Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mission Accomplished

An American space capsule returned safely to earth today with a major difference—the logo on the side was SpaceX and not NASA.  This was a commercial endeavor in cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Watching the live television feed of the splashdown took me back to the 1960s and the return of American astronauts from orbit. Although the SpaceX Dragon capsule did not carry any astronauts, such an application is a distinct possibility in the future.

Like many others, I was disappointed when the NASA space shuttle program was shut down and the United States no longer could carry personnel or cargo into space and to the International Space Station.  For the first time in 50 years, we no longer had that capability and were dependent on other nations for such accessibility. 

SpaceX is a commercial enterprise and a very ambitious one.  Not only do they seek to resupply the ISS on a regular basis, but they hope to be able to ferry personnel into orbit and have plans for a heavy lift vehicle that could play a role in further space exploration.  This is evidently the wave of the future.

Congratulations to the SpaceX team and best wishes for the future!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Lesson in Dealing with Uncertainty

“Sully” Sullenberger was the pilot who successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009 without the loss of a single life.  He was recently asked this question by Fast Company magazine: “How do you deal with uncertainty?”  You can listen to or read his full response, but I thought that his observations apply to those of us who lead the church, especially through uncertain times.  He talks about “a firm foundation” based on several principles.
First, “we had already built a team . . . in which we had already established well-defined roles and responsibilities.”  The idea of “team” and “well-defined roles” is not a paradox; they go together.  Each team member has something to contribute and is very aware of what that contribution is.  This is something that air crew members knew before the plane headed for the Hudson River.  They did not wait to find their roles until the plane started going down!  Church leaders need to have done their homework before a crisis hits.  They need to be ready to respond, knowing whose strengthens are needed in  order to  accomplish the mission of the church in a time of need  and giving each person the opportunity to exercise those gifts as part of a ministry team.
Second, “the team has been schooled in the consistent application of best practices.”  The crew had learned how to do their jobs and to do them to the highest standard.  They not only practiced their skills but they learned from others.  Church leaders need to be lifelong learners as well, continually observing best practices in all types of churches and learning from both the successes and failures they see.  Once they know what works, they can find ways to apply the best practices in their situation.
Third, all of this “gave us the foundation on which we could improvise.”  The air crew knew their jobs, they did them well, so they were skilled enough to try something that they had never done before.  They trusted each other and found a way to do something new—land in a river!  Church leaders are continually coming upon the unexpected.  The only way to respond effectively to the surprises of ministry is to know yourself, your people, and your context; then you can improvise like a gifted musician or a trained air crew member.
An air crew must be prepared for unexpected challenges because lives are in their hands.  A church ministry team not only has lives in their hands, they are dealing with the future of God’s people.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

American Lion

Jon Meacham, who was born in Chattanooga and graduated from the University of the South, is clearly an admirer of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States and the first to come from the frontier.  American Lion:Andrew Jackson in the White House, Meacham’s 2009 biography of Jackson, is not biased, however, and clearly presents both the virtues and vices of the man who considered himself “the people’s President.”

Americans in the early 18th century were looking for heroes and they found one in the orphaned boy who rose to prominence and influence as a military leader and planter.  Meacham’s theme is that this orphan who never knew his own father and lost his mother at an early age saw himself as a father to the American people.  With no children of his own, he had become a father by adoption to several young people and fulfilled that role to a number of his wife Rachel’s nieces and nephews.  When he became President, he saw himself as the patriarch of a nation that often needed a stern hand to manage its affairs and keep it together. 

Jackson is depicted as a man who stood for the rights of the common citizen but Meacham acknowledges that, at the same time, he accepted slavery (and owned slaves) and that he denied protection to Native Americans.  Jackson killed the National Bank’s monopoly that hampered the nation’s economy and faced down a potential rebellion led by South Carolina, but he was often mercurial in his choice of advisors and did nothing to prevent the Trail of Tears that led to the death of over 4000 Cherokees.

Some of the problems that faced Jackson seem strangely contemporary—a troubled economy, a bank “too big to fail”, challenges from foreign powers, even sexual scandals among his associates.  He seems to be the first President who understood the importance of media and established a newspaper friendly to his causes.

A practicing Episcopalian, Meacham gives particular attention to Jackson’s faith journey.  As a young man, Jackson was exposed to the teachings of the Presbyterian Church and seems to have acquired a great deal of biblical knowledge.  He did not join the church, however, and endeavored to honor the “wall of separation between church and state” during his presidency.  Only after he left the White House did he have a “conversion experience” and acknowledge his adherence to the Christian faith.  To the amazement of many, he lived eight years after leaving the White House.  On his death bed, family and slaves gathered around and heard his testimony and his belief that all of them, including the slaves, would be together in Heaven.

When a visitor came to the Hermitage after Jackson’s death, he asked a slave if he thought that his deceased master was in Heaven.  The slave is said to have responded, “If the General wanted to go to Heaven, who could stop him?”

A complex man, Jackson helped to redefine the Presidency in ways that we now take for granted.  He was a transformative leader because he knew how to be transactional, according to Meacham.  He really was “the people’s President.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Theological Education that Works

I received my first seminary degree 42 years ago this month.  There is much about that experience that I still treasure.  I studied under some excellent professors, made a number of friends that I encountered occasionally in my subsequent years of ministry, acquired some basic knowledge about the Bible and ministry, and learned to be a lifelong learner.  In reality, the last thing was the most enduring gift of my seminary education—I realized that my education was just beginning.

There were some things that were not so great.  Rita and I left family, friends, and ministry roles to relocate to another state.  We moved furniture and belongings over 700 miles. She had to find a teaching job that would help support us during seminary days (I got VA education benefits so I was not a total slacker).  We had to locate a new church where we could serve and be nurtured.
Only some years later did I realize other shortcomings related to my theological education.  Despite the fact that we moved several states away from our home, the student body had little racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity.  All of my professors (with the exception of a female music professor) were white men.  For the most part, I was exposed to only one way of approaching the study of the Bible.  And everyone had to be a certain type of Baptist.

Of course, times have changed, but theological education has only recently started to move away from the model that I experienced.  Two years ago, David Sebastian, dean of the School of Theology at Anderson University, reported five trends shaping the future of theological education in North America:

1.       A widening chasm between Christian churches and seminaries;
2.       Increasing numbers of seminary students who have not grown up in the church;
3.       A growing awareness that seminary education  is inaccessible for many potential seminary students;
4.       An increased questioning of whether seminary is really worth the financial costs; and
5.       Forthcoming population shifts that will affect the ability of seminaries to prepare culturally     competent leaders for the 21st century.

Sebastian is cited in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that reports some of the ways that seminaries, divinity schools, and schools of theology are adapting to these changes in church and culture.  Although the article does not cite Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, this school has embraced some innovative and risky initiatives over the past seven years to assure that it will not only survive but will serve the church more effectively.  In addition to developing teaching sites in other states and ramping up online courses, the seminary has pursued cross cultural programs.  The most recent is a program in Korean contextualized theological studies. Under the direction of Dr. Rock Choi, this initiative is meeting the needs of Korean students for affordable ministerial formation and training in the context of their home communities and for whom study demands emphasis on the Korean language. 

We can be grateful for institutions like Central that have recognized it is no longer 1970 and our churches and culture demand new leaders trained in innovative ways.  Only those seminaries that recognize and embrace these changes will survive and prosper.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Avengers

Although The Avengers has been out for several weeks, I just had the opportunity to take my 13 year old grandson to see it this past weekend.  I must admit that my expectations were low despite all the hype.  This anticipated ensemble piece bringing together Iron Man (Tony Stark), Thor, Captain America (Steve Rogers), the Hulk (Bruce Banner) as well as Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) and Hawkeye (Clint Barton) could have been a disappointment akin to John Carter, but it works.  Thanks to the creativity and vision  of director/writer Josh Whedon and solid performances of all involved  (including an established supporting cast), the movie is everything that a good summer popcorn movie should be—distracting, visually impressive, and entertaining.

The beauty of the film is that Whedon gives each character enough screen time to be personally interesting and adequate action time to show off their individual powers or skills.  He shows what happens when a group “plays well together.” Of course, the fact that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow have been introduced in previous films helps.  We know who they are and the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the ensemble.  There is a need to establish some back story for Hawkeye, and actor Mark Ruffalo is given the opportunity to redeem the Bruce Banner/Hulk character from previous film interpretations, but neither task slows the story at all.

Most of the Avengers were created by Stan Lee and Joe Kirby using the “superhero with a flaw” idea:  these folks may have great powers but they also have problems like the rest of us.  Captain America is the exception.  He was created in 1941 by Kirby and Joe Simon.  Steve Rogers was the original 90 pound weakling who became a real American hero.  In this latest incarnation, Steve has acquired a flaw.  He is the man out of his own time who struggles to make sense of the world in which he finds himself and is gets simple joy out of little things like understanding cultural references (“Flying monkeys!  I get that.”)

There are some nice themes in the movie, especially the bonding of playboy/philanthropist/ inventor Tony Stark and nerdy scientist Bruce Banner, and the manipulative ways of SHIELD commander Nick Fury, but Captain America gets some the best moments.  He is everyman, the outsider, who struggles to understand this mismatched group of heroes and his place among them.  He emerges both as the moral center and the natural leader of a group of people who usually function better as individuals.  His “take control” attitude during the battle in New York City is based on the “can do” attitude that we still expect of our military.  His values and attitudes may be old-fashioned but they serve as the glue that holds the team together.  It is a bit sad, however, to see him alone at the end of the film.  What does the future hold for this solitary hero?

Although Marvel Pictures has made its mistakes (such at the two Hulk movies) in bringing these characters to the screen, someone is doing something right to pull off this film, bringing together all of these disparate characters and leaving none of them shortchanged.    Let’s hope they can continue their winning streak.  See you at the movies!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Does Membership Matter?

In recent years, I have found myself in more than one church planning meeting when the conversation goes something like this:  “How about (insert name) to (serve on this committee, be a Sunday School teacher, etc.)?”  More frequently the reply is, “But that person is not a church member.”  The objection is not based on prejudice but on church policy that requires individuals who fill certain positions in the life of church to be official members of the congregation.  The interesting aspect of this is that other members of the planning group often do not know the person’s status until the person’s name comes up. Because the person is so involved in the life of the church, the others have assumed that they were “official.”  They attend worship and participate as volunteers, their children are involved in church programs, and they may even be financial contributors—but they are not “members.”

To the best of my knowledge, the Bible never addresses church membership.  Perhaps the modern church has been influenced by the American concept of voluntary association in which we, as individuals, choose the groups and organizations of which we will be a part as members.  One unfortunate result of this attitude is that if we can choose to associate, we can also choose to disassociate.  Perhaps this contributes to the migratory nature of many Christians!

The Bible does say a great deal about discipleship.  During a Disciple Development Coaching retreat this week, I was reminded by my friend Mark Tidsworth that the church is called to make disciples rather than members.  The biblical mandate is to grow disciples not to grow the church.  We have often confused the two.

This has significant implications for the contemporary church, no matter the denominational identity.  For example, most young adults and many median adults do not care about church membership. They are more motivated by investing themselves in a dynamic Christian community where they will be nurtured and given the opportunity to serve.   I know of several people whose membership is still in a mainline church, but the only church they ever attend is a nondenominational church.  Their “membership” is in one place, but their participation is elsewhere.  One would hope that the church where they participate is also helping them to grow in discipleship.

As Mark Tidsworth has noted, “The new definition of success [for a church] is not running a good organization but developing disciples.”  The important thing for today’s church is discipleship not membership.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Things Change

In going through some files recently, I came across a church newsletter from April 1976.  It provided an interesting snapshot of this particular church at that time.  This county seat Baptist church in a southern state was averaging over 650 in Sunday morning worship.  What caught my attention was that they had only three full-time staff members!  Today we talk in terms of a church needing one full-time staff member for every 100 worshippers.  The same church today runs about 450 on a Sunday and has the equivalent of six full-time staff ministers.  What changed?

A lot has changed in three and a half decades.  Let me suggest five primary changes that have impacted churches, their staffing expectations, and their effectiveness in mission.

First, society has changed.  In this particular case, what was once a small county seat town is now part of a metropolitan area made up not only of individuals commuting 45 minutes  to an hour to work but of  professionals and blue-collar employees in locally situated medium-sized and even large industries.  Lifestyles have changed and people are busier with more personal and family activities.  The community has a number of dynamic service, educational, and recreational organizations.  Church participation is now just one of many options from which residents can choose.

Second, as a result of the first change, there are fewer volunteers available to lead in programs and those who do are often pulled to other activities as well. The church of 1976 included fathers who worked in the community, stay-at-home mothers, and a strong tradition of volunteer service.  None of those things is true today.  This is not meant to be negative, but it is a fact.  People have more choices of where to invest their time and energy.

Third, the church scene has changed.  Let’s be honest:  there is more competition between churches for members than there was three decades ago.  Although we don’t want to admit it, most churches are growing by transfer growth rather than conversions.  In this particular community, there was one large Baptist church; now there are at least four large Baptist churches with multiple staff ministers.  And the competition is not only between churches of the same denomination.   This community has a number of nondenominational churches that draw people of Baptist background and believers seem more willing to check out other denominations when they seek a church home as well.

Fourth, congregations expect more of their ministers.  Perhaps due to the competition among churches, more is expected of ministers.  In the fast-paced media age in which we live, ministers must not only be competent but extraordinary.  We expect to be “wowed” whenever they speak before the congregation, do leadership training, or initiate a new ministry.  We want specialists in every area of church life—preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, college, young adult, singles, married young adults, median adults, senior adults, and so on.  The stress this creates in the life of a minister is a downside of their service.

Fifth, an accepted church growth strategy is to staff for the growth you want and your church will “grow into it.”  This is not a bad concept, but sometimes a church staffs for numerical growth and the growth doesn’t happen.  Population shifts, emphases change, and the economy tanks.  This results in more staff members than the church can support and unwanted decisions about downsizing.

The primary challenge I would make to churches today is to be realistic about where you are and what you can expect of staff leadership.  Culture, people, needs, and methodologies have changed.  Competent staff members want to address the issues of today and not those of yesterday in order to encourage church health.  At the same time, they cannot do it alone.  Church members must step up and accept responsibilities with the support of these professional staff ministers.  There are some things that staff ministers can do and should do, but the church is made up primarily of lay believers not professionals.  The best staff members are both ministers and equippers, but the church needs those who are willing to be equipped.

Friday, May 04, 2012

What Kind of Baptist are You?

Although some say that we live in a post-denominational age, there is something comfortable and reassuring about identifying not only with a particular denominational “tribe” but a specific “clan” of that tribe.  This is true of those who call themselves Baptists and it may well be of others, but I will confine my remarks to the Baptist tribe because that is where my primary experience lies.
I have found it very interesting to hear members of congregations who want to declare that they are just “one kind of Baptist”—Southern Baptist, Cooperative Baptist, Alliance Baptist, etc.  This is understandable, but I am surprised at their choice of a starting point.  Those motivated to declare that their congregation should related to one particular clan of Baptists begin with their perception of the clan rather than understanding and embracing who they are as a congregation.  

Let me suggest some questions that church members might ask in order to clarify their identity before they choose a group with which to affiliate.

First, what does your church believe about authority?  Is authority centered in a person such as the pastor or in the body of believers under the Lordship of Christ?  In 1 Peter 2:9, we read that the people of God are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  The responsibility for sharing the good news seems to rest in the people of God rather than the pastor of God.

Second, what does your church believe about using the best tools available to understand, interpret, and apply the biblical revelation?  Does your church expect those who stand in the pulpit to have such a high regard for the Bible that they have spent years in preparation to preach and teach?  In 2 Timothy 2:15, we are told, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  This great responsibility requires both openness to God and to a diligent study of the Word of God.

Third, does your church practice the equality of all believers, understanding that God accepts everyone on equal footing?  Do you acknowledge that God calls each person within the community to serve?   According to Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  God’s call to serve is not based on outward attributes but inner giftedness.

Fourth, does your church follow the example of Christ who declared:   “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”?  (Luke 4:18-19)  Does your church care for people even if they do not become members and contribute to improve the “bottom line” of the church budget?

Finally, does your church allow each person to exercise his or her God-given gifts within the life of the congregation?  We read in 1 Corinthians 14 these words:  “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. . . .  There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”  Do you honor each person’s giftedness or allow only certain individuals to use their gifts?

If you understand how your congregation responds to these questions and follows these practices, you may have a better understanding of what kind of Baptist you are.