Monday, December 29, 2008

Learning to Ask Good Questions

In an interview in Newsweek, Peter Ueberroth, organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and former commissioner of Major League Baseball, was asked, “What do you look for in a young leader?’’ Ueberroth replied,

When you get past integrity, you go to curiosity. [When I observe young leaders] what I’m so surprised by is, everybody wants to talk—to make a presentation, to do something rather than ask questions. The smartest people are the ones who continue to drive for information.

This reminds me of the old story of the two people at a reception. After a lengthy monologue, a talkative man said to the person next to him, “Well, I’ve talked about myself long enough. What do you think about me?”

A good leader knows that he or she does not have all the answers; in fact, the leader may not even understand the situation. Asking good questions is the key to finding answers for oneself and for helping other people to discover their own answers. A friend of mine who is a personal coach points out that if you help a person solve a problem by giving advice, you have helped him with that specific situation, but when he faces a different challenge, he will tend to come back to you (or someone else) for a solution to that problem. The person has learned dependence rather than discernment.

Good coaching and effective consultation are based on asking the right questions and letting people discover their own answers. It is really the Socratic method of teaching—framing questions so that the student discovers things for herself.

In some ways, this takes a lot more time and work—at least initially—but this is how leaders are formed. They learn to process situations by asking good questions because it has been modeled for them.

Ueberroth is right. Good leaders ask good questions.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Perception is Reality

Our guest preacher this morning used the phrase, “Perception is reality.” This is not the first time I have heard this, but I started me thinking about the pros and cons of this idea as applied to the interpretation of scripture.

On the negative side, the comment challenges the way that we read the Bible. As 21st century readers, we need to take care in imposing our own perspective on the Scriptures. It is too easy to make Jesus and His disciples modern, rational Americans like us.

For example, I pointed out to the Sunday School class I was teaching earlier this month that “Jesus was not a Christian.” (I might also point out that John the Baptizer was not a Baptist but that is another topic.) When Jesus taught and interacted with first century folks, he was not the spokesman for the Christian church and he was unencumbered by twenty centuries of Christian history. Jesus was a Jew, speaking into and out of a Jewish context. We are really not familiar with the richness and complexity of that context. If we were, we would find many of Jesus’ teachings very dangerous, provocative, and risky. He certainly was not one to play it safe.

On the positive side, the Bible has implications for our lives today, and we are right to bring our own life issues to that consideration. Another part of the worship was a solo entitled “Some Children See Him.” The text of the piece points out that children tend to see the Christ child from their own point of view. If they are black, they see Him as black. If they are yellow, they see Him as yellow.

Is that not part of the inspiration of Scripture? As we bring our own life experiences to the study of the Bible, we open ourselves up to applications that shatter our preconceived ideas and stereotypes. We identify with His teachings and actions, thus informing the way that we live out the biblical message.

Certainly this is a paradox—we need to be both objective and subjective in our study of the Bible . . . but God becoming human is also a paradox.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

God Bless All of You on the Good Earth

On December 24, 1968, millions of us listened and watched as the Apollo 8 astronauts broadcast pictures of the Earth from lunar orbit and read the first verses of Genesis. Frank Borman ended the broadcast by saying, "Merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

It was a stunning, historic moment aglow with optimism and hope. Most of us expected that the anticipated moon landing in 1969 would be followed by the establishment of manned lunar bases and pioneering flights to Mars and beyond.

Well, it did not quite work out that way. After several moon landings, the emphasis shifted to close earth orbit. Here we are in 2008 and human beings have not been back to the moon in 33 years, and we are phasing out our orbital space shuttle fleet. What happened?

A primary reason was the end of the Cold War. It was no longer necessary for us to get the upper hand over the Russians. Another reason was the cost of the program. Certainly, there were scientific and technological benefits, but such developments could also be produced by a less expensive orbital program. We also began to find ways to work with our former international competitors. And, of course, national priorities shifted because the public has a short attention span.

There are now plans to return to the moon, but our current financial situation is sure to move lunar settlement down on the list of priorities. So what will it take to get us back on the moon? Perhaps some leader will come along who can provide motivation to move forward with manned space exploration, motivation that is not based on national interest, competition, and fear . . . but I don’t see one on the horizon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Making History

I just finished watching John Adams, the HBO series based on the book by David McCullough. The series is well-produced and features strong performances. I would recommend it even to those who are not particularly interested in history. McCullough has said that “history is the story of people,” and the series tells the story of very human people who were extraordinary despite their humanity.

Included with the episodes was a documentary about author McCullough. Although I had read two of his books—John Adams and Truman, I knew little about the man. He has had an interesting life. Although he considers himself a writer rather than a historian, he has an ability to understand not only the people in his stories, but the context in which they lived. This is certainly due to the fact that he is also a painter, an amateur musician, a world traveler, and an avid reader. He spent several years working on PBS television series like The Smithsonian. Of course, he has some idiosyncrasies; for example, he continues to compose all of his books on an old manual typewriter!

I suppose what impressed me the most was that, at the age of 75, he has a list of at least 27 more books he would like to write. After seven and half decades of life, he still has goals he wants to achieve. McCullough is a great example of a lifelong learner and a source of great encouragement to a guy who is getting ready to move into a new phase of his life and ministry.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Time for Innovation

In an article in the Harvard Business Review several years ago, leadership guru Peter Drucker wrote:

Innovation rarely springs from a flash of inspiration. It arises from a cold-eyed analysis of seven kinds of opportunities: unexpected occurrences, incongruities, process needs, industry and market changes, demographic changes, changes in perception, and new knowledge.

Our nature is to resist change. Once equilibrium is established, we work to keep things in balance. Then something comes along to upset that balance. What is our response? The natural response is to try to return to equilibrium but to do so may mean casting off something or taking a new stance.

Many churches and denominational entities find themselves in a time of disequilibrium. We point quickly to the financial crisis as the source of this event, but other forces were already at work—demographic changes, changes in mission philosophy, and changes in our culture. Too often we have tried to ignore those changes, but it is hard to ignore economic contingencies.

The question now is (using Len Sweet’s image), “Do we allow ourselves to be washed away by the tsunami or do we learn how to surf the wave?” I think it is a good time to learn to surf, taking advantage of the power of the wave to find new directions and new alliances.

This is not the first time that the church has been faced with unexpected change. The class differentiation of 18th and 19th century England was addressed by the spiritual reformation movement led by the Wesleys. The isolation of the American frontier produced the circuit rider, the farmer-preacher, and the camp meeting. The growth of the American higher education system and the separation of many young adults from families, home churches, and beloved communities led to the organization of the YMCA, the YWCA, the Student Volunteer Movement, and denominational campus ministries. The post World War II economic and population boom produced innovative and growing churches and denominations.

All of these were innovations in their time but, as someone has pointed out, “Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems.” It’s time for fresh thinking, creative approaches to ministry, and wise use of resources. The economy is only the latest force to push the church toward change but it appears the most difficult to ignore!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ministry Entrepreneurs

A new group of ministers is emerging on the scene. I call these folks ministry entrepreneurs. These are folks who have a particular vision for ministry and have not been able (or willing) to find a way to pursue it in traditional ecclesial structures. This may be a calling to minister to a specific unreached people group. The person may have a passion to build up the churches through his or her unique gifts to teach or encourage. Perhaps this person is filling a ministry niche that has been unfilled.

To put it another way, the person may be saying one of the following to the churches:
· "Come alongside and help me in an important ministry."
· "Let me help you to do your ministry."
· "Allow me to be a broker or networker who will connect you with ministry partners."

We find such people involved in congregational development, clergy development, community missions, marketplace ministry, lay development, new church starts, and global missions (among others). The examples are endless.

My question in this posting is, “Who is training these people?” Many come out of traditional seminary programs and have developed other skills that uniquely equip them for these focused ministries. Others are autodidacts who have taught themselves what they need to know. Just as college and universities have developed programs for entrepreneurs in business and industry, is there a place to develop ministry entrepreneurs?

In regard to these ministry entrepreneurs, I think it would be interesting to discover:
· What do they need to know (knowledge)?
· What do they need to be able to do (skills)?
· What do they need to be (values)?
Although much of what they learn would be similar to the knowledge, skills, and values of a church or judicatory minister, their peculiar calling demands other training.

Are there seminaries or theological schools providing preparation for this new category of ministers? If so, I would be interested in discovering who they are.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Institutional Church

The “emergent church” conversation has much to offer Christians and the mission of God in our time. It characterizes a movement that many see as fresh, innovative, and imaginative. Although I find the subject of the emerging church personally interesting, I would like to say a word about the “institutional church.”

When someone speaks of the “institutional church,” this is usually a negative statement about the nature of a church or churches. In this view, “institution” conveys fixed, stagnant, bureaucratic, impersonal and ineffective. It doesn’t have to be that way. According to The Random House College Dictionary, an institution is “an organization . . . devoted to the promotion of a particular object.” The purpose of an institution is to support and further a particular cause—in this case, the message of Jesus Christ. I see that as a worthy goal.

Most of the churches that I have related to over the years would fall into the category of institutional churches. They have buildings, staff members, budgets, participants, activities, and bills. I would imagine that this is true for you as well. The institutional church is the church that most of us know. This type of church provides a number for things in our culture.

First, worship. No matter what the worship style, most churches put their best foot forward in their Sunday morning worship services. In most cases, the musicians are gifted, the preachers are prepared, the prayers are heartfelt, and the praise is genuine.

Second, pastoral care. When one is in the hospital, grieving a loss, or going through a personal crisis, the church provides support, prayer, and encouragement through both clergy and lay ministry. The institutional church is often at its best on such occasions.

Third, Christian nurture. Most churches have carefully thought through an approach to Christian formation for all ages. The quality may vary, but most institutional churches seek to help their participants grow in the grace of knowledge of Christ. Children learn Bible stories, teens learn about Christian community, and adults learn to apply the Bible in their daily lives.

Fourth, community. Through its Sunday school, Bible study groups, and mission activities, the institutional church gives people the opportunity to connect with each other and develop a sense of community. Whether one is a member or not, the church provides a place to belong.

Fifth, community and world service. Most institutional churches are involved in ministry in some way. This may be giving a can of food to a local food pantry, donating money to support one who is called to a specific mission, or traveling to Africa to help dig a well. Through the institutional church, people are given the opportunity to love and serve others.

Sixth, celebration of the arts. Even in the most austere church building, the architecture often points to the devotion of the congregation to God. Windows, lighting, flowers, and symbols point people to God. Many forms of music are sustained by the church. And there are few other places in society today that encourage group singing!

Are institutional churches doing all of these things well? No. Are they free of conflict? No. Can they improve? Yes. Breathing new life and new vision into the institutional church is an ongoing task that usually involves breathing new life and new vision into ourselves! That work is never finished.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Advent is Good News

Baptists have not traditionally observed Advent, a part of the Christian church’s liturgical year, but a number of Baptist churches have started to recognize the value of using this observance to prepare their members for Christmas. I have found Advent to be a personal spiritual discipline by which I can both consider the importance of Christ’s coming to our own lives and gain a proper perspective in the overly commercialized season.

Having children or grandchildren allows us to regain the wonder of the story of the birth of the Christ Child. My four-year-old granddaughter, Erin, likes to take the flannel Nativity scene that my wife bought last year and “tell” the Christmas story. I try not to edit her narrative too much at this point. Like most of us, she struggles to know what to do with Joseph. She adds her own touches such as naming the donkey “Josh” and deciding that the shepherd and the Wise Men had a sleepover to help take care of the baby.

The only correction I have provided so far is about the angel. She started out the other day saying, “This is the angel, and he is coming to bring bad news.” I gave a quick theological insight that angels are messengers from God, and they bring good news. (I selectively ignored all those wrathful angels in the Old Testament and Revelation.) I further suggested that the birth of the baby Jesus was good news. She agreed to that assessment (and getting her to agree to anything is a major success).

The lesson for me is that sharing the story of the good news of Jesus’ coming is something we can do with family, friends, and strangers this Advent season. People still need good news wherever they can find it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

When money gets tight in our household, we start making tough choices. One decision we have already made is that we are only giving Christmas gifts this year to grandchildren under 21 years of age and not to adult children or grandchildren. (We have told them that we do not expect any gifts either.) Every time a renewal notice comes in the mail, we think twice before renewing. Although the cost of gasoline is down, we still give careful consideration to every trip, even if it is just across town. Food, clothing, shelter, insurance, and church tithe are necessities in our house. Beyond these, the basic question is, “Do we really need this?”

In a recent article on, Robert Parham considers the long-term viability of religious organizations due to financial exigencies. He basically poses the question, “Are we moving into a survival-of-the-fittest scenario among local and national faith organizations?”

I think his question is very appropriate. As churches experience declining revenues, building maintenance concerns, increase staff costs, and local ministry needs, they will be asking the same question we do at our house: “Do we really need this?”

What does this mean for middle-level and national judicatories, mission boards, educational institutions, publishing houses, and “niche” ministries that both serve the churches and are dependent on the churches for their support? I think churches will be asking these questions:

1. What have you done for me lately? Church members, especially those who have grown up with denominational strife, do not believe that the state or national denominational structures are relevant to their needs or those of their churches. They are the generation “who know not Joseph” and the benefits that the denomination provided in the past. There is no “brand loyalty.”

2. Does it fit? The biggest challenge for most denominationally-based programs is that they are not contextualized for the local congregation. Due to the Starbucks experience, people realize that they can have their latte the way that they want it. They expect the same for church programs.

3. Are there strings attached? Does the church have to meet certain criteria to be in good standing with the organization that comes alongside to assist in the church’s ministry or will they accept us as we are—women deacons, liturgical worship, etc.?

4. Can I get it somewhere else cheaper? We may condemn this as a consumerist attitude, but when churches are struggling to keep the light bill paid, they have to ask this question.

5. Will you love me in the morning? After we have partnered with you, will you take our church for granted or will you seek to strengthen the relationship based on mutual respect and accountability?

Perhaps church members and clergy leaders will not be this blunt in the way they ask these questions, but they will ask these kinds of questions in the future. Those organizations that seek to minister alongside churches in the coming days will have to be caring, attentive partners who do not take the relationship for granted.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New Opportunities

Denominationalism reached its peak in the United States in the 1960s. I use the term for the horizontally integrated organizations that emerged in the early 20th century to “do the work of the churches.” Although some decry denominationalism as a bad thing, an objective observer could easily come up with a list of the advantages of this coordinated approach. Churches were able to identify with something greater than themselves. Curriculum was written, ministers were educated, missionaries were sent out, lay persons were trained, and people came to know the Lord. Denominations—Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians—were movers and shakers especially on the American scene.

That was then; this is now. Denominationalism is not what it used to be. George Bullard is in the process of developing a typology of denominations that should be helpful for framing future ministries alongside churches. At the same time, there are a number of ministries—some of which have been around for awhile and more being birthed daily—that want to partner with individual congregations and judicatories at every level to provide specific services and/or opportunities. These ministries are finding a niche for a number of reasons.

1. Some provide services once offered by denominations, but no longer available. One example of this is clergy development and career counseling.

2. These ministries are willing to customize their services to meet the needs of a particular church or judicatory. They reject the “one size fits all” approach and take into account the resources, context and calling of a specific church or group.

3. Their agenda is usually clearly stated. They provide a service for a fee. The services provided are specific, time-framed, and realistic. The costs of providing these services are also clearly delineated.

4. They often are ecumenical in nature.

5. They are “cutting edge” and agile. They are continually finding ways to improve the services they offer and adapt to new opportunities. They are entrepreneurial in nature.

6. Most are motivated by a desire to make a contribution to the kingdom of God.

This approach is not entirely new. It is similar to the model used by early missionary organizations, Bible societies, and youth/campus ministries. These groups perceived needs that the churches were not meeting and invited the churches to become part of these new enterprises.

As many of you know, one of the tracks I will be pursuing after January 1 is an affiliation with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, a group that provides coaching, training and consulting services for individuals, churches, and organizations. I believe it is one of these emerging organizations with a mission to assist churches and clergy with services that they might not find elsewhere. Being part of this next stage of “building up the Body of Christ” is a new challenge for me and a wonderful opportunity to continue to learn, grow, and serve.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Keeping Busy

I think I surprised a friend over the weekend when I told her that I would be looking for another job after December 31 when I step aside as coordinator of Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She pulled me aside later and said, “Were you serious?” I assured her that I already had a couple of things in mind to do after the first of the year, but this was always my intent (even before the economy took a nosedive).

Cecil Sherman noted in By My Own Reckoning, “Never retire FROM something; retire TO something.” When I notified the Coordinating Council early in the year that I would be leaving TCBF, I avoided using the word “retire.” I already did that once when I left the Tennessee Baptist Convention. I am not leaving TCBF because I have reached a certain age but because it is time for me to do something else and for the organization to seek new leadership. When someone has been part of an organization (especially a small “start-up”) for as long as I have, the entity tends to take on not only the leader’s strengths, but his or her weaknesses as well. After ten years, I think someone else can provide a new perspective and, perhaps, a new direction for TCBF.

Dr. Molly Marshall and Dr. Paul Stevens have graciously offered me a contract to continue my work as director of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary site in Murfreesboro and agreed to allow me to teach from time to time. I have enjoyed the diversity of the students in the classes, the stimulating discussion, and the opportunity to encourage ministers-in-training. I hope I can contribute to the stability and growth of this important work.

I will also be working with my friend Mark Tidsworth as one of the associates with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. My primary interests with Pinnacle are clergy coaching, staff development, and making Pinnacle a success. In the next couple of months, I will be developing a one-day workshop on “Developing Effective Staff Teams.” This is an important topic and it is one of those things that they don’t teach you in seminary! I will provide information about this workshop in this blog after the first of the year.

And don’t forget that I have some grandparenting to do as well. We are expecting another grandson in February, so Rita and I will be investing some quality time in that endeavor as well as spending time with our other grandchildren.

So, you can see, I have several “jobs” ahead. It should be fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Woman Pastor?

“Why would anyone want a woman as a pastor?” A female friend asked me this recently when she heard about the action of the Georgia Baptist Convention to withdraw fellowship from First Baptist Church, Decatur. The church’s pastor is Julie Pennington-Russell.

The question points to one of the major barriers to a church calling a woman as pastor. My friend, like so many of us, has never seen a woman as the lead pastor in a local congregation. The concept is foreign to us because we have never seen it in action! We see similar stereotyping if we think about all nurses as being women or all physicians as being men. There are enough examples today of men nurses and women physicians that we have to rethink such assumptions.

Given that sixty percent of our church members are women, shouldn’t we expect that—from time to time--a woman might receive the call to pastor?

How can we address this? One way is to seek opportunities to have women preachers in our pulpits. Even if she is not in the pastoral role, just seeing and hearing a woman preach models a different role for women. On a couple of occasions recently, I have been asked to supply on a Sunday morning, and have declined but asked if the church might welcome a woman in that role. Both agreed to the suggestion. In our state and national meetings, we can—and do—take the opportunity to feature women as preachers.

In assisting churches with pastoral placement, I always ask if they would accept the resume of a woman candidate. Three out of four times the response is, “Well, I wish we could consider a woman, but our congregation is just not there yet.” In the other cases, I thank God for the openness of the congregation to consider a woman candidate. The odds seem to be improving as time goes by.

These are small steps, but we have to continue to push forward if we expect a more open attitude about women as pastors. We have already lost too many talented women pastors to other denominations and to institutional ministry.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


“Mentoring” has been around for years, but we seem to be more intentional about the practice today and more aware of how useful it can be in helping a person develop skills and practices for a particular vocation. Basically, mentoring is a developmental relationship between a more experienced person and a less experienced person, usually referred to as a protégé or apprentice. The mentor does not do the work for the mentee but provides a model (not “the” model) for doing the work and provides feedback for the person being mentored.

On Monday, I attended a panel presentation by five women ministers. One of the questions asked was, “What would you do differently in preparation for ministry?” I think particularly every one said something to this effect: “I would have sought out an experienced minister and developed an intentional mentoring relationship.” Such a relationship is especially helpful for women who are seeking to thrive in any environment. This may well identify issues to be addressed and make it easier to walk through some doors of opportunity. A mentoring relationship, either with a male or a female who “knows the ropes” can make a difference in one’s skill development, self-assessment, competence, and confidence.

This is true for men going into ministry as well. Too often there is some disconnect between the academic preparation of a minister and his or her personal and professional development. It is always helpful to have someone who has walked the path before to provide some helpful hints as well as feedback.

Not every experienced minister has the skills to be a mentor. A mentor must be willing to be transparent, direct, encouraging, and perceptive. Most of all the mentor must be willing to take the time required to do this effectively.

Do you have a mentor? Are you mentoring someone else? Think about the possibilities

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We All Win

Bob Ferguson—Robert U. Ferguson—was my pastor when I was a teenager. He was a good preacher, looked handsome in a suit, and was a strong pastoral influence for me and my family. He actually pastored the church on two different occasions and was back at the church when I was ordained to the ministry in 1970.

I have a lot of good memories of Bob Ferguson. One is of him sitting in a group of youth as he showed us how to use Bible commentaries and other material to better understand the Book of Genesis. Another was a time when he spotted me—a hapless teenager—standing at the side of the road trying to change a flat tire. He stopped, took off this suit coat, and got down on his knees to help me change the tire.

Brother Bob had another life as well. He was a pioneer among Southern Baptists in seeking peace and good will across racial barriers. This led to appointment as director of interracial relations for a state Baptist convention. I did not realize at the time how challenging and hazardous that assignment was. He was one of many people who worked, often behind the scenes, to help Baptists to see that we are all God’s people.

My former pastor passed away several years ago. His son, Bob, is pastor of a church in North Carolina. As I watched the election returns last night, I received this message from Bob: “Whether Barack wins or losses, we all win . . . and my Dad is somewhere smiling.”


Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome to the 21st Century Church!

At various times, I have used this blog to point to the changing face of denominationalism in the 21st century. One example came across my desk this morning. This is the time of the year when Baptist churches present their budgets for the coming year to their congregations for adoption. Often these proposals are published in the church newsletter and released to the world.

One such church newsletter came in the mail today that included the church’s proposed 2009 budget. The item that stood out for me was the change in the amount allocated for “cooperative missions.” This is the amount (usually a percentage of projected budget gifts) that the church intends to send to a denominational group to support missions. This may be the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or some combination of the two and their respective state organizations. In so doing, the church relinquishes the control of these funds to another body—a convention, a fellowship, or a mission board, for example—to do ministry.

The church in my example plans to cut its cooperative missions giving by 75% in 2009. Part of that money will be reallocated to “strategic missions.” I am assuming that the church will distribute these “strategic missions” funds to support mission efforts—local, state, or national—that further the church’s chosen priorities in missions. Adjustments in other line items reflect a similar philosophy.

I present this case not to chastise this church for its decision (or anticipated decision; this is, after all a Baptist church, and we should never assume too much) but to use this as another example of a trend in missions giving on the part of churches across the nation. Many churches have taken control of missions rather than delegating this task to someone else. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Tennessee CBF have contributed to this approach by encouraging churches to be “missional”—discovering God’s mission for your church and pursuing it. Well, they are doing it! They have found things that their church is passionate about, and they are reallocating resources to pursue those ministries.

This is the reality! We can fuss about it, agonize over it, or condemn it—but it is reality! Welcome to the 21st century church.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

But We Did a Survey . . .

I have had the opportunity to work with a couple of churches that were trying to clarify who they were and what they should do. In both cases, the first thing the pastor said was, “We have done a survey.” This action is not unusual in churches in their situation, but I have found that a written survey is not always the best step to take initially. Here’s why.

First, a survey produces information, but this is often information in a vacuum. Without some preparation and understanding of the context, how does one know what questions to ask? Trained researchers start with a hypothesis, then they determine what questions they will ask.

Second, communication comes first. The first step in dealing with congregational issues should always be verbal communication, usually with a small group or groups that are representative of the congregation. In this interpersonal communication, issues may be identified, needs expressed, and the right questions can begin to be formulated.

Third, writing a survey is not an easy thing to do. Ask any researcher how long it takes to come up with a good instrument. It rarely happens on the first try. Language is tricky and means different things to different people. I may use a word a way that communicates something entirely different to you.

Fourth, a written survey is a conflict avoidance technique. Usually, the most meaningful way to identify the “elephant in the room” (the real issue) is through dialogue. The results of a survey can be used to cut off rather than encourage discussion. Most congregations don’t need a better tool, they need a better conversation.

Fifth, if the church needs hard and fast data, it is often already available. This can be found in church minutes, Sunday school attendance records, and budget figures.

Sixth, a survey can be helpful in some cases, but not as the first step. After the foundation work has been done, the church may turn to a survey to clarify issues and gauge attitudes.

People will often say, “We love who we are as a church.” My question is, “Do you really know who you are as a church?” This type of knowledge will not come from a survey but from conversation. As we talk with each other, we discover our misconceptions and gain new understanding. A survey form, no matter how well done, cannot take the place of honest Christian dialogue.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Playing the "Race Card"

In December 1969 I was in the middle of my last year in seminary. I was married with one child and another on the way. Louie Farmer, who had been my Baptist Student Union director in college, invited me to go with him and a group of college students to Mission 70, a missions and ministry conference for college students and young adults scheduled to be held in Atlanta between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since I was networking (although I did not know that term in those days) and looking for a job in collegiate ministries, I gladly accepted his invitation.

A day or two after Christmas, Bro. Louie and I found ourselves in his car on the way to Atlanta with two young African-American women in the back seat. I don’t remember how long that trip from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Atlanta, Georgia, took but I do remember that the two college students did not get out of the car to eat when we stopped (and I am not sure they ever went to the bathroom) as we crossed Alabama and made our way to Georgia.

I am still amazed at that experience. Since I graduated from college in 1965, I had worked with African-Americans in the military (in fact my first company commander was an African-American). I had gone to seminary with at least a few African-Americans. I was going to a conference in Atlanta that held out hope for a future in which Christians of all races and nationalities could work together to fulfill the Great Commission (interpret that as you wish). But these two young women were afraid to get out of the car as we crossed my home state.

This memory came back as I considered the Presidential race this year. For the first time, Americans have the opportunity to vote for an African-American for the highest office in the land. We have come a long way in almost four decades . . . or have we? I have noted that many of the e-mails I receive soliciting my presidential vote still want to play up the racial angle. Certainly many of these contacts are not racial in perspective and are carefully reasoned and presented, but there are too many who seek to play the “race card” in this election.

We have two good candidates for President this year. Both are Americans with unique records of service to our country. Both are gifted persons. One is black and one is white. Wouldn’t it be great if that last descriptor made no difference in our decision?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Try, Try Again

One of my favorite quotes is, “It is better to have tried something and failed than to have tried nothing and succeeded.” This came to mind as I was clearing out files in preparation for my departure from the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the end of the year. Although we have developed some successful projects and relationships over the past ten years, I was struck by how many we attempted that did not succeed or result in an ongoing relationship.

We have developed a healthy relationship with twelve ministry partners. All but two of these have been included (or are presently included) in our Tennessee Partners in Missions offering. These are ministries whose values and ministry goals match those of TCBF. All are independent of our organization, but they are our friends and they honor us by giving us the opportunity to work with them. On the other hand, there are at least 15 ministries with whom we have tried to establish an ongoing relationship, but this has not developed for one reason or another. Sometimes it was lack of interest on the part of the other ministry, sometimes lack on interest on the part of our constituency, and sometimes it was because the ministry moved in a different direction. All seemed to be good potential partners, but the relationship ultimately failed.

A similar story can be told in relationship to new church starts. In one way or another, TCBF has been involved in at least 12 new church start projects over the past ten years—four worked, four floundered, and four were never born. Believer’s Baptist Fellowship, Olive Branch Fellowship, Neverfail Community Church, and “the story” are alive and functioning as communities of faith. Considerable time, prayer, and money were put into efforts in Franklin, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro, but they didn’t work. Good people, ongoing prayer, and significant effort were invested in these new church starts, but these efforts did not survive early childhood. At least four other projects were considered, but they were never initiated. Quite honestly, I talked one group out of even trying!

So what does this have to say to us? I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4. Some seed fell on rocky ground, some was eaten by the birds, some started to grow but was killed by the sun, and some fell among thorns and was smothered. But Jesus concludes by saying, “Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."

Did the sower waste his time? No. He tried to do his best. Perhaps sometimes he sowed carelessly, but where the seed found root it prospered and gave a great harvest. The same is true of the ministries and churches that survive and prosper. They are producing fruit that will continue for eternity. In the final analysis, the success belongs to God. We do our best, but God gives the reward.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We Did It Ourselves

In a recent devotional written for the Smyth and Helwys publication Reflections, Bruce Lampert tells this story about legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Someone asked Bryant the secret of this success. He pointed out that there was not secret. “I’m just an old plow hand, but I have learned how to hold a team together—to lift some up and calm others down—until finally, as a team, we’ve got just one heartbeat. So there are just three things I would say. If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes real good, you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

Allowing for a little false modesty on the coach’s part, he has identified a key ingredient to team success—alignment. We may have different gifts and strengths, but we can learn to work together and pull in the same direction. Of course, this means that each of us must be willing to pull our share of the load!

The real challenge in any church is getting everyone moving in the same direction! One thing that facilitates this is a leader who doesn’t feel that he or she should get all the credit for success. An effective leader knows how to nudge, coax, and even pressure participants to move in a certain direction without abusing them. If done correctly, when it is all over they will say (in the words of the old Chinese proverb), “We did it ourselves.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Great Emergence

My colleague Mike Young loaned me his copy of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, so that I could do a quick scan. The thesis of the book is that we may be experiencing a seismic shift in the nature and practice of the Christian faith. This change may well “rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.” (p. 162)

There is much to consider in this little book, but here is one item that certainly impacts how we operate as Fellowship Baptists. Tickle explains the difference between “center-set” and “bounded set” Christian movements. “Bounded-set” groups define their boundaries. Their rules determine who is in and who is out. “Center-set” groups are doing what they are committed to do and allow individuals to decide how close they are to the center. Traditional churches are “bounded-set” people while the emergent churches are “center-set” people. Traditionalists practice a “believe—behave—belong” approach to bringing people into the fold while the emergents tend toward a “belong—behave—believe” approach.

In theory, I think that Fellowship Baptists want to practice the “center-set” approach, allowing individuals and churches to decide the level of their involvement in the movement. In practice, we tend to set boundaries that determine who is in and who is out. The latter approach is the way of the past; the former is the way of the future. Which do we want to follow?

A Door of Opportunity

During the 2008 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, participants were involved in a discernment process to address the question, “What has God prepared for us now?” Through prayer, discussion, and response to a written survey, they were asked to rank six primary topic areas and 47 specific issues in their importance to the CBF movement. This is one element in a process of planning for the future.

A preliminary report produced one very interesting result. The top ranked issue in both discussion groups and the written survey was “invest in young Baptists.” There were other significant responses, but I want to camp here for a few minutes.

One reason that this is so interesting is that this has not been the place where the CBF movement has put its greatest emphasis up to this point. Certainly, we have supported theological education, developed the student.go missions program, and partnered with the Passport ministry for youth and children, but these emphases account for less than seven percent of the CBF budget in 2007-2008. State and regional organizations are beginning to place some emphasis on ministry with college students and young adults, but there is so much more to be done. In our own state organization, this has not been a priority.

I am grateful for the efforts that have been made especially in calling out and training future leaders and involving students in missions, but there is a need for a broader ministry to those who will be the future lay leaders of moderate Baptist churches. The strength of our churches is ultimately based on the quality of the people in the pews.

Although some will argue that college students and young adults are a touch audience, at least one survey point out their readiness to respond to spiritual opportunities. The Ivy Jungle Network conducts an annual survey of collegiate ministries. This year’s report states that although most of these ministries are still on the margin of campus life, 52 percent of the ministries reporting have experienced growth in the past three years. They also report that more students are connecting with local churches.

In a general overview of students involved in collegiate ministries, respondents found that students tended to be cause oriented (social justice, environmental issues, etc.), spiritually hungry, eager for community, and spiritually growing. Moderate Baptists cannot leave this ministry to conservative and parachurch groups.

These are days of opportunity for Fellowship Baptists. Here is another door that God is opening for us.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Matter of Trust

If memory serves me correctly, there was once a television game show called, “Who Do You Trust?” Despite the questionable grammar, this is not a bad question for Baptists today. One of the casualties of the controversy among Baptists in the south was trust. Keeping and maintaining trust is also one of the greatest challenges for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship movement today.

As the battle was joined in the eighties, the key question from those seeking to move the convention in a new direction was, “Can we really trust those who are leading our institutions?” What that really meant was, “Are they doing it our way?” and the answer was “No.”

In the course of the controversy, many who had been leaders came to the point that they could not trust those in the institutions that they were attempting to "save" from the insurgents. (For more on this, read Cecil Sherman’s By My Own Reckoning.) Some of the institutional heads saw their defenders as “more trouble” than the leaders of the takeover crowd. Therefore, trust was lost between long time friends and has only begun to be restored after a number of years.

When new leadership came to the old Baptist institutions, the moderates questioned whether they could trust these leaders. Unfortunately, the answer has often been “No.” Even the house organs of the institutions have had to acknowledge questionable stewardship, poor leadership, and division among board members of the institutions.

As churches and individuals have left the old structure to affiliate with new partners like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, they have brought a certain level of caution and a reluctance to trust. Like the pet dog who has been kicked one time too many by a cruel master, they are afraid of being hurt and disappointed again.

This lack of trust introduces tentativeness into the relationships between various entities in the Fellowship movement. This means that churches fear giving up control to entities beyond themselves as they did in the past. The challenge that CBF and state organizations like TCBF face in relation to the churches is not that the churches will revert to the old structure but that they will pursue at least two other courses. First, they will choose not to affiliate with any cooperative group and pursue their own agenda. Second, they will hold their spiritual, financial, and personnel resources tightly and be unwilling to share those with others in joint endeavors. Such thinking leads to fragmentation in Baptist life.

Add to this the fact that we have adopted a “societal” system with every entity trying to relate to the local church directly. Churches choose their relationships in Baptist life. They decide if they will relate to CBF and/or the state organization. They decide if they want to support seminaries, publishing houses, news agencies, and other providers. We have often talked about this being a “web” based model, but such a model has its limitations and weaknesses. This approach overtaxes the gatekeepers in the churches and can dilute the impact that the churches’ resources can have beyond themselves.

I believe that each church is accountable to God to “discover and fulfill its God-given mission” but each church is also called to be part of the larger body of Christ in some way. Although the individual local congregation is at the center of Kingdom work, this does not preclude cooperation with other believers. In fact, being part of Kingdom work draws us into mutual sharing and collaborative ministry.

How do we build trust? By trusting. By being honest with each other. By living with integrity. We did not get into this problem overnight, and it will take time for us to rebuild bonds of trust and love

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lord, Teach Us How to Pray

In our church’s worship, we regularly recite the Lord’s Prayer. I think this is a positive addition that encourages worshippers of all ages to adopt a proper perspective on our relationship to God, God’s world, and our role in that world. The recitation of the Prayer also provides a sense of unity and connection with the universal church.

Author Brian McLaren has provided an alternative spoken version of the Lord’s Prayer that uses unfamiliar words and phrasing to help us to hear the message of the Prayer in a new way. McLaren suggests using it in public worship by having a leader recite a line, having the congregation echo it, and then leaving a moment of silence for reflection.

Our Father, above us and all around us,
May your unspeakable Name be revered.

Here to earth, may your kingdom come.
Here on earth, may your will be done as it is in heaven.

Give us today our bread for today.
And forgive us our wrongs as we forgive those who wrong us.

Lead us away from the time of trial.
But liberate us from the evil.

For the kingdom is yours and yours alone,
And the power is yours and yours alone,
And the glory is yours and yours alone.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


I have been blogging for two years now and have posted over 120 blogs, over 40 this year alone. The medium gives me a good opportunity to reflect, organize my thoughts, and seek feedback from anyone who might be interested. Responses come occasionally and often from unexpected places. Recently I was involved in a conversation about blogs with a couple of colleagues. One was talking about how much time it took to do his blog and how he researched it very carefully. The other talked about the way he put his together and the joy he received form doing it. This started me thinking about different kinds of blogs and the approaches that individuals take to their blogs.

First, there are the “rants.” These are written by folks who just want to complain, attack, or get something off their chests. Some of these have been used in church conflict situations to further the cause of one side of the other. I don’t follow any of that type of blog. I can do my own rants!

Second, some blogs are more like journals where people reflect on their experiences and invite feedback. This is what I try to do in Barnabas File. It is not profound or well-researched (although I do try to be accurate in naming names and events), and simply shares my responses to life from my own perspective. Similar blogs are those written by my friends Danny Chisholm (, Beth Bordeaux ( and Rodney Wilson ( They are a “slice of life” with a personal point of view.

Third, there are the informative blogs where the author shares from his or her expertise. One of the best of these is NTStudies ( written by David May, a professor of New Testament at Central Seminary. David speaks out of his expertise and passion in a particular field. It is well thought out, informative, and useful.

Fourth, there are blogs that are done by a group of people, usually as part of some organization to further the goals of the group. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has a blog called The Fellowship Portal ( that features comments from a number of contributors.

Fifth, there are dialogical blogs where two or more folks are discussing a topic and allow us to listen in on the dialogue. A good example is Mount and Mountain ( where Mike Smith, a Baptist pastor, and Rami Shapiro, a Jewish rabbi, are involved in a dialogue on the Ten Commandments and the Sermon the Mount from their respective traditions.

Blogs offer a unique opportunity to connect with people in an interesting and informative way. You may have other examples than the ones I have cited. I would be interested in hearing about them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Church Has Many Faces

I visited today with a friend who is a missionary in Western Europe. His task is to share the Gospel in an area that is post-Christian. We may want to unpack that term a bit. For centuries, Europe was part of Christendom—an institutionalized form of Christianity characterized by established or state churches (with a few dissenting groups thrown in to keep it interesting). My friend points out that he tries to differentiate among the terms Christendom, Christianity, and being a follower of Christ. Many people with whom he works look upon Christianity as a failed experiment—“Been there, done that”—when what has really failed is the institution of Christendom. His role is to bring people to Christ, not Christianity.

In order to do this, he and his team are taking some unique approaches to “doing church.” Although his context is different from that of my friends in Southeast Asia who are developing an indigenous church in a country that has never been Christian, the tasks are similar—establishing culturally appropriate faith communities that will reach and nurture believers.

This basically is the “missional church” concept. If we look at what this team in doing in Western Europe and my friends are doing in Southeast Asia, we realize that few churches in North America have really embraced what it means to be a missional church. Developing a strategic plan and adopting “missions” activities does not mean that we are engaging our culture with the message of the Kingdom of God. In fact, most of our churches do not even take their context seriously when it comes to being the people of God in their setting.

Perhaps we need to have the kind of experience that Bishop Leslie Newbigin had when he returned from India and discovered that “Christian” Great Britain was a mission field. That would change our thinking significantly.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Virtual Book

I love books. My wife said recently, “I don’t know if we have room for another book in the house!” Of course, she loves books, too, and has an extensive collection of children’s books that she has used in teaching over the years and shares with our grandchildren. We are readers. We have read to our children, and we now read to our grandchildren. I always have at least one book or magazine with me to read in spare moments.

When I was in seminary, I enjoyed browsing the library. There were always unexpected discoveries and insights. Although I visit libraries from time to time now, my browsing takes place more often these days in a bookstore. I am in something of a transition, however. Today I tend to buy my books on line. In fact, I may find a book in a bookstore and then buy it through (sorry, Barnes and Noble) because I can get it at less expense.

The transition from bricks and mortar bookstore to online bookseller was a precursor to my latest change—from paper book to e-book. The TCBF Coordinating Council recently gave me a Kindle—the e-book developed and marketed by It is wireless, so you can download books directly at less cost than a paper book. There is a way to “highlight” sections of the book and make notes (which I love to do in paper books that I own). There are other advantages, too, but I will stop before this becomes a full-blown commercial.

So I am “beta-testing” the Kindle (or is it testing me?). As I have used it in several public places, I have had questions about the device. A couple of young adults were even a bit envious that I had one! When I was asked, “Do you like it?” I responded, “Give me six months and I will let you know.” I appreciate the gift and the opportunity to experiment with a new delivery system for the written word. I’ll let you know if it “takes.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Back to School!

It’s back to school time! When I was a campus minister, this was one of the most exciting (and taxing) times of the year. Students were back from their summer work or mission service, new students were arriving for the first time, and the possibilities seemed limitless. For 14 years, this was the time of the year I worked the hardest. If we didn’t make contact with some of these new folks in the first two or three weeks, they probably would not connect with the Baptist ministry on campus.

I thought about the excitement of this time of year when I visited at University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, this morning. This beautiful stone church sits across the street from Missouri State University. For the past ten years, the church has hosted the MSU Pride Band for worship and lunch on the first Sunday before classes begin. The place was packed with the band members and a number of other students. Pastor Danny Chisholm preached an appropriate sermon on “A New Beginning,” associate pastor Cory Goode handled the logistics for lunch, and students were involved in worship leadership.

How many of these students will be back next week? I am sure that there will not be as many as there were today, but those who attended today were exposed to a Baptist church that “gets it” when it comes to collegiate ministry. They were greeted, feed (on the Word and with sandwiches), and respected. We need more churches that are willing to do this!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Building Up the Body of Christ

Dr. Molly Marshall and the folks at Central Baptist Theological Seminary have been very kind to me. Since I became volunteer director of the Murfreesboro center of the seminary three years ago, they have graciously accepted me as a co-worker and colleague although I am something of a “barbarian within the gates.” I am not an academic, but I do enjoy working with them to develop men and women for Christian leadership.

Most recently, I was invited to be part of a faculty retreat at Lied Lodge on the Arbor Day Farm, a beautiful setting in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The primary presenter was Dr. Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. I know Dan from his days at Southern Seminary. I was a guest presenter in a couple of his classes, and he was the outside reader on my doctor of ministry project.

Over the three days we were at the conference center, Dan made several presentations on the state of theological education and the church. Much of it was not new, but one particular thought is underlined in my notes: “Theological education is the servant of the church.” What does that mean? This might be explained by another quote: “The church can exist without theological schools, but theological schools cannot exist with the church.” We could unpack that at length, but the bottom line is that the mission and calling of theological schools is to prepare men and women to serve God through the church (and the churches’ various auxiliary enterprises such as chaplaincy, teaching, etc.). This does not mean that the churches dictate to the seminaries what they should be teaching; it does mean that the seminaries must be cognizant of what is happening in the churches and the contexts in which the churches minister in order to be effective in the preparation of ministers.

Based on Aleshire’s comments and some personal observations, let me suggest several things that seminaries can do to prepare men and women for ministry:

1. Ground them in the faith by helping them to develop spiritual disciplines that they will continue to practice throughout their lives.

2. Encourage in them a love for learning. I continue to be inspired by the seminary professors who (forty years ago) were not ashamed of the passion they had for their chosen discipline—whether biblical studies, theology, philosophy of religion, or ethics—and openly shared that with their students.

3. Help them to “learn how to learn.” No matter who much a student puts in his or her notebook (or computer), it will not be enough to carry that student through a lifetime of ministry! We use the term “lifelong learner” often, but it is important to remember that a real lifelong learner must have some tools to understand what he or she needs to learn, the ability to seek out the resources that will supply that information, and the discipline to use what one has learned.

4. Instill in them a desire for Christian community. It can lonely in ministry. Ministers need community for encouragement, accountability, and balance.

From time to time, seminary professors are blamed for ministerial failures, but the failure more often is in the minister than in the minister’s preparation! I can affirm that the Central seminary faculty are doing the best that they can to encourage the development of ministers who are grounded in spiritual disciplines, who love learning, who are “learning how to learn,” and who will seek out authentic Christian community. What the students do with this is their choice!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What Should We Do?

(These are my remarks to the Tennessee CBF Coordinating Council on responding to the challenges that face the organization today.)

You don’t fight trends. You discern them, try to understand them, and learn to live with them. This is the dawning of a new reality. What resources can we bring to bear on such trends?

1. Agility--We are still young enough as an organization to be flexible and adapt to the needs of our constituents; however, this may mean adapting a new paradigm for a middle judicatory like ours.

2. Relationships—We are relational. “Fellowship” is our last name. This is one of our basic values.

a. We have the good will of many people in the churches.

b. We continue to develop new relationships with churches, ministries, and other partners.

c. Our future growth will not be based on bringing established churches “over to CBF” but in strengthening ties with the churches who already identify with us and establishing new churches.

3. Grace—I believe that in all we do, we have attempted to incarnate the grace of God. We reach out to people that others reject, we open our doors to those who have not found a home elsewhere, and we extend a hand of fellowship to those seeking community.

Building on these resources, I believe that ten years from now Tennessee CBF will look very different from what it is today. That’s not bad—that’s good.

The times are difficult, but the resources are available. Understanding the times and acting accordingly is part of the work of the Kingdom of God. This is God’s work. I pray that God will bless you as you do it.

(Note: At the end of these remarks, at the invitation of our moderator, Jerry Mantooth, Coordinating Council members responded to these comments. In closing out this discussion, Jerry graciously stated that these characteristics--agility or adaptability, relationships, and grace--are those that I have exhibited in the role of coordinator of TCBF. I am appreciative of these remarks and, if true, I pray that TCBF will continue to exhibit these values in the days ahead.)

Understanding the Times

(Today, I met with the Coordinating Council of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for the last time. In this post, I want to share the challenges I presented to that group.)

In I Chronicles 12: 32, we read about the people of Issachar who “understood the times” and “what Israel should do” (NASB). I don’t claim to have such a gift, but let me share several challenges that we should understand and leave it up to you to determine what we should do.

1. Pastoral change. In the next year, three of our top ten giving churches will undergo pastoral change—one is seeking a pastor, one pastor will take early retirement in December, and the other has announced that he will retire next year. Of course, there may be others!

Although we believe in congregational polity, the pastor is a person of great influence in the Baptist church. I make it a practice to work with pastors and avoid “end runs” around pastors. Where the church is already supportive, pastoral change in the wrong direction may hurt us financially and strategically. The question is not only “Is the pastor supportive of the CBF movement?” but “Is the pastor a person of cooperative spirit?”

2. Local congregational stress. I rarely go through a week without talking to a pastor, church staff member, or lay person who is dealing with conflict in the church. Some of it is understandable and some makes no sense at all! It may be frustration over lack of growth, generational, or interpersonal.

Basically, this is a challenging time to lead or belong to a church, especially a well-established, traditional church.

3. Decline in giving to us by local churches. Why is this happening?--A decline in church health in terms of commitment, stewardship, etc.; sometimes due to the church moving in new directions and stretching their resources; the economy; and cashflow problems.

We experience the “downhill effect” of this. The model we follow makes us very dependent on healthy, functioning, cooperative churches. What does that say about the focus of our ministries?

4. New approaches to ministry. I have talked with at least a half-dozen people in the past year who have started their own ministries. Some of these replace services formerly provided by a denomination. Others are launching out in new directions with new paradigms. These parachurch structures may provide the framework for a new denominationalism.

5. An aging constituency. The “founders” are moving off the scene. We can no longer depend on the leaders who got us started. We can no longer depend on the financial support of those who learned stewardship and learned it well. In fact, individual giving to TCBF dropped from 17% to 14% of budget gifts this past year. How can we say "thank you” to those who have giving in their DNA while nurturing a younger generation of supports?

You don’t fight trends. You discern them, try to understand them, and learn to live with them. This is the dawning of a new reality.

(Next: Resources for facing a new reality.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Cutting Edge of Theological Education

In A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren briefly presents a model for theological education that would support the church of the future. He refers to this model as “one part monastery, one part mission agency, and one part seminary.” The monastery would care for spiritual formation, the mission agency for involvement in God’s work in the world, and the seminary would provide the content. Of course, this is not a fully formed approach to seminary education, but it does move beyond the academic model that predominates today.

The key is the interaction between the three elements—spiritual, practical, and intellectual. Each of the elements is vital not only for the practice of ministry but for the life of the church. When any model of doing church leaves out one of these ingredients, it becomes malformed. If theological education is meant to serve the church (and that is what its most vocal advocates say that it is supposed to do), then it must equip leaders who can help to form a balanced, healthy Body of Christ.

My experience is that seminaries have always been committed to the intellectual part and that many are now taking the spiritual formation part seriously. The engagement with the world is a relatively new component. Although many seminary students have been involved in part-time and even full-time church ministries for years, these more often have been opportunities for additional income and occasionally laboratory experiences for honing their ministry skills. I believe that McLaren is asking for more than this when it comes to involvement in the world. This component must take seriously the emergence of the Kingdom of God in this time and place, providing the skills—practical, spiritual and intellectual—to be part of this movement.

Seminaries can provide this in cross-cultural experiences, internships, and focused placement programs. One size doesn’t fit all. Such opportunities must be crafted to fit the gifts and needs of the student, the appropriate places of ministry, and the resource of the theological schools.

This is the cutting-edge for theological education today.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Recovering Modernist

Believe it or not, you can learn a lot in Baptist Sunday school. One week ago yesterday I taught a class and yesterday I was the participant in another class. Although the topics were very different, I detected a common thread.

The class I taught was based on I Corinthians 14. The passage deals with the chaotic worship of the Corinthian church. The theme of the lesson was that we should avoid creating barriers in worship that would exclude newcomers. Of course, we spent a good bit of time talking about glossolalia—speaking in tongues. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul never says that they should not speak in tongues. In fact, he testifies that he has the gift himself and often uses it in his private times of prayer. His point is not that the gift of speaking in tongues is not a valid gift but that it is a spiritual gift that needs to be used properly to build up the body of Christ. Paul embraced the mystery of the work of the Spirit of God.

The more recent class was the concluding presentation on the book of Job. In the discussion, one class member pointed out that Baptists were rationalists who rejected the mystical in the ordinances of the church. In keeping with good Baptist tradition, he argued that these are symbolic acts without any power or “saving grace.” They are not sacraments. (I won’t go into the explanation of what this has to do with Job. Remember, this is a Baptist Sunday school class.) I understand the concept and have articulated it myself from time to time, but this rejection of mystery made me a bit sad.

Baptists are certainly children of the Enlightenment. Although the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, our approach to “doing church” has very often been associated more with the head than the heart. We have tended to be thoroughly modern in the philosophical sense. Having grown up in a Baptist church, worship has often been an intellectual exercise for me rather than a mystical encounter. In recent years, I have realized that the rational approach to worship is not enough. I look to Paul as an example. He was certainly a learned man, but he was also a mystic. The one did not exclude the other.

In my worship, I am seeking more of the mystical. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I hold the bread before me and take a moment to think on the mystery of the Word made flesh. Before drinking the juice (“fruit of the vine”), I consider the mystery of the blood of Christ shed for me. Are these elements transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ? No. I am more “saved” after I partake of them? Perhaps I am. I hope by celebrating the mystery of the body and the blood that I have moved further along in the Christian journey.

I am not ready to speak in tongues, but I crave the mystical more than ever.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Yes, it is summer. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, children are happy, and pastors are moving! At least six ministers of my acquaintance are in the process of leaving Tennessee to serve churches in other states. The interesting thing is that four of these folks are leaving churches that have little or no affiliation with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to work in churches that are clearly identified with both CBF and their state CBF organizations.

Now, these are not “bait and switch” situations. These ministers are moderates. Even those who served churches that would not openly espouse the CBF cause have been friendly with me and a couple have even participated in TCBF activities while working with churches that had no interest in CBF.

So what’s going on here? Are we just grooming leaders for greater kingdom service in greener pastures? Would these people have stayed in place if their churches had been more open to moderate Baptist life? I don’t have answers, but I am a little sad to see these friends leave. At the same time, I am excited about the new opportunities available to them.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

An interesting combination—a vacation in Daytona Beach with two grandchildren, a movie theater next door, and three rainy days. The result—seeing three movies in three days (but a couple out of necessity rather than desire). So what did we see? Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, Wall-E (with the younger grandchild), and The Dark Knight. I am sure that each film has its merits, but my favorite was the latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight.

Director Christopher Nolan has once again produced a remarkable addition to the Batman mythos. Christian Bale is back with just the right balance of self-doubt and righteous anger as the Caped Crusader. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in small but essential roles as the men who keep Bruce Wayne grounded. Aaron Eckhart gives an excellent performance as the courageous and unfortunate Harvey Dent. Maggie Gyllenhaal is so good as Rachel Dawes that you forget that Katie Holmes played the role in the previous movie. Gary Oldman is outstanding as Lt. Gordon; his character may be the most three-dimensional in the film. Of course, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker is the performance that is most discussed and with good reason. Ledger’s character embodies not only evil but chaos. The term used for the Joker is “terrorist” and it fits well. Here is a villain not motivated by money but by a desire to challenge the morality of the good citizens of Gotham City and their leaders, attempting to show them up as venal and self-absorbed while inciting them to anarchy.

As in Batman Begins, this is a morality tale, but this time it is played out on a larger stage. This is not just about one man’s demons; it is the struggle that all people face to make sense out of their lives and be more than they ever imagined they could be. The movie is densely plotted with lots of action but with great dialogue and character development as well. This may well be the best movie of the summer.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

By My Own Reckoning

I have just finished Cecil Sherman’s autobiography, By My Own Reckoning. Although a generation younger than Sherman, I grew up with many of the same experiences, so I can identify with his pilgrimage in many ways. Sherman’s memoir discusses very candidly his commitment to and ultimate disillusionment with the denomination that had nurtured him. He explains how it was necessary for him to leave one Baptist entity and begin another in order to maintain his integrity.

This is more than a report on the “controversy,” however. Sherman shares warm memories about his family of origin in Fort Worth, his preparation for ministry, and finding Dot, the love of his life. His accounts of his pastoral experiences in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas will be informative reading for anyone who is in the ministry or plans to be a minister. His role in opening the doors of First Baptist Church, Asheville to African-Americans is a true "profile in courage" as well as a lesson on congregational politics.

Sherman struggles to present the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in a fair manner, but the hurt and anger are still there. He is candid about the deception and personal attacks he faced during those days. Late in the book, he admits that he probably still has not dealt with some of his feelings related to those experiences. He also acknowledges his reputation as an agitator with the comment, “It is difficult to be in controversy and not become controversial in temper.” The latter part of the book recounts the descent of his strong and loving wife into the grip of Alzheimer’s disease.

The remarks that Sherman made at the General Assembly and the subsequent response from many folks show that he is still a controversial figure, but how many 81 year olds can instigate such a response? It is a testimony to his stature and personality that people still take notice!

I encourage you to read the book. We do need to remember where we came from and who walked with us during the “bad old days” even as we move on to new challenges.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid!

As I read Cecil Sherman’s By My Own Reckoning, I was reminded of my own journey growing up in the Baptist culture of the South. Although I am a generation younger than Sherman, many of my experiences were similar to his. I grew up thinking that Southern Baptists were “God’s last and only hope” (a phrase chosen by Bill Leonard as a book title). I was active in the youth group at church, served as a summer missionary with the Home Mission Board, went to conferences at Ridgecrest and Glorieta, attended a Southern Baptist seminary, used the Sunday School Board curriculum (I even wrote some of it!), took the training, did the time, swallowed the Kool-Aid! When I discovered that denominational identity was not all it was cracked to be and could even be idolatry, I went through something of a crisis of faith.

Sherman’s memoir discusses very candidly his commitment to and ultimate disillusionment with the system that had nurtured him. He explains how it was necessary for him to leave one Baptist entity and begin another in order to maintain his integrity. Even though he was a major architect in the founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, you detect one who has been burned by an institution in this statement about the founding of CBF, “We knew what we were against; we were not agreed on what we were for, and, truthfully, that indecision still lurks around the edges of CBF” (p. 218) He has no illusions that the organization that he helped to create is infallible or perfect.

The experience of those of us who no longer call ourselves “Southern Baptists” is a warning that any humanly-created institution is inherently flawed and potentially dangerous. In an ordination message, I heard Loyd Allen say to the candidate, “Love God and serve the church.” The statement puts things in the right order. We should not let anything—even the church—become between ourselves and God. We are called into community, but we have a personal responsibility first to God. As believers we are called upon to serve God with faith, love, and integrity. Everything else is secondary. As a friend said to me when I was recovering from the 1990 meeting of the SBC in New Orleans, “Who do you serve anyway? Christ or the SBC?”

Sherman has reminded me that it is important to keep one’s priorities in order.

See How They Grow?

In his book By My Reckoning Cecil Sherman, the founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, notes that one of the tasks that he took on was to lead churches to leave the SBC and join the new CBF movement. He writes, “If the CBF were to grow, it had to grow at the expense of the SBC.” Later in the book, he comments that the inerrancy controversy that divided the SBC “continues to splinter churches away from the SBC.”

This is no longer true, at least among Baptist churches in Tennessee. As new conflicts appeared on the scene (over missionaries, women in ministry, and higher education institutions), those of us who are moderate Baptists would say, “This is the tipping point. This will bring moderate churches to their senses.” Nope. Hasn’t happened. There has not been a windfall of churches “coming to see the light” and joining the CBF movement. For some folks, the sun has not come up yet (to paraphrase one of Cecil’s popular sayings).

Although some CBF leaders may still think that the path of potential growth is in winning over SBC churches, they can forget it. We can mount rational arguments, show statistics, and draw comparisons, but it’s not going to happen. When we deal with people and their allegiances, we are dealing with emotions, comfort levels, and traditions. These are hard to change. More than one moderate Baptist has said to me, “I don’t like the fact that my church supports the SBC, and I don’t care much for the direction that the pastor is taking our church, but my family is here and I like my Sunday School class . . . .” Logic will not prevail; emotion will win every time.

If this is so, what will be the source of future growth in the CBF movement? Here are some ideas:

First, an individual or a church will change when one of their own is hurt by the SBC power structure. If one of “our folks” who is serving as a missionary is terminated or resigns, the church will respond. If a longtime member of the church is fired by a denominational agency, it might make a difference. If one of our young women is called to ministry but rejected by the denomination in some way, people might just pay attention.

Second, if the SBC decides that it won’t seat messengers from churches who financially support CBF in some way, this may cause some churches to join the CBF cause. More likely, it will cause some church splits. Of course, the denominational machinery moves slowly. The SBC in session this year took note of the controversy at Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, and some presented the argument that “messengers from Broadway should not be seated.” When was the last time Broadway even sent messengers to the SBC?

Third, we can start new churches. Everyone thinks this is a good idea, but few respond. I applaud the work of Bruce and Debra Gourley and Ryan and Courtney Tucker who are taking the lead in a movement to plant CBF-related churches in Montana (see We need to think about new churches targeted to unreached people groups including college students. There is potential for growth in such an initiative.

Fourth, we can court community churches who don’t consider themselves Baptists, but who usually share our theology and are seeking mission partners. Many of our young adult leaders have gone in this direction, starting churches that do not have a clear Baptist identity, but driven by their Baptist DNA! Let’s give them a place to call home.

Fifth, we can reach out to our American Baptist and National Baptist friends. Although their churches may be reluctant to unite with CBF, we can work together in local, state, and national ministries, thus multiplying our efforts. This has already happened in response to Katrina, but do we have to wait for the next natural disaster to find ways to work together?

The CBF movement can grow, but the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now the real work begins!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Abbey, Academy, and Apostolate

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) has written an apology (used in the theological meaning as a “defense”) entitled Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools. His approach is that of “appreciative inquiry,” describing what the schools do best when they are doing that for which they were designed.

One of his most helpful chapters is entitled “The Future of Theological Schools: The Church and Higher Education.” The presentation in this chapter is based on a paradigm articulated by David Tiede, former president of Lutheran Seminary. Tiede argued that theological schools in North America have developed in three phases—abbey, academy, and apostolate. Each is an important part of contemporary theological education. Theological schools were originally founded by denominations as an extension of the church—a place of prayer, study, and preparation for ministry. Over time, theological schools were increasingly influenced by secular education and adopted the attitudes of the academy. They were also concerned about research, learning, and credentialing. The third phase is necessary if the theological schools are to survive and prosper in the present and future. They must embrace an apostolic mission, taking responsibility for helping churches articulate a proactive witness in a secular society.

As the theological schools embrace the third aspect of the paradigm, they have the opportunity to develop new models of formation for Christian ministry. One of these new models involves non-residential programs that offer students the opportunity to prepare for ministry without uprooting their families and turning their lives upside down. Somewhat cautiously Aleshire comments, “There may be patterns of sustained peer and mentor relationships that address the formational goal of residency, but such programs would need to be thoughtfully developed and carefully administered” (page 150) Non-residential programs provide opportunities for students to engage their culture without changing their ministry context, but they must intentionally maintain high standards of accountability, scholarship, and theological reflection. Visionary theological schools will embrace this challenge.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Defining Reality and Saying "Thank You"

The remarks made by Cecil Sherman, former CBF coordinator, at the General Assembly in Memphis have elicited response from two groups. First, there are those who feel that his use of the term Holocaust in referring to the “former unpleasantness” within the Southern Baptist Convention was an overstatement that offends our Jewish friends and diminishes their suffering under the Third Reich. Second, there are those who are tired of hearing about that “former unpleasantness” and want to move on. Whatever I say about Dr. Sherman's remarks will offend someone, but here goes.

I agree with my friend and fellow blogger Danny Chisholm that although “no one was injured or killed” in the SBC turmoil, people did suffer. I personally knew (and know) people who were emotionally hurt, psychologically damaged, and economically harmed as a result of this conflict. Because of them, a new generation of leaders can hope for something better. We have to honor and respect the sacrifice of our founders in some way. If it means giving them a few minutes on the platform from time to time, I can live with it.

On the other hand, I do not voluntarily choose to dwell on the past. As the CBF movement, we should be past the point of defining ourselves in relationship to some other group. I believe we have something valid and viable to offer the Kingdom, so we should be looking forward and not back. The people who concern me most are not elder statesmen like Cecil Sherman, but current leaders who seem to think that we must continue to scratch the scab off an old wound in an effort to justify our existence. If we are depending for the growth of the CBF movement on churches and individuals who are “comparison shopping” between SBC and CBF, we are heading for a fall. As someone said, “When the horse is dead, get off.” We should be more interested in those young leaders who are giving up on Baptists entirely and moving on to other faith communities (many of them non-denominational). How are going to provide vital, creative ministries in which they can be involved? How are we going to encourage them in the ministries that they have discovered on their own?

Should a letter have been sent to Cecil Sherman about his remarks? Yes. Should it have been a press release by CBF communications? No. I think that Matthew 18:15-17 provides a healthy pattern for dealing with conflict in an ecclesial setting. To the best of my knowledge, this pattern was not followed. If I am wrong, please correct me. And since I know everyone who signed the letter, they WILL feel free to let me know if I am wrong!

Max De Pree said that the first job of a leader is to name reality. The second job is to say “Thank you.” When Cecil Sherman was asked to lead the fledgling CBF movement, he defined reality in that time and place and called moderate Baptists to act. Reality is not the same in 2008 as it was in 1990. Our new leaders and developing leaders are wise to define the reality we find ourselves in today, but we can still say “Thank you.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A New Approach to Theological Education

In the fall of 2005, Central Baptist Theological Seminary launched its “Teaching Church” initiative. This initiative is described on the seminary’s website in this way:

A new vision for making theological education more accessible is becoming a reality. Rather than requiring all learners to come to the historic campus in Kansas City for their ministry preparation, Central began offering classes toward degree and certificate programs at four sites - Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma;, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Central is using an apostolate model, which means that theological education will be more itinerant and more closely linked to congregational contexts.

Three years into this effort, two of those sites are alive and well—Milwaukee and Murfreesboro (and the seminary has relocated to a new site in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City). The way that these programs are administered and staffed continues to evolve, but the seminary is remaining true to the vision stated in the last sentence above. This vision has two key components.

First, theological education is brought to the students. Classes are taught by professors from the main campus in Shawnee or qualified adjunct professors from the area where the site is located.

Second, theological education is linked to congregational contexts. The second part is developing as the programs gain confidence and experience. Speaking on behalf of the site at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, all of our students are involved in congregational settings either as pastors, church staff members, or volunteer leaders in the local church. Practitioners from local churches have been guests in various classes addressing subjects such as new church starting, the emergent church, pastoral counseling, and worship. This will be even more evident as we begin offering our first Ministry Praxis (field education) class in the fall.

This “apostolate model” offers “just in time” training for called individuals who are already part of a local congregation. Although some students will seek out special assignments for the ministry praxis course, most will continue to work in settings where they are already invested in ministry. Isn’t this better than having to start from scratch in a setting where one has to learn the culture as well as the “family system” of a new congregation?

The model also offers expanded opportunities for lifelong learners. Several individuals at First Baptist, Murfreesboro, and other congregations have signed up to audit some classes for their own personal edification and Christian formation. This is good not only for them but their congregations as well.

I hope that we will take even more advantage of the congregational resources in Murfreesboro in the coming days as we work together to develop a new model of theological education for the 21st century.