Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reflection on a decade of ordination

July 25, 2004.

Orthopedic shoes.

That's what I saw when I opened my eyes.
A crowd had gathered around me to offer a prayer of blessing.  It came at the end of my ordination service, which happened ten years ago today. 

The shoes belonged to our seminary's emeritus professor of biblical languages, the Rev. Dr. Henry Moeller.  An elder American Baptist minister, he kept up in retirement with teaching for many years, including the two introductory units to Biblical Greek and Hebrew.  He attended my ordination and happened to be the closest person to me when I moved to the middle of the sanctuary to kneel in the middle of the aisle.

The idea was to have the whole congregation involved in the prayers of ordination, reflecting the Baptist affirmation of ministry being carried out by the priesthood of all believers.  Ordination comes from the midst of the people for Baptists, given our Free Church ecclesiology.  So, with the clergy, congregants, seminary faculty, denominational officials and gathered family and friends, I found myself looking at a pair of orthopedic shoes when I opened my eyes, and I realized that Dr. Moeller's hand had been the one gently placed on my head just after I settled into the kneeling position on the middle aisle carpet.

As I look back at the last ten years, I am reminded of the itinerant nature of ministry.  For example, I am writing these words while living in Albany, New York, spending most of this decade in ministry away from my native Kansas.  Over the past decade, I served around Kansas City as a bi-vocational minister and a seminary adjunct instructor in theology.  In 2006, we moved to Vermont where I served as an intentional interim minister (a three year call that morphed into another four years working with a church struggling with transition).  And a year ago, I began serving in a Regional ministry capacity in upstate New York. 

I am deeply hesitant to describe any of that last paragraph in terms of "career path".  It has and always will be about pastoral vocation, the call to serve Christ and the Church.  I give thanks for the past ten years, even as I can note like any pastor the sometimes crazy hours, the stress and fatigue and the challenging times where I found myself in the midst of doubt. 

By and large, churches have declined over the past decade, though at least we are more able and willing to talk about it.  Even back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it did not seem we were as ready to speak about smaller churches as more normative, let alone the realities at hand where part-time is the primary way most ministers are serving churches.  The Atlantic Monthly published an article earlier this month on the realities facing ministers, especially those just entering into the ministry:

Vocation is a life long pursuit, making ministry more of an ongoing story, a plot where doubt and faith interplay and intertwine.  I do not necessarily know where I am going (don't we all?), yet I am glad to be in the midst of a life that is also in the "business" of serving and enriching the spiritual life of fellow believers. 

And along the way, we are reminded of the way the sacred appears in strange and wondrous ways, encounters with orthopedic shoes included.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: Gail Irwin's Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

Irwin, L. Gail.  Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection.  Eugene, OR: Resource Publications.  ISBN # 978-1-62564-231-8.  $22.00.

One of post-2008 Recession’s reality checks has been the challenge placed on many congregations and denominations.  Local churches were frail enough already, and for some, the economic downturn accelerated a series of anxious questions and difficult decisions.  Churches closed.  Some churches lost significant endowments while also dealing with the consequences of higher than prudent use of principle if not their dividends to meet operational shortfalls.  Churches without a reasonable grasp of their financial and property management (admittedly few and far between) are still bailing out the water, often casting clergy with modest compensation and some benefits overboard in favor of part-time pastors who still are expected to keep up with the duties of their predecessors.
It’s been a tough few years, hasn’t it?  Working with churches as a judicatory staff member has attuned me to the types of conversations churches attempted over the years.  The churches who met the challenges with diligence and thoughtful planning have navigated the rough seas as gracefully as one could expect.  For others, conflicted or mismanaged congregations are worse, not better, for the experience.  Some clergy look forward with relief that retirement can be no longer deferred.  Others ponder what ministry will be like with twenty-plus years still to go, facing a future of primarily only bi-vocational opportunities with few, if any, pension and healthcare provisions.  Add in the studies regarding pastoral attrition, and it’s a volatile mix.
Called into the midst of ministry in these times, the Rev. L. Gail Irwin, an ordained minister and freelance writer, offers some deeply pastoral words for persons who love the local church yet struggle greatly with the challenges of stricken stewardship, waning relevance and buildings leaking and creaking in rural towns and inner cities.   Through this book, Irwin summons us to remember the God who turns mourning into dancing, seeing new possibilities where decline, decay and death have seemed the only viable futures available to some congregations.
Irwin speaks as a minister well acquainted with the faltering churches of our day.  She shares earnestly of her pastoral and personal frustrations and heartache as congregations she served could not embrace healthier ways as well as moments when she could see a far greater narrative at hand than the dispirited faithful could tell about their future. 
Irwin’s forthright prose speaks to the truthfulness of congregational longevity.  History is marked with the rising up and the drawing to a close of countless congregations, yet in our post-Christendom funk, we feel ourselves particularly challenged.  Irwin observes, “The decline we are seeing now in the life of institutional churches is part of the greater story of how God keeps nudging us out of our comfort zones and on to that better country.  It is our task to keep moving forward with trust, even when we’re not sure where we are headed” (p. 21).
The book offers wise words for all who love and toil within the world of congregations: congregants, lay leaders, pastors and denominational staff.  Irwin invites us to address the depth of our grief when hard decisions loom.  Taking stock of the psychological and spiritual toll difficult times place on church leaders is encouraged as well.   I found her chapter on “Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community” especially helpful as I work with congregations, and I admit her thoughts helped me process some unresolved matters still lingering within my own pastoral journey with struggling congregations.
Irwin challenges churches to have a clear understanding of the possibilities before churches aware that they are nearing an ending.  Understanding the community around a congregation and realigning the church’s mission may move a closure situation into revitalization. Irwin offers laity and clergy the opportunity to consider several pathways into the future rather than the “boom or bust” mentality far too familiar. She reminds the reader that hard decisions are best made within the faith community together, not just deferred to a few key leaders or the clergy (or the bishop/judicatory official, etc.).  While we struggle, it is helpful to remember that the facing of the future is communal as much as it is inevitable!  Irwin wisely observes, “Once we are able to face the change that is already happening around us, we may open our hearts to the possibility that God is yet at work in our struggling churches” (p. 38).
Reading the book slowly and thoughtfully will give you the opportunity to hear the wisdom of persons interviewed by Irwin and assure you that your church’s challenges are very much relevant issues among many churches.  The questions accompanying each chapter offer a number of thoughtful reflection opportunities for individuals as well as small groups.  Pastoral collegiality groups would find this particular helpful, as the book addresses many situations of church transition and challenge commonly experienced at some point over the years of ministry, if not already!
The book also addresses the fruitful ways churches can opt for closure.  The way in which a church plans its last wishes, divesting of all assets, can be a time of building up a lasting legacy.  Practical advice helps difficult decisions be ones of great joy, reminding us that one congregation’s ending is the beginning of something else God will plant and bring to flower.   Resurrection, we are reminded, comes in many wonderful ways, bringing new life where it was thought to be otherwise!
Gail Irwin's ongoing blog posts can be read via:

Likewise, check out the active discussion Facebook group "Congregational Seasons", exploring churches in various forms of transition and resurrection.  Log on to your Facebook account, type "Congregational Seasons" in the search bar, and then you can request to join this group and receive updates, including occasional posts from Gail Irwin! 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Growth of Intention (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

The St. John's Bible illuminates the NRSV text with the Sower parable. 
Amusingly, a scribal error left a line out of this particular page,
so they added the omitted line of text in the lower margins,
 showing it being towed back into place by one of the parable's birds.
Farmers and other food growers worry a lot about crop failure. They might not look it, standing there with a cup of coffee in their overhauls, but when the weather forecast comes on the early morning news, the house grows silent as they listen for any bad weather predicted. Hail, too much rain, too little rain, heavy winds, early frosts, deer treating your fields like a buffet, bugs, you name it. In the mind of any farmer I have known, there is a fear deep down of crop failure.

So you buy the best seed you can afford, you hope to have a good season of the right mix of rain and sun, you hope for a decent price when it’s time to sell to the grain elevator. You go to extraordinary lengths trying out the latest techniques (or locally, the latest cannon). But deep down, even the most religiously indifferent farmer will say muttered prayers, “Please, O Lord, no hail. No floods. No drought. No grain price crash. That’s all I ask. Amen.”

The parable of the seed scattered is not a good one to tell. It gets worse before it even thinks about getting better. New Testament scholar Warren Carter points out that of all the seed scattered, three-quarters of that seed “will come to naught.” This is not a story I pick up the phone and call my retired farmer dad to say, “Have you heard this one?” The seeds that “come to naught”, besieged by birds, thorns, stony ground, none of that really makes for delightful conversation with dad. Instead, the parable reminds a farmer about those times when you glumly survey the dashed dreams of a bumper crop just disappearing before your very eyes.

It makes that one quarter of seed, the seed that produces considerable crops, that much more important. Go down to the grain elevator and listen to the old timers, retired from running combines, but not from running their mouths, holding court over greasy glazed doughnuts and stout coffee in mugs marked “John Deere”. Then you will hear of the “little seed that could”: “Oh yeah? Well, I put in that seed in the worst land I had, Roy, and I came away with the best yield ever.” “Earl, you got eighty bushels an acre? Try ninety two!”

The parable goes from bad (birds, thorns, rocks) to overwhelming (100 fold, 60 fold, 30 fold). The parable adds an unexpected plot twist to end the story of harsh reality (the likelihood of crop damage, low yield, and crop failure) on a much different note. The seed that could have failed just as easily as all the rest, but it did not. Instead, the retired farmers drop their doughnuts on the floor as the young whippersnapper shows up with a truck overloaded with seed. “How many fields did you cut to get all that?” one asks. “About half of the first one. I’ve got three more fields just like it.” With that, the John Deere coffee mugs clink together like champagne glasses on Wall Street.

The parable of the seed reminds me of the concept of “euchastrophe”. You have heard of “catastrophe”, where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The British writer JRR Tolkein, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, suggested that there are stories that end on unexpected but abundantly good notes. The parable plays out the story of a sower who scatters the seed, the unfortunate reality that not all seed takes root or really has a chance of growing, let alone being harvested. Then there is the seed that literally hits pay dirt. An abundant harvest is the last thing that you are prepared to hear when everything else is a tale of woe. Then “euchastrophe” strikes, and you couldn’t be happier!

In the words of parables scholar Bernard Brandon Scott, the parables of Jesus offer the listener a chance to “reimagine the world”. You know the world of crop failure all too well, but this notion of an abundant crop, even with the odds against you, well, that seems to require a bit more engagement on our part. We have to take what we know as “how the world works” and see God in the middle of that world, pretty much disrupting it. Abundance in times when there ought to be not much at all is not the stuff of reality. This parable presumes that with God in the fray, things will go according to an altogether different plan!

Hence, we have the conversation after the parable. The parable itself could have been just there to hear and interpret, but Jesus offers a bit more insight about this parable. He tells the crowds who gather that you might think you have listened to the parable, but many of you have not heard it. If you have to ask, you might not get it at all. Then, he whisks away to talk with his inner circle, leaving the crowds to mull what he has said.

The parable of “a sower goes out” appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, each one of them puts their own spin on the parable. Here, Matthew adds quite a bit of interpretation about this seed and the mostly bad, save one, places where it was sown. Jesus tells the disciples to pay attention to where the seed never took root. The seed is “the word of the kingdom”, in other words, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of Heaven, this vision of what Jesus’ ministry was bringing into the world. Those who take it deep into their hearts, the results are amazing. Jesus says, “ But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Have you met someone who lives out this parable? We can name the saints, great and small, who have contributed greatly to the cause of the Gospel and the mission of the Church. Scattered with astonishing liberality, the seed works in mysterious ways. You see it germinating as that person who has “no time” makes time to ladle soup at a homeless shelter. The seed takes root when a retiree finds that it’s kind of fun to read to kids down at the library. The seed buds when that youth on a mission trip becomes less of a vacation and more a summons to a vocation.

Just like scattered seeds, the Word does not flourish everywhere it is given. Whether it is sin, apathy, or temptation, some folks simply will not hear the Word and take it to heart. We can also name some folks that we know who have not lived out this parable, who, for a variety of reasons, have very little interest in the faith, keeping it, living it out, or confessing it. For every baptism, every confirmation class, every parish record book known to be on file throughout the Church universal, it might seem that this parable’s mulling over crop failure seems a bit apropos.

Then I recollected a sermon I heard years ago given by Fred Craddock.  Craddock turned this parable into a very careful reminder that we should not get too caught up in labeling folks as to whether or not they were likely to be crop failure. He reminds us that it is God doing the work, not us, so we would best leave things alone. What looks like crop failure instead might turn out differently, might be the seed that caught on and created a good yield by the time that the harvest rolls around.

Fred Craddock observes, “No farmer puts a seed in the soil and then screams at it, ‘Now, come on, get up!’” Instead, we take a step back and let the growing process happen. It is not for us to question whether the crop will fail or show a big yield. We could try to shout at the seed and the soil to perform, but again, it’s that curious mystery where we cannot predict the yield, only to take Jesus at his word that with attentiveness to God, great things become possible.

Some folks might want to prejudge the crop even before the seed is scattered. Others might think that the soil will never be good enough, or there is always too many birds and rocks and thorns to contend with. Instead, let the sower do her work.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Prosperity of a People: Celebrating 225 years of Ministry in Hartford New York

Around New York, many of our American Baptist congregations share a denominational affiliation with another Baptist denomination (particularly the National Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention) or another mainline Protestant denomination (United Methodist, Presbyterian Church/USA, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), etc.).  Federated churches, union churches, and churches who "share" together (aka "yoke" in older language) a pastor or other key staff or congregational resources help our churches strengthen their ministry through creative partnerships. 

Among these churches is the Hartford Yoked Parish (ABC and UCC) in Hartford, NY, which just marked its 225th year of ministry when the former Hartford Baptist Church was founded in 1789.   A great summary of the church's ministry and its historic church facility and grounds can be read via:

Celebrating these continuous years of ministry and their latter day partnership with the UCC congregation, the Hartford church members celebrated with an outdoor BBQ and picnic and then a service of celebration.  I was honored to speak on the ABCNYS Region's behalf with the evening message:

[PSALM 92 was read just beforehand.  To read this Psalm, click on this link:]

To the saints of the Hartford Yoked Parish, whose witness continues as with your forbearers, gathering faithfully to offer praise and thanksgiving to God, made known to us in Christ Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I bring you greetings on behalf of the 294 churches of the American Baptist Churches of New York State and our Executive Minister, the Rev. Dr. Jim Kelsey.

On this splendid evening of food, fellowship and worship, we gather to celebrate the two hundred twenty-five years of ministry.  It is a grand occasion to celebrate the bounty of years, yet we realize that we only came to this night of celebration due to the steadfast determination of a parish to keep worshipping week after week, year after year, decade after decade.  To make it to the 225th year of ministry, this congregation has gathered for many Sundays, literally 11,700 mornings when the Sabbath was kept, hymns and prayers were offered, babies presented, persons confessing the faith and entering into the waters of baptism.  Over eleven thousand Sundays, sermons were preached (and sometimes undoubtedly repeated by pastors or slept through by congregants) and the worship of God in the midst of this community created a place where the Good News could be heard faithfully in word and deed alike.

The reading of the 92nd Psalm is quite intentional on a church’s anniversary celebration.  Of the 150 Psalms, this one is specifically noted as a psalm befitting the Sabbath itself.  In this Psalm, we learn of the core belief of ancient Israel:  God is at the center of all, and those who follow God shall know the rich and full life that the righteous humbly seek while the wicked chase after the life that is thought be good yet fades away.   In the midst of the Psalms, which are a veritable kaleidoscope of praise and lament, this particular Psalm is given for the Sabbath, where Israel takes its rest from the fields of toil and life’s worry and gathers before God in reverent praise.  Sabbath is at the heart of biblical worship, even if we struggle to make Sabbath the heart of what *we* worship. 

Long-faithful congregations like the Hartford Yoked Parish become like the mighty cedar or the palm tree (even if they would find the imagery of Mediterranean ancient Palestine a bit strange in the Adirondacks).  Congregations can enjoy the sweetness of many years of faithfulness, a counter balance or grace note to the realities that congregations also have histories where conflict, discord and ebb and flow also factor into the telling of a church’s history, if it is a truthful telling.

To a congregation where so many years have been given faithfully to the worship of God, certain sweetness accompanies these words of praise that only the deeply faithful can appreciate.  The longer one abides in God, the less attractive or distracting the rest of the world becomes.  The Psalmist calls us to praise in the brightness of day and the lonely hours of nighttime, our hearts and minds given over to the assurance, no matter the world’s direst times or life’s lowest moments, the God who brought a people out of Egyptian captivity, whose authority is strangely unlike any ruler this world has known, shall be steadfast in love, mercy, redemption and grace. 
Therefore, those who call upon the Lord in all times and seasons of life find great strength in those things the world might find trivial or weak.  To be a person of prayer makes little sense to those always driving hard at a deadline.  To offer a humble act of compassion might not be understood in a world where barreling ahead with little regard for others is thought to raise your profile.

What happens when you step out of the rapid pace of culture and economics and globalization and spend time in a wooden pew, listening to the words of long-dead prophets and a peasant rabbi from first century Palestine whose teachings spend most of their time dismantling the world’s frantic self-
serving priorities?

Eleven thousand, seven hundred Sundays may seem a drop of the bucket, given the millennia of human history, the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms, let alone the gale force winds of change and progress known to every generation.  What difference does a Sabbath make in the midst of the days that race by?  What happens when you choose to be a people who keep the Sabbath and therefore find your rest, despite the urge to push ahead?

Eleven hundred, seven hundred Sundays.  Might have missed a few due to snow fall.  Some sermons might have been repeated (or even slept through).  Yet the Sabbath has been kept and kept holy by a Sabbath people.  May we give thanks for a faithful witness, two hundred twenty five years and counting, and may we keep the Sabbath yet again tomorrow, with renewed understanding that indeed, we gather before the   Lord, to whom we shall sing praise by the morning’s light and the night’s shadows.  AMEN.