Friday, October 21, 2016

At the Center, Even As Things Change

One-time Baptist Church building
now fitness center
downtown Catskill, NY
Recently, I discovered I was at the center of the known Baptist universe.

Well, in 1817.  And among "Northern" (now "American") Baptists.

Late last month, I was in Catskill, New York, for a meeting with a fellow Baptist.  Arriving early, I had time to explore the downtown area, and I noticed this very beautiful church in the midst of the downtown district.  Alas, the church building itself was now repurposed for a completely different reason.  A fitness club now occupied the large space once filled by the sanctuary's pews, altar and other fittings.  It shared the facility with a center offering physical therapy.

It is not that uncommon these days to be in a historic town in upstate New York, southwestern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and discover a number of church buildings now closed, up for sale or completely repurposed for secular/commercial use.  I follow an entire Facebook group ("Congregational Seasons") dedicated to the challenges many churches face when facilities threaten to eat up increasingly high margin of offerings, if not endowed funds, for upkeep and maintenance, leaving very little for mission, ministry or even adequate clergy compensation.

What church used to worship here?, I wondered.  Given my spare time (and the fact I am increasingly a church history arm chair scholar/nerd/lost cause), I began to sort out what I could learn.  With no cornerstone or external signage/plaques, etc., and ironically a card access only to the building for work-out or therapy staff, I had no immediate way of gleaning basic information.

Instead, I found myself conducting two forms of "on the fly" research.  One version is increasingly familiar: using one's smartphone to look up online resources.  I find that strategic use of Google can often turn up some interesting facts or connection points. With my burgeoning know-how, I was able to learn that this building was built originally for the Second Baptist Church of Catskill, NY.  The congregation is still in existence, in another location elsewhere in town.   I was able to spot contact information for local historical societies, however, given the volunteer nature and available hours of said places, I was not able to call at that time of morning.

The second form of research is still my favorite: asking a local.  I happened across an older gentleman sitting on the bench.  Back home in Kansas, a lot of the retired farmers and ranchers would spend time sitting on benches, watching the slow paced world of small town life.  You could always count on them sitting there, until of course, the weekly paper brought word of their passing.  A few of them were Baptists, so I also remembered seeing them in the same pew, week after week.  They did not say much, but they loved to talk about what they remembered.  They also had opinions on politicians and voting, but their commentary now seems so tame and eloquent in these days.

I honestly cannot remember their names.  But their absence after years of seeing them on the benches outside the local hardware store made me realize that a town loses a lot the locals passed on.  Sometimes, print and online resources are just what happened to be written or recorded.  Other bits of history are kept in the oral tradition, no matter how many devices we develop and tote around.

Here, I surely found a similar person around downtown Catskill.  I asked if he knew much about the church across the street from the courthouse.  About twenty minutes later, I learned a great deal about the history of the building since Second Baptist relocated.  A Pentecostal church had been there once after the Baptists moved on.  Then a developer bought the building in hopes of converting it into a restaurant.  When plans were not able to move forward, the building remained "on the market" (or "dormant", depending on who was telling the story apparently) until the health club and therapy center moved in.

The great surprise, however, emerged when I was Googling my way through the various online resources.  In the "Google Books" search I did for "Baptist church" and "Catskill, NY", I discovered a real treat.  In the early 19th century, the Catskill Baptists ordained to ministry a very noteworthy Baptist:  John Mason Peck.   Peck was likely ordained by the First Baptist Church of Catskill, NY, as Second Baptist (where the building above used to host their worship and congregational life) was not yet formed.  I believe also First Baptist, Catskill, is also continuing as a worshipping group, however, neither congregation happens to be presently affiliated with ABCUSA, the successor name of the Northern Baptist Convention.

For a Midwesterner, the name of John Mason Peck carries a great deal of lore.  He made his mark on spreading Baptist churches across the developing country during that time period. While native to New England and ordained in the Catskills in New York, his story goes well beyond the immediate area.  His remarkable career included work as a church planter, preacher, anti-slavery advocate and progenitor of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (the first of two Societies formed among Northern Baptists for "home" mission that continue onwards today).  You can read the Wikipedia entry via:  His legacy is shared by many other Baptists, including Luther Rice, but Peck himself is quite noteworthy for his industry and sense of call to minister, kindled by early Baptist congregations in the Catskill Mountains.

One book digitized through Google Books provided the insight about John Mason Peck's work, observing that Catskill, NY, happened to be then the center of Northern Baptist churches in the 1810s.  How appropriate that the place where Peck was ordained in 1813 was at the center, for thanks to Peck's work alongside his contemporaries, the center kept shifting ever westward.  Indeed, Peck ensured the seeding of many churches throughout Missouri, beginning in St Louis and then moving westward.  That the "Northern Baptists" could rename themselves "American Baptists", having presence in many states in the North and even in the South, by the mid-20th century was surely also thanks to Peck's faithful work.

Standing in the one-time "center of the Baptist universe" (for at least when considering just my own denomination's reckoning of Baptist presence in the burgeoning United States), I stood before a church building now repurposed into something completely different than its builders intended.  Such adaptive use of church properties for sacred and yes even secular purposes is to be expected.  No one institution or movement or organization can stay upwards without change, variation, set backs, and the reality that things "morph" even when each generation thinks to itself that "it can't get better than it is now" (or more likely of late, "what happened to what was?"). 

I took a photo and noted some opportunities for further research when I got back home and had time to continue my armchair inquiries.  Then I went into a great little bookshop and browsed.  Then I went to my meeting and talked about how to keep Baptists in upstate New York encouraged, faithful and willing to risk. 

Hopefully the spirit of John Mason Peck is not just consigned to history and nostalgia.  At our meeting over Subway sandwiches, two Baptists hoped for the same call to go and share the good word in places near and far.


To read more about John Mason Peck, click this link to a Google Book scan of a 1917 retrospective on Peck and the 100 years (by then) of Home Mission written by Austen Kennedy De Blois:

To read a 1914 history thesis on Peck written by Matthew Lawrence, a student of the University of Illinois, click:

A special collection highlighting Peck's career and links to some writings:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Thinking Clearly on the Journey Ahead

Earlier tonight, my wife and I walked our beagle pup around Buckingham Lake in Albany.  One day, we happened across it not too far from our home, yet at the time of our first encounter, we were rushing by as we got turned around with directions.

Flash forward a couple of years later, we have added this lake to our places where the dog can happily run ahead on the long lead and sniff everything in sight.  (She is a beagle after all!)

Our trip this time came in the midst of what will be the heaviest travel week I have for my Regional ministry work (five out of seven days does not happen that often).  At the mid-point of this week of travel, I looked ahead up the path and saw this rather inviting image of the pathway in the midst of the trees.

Sometimes, we struggle to see much of anything when we are trudging down the road (or in my case, moving along various parts of the New York ThruWay and parts of upstate New York from nearly NYC to nearly Canada this week).  It can be hard to "lift up thine eyes" when thine eyelids are craving a longer time to sleep in and one's body feels the miles.

Like everyone else, clergy have to choose when to say "enough" and when to keep on keeping on.  I know I have been remiss in taking my full vacation days in a given year.  I sometimes work ahead like my forebearers did the Kansas sod:  just keep on going, as it won't get done otherwise.

Deprogramming me is my growing awareness of the idea that boundaries, rest and common sense are ministry tools that help church leaders (ordained and lay alike) meet their goal of serving God and neighbor rather than collapsing and meeting God and getting one's harp and halo a bit earlier than really one should.

Consider my reflection this evening in your own life and work.  When is it okay to lift up your head, heart and mind to the reality that God offers us a life that includes Sabbath by design.  Even God took the seventh day.

Ensure you see the pathway ahead.  It may give you pause....for good reason!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pastoral Excellence in the Adirondacks: An Interview with Pastor Sandra Spaulding

For her ministry in rural communities,
Pastor Sandra Spaulding (second from left)
received the Rosa O Hall Award in June 2015.
In my work around upstate New York, many churches are blessed by pastors who came into ministry through what are sometimes called "non-traditional" training.  Such language is becoming dated.  Certainly, one can seek their theological education and training through an accredited seminary.  I am one of those persons.  However, other pastors come through a variety of educational routes, and certainly, such pastors have been part of the story of Christianity since its beginning.  What some call a ministry training that is "non-traditional" has been traditional, except when we forget our history and refer to it as such.  Like many Protestants, American Baptists are blessed by persons who are called and seek learning in a variety of ways to serve Christ and the Church.  

I am pleased to introduce you to one of the finest pastors I work with.  Pastor Sandra Spaulding brings a great deal of wisdom, joy and compassion to her ministry work in the southern part of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. it was my pleasure to join the effort to nominate her for the Rosa O. Hall Award given by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies to recognize persons who make significant contributions to rural and small town ministry.  Pastor Spaulding was awarded this honor in June 2015 as part of the American Baptist Mission Summit and Biennial in Overland Park, Kansas.   

What follows is an interview about her ministry and how she came to hear the call to serve.  Pastor Sandra responded to my questions via email correspondence:

1)        You are a pastor of two rural churches in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  How did you and the two congregations come to the decision to share a pastor?   What were early challenges in starting this up?  (Or, had the churches had any previous history of sharing clergy, and if so, how far back did this model start?)

I have been the pastor of Lakeville Baptist Church in Cossayuna since August of 1998.  This small church located in a hamlet of Greenwich, New York has employed part time, bi vocational, pastoral leadership for many years.  During the first ten years I served as pastor of this church I also held a full time position as an corporate manager for the Travelers and later as an Education Director of a local museum.  In 2006, the search committee of the Bottskill Baptist Church, located in the Village of Greenwich, approached me about serving as their ¾ time pastor in a shared relationship with Lakeville.  They had not previously shared pastoral leadership with another congregation but were ready to consider this idea.  After careful consideration and prayer I met with both churches to  explore this idea. The Lakeville congregation was very supportive of this idea after the initial worry about whether or not I would continue to serve as their pastor in the long term.     
The transition for these two churches went quite well from the start and after eight years together they are pretty much like family.  The challenges are as expected.  Scheduling special service times for both churches, deciding when and where to met together for some occasions and vacation coverage for my vacation times are the main challenges.  The churches are located 11.4 miles apart hold separate services each week.  Sometimes the churches hold separate special services and at other times they will meet together.   In the past two years, I have noticed many occasions where members of one church will attend service or bible study at the other church when it better fits their personal schedule.  This has been an exciting change for both churches.      

2) What does the average week in your ministry work look like?

 As the pastor of  the two churches my duties fall into three categories as detailed below.
  • Direct Ministry to the Churches 
  • Community Ministry and Outreach
  • American Baptist Ministry
Volunteers from both churches are also involved in various ministry projects.  At this time, all of the boards and committees of each church are separate and for most ministry projects within the scope of direct ministry they act independently.  Both churches are very active in Greenwich Interfaith projects and supportive of many other community ministry projects as well.  Representatives of both churches serve on the executive board of the Interfaith Fellowship.  (see projects below)   Both churches support ABC NYS projects as well.     
My 2016 Pastoral Focus:  
Direct Ministry to the Church
  • Planning and leading worship and special services at Bottskill and Lakeville Baptist Churches.  I also work with music leaders to prepare music selections.
  • Prayerful Research of scriptures and other sources to compose a weekly message and lead/plan study opportunities.
  • Leading, coordinating and/or participating in Bible Study at the churches to include regular studies, new member sessions, baptism classes, and special study opportunities.   
  • Participating in meetings as a non voting member of all boards and committees 
  • Serve as the Moderator of Lakeville Baptist Church 
  • Visitation to those unable to attend regular services to include hospital, nursing facility and home visits upon invitation.  
  • Serve as “on call” responder to congregational families and community members in crisis as requested. 
  • Plan and officiate Weddings, Funerals, Baby Dedications and Blessings, Home Blessings and other special services as invited.    
Community Ministry and Outreach   2016 Ministry Involvement   
  • Volunteer Coordinator ~ Greenwich/ Cosayuna, Comfort Food Community Pantry
  • Washington County Team Lead for the Suicide Postvention Team of the Coalition for the Prevention of Suicide to be launched in October 2016.  I will act as the point of contact for activation of the team. This team is designed to intervene and support families and communities in the event of a traumatic event such as suicide.  Training Completed:  Youth Mental Health First Aid, Adult Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Postvention Team training 
  • Member of the Executive Board of the Greenwich Interfaith Fellowship Inc. This group is the lead organization for Van Go, The Jim Patrick Ministry Fund ( to help those in emergency need) Food For Kids, School Supply  Giveaway, CROP WALK,  Eccumenical events and Special Services such as Baccalaureate, Thanksgiving and Good Friday Services, Jumpstart Jesus and much more.  I serve on the planning committees for Jesus Jumpstart and Food For Kids.    
  • Member of the of the core team in Washington County working on the Bridges Out of Poverty project.  We are working to establish ways to aid and education  families and individuals affected by generational poverty in our county. Attended Bridges Out of Poverty Training 
  • Member of volunteer clergy team at Washington Center in Argyle  I lead worship services at the center assisted by several volunteers from the Lakeville Baptist congregation six times each year.  
  • Volunteer for aftercare for Upstate Jail Ministries as needed.   Assist Women leaving Jail/prison with getting settled back into their community after incarceration.
  • Member of the Town of Greenwich Ethics Committee  
American Baptist Ministry 
  • Secretary of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Churches NYS. 
  • Member of the Regional Enhancement Team of the Adirondack Association of ABC  NYS.  This team aids churches in our association with the pastoral search process during transition.
  • Member of ABC-NYS Board of Mission as a representative of the Adirondack Association of American Baptist Church NYS.  This is the governing body of the denominational region ABC NYS.
  • Member of the Biennial Planning Committee for the ABC NYS  November 2016 event to be held Liverpool, NY   
  • Member of  Nehemiah leadership Network This fellowship is committed to equipping pastors to be more effective change leaders.  Components to the 3-year NLN experience: Individualized learning plan, mentored colleague group's, annual conference learning event.  Each participant commits to a covenantal partnership between pastors, congregations, regions, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and MMBB. NN graduates earn continuing education credits, and are certified by the Office of the General Secretary ABCUSA as having achieved a mark of pastoral excellence.  I will graduate in February 2017. 

3)        Who were the mentors who encouraged your call and helped you get into ministry?
Rev. Dr. Sheldon Hurst served as my pastor at Village Baptist Church in Fort Edward, New York.  He has been an incredible source of support and learning in my life and ministry.  He served as my mentor during my the entire certification process for the Lay Study program and as watch care during my first years in pastoral ministry at Lakeville Baptist. 
Rev. Kathleen Davie has been my friend, colleague and a mentor in ministry for me throughout the past 20 years.   We both took part in a collegue group funded by the Lilly foundation called “Women in Ministry Together” for many years.  Pastor Ila Smith, Rev. Regina Haag, Rev. Brooke Newell and Rev. Marcia Spain Bell were also part of this group and very important to my development in ministry. 

Rev. Dr, Hazel Roper was the driving factor in my leadership at Lakeville Baptist Church.  She is one great woman. 

Rev. Howard Washburn and his wife Amy have been incredible friends in ministry for me and Guy over these past 20 years.      

4)        What ministries are your churches engaged in and how has the community responded to your outreach and presence?

As you can see in the section above on Community Ministry, the churches are involved in a number of projects and lots of outreach programs.  Both churches are well know in the community as places where help can be found in need.  The Bottskill Church building also acts as a community center in many ways.  Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4 H, Dairy Bowl, a quilting club and some Greenwich School programs are among the groups that met in the building at no cost.  The Lakeville Baptist church has served as the only church in the hamlet since 1834 and is considered the community church.  

In 2017, the Bottskill Baptist Church will celebrate 250 years as a congregation as the church was established in 1767. We are going to open our church quarterly for unique activities and worship open to the public during a year of celebration.  We are in hope that these occasions will be a new way to get the community excited about our church as a worship center in new ways. 

5)        Any concluding thoughts to share?  

In the 21st century church I believe there is no one model of ministry and mission.  We are called to reflect love of Jesus to our unique community in ways that are needed in each specific situation. Working with two different churches IS DIFFERENT!  Each church and each community has unique people, problems, resources and skills.  I urge all of our ABC  NYS churches explore their unique gifts and ways to to find their God Blessed place in the larger community of faith.     

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Getting Our Bearings: Books about Living in Unfamiliar Territory

Years ago, an Episcopal priest friend was called to move from a highly urbanized area to a rural small town with declining population and many socio-economic challenges.  He admitted that his way into the "different world" was by way of reading Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, 1993).   In this book, Norris talks about moving to Lemmon, North Dakota, a place where her family has roots yet quite different from her upbringing in Hawaii and later her years living in New York City.  My friend found Norris' reflections helpful in navigating the differences he was experiencing, framed as Norris did through the lens of gentle observations about the beauty of the unexpected pace, scenery and ways of people who were quite content (and perhaps felt blessed) to know little else but the terrain around them.  They were content in the best sense of the word.

Working around a large state, I keep an eye, an ear and my heart open to the differences of a congregation and wherever in the state it gathers for worship and lives out the gospel through its ministry and mission.  Certainly, New York has its unique ways of understanding itself:  upstate vs. the City, Hudson Valley defining additionally as "upper", "lower" and "mid", western New York's more Midwestern feel vs. the more "New England" feel of the eastern side (especially in the Capital District and Adirondacks).  

A recent book on New York history writes with similar concern with its historian author Bruce W. Dearstyne commenting on a few seminal moments from the long history and large terrain of New York.  Such work he observes requires a provisional approach to any claim that you have spoken definitively about New York as a whole (Cf. The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State History,  Excelsior Books/SUNY Press, 2015).    He highlights sixteen key dates in New York State history that illumine the many ways the State has developed, yet sometimes in his thinking, been quiet about its contributions to innovation. 

At a book reading a few days ago at the State Library in Albany, Dearstyne joked that New York tends to be more low-key or overly modest about its contributions.  Many may argue that, given the pluck and vigor associated with New York City in the media and popular culture, but then again, that's also one of the challenges New York history faces: sorting out the State from the City in discerning how to tell of the contributions of a very large and divergent terrain of urban and rural, small town and borough, remote and overpopulated places.

Three years thus far with New York license plates, I find Dearstyne's book a helpful touchstone.  I recommend it to clergy who are newer to the State and feeling likewise a bit puzzled how their part of New York State fits into the rest.  I should also recommend Kathleen Norris' Dakota, as she reminds us that wherever we are, the challenge of unfamiliar territory may lead you to learn that the place where you find the ground beneath your feet is indeed the place for which you've been yearning.  Further, in plumbing its history with the eyes of the outsider looking in, even the remotest of places can be laden with a history far more textured than you would first guess.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Adventures in Continuing Education: Mediation Skills

L to R: Sandra Spaulding (Bottskill and Lakeville Baptist), George Stefani
(Latham Community Baptist), Doris Segrave (FBC Saratoga Springs),
Jim Kelsey (ABCNYS), Kathy Donley (Emmanuel Baptist, Albany),
Jim Ketchum (FOCUS Churches), and Jerrod Hugenot (ABCNYS)
For the past few days, I have been involved with a continuing education event. The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in the suburbs of Chicago sent its Executive Director the Rev. Richard Blackburn to Albany, New York, where about forty pastors, lay leaders and denominational staff members participated in an ecumenical learning opportunity.  The Capital Region Theological Center (CRTC) staff helped make this event possible through its partnership with LMPC and its own investment in providing quality theological education and training.
One could say it was a deeply practical event, exploring mediation skills in interpersonal and organizational conflict.  Many problems I am asked to be involved with will inevitably deal with some level of conflict in congregations.  Ambiguity about pastoral transitions, budget woes and matters large and small, overt and subtle drive more calls and emails than I would like to admit.

Yet everyday life is rife with the elements of conflict:  misunderstanding, differences, haste to make decisions, and various levels of chronic and acute anxiety.  When people resort to hasty decisions, avoiding or cutting off the voices around them that may complicate or engage in some sort of turf war (maybe over sharing the playground or deciding who gets control of a territory in dispute), the human race does not exactly distinguish itself with our centuries of development, technology and "civilization".

Rev. Blackburn provides trainings for churches and other groups wishing to learn how to craft a better way forward.  He shared stories of congregational mediations where a process he teaches will lead to greater understanding between otherwise divided people.  His methods do not rush reconciliation or cheapen the process by suggesting that some hard work can be avoided or skated over.  

Engaging this past week in some role play scenarios with fellow learners reinforced that realization.  Talking about a congregant angry about a memorial fund contribution's handling of her loved one's memorial monies or a church at odds with a newly called minister (yet dealing with years and decades of prior unresolved tensions) were an opportunity to "play a part" yet be in the midst of the lived realities of churches of any size, and indeed, just like every church to which I have belonged or served in a lay or ordained capacity.

To learn more about the ministry of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, visit  The CRTC in the Albany area can be followed via: or via their Facebook page.

I am grateful for the financial support to attend this event provided by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and the continuing education funds set aside for Region staff by the annual budget of the American Baptist Churches of New York State, which is made possible by the contributions of our 294 local churches to the 2016 ABCNYS Region Offering and portions of the America for Christ Offering (ABHMS) and the ABCUSA United Mission Basics.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Dishonest Exemplar (Luke 16:1-8)

The parable revolves around a guy who has messed up just about everything possible with his job.  He’s an accountant who has been called to the corporate boardroom and told, “You’re fired.”

His problem?  He mismanaged money.

Inadvertently, this parable might sound more “plausible” today, as attuned as we are to the media stories about things we really never heard much about before:  Ponzi schemes and subprime mortgages.  The idea that middle and upper management could “blow” through vast amounts of money sounds familiar, if not painfully familiar.

It probably doesn’t help us to hear that this dubious character is known as the economion, which can translate as “steward” or “accountant”, a term derived from that same Greek word with that word that is at the forefront of our minds:  economy.

Just as we struggle today with issues of the economy, we ought to take heart that 21st-century angst over money mismanagement is found in the first century and even before that time.  Economic theory changes, financial markets wax and wane, and stories of mismanagement will be with us always.
The trouble, however, is that this fellow who gets into all sorts of trouble is the same guy that Jesus says, “Be like him”.

The manager has lost big money, and like most situations on the front pages of today’s newspapers, it is not his money to lose.  He works for an estate, a large tract of land that is quite a lucrative operation for his boss.  The money lost must be substantial to merit the boss himself giving the pink slip to this accountant.

At this point, the parable takes another spin.  The manager realizes that he has lost more than a job.  He is now out in the cold with no other skills to fall back upon.  Digging (literally a dirty job with back-breaking hours) or begging for alms is just about everything he’s able to do.  He has brought this disaster upon himself, and there is no way forward.

The manager does that time honored thing that people do when in trouble.  He improvises.  And what a strange gambit he plays.  He goes to two of the estate master’s debtors and instructs them to reduce their debt to the estate substantially.

Is this revenge on the manager’s part, causing his boss to lose even more money? Actually, the manager is not tearing down the boss’ empire.  Rather, he’s trying his best to feather what little of a nest he has left.  Taking advantage of the debtors not having something like Twitter, he gets ahead of the grapevine about his firing and finds two debtors who still think he works for the boss.   What appears to be a miraculous forgiveness of debt is really the manager hedging his bets that this will make him some fast (and extremely grateful) friends.

Again, Jesus says, “Be like him.”

In case you’re wondering if you got the wrong message in Sunday school all those years ago (i.e. “be nice to others” and “do the right thing”), don’t worry, you were getting the right message.  This parable makes one wonder if we ought to sweep it under the rug, giving seeming credence to bad behavior and really bad “economic” planning (even if it does sound like how economies tend to be run:  avoid blame and cover your tracks fast!).

The parable of the dishonest steward is told right after the Prodigal Son parable and just before a parable about wealth “gone bad” (the Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus).  Jesus is where we left him in last week’s Gospel reading:  at table with the sinners and tax collectors and at odds with the Pharisees grumbling over in the corner while the disciples of Jesus watch this unfold.  After telling the stories of the “lost sheep, coin, and son” to hush the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples this story of a money manager that you really shouldn’t trust with the checkbook.  “Be like him.”

Books on parables flag this parable of “the dishonest steward” or “the mis-manager” as the most difficult of the parables of Jesus.  It befuddles the experts, it has baffled centuries of preachers.  Indeed, I count myself among the befuddled and the baffled.  How do we find anything redemptive in this story of a middle-management flunkie who breaks a few rules and then after getting caught, goes out and breaks a few more? 

Appropriately, the dishonest steward appears right after the disciples hear of a dubious son, the “Prodigal”.  Both the Prodigal and the steward are terrible with money.  Both squander tons of it.  The Prodigal winds up feeding pigs and wishing he could eat as well as the pigs.  The steward fritters about the digging, and begging surely in his future.  Oddly enough, both the prodigal’s decision to return home and the “morally challenged” sleight of hand pulled off by the steward get Jesus’ approval.

David Buttrick claims that Luke’s gospel is not so concerned with introducing you to “perfect” examples of good behavior.  In fact, examining the parables that appear in Luke, Buttrick claims Luke “seems to have a broader tolerance for human error and moral failure” (Speaking Parables, W/JKP, 2000, p. 179).   Just as Jesus willingly sits at table with those who are of dubious righteousness, so Luke’s gospel recognizes that not all of the characters around Jesus (or even those he imagines in the parables he spins) are neat and tidy examples of humanity.

Other stories appear in ancient sources about underlings/slaves who get into mischief or try to pull a fast one to make ends meet or get ahead.  (Similarly in modern day, there is the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum which features such a character in supposed “old Roman empire” days as well as the British comedy Black Adder, where a whole family lineage of schemers tried their best to hustle the best deals possible while working for the royal court or the aristocracy.)  So why is Jesus telling his disciples such a story as this?  Jesus appreciates the clever skills of this dishonest manager, who thinks on his feet when faced with adverse conditions.

The disciples of Jesus see the riffraff at table and the overly pious over in the corner as Jesus spins these parables.  In some ways, the disciples are much closer to the sinners at the table than they are the self-elected saints grumbling in the corner.  Some scholars wonder if Jesus is tipping his hand a bit with this parable, suggesting that shrewdness will be something the disciples of Jesus had better pick up fast.  Thinking on your feet would become mandatory for the early followers of Jesus, as the early Church experienced hardship and persecution, endeavoring at their best to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel.  To be “children of the light”, they still need some skills to survive the world at hand.

Another angle for this parable is the criticism levied against such people as the manager and his master.  The people around the table with Jesus and the disciples were part of the populace that had very little in terms of money, property, or economic stability.  The manager and his master represented that part of society that controlled pretty much everything else.  Losing some money was an annoyance but not ruinous to the manager’s boss.  In fact, the type of bills he was due (the large amounts of oil and wheat) indicated the wealth of this boss.  The manager was the middle man between the upper class (less than 2% of the populace was “wealthy”) and the lower class. The parable serves as a warning to those who would put all of their eggs in the basket of Empire, the elite class’ view of things, or “mammon”.  Mammon is wealth acquired by less than respectable ways, i.e. “greed”.  The manager is caught up in a system that is fundamentally flawed, one contrary to God, the “master” of the life for which we are created.  Such a parable as this reveals that Mammon is not only a “master”, it enslaves.

Parables have this quality of being inscrutable, and this one wins prizes for certain.  Elsewhere, Jesus claims disciples ought to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10).  Such sayings sound odd to our ears, as we consider the gospels having a fairly monochrome view of the world, devoid of that grey cast we know so well from everyday life.   This parable seems lodged in the world as we know it, somewhat too close at first glance.

Such texts as the dishonest steward reveal that the gospel can be found even in the midst of dubious characters playing out the plot of life as we know it.  The parable serves as a warning to those who confuse their priorities between God and Mammon too easily.  The parable serves as a wise word to those who would follow the contrary way of Jesus, preparing those who listen for tough times and the need to “think fast”.

This parable might bedevil its listener with ambiguities, yet it offers a pragmatic view that we need.  Our faith journey will take twists and turns along the way.  Not every moment of our lives is given over to the easiest path.  Shrewdness is part of the life of discipleship, just as surely as grace, hope, and love.

To be shrewd might mean “making a fast buck at the expense of others” or “feathering your nest”.  With the gospel, shrewdness becomes saying no to the easy way or easy money.  In itself, that’s a tall order for most of us, as “Mammon” comes in many appealing or “quick fix” guises.

Shrewd disciples know that the way ahead might be challenging, that faith does not mean one has easy answers or exemption from life’s travails.  It might mean a Sunday afternoon painting bowls for a fundraiser.  It might mean seeing a building as more than “worship space” and letting the doors be open wide to a variety of people in need.  It might mean saying “yes” when it’s time to volunteer somewhere far afield.  Shrewdness might be the thing that saves us from ourselves and allows us to be there for others.

Shrewdness allows us to be like the One who sees more to the world than Mammon ever could offer.

Friday, September 9, 2016

To improve the Church's Preaching: An interview with Dr. Mike Graves

Dr. Mike Graves, Wm McElvaney Professor of Preaching and Worship,
Saint Paul School of Theology, Overland Park, KS
Each Sunday, preachers have this task:  to speak a good word about God’s Word.  A powerful and holy calling, often preachers feel ambivalent about the results or their stamina with the week to week challenge.  At best, preparing for the Sunday sermon can be taxing.  During a week filled with unexpected (and sometimes even expected) pastoral challenges, the sermon sometimes gets relegated to the crack of dawn or the wee hours of the night.

Many preachers will point gladly to mentors who helped them learn the ropes.  Among my own mentors is the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves, Wm. McElvaney, Professor of Preaching and Worship at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, KS. 
Prior to SPST, Dr. Graves served in similar capacities at the Midwestern Theological Seminary and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (my alma mater).  Dr. Graves is the author of many books and articles on preaching and frequently in church pulpits and offering workshops for preachers seeking new or renewed skills.  Dr. Graves is an ordained minister in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. 

The interview below was conducted via e-mail over the Labor Day weekend:

1)                  Share in brief your background as a preacher and homiletics professor. 

Some preachers grow up in the church, attending Sunday school in rooms with cribs and eventually graduating to chairs and even pews. Not me. I attended the Catholic church where I was baptized only sporadically, and have the vaguest memories of one Vacation Bible School at a Nazarene church near us. So when I came to faith as a freshman in college, I dove head first into Bible study and discipleship, going to seminary shortly thereafter.

If asked the first day of seminary about my vocational goals, I would have said “Preacher.” Not “Pastor” but “Preacher.” So naturally I took preaching courses as soon as they let me, and in that first exposure to the discipline of homiletics I found myself taking the course as everyone does but also thinking about what the professor was doing. Here was someone helping us think about what we think when putting sermons together. Na├»ve as it may sound, the first Christmas break of seminary I penned a draft syllabus for how I would teach preaching some day. My professor encouraged me to think about a PhD in preaching, which is precisely what I did.

I served some churches as pastor along the way, but for the most part the whole of my vocation has been teaching in seminaries. When a stranger on an airplane asks what I do for a living, I start by asking them if they’ve ever been to church and what they think about preaching. Many of them roll their eyes, indicating some measure of disappointment. That’s when I volunteer that my vocation is helping to improve the Church’s preaching.

 2)            In the time you’ve taught seminarians and pastors seeking continuing education, what has stayed the same in terms of the field and what has changed, particularly in the past few years, about homiletics and out in the field (i.e. local church pulpits)?  Anything that you can point to that your younger self wouldn’t have necessarily anticipated as a priority for preachers these days?

 Over the last 25-plus years of doing workshops and retreats with pastors, the one constant it seems to me is that ministers want help with their preaching, recognize that they could be better. Not only that, but they want to be better. The thing that has changed the most is the culture around us, not just the headlines but the technology. People’s lives are busier, so they tend to be more distracted. Except that’s not just true of those who sit in pews but those who stand in pulpits. Preachers know the people are wired, connected, online. I’m not sure how much they realize it keeps them from being still, studying hard to find a word from God. And of course with so many more online resources, there’s always the temptation to take shortcuts. I didn’t see this coming down the road, and I don’t know that any of us did, except for a few cultural prophets here and there, people like Neil Postman maybe.

3)            What books of late are you recommending to preachers who are already in the field yet need some refreshment or retooling?

Every discipline has books galore, although preaching may be one of those disciplines easily neglected after seminary. We preachers are busy looking for help with the ingredients for our sermons; we don’t have time to think about the way we cook. So we read Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggemann, and rightly so. But in terms of cooking up sermons, in terms of thinking homiletically about our calling, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, even if older, would be good. It’s not about preaching per se, and yet I’ve sometimes called it “the most important book that preachers have never read.”

More recent titles, in no particular order, would include: Luke Powery, ‘Dem Dry Bones, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Reading for Preaching, Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, David Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads, Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon, and Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear?

4)            As you look ahead, what projects are you working on for the parish and the academy alike? 

Last year my latest title, The Story of Narrative Preaching, came out. Since then I’ve finished a manuscript more focused on the Church’s worship, specifically Communion. The working title is Eating and Talking in Church: Rethinking Communion and Community. But even it deals with some of the dialogical styles of preaching that are still emerging. I’m also putting together a collection of essays as something of a sequel to my earlier work, What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? That volume honored the legacy of Harry Emerson Fosdick. This one honors Fred Craddock, and is called What’s Right with Preaching Today? In addition to the baker’s dozen of essays included, the volume also features personal remembrances of Fred by a whole host of folks.

5)         Any concluding thoughts?

If I have any concluding remarks, it would be that the longer I teach preaching the more convinced I become that doing it every week, reading about it, even attending conferences and the like may not be enough, important as all those things are. What may be most needed is more personal attention, more intentional reflection with a preaching coach. I’ve started doing that with local pastors in the Kansas City area where I live, and it seems to me to hold the most promise. If someone reading this really wants to improve, I suggest they see if there isn’t someone near them who might serve as a preaching coach. Like those folks on the airplanes asking about my vocation, God too knows the Church not only could have better preaching, but the Church deserves better preaching.


To learn more, consider reading one of Dr. Graves’ books:
The Story of Narrative Preaching: Experience and Exposition: A Narrative.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.

Preaching Matthew: Interpretation and Proclamation,  co-authored with David M. May.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2007.

The Fully Alive Preacher:  Recovering from Homiletical Burnout.  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

The Sermon as Symphony:  Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament.  Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1997.

Edited works:

What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching?  Co-editor with David J. Schlafer.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2008.

What’s the Matter with Preaching Today?  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.