Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Intelligent Compassion

Students enroll in seminary for many reasons.  One that I hear from time to time is, “I want to make a difference in the world.”  This does not always mean working in a church or doing traditional ministry.  Central Seminary, the institution with which I am associated, recognizes a responsibility to form Christian ministers who can serve in both traditional and non-traditional settings.

I am part of a seminary team that is learning more about human-centered design (or design thinking) as a problem-solving or creative process.  As one of our exercises, we are addressing the question, “How might we enable more seminary students to become social entrepreneurs?”

As part of our research we are interviewing past and present seminary students as well as people who might be described as social entrepreneurs.  In an interview this week, one of our current students expressed appreciation for being exposed to social entrepreneurs who exhibit “intelligent compassion.”

The phrase caught my attention, and we spent a little time unpacking it.  By intelligent compassion, the student meant people who not only show empathy for the needs of others but the ability to be proactive in creating change. 

For example, in her seminary program, she had the opportunity to talk with the leader of an organization that helps men and women to overcome obstacles caused by poverty through providing education, mentoring, and resources. Services include helping individuals with high school equivalency training, English as a Second Language education, and interviewing skills.  This community organization not only recognizes the problem but has found a way to effectively address it.

This approach is the difference between mopping up water off the floor and finding a way to stop the source of the water. Compassion is an important motivating factor, but what will you do with your compassion?  Acting on one’s compassion in a constructive way makes an effective social entrepreneur.

Whether a person is addressing organizational change within a congregation, providing the means for individuals to move beyond poverty, or challenging structures that harm the marginalized, compassion must be united with effective action.

The idea of intelligent compassion was a significant insight.  I am sure we will discover others as we continue our interviews.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Practicing Your Craft

We love to embrace the idea of the “overnight success”:  a person comes out of nowhere and is embraced as a breakthrough actor, creative genius, or the person of the hour.  The truth, however, is that the overnight success has usually been practicing his or her craft for years before attaining a place of honor and recognition.

Mahershala Ali
A good example is actor Mahershala Ali, the winner as Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Academy Awards.  Ali became an overnight success after a decade and a half of practicing his craft in film and television roles.  He had a supporting role in Crossing Jordan and then a lead role in the sci-fi series The 4400.  He is probably familiar to most people for his role as Remy Denton in the Netflix series House of Cards and as a military leader in two of The Hunger Games films.  He was in two major films this year--Hidden Figures and Moonlight--both nominated for best picture.  He won the Oscar for his role in the latter.

A similar example is J. K. Simmons, the recipient of the Best Supporting Actor Award in 2014.  A character actor who has appeared in over 70 films, 67 television series, as well as performing in several theatrical productions and doing voiceovers for a half-dozen video games (and being spokesperson for a national insurance company).   Simmons has become a “hot property” and is in great demand after 30 years as an actor.

J. K. Simmons
Seeing people like this receive recognition is encouraging. They often labor in the background, portraying forgettable characters and being part of an ensemble, until the role comes along that showcases their talent.  All the while, they are practicing their craft.  They pay attention to the small things and do them well.  They look for nuances in a script and try to provide added value to their performances.  In most cases, people like Ali and Simmons have been preparing for decades to become overnight successes.

There is a lesson here for each of us, no matter what our profession is.  The challenge is take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.  Do those things well and look for ways to add your own unique insights and personality to the task.  Whether you are an actor, a minister, a teacher, a business person, or any other profession, you embrace what comes your way, make good choices, and produce.  This is what it means to practice your craft.

If you do this, you will be ready when your biggest opportunity arrives.  And if that “big break” never comes, you will still be the consummate professional in your field, using your gifts to do your best work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Whether we want to admit it or not, our actions and decisions each day are as programmed as if we were computers.  The word “routine” applies not just to humans but to computers as well. In computer programming, “routine” and “subroutine” are terms that describe any sequence of code that is intended to be called up and used repeatedly during the execution of a program. They are shortcuts to speed things up.

We function smoothly most days because we have developed certain habits related to hygiene, eating, dress, relationship, and exercise that are second nature.  In the same way, we use paradigms to process what we experience even if those paradigms are fictional.  For example, we talk about the sun rising in morning and setting at night when we are the ones moving.  We have adopted patterns for processing information that usually give us reliable results and makes sense of our environment. 

As with most things, a strength carried to an extreme becomes a weakness.  Our preferred habits, paradigms, and pattern recognition routines may keep us from seeing something new.

I have been involved in recent days with some colleagues in a class on human-centered design (or design thinking) as a way to address challenges in a creative way.  One of the beginning points of this process is “embracing your beginner’s mind.”  Another way to say this is “have an open mind.”  In human-centered design, we are asked to empathize with the end-user of the process, product, or service we are designing so that we can see things through their eyes.  We are to bring “fresh eyes” to the challenge.  This is not always easy.  This means that we must unlearn some things that may get in the way in order to learn something new.

Liz Wiseman addressed this idea in her book Rookie Smarts:  Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.   She wrote, “When the world is changing quickly, experience can become a curse, trapping us in old ways of doing and knowing, while inexperience can be a blessing freeing us to improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.”  Being a rookie can be a good thing.

I once heard a student of church history say something like this: “Don’t tell me that Baptists don’t do so and so.  Baptists have done a lot of things that we don’t do today.”  This is true of the church as a whole.  The mission of the church has survived and prospered in a climate of adaptation and change.  The message remains consistent but the delivery system changes.  In other words, we unlearn some things in order to learn others.

What do you need to unlearn today?  What does your church need to unlearn?  What is getting in the way of a new insight or plan?  What is hindering the work of the Spirit?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Transitions: The Future

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born out of conflict and hope.  The conflict was over historic Baptist doctrines but also established Baptist institutions.  The hope was a desire to save the best of the old but to find a new way to express it.   The motives for starting something new were complex. 

About five years ago, I talked with a young pastor who was being considered as pastor of a church in our state.  I explained that although the church was progressive—women deacons, ordained women as ministers, a commitment to diversity, etc.—there were still many who clung to the identification of being Southern Baptist even though most of their mission dollars were going to CBF.  I suggested that he needed to be ready to answer questions about his own denominational commitment.  I should not have been surprised when he said, “I was 10 years old when I came to Christ in a CBF church.  I came to maturity in that church and attended a CBF-related seminary.  The church I pastor now is affiliated with CBF.  I don’t know anything about the Southern Baptist Convention.”

The paradigm has shifted.  The choice for many young Baptists is not either/or.  This young pastor had never had to make that choice.  CBF was the only denominational entity he had ever known.  He was a Fellowship Baptist.

In much the same way, I have no real basis on which to discuss SBC life today.  By choice, I am an outsider to the Southern Baptist Convention. Although I identify myself as a Fellowship Baptist, I spend most of my time with American Baptist, Alliance, Disciples, Methodist, AME, and UCC people.  I am completely out of touch with the programs, emphases, and controversies of Southern Baptists.  I only know what I read on the Internet.

Despite my involvement with other denominations, I do hear enough about CBF life to make some educated guesses about the future direction of the movement.

First, from its inception, CBF realized that it would never reproduce the robust denominational structure of the SBC, so one strategy of CBF was to partner with other faith groups and take advantage of the resources they offered. For example, CBF has developed a strong relationship with the Upper Room, a ministry connected with United Methodists, for spiritual formation and direction.  When it comes to Christian education, on a Sunday morning, one will find classes in moderate Baptist churches using curricula from a variety of publishers; most of those are not Baptist.  Many our best students have chosen to attend seminaries that are not Baptist and, even if those schools have a Baptist affiliation, many of the students are Baptists.  As a result, moderate Baptists have become extremely ecumenical, sometimes forming stronger ties with other faith communities than with brother and sister Baptists.  This ecumenical trend will continue.

Second, CBF will continue to be the “denomi-network” (to use Suzii Paynter’s term) of choice for many Baptist churches in the south but few of those will become exclusively CBF churches.  Although there have been efforts to encourage exclusive CBF identity, moderate churches are either too gun shy about what happened with the SBC or too afraid to challenge their members to an exclusive relationship with a denominational entity.  Quite honestly, most moderate Baptist churches would rather date than get married!  This is not necessarily a bad thing because we are usually on our best behavior when we are dating.  This challenges CBF as an organization to pursue excellence in those things it choses as priorities.  By doing so, more churches will want to work with CBF.

Third, acceptance of women in pastoral leadership is not an accomplished fact.  Even though CBF has continued to highlight women in leadership roles, the calling of a woman as a pastor—especially in a larger congregation—is still news.  Many of the women called to pastoral leadership find themselves in churches that are struggling to survive, so they must assume a greater leadership burden.  For the immediate future, “free and faithful Baptists” must continue to equip, nurture, and equip women as clergy leaders.

Fourth, the founders of CBF are dying off.  In some ways that is a good thing because many of them will not be happy with the choices that CBF as a “denomi-network” will make in the next few years.  With a younger, proactive constituency, CBF must be take a stand on LGBT rights.  Although there are older Baptists who are as progressive as the younger generation, many of those who were founders of the movement would just as soon leave this issue alone.  If CBF is to continue to be a viable home for 21st century Baptists, ignoring LGBT rights is not an option.   Ten years from now, the founders will not recognize many things about CBF, if they—we—are still around.

I believe that the CBF movement will prosper in the coming years. Although it will never be a majority expression of Baptist life, Fellowship Baptists will be a significant voice in progressive Baptist life.  Being a minority is not a bad thing. Being a minority helps us to identify with the marginalized in society just as Jesus did.  We could not have a better example.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Transitions: The Beginnings

Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.  I had the opportunity to serve as the coordinator of TCBF for slightly over 10 years.  So far, that is a record but one that I hope the current coordinator, Rick Bennett, will surpass.

Both the state and national incarnations of CBF continue to evolve.  When CBF was born, Dr. Bill Leonard made a comment, “This is a difficult time in American life to be part of a denomination or to start a new one.”  CBF has skirted around the use of the “D” word in recent years.  Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter has used the term "denomi-network" to describe CBF.  The terms “network,” “partnership,” and “fellowship” continue to be the preferred descriptors.  Most participants in CBF life seem to prefer a bit of ambiguity in describing the group and their relationship to it.  This allows for churches to continue to have multiple affiliations while still participating in CBF life.
In this blog, I want to talk about the beginnings of CBF life in Tennessee.  In a subsequent post, I will speculate on the future.
Left to right:  Ircel Harrison, Bill Junker, Lila Boyd,
and Lloyd Householder
As TCBF coordinator, I found the challenges of formalizing and normalizing a state organization both stimulating and frustrating.  Churches still did not know exactly how to deal with “the new kid on the block,” so I spent a lot of effort on leveraging old relationships and creating new ones.   I will always be grateful for the support of friends like Lloyd and Anne Marie Householder, Lila and Bob Boyd, Bill and Patsy Junker, Don and Vicky Dixon, Judy and Jeff Fryer, Mike and Grace Smith as well as many others.
Several of the challenges we faced dealt with our identity—who we were and what would we do.  
Here are three of those challenges:
First, we had to find a way to work with constituents from the three “grand divisions” of the state.  Supporters in each part of the state had their own agendas. Many TCBF adherents in the middle part of the state, especially in the Nashville area, were former employees of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway) or the Executive Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They were angry and upset because the investment of their lives was slipping away.  Those in the eastern part of the state were not happy with what was happening in the SBC and the Tennessee Baptist Convention but, with typical Appalachian detachment, they tended to take a “wait and see” attitude.  When I met with the pastor of one large congregation and openly lobbied for support for Tennessee CBF, he very honestly responded, “We will wait and see what you do.”  Those in Memphis were a minority in the state and in their own community, struggling to be a progressive voice in a bastion of conservativism. 
The advantage I had as coordinator was that I had lived in east Tennessee, had my current residence in middle Tennessee, and traveled enough in west Tennessee to know the culture and its people.  Although Tennessee is my adopted state, I loved the people and appreciated the differences in the churches across the state.
The second challenge was whether TCBF would become politically active in the denominational wars, especially at the state level.  The conversations around this subject could fill a book, but one decision confirmed our direction.  I was asked to supply the TCBF mailing list to a moderate group that planned to be a dissenting voice at an upcoming meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Their goal was preserving not only “historic Baptist ideals” but the Baptist institutions as well.  I was not comfortable sharing this information.  After a discussion with our moderator, an east Tennessee pastor, I took the request to our Coordinating Council for a decision.  They rejected the request and adopted a policy to cover the use of information from our donors and handle it in a confidential manner.  We would not become a political action group.
Third, TCBF had to achieve some credibility as a ministry.  Today, I would use the term a “missional organization.”  We did this by finding partners both on the national and state level.  Of course, we supported the mission initiative of the CBF.  We partnered with University Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, around International ministry; Samaritan Ministry at Central Baptist Church, Bearden, in Knoxville, on ministry with victims of HIV and AIDS; Neverfail Community Church on the Cumberland Plateau with a ministry in one of the poorest counties in our state; CBF missionaries in Jordan and, eventually, the Baptist Union of Croatia as a global outreach; and several others.  Some of these initiatives were more successful than others, but in each case, the partners we choose defined who we were and what we valued.  They honored us by their partnership with us.
Churches, clergy, and laity came to believe in the ministry of TCBF and provided the resources and support to grow and extend the outreach of our churches and partners.  I am grateful for those who came alongside as staff members and contract workers during those days:  Judy Fryer, Tammy Abee Blom, Mike Young, Lara Cotey, Amy Anderson Taylor, Tambi Swiney, LuAnne Prevost, and Emily Roberts.  There is not room enough to name all the others—both in Tennessee and in the National CBF office—who contributed their time and talents during those days.
During those days, my wife said, "You are much happier than I have seen you in years."  She was right.  I am grateful to have been part of the CBF movement during a challenging and fruitful decade.