Friday, May 30, 2014

Self-Care: A Personal Responsibility

Even though we know how important the appointment is, I have not found a single person who looks forward to an annual physical with his or her personal physician.  Whether male or female, the patient has to provide samples of his or her bodily fluids, submit to a list of personal questions, and endure various indignities at the hands of the doctor.  The physician always does this in a personal and caring manner, but I come away with a sense of relief that the ordeal is over for another year!

I got into the routine of having an annual physical when I was working for a denominational organization that required it.  Despite the inconvenience, I realized that this was a good thing.  The annual meeting with my physician made me review the state of my health, provided a baseline for future treatment, and helped me to set some personal goals for the coming year related to lifestyle. When I changed places of ministry and the annual exam was no longer required, I continued the practice and found that my health insurance was willing to pay for it.

The annual physical examination reminds me that I am the one who is ultimately responsible for my physical health.  I can share observations, ask questions, get advice (and prescriptions) that will help make my life more pleasant, and then take appropriate action.  Do I look forward to it?  No, but it is part of being a responsible person.

Several years ago, I found myself in a situation where I dreaded going to work.  There were a few physical symptoms, but the primary issue was what I would call a “dis-ease” about anything related to my work responsibilities that bordered on apathy.   I chose to enter into a therapeutic relationship with a trained pastoral counselor who helped me to process exactly what was going on.  Some time later when I lost a young grandson to cancer, I again sought that therapeutic relationship so that I could process my grief and return to an appropriate level of functioning.

At various times, I have found myself in situations that convinced me that I needed additional skills or information to be effective in my ministry.  Both formally and informally, I found people who could mentor me to help develop the skills I needed or who would coach me, holding me accountable as I pursued specific goals.

I will admit that in all of these cases, I was initially reluctant to ask for help.  I was concerned about becoming dependent on someone else and a bit afraid that my ministerial status would be harmed if supervisors or colleagues discovered what I was doing.  In all of these cases, seeking assistance was the best thing I could have done in the situation.  My wife was the only person who actively encouraged me to seek help.  We both came to the conclusion that if I did not take the initiative to do something, I was headed to personal and professional crisis.

There are hurting ministers who serve churches, judicatories, and institutions, but no one sees their distress but themselves.  If they had a physical problem, they would make an appointment with a physician, but because the problem emotional, relational, or spiritual, the hurting minister pushes on through and prays for light at the end of the tunnel (and hopes that it is not an approaching train).

Just as we take responsibility for our physical health, ministers must be responsible for their emotional, spiritual, and relational health.  We cannot realistically expect a church, judicatory, or employer to recognize the personal needs of the minister.  Even the most well-intentioned employer may be unaware of the minister’s challenges and needs.  Each minister must learn to monitor himself or herself for signs of distress or “dis-ease.”

Are you in touch with what your life is saying to you?  How is your monitoring system?  When you find yourself stressed out, lacking direction, or frustrated, the only one who knows that some action is required is you.  We are fortunate to have counselors, therapists, and coaches who are ready to come alongside and help in such situations.  I am very thankful for those who have provided that assistance to me. 

Don’t be reluctant to take that first step to self-care. 

This article originally appeared in the Pinnacle Leadership Associates E-Newsletter.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Plan B Works!

Recently  I wrote a blog on bi-vocational ministry that was picked up by ethicsdaily.com.   I received several responses including one from a friend in another state who gave me permission to share his own experience.  We agreed that I would delete specifics to assure anonymity.

A couple of years ago [my wife] lost her job suddenly when our local hospital closed, taking away more than half of our household income and our insurance.  Long story short, she is now working and drawing early retirement and we are doing just fine.  But in the meantime, I got a job as a part-time driver for a motor coach operator, having operated heavy equipment as a teen with my grandfather and driven thousands of miles in a church bus…as most of us have.

Out of the blue about two years ago, a voice just told me to call [name of company] and ask about part-time employment.  I don’t always know what to call “the voice of God,” but it was providential without a doubt.  

My combined salary and expenditures at [name of church] is [specific amount] and has been for 8 years.  I have turned down raise offers until we had our building debt paid off.  And, given our church budget, I still make well above average for our size.  Not complaining.

At any rate, the job with [name of company] has not only supplemented our income, but I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the “real world” (as both our grandfathers would have put it).   I did have to come to terms in my own mind about the truth of my now bivocational status, but it really was a short trip and, frankly, I wouldn’t go back if the church offered to meet the combined salaries of both jobs.

I wish I had discovered earlier the freedom, security and balance that my bi-vocational status gives me.  And, I feel good…and our church leaders feel good…that my financial needs are met without overburdening our church budget.

I want no praise for my story but I told in detail so you can share anonymously with others who might seek your advice/encouragement on these matters.

To them I would say…and saluting OUR mutual past….”Come on in boys and girls!  The water’s FINE!”  

Of course, bi-vocationality is not for everyone, but this is a helpful testimony about one person's experience.  My friend offered to have a personal conversation with anyone considering the bi-vocational option.  If you are interested, please contact me at ircelharrison@gmail.com and I will make the connection.




Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day: Time to Act

Mildred and Ircel Harrison
 with Ircel, Jr., in November 1944
As you might expect on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the worship leader invited all of the veterans and currently serving military personnel in the morning service to stand.  I did not think much about this until my wife mentioned the next day that there weren’t many people standing.

My grandfather was on a ship heading to Europe when the Armistice was declared in World War One.  My Dad served in the Pacific during World War Two.  My Army service included a tour in Vietnam.  My son was planning on military service but an accident prevented him from serving.  Although none of us wanted to go to war, we were not averse to serving our country in the military and even considered it an honor.

War is not what it used to be.  We no longer have a draft.  Those who serve in the military do so voluntarily.  The two World Wars in the last century had a major impact on our country.  In the First World War, Americans took a major role in providing men and materiel for the war in Europe.  In the Second World War, American military forces, industrial production, and economy were totally behind the war effort and played the decisive role in victory.  Many Americans were disenchanted by the Korean War (which some did not even consider a war) and even more reacted adversely in our involvement in Vietnam.

Everyone in America was impacted by the Second World War due to the drafting of their sons, redirected production efforts, and wartime rationing.  Unless your draft number came up or you knew someone who was drafted, you probably were not really impacted by the war in Vietnam.  At most it was an inconvenience.

Although we have been involved in at least three wars in the last 25 years, life has gone on normally for most Americans.  Volunteers—both in the regular military and in reserve units—and their families have shouldered the heavy burden of military conflict.  We have been on a war footing for two and a half decades and most people have not been impacted.  Those most affected are those who serve in the regular armed forces, the reserves, and their friends and families.  They are being subjected to repeated overseas deployments and then thrust back into society with little or no help in adjusting.  This is taking a mental and emotional toll on all involved.

Churches must be better prepared to offer support for veterans and their families.  While the service member is deployed, churches can provide spiritual, emotional, and (sometimes) financial support for families.  When the service member returns, the church can provide a unique form of pastoral care to returning military, their spouses, and their children.  Unfortunately, we have not done a good job of this up to now.

My father and grandfather accepted their call to serve.  I actually chose to serve since I was in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college but largely avoided the trauma of combat.  We adjusted back to civilian life in our own ways.  Our experiences were all different and unlike those who serve today.  In some ways the veterans and active military of today face stresses that are unique to our time and culture.  As Christians, we can no longer ignore those needs.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Unasked Prayer

We fret sometimes over what we called “unanswered” prayer—those things that we take to God but about which we do not seem to obtain any resolution.  I recently came across a passage, however, that prompted me to think about the “unasked” prayers in my life.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable about the host in desperate need who goes to his neighbor at night for help:

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’  And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. (Luke 11:5-8, NIV)

Note that the neighbor responded favorably not because of their relationship or because of the persistence of the supplicant, but because of the “shameless audacity” he showed.  What are the things that we hesitate to take to God and why do we hesitate?  Perhaps we are reluctant because we lack the faith to think that God can handle it.  Or it may be that the problem is the result of our own sin and rebellion, so if we take it to God, we have to admit our own failure.  Or perhaps we are just too self-sufficient (or proud) to admit that we have exhausted all of the alternatives available to us.

I believe a teaching of the parable (if not THE teaching) is that to be really open and vulnerable before God, my prayer must be motivated by “shameless audacity.”  God responds to our prayers not based on our merit, our style of prayer, or our great faith, but because we ask openly and even shamelessly.  Like the writer of the Psalms, we are willing to expose our greatest fears, prejudices, and needs to God because God is always able to handle whatever we bring.

Is there an “unasked prayer’ in your heart today?  What keeps you from taking it to God? 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Growing Your Own Ministers

Rather than going through the process of searching far and wide for a new staff member, many churches are choosing to select someone from within the congregation who exhibits gifts for ministry.  This is nothing new for Baptists, of course.  In the late 19th century, young George W. Truett was headed in a different vocational direction when his church decided that he should be their pastor.  He went on to be one of the leading pastors in Baptist life. This approach is often found in the early Christian churches where leadership evolved from within the fellowship.

There are pros and cons to this approach, and both should be carefully considered before the call is extended to someone who is already part of the congregation.

One can identify a number of factors on the plus side, but let me suggest only a couple.  First, the person is known by the church so other members can attest to the individual’s character, abilities, work ethic, and passion for ministry.  The candidate is a “known quantity”—the church knows what they are getting!  Second, the person already lives in the community and does not have to relocate.  He or she knows the church, the community, and (hopefully) the ministry challenges in both.

There are potential negative factors as well.  What kind of experience and preparation does the person bring the responsibility?  Very often the person has skills that are transferable to the ministry setting, but they may lack biblical and theological background.  Fortunately this can be easily remedied.  Theological schools such as Central Baptist Theological Seminary provide not only satellite centers across the country but also an extensive offering of online classes that are part of a degree program.

Another possible problem area is relationships.  The candidate might have been “just one of the folks” before, but when she or he becomes a ministerial leader, those relationships change as well as the expectations on the part of other church members. Some may envy the fact that the person is now in a leadership role.  Other may expect favored status based on a long established friendship.

The most significant challenge may come if the homegrown minister has to be terminated for incompetence, moral failure, or budget concerns.  If the person has an extensive network of friends or family in the congregation, the stage is set for conflict and division.

Despite potential problems, the trend to “hire from within” is strong and seems to be increasing. Such decisions should be made prayerfully and without haste.  Church leadership and those dealing with personnel issues can increase the possibility of success for such a candidate by clarifying relationships, responsibilities, and opportunities for continuing education as well as providing space for the person to “grow into” the role. 


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Frozen: A Review

The animated film “Frozen” is a hit with our younger grandchildren.  We have both the DVD of the movie and the CD of the sound track, so even the little guys—ages 3 and 5—know all the words to the songs. 

I recently saw this comment on Facebook:  “Have I seen Frozen?  No.  It is just a children's movie.”  I disagree.  Just as fairy tales are not just for children but address universal themes of life, “Frozen” is an interesting story that provides the platform to consider topics like guilt, responsibility, selfless love, and life choices.

The screenplay evolved as all good stories do, often taking on a life of its own as the characters and their motivations became clearer. In interviews about the movie, the creators--especially song writing team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez--explain how the direction of the film changed as new and significant themes emerged.  They started in one direction and ended up somewhere else, certainly a characteristic of good story-telling.

As I have had the opportunity to hear the opening song “Frozen Heart” several times (I have stopped counting), I have come to understand that it foreshadows the key themes of the film—the beauty and danger of ice (the created order) as well as the tension between love and fear (the human condition).  Here are the words:

Men :
Born of cold and winter air
and mountain rain combining.
This icy force both foul and fair
has a frozen heart worth mining.

So cut through the heart, cold and clear.
Strike for love and strike for fear.
See the beauty, sharp and sheer
Split the ice apart
And break the frozen heart

Hup! Ho!
Watch your step!
Let it go!

Hup! Ho!
Watch your step!
Let it go!

Man 1:
Beautiful!

Man 2 :
Powerful!

Man 3:
Dangerous!

Man 1 :
Cold!

Ice has a magic,
can't be controlled.
Stronger than one, stronger than ten,
stronger than a hundred men! Ho!

Born of cold and winter air
and mountain rain combining.
This icy force both foul and fair
has a frozen heart worth mining.

Cut through the heart, cold and clear.
Strike for love and strike for fear.
There's beauty and there's danger here
Split the ice apart
Beware the frozen heart...

The “frozen heart” that resists the love of another is the danger that all of us experience at one time or another.  In his parables, Jesus often challenged his hearers to consider both where their hearts were (what they were devoted to) and who they would be willing to give their hearts to.  His teaching was intended to lead them to place their hearts in the hands of a God who only wanted the best for them.  When our hearts are frozen or hidden away, we cannot give them to God.  God’s message calls for the melting of the frozen heart so that it can be given to God.

Is “Frozen” a Christian film?  No, but the themes it evokes urge us to God-centered conversations with our children.  Take advantage of the opportunity.



Thursday, May 15, 2014

What’s Your Plan B?

My grandfather adhered to the position that the pastor of a Baptist church should preach on Sunday and “have a real job” the rest of the week.  He was proud of me when I became a minister, but I am not sure that he every accommodated himself to the fact that I was paid a full-time wage as a campus minister and did not “have a real job.”

In almost four decades as a minister, I was fortunate to be able to pursue my calling while being compensated by various configurations of Baptists—primarily through state organizations of churches.  So I expect some criticism when I suggest that those who follow the call to ministry in the future must plan to have alternative means of supporting themselves and their families.

There are several reasons for this challenge:  First, Christians are not financially supporting their churches as they once did.  Second, mainline churches are dealing with high maintenance expenses for aging buildings and have to make difficult choices about the allocation of declining gifts (see first item above).  Third, many believers are motivated for mission outside the walls of the church and want financial resources invested there.  Fourth, because of the inflexibility of some churches, the most creative ministry is going to be done without congregational sanction and, therefore, without congregational financial support.

For those who will say that I lack faith and God will provide, I must respond that I have a strong faith in God and a commitment to God’s calling in my life.  If I am indeed called by God, I will pursue that calling whether I am paid for it or not.  If I have to earn my support elsewhere, I might not devote as much time to ministry, but I will still do it.  Calling is not about compensation.

Let’s be honest—this is nothing new.  In some states, over 50 percent of Baptist pastors are bivocational.  These individuals serve local congregations and have full-time secular jobs.  Without this kind of commitment on the part of their pastors, many smaller congregations would have closed their doors years ago.  The trend to bivocational ministers is growing in other denominations, primarily because congregations declining in membership do not have the resources to employ a full-time pastor.

Why do we resist this approach?  Churches that have had full-time pastors fear a loss of prestige and a fear that this acknowledges that they will never again be seen as a “healthy, growing congregation.”  Ministers resist it because they know that this is not the best case scenario and that the expectations of church members do not abate when their minister is part-time.  The comment that “there are no part-time jobs, only part-time salaries” certainly applies.  Many also fear the loss of status as a “professional.”

What are the advantages?  For the church, limited resources can be allocated in other ways, and they are assured of ongoing pastoral leadership.  For the minister, there are also advantages—benefit packages from secular jobs (depending on the place of employment, of course), adequate family support, a longer tenure in one congregation, and perhaps a bit more independence in the pulpit.

For those preparing for ministry, now is the time to think about additional means of supporting yourself financially.  This may be teaching either part-time or full-time at the elementary, secondary, or college level.  The choice may be to develop skills in the digital domain such as web design or internet-based business.  For others, it may be in the creative area as a writer, musician, or craftsperson using one’s mind and hands. 

What is your “plan B”?  If you had to find another way to support you and your family today and still pursue your ministerial calling, what would it be?  Although this is not a comfortable question to ask or to answer, the question is crucial for those called to ministry in the 21st century.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The New Principles of Leadership

In a recent blog post, Daniel Burrus points out that effective leaders must not only be agile in navigating a changing context, but they must be anticipatory as well, perceiving what’s ahead before it is clearly manifested.  He suggests that such a leader must create change and drive disruption “from the inside-out rather than being disrupted from the outside-in.”

Ministry leaders are not very good at this approach.  We tend to be reactive rather than proactive, and we want to prevent any disruption in churches and not-for-profit organizations because it is hard to control.  The status quo always appears safe until it is no longer!

Burrus suggests three principles for anticipatory leadership.  How might these apply in a religious setting?

First, make the future more visible by identifying the changes that are common and those that are uncommon.  Burrus states that there are two types of change—cyclical change and linear change.  There are clear cycles even in church life.  We can expect giving to pick up at the end of the calendar year as folks “catch up” on their tax-deductible contributions.  There are rather clear attendance trends based on holidays, school vacations, and other calendared events. We can plan for those upturns and downturns.  Linear changes, however, are those events, processes, or discoveries that change the playing field.  Digital communications is one of those.  Once you launch a church website, you will not go back and will be required to continue to improve it if you want people to access it.   Which type of change are you addressing in your church?

Second, “identify the Hard Trends—the trends that will happen—and ask yourself, ‘What are the disruptions on the horizon?’”  What are the changes on the horizon that the church must anticipate?  The choice is to sit back and wait to see what happens or be perceptive and become what Burrus calls “preactive,” taking positive action before something happens.
For example, if property around your church is being purchased by a real estate development company, what does that mean?  What are they planning to build—commercial buildings, homes for seniors, or condos for professional young adults?  This may help your church to decide what your ministry emphases will be in the coming years, assess your capabilities, and decide if the Spirit of God is leading you to begin new types of ministry for the area.

Third, Burrus suggests “look outside your industry for the solutions you need.” How are the merchants in your area adapting to the changes in the neighborhood?  How is the city government or educational institutions addressing change?  Are there technological or logistical approaches that might help us to do more with the resources we have?  Although we are involved in building up the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot by talking with and observing people in other areas of life.

I am convinced that many dying churches and not-for-profit organizations could have survived and prospered in a changed environment if they had been more “preactive” in the ways that Burrus outlines.  Leadership to do this, however, is never easy.