Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thomas Merton at 100: An appreciation of a fellow pilgrim

On January 31, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Fr. Thomas Merton, OSCO, is observed.  A Trappist (Cistercian) monk, Merton became one of the 20th century's best read Roman Catholic writers, with his influence stretching well beyond his tradition to be appreciated by many Protestants and persons from other religious traditions.  Merton had a great influence on me in my college and seminary years, and I recall how Merton appeared in one of my sermons earlier in ministry when preaching the Psalms:
It was in college that I visited my first monastery. Growing up Baptist in Kansas, the fact that I had an interest in learning, let alone visiting, a monastery was a bit of a surprise. We were raised with a latent (and sometimes vocal) anti-Catholicism, which I suppose was the legacy of my upbringing in the Protestant Midwest.

While studying at American Baptist-related Ottawa University, I found myself enthralled in the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. I decided to write my senior thesis on Merton, and as part of my exploration into Merton, I stayed a week at the monastery where he lived until his death in 1968. (And given that monasteries typically observe vows of silence, I suppose I was a handful…)

At the entrance to the monastery, an inscription is carved over the gateway to the monastic enclosure. It reads “God Alone”. Thomas Merton came to the Abbey as a young adult who was mixed up with a lot of the life questions that we tend to have: who am I and what I am supposed to do with my life?

Merton had some additional baggage, orphaned by his parents’ deaths during his adolescence and wounded from a life given to youthful indiscretions while at college. Merton entered into the monastery after a long soul-searching, feeling called to a life withdrawn from the world. The monastic life helped Merton reorient his life, later becoming regarded as one of the 20th-century’s spiritual masters. 

Not to say that it was an easy stretch of time for Merton as his posthumously published multivolume collection of journals will attest. He searched for God and wrestled with the world inside and outside the monastic enclosure. The inscription “God Alone” makes good sense to be at the entrance of his monastery, as Merton found his grounding and his identity as he developed a deep trust in God.

His story draws me to the 16th Psalm often called a psalm of trust, framed in the language of deep appreciation and unshakable knowledge that in God alone, we find our hope and assurance, as well as our guidance in the journey ahead. It is a psalm for all those who seek God, the one whom the Psalmist praises, “You show me the path of life.” This psalm revels in the goodness of life with God and the wisdom of following the path that God sets before us. Without God, the psalmist declares, we still live our lives, but without a sense of the deep goodness and stability that life with God gives us. We can seek many things in this life, but are they ultimately “good” in the abundant and life-giving way that God alone provides?

For all of us, it asks us to be intentional about knowing ourselves fully, examining ourselves in a way that leads not to an uneasy and constant sense of guilt or imperfection. Life with God is a sign of life, where we can breathe freely and attune our hearts and minds. We strip down our vanities and our pride so that we are allowed to live with God: to live faith not as an additional or optional part of life, but to ground ourselves firmly and intentionally in the life of faith. We are called to be pilgrims, persons journeying toward God along the spiritual pathway.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Gone Fishing (Mark 1:14-20)

"It’s already here.”

That is the gist of what Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. The kingdom of God is not off in the distant horizon. It is already here.

Such audacious words set not in the present tense, or the future tense, but the definitive, conclusive past. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

In his masterful commentary on Mark’s gospel, Ched Myers points out that no sooner Jesus makes this audacious claim, the scene changes, and it does not appear that what Jesus said has come to pass. Myers writes, “Instead of a kingdom epiphany, the second act opens with Jesus wandering by the sea, bidding some common laborers to accompany him on a mission. The world appears still very much intact.” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 131)

Mark seems a bit blunt in his storytelling. The words of Jesus’ good news might echo in the readers’ ears and the familiarity of this story of “fishers of men” might warm the Christian’s heart, yet the next sound we hear is not angel chorus singing alleluias above but the grunt and swearing of fishermen, trying hard to haul back a respectable day’s catch.

Despite the announcement the kingdom is here already, the world of fishermen—its hard toil and little pay—does not cease to be. Instead, the world goes on with its hustle and bustle. Hardened, callused hands are not suddenly relieved of being worked to the bone. Backs still ache from the long day’s work, casting nets. If there is any spiritual moment for these fishermen, it is the muttered prayer hoping “the big catch” is still possible in over-fished, over-worked waters.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Why do these words have any meaning, any grounding, in a world without a moment to look up from deadlines and quotas?

It is astonishing what happens next. Jesus calls to the fishermen to follow him, and immediately, they put their nets aside and leave with him. At this point, the earnest reader feels a number of honest questions start percolating within. How can people leave their jobs? How will they make ends meet? Is there something awry here? How can they afford to do this?

Mark’s gospel says “immediately”. Sight unseen, teachings unheard, Jesus summons, and they respond without a moment’s wavering. No argument, no scoffing or banter from ship to shore takes place. Quite simply, Simon, and Andrew, and then James and John “mutely…abandon their nets” (Douglas R.A. Hare, Mark: Westminster Bible Companion, 23).

What would prompt such a remarkable and contrary decision? Curiosity? Boredom? Foolishness?

The words of Jesus give us a clue: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. At first glance, it sounds as if Jesus is offering a similar job opportunity. You know how to fish. Would you like to help reel in some believers? Many of us learned a song in Sunday school to that effect.

The English translation does not reflect the Greek’s way of recounting Jesus’ words. Instead of “I will make you fish for people”, the better translation would be, “I will make you to become fishers of people.” What Jesus asks the fishermen is not a question of livelihood. Rather, he is asking them if they want a life, a new way of living. Hearing this spin on the text moves us away from a vision of discipleship as “task oriented” and ask us a deeper question. Follow me, and you will become something different. You know the world as you know it. Now take up my ways and you will see the world as God knows it. (Here, I am indebted to the insights of Ted A. Smith, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1, p. 289.)

I suspicion that is why the nets in their hands got tossed aside. Jesus came to them not looking for something. He came looking for disciples, not an entourage to tend his needs. He looks for people who catch the subtle difference between “doing” and “being”. Jesus is offering another way of life, one given to becoming persons shaped by bearing the cross, seeking to live out the contrary ethic of Jesus, despite the world itself seeming indifferent to this Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is already here.

These fishermen are the beginnings of a long list of people who decided to follow Jesus. As Mark’s gospel unfolds, Jesus develops a small core group of disciples as well as crowds who are around for his teachings. It is not an easy path, as Jesus asks them to take leave of many things: family, comfort, power, or privilege. Not everybody stays around Jesus faithfully. Not many persons are willing to take Jesus’ ways as their own. Sight unseen, these fishermen hear something that causes them to get out of the boat and head off in another direction with Jesus. They hear not just another day’s labor, but a different, and more fulfilling way of life offered. It is a risk, it is a gamble, but they take leave of their nets nonetheless.

I found myself reading this story from Mark’s gospel and wondering what it says to us. Instead of imagining a boat out at sea, I recollected a different image altogether: rows of empty bookshelves.

A couple of years ago, I heard of a minister who was learning about a completely different understanding of ministry. He had read about it, attended trainings, and spent time discussing these ideas with colleagues. Then one night he had a dream as he slept. He imagined sitting at his pastor’s office desk, surrounded by empty bookshelves.

As he woke up, he tried sorting out what this dream meant. Why did he dream that his bookshelves were empty? He realized this new way of understanding ministry was challenging everything he knew. The dream helped him see something that he had not quite named. What he had taken for granted as “the way” for doing ministry now was no longer something he wanted to take for granted. As he had been learning about new ideas, part of him had begun to realize that it was time to start anew, to take leave of his long-held understandings and doing ministry in a “business as usual” type manner. It was time for him to become a different sort of minister and lead the way for a different way of being “church”. It was time to take leave of what he knew—the skills, the methods, and the understandings—and go on altogether different adventure, learning to share the gospel of Jesus anew.

I learned this story from Ron Carlson, a member of our denominational staff. He recounted the story as a good illustration of what happens when you start thinking differently about the purpose and identity of congregations. You ask yourself good, big picture questions like: Who are we? What is our purpose? What does it take to become the disciples that Jesus summons us to become for today’s world? What nets, books, or other objects need to be let go so we can start becoming what Christ summons us to become as his disciples?

See? This story of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples could be relegated to being a story best told in primary age Sunday school, however, but I find this story as one with some lingering questions for even the most mature of Christian believers. Listen and ponder the edginess of Jesus’ words to the fishermen. The difference between “doing ministry” and “becoming disciples” is vast.

Are we still holding onto some nets that we need to let go of? Can we accept “starting anew” with our understandings of discipleship is part of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ summons to follow him? As I note in the annual report, it is important to ask one another these essential questions of identity. How do we live out the gospel in an era increasingly indifferent to religious traditions and institutions like Christianity and churches? How do we bring the gospel to the world, “which dearly needs the gospel to be practiced, lived, and proclaimed in its midst?”

I go back to the question of discipleship as “doing” vs. “being”, and I look at what I encounter in churches around our Region. I can cite a number of good indicators something new and exciting is happening in the life of our churches.  Churches are getting involved with their local communities, nothing new, yet still new for many churches that got complacent and content within their own four walls and missed out on community changes, new neighbors (especially speaking languages and from cultures different than ours).   I have visited some churches with pastors and congregants willing to give of their time, despite living in the midst of the world of deadlines and quotas, to help others in our community improve their lives because these churches are finding these are ways to “practice, live, and proclaim” the gospel.

I see Jesus calling to us in our boat, a place of toil yet of familiarity, calling us with winsome words, “The kingdom’s here. Will you become my followers?”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Exploring Mark's Gospel: Adventures in Bibliography

Earlier this week, I met with a group of clergy who serve in various congregations around the Capital District of New York.   Ordinarily, they meet to study the four readings for the upcoming Sunday, as selected by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).   Preaching from the Lectionary is not necessarily common among Baptists, yet for those who seek a rhythm of Scripture that likely parallels the texts selected for preaching and worship on a Sunday morning across ecumenical lines, the Lectionary provides a three year cycle of readings.

Beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, the Lectionary for this liturgical year is known as "Year B" (with "A" just finished and "C" awaiting when the first Sunday of Advent arrives later in the calendar year).  Year B typically offers a reading from the Gospel of Mark, meaning that a preacher could offer a sermon routinely through the year and congregants could hear most of the narrative if they come regularly to church.  (Preachers pray regularly for such good church attendance habits.  Congregants usually pray for well focused and shorter sermons, but I digress....)

Here are a few titles I recommended to the group for those seeking new or perhaps lesser known titles related to understanding Mark as a narrative, as a companion for preaching and teaching and helping persons grow in the faith and learn what the Gospel of Mark seeks in a good disciple/follower of Jesus.

Here are some titles related to Mark:

Blount, Brian K. and Gary W. Charles. Preaching Mark in Two Voices. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002).

Boring, M. Eugene. Mark: A Commentary. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2006).

Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville, MN:
Liturgical Press, 2011).

Cobb, Laurel K. Mark & Empire: Feminist Reflections. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013).

Culpepper, Alan R. Mark. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007).

Fleer, David and Dave Bland, eds. Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice
Press, 2006).

Goatley, David Emmanuel. Were You There?: Godforsakenness in Slave Religion. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996). Particularly chapter 5 on Mark’s reference to Jesus’ cry of dereliction.

Hare, Douglas R.A. Mark, Westminster Bible Companion. (Louisville, KY:Westminster/John Knox, 1996).

Hooker, Morna D. The Gospel According to St. Mark. Black's New Testament Commentary. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991).

Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. Feminist Companion to the Gospel of Mark. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2004).

Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide. (London, UK: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2002).

Maloney, Francis J. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012).

McKenna, Megan. On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006).

Minor, Mitzi. The Power of Mark’s Story. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2002).

__________. The Spirituality of Mark: Responding to God. (Louisville, KY:Westminster/John Knox, 1996).

Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988).

Myers, Ched, et al. Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

__________. Who Will Roll Away the Stone?: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians.
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994).

Placher, William C. Mark¸ Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010).

Rhodes, David, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012).

Ross, Steven. Marked. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2005). Graphic novel approach.

St. Clair, Raquel A. Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark. (Minneapolis, MN:
Fortress, 2008).

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. (Harrisburg, PA:
Bloomsbury/Trinity Press Int’l, 2003).

Stamper, Meda. Embodying Mark: Fresh Ways to Read, Pray and Live the Gospel. (Cincinnati, OH:  Forward Movement, 2015).

Thurston, Bonnie B. The Spiritual Landscape of Mark. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008).

Williams, Rowan. Meeting God in Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2015).

Wright, Tom (NT). Mark for Everyone. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2004).

Monday, January 12, 2015

2030 is coming....Why hasn't our church changed since 2000?

If you spend more time
watching cat videos on YouTube
than thinking about your church's
leadership needs and outdated bylaws,
you might have a problem.
(Image: found via Google)
My wife and I share the amusing or thoughtful (and sometimes downright puzzling) posts we find each day on our respective Facebook account newsfeeds. The posts reflect the diversity of our “Facebook friends”, who cut across geographic, political, theological and social lines. And let’s not forget the endless videos of cats doing something cute and adorable, particularly when riding around on one of those Roomba cleaner things.

Here's the help you need:

Earlier this week, one of my wife’s friends shared this quotation: “With the start of 2015, the year 2030 is just as close as 2000.”
While it’s a fairly straightforward observation, easily apparent to anyone who can do the math, nonetheless, I got thinking about the difference that fifteen years can make. The year 2000 had no Facebook, let alone Facebook posts to read from friends that back then you would have otherwise had to call or email (a relatively recent tech amenity in itself at the time). In 2015, I am connected with more people on a regular basis, even if we haven’t been in each other’s physical presence in years (i.e. college friends I haven’t seen since graduating in 1997, etc.). By 2030, the technology will have changed just as unexpectedly as a 2015 person time traveling back to the “past” of 2000.
Given my line of work, I started thinking about the issue of change and churches. Many congregations I suspicion look at the year 2030 with some apprehension, knowing the challenges of what 2015 holds: reductions in contributions and/or endowments triggering staff cuts and limiting programming. Pastoral positions are decreasing while increases in facility upkeep costs seem to worry the congregation more. And the list goes on. Finding a more stable and sustainable way of being a local church seems a tall order by 2016, let alone whatever 2030 holds for us in the future.
Worse, many churches are governed by outdated bylaws. Most churches will nod and even chuckle appreciatively when I typify what I hear from other churches about their bylaws: “Our bylaws stipulate all these boards and committees, and we don’t have enough people to fill them, let alone people willing to agree to serve.” 

Reviewing these bylaws will reveal frequently that these governance documents pre-date 2000, hailing mostly from that increasingly distant era of the mid-20th century. Then again, why should we be shocked in 2015 that bylaws predating 2000 are ineffective or out of touch with our current congregational needs? I worry that churches forget that they are following documents written by our forebears who went to church when Ike was President. Why would we want to keep bylaws from that era? Why should we be content with bylaws that have seen no serious revision efforts since 2000 to be remotely the documents helping us make it to 2030?

Then again, I thought about a different spin. While we do not know necessarily what the future holds, we can think about the fifteen years prior to 2015. Where was the church in 2000 and how has our congregation changed in the intervening times? Further, are we able to identify ways where change was not only recognized but also understood with faithful and reality based responses?
From my own experience of the past fifteen years (finishing seminary, becoming ordained, serving two churches and now with a Regional ministry), I can honestly say few folks really wanted to think about 1985 to 2000 with an analytic eye or enter into the type of reflection and analysis about those years, let alone the fifteen years between 2000 and now.

Fifteen years can be an eternity in the lives of any organization. Churches have been slow to adapt to electronic giving, even as our commerce is conducted using “plastic” and “online”. In 2000, Cokesbury (a former employer) had a robust number of bookstores and just the beginnings of By mid-2013, all of the stores were closed in order to stay competitive where Cokesbury believed its customer base (and its manageable overhead) was already requiring them to be to stay relevant. What was a slender new sales channel for Cokesbury back in my day with them is now a major driver of sales and “brand awareness”. Walking into a Cokesbury store is now a fond memory.

In the past fifteen years, one church I served became a fond memory as well. The church that ordained me to ministry closed and merged with a church they helped plant decades before. Most churches in our ABCNYS Region are served by clergy called to less than full-time positions and with decreasing certainty that a parsonage or any benefits are available. It is fair to say to a church today that they need to think carefully about strengthening their lay leadership and diversifying their collaborative ministry with a pastor rather than just looking for a pastor who will provide the proverbial 24/7 presence without the need of employment or income beyond the church.

Being able to stand in the middle of a thirty year period, fifteen years past and fifteen yet to come requires a different type of leadership. Lay leaders and clergy have a vested interest in learning about organizational development, managing anxiety while leading change in congregations and availing themselves of “best practices” in financial and property management.

ABCNYS is actively developing events and workshops to help our churches and leaders (lay and ordained) engage in the conversations that help churches understand where they have come from and how to move strategically into the future. We encourage churches to contact our Region staff to plan ways to engage local churches (preferably in events inviting other ABCNYS churches nearby also to join in on the conversation).
On February 14, Dr. Jim Kelsey, our Executive Minister, will offer a one-day workshop on church leadership and church bylaws. This event will be at the First Baptist Church of Saratoga Springs, NY, (45 Washington Street) from 9 AM to 12 PM. The workshop is free to ABCNYS churches with an advance RSVP requested so adequate materials and set-up can be prepared. Call the FBC Saratoga Springs office to confirm your RSVP by 518/584-6301 (deadline: February 10, 2015). 

NOTE: Other versions of this workshop are gladly offered, as churches and Associations wish to invite Dr. Kelsey. Please contact the Region office to set-up a future workshop date!

During the month of March, two days are offered with the same workshop on “Church, Change, and Changing Church” in two different locations. Offered to the “eastern” side of our Region on Saturday, March 7, 2015, at the Latham Community Baptist Church (Latham, NY) and to the “western” side of our Region on Saturday, March 28, 2015, at the First Baptist Church of Akron, NY, you can register and pay online via the Region website ( or send in your registration with the brochures being mailed out to church offices this week.

Featuring Dr. William Tatum (Intentional Interim, Clifton Park Center Baptist Church) and Dr. Jim Kelsey and Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, this workshop is for any congregant, lay leader or pastor wishing to learn more about navigating change rather than fearing it or missing out altogether. In other words, “Church, Change and Changing Church” takes a lot of courage, thoughtfulness and nimble leadership. Come and learn!

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Road Trip Ahead of Us: The Baptism of Jesus

         This Sunday remembers the "baptism of Jesus", an auspicious moment in the Gospel where Jesus is in the midst of the people coming to John for baptism.  At that moment of immersion and being raised back up, Jesus experiences the heavens above opening, the rumble of a Voice giving divine affirmation and the Spirit descending upon him. 
             Of course, on the latter count, the Spirit's descent is not necessarily that of a sweet, innocent dove.  Mark's Gospel uses a very pointed verb when the narrative continues onwards, telling of how Jesus went out into the lonely places.  
            The Greek word is "ekballei", which is not just a nudge.  Rather, the Spirit is said to "hurl" Jesus out there for his forty days and forty nights of wilderness testing.  The euphoria turns to denial, the waters of Jordan turn into profuse sweat upon the brow.  The abundant water of baptism is a distant memory as a drink of water becomes unthinkable yet desperately craved.
             Within a few verses, Mark's gospel reveals the strange pathway that one must take to follow Jesus.   Are we able to follow?

            Growing up, I traveled with my father around the back roads, making our way to check on various places where we pastured cattle or had crops planted.  Going down one dirt road after another, I remember being quite puzzled why one of these roads seemed to veer off in another direction, a strangely sharp turn around a bend.  One day as we made our way down that particular road and neared the strange veering off along the road, I asked my father why the road was so oddly designed.
            Father pointed out a bramble of trees and brush just beyond the bend. He told me that decades ago the road used to go straight ahead, leading to a homestead about a quarter mile over the horizon.  When the land sold, the farm house and the road were abandoned. The road reverted back to weed trees and tall grass, and the county road crew just made due by reshaping the rest of the intersection as best they could.  Unless you knew where to look, you’d think that there had never been a road there.

            The British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes tells the story of workers renovating an old residence.  Working in the basement, they were quite puzzled by a pit they found downstairs. Was it the place where coal was stored up until needed for heating the family home?  They had never quite seen one just like it.  After some inquiries, they discovered that the house used to be a small Baptist chapel, which eventually sold the property to a developer decades ago.  The chapel had been turned into a duplex, and the “coal pit” turned out to be the one-time congregation’s baptistery!  (recounted by Fiddes in his Tracks and Traces volume of essays on Baptist identity).

            These two stories remind us that times change.  A house was built by an enterprising family in one generation and a couple of generations removed, the years of work creating a homestead out on the Kansas prairie became a curious footnote, nearly forgotten.  What looked like a coal pit was really a sacred place, a “home” of sorts for the faithful, where they were to be brought into the fellowship of a congregation and more importantly, to follow Jesus obediently into the baptismal waters.

A congregation could build a chapel (in this sense of the word, a smaller church building), and years later the very focal point of a Baptist worshipping community (its baptistery) had been long disused, its original purpose forgotten as the congregation moved on to build bigger facilities elsewhere or the fellowship simply disbanded at some point in the past.

Today we encounter a road of sorts.  The path to baptism and the way of discipleship intersect necessarily where we move from being an interested learner to the decision to follow Jesus as believers.  Each Christian has to follow this pathway (though curiously the road may seem longer or shorter, steeper or smoother, depending on the faith journey made by an individual).  Nonetheless, along that way, as a person moves toward baptism and the life of discipleship, the Church has the task of road upkeep.  Without a community of believers encouraging and supporting newcomers to the faith, the pathways might be forgotten, leaving very little clue about how to find one’s way along the path of Christian discipleship.

There are many roads we traverse in life.  Sometimes, the roads are straight and smooth. Other times, we find ourselves on the twists and turns of difficult terrain.  Faith can be just like either type of road, veering off when we least expect or taking us down paths that we don’t know if we can quite make it all the way across.  I give thanks constantly that when I’m out on such roads, I can see the well-worn footpaths of other saints (and even a few sinners) that have gone on ahead of me.

Together, we gather each week to worship and grow together in faith.  When we are at our best in discipleship mode, we understand this gathering place as more than the sum of its utility bills and maintenance upkeep. It is a sacred homecoming where souls are tended and new life is nudged and ministry is fanned to flame.  If your church feels more like a place barely holding on, it's time for a recalibration, lest the roadway path and the "chapel" start to lose their sense of why they exist in the first place.

Together, we aim to be the group of disciples who tell and live out this story called “gospel”, so that others may seek and find.  Together, we search for the roads that lead us to our true home.  Amen.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Resolve matters in 2015

Screen cap from "Back to the Future, II",
set in the future of 2015
The New Year is at hand.  At least, that's what our conventions for measuring the passage of time would say.  It was a quiet affair for some.  For others, they may be still fast asleep from their New Year's revelries.

Humanity has reckoned time in a variety of ways, even if each of those ways tends to be ironically for a season themselves.  Some would say the Mayan calendar is now well overdue for a recalculation, being 2015 and no fall-out yet from 2012 rolling around. 

Then again, the year 2015 is the "future" explored in the second Back to the Future film, and self-lacing Nikes are yet to be mass marketed.  And sci-fi nerds around the world look at this 21st-century future askance, mournfully asking, "Where's my jetpack?"

As churches enter into 2015, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief that Advent and Christmas services are now fading away with Epiphany around the corner.  Yet, just as pastors feel a moment's relief in sight, reality sinks back in.  It's now January, and for many congregations, it is Annual Meeting time!

In late January, many churches will hold an annual meeting where the budget is presented, the reports of various committees and lay leaders are assembled into booklet form, and decisions (and quite a bit of indecision) awaits the congregants on the appointed Sunday later this month.

I wonder, however, if we do ourselves a great disservice planning the Annual Meeting so close on the heels of a major liturgical season that tends to absorb a great deal of energy, most certainly of the church's clergy and staff as well as many lay leaders.  In many small membership churches, the Treasurer or the Church Clerk was also the same person playing Santa at the Christmas Dinner or in charge of ensuring the church lounge was laden with cookies and cider for the after-church Christmas Eve reception. 

The end result is a repeating pattern of frustration mixed in with limited availability of lay volunteers, over-extended staff and an under current of procrastination adding to the slowness of reports being prepared, let alone edited, let alone ready for publication, let alone dutifully read by the congregants who may or may not have the information in hand in advance.

Realigning the church's business/fiscal year to match the rhythms of the liturgical calendar year itself will take its own due diligence.  However, shuffling around a meeting date alone is not the answer.  Instead, some adaptive change is needed, looking at the various issues with fresh eyes and making decisions together that will lead to several improvements within the organizational structure and ways and means of a congregation.

Just this week, the Facebook page for the ABCUSA Minister's Council had a group member recommend an article by the consultant Matthew Thomas.  Addressing the church budget as a source of financial health, Thomas outlines ten characteristics that help a church aspire to greater budgetary purpose.  Thomas' article is available via:

I realize many colleagues will look at this article right now on the cusp of the budget being readied for publication and distribution and feel a quite understandable sense of frustration that the church budget being readied does not reflect many of these helpful indicators.  "The ship has already sailed," we might say.  And then we worry a bit for awhile after, realizing the gap between the way our church budget is prepared and the deep need for the church to address its financial culture, general accounting practices and the glaze that tends to overcome the eyes and attentiveness of most congregants when the church is talking about money.

I refrain from suggesting the popular New Year's tradition of making a resolution to do better.  It may work for a noble few, but for most of us, we've already left resolutions made at New Year's behind within a few weeks.

Nonetheless, what possibilities might open up if we ask for some time at the Annual Meeting to address the situation outlined above and task our leadership to set a goal for the year to begin shifting the ways we conduct and carry out the business of the church?  

To accomplish much of what Thomas outlines above will take time and effort.  Shifting the culture within a congregation takes time, patience and will.  Setting short and long-term goals will help you navigate the various challenges awaiting as you start looking at the major and minor issues that influence a church's financial decision making process or its governance structure (mostly hailing from a time when congregations were larger and involved just about as many people who attend today to cover all of the officer and committee positions!).

New Year's is a great time to look at the prospect of a new chapter awaiting your congregation.  What will you write down to fill its pages with the accomplishments and challenges of the journey ahead of the ministry and mission of your church?   Make sure that you also take stock of 2014 and prior times, so you can see where you've come from, what baggage you choose to keep carrying and what you're downsizing so you can remain faithful pilgrims on the journey of discipleship.

A New Year requires resolve more than resolutions.  May you find time, patience and will as your tools for a blessed 2015!