Friday, January 31, 2014

Time to retool and renew

Many churches in the Northeast have the practice of "annual meetings", often in late January each year.  At the meeting, reports and budgets are presented, slates of officers are offered for nomination, and usually the pastor goes home and needs to fall over into bed afterwards.

Believe it or not, but for many clergy, the end of the Annual Meeting session is the end of a long season ongoing since the first candle of Advent was lit weeks ago.   For many pastors, it means that we've somehow survived yet another year where November and December have blurred into meetings made often at the last minute, boards and budgets in disarray due to folks wanting to think more about the holiday planning, and whatever "elephant" around the church wanders around the board room and the coffee hour, going unresolved.   (Popular "elephants in the room" for congregations include:  unresolved nomination slate vacancies, realizing the budget may not be able to be the same as it has been, particularly in the case of tithing/pledging and any cause/effect it has on the church's thoughts on pastoral compensation and benefits, and any number of deferred maintenance issues that are stalemated in the midst of Trustee boards, unsure if it's time to fix things or wait.)

In the midst of things, the pastor is often finding herself in the midst of the questions that bedevil or just simply cannot gain traction in a healthy way.   The parking lot conversation will have all the answers, but often nobody wants to talk in the midst of the monthly board meetings or the annual congregational meeting.

What's a pastor to do?

For starters, consider an opportunity to retool and renew your ministry, yourself and your household.


Continuing education events have been generative moments in my ministry, learning and reacquainting myself with better practices in ministry.  ABCNYS is pleased to offer the 2014 Leadership Conference, brought to you by our ABCNYS Region Offering.  

On Friday and Saturday, February 28 and March 1, 2014, travel to the Good News Center in Utica (commuter and overnight lodging rates are available) to get help "Navigating the Relational Waters of Ministry", featuring the Rev. Dr. David Olsen, Executive Director the Samaritan Counseling Center in Schenectady, NY, and an ordained ABC pastor.   Dr. Olsen is a gift facilitator and understands the dynamics of clergy in service to others, as inevitably we wear down and need some internal skills to sustain us through all the seasons of ministry.

The deadline for ABCNYS clergy is February 15, 2014.  After this date, the Good News Center meal and lodging reservations will be locked in.  (In other words, we are not able to take on additional conferees past 2/15.)  The ABC/NYS Region Office is handling all registrations, and you can learn more via:

It's the most popular word pastors tend to listen less to:  Take a vacation (mini or long--your choice).   Stepping away from the office after the annual meeting is a sane decision.   (You can quote me, if it helps!)  A pastor has gotten the church through the liturgical "big season" of Advent/Christmas with all its details and tight ropes we transverse.  Plus, you've likely dealt with the church clerk or church office secretary regularly updating you as the first week of the new year slides by with that worried look that says "I've had no reports handed in yet!"  

After up to eight weeks of non-stop duties (religious and administrative), a breather is well in order.   For clergy residing near it, a great pastoral respite program is available free of charge (donations are welcome) by the Silver Bay YMCA in the Adirondacks.  To learn more, visit:

Other opportunities for clergy and clergy families to "get away" are available, sometimes with reduced fees. If a pastor is reading this outside of my own judicatory, contact your bishop/regional executive, etc., to see what's available.   Thanks to various endowment programs and key donors, ministers may have a religious related camp, conference center or even monastic community where some time away can be nourishing.

A list published by the ABC Minister's Council offers a nation-wide listing.  NOTE:  The availability of these ministries and the terms of each facility may have changed since this list was developed.  The link is provided for informational purposes and does not constitute endorsement by myself or ABCNYS.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Commissioning New Ministries: Exploring a recent ritual and blessing

Worship with Rev. Dr. Sheldon Hurst (at the left, red stole), the congregations in song and guest clergy, including retired Field Minister Rev. Kathleen Davie.  (PHOTO: Jerrod Hugenot, with iPhone panorama setting)
In the Adirondack Association, the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Hurst completed his ministry with the Village Baptist Church of Fort Edward, NY.  In addition to his pastoral work with Village Baptist and earlier at the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY, Dr. Hurst served as faculty and administration with the Adirondack Community College.   As he and his wife depart for Portland, Sheldon does not see this ending of a pastorate as "retirement".  (Indeed, the word was not brought up on his last Sunday!)   Instead, Sheldon invited congregants and colleagues to gather with the Village Baptist congregation to celebrate where his ministry is going next.   Further, the Village Baptist Church and the FBC Glens Falls congregation will begin a mutual search and call process, seeking pastoral leadership while maintaining their own churches in two close-by communities.

As the Associate Executive Minister, I was asked to give a word of blessing for Sheldon's ministry in New York State while affirming his journey is continuing with new opportunities (and spoiling grandchildren).  As we Baptists have no formal liturgy book, often such matters call for some creativity in crafting words for such an occasion. 

Here's what I said:

To commission is to give an order or to authorize.   For Baptists, we tend to cringe when somebody wants to tell us what to do, yet we don’t mind a bit when we get to tell somebody else to do something.

Yet, when we turn ourselves away from the mundane and toward matters divine, we remember that “commissioning” is a powerful and sacred moment in the life of the Church when we bless and send forth our brothers and sisters to the work God has called them to do.

Just as the local church who helped Sheldon hear his call to ministry, just as the congregations Sheldon served heard his call, your church here has called Sheldon not once but twice to be your pastor and to share his gifts and graces for the sake of Christ and the Church.

So, just as God keeps calling Sheldon to the work of ministry, so we continue commissioning Sheldon to his next steps in ministry.

Let us say the words of commission found in your bulletin (written by Dr. Hurst):
We commission W. Sheldon Hurst:   Go forth from this place!

In Soul Freedom
▪  Create an Interspiritual Life and Ministry:
▪  Give your attention to the Spirit’s work in prayer & meditation & contemplation.
▪  Serve as an Interfaith Spiritual Director. 
▪  Engage the Creative Spirit of the Divine moving among all people everywhere.
▪  Integrate spirituality & the arts & poetry.

A prayer of commission will be offered in a moment.  May I ask all who are comfortable please to stand and move toward the center aisle.   My hope is in laying hands upon Sheldon, we keep close together, from the pews to the midst of the gathered people.  Thus, in good Baptist fashion, we pray for Sheldon as well as the congregations of Ft Edward and Glens Falls, who are beginning the process of calling a pastor together, to share ministry and deepen in their relationship as sister congregations.   When a pastor departs, the congregation remains, so let your future be embraced with joy and with the foreknowledge that whatever awaits, God’s hand is in the midst of things, leading us toward the assurances of new challenge, new life and new delight awaiting you.

Let us pray:

O God who calls and commissions, may we, your gathered people, hear your call and commission anew in our lives.   You call us over the tumult of our lives, over the cacophony of the world, summoning us to the pathways you have for us to travel.  We pray for Sheldon, as he begins a new chapter in his ministry and good wisdom in his stewarding the gifts you have kindled for many years now within him.  We pray for the two congregations, that they embrace the new and the changing times ahead of them, so that they rise up in faithfulness with renewed mission and ministry here in this area. Whether it be by way of Portland or in sharing together ministry in new and mutual ways, may we be all pilgrims along the way of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, AMEN.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Resounding Call to Dream

   This weekend, many Americans gather to celebrate the civic holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr.   Dr. King had many ties to the American Baptist Churches/USA, graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the historic "black colleges" of our country and founded through the efforts of Henry Morehouse and the American Baptist Home Mission Society.  His divinity school studies were at the American Baptist affiliated Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, which later merged with the Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School (CRCDS) in Rochester, NY.  (An article about King's time in seminary appears here:

    King was a member of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB), receiving help getting his draft of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" out of that jail and into the hands of news editors thanks to an MMBB representative.  After King's assassination, Coretta Scott King received widow's pension benefits for the rest of her life as well as support funds to assist the King children's college expenses.   (For part of the MMBB and MLK story, see this newsletter article:

    The King legacy lives on through the commitment of those instructed and inspired to action by his teachings.   Colleges and communities will have celebrations this weekend, complete with days of community service, providing hundreds of volunteer hours and for some young people, the first opportunity to connect social action with civic duty.    

     I will note that the King family did suffer additional tragedy after MLK's death in 1968.  As a younger person, I did not grow up in the era, so I was not aware of a story of the King family from just a few years later in 1974.  I shared it in a recent sermon, and I thought the story bears repeating as it testifies to the faithfulness of the entire King family in times of great challenge and personal tragedy:
     Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.  In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.
      As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before.  The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life. 
       That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home.  He recalls:

     Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.” 

(From Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).


Friday, January 10, 2014

Book review: Pastors and calls to rural ministry

Part of my work experience includes bookstore sales, particularly for the seminary I attended.  I developed a great passion for connecting clergy and lay customers with good resources.  After I moved into my ministry work, I have continued being a resource person for colleagues and others interested in various issues of church life and scholarly matters in religious studies. 

From time to time, my book reviews appear in the clergy journal of "Sharing the Practice", a quarterly published by the Academy of Parish Clergy (  I select books to review after reading through the "front list" of many religious publishers.  In turn, my reviews are somewhat narrative, thinking with the authors about how this book shapes my ministry as well as those of my colleagues.   Here's a review just submitted for the APC "Sharing the Practice" journal:

Hoeft, Jeanne, L. Shannon Jung and Joretta Marshall.  Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.  ISBN # 9780800699543.  $19.00.

A reviewer’s confessional:  I grew up on a rural southeast Kansas farm.  We felt lucky to break even some years.  I know firsthand the context of rural poverty, with a lack of sustainable, livable wage jobs “in town”.   Our little community had the undercurrent of domestic violence, the surge of rural depopulation and the persistent worry about the dearth of “local” healthcare providers.  My formative years of the 1980s and 1990s were not easy, living in the micro what was happening in the macro, as the wave of negative changes overcame many American farm families.   Small towns and rural counties point to such times as when those “beginning of the end” feelings started to feel palpable as they struggled to reinvent their economic identities.   

With my young adult years spent away in college and seminary, it could be argued that I left home in order to have a livelihood.  I counter that my upbringing prepared me to be a better pastor to those God has called me to serve in rural Kansas, rural Vermont (where great wealth and deep poverty could be found along the same mountain road) and now with the regional ministry of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.  Around “upstate New York”, you encounter great diversity as well as some of our country’s places of deep economic challenge. The states I have lived in may be widely varied politically (in the “red/blue” sense), yet the rural challenges have remained much too familiar wherever I lived and ministered.  Nonetheless, with a down economy and globalization, many in rural America are struggling, though perhaps in ways still obscure to the understanding of the urbanized American populace.   

I share this biographical note so that my praise for Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities can be heard moreover.  The authors serve in the fields of pastoral theology, pastoral care and rural or “Town and Country” ministries, teaching seminarians the skills and sensitivities necessary for ministering in places with less profile than our secret dreams of placement in the “right church with the right everything” allow us to imagine.   The picture this book paints of rural ministry is not one of easy reward or Keillor’s Wobegon.  Instead, the authors engage the reader in the world(s) of rural congregations and communities, providing a framework for pastoral reflectivity and sensitivity.  Each chapter begins with an engaging case study, which allows the reader a first glimpse into the studied response needed to engage the complexities often overlooked in rural communities by persons who imagine “things out here are simpler”.   One needs theology, pastoral care and no small measure of “horse sense” (as we say back home) to minister in situations where problems are deep and comprehensive support services are miles, and sometimes entire counties away.

The book would be quite helpful for clergy learning to “translate” ministry skills and life experience for a rural ministry setting.  Learning to live within the tight-knit community of a small town or with the speed at which gossip travels can be exasperating when more accustomed to the relative anonymity of a more densely populated area.  When in less populated communities or remote places, you enter into a much different world that is not represented as such in popular culture or economic realities rarely privileged among the socio-economic affluent shaping State and federal laws and policy.  For example, the tussle over the SNAP program benefits delayed the Farm Bill’s passage in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  Farm families were placed in peril twice over:  facing cuts to agricultural support programs and in turn access to SNAP helping put food on the table in some arguably bad years for crop yields.  

Entering into the “world(s)” of rural America, the authors have found four concepts helpful to understanding rural ministry:  care shaped by place, engaging the community, intersecting with leadership (and the styles of leadership you often find) and responding to diversity.  The authors claim the bedrock of this book is when the pastoral caregiver engages in “a diagnosis of one’s context; [we must realize] one style does not fit all” (p. 71).   Such good advice should be well heeded.  We know of many circumstances of colleagues (and perhaps even ourselves) have failed to take this word to heart.

Developing each concept in the first section of chapters, the authors enable pastors to see more perceptively the issues unique to rural congregations and communities.  Building upon these skills, the authors engage the reader in various common challenges in the second section.  Chapters engage the reader in issues of “rural poverty, class and care”, “rural violence”, “rural health” and how to keep engaged in such reflective and reflexive learning. 

For example, a pastor is told a parish couple is involved in a domestic violence situation.  In closer-knit communities, the victim has more obstacles accessing services or finding safe harbor when “everybody knows everybody” or friendships and kinships interweave among first responders, local authorities and social workers.  How does the pastor keep confidences, help advocate for the victim and move carefully through the tapestry of relationships inevitably webbed around any tense situation?   The authors help rural ministers formulate strategies calibrated to the realities of living in close-knit communities, let alone the family-size churches (worship attendance under 65) that are most common in rural America.  Clergy for whom urban areas are more normative would be wise to pay close attention to the opening chapters as the authors provide a framework for understanding pastoral care “shaped by place”.  

In reading this book, I found myself recalling my own ministry experiences.  In some cases, I felt affirmed that I had intuited positive pastoral care strategies sensitive to the matters at hand.  In other situations, I wish I had read this book a decade ago when just starting out in ministry.   For seminary classrooms, such a book is needed for the 501 Pastoral Care type courses, as rural ministry is a likely context for many “new to ministry” seminarians and lay studies-track clergy.  For pastoral collegiality groups, the book will serve as a helpful conversation starter and enhance our abilities to serve in the places God calls us.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Resources for local churches: Welcoming All

(NOTE:  From time to time, I will provide a column featuring resources for local churches and clergy.  I welcome feedback about future "resource topics" in the "comments" field below!)

Open the doors. Turn on the lights. Ensure the pulpit has a glass of water for the preacher.

For many churches, these three things are the first tasks of a routine Sunday morning. Sometimes, churches have a rotation of volunteers. Other churches have folks who have been doing this work quietly, without a credit in the bulletin, for years, if not decades.

Such routines are essential for congregations. You might even call them the “habits” churches need to be vital. And to this list, may we add another essential task: “Welcoming all”?

As a minister, I’ve seen a lot of “interesting” choices made by congregants who turned off a visitor long before the prelude finishes. Oftentimes, churches will keep their grounds well-appointed and buildings sparkling, yet the work of intentionally welcoming people has gone to seed long ago. Churches can claim an open door policy yet undermine that message readily when the non-verbal signals given off by congregants tell a person readily if they are welcome or not.

Further, welcoming all goes far beyond Sunday morning.  Knowing how to communicate an effective “word of welcome” with a bulletin and a smile is just scratching the surface.

 Ponder these questions:
** How does your church communicate “welcome” in your community involvement?
** How do your missional partnerships foster inclusion?
** Does the person in the back pews have just as much investment in welcoming “the widow, the orphan and the sojourner” as much as the minister, staff and lay leadership?
** Is it evident to the newcomer that “welcome” is not a temporary perk of being “new”? (In other words, can the sense of community and mutual support be easily discerned in how you interact with one another, even those you’ve been around for years, and despite that, you still like each other!)

To help cultivate the conversations awaiting your church, here are some resources to help:

Practicing Our Faith is a now completed Lilly Foundation study led by Dorothy Bass explores various faith practices through a series of books and creative projects by churches and organizations. Regarding hospitality, a rich gathering of resources around “practicing hospitality” and its many ways can be found via:

A book from this study is “Making Room” by Christine Pohl: (NOTE:  The publisher has a study guide also available for this book.)

Similarly, when welcoming visitors, other concerns (theological and practical) arise:

How welcoming is your physical space to “outsiders looking in”? A good recent web article explores this via:

The United Methodist Church has a very thoughtful video for its denominational emphasis on welcoming newcomers:

A recent book on questions of inclusion exploring persons who may be invisible or challenging for some congregants or congregations to include:

And finally, two tongue-in-cheek (yet on the mark) takes on the matters:

and a video that is very telling (i.e. what happens if Starbucks marketed itself like many churches):