Thursday, February 27, 2014

Not to Be Served but to Serve

The system really did work well.  The approach used by denominations in the mid-20th century facilitated growth, ministry, attendance, and contributions.  The vertically and horizontally integrated model assured that all of the denomination’s far-flung ministries would be promoted in Sunday school and disciple development literature, there would be common standards for all types of church programming, and  all cooperating churches would be on the same page when it came to denominational life (at least in theory).  Then it fell apart.

Why did it collapse in on itself?  A complete answer would require an extensive sociological study, but the truth is that the culture changed on both sides of the coin.  Churches were no longer willing to accept a “one size fits all” approach.  Judicatories increasingly saw their role as quality control, not only in programming but in doctrinal belief as well.  The cooperative effort was always a house of cards, and it began to fall apart.  This was not true just for Baptists, but Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others as well.

I think we are now at the point of actually practicing what we as Baptists have always talked about—congregational autonomy.  Each congregation must be what God has called it to be, not what the judicatory wants it to be. God has called each congregation in a special way based on its location, people, resources, and perception of the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Once they have discerned the call, the church seeks out partners to help accomplish the missio Dei—the mission of God.

This is a “bottom up” or grass roots approach that calls for judicatories to serve rather than be served.  Denominations will survive and prosper only as they provide the resources that congregations require and do so in a timely and egalitarian manner.  Churches today are not looking for supervisors or quality control specialists but genuine partners in ministry.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From Hostility to Hospitality

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro
No matter where you live, you have probably heard about the controversy about the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.  Certain dissatisfied citizens continue to protest the county’s granting a building permit to the new mosque although it has now been occupied over a year and several courts have ruled against the plaintiffs, who now want to take their case to U. S. Supreme Court.

On the larger stage, many Christian leaders in our country are considering ways to ministry in what may be the most religiously diverse nation in the world.  Christians are increasingly called to exercise our pastoral practices in a context that requires understanding of faith traditions other than our own.

Three years ago, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, the Association of Theological Schools provided grants to 18 theological schools to help prepare their graduates to serve faithfully in a multi-faith environment. The projects funded by the Christian Hospitality and Pastoral Practices in a Multi-faith Society (CHAPP) project are available online. 

The thrust of these projects was not to compromise the Christian faith or “water down the Gospel.”  In most cases the first step was to help theological students understand their own faith commitment better.  In the words of Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Faith must proceed interfaith.”  A person must have a firm grasp of his or her own tradition before entering into dialogue or cooperation with those of another faith tradition.

What is the value of a Christian minister knowing how to function in a multi-faith context?  Let me suggest several possibilities.

First, we can enrich our understanding of our own faith tradition by considering how others see us.  As we attempt to overcome the stereotypes that others have of us, we find new ways to interpret what is vital to us.

Second, as we learn to appreciate the faith tradition of another person, we come to see that person not as the “other” but as a multidimensional human being with many of the same questions, concerns, and values that we have.

Third, we can find areas of mutual concern where we might work together without abandoning our own convictions.  You do not have to give up your faith to work with others on matters of civic or social concern.  We all want things like better schools, less poverty, and healthy families no matter what faith we practice.

Fourth, we can learn how to effectively share resources or space. The resources allocated to ministries such as institutional chaplaincy are limited and becoming more so.  We must learn how to “share space” with other faith traditions while respecting our mutual commitments.

The effective Christian minister in 21st century America must have the skills to function in a multi-cultural, multi-faith environment.  This is not only a reality but an opportunity.

Finding a Mentor

Mentor was the friend to whom Ulysses entrusted his son, Telemachus, when he went off to the Trojan War.  We use the term “mentor” now for any trusted advisor, especially an older person who trains and guides a younger person.  The person guided by the mentor is often called a mentee or sometimes an apprentice but I think protégé is a better term.

I have benefitted from a number of mentors in my life.  Most of these were on an informal basis; others were supervisors who guided my work.  On a couple of occasions, I purposely sought out a person to be my mentor in a particular area of expertise.  They agreed to share information, suggestions, and life experiences with me.

Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “There are two ways to acquire wisdom: you can either buy it or borrow it.  By buying it, you pay full price in terms of time and cost to learn the lessons you need to learn. By borrowing it, you go to those men and women who have already paid the price to learn the lessons and get their wisdom from them.”  I have been fortunate to have “borrowed” the experience of some gifted men and women.  In so doing, I have saved myself a great deal of time and disappointment.

Who do you choose to learn from?  Someone wrote, “Show me your mentors and I will show you yourself.”  Those people we spend our time with have great influence on our lives, especially if they are people of experience.  Therefore, we should choose our mentors carefully.  We tend to become like those whose influence we value.

Who have been your mentors?  Is there someone you should seek out to mentor you in a particular part of your life and ministry? Choose wisely but don’t be afraid to reach out to someone.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Living Online

Several years, I made the decision to put more of my digital life online. A primary reason was to be able to access material from different devices and not be dependent on one machine that might crash without warning!  This began with using a web-based e-mail program, Gmail.  As I changed over to a new iPad Air tablet this weekend, I was reminded how much of my personal and work life I have put online. 

I regularly use social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn both to keep in touch with friends and to share my work with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and Central Baptist Theological Seminary.  I was a late adopter on Twitter but I have found it to be a great way to share ideas and resources with others.

There are a number of online tools that have made my life easier:  Google calendar,  Google Maps, Slideshark, SlideShare, Moodle, Dropbox, Evernote, Doodle, MindMeister, YouTube, Vimeo,  and SurveyMonkey.  These sites help keep me organized, store resources such as files and video clips for easy accessibility, and provide creative ways to connect people and ideas.  I especially recommend three:  Dropbox, an online file storage and sharing site; SlideShark, a way to store PowerPoint presentations online and download to any device; and Doodle, a tool to schedule meetings with busy people.

My online communication is facilitated by Gmail, Blogspot, WordPress, Skype,, and GoToMeeting.  I have tried several online videoconferencing platforms and GoToMeeting has been the most dependable so far, but I am always open to recommendations!

My entertainment sites include Amazon, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Pandora,, and  I have just started using Audible.com as a source for audio books and have enjoyed it.

I try to use as much as I can that is free, but I have signed up for paid levels on some sites.  Of course, there are other online sites that I access regularly, and I have probably missed some.  What are your favorite and most useful sites?  I would be interested to hear from you.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Education for Ministry

For the last several years, I have found myself interacting with both the theological students and theological educators.  Although I am a seminary graduate and have been involved in higher education ministry for a major part of my life, this is not something for which I was been intentionally trained.   Even so, I have found myself deeply immersed in theological education and dealing with some of the challenges it must address today.

Much has been written about what is needed to train a new cadre of ministers—both young adults and mid-career people--but I might as well add my own two cents worth.   I do this not as an expert in the field but as a minister who loves the church and has been encouraging and equipping its potential leaders for most of my life.  It seems that there are four major components that are necessary to form men and women to serve the church today.

First, seminary students need to be guided in spiritual formation.  They need to know how to “feed themselves” and relate to their Creator.  We once assumed that students came to seminary knowing how to pray, spend time in fellowship with God, and meditate on scripture.  We were wrong then, and we certainly cannot expect these skills from students—especially young adults—coming from a postmodern, post-Christendom society.  Students need to learn and practice spiritual disciplines that will help them to grow as disciples.

Second, theological formation must still be a primary focus in a seminary student’s education.  He or she must be exposed to the best of biblical and theological scholarship in order to mine the riches of the Christian faith.  Although we must become more involved in interfaith work if we are to do effective ministry in the 21st century, the Christian student must first understand his or her own tradition before entering into dialogue with proponents of other faiths.

Third, students must understand the contextual nature of ministry.  Students need to know the history of the Christian tradition and the shifting paradigms out of which the church has witnessed and served.  “We have always done it this way” is neither a correct nor an informed perspective when it comes to the work of the church.  Ministry is always contextual, so the well-equipped minister must acquire historical and anthropological skills.

Fourth, contemporary ministers need to have excellent skills in communication.  In our 24/7 media world, the only way that the Gospel will get a hearing is by being communicated effectively through spoken word, written word, and the visual arts--both in person and virtually.  Effective ministers need to be excellent story-tellers using all of the media at their disposal.

Finally, ministers in training must be involved in formation through praxis—involvement in the work of the local church, judicatories, and service organizations.  They need to be doing the work of ministry in partnership with trained mentors and coaches who can help them understand what they are experiencing and build their ministry identities on those experiences.

Seminaries, divinity schools, and other theological institutions are creating, implementing and learning from new models and strategies to prepare students to serve Christ and the church, but these five areas—spiritual formation, theological formation, contextual formation, communication formation and ministry praxis formation—are essential to that process.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia: A Review

David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia was both visually engaging and emotionally compelling as it told the story of T. E. Lawrence, the young British military officer who played a pivotal role in the Middle East during World War I.  In the book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of theModern Middle East, author Scott Anderson both demythologizes Lawrence and attempts to place his actions within the larger context of history.

In order to do this, Anderson weaves Lawrence’s story with those of three spies from the era--German Curt Prüfer, American – and Standard Oil employee – William Yale, and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn.  Each sought not only to further the goals of their countries but their own ambitions as well.  The result is complex, interesting, and informative, and helps us to understand how we ended up with the Middle Eastern quagmire of today.

In many ways, this wartime period was a much simpler time when men in their twenties rose rapidly to places of immense influence and power.  There was an almost naïve simplicity that extolled manly virtues and heroic deeds that seem a bit ridiculous in light of the warfare of today. Even the spycraft seems simplistic and unpretentious in light of modern methodologies. 

All of this is played out against a background of trench warfare and frontal assaults that claimed millions of lives on both sides.  We are repelled by the tragic indifference to human life.  On the other hand, there is something a bit ridiculous about the major colonial powers of Europe dividing up their spoils of war in the Middle East with little understanding of the powerful forces at work there. 

All of the men portrayed were heroic in their own way, but each ended up as a tragic failure.  Lawrence himself carried an immense emotional burden for what he had done for King and country.  He refused a knighthood and changed his identity more than once to escape his public notoriety and died at the age of 46 as the result of a traffic accident.
Lawrence in Arabia is history as tragedy.  One comes away with a certain feeling of loss for what might have been.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Coaching Across Cultures

In a Doctor of Ministry seminar recently, I addressed one particular topic for the first time—coaching across cultures.  With the increasing interest in multi-culturalism, cross-cultural communication, and globalization, professional life coaches are asking if their processes translate well into other cultures.  One reason that I raised the issue was that the majority of the class members were Korean-speaking listening through simultaneous translation!

Our culture molds us in significant but often subtle ways.  As we coach people from another culture or teach coaching principles to individuals from a non-Western cultural background, we must be sensitive to varying concepts such as time, authority, and communication styles. 

In his book Coaching Across Cultures:  New Tools for Leveraging National, Corporate & Professional Differences, Philippe Rosinski identifies a number of cultural orientations that must be considered in a coaching relationship:
  • Sense of Power and Responsibility
  • Time Management Approaches.
  • Definitions of Identity and Purpose
  • Organizational Arrangements
  • Notions of Territory and Boundaries
  • Communication Patterns
  • Modes of Thinking

 Although I continue to wrestle with Rosinski’s work and its implications, I am reminded of a comment from my friend Bryan Pettet that all coaching is really cross-cultural.  If you are African-American from inner city Philadelphia and I am a white male from the rural South, we are coming from different cultures.  We don’t necessarily speak the same language.

We must always listen carefully to the person being coached, ask for clarification when necessary, and deal with what is important to that person.  The work of Rosinski and others can help us in that process.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hearing Other Voices

Our church participated in the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching this morning with Dayna Thompson Schoonmaker as our preacher.  She brought a thoughtful and challenging message on Luke 7:11-17. Dayna is the wife of our pastor, Noel, but is also a graduate of Wake Forest Divinity School who knows how to handle herself in the pulpit.  Her presence and preparation came across strongly in the message.

Dayna is not the first woman to preach in our pulpit this year, but I am always happy when we have a woman preacher.  Hearing the Word from a woman’s perspective is always a bit different and, since over half of congregation is female, long overdue.

At the same time, having women preach is a testimony to our children and youth, both male and female, that God’s call is not limited.  Women serve in our church as deacons, committee chairs, Sunday school director, and a number of other positions. Some of the roles filled by women are rather traditional but others are not.  My conviction is that no role should be denied to a person because of gender.

As women preach, teach, and lead in the church, we are fulfilling the vision that Peter shared in quoting the prophet Joel in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:

“In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.”  (Acts 2:17-18, NIV)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Four Student Misconceptions about Learning

This week I put on my adjunct faculty hat to teach a Doctor of Ministry seminar for Central Baptist Theological Seminary, so I have thinking about the entire process of learning.  In a recent blog, Maryellen Weimer wrote about four student misconceptions about learning and prompted me to reflect on the learning process as I observe and experience it.

The first misconception that Weimer suggests is that learning is fast.  In order to understand a subject, a student must have a good foundation and a perceptual framework.  This does not happen overnight.  A good student spends time developing the tools, perception, and information that will allow real learning.  (See more about “discipline” below.)

Second, knowledge is composed of isolated facts.  We do not live our lives in silos.  Although academia would have us think that disciplines can be neatly divided into recognizable categories, life is messy, interconnected, and surprising.  The greatest insights come when people from different disciplines interact with one another.  This allows new perspectives to be applied and new solutions to a problem to emerge.  We need more dialogue between disciplines rather than less.

Third, there is the misconception that being good at a subject is a matter of inborn talent rather than hard work.  Although individuals may have inherent gifts that allow them to easily embrace a discipline, if they want to get really good at it, they will have to work at it.  (That’s why it is called a discipline!) Even those without inherent gifts can learn to perform acceptably in a field if they are willing to invest themselves in it.

Fourth, “I’m really good at multi-tasking, especially during class or studying.”  If only this were true!  Recent studies show that most of think we are better at “multi-tasking” that we actually are.  Certainly, one can listen to music and read or exercise and listen, but real comprehension requires focus.

Learning is a challenging opportunity that requires our best, but it can be fun and life-transforming if done well.