Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Religion and Doctor Who

Of the many things I love in life, chief among them is Doctor Who, a British science fiction television series.  The show's latest season premiers on Saturday, August 23, with the venerable British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and via BBCAmerica.  (Check local listings).  The show offers fifty years (give or take) of some of the best BBC sci-fi drama, with its most recent seasons garnering critical and fan acclaim.  

Below is a book review exploring the "faith" issues raised by the show.  This review was published earlier this summer via the Academy of Parish Clergy and their journal "Sharing the Practice".

Crome, Andrew and James McGrath, eds., Religion and Doctor Who:  Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith.  (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).  ISBN #978-1-62564-377-3.  $40.00

           A new niche in publishing aims to connect popular culture with the great questions humanity asks of itself.  For older generations, Robert Short’s classic The Gospel According to Peanuts is not likely a book parted with, instead treasured by the reader.  Later on, “The Gospel According To…” type books were picked up by other publishers, most notably Westminster/John Knox Press.  Wiley/Blackwells Publishing maintain a large list of titles gathering philosophers and faculty to write about pop culture and connections to various schools of thought.  I am a proud owner of their volumes of “Philosophy and….” covering comedian Stephen Colbert, the Green Lantern comics, the Game of Thrones novels and HBO adaptation, and the venerable series Doctor Who.
Regarding Doctor Who, a team of writers have produced “Religion and Doctor Who”, exploring the issues of “Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith”.  (Note:  The subtitle is an in joke.)  Over the show’s fifty years and counting, the writers and producers have engaged issues of changing social and moral values, taking a show sometimes remembered in its earlier decades of “wobbly sets” and not-so Star Wars type effects and influencing the lives of viewers well beyond its original mandate to be educational children’s television programming. 
At the outset, the editors counterpoint the show’s start in 1963 with Christianity’s decline beginning in the United Kingdom and the growth of pluralism as well as secularization.  The essayists offer a volume “designed to enhance our understanding of popular culture; how people make use of science fiction in their religious practice and what religious themes in this culture say about secularization” (p. xxiv).   The sets may have wobbled, but the good Doctor’s adventures inspired many to explore the fundamental questions vexing humanity throughout the eons.  
In his essay “Why Time Lords Do Not Live Forever”, ethicist Courtland Lewis explores Doctor Who’s negative depiction of immortality, often casting the idea as a fool’s errand, especially when the search impairs one’s ability to live in the “now”.  A number of “bad guys” find their comeuppance grasping at power.  While long-lived, the Doctor himself is driven far more by risk and compassion.  Even he is able to “regenerate” anew his body and appearance when death threatens, his different incarnations usually meet their end in noble ways for the sake of others. 

Other essayists explore the implications of persons following the Doctor into his adventures.  Called “companions” in the fan lore, some of these women and men find themselves in a “teacher/student” relationship with the Doctor.  Brigid Cherry traces the narrative arc of Martha Jones, a young medical student who travels with the Doctor and blossoms into a sort of apostle.  When the Doctor is imprisoned by an old enemy now in control of the world, Martha carries a message of hope to Earth’s people.  

A far-fetched tale to modern ears perhaps, yet Martha’s journey resonates with early Christian missionaries spreading the gospel against the Empire’s claims.  The given Doctor Who storyline features a rather overt messianic motif when the Doctor overcomes his captor and saves the day thanks to the belief psychically given in a moment of global solidarity.  The Doctor’s foe (known as the Master, irony of ironies) is puzzled how something akin to prayer could be used against his dominating power.  Like many religious narratives, hope and trust will overcome the powers that be.   
Another essay considers the shadow side of placing one’s faith in the Doctor.  British scholar Tim Jones compares stories from divergent periods in the show’s history ("The Curse of Fenric", 1989 and "The God Complex", 2011) involving plot lines with companions experiencing crises of faith regarding their trust in the Doctor.  In both stories, Jones illumines the various competing claims religion and ideology play in the lives of each story’s characters. He observes how the 2011 story (“The God Complex”) reflects the more skeptical era of its 21st-century public in England and abroad.  Reflecting today’s British movement toward secularization, faith is portrayed as if illusory and therefore obscuring reality’s truths.  The 2011 story is a far cry from the 1989 era story, as the earlier story revolves around faith getting challenged yet being affirmed in the end.  The older story concludes with the Doctor’s companion Ace, a troubled young adult, experiencing a cleansing moment of clarity similar to baptism.
As the formative influence of Christendom ebbs, the nineteen essays reflect the possibilities of a more pluralistic Britain. One contributor reviews the Buddhist themes to be found within the narrative arc of the Tenth Doctor, portrayed by Scottish actor (and clergy kid) David Tennant from 2006-2010.  A further essay compares the work of Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, the two lead producers of Doctor Who’s post-2005 era, demonstrating how their various stories reference the Church of England and institutional religion.  The Davies and Moffat eras reflect the plurality of perspectives about religion and society, though institutional religion (i.e. Western Christianity by way of the Church of England) appears to be muddled at best in the present and potentially irrelevant to humanity (Davies) or at least its core tenets in the far future (Moffat).  Perhaps it is a case of art imitating reality as another essayist, Presbyterian minister (and American fan) Laura Brekke observes,

In 2010, more than 10.4 million viewers in the UK alone watched the fifth series finale of Doctor Who, while fewer than one million people sat in the Church of England pews each Sunday (p. 94).

While I enjoyed reading this collection, I found myself at a familiar crossroads from reading similar books connecting popular culture with religion. An essayist is faced with a daunting task of engaging divergent audiences, ensuring no scholar, fan or curious reader is lost in a veritable vortex of academic/ecclesial “in speak” or wading through fifty years of a television show’s core concepts and continuity.  On the latter count, the essayists have a particular challenge, given a show about time travel has been known to break its own established rules.  A brief essay suggests we consider the midrashic implications of Doctor Who’s many adventures, including those in original novels and authorized audio dramas bringing back older actors with new stories set the show’s previous seasons.  It may take a reader to have deep knowledge of the “source material,” regardless if it is “the faith” we keep or decline or the vast possibilities (and convoluted continuities) within the “canon” of Doctor Who.   
              From time to time, I quibbled with the ways essayists referenced the series, sometimes as a seminary graduate and other times as a diehard fan.  I would encourage clergy to view some episodes referenced in the essays, an easy task with many of the newer seasons (and some “classic era” ones) readily available via streaming video services.  Make acquaintance with the Doctor in all his incarnations and ponder his adventures.  The experience may enliven a Saturday night, if not your Sunday sermon.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Seasons of ministry

Last Sunday, I had a very unique preaching experience.  I was asked to share the sermon with a pastor and his spouse who were sharing with their congregation that they have decided it is time to retire.  Pastor Ray Merritt and his wife Ginny shaped their part of the sermon time around the theme of "For Everything There is a Season".  Referencing the beloved passage from Ecclesiastes, Ray shared of his experiences with bee-keeping and the way that the plants and flowers change as winter melts away for Spring then summer and autumn, so we humans have seasons in our lives.   Recently, he found himself reflective about his ministry and assessing his own sense of the seasons of life.

After his reflections and similar sharing from Ginny, I was invited to share some thoughts on how the church members could move into this time of changing seasons:

Let me begin by saying thank you to Rev. Merritt for calling the American Baptist Churches of New York State to be with you today.   As he prepared to make this announcement, Rev. Merritt wanted to ensure that the church heard two things today:   news of his decision to retire and the opportunities that are available to your congregation in planning next steps.

Admittedly, the first news of the retirement is something that you are absorbing in the moment, a word shared with the whole congregation, and therefore, whatever I say this morning will be necessity heard with hearts and minds appropriately directed to the word of Rev. Merritt’s retirement.  In other words, this moment may be a bit like other times when you have heard big news:  everything afterwards will seem like a big blur, a haze of “was there something else said today?” or “Who was that other guy who spoke to us?”

As a pastor, I know firsthand what happens when a pastor accepts a call to a new ministry.  We feel elated, excited that God is at work in the midst of the congregation and our own lives.  There’s a rush of uncertainty, new names and faces to remember, learning how Baptist churches work (y’know, learning the rules that are written and the rules that are unwritten, but are best followed, once you figure them out!). 

For a pastor and family, the decision to depart, especially when a pastor’s ministry is approaching retirement is a difficult word to share.  You struggle to understand if now is the time, or if it is really the word God is giving you in this moment.   For the congregation and the pastoral household, it’s a time to realize that “for everything there is a season”.   Understanding that the time ahead of you as Rev. Merritt’s final Sunday approaches, you are all encouraged to consider what you are feeling in the midst of the moments.  

It is healthy to understand that a pastor’s departure is a time of grief and celebration, a saying of “Good-bye” as well as sharing “I remember the time when Pastor Ray said or did this…” type moments.   It’s a time to sum up, to evaluate and to bless one another, pastor and congregants giving thanks to God for this season of ministry and then being willing to say, “Farewell”.   For after Ray and Ginny leave, you will be calling another pastor, just as surely as you had to call other pastors over the decades to be in service here.  “For everything there is a season”, including the times a pastor serves and then leaves, maybe after years or decades, but none the less, we arrive and depart, things done and undone, blessings and frustrations, trials and triumphs, struggles and moments of grace all wrapped up into the life and times of a church as well as a clergy’s pathway of serving here, and then serving there, and now coming to a point where we can say, “Bless you as you go into retirement.”

In terms of “next steps”, let me remind you of the American Baptist way of handling pastoral transition.  As with every aspect of our denominational life, the local church has the right to call whomever they choose to serve as a pastor.  The Region and national denomination have resources and suggestions for how to go about a good, healthy pastoral transition, yet the pace of a search and call of a new pastor is in your hands as a congregation.  We can provide materials and staff support to assist your church leaders in forming and carrying out a search committee.   I work extensively with the 294 churches of our ABCNYS Region to ensure that when a pastoral transition occurs, the best possible resources and support are available to churches.   The Region depends on your church to say, “Yes, please help!”, so I encourage you to have some conversation in the near future about what your church bylaws say about pastoral searches and invite me back to come and share with you about the “best practices” available for churches in transition, especially on a day after you’ve had a chance to absorb the news Pastor Ray shared with you this morning.

 The Region can assist you with possible candidates to serve as an interim pastor.  It is very helpful to have a clergyperson called to serve you while your congregation thinks about what’s next for your church’s mission and seeks a pastor fitting these needs.   There are pastors who have sought out special training to serve as transitional or interim pastors.  Such ministers are available around our Region as well as through the Transition Ministries program in Valley Forge (aka M-A-L program).  Such pastors can engage your church in ongoing conversations about your church’s past, present and future, help you identify areas where you need to grow and learn, and know how to move forward rather than two steps back when it’s time to call a new pastor who will serve for years, maybe a decade or two, yet will be just like Ray, or myself, or any other minister:  serving for a season.

 Churches can find an interim time as a time to grow, yet many want to rush ahead.   I suggest that you would be well served to think about an interim time where a transition pastor serves for at least 18 months.  In that year and a half, the interim helps you look critically at the church and its needs, the search committee is formed and spends time gathering up needed information, and then hopefully  candidates can begin to be reviewed, interviewed, and then a clergy woman or man is decided as the next pastor.   We can provide you with a great resource: “Calling an American Baptist Minister”, which provides helpful insights and tips into the various stages of a church transitioning from a departing pastor to an interim time to what steps are needed to have a successful search and call process.

Let me say as I must throughout any church’s transition: slow and steady will win this race.  More often than not, anxiety drives a church to want “quick fixes” and “fast answers”.  Let me assure you that no church has ever really found that to be the best answer, or even an answer they would later on admit held much water.   Breathe deeply and let the Spirit guide you, or otherwise, you’ll always be running fast and wondering why you have no focus or sense of fulfillment that you’re making wise decisions.  The Region has worked with eighteen search committees since the first of this year.  No situation to my knowledge has benefitted from anything other than intentional planning, listening for God and one another and trying to be “in transition” rather than “on the fast track”.

Together with Rev. Pat Robinson of the Fransego Association, who assists me as part of the ABCNYS Regional Enhancement Team, I will be working with your church leadership to ensure whatever you need is met through the time ahead.  I am glad to return in the near future to meet with church members or the lay leadership who are decided to be the ones helping start up this search process.   Again, you will be the people most involved with making decisions, but please know that the Region is here to support you and help you find this to be a transforming, renewing experience for your church and its ministry and mission.

As I close, let me invite up Ray and Ginny so we can offer a prayer for them and for your church.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Money Troubles: Sensitive Yet Frank Conversations Await

A few years ago, I participated in two sessions of training for intentional interim ministry.  As part of the experiential learning component, we were asked to pair up with another pastor and answer a series of questions about a topic.

The topic was "Money".

The first question:  "Share a positive experience you've had with money."  The conversation was lively and animated among the group members sharing back and forth.

The second question:  "Share a negative experience you've had with money."  The conversation was dramatically different: people speaking in low, near funereal tones about debt, paychecks from church treasurers being chronically late (or in some cases, practically needing to beg).  Stories of personal financial hardship or times of pastoral care for those who suddenly found themselves deeply in debt or in arrears on their mortgage abounded.

The facilitators had the group reform, and they discussed what they had observed as we spoke about money.  The positive experiences sparked easy going, free wheeling conversation.  The negative experience discussions cut the "noise" of twenty people talking at once to a much more low-key level.

The point of the exercise is to get people talking about money, realizing that all of us have our struggles and challenges and our giddy moments (all too brief!) about cash flow, raises at work, unexpected windfalls and bills to pay.  

In turn, the facilitators asked us to think about the role of pastors in congregations.  How does this exercise inform our approach to stewardship, church budgets and mission giving?   The facilitators suggested that without understanding the subjective issues around money for our congregants, clergy and church leaders miss out on opportunities to build safe spaces for churches to talk about money and have earnest conversations about our priorities, so our church's ministry and mission can flourish, aware of the profit and loss issues and wise investment and endowment use, yet not held back by our fears and anxietiesa that come with us to every church meeting where money is on the agenda (or worse, discussed only in the parking lot with less wisdom and more ire in the mix).

Everybody has an experience around money that is quite memorable.  Whether it is a good or bad experience, such events in our lives help shape our outlook.   I suggest that everybody in the board room or congregational meeting (or the parking lot afterwards) has three things in common: 

1)   We have experiences (good or bad) with money that inform us.
2)   Congregations are 100% comprised of people with good or bad experiences about money.
3)   Congregations who wish to have more of the "good" type of experiences really need to talk about their personal and congregational values, beliefs and priorities with open hearts and open minds and open hands. 

(On the latter count, open hands are less likely to grasp a chair and fling it across the room....)

For readers involved with the ministries of the American Baptist Churches of New York State, I encourage your church to consider attending the Church Finance Conference, to be held on Friday, October 3, 2014, at the St Paul's Baptist Church in downtown Utica.  This event precedes the 2014 Biennial beginning later that night at Tabernacle Baptist, and it has a separate registration process.  You can come for the Conference and stay for the Biennial, or you can just come to one or the other.

To register, http://www.abc-nys.org/programs/biennial/churchfinance.   Online registration and downloadable "mail it in" registration available via this link above or by contacting the ABCNYS Region Office!

Send your Trustees, Treasurers, Financial Secretaries, Clergy, Pastoral Relations Committees, and any other congregational lay leader who is concerned about money, property and budget challenges and all other "fun" things that tend to consume an inordinate amount of time and frustration in the administrative life of the Church.

Want to become a good, creative and healthy congregation?  Talk about money--early and often! 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fair Clergy Compensation Matters!

Vintage resource for churches
(MMBB, ca. 1950s)
Over the past year, I have advised search committees about many important considerations as they seek transitional or ongoing clergy to serve their congregation.   During these discussions, I feel it is important to ensure early on in their process, even long before the committee receives a single clergy profile to consider, that the church has taken steps to understand what they are looking for in a minister and how to ensure the job description, especially for part-time clergy, matches the compensation being offered with the pastoral position.
I tell churches that they must have their "dollars and duties" matched up before they really should interview a single candidate.  Further, they must be aware that whatever configuration of ministry they wish to call an ordained pastor to undertake (part-time, half-time, 3/4 time, full-time, etc.), they need to agree that they have arrived at dollars and cents that are indeed "fair" to everyone:  the minister being called and the congregation alike.
As an American Baptist, I know from first-hand experience that pastors in Free Church settings are often less likely to be hired under any rubric resembling a Conference, Presbytery or diocesan set of standardized compensation levels.  My denomination does not set any policy base that would be binding on the autonomy of local congregations.  This practice reflects our Baptist convictions regarding local church primacy and the "we're here to suggest and recommend but not to tell you what to do" nature of denominational structures, regional or national alike.
Unfortunately, local churches tend to work with clergy compensation issues in a vacuum, less aware of prevailing ministry compensation standards, unless they choose to be in communication with a ABC/NYS Region office or seek advice from a related denominational partner such as the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. 
Part of my work is to ensure churches and pastors are aware of the resources available to them, often free of charge, thanks to the congregation's support of United Mission and the ABCNYS Region Offering.   (To learn more about the ABCNYS Region Offering, visit http://www.abc-nys.org/programs/region-offering).   Here are some opportunities for improving the conversation about ministry and money:

1)     The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB) is the American Baptist pension board.  MMBB serves clergy and their families through providing retirement plans and other services.  To learn more about providing benefits for your pastor, visit
www.mmbb.org or call 1-800-986-6222.   Guides for clergy compensation and manuals for tax and legal issues for church related employers are provided as PDF files and updated annually.  Please ensure your church treasurer and other financial lay leadership are familiar with these provided resources.

2)      Invite your ABCNYS Region staff to be part of a conversation about clergy compensation.  While we do not have "conference minimums" as American Baptists, the Region staff can talk with your Pastoral Relations Committee, Trustees, or other leadership groups about the ways churches fairly compensate pastors, especially when financial challenges drive decisions for many churches.   The Region can share strategies, best practices and other insights from working with the rest of our 293 churches.   We are here to be of help to churches and pastors!
Please note:  When ABCNYS meets with churches via our Region Executive staff (aka Dr. Kelsey or myself) or a member of the Regional Enhancement Team (RET) is involved, we do our best to advocate for fair clergy compensation.  I do not begin profile searches for churches without having a listing of "dollars and duties" in hand from the church search committee.  Remember that the sooner your church can decide on these issues, the more likely well-suited candidates will be matched up with your desired ministry skill sets, experience and the church's financial capacities to compensate fairly the candidate you hope God is calling to be your next minister. 
3)     One of the great opportunities during the 2014 Biennial will be the Pre-Biennial "Church Finance Workshop".   We encourage your church to bring Trustees, Treasurers, Financial Secretaries, Mission Board members, Pastors, and any other lay or ordained person within your congregation who deals with the big challenges all of our churches face today with issues around: Finances, Budgets, Property Management and practicing fair Clergy Compensation standards.  The workshop is provided by our Region so that you can learn about the "best practices" of matters every size church deals with.  Further, you'll learn from other churches that your church is not alone in a time of change, transition and learning to do church in the "more with less" economy.

To register:   http://www.abc-nys.org/programs/biennial/churchfinance.   Advance registration STRONGLY recommended to ensure you have the seat(s) needed for your church.

4)     Smaller congregations (aka the majority of ABCNYS member churches) may need to explore creative options for pastoral ministry as well as strengthening their lay leadership to handle a better balance of church needs.   Strengthening the lay leadership can be very helpful, especially in the areas of visitation, worship planning, "congregational care" (aka "pastoral care", yet not with the terminology that makes it sound like this work is just for pastors), and administrative needs.  The Region maintains a Lay Study program to help enhance the skill sets and knowledge of all who wish to serve, whether in view of a certified lay minister certificate from ABCNYS or in specific areas of interest that enrich a congregant or lay leader's ability to serve others.  To learn more, http://www.abc-nys.org/programs/lay-study-program.

Churches may wish to explore a "pastor sharing" opportunity with another local congregation.  Many of our churches benefit from such relationships, and if handled well, two small churches can work together to share more than a clergy person.  Shared ministry, mission and even other areas of expense savings can be found with some intentional conversation and mutual collaboration.  Our Region staff is glad to connect you with pastors and churches from around the Region where you can learn from sister churches about such fruitful relationships.

5)         Gain some perspective from reading about what other churches and denominations are dealing with in today's time of declining resources, members and funds.  Here are three articles on clergy compensation issues:

The Atlantic.com website featured an article on the "collapse of middle class clergy" in the United States.  Needless to say, this article has made the rounds on social media, highlighted by many clergy (including myself) that it points to something we already know: clergy are affected by the downturn of the US economy as well as the changes of religious interests in this country (i.e. declining congregations).  LINK:

Shortly after this Atlantic article started making the rounds, a response was offered by the Dean of the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, CA:http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/07/28/low-wages-student-debt-and-call-financing-seminary-education

and a young adult clergywoman who is also a writer, blogger and frequent clergy conference presenter: 

Whether or not you may agree with the talking points made by these articles, we must realize the economic and missional challenges at hand.  Let's be in dialogue about these issues in our churches and among our clergy collegiality groups!