychology, looking at anger as a 2nd emotion masking whatever is really going on. He also validated righteous anger, like the kind that Jesus had when he entered the Temple and turned over the tables. At this point, he said, "By the way, that was 2000 years ago this weekend," which was the only allusion to Palm Sunday through the whole service. "Palm Sunday" wasn't mentioned at all, and I doubt that most of the congregation would have made that connection, particularly since that particular episode in Jesus' ministry comes either at the beginning or near the end of his ministry, depending on which gospel you read. 

At one point, the preacher said, "You know, this is one of my favorite weeks of the whole year... in sports." For a split second I had hoped for a mention of Holy Week. That was simply his lead in to talk about Bobby Jones, the golfer (and refer to a Happy Gilmore scene shown earlier in the sermon).

I appreciated his validation of righteous anger - the kind of anger we should feel when we witness violence, injustice, etc... But most of his talk of anger and description of how we experience or express it leaned towards the angry outbursts and stereotypically explosive expressions of anger. The "Game Plan" he offered at the end was a neatly packaged, 3 bullet-point alliterated guide aimed, I think, mostly at the expression of anger: "Reflect before you react," "Remember the results," and "Restrain your remarks."

All of this perpetuates the idea that good Christians shouldn't get angry. We don't react in anger even if we feel it. We think about the results of our angry actions, and we don't say anything in wrath. The exhibition of anger is seen as something that Christians should avoid at all costs, and I think women in particular have been deeply harmed by messages like these. Undoubtedly many people in the congregation do need to hear a message on anger management, but where is the balance? And where is the gospel message in a sermon on anger management? Where is the good news? 

I thought of the kind of crowds these churches draw and wonder about the spiritual and Christian formation. The Bible was used simply as a kind of instruction book, or even a collection of quotations for positive thinking, without any sense of coherency or history. How is that developed and nurtured? How do members come to understand themselves as children of God, and as part of a much larger story that is revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit? 

After the sermon, without any kind of preface, introduction, words of institution, or anything, communion was distributed through the rows - tiny cracker like wafers and shot cups of juice all at once. No instruction was given, no articulation of the mystery of faith, no sense of community at all. For those sitting at the round tables, I noticed that they actually had to get up and go to a table where the communion was laying out for self-service, along with an offering basket. Following communion, the band came out and led two more songs, and then the pastor returned to make a few more announcements, including the first verbal mention of next week being Easter Sunday, which means baptisms at the Pond. Yes, that's what Easter Sunday means to me, too. While he was making announcements, I was aware that those of us in the rows were being passed offering pouches - again, no invitation to offering, no mention of our response of Thanksgiving for what God has given, etc...  And that was it. Church dismissed. 

Perhaps I should take a cue from the sermon and tone down my criticisms, ask what is really going on here for me, in my critique. I'm sure part of that is a sense of loss of having traveled through the Lenten season. Since I have been in different churches from week to week, I haven't had that sense of continuity. It is a loss. Pastors already face a challenge of being a leader in a worship community and also being part of it; of leading worship and participating at the same time. Guest pastors face that to an even greater degree, I think, because there is a further separation between the preacher and the community of faith. 

Part of me would like to find a regular community of worship. Part of me would really enjoy having a year to just go and visit many different places, to be a fly on the wall, a visitor in the pews, a participant and observer. And then there is the part of me that continues to feel called to preach, to lead worship, and to struggle with what that means for me here, now, and beyond. And so I continue in the Lenten fast of a rather amorphous vocational identity, neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. 

And in my heart, I can still shout my hosannas and wave my palms as we enter into this Holy Week.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Fast of Freelance

I can honestly say that, nearly two months into my "freelance" season, I am just as busy if not busier than I was before, evidenced in part by the long blog silence. Fortunately, I have continued to be engaged in meaningful and interesting work, a gift for which I am very grateful. Unfortunately, most of it doesn't pay.

My involvement with committees at the Presbytery and General Assembly level has been particularly intensive these past two months, though the GA committee work will taper sharply once we submit our paper next week. It will be interesting to see how it is received, and to be on the receiving end of the feedback that will be sure to follow. When I was at Big Tent in Indianapolis, I was a bit taken aback by the number of folks who simply expressed their gratitude for the time and energy that our committee was putting into this important inquiry. Once our paper is "out there," I anticipate a more...diverse response.

I have continued to work every Sunday, preaching every week except for two, and on those two Sundays I was making visits to churches to which I am a liaison through the Committee on Ministry. I am thankful for an upcoming vacation this week, and upon my return, I am again booked preaching in various places through Easter Sunday. I have really enjoyed the experience of preaching in different churches, and I receive it as a gift during this season. It pays a little bit, which helps, too.

If I were still working in a church full time, much of what I have been doing would be an extension of my service to the church, and through a salary, I would essentially be getting paid to do it. Since I am not currently in an installed position, most of it is volunteer work, and I've got mixed feelings about that. I am thankful to be in a position where I can do it, but it isn't going to be sustainable for long for our family financial situation. Incidentally, I just came across another blog post from a freelance minister speaking to some of the financial and theological implications of freelance ministry.

I am thankful for the insight into what we ask of ruling elders in serving on these kinds of committees, and an appreciation for how difficult it would be to fully participate in some of this work if you had a full-time, non-church job, as well. It's no wonder that most of the ruling elders who are active in presbytery are older - either retired, or at a point professionally where they have more freedom and flexibility in their schedule. How can we expect most young people to be able to take off at least one day a month for committee meetings, much less find or make the time for the other work that is expected, both within the committee and in their local church involvement?

I'm also very grateful to have been given a contract to write 6 Sessions for The Present Word, an adult Sunday school curriculum. I am writing the Student Books, Leader Guides, and Worship Leaflets for one unit of next Spring's study. It was a pinch assignment, and so I've been working nonstop to get it all written in just about a month, and around a busy travel and meeting schedule. Thankfully I really enjoy the work, and thankfully again, it comes with a check.

This is a new season for me, and one of learning and growth. I'm not entirely sure what my next season will be, but this is a critical time for my discernment, too. It can be scary at times, sure, but I'm grateful for it. For someone like me who likes to have a plan (yes, I'm a J), living fully into an intentional, temporal season of unknowns is a major stretch. In a personal season of waiting, this past Saturday I was feeling particularly anxious in the wait, and I read from the morning Psalm, "And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you." (Ps. 39:7)

I am ready for the Lenten journey. I feel like I have already voluntarily traveled to the wilderness, both knowing and not knowing what awaits. In many ways, this season is a fast for me. Landon Whitsitt, current Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA), wrote in a recent blog post that a fast "is not about doing without 'something you LOVE,' but about doing without something you need." I am giving up the kinds of security that I think I need - financial, job, etc... - and prayerfully, hopefully, rediscovering and trusting in the sovereignty and providence of God. May it be so!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year!

It is Monday afternoon, January 2nd, and for most of the day thus far, I have been working to update my online presence to reflect my new "freelance" status. It's amazing how much more work this entails than it did after my last major professional change 3 years ago. I hope that the year ahead will include many more opportunities to update my profiles, statuses, tweets, resume, and everything else.

I wrote earlier a bit earlier about my decision to leave my position as co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church. After a month and a half navigating through that transition, I am now on the other side, feeling very positive about the present and future. Many have asked me what is on the horizon, and though much of that remains to be seen, here are a few highlights. This Wednesday I will be serving as a convener for the Academy of Preachers National Preaching Festival in Louisville. The AoP is a multi-denominational organization that seeks to "identify, network, inspire, and support" young preachers (ages 14-28). I had the great pleasure of working with members of the Young Preacher Leadership Team last July when I was a preaching coach for their preaching "boot camp." I am really looking forward to being inspired and challenged! If you are in the Louisville area and can steal away for a morning or afternoon, please join us at the Seelbach Hotel.

I am gearing up for big planning meetings in the next couple of weeks as I chair a task force to write a new manual of operations for the Presbytery of Transylvania. As we think about our particular call for being church together here in central and eastern Kentucky, we are hoping to take advantage of the new flexibility afforded by the new Form of Government. If you are working on similar projects or know of others who are looking at similar questions, please let me know - I would love to connect.

I continue to serve as a member of the Committee on Ministry, and I have church visits to make and Session records to read! On Sunday, January 15th, I will be supply preaching at Meadowthorpe Presbyterian Church in Lexington, which is one of the churches to which I am COM liaison. I had the pleasure - and it was my pleasure! - to share dinner and fellowship with the Session at Pastor Scott Cervas' house at the end of December, and I look forward to filling the pulpit there as Scott is at Camp Burnamwood leading their youth retreat. I hope to be engaged in pulpit supply regularly, perhaps even as a stated supply if the opportunity arises.

For the past year I have also been serving as a member of the General Assembly Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century, and over the past few months I have been working as part of the writing team to draft our paper. I volunteered to work with Carol Howard Merritt, our very gifted committee moderator, to edit the paper. The committee has a final face to face meeting at the beginning of February, so the next few weeks will be full as Carol and I work together to bring a near-final draft to the group. We will have to turn in our final product by the end of February so that everything can be prepared and assigned for General Assembly, which will meet in Pittsburgh in July.

Interspersed between committee meetings and projects, in the next few weeks I will also gather with my Company of New Pastors cohort group and an annual study/collegial group comprised of dear Seminary classmates, both of which I am eagerly anticipating. Add to that cleanup from Christmas, various projects around the house that I have been putting off, stacks of books on my reading list, and other resolutions (which I will not call "New Year's Resolutions"), I will not be bored! I also have a few irons in the fire in terms of contract work - writing and/or consulting projects. If you know of opportunities, keep me in mind. I hope 2012 is off to a great start for all. Happy New Year!