Thursday, December 29, 2011

Charles M. Roselle

In the spring of 1970 I got on a plane in Nashville to return to Fort Worth after an interview for a position as director of Baptist student ministries at Middle Tennessee State University. I was in my last year of seminary with a wife, small daughter, and a baby on the way.  I had a good visit in Murfreesboro and was impressed by Glenn Yarbrough, the state director of student work for Tennessee, who had invited me to consider the position, and the local committee.  As I boarded the plane, I recognized Charles Roselle, the director of National Student Ministries at the Baptist Sunday School Board.  I had met Charlie once, so I went over and reintroduced myself and asked if I could sit with him. Charlie was not only the director of NSM, but he was the former director of student work in Tennessee (and I could not imagine that I would hold that Tennessee position one day!).  On the way back to Love Field, I “bent his ear” and learned what I could about MTSU and student work in Tennessee.  As I made the decision to accept the position In Tennessee, I considered my time with Charlie a providential affirmation to pursue this opportunity. I thought about this encounter when I learned that Charles had died on Wednesday. 

I liked Charles Roselle.  He had the good sense to not only accept the veterans who flooded the campuses after World War II as leaders, he also encouraged them.  Charles had a warm, accepting style that made him a good BSU director and a great mentor for college students.  His charm and communication skills made him a success as state director in Tennessee.  Most of all, I appreciated the fact that Charlie knew himself—his strengths and where he needed help.  Whenever I think of Roselle, I think of Ed Rollins.  Charlie was a great people person and was in his element meeting with state directors, denominational leaders, and agency heads.  He brought Rollins to NSM to run the day to day operations.  Charlie was “Mr. Outside” and Ed was “Mr. Inside.”  They were a well matched team that trusted and supported one another.

As a new student director, I admired Charles Roselle because he was not only the leader of National Student Ministries but he was a person who had “paid his dues” as a local director and a state director.  He had the good sense to know that he could not “tell” state directors of student work what to do; he encouraged and persuaded them to work on cooperative projects for the common good.  When you talked with him about working with pastors and local committees, you knew that he understood the territory.  As I had the opportunity to do some special assignments for NSM, I came to admire his vision and his political astuteness.  I also admired Charlie as a husband, father, and church leader.  He set a good example for me in all three areas.

After his retirement, I had the opportunity to work with Charlie, Ed Rollins, Joe Webb, and Tom Logue in setting up the BCM/BSU Advancement Fund to benefit collegiate ministry in newer conventions.  Spending time with those guys was always a highlight in my schedule.  They enjoyed teasing each other and reminiscing about the ministry they loved.

In the last several years, I have only seen Charlie a few of times, but he continued to be alert and expressed interest in me, my work, and my family.  He leaves a great legacy.

Thank you, Charles Roselle, for a life well lived.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Strange Way to Save the World

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, our daughter, and I were returning from the memorial service for a friend in east Tennessee.  Stephanie, our daughter, was providing our music from Pandora on her iPhone.  A song came up that I had probably heard before, but the words suddenly got my attention.  “A Strange Way to Save the World” is written from Joseph’s perspective and points out the incongruity of the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem.  Joseph voices his wonder at the strange way that God has chosen to work.  Imagine, God was placing the plan for the salvation of the world in the hands of a teenage girl and a village craftsman!

The song reminds me that our God works in unusual and paradoxical ways more times than we imagine.  So many of us are obsessed with planning and control that we rarely leave time and space for God to intervene in our lives.  Is this because we do not really believe that God might break through the ordinary, mundane things of life?  Are we so satisfied with the way that we are doing things that we don’t think that God can improve on our plans?

As I reflect on my own spiritual walk, the challenge for me is to be more open to the intervention of the Spirit of God into my life.  I am sure that there are many times that I have missed a blessing that God had for me because I was too organized, busy, or self-assured.  I need to leave more space for the Spirit to step in and surprise me!

The lesson of Bethlehem is that God works in simple ways that sometimes seem foolish to us but accomplish God’s purposes.  As the writer of Job noted, “God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; God does great things beyond our understanding.”  (Job 37:5)

As it was then, so should it be today.

Monday, December 12, 2011

In the Name of Jesus

A friend recently shared with me a book written about 20 years ago by Henri Nouwen entitled In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  Nouwen was one of the most prolific and popular spiritual writers of the latter 20th century.  He wrote more than 40 books and taught at Notre Dame, as well as at Yale and Harvard. For the 10 years before his death in 1996, he was part of the L Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, sharing life with people with developmental disabilities.

After his move to this community, Nouwen was asked to address a group of clergy on the subject of leadership.  This little book contains the material he presented as part of that assignment.  The underlying theme for Nouwen was the lessons he had learned in moving from a high-profile academic setting to a chaplaincy role among “the least of these.”

Using the biblical passages on the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11)  and Peter’s call to be a shepherd of God’s people (John 21:15-19), Nouwen identified the three temptations of contemporary Christian leadership, the appropriate response to each, and the spiritual discipline that empowers each the response.

The first temptation is to be relevant. By relevance, he refers to the tendency of many of us today to depend on the findings of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and other disciplines to the point that we say, “We can take care of ourselves.  We don’t need God.”  The response to this is a call to answer Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?”  If we do, we will depend on power in God and not ourselves.  Nouwen states, “Many Christian empire builders have been people unable to give and receive love.” The spiritual discipline undergirding the way of love is contemplative prayer in which we look to God for understanding, acceptance, and guidance.

The second temptation is to be spectacular or popular.  This is the temptation to pursue individualism at the sake of true community.  The response is the task to “feed my sheep.”  We must acknowledge that we need one another and support one another on the Christian journey.  A true servant leader understands that he or she needs the people as much as they need the leader.  The spiritual disciplines involved are confession and forgiveness, necessities for healthy community life.

The third temptation that Nouwen cites is to covet power.  He suggests, “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.”  Perhaps it is easier to BE God that to love God and easier to CONTROL people than to love them.  The challenge is to understand that the true servant leader will find himself or herself led into “unknown, undesirable, and painful places.”  The discipline supporting this is theological reflection.  In using this term, Nouwen calls for a lifestyle based on the Word of God—“a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart.”  He points out that such thinking is hard to find among ministers!

Nouwen summarizes in this way:  “My movement from Harvard to L’Arche made me aware in a new way how much my own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power.”  Instead, God calls Christian leaders to “a life of downward mobility” embodied by prayer, vulnerability, and trust. 

Nouwen’s words challenge is to review our approach to leadership in light of a different standard.  They are more meaningful because of the life and example of the writer himself. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What Really Counts?

I caught the end of an interview with a Tennessee Titans player prior to the game with the New Orleans Saints today.  The interviewer had just asked some question about statistics.  The player’s reply went something like this:  “Look, the Packers are last in defense, but they are 12-0.  Those who are depending on statistics won’t be playing after December.”  In other words, the numbers we often count don’t always determine who is best at the game.

When it comes to the church, we spend a lot of time on statistics—How many were in worship?  What were the contributions?  Are we meeting budget?  These can serve as measures of a church’s progress, but the real danger comes in letting these statistics be the sole determining factors in the choices we make as the people of God.    Too often we are called on to make decisions that protect the “bottom line”—decisions based on what is expedient rather than what is faithful to the mission that God has given us.

I will confess that I have personally made decisions that were expedient.  They seemed right at the time, but as I think back now I realize what I gave up in making those decisions.  Those are the ones that come back to trouble me. On the other hand, when I have occasionally made a decision that was the right thing to do regardless of the consequences, I have not regretted it.  Certainly, decisions based on conviction can have negative results but they are worth it!

So what should we be counting in the local church?  We need to identify, encourage, and keep track of those who are doing meaningful ministry in the community.  We should consider how much money we are investing in ourselves versus what we are investing in larger kingdom projects.  We can take a look at our membership and see if we are unconsciously excluding some who should be part of our fellowship.  We need to find ways to measure spiritual formation and growth in discipleship among our members.  We must be honest in considering how long it has been since we took a stance for the common good that went counter to our community’s prejudices.

These are things that will “keep us in the game” for the long haul.  They are what count in measuring faithfulness.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

“There are always options, Captain.”

I readily admit that I am a fan of Star Trek.  The original series started when I was in Vietnam, so I was not even aware of it until it had been on the air for a season.  When our children were young, we were regular viewers of Trek reruns in the afternoons after I picked them up from school.  Needless to say, my consciousness has been affected (warped?) by favorite characters and quotes.

One quote that has stayed with me was one that Science Officer Spock often told Captain Kirk when the challenge was the greatest:  “There are always options, Captain.”  Although there is a certain optimism in this statement, we must acknowledge that not all options are positive.   For the most part we do have choices whatever our circumstances.  Viktor Frankl, the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, said that he made two choices during his imprisonment—he would do his best to survive and to learn from the experience.  He did not have a choice about being imprisoned, starved, or forced to work as a slave laborer, but he did make a choice that he would not be dehumanized.

Although the choices we make are interior, they impact our behavior and our perception of reality.  One of the greatest gifts that a life coach provides to a client is the encouragement to identify, articulate, and pursue choices.  Clients sometimes need to be reminded that they have the power to make decisions about their own lives. They are competent and responsible persons.  The choices they make determine both long term and short term consequences.  One’s choices today may not show an immediate impact or result, but they do make a difference, changing one’s life over the long term. 

The blessing and the curse of our God-given free will is the opportunity to make choices.  If we make the right choices, we will be blessed and bless others, even in the midst of adversity.  If we make the wrong choices, we accept the consequences and, hopefully, have the chance to learn from them. 

What are the options for you in your current situation?  They are there.  You only need to identify them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Not Business as Usual

Although the church is not a business, there are valuable resources from the business world that can be very helpful to those who lead churches, judicatories, or faith-based organizations.  I welcome the insights of people like Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, and others who provide information and ideas that give us a new perspective on what we are doing as believers.  Of course, any writer, speaker, or leader—secular or sacred—needs to meet the tests of soundness and integrity but people like these often provide us with “best practices” that challenge us to do more.  They call us to do not just the minimum but to be better.

Christians are called to do more than the bare minimum in their lives and kingdom service.  The little book of James is a valuable resource as we consider the criteria by which our lives and ministry should be evaluated.  In James 1:22-25, we find these words:

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do." 

James holds us to a high standard.  In a very few pages, he challenges us to be better than the world.  Because of our relationship with God, we should settle for nothing less than the best in our lives, relationships, and service.

The words of James call the church not just to provide the bare minimum required by law or to follow the “best practices” of the world but to go further and pursue kingdom practices.  We should not only meet the basic personnel policies required by law or match the best standards that effective businesses use but go beyond and adhere to higher standards.

For example, churches and church related ministries ought to have the most progressive personnel policies and benefits available.  We should be in the forefront of providing maternity and paternity leave policies that encourage healthy families.  We should be encouraging our employees (and our members and supporters as well) to follow good health practices.  We should be providing the resources that help our employees do their jobs well and develop their skills.  In short, rather than thinking about the least that we can do to meet the minimum standards, we should be willing to go beyond.

This calls for good stewardship of resources by those in decision-making roles.  It also expects those employed by the church or organization to be wise servants of the ministry.

We serve the One who knows not only our actions but the desires of our hearts.  We have “looked in the mirror” and seen what God requires of us.  We cannot look away and forget what we have been called to show the world—excellence not mediocrity.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Spirituality “R” Us

According to a person who has the opportunity to observe what is going on in theological education across the country, there are an increasing number of students in graduate theological education who haven’t grown up in the church, so they need spiritual formation while in seminary.  I don’t question the need, but I question the premise that those who HAVE grown up in congregations have been spiritually formed.  This is an unwarranted assumption.  Some have and some haven’t.

I spent almost thirty years working with college and university students.  Many came from strong church backgrounds.  They were regular participants in worship services, youth programs, and summer camping programs.  Many were healthy, growing believers, but many had much to unlearn. 

Although most of these young adults had sat through hours of Bible study, they did not know how to study the Bible for themselves.  They knew what their pastor or youth minister believed, but they had never thought through the implications of perceiving, understanding and living biblical truth.  They could parrot beliefs that were not their own, but they did not know how to make up their own minds about spiritual beliefs and practices.  It was not unusual for them to come to the campus minister as the “spiritual expert” to explain things that puzzled them.

Many did not know how to pray.  Certainly, they could pray in public and were willing to do so when asked, but as they approached God their requests were usually superficial and lacked confidence.  They might use beautiful phrases but this only meant they had heard someone else use the words; they had no idea what those words meant as one addressed a Holy God.  They had the form but not the substance.

They also had a lot of unlearning to do about racial equality, the role of men and women in the church, and social justice.  I don’t blame them for this.  They were products of the churches from which they had come. 

The joy of working with college students came from seeing a student question the traditional interpretation of a passage for the first time, expressing a prayer that reflected the deepest longings of the heart, or becoming aware that there were people in the world who needed not only the word of God but the hand of God’s people.  This made the job worthwhile.

In some ways, perhaps it is easier to work with those who have not had a church background!  With those folks, the “unlearning curve” is rather shallow and everything they learn is new and exciting. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

"Perfect Love Drives Out Fear"

This past Friday night Dr. Sally Holt, who teaches Christian ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary Tennessee, arranged for her class in Murfreesboro to meet for dinner with a rabbi who teaches at a local university and the imam of the local mosque. Her purpose was to simply engage everyone in a time of informal dialogue in a non-threatening setting.  She was kind enough to invite me to participate.  The discussion touched on a number of topics, and I came away with many ideas, but two things particularly stimulated my thinking.

First, the imam provided a good insight for our students who will serve local congregations.  He pointed out that their situation is very different from that of ministers just a few years ago.  At one point when a pastor stepped into the pulpit on Sunday morning,  there was a pretty good chance that the congregation was rather homogenous—they probably were born and raised in the local area, most were of the same ethnicity, and few had been exposed to people of other faiths.  The Christian minister of today can expect to speak to people who “are probably not from around here,” who have traveled widely, and may well have grown up in another Christian tradition, a non-Christian faith, or no faith at all.  Such circumstances require a minister who is conversant with other cultures, faiths, and perspectives and is willing to engage the ideas found there. 

This is a good insight.  As we discussed this in class the next day, one student pointed out that in order to engage the “other” we must understand our own faith first and this takes work!  The temptation is to adopt a type of reductionism that distills the major tenets of our faith or that of others into the lowest common denominator.  We seek similarities where there are none and assume that words have the same meaning in different contexts.  This does not facilitate real learning or understanding.  The engagement that the imam called for requires commitment, something that most of us are not willing to make.

The second insight came from the rabbi.  He pointed out that in the Western context, both Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been exposed to academic study, discourse, and deconstruction for a number of years.  They have been examined in light of their original social and cultural contexts as well as their linguistic characteristics.  This has provided us with deeper insights as we pursue the path of ministry in the Jewish and Christian contexts.  He suggested that, as a result of a growing Islamic presence in Western cultures, the same thing will happen with the Islamic community in relation to the Koran and will open up new opportunities for dialogue.

As we consider the future of theological education, perhaps we should be providing more opportunities for interfaith dialogue and discussion about the nature of our authoritative documents.  Such interaction might encourage our Muslim friends to examine and learn more about their book and share it with us.  It might also stimulate us to be more creative in finding ways to communicate our faith commitment to others.

If we honor and respect the integrity of our traditions—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—we might engage in profitable dialogue about the nature of community in our respective traditions, what we each see as authoritative, how our faiths deal with evil and suffering, and so many other topics.  If we are going to effectively minister in this context where God has placed us, such interaction is indispensable.   If we approach with the spirit of I John 4:18 (“perfect love drives out fear”), we have nothing to fear.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Thought Partner

I was in a meeting several years ago with a person who called himself a “thought leader.”  Supposedly, a thought leader is someone who has innovative ideas that offer a new or unusual perspective in a situation. This person may well have fit that description, but I still am not sure I fully understand the concept.

In his new book Growing Agile Leaders, Bob Dale introduced me to the idea of a “thought partner.”  This is a concept that I can understand.  Although in many ways a thought partner serves as a coach for a person, he or she may also slip into the roles of mentor or consultant from time to time. Dale points out that the thought partner not only provides the optimism, encouragement, and feedback of the coach, but he or she has a certain level of expertise or experience that “offsets blind spots and knowledge gaps.”  He suggests that this may also be a prophetic or even mystical role.

Coaches always walk a fine line between coaching and consulting.   Last year I listened in on a panel discussion with three experienced coaches where two of them frankly admitted that they had no reservations about crossing the line and becoming a consultant or mentor if the client’s situation required it.  I must admit that I have done this with one longtime client but only with his permission and with the understanding that the final decision on the action he will take is his and his alone.  He is free to accept, reject, or modify my suggestions or observations.  He welcomes the opportunity for a different perspective from time and time, seeing me as a “partner” in his ministry.

In addition, I am fortunate to be involved in a peer coaching relationship in which the other person and I have become real “thought partners.”  We not only help each other develop personal, spiritual, and professional goals and hold each other accountable in pursuing them, but we freely share resources and ideas as well.  Having a “thought partner” both facilitates and expands the coaching conversation.
Do you have a “thought partner”?  Now might be a good time to identify and work with one to move your life and ministry along some new paths.