Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Reality of Change

Change is a word laden with negative connotations for many of us.  We often fear change, but change is a part of life.  We find a new job or calling, we move to a new town or house, we experience sickness, we have children and they grow up and move out (or move back in).  In life, nothing is static.  Change is inevitable.  Change is a sign of life.

The Bible recognizes this, for it abounds with metaphors related to change and growth.  When Jesus tells his disciples, “"I am the Vine, you are the branches,” (John 15:5), he is using a metaphor related to change.  A vine is a living thing—it changes and grows or it dies.

William Bridges wrote that it is not that people don’t like change; they just don’t like being changed.  Perhaps that is where the anxiety comes.  As a part of the environment in which we find ourselves, if things around us change then a healthy person finds a way to adjust and find stability. The alternative is to give into dysfunctional behavior such as anger or denial.

Although we can control things around us to some extent, there are often circumstances over which we have no control.  Learning to adapt to change doesn’t mean that we give up our identity, beliefs, or values, but it may mean that we must change our habits, lifestyles, or schedules in order to find balance. 

My experience with churches testifies to the difficulty that church members have with change.  Although we may see God as unchangeable, little else is.  We forget that buildings deteriorate, worship styles adapt, leaders come and go, and programs outlive their usefulness.

Perhaps the problem is that we are seeking stability in the wrong places—externally rather than internally.  Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.  (Matthew 24:35, NIV).  Change is inevitable—except for what is really important.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Missional, Monastic, Mainline: A Review

Those who take the time to examine the history of the Christian church over the last two thousand years recognize that the church has always been in the process of reinventing itself.  Manifestations of the church that start out as fresh, creative approaches to impacting the surrounding culture ultimately become commonplace and stale as the world changes.  This calls for renewal and reimagining the way that we “do church.”

Missional, Monastic, Mainline:  A Guide to Starting Missional  Micro-Communities in Historically MainlineTraditions by Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins is both a call to action and a guide for renewing the church by implementing a contemporary expression of a renewal methodology that is very familiar in the church—the monastic tradition.

The first part of the book deals with the rationale for this approach—the need, the theological basis, and possible concerns.  Heath and Duggins are proponents of a missional ecclesiology, defining it as “the fundamental identity of the church being God’s sent out people.”   They argue that this understanding of the church does not take anything away from mainline expressions of the church but provides expanded opportunities for mission and ministry.

 Included in this section is a chapter on the role of theological education in this shift.  They observe,

“A radical shift in how we prepare leaders is necessary and soon, or seminaries will not survive the cultural shift.  Most of the way we prepared people for church leadership in the past 150 years is simply out of touch with political, economic, social, and religious realities of our culture.”

The authors are not antagonistic to theological education.  Heath holds an endowed chair at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and Duggins is a seminary graduate. Both are ordained elders in the United Methodist Church.  Rather, they are calling for reform, renewal, and reinvention as a means of furthering the mission of God’s people.

The second part of the book is a very practical guide to launching missional micro-communities that are connected with traditional, mainline churches.  They draw not only from their experiences in creating such communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but the experiences of others such as Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  For those interested in the missional church movement, the book includes the most extensive bibliography I have seen on this topic.  Prepared by Bret Wells, the bibliography covers the missional church from both academic and practitioner perspectives, the emerging church movement both contextually and theologically, resources related to the missional and intentional community movement, and leadership development in missional contexts.

Even if one has no interest in becoming part of an intentional community, this short volume provides both insight and testimony to the power of a potentially significant renewal movement in the church.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Next Generation Leadership

A couple of years ago, I resigned from a committee in our church.  I was chair and had served on the committee in the past.  My resignation was prompted by my lack of passion for the work the committee was assigned and a feeling that the committee had outlived its usefulness.  I was both surprised and appreciative when a member of the committee on committees called and asked me the reason for my resignation and any comments she might share with her committee.  I explained my reasons and she expressed her thanks for my candor.  Of course, the committee still exists and I was simply replaced.

The point of my sharing this incident is that it illustrates how difficult it is to kill a committee even when it has outlived (in my humble opinion) its usefulness.  In an effort to share leadership, Baptist churches in the 20th century learned how to do committees well.  Most committees had specific responsibilities and helped to involve larger numbers of church members in the functions of the church.  The question we must face today is, “Will the committee structure survive in the 21st century?”  My own opinion is that it will not.

One reason for this is the difficulty in finding young or median adults who are willing to make a three year commitment to serve.  We will not enlist and nurture a new generation of church leaders by putting them on committees, especially if most of those assignments do not provide any sense of fulfillment.

There is certainly a place for specific leadership groups that serve for an extended period of time to further the work of the church.  Some churches have adopted three standing committees that deal with the major functions of church life in the 21st century—personnel, property, and finances.  The personnel committee is involved in the hiring, support, and evaluation of paid staff.  In the event of staff dysfunction or failure, they address the issue on behalf of the congregation.  The finances committee makes sure that a budget is developed, financial gifts are handled appropriately, and the bills are paid.  The property committee cares for the daily operations and maintenance of church facilities.  All of these are usually policy-making groups with some hands on activity.

In many churches, teams have taken the place of committees.  Teams are responsible for planning worship, designing and leading Christian formation processes, and guiding mission and ministry activities.  Teams have fluid membership and assignments so that they can move quickly to meet changing needs and opportunities.  Team members may serve for either short or extended periods of time.

If we want young and median adults to become part of the operational committees or leadership teams of the church, we must be willing to answer these questions for them.

First, how does this further our mission?  Does the work of the group help the church to accomplish what it understands that God has called it to do?

Second, how does this help others?  Does this activity nurture those within our fellowship in a meaningful way?  Does this extend our outreach into the community or world? 

Third, will the time I spend here produce measurable results? Does this really make any difference or am I just wasting my time?

We can no longer expect people just to “fill the slots” so that our church’s organizational chart will be complete. We must enlist them in meaningful work that will give them the opportunities to use their gifts, skills, and passions while making a difference in the world.



Monday, March 16, 2015

A Mythic and Rich Legacy

The life and accomplishments of the saint we call Patrick have certainly been embellished and enhanced by early hagiography and centuries of veneration.  Historians assume that some acts attributed to Patrick were either done by others or are simply good stories that have become part of his legend.  In death, Patrick is undoubtedly a much larger presence that he was in actual life.  This is true with so many religious and historical figures.  They may have been decisive, even heroic, figures but we can no longer separate the person from the legend.

Not only is Patrick an iconic figure, he has also become linked with what we know call Celtic Christianity.  Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization introduced the rich tradition of the Celtic and specifically Irish contributions to a mass audience.  George Hunter drew on similar ideas for The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  Just as we add much on to the lives of honored individuals of the past, we have probably created a picture of the beliefs and practices of ancient Christianity among the Celtic peoples that is richer and more robust than the reality. 

There are certainly some characteristics of the Celtic Christianity concept that are close to the original practice of the faith among Celtic peoples.  First, those believers had a very strong regard for Creation so they readily responded to teachings about the Creator God.  They lived close to the land, the seasons, and animals, so they felt a strong tie to both Creation and Creator.  Their experience of Creation was real and vital as was they connection to the Creator God.

Second, these early believers had a great respect for each other—men and women created in the image and likeness of God.  They saw the goodness of humankind before the fall and grounded their belief in that original state of innocence rather than in the consequences of the Fall and the idea of original sin.  Church history reports that both women and men held places of considerable authority in the church among the Celtic peoples. This ecclesiastical equality reflects the egalitarian treatment of men and women in early Irish law. 

Third, they valued community.  They saw community as a vital part of being human.  Within community—both ecclesiastical and secular—people worked together, held each other accountable, and supported one another in time of need.  They also saw community as the place of redemption.  This is certainly what Christian community should provide as well.

Just as the lives of the saints call us to be better people, the accounts of Celtic Christianity challenge us to reenvision the true essence of the Christian faith.  Both Patrick and Celtic Christianity call us to fresh perspectives on our faith.

(This post originally appeared on this site on March 14, 2012)

Monday, February 23, 2015

The God who Surprises

One of my favorite writers on the church and faith in the 21st century is Tom Ehrich.  In a recent post in his On the Road series, Ehrich wrote this:

"The longer I study Scripture, wrestle with ethical issues, write about God, and pray to God, the more I realize that God is a wild one. Not the least predictable or controllable. Not the steady rock I have wanted God to be, but a wild-flowing stream that carries me along to the life God wants me to live. Sometimes I cling to a passing tree, or make landfall and think I have arrived, or buy a big boat to master the current. But the river flows on, and all of my efforts to make it manageable and pleasant don't deter God from doing what God wants to do."

These prophetic words speak to me as an individual as a member of the body of Christ.
I discovered several years ago that God will not allow me to become comfortable.  In my late forties and early fifties, I experienced what I refer to as “the decade from Hell.”  During this period, my wife’s mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease,   my father died of heart failure, my mother began a long period of treatment for cancer, our preschool grandson passed away after a two year struggle with cancer, and I was involved in a ministry that was both challenging and frustrating.   God did not take all of this away but God walked with us during this period. I learned many things during this time.  One was that I should celebrate every day of life.  I also learned that any illusion that I was in control was a myth.

Our God is the god of wilderness, journey, exile, loss, crucifixion, and rebirth.  In our own lives and in the testimony of scripture, we come to understand that God does not always deliver us immediately from strife and depression, but God does bring renewal and new hope on the other side.  God calls us to endure, listen, and learn for the next stage of the journey.

When we are faithful on this journey, God often surprises us.  God provides new and productive paths of life and service.  Despite all of my planning and preparation, I did not foresee where I would be almost seven years into “retirement.”  I have the opportunity coach clergy and consult with congregations through Pinnacle Leadership Associates.  I am teaching students at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and consulting with faculty and administration on creative ways to form ministers.  Who would have thought that the odd assemblage of gifts, training, and experiences of my life would have fitted me for what I am doing now?  Evidently, God did.

As a part of the body of Christ, the unpredictability of God reminds me again of the precarious nature of “strategic planning” for a congregation.  A church needs to embrace its mission and have a vision for where God is leading it, but the plans and procedures must be held lightly for God continues to surprise with new challenges and possibilities.  Rather than codify each step in the church’s anticipated future, a congregation would do well to discover and develop the resources—spiritual, personal, financial, and physical—that God has provided and respond tactically to the changes that are happening all around it. 

In so doing, the church will be like the people of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:32,  NRSV).  This requires a combination of perception, preparation, and faithfulness.  First, we must be sensitive to our context. Second, we must be aware of and be good stewards of what God has put in our hands.  Third, we must be willing to act at the appropriate time.

The one certainty is that God will open doors at the most unexpected time.  Will we be willing to step through?


Not Everybody can be Steve Jobs

(This blog originally appeared on August 31, 2011.  Jobs passed away five weeks later.  This is reposted on the occasion of his birthday--February 24.  There is much to admire as well as regret about his life, but his influence on our culture is undeniable.)

Unless you have been on a mission trip to Mongolia or experiencing power failures from hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornadoes, you have heard that Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple due to health issues.  Many articles extol his virtues as a visionary and speculate on the future of one of the world’s richest companies with his leadership.  There will undoubtedly be a new round of books on “The Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.”

I am a late convert to the Apple faith.  I began to give in a bit when I purchased an iPod several years ago and enjoyed its flexibility and portability.  The iPad may have pushed me over the edge.  A generous donor recently provided the funds to purchase iPads for Central Seminary faculty, and I am afraid that I have become an enthusiast.  I would not be surprised if an iPhone is not in my immediate future and even an Apple computer somewhere down the road.

But back to the wizard of Apple.  Steve Jobs is a unique individual.  Many seek to learn from him, but most of us do not have the emotional or psychological makeup to be him.  By most accounts, Jobs can be mean, abusive, driven, and irrational—typical words associated with genius along with creative and innovative.  If you have the patience to put up with some one with these characteristics, you will reap great rewards but most of us would rather observe at a distance.  I do think that there are some things we can learn from Jobs.

First, recognize when someone else has a good idea and run with it.  Jobs and Apple did not create the computer mouse, pod casting, or the touch screen but they recognized their value and integrated these innovations into their products.  Just because we didn’t create something doesn’t mean we can’t adopt it or adapt it for our situation.

Second, hire good people.  Although he could be alternatively critical and complimentary, Jobs found good people for his team and challenged them to be better.  We might not adopt the extreme measures that he used, but we can surround ourselves with good folks, listen to them, and encourage them to do good work.

Third, trust your gut feelings.  Jobs typically eschewed market research and focus groups and gave the public what he thought they needed.  And it worked (most of the time)!  Apple has had great successes, but it has also experienced its flops.  Sometimes we do need to go with our instincts, but we must be prepared to fail with grace when something does not work

Fourth, don’t be afraid to let go of a success to move to on to something better.  The iPhone killed the iPod for all practical purposes.  The iPod became an application for the iPhone and the iPad.  Although iPods are still on the market, but they certainly don’t sell like they once did.  Jobs saw something better and moved on even if it meant wounding a profitable product.  Letting go of the familiar and reaching out to the unknown is a real test of leadership.

Will there be another Steve Jobs?  Probably not.  But one certainly shook things up for the rest of us.