Monday, February 23, 2015

The God who Surprises

One of my favorite writers on the church and faith in the 21st century is Tom Ehrich.  In a recent post in his On the Road series, Ehrich wrote this:

"The longer I study Scripture, wrestle with ethical issues, write about God, and pray to God, the more I realize that God is a wild one. Not the least predictable or controllable. Not the steady rock I have wanted God to be, but a wild-flowing stream that carries me along to the life God wants me to live. Sometimes I cling to a passing tree, or make landfall and think I have arrived, or buy a big boat to master the current. But the river flows on, and all of my efforts to make it manageable and pleasant don't deter God from doing what God wants to do."

These prophetic words speak to me as an individual as a member of the body of Christ.
I discovered several years ago that God will not allow me to become comfortable.  In my late forties and early fifties, I experienced what I refer to as “the decade from Hell.”  During this period, my wife’s mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease,   my father died of heart failure, my mother began a long period of treatment for cancer, our preschool grandson passed away after a two year struggle with cancer, and I was involved in a ministry that was both challenging and frustrating.   God did not take all of this away but God walked with us during this period. I learned many things during this time.  One was that I should celebrate every day of life.  I also learned that any illusion that I was in control was a myth.

Our God is the god of wilderness, journey, exile, loss, crucifixion, and rebirth.  In our own lives and in the testimony of scripture, we come to understand that God does not always deliver us immediately from strife and depression, but God does bring renewal and new hope on the other side.  God calls us to endure, listen, and learn for the next stage of the journey.

When we are faithful on this journey, God often surprises us.  God provides new and productive paths of life and service.  Despite all of my planning and preparation, I did not foresee where I would be almost seven years into “retirement.”  I have the opportunity coach clergy and consult with congregations through Pinnacle Leadership Associates.  I am teaching students at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and consulting with faculty and administration on creative ways to form ministers.  Who would have thought that the odd assemblage of gifts, training, and experiences of my life would have fitted me for what I am doing now?  Evidently, God did.

As a part of the body of Christ, the unpredictability of God reminds me again of the precarious nature of “strategic planning” for a congregation.  A church needs to embrace its mission and have a vision for where God is leading it, but the plans and procedures must be held lightly for God continues to surprise with new challenges and possibilities.  Rather than codify each step in the church’s anticipated future, a congregation would do well to discover and develop the resources—spiritual, personal, financial, and physical—that God has provided and respond tactically to the changes that are happening all around it. 

In so doing, the church will be like the people of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:32,  NRSV).  This requires a combination of perception, preparation, and faithfulness.  First, we must be sensitive to our context. Second, we must be aware of and be good stewards of what God has put in our hands.  Third, we must be willing to act at the appropriate time.

The one certainty is that God will open doors at the most unexpected time.  Will we be willing to step through?

Not Everybody can be Steve Jobs

(This blog originally appeared on August 31, 2011.  Jobs passed away five weeks later.  This is reposted on the occasion of his birthday--February 24.  There is much to admire as well as regret about his life, but his influence on our culture is undeniable.)

Unless you have been on a mission trip to Mongolia or experiencing power failures from hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornadoes, you have heard that Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple due to health issues.  Many articles extol his virtues as a visionary and speculate on the future of one of the world’s richest companies with his leadership.  There will undoubtedly be a new round of books on “The Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.”

I am a late convert to the Apple faith.  I began to give in a bit when I purchased an iPod several years ago and enjoyed its flexibility and portability.  The iPad may have pushed me over the edge.  A generous donor recently provided the funds to purchase iPads for Central Seminary faculty, and I am afraid that I have become an enthusiast.  I would not be surprised if an iPhone is not in my immediate future and even an Apple computer somewhere down the road.

But back to the wizard of Apple.  Steve Jobs is a unique individual.  Many seek to learn from him, but most of us do not have the emotional or psychological makeup to be him.  By most accounts, Jobs can be mean, abusive, driven, and irrational—typical words associated with genius along with creative and innovative.  If you have the patience to put up with some one with these characteristics, you will reap great rewards but most of us would rather observe at a distance.  I do think that there are some things we can learn from Jobs.

First, recognize when someone else has a good idea and run with it.  Jobs and Apple did not create the computer mouse, pod casting, or the touch screen but they recognized their value and integrated these innovations into their products.  Just because we didn’t create something doesn’t mean we can’t adopt it or adapt it for our situation.

Second, hire good people.  Although he could be alternatively critical and complimentary, Jobs found good people for his team and challenged them to be better.  We might not adopt the extreme measures that he used, but we can surround ourselves with good folks, listen to them, and encourage them to do good work.

Third, trust your gut feelings.  Jobs typically eschewed market research and focus groups and gave the public what he thought they needed.  And it worked (most of the time)!  Apple has had great successes, but it has also experienced its flops.  Sometimes we do need to go with our instincts, but we must be prepared to fail with grace when something does not work

Fourth, don’t be afraid to let go of a success to move to on to something better.  The iPhone killed the iPod for all practical purposes.  The iPod became an application for the iPhone and the iPad.  Although iPods are still on the market, but they certainly don’t sell like they once did.  Jobs saw something better and moved on even if it meant wounding a profitable product.  Letting go of the familiar and reaching out to the unknown is a real test of leadership.

Will there be another Steve Jobs?  Probably not.  But one certainly shook things up for the rest of us.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Do Baptist Ministers have Ethical Boundaries?

I was serving as interim pastor of a small congregation and working with their search committee as they sought a new pastor.  The committee asked me to make some contacts related to one particular candidate.  I made several phone calls and discovered a disturbing pattern.  The pastor in question had a reputation of borrowing money from lay leaders in a congregation and then moving on, failing to repay the indebtedness.  Although the candidate was an effective preacher and seemed to have pastoral ministry skills, this raised some red flags for me and the search committee when they received my report.

This is one of those ethical areas that are rarely touched in seminary or when groups of ministers gather to talk.  There are certain boundary issues—such as money, relationships, and time management—that are often overlooked in ministerial training. Although some denominational groups have codes of ethics that address such concerns, Baptists—being congregational in polity—often fail to address these concerns.

Why do otherwise good and effective leaders ignore common sense and fail to observe boundaries?  I think we often rationalize our actions with internal arguments that justify our actions or seem sound at the moment.  We succumb to our own hubris despite our better intentions.

For example, a minister may say, “I have been called by God to accomplish a mission, so it is acceptable if I cut some corners.” This false sense of entitlement may lead to charging expenses to the church for personal items, accepting large gifts from church members, or using church resources for personal projects.  The minister argues that I am on “a mission for God,” so I have some latitude in these cases.

Sometimes a minister ignores boundaries out of fear of not being able to satisfy everyone in the congregation.  This sense of Insecurity or inadequacy leads the minister to seek validation in places that should be “off limits.”  This results in sexual impropriety, manipulating others to one’ own ends, and lying to cover one’s actions.

There are occasions when ministers justify their ethical shortcuts as an effort to provide proper support for their families.  Certainly one wants to be a responsible spouse and parent, but the end does not justify the means and can bring shame to all involved.

How can a minister avoid these transgressions? 

First of all, find a group of ministers where you can be transparent about your struggles.  Very often, a pastor benefits more from being part of an interdenominational group rather than one made up of members of his or her denomination.  Internal politics in the denomination may inhibit honesty and openness.  If such a group is not available, seek out a pastoral counselor or therapist for regular meetings.

Second, learn to be transparent with your spouse about your struggles. Although you cannot expect your spouse to fulfill all of your emotional needs, you owe it to your partner to share the challenges you face.

Third, have a clear understanding with staff and lay leaders in the church about how potentially compromising situations will be addressed.  Who handles the money in the church and who approves payments?  There should be clear, written procedures in place with oversight over everyone involved including the pastoral staff.  When and where will the pastor or other staff meet or counsel with lay leaders?  If these sessions do not take place in the church office, are they in a public place or is there someone else present in the house if it is a home visit?  As trivial as such guidelines may seem, they exist to protect all who are involved.

Can a person who wishes to transgress get around these guidelines?  Of course, but all of us benefit from these reminders that we have limits in our lives and ministries.  Good boundaries protect us rather than restrict us.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Living in a World of Diversity

Many challenges face the church today but one of the most significant is our ability to live, function, and minister in a world that is increasingly diverse.  Perhaps the issue is not that the world is more diverse but that this diversity has become part of our everyday lives.

More than ever before the world is at our doorstep.  This is due not only to the internet and 24/7 news, but the increasing mobility of people.  Not only is business routinely conducted across borders but individuals and families from many cultures now live in our communities. When I attend a school function for one of my grandchildren, I see not only people of European ancestry and African-Americans, but Hispanics and Asians from various countries.

How will the church address this diversity while pursuing its mission?

First, each congregation must become aware of the challenge of interacting with people “who are not like us.”  This past Sunday my pastor, Noel Schoonmaker, preached a prophetic sermon on “Transgressive Relationships.”  He not only encouraged church members to step outside their comfort zones to interact with people who differ in ethnicity, beliefs, and values but shared his own experiences of doing this.  Congregational members need both the vulnerability and the confidence to initiate conversations with those who are not like them in order for meaningful dialogue to result.

Second, Christian churches must find ways to work alongside people from other faith traditions for the enrichment of our communities.  The Urban Mission Institute led by Wallace Hartsfield in Kansas City is open to adherents of all faiths.  Whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Hindu, there is a shared desire to improve one’s community—to care for the poor, aid the homeless, feed the hungry, and assure peace and justice for all.  This will only happen when people of every faith—or no faith—join together in common cause.

Third, on the national level we are rapidly moving toward the point where there will be no ethnic majority.  There will be a number of minority people groups sharing in the life and governance of the nation.  This will not be an easy transition for many in leadership.  For denominations, leadership will have to be more diverse.  For national government, political leaders will have to move beyond appealing to prejudice and self-interest in order to accomplish what is best for the nation.  Many of our present leaders will not be able to do this and will fall by the wayside.

Fourth, we live in a world where many religions thrive outside of North America and Europe.  For some time, the Christian church has grown most rapidly in South America, Africa, and Asia.  Each of these non-Western churches brings its own perspective to the faith.  A number are laboring in cultures where they are still the minority and are often restricted and persecuted.  How do we stand with them without attempting to dominate the conversation?  Dr. Molly Marshall has led Central Baptist Theological Seminary to find ways to work with believers in Myanmar with love and respect.  This is a pattern that can be replicated in many places around the world.

As we work with adherents of other major world religions, we must come to see that they are far from monolithic.  There are many sects, power groups, and interpretations within very faith.  How do we develop the relational and dialogical skills to approach others with humility and honest curiosity while maintaining a commitment to our own beliefs?

We can no longer avoid this challenge.  These are the kinds of issues that creative ministers and lay leaders are facing. These are the concerns that every program of theological education must address.  To fail to do so is to become irrelevant.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Dealing with Failure

I was spoiled early in my ministry by a supervisor who accepted failure as part of the learning process. I was sharing with him some of the things that I had tried that did not work and he responded, “Keep on trying until you find out what works.”

As a result of this encouragement, I embrace the quote by Dale Turner:  “To have tried to do something and failed is vastly better than to have tried to do nothing and succeeded.”

We experience failure in life.  We fail in relationships, in projects, in achieving goals, and many other ways too numerous to count.  Not to recognize our failures is a failure in itself!  The only way to avoid failure is to do nothing.  The key to moving forward is deciding what we will do with failure.  There are several possibilities.

First, we can ignore failure.  We can go blithely on our way.   In so doing, we learn nothing and keep repeating the same mistakes with the same results.  As someone said, “Practice does not make perfect.  PERFECT practice makes perfect.”

Second, we can sweep our failure under the rug and hope no one notices.  How many products have you seen that simply disappeared from the shelves without explanation?  In this situation, no one wants to accept responsibility for failure.  For those of a certain generation, consider the Edsel, for example.

Third, we can learn from our failure.  After evaluating what happened, we have several alternatives.  As due consideration, we can just drop the idea as unworkable, unrealistic, or just inappropriate.  Maybe it is just the wrong time, the wrong place, or the wrong people.  Another alternative is to take time to evaluate what happened—both good and bad—and redesign or change the project/product/event.  A few tweaks may be all we need.  Finally, we can come up with an alternative that seeks to avoid what was wrong with the original. 

Key to learning from our failures is worthwhile information and comprehensive evaluation.  This involves measures of both quantity and quality.  We can look at numbers—attendance, for example—or response.  What was the take away for those who attended?  Were lives changed?  Did you get what you expected?  Since we are often too close to be objective, drawing in others to help us evaluate a project or event is important. 

Thomas Edison is reported to have said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.  It is not wrong to fail, but it is wrong not to try.  Where have you failed recently?