Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Information or Formation?

Sociologist Brene Brown once said, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more."  This applies to our understanding of Christian discipleship.  As Christians, we often struggle with the balance between orthodoxy (right knowledge or doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice or action). This is the challenge that James presents when he writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18, NIV)

Both right belief and right action are necessary in the life of a follower of Christ, but can one get in the way of the other?

Historically, Baptists have been very good at communicating information about the Bible and the faith.  They delight in asking questions of scripture that exegete the text in an attempt to understand the who, what, how, and why of the passage.  We are less open to letting the text speak to us. 

For example, when I attempt to introduce Lectio Divina to a Baptist group, they often want to question the text rather than let it question them.  The practice of Lectio Divina treats the text not as something to be studied but as the Living Word that questions us.

Certainly, we need to understand the text to avoid its misuse.  There are three questions we should ask in studying a passage of scripture:

  • What does it say? Do we understand the words and their meaning?
  • What did it mean (in context)?  Every part of the Bible was given first to a particular group of people in a specific context.  What did it mean to those who heard the text for the first time?  Was it teaching, exhortation, or worship?  What life circumstances did it address?
  • What does it mean to me?  Study of scripture without application is incomplete.  What does this text say to me today and what should I do about it?
Ultimately, the goal of right teaching is right action.  If we become experts in the study of the Bible but never put it into practice, we have missed the point.  Information is important, but formation for Christian living is the real goal.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Qualities for Future (and Present) Clergy

In an interview with Faith and Leadership, Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, the Episcopal Bishop of Texas, made this comment:

“So as judicatory heads or diocesan ministers, we have to cast a vision for the things that we think are needed for the future clergy, which is a capacity to fail and pick themselves up and do the work, the ability to be adaptive in circumstances, the ability to preach, to talk to and captivate people.”

He also said, “We need vision people; we need people who can communicate well; we need people who are using social media and are digital immigrants at the very least, and are digital natives at the very best.”

These are interesting comments that reflect the reality of contemporary parish leadership.  I would insist, however, that these are skills not just for future clergy but for those who are presently in congregational leadership.  I believe that anyone can learn these skills.

First, leaders can learn how to cast a vision based upon the adaptive leadership model.  As a resource, I recommend Shift: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church by my colleague Mark Tidsworth.  If the church is to continue to be effective today, leaders and participants must ground themselves in the reality of their context and stop hoping that 1950 is coming back.  It’s not and we need to work with what we have right now.  Is change easy?  No, but declining participation and irrelevance should motivate the church to adapt its methodologies for effective mission.

Second, the ability to communicate has become even more important for ministry leaders.  This takes not only the form of preaching but writing.  The pastor of a congregation is called upon each week to “bring a word from the Lord.”  This is a humbling and challenging task, one which requires time and effort.  Coaches, peer groups, and conferences provide the resources to do this effectively.  The Mercer Preaching Consultation this October in Chattanooga with Brian McLaren is such an event.
Third, many of us struggle with social media.  This is not simply from lack of skill but the continuing evolution of the field.  New platforms are emerging and old ones continue to update the user experience.  If we want to communicate with a majority of our congregation--people of all ages--we need to invest in social media and use it.  This requires both an investment of time and energy and the empowerment of younger staff members to apply their knowledge in this area to help other staff members become more proficient.

For older readers, let me share a word of encouragement.  Most of us have experienced considerable change in the course of our ministries.  Many started out with typewriters chalkboards, mimeograph machines, slide projectors, and hard-wired phones.  We now use computers, PowerPoint, laser printers and copiers, video monitors, cell phones, and video conferencing.  Many Boomers are highly proficient in the use of these tools.  We are the digital immigrants that Doyle mentions. We are smarter than some people think!  (And we have grandchildren who can help us.)

The bottom line for all ministers--present and future--is to remain faithful to our calling and the message with which God blessed us.  Practically everything else is negotiable.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Church Business Meetings--Pros and Cons

For three years, I served as moderator of our church’s business meetings.  For the most part, this was a rewarding experience and I must have done something right since I received a standing ovation when I stepped down (or maybe they were just glad to see me go).

In churches with a congregational polity, the church business meeting is where important (and sometimes unimportant) decisions are made.  As moderator, participant, and observer, I have seen people at their best and at their worst in church business meetings.

Let’s consider potential negative aspects of such meetings.

Very often, those participating are not prepared to make decisions.  They come to the meeting with little or no information and are asked to vote on the spot.  To have more informed body, church leaders can use town hall meetings and small groups for discussions about a topic before it comes to the floor for a vote.  Often, consensus can be built in this way.

Committees don’t give good reports.  Although a church committee may understand an issue and have immersed themselves in preparing a response or proposal, they provide either too much or too little information.  An executive summary of key points should be provided ahead of time and then the committee can share additional information as needed.

The most verbal people sway the decision.  A wise moderator and church leaders find ways to hear more voices before the meeting (see town hall meetings and discussion groups above).

Remember that people more often decide an issue based on their emotions than their reasoning.  Committees and church leaders who fail to make an emotional connection with a proposal can expect a negative response.

Prayer is rarely seen as an integral part of the gathering but only a way to “book-end” the meeting.  What might be different if the moderator stopped during the meeting and asked for a time of silent reflection or called on a neutral party to voice a prayer?

On the other hand, church business meetings have positive aspects.

These meetings are democracy in action.   All may speak and vote.  A wise moderator will use rules of order in such a way that free speech is facilitated rather than hindered and all are encouraged to take part.

Church business meetings give us the opportunity to do the right thing.  In more than one meeting, I have observed a wise member of the congregation stand and insert a word of compassion or encouragement that tempered the decision-making process. This is the Spirit of God at work.

If there are healthy relationships in the congregation, there will be a healthy atmosphere in the business meeting.  Dysfunctional families show their stress at funerals (and sometimes at weddings).  If the church family is not getting along on a daily basis, we should not expect harmony in a business meeting.

Finally, we must seek “win-win” decisions. A vote in a church business meeting is not the final word. If segments of the congregations are seen as winners or losers in a decision, fellowship will be broken.  Our primary goal should be finding ways forward that all members can embrace.