Monday, July 30, 2018

What is the Sprit Saying to the Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi?

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18, NIV)

If we read this statement of Jesus in the larger context, we can argue that the emphasis here is not so much on Peter as on his declaration of Jesus as the Messiah (v. 16).  The universal church--made of all believers throughout time--is built upon this belief.  This is the message declared by all local congregations as communities of faith and expressions of the universal church.

Thirteen years ago, my friends Chuck and Martha Strong saw the birth of a church built upon this profession of faith.  They had a vision for a “free and faithful” church based on Baptist principles in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a growing suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.  Three Memphis congregations as well as the state CBF organizations in Mississippi and Tennessee came alongside the Strongs, their daughters--Rachel and Laura, and other believers to establish the Olive Branch Fellowship.

Chuck has resigned as pastor of the church and preached his last sermon yesterday. One of the strengths of this new church start is that most of the charter members, including the Strong family, are still part of the fellowship.  The church has a significant ministry in the community, there is a stable and growing congregation, they have their own building, and the founding pastor has handed off the church to a young couple—Corey and Alisha Phillips—who will serve as co-pastors.

In his final message, Dr. Strong referred to a Beatles song that included a section of “improvisations within prescribed limits” and suggested that this is a good description of what the church ought to be.  We establish and grow churches within certain boundaries, but much of what we do within those boundaries is improvisation.

When Olive Branch Fellowship was in its youth, the participants tried a lot of different things to carve out a niche in the community and reach potential members.  Many of them didn’t work!  For example, they sent out a mass mailing of 5000 postcard to the community which attracted one new person.  While that person’s response was valued, the church realized that there had to be better ways to reach people and so they continued to improvise.

The Spirit has a unique way of working with us when we are open to improvisation. Although we can learn from other congregations, the Spirit opens doors when we least expect and provides opportunities for which we have not planned.  Olive Branch Fellowship has grown through the leadership of the Spirit--through relationships, ministry experiences, and surprises.  As a result, it is a healthy fellowship of believers.

Perhaps the greatest gift that the Strongs have given to this church has been a willingness to be open to the Spirit of God.  I pray that this will always be true.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Hospice Care for Churches

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” --Matthew 16:18, NIV

When Jesus made this promise, he was certainly referring to the church universal rather than individual congregations.  There were many churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece, and elsewhere that flourished in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection that no longer exist. Were they vital and effective fellowships in their day?  Of course they were, but times changed and the individuals (and sometimes buildings) of those churches have passed from the scene.

Although we may not want to admit it, not every local congregation is going to exist forever. Economic, demographic and even political shifts may affect the viability of a congregation.  

The church in Mobile, Alabama, that nurtured me and ordained me to the ministry no longer exists. About 30 years ago, the congregation chose to sell their building and merge with another church.  It was a difficult but necessary decision.

Congregational transitions such as this call for a specialized ministry.  Increasingly, it is clear that we need transitional pastors and consultants who can serve as “hospice chaplains” for congregations who desire to “die with dignity.” Some denominations are beginning to address this need.

There are many options for the church whose life is no longer sustainable.

Leave a legacy.  The church may decide to sell its building and give the proceeds of the sale to a ministry or institution which members value.

Merger. The church may choose to invite another congregation to join them in their present facility or members may relinquish the building and unite with another congregation.

Death and rebirth.  The present congregation may “go out of business” and allow a church with a different vision for ministry to take over the facility.

Repurpose. A remnant of the congregation may continue to worship in the facility, but the majority of the property is given over to other congregations, ministries (such as a clinic or homeless shelter), or community activities.

No matter what happens to the participants and the facilities, the transitional pastor or consultant has two primary tasks:  first, provide pastoral care for the present members by assuring that they find a place to worship and work through their grief; second, assure that the physical resources and facilities are used to benefit the work of the Kingdom. These tasks require both a pastoral heart and a visionary spirit.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Apostolic Entrepreneurs

Faith-based social entrepreneurship is gaining traction.  Visionary leaders, many of them young adults, are seeking to meet needs outside of ecclesiastical structures.  Their motivation for doing this might be addressed in another blog, but the trend is growing.  In a recent article published by the Association of Theological Schools, writer Linda Kay Klein identified the top five qualities of a successful faith-based entrepreneur.

Purpose-driven. Faith-based social entrepreneurs are driven by internal rather than external motivation.  Rather than seeking recognition, money, or freedom from guilt, these trailblazers have a clearly identified positive goal in mind. They see a need and want to meet it.  When they encounter barriers, they are driven to overcome these difficulties because they have a clear focus on what they want to accomplish.

Resilient.  Successful social entrepreneurs have often overcome personal challenges in their past.  Therefore, they are ready to meet the challenges of a start-up--limited funding, lack of support in the community, changes in leadership.  They realize that flexibility is a virtue if you still can accomplish your goal.

Two-channel thinking. Klein writes, “It’s as though they are simultaneously on two channels--at once seeing the muck and mess of today, and the beauty that could be tomorrow.”  They can own the vision and communicate it to others while developing pathways to achieve the vision and inviting others on the journey.  They are the chief advocates for the vision.

People-centered.  They are not simply serving people and fulfilling their needs but inviting others to co-create the best solution.  They learn from those affected by the problem or possibility.  They also seek to network with those in various fields--business, government, social services--who share a common interest in achieving the goal.

Outcomes-oriented.  Successful social entrepreneurs realize that they must address the root causes that create the need and not just the symptoms.  The only path to permanent, life-giving change involves changing the system.  

Churches, judicatories and theological schools are beginning to recognize the impact these faith-based social entrepreneurs can make, but these entities usually lack the flexibility and creativity to support their work.  If the 21stcentury church is to be truly missional, we must find ways to empower, encourage, and resource those who can be our contemporary apostles to the world.  They will make a difference, but will we help or hinder their work?

(The post originally appeared on this blog on December 13, 2017.)

Monday, July 16, 2018

First, Do No Harm

Although the statement, “First, do no harm,” is not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, it was coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates to remind medical practitioners that, although they wish to heal their patients, they have an equal capacity to do harm.  I think this directive also applies to church consultants.  I have been known to share the statement, “There is no problem that a consultant can’t make worse,” but in my practice as a consultant, I certainly try to avoid this.

Churches call upon consultants for a number of services:  staff development, visioning, transitions, conflict resolution, fund raising, security audits, building planning, and many other things.  At Pinnacle Leadership Associates, we deal primarily with the first four.  What has been your experience with church consultants?

If you are planning to contract with a consultant, let me suggest several things for you to consider.

First, does the consultant seek to understand and respect the DNA of your church?  Another way to ask this would be, does the consultant try to understand and work with the values that are most important to your congregation? Every faith community is different. Their values differ as well. What is important in one congregation’s context is not as important in another. A good consultant knows this and tries to understand what the church considers important and work with those values.

Second, does the consultant respect the people and their opinions?  Another way to ask this is, is the consultant a good listener?  What percentage of the time does the consultant devote to telling and what percentage is given to listening?  If your consultant does not build into the process the opportunity for the people to be heard, then he or she doesn’t really value those in the congregation.

Third, does the consultant see staff and church leaders as colleagues?  The consultant will come and then leave, but clergy and lay leadership will probably continue to serve in the church.  One role the consultant should play is helping present leadership to develop skills that will address the present concern and equip them to deal with future issues of the same type.

Fourth, does the consultant ask good questions?  The only way that a consultant can be effective is to discover as much as possible about the congregation, how it operates, and the deeper dynamics that drive an issue. This requires asking not only questions to gain information but questions that will cause those in the congregation to dig deeper for insight.

Fifth, does the consultant communicate that there is not one just one solution but multiple solutions and the church must decide which one to follow?  A good consultant does not bring an all-purpose, fits-every-need product to the congregation but a process that leads the congregation to discover and select its own path forward.  Solutions are discovered together.

Sixth, does the consultant have a positive attitude and a spirit of encouragement?  Several years ago, a church that had just experienced a split and lost half its participants invited a person in to provide insight and encouragement.  Knowing only a part of the congregation’s story, he proceeded to point out what he perceived as the church’s failures and faults and berated them for their reluctance to change.  He was not invited back.  Instead, the church sought out an interim pastor who loved them, offered wise counsel, and walked with them through a difficult time. An effective consultant brings an encouraging attitude and shares that with others.
 An effective consultant can help the church see its situation with fresh eyes and walk with the church as it moves forward, but the selection of a consultant must be pursued with prayer, wisdom, and discernment.

Friday, July 13, 2018


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?

(This post originally appeared on this blog on February 22, 2017.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sacred Space and Sacred Presence

Church architecture has always fascinated me.  The spaces we create for worship and their theological implications challenge my thinking about how we try to express the spiritual through the physical.  One of the most interesting and challenging papers I wrote in seminary was on the subject “The Church and Architecture” for Dr. John Newport’s Philosophy of Religion class.

In recent years, I have come to realize how easy it is to confuse sacred space with sacred presence. Sacred space--whether constructed or naturally occurring--provides an environment where we can prepare to encounter God.  Sacred presence occurs whenever we perceive God in a meaningful way.  

There can be a beautifully designed sacred space, but we do not necessarily find God there unless our hearts and minds are prepared to do so.  We have all visited beautiful spaces that were created for the worship of God, but meaningful worship no longer takes place in that space.  These places have become architectural artifacts that witness to past, often forgotten, practices.

On the other hand, we can experience the presence of God anywhere.  We may be in a cathedral, in nature, in our bedroom, or in an automobile. My theology affirms that God is always near us, even when we are unaware; however, in times of prayer, need, and openness, God’s presence is manifested in intimacy, power, or any hundreds of other ways.

In the most fortuitous situations, sacred space and sacred presence intersect for a significant corporate or individual time of worship.

What makes the difference? First, personal preparation is important.  When we come to God with a prepared spirit, heart, and mind, we are better prepared to experience the desired presence.  This is true whether we are alone, with two or three others, or a large crowd.  Second, being part of a faith community worshipping together in a space often facilitates our receptivity to the sacred presence.  Certainly, being present with others does not always enhance our worship of God or guarantee our experiencing the sacred presence, but when we are immersed in committed relationship with others, we are in a situation where God’s presence can become real.

Although many congregations value their buildings, authentic faith communities will understand that it is the relationship with others that facilitates their awareness of God in the space they occupy.  We celebrate our sacred places, but it is sacred presence that we crave.

(This post originally appeared on this blog on March 31, 2017.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Failure of Imagination

“Some see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not?”--George Bernard Shaw

One of the greatest challenges that Jesus seems to have encountered with his disciples was a lack of imagination.  He used parables and illustrations to explain his vision of the Kingdom and expand their perception, but their responses were often tied to the old paradigms; for example, “Who will sit on your right hand and your left hand the kingdom of God?” (see Matthew 20:20-28)

Although Jesus built upon the Hebrew teachings about the Kingdom of God, they only provided a beginning point for him.  He was not interested in the preservation of the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial practices.  He was not concerned about elevating the people of Israel to the top rung of civilization. He could care less about the place of Israel in the world economy of the day.  Jesus was invested in fulfilling the promise of God to Abraham that through his lineage “all nations on earth would be blessed.”  (Genesis 18:18)

Jesus was not changing the game but expanding its reach.  The Kingdom would not just be made up of the faithful of Israel but anyone who accepted an invitation to follow its Lord.  As you can imagine, some people did not like the changes that Jesus envisioned.

Even so today, believers are both strengthened and hindered by the paradigms for ministry they have embraced.  The way we have always done things is so attractive, reassuring, and “so right” that we have a difficult time accepting that this is only one expression of the Kingdom and perhaps God has something better in store for us, something more effective for our day.

One role of the Spirit of God is to nurture and stimulate our imaginations.  Peter’s quotation from the prophet Joel in Acts 2:17 affirms this: “‘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.” (NIV)

How open are you to listening to the voice of Spirit and dreaming new dreams for the Kingdom?

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Value of Taking a Sabbatical

A friend attended a special event at our church recently and remarked to my wife, “I don’t see your pastor here.”  Rita explained that our pastor was taking a sabbatical this summer.  The reply was, “Well, is he coming back?”

The idea of a sabbatical for a pastor or staff member is still not understood by many church members. They either see the sabbatical as a way to ease a pastor into termination or deal with a problem. Quite to the contrary, the church that provides a sabbatical for a ministerial staff member is not only doing a good thing for the minister but for the church as well. The practice is being encouraged by organizations that provide grants for pastoral sabbatical, but many churches now build this into their personnel policies as well as their budgets.

When I was chair of our church’s personnel committee several years ago, we expanded the sabbatical program to provide a sabbatical for every minister after each five years of service. Although it took a while for this to become a regular practice, our present ministers are taking advantage of the opportunity.

A sabbatical allows a minister to do several things.  First of all, it provides time for the minister to slow down and get a little distance from the day to day challenges of ministry.  It provides breathing space for personal and spiritual reflection.

Second, it can provide time for the minister and his/her family to spend some real quality time together on an extended vacation.  Most sabbatical grants expect the minister to have some fun during this time and to travel.

Third, most ministers use the sabbatical for some personal and professional development.  This may be taking a course on a topic of interest, spending time with a respected leader or mentor, writing and research, or overseas travel.

This is all very good for the minister, but it also benefits the church.  The minister returns refreshed with new energy and insights as well as appreciation for a congregation that cares enough to provide this time.  Although I have not found any research on this, but my hunch is that a sabbatical program increases a staff minister’s tenure at his or her church.

The church benefits from being exposed to one or more different voices from the pulpit.  Our church has invited supply preachers who serve for two consecutive summers.  My colleague Mark Tidsworth is serving as the sabbatical pastor in a church for the entire time the pastor is away.

The time that a minister spends on sabbatical allows the congregation to benefit from a leader who returns with renewed vision, stamina, and commitment to congregational life and health.

I encourage churches to consider the value of providing ministerial sabbaticals, but I also encourage ministers not to miss the opportunity take a sabbatical.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Time Well Spent: Four Audio Book Reviews

When I did denominational work, I frequently traveled by car and got into the habit of listening to audio-books, first on cassette tapes and then DVDs.  Now, of course, these are available as digital downloads on your iPhone or iPad.  Since the beginning of the year, I have had the opportunity to listen to four complete audio books.  As you will note, they cover a variety of topics and all provide interesting insights about people and culture.

Vance’s writing style is poignant, abrupt, and down-to-earth.  His memoir includes plenty of salty language that clearly expresses both his attitude and that of his family and friends growing up. 

Vance is a success story.  Coming out of a declining area of southeast Ohio, he survived a difficult childhood to enter the Marines and eventually graduate from Yale Law School.  A Republican, he is committed to investing in the area where he grew up as a venture capitalist, not-for-profit entrepreneur, and possible political candidate.

His book reflects the challenges faced by white working-class people who often barely survive in our culture.  Vance’s stance is realistic but hopeful.  The key insight here is that one person--his maternal grandmother--provided the intervention that changed his trajectory in life.  One person can make a difference.

How fitting it is to listen to this audio book while driving at high speed down an Interstate highway.  Author Tom Lewis recounts the developments of the United State highway system from the creation of the Bureau of Public Roads in the early 20thcentury, but the story goes into high gear with the creation of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 under the Eisenhower Administration.  

The key take-away here is the background, education, and motivations of the those who conceived and constructed our Interstate System--social planners, economic investors, and highway engineers.  They were often misdirected or blind to the consequences of their work.  In many cases, these players were neither interested in or trained to consider the impact that these super highways would have on people and culture.  

One of the most egregious proposals was an effort that would have separated the historic French Quarter and Jackson Square in New Orleans from the Mississippi River with an elevated Interstate highway.  Just think about sitting at the CafĂ© du Monde, eating your beignets and drinking your Coffee Au Lait while hundreds of trucks and cars passed by overhead! Thankfully, a few committed individuals stepped up to combat this idea.

Lewis’ book helps us to understand how this monumental work can both unite and divide us as a nation.

Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos take center stage in this account of the effort to shift the paradigm for space exploration and exploitation but there are other players like Richard Branson and Greg Wyler.  Fernholz clearly shows how the military-industrial complex’s hold on space efforts has not only been wasteful but often less than successful.  With the support of NASA and the military, traditional aerospace firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have used regulatory and political pressure to edge out potential commercial competitors and preserve their domination in the field.
Amazon writes, “With privileged access to top executives at SpaceX, including Musk himself, as well as at Blue Origin, NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Virgin Galactic, Fernholz spins this high-stakes marathon into a riveting tale of rivalry and survival.”
This is an interesting story of government excess and entrepreneurial imagination with “the final frontier” as the backdrop.  Lots of fun!

My reaction to Brown is often divided between exhilaration and dismay.  Her honesty is disarming and her insight into the human condition is inspirational.  
I love this book because is addresses a theme that I have considered from time to time--the power of wilderness experiences.  From the accounts of Hagar and the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible to the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels, wilderness in the human journey is a place of wonder and opportunity. Brown writes, "The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it's the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand."

Brown is, as always, candid about her own life experiences.  In one part of this book, she talks about being asked to speak in various venues if she will only adapt her clothing, language, or approach to fit into someone else’s expectations.  Her response is clear and profane!  She says, "True belonging doesn't require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are."  
This book is a real treat!

Honoring a Mentor: Glenn Yarbrough

On Friday, July 6, a memorial service was held at First Baptist Church, Nashville, for Dr. Glenn Yarbrough.  Glenn was one of the people that I often recognize as a mentor, one who influenced me, shared his rich experience, and opened doors for me.

Glenn provided my first full-time position in collegiate ministry when I graduated seminary in 1970. The situation was a challenging one, but he trusted my potential to address it effectively.  He was not happy when I left Middle Tennessee State University in 1976 to accept a position at Mississippi State University, but I was pleased when Carson-Newman College offered me a job in 1980 and Glenn called to let me know that he would be glad to have me back in the state.  

In 1984, I had the opportunity to become his associate in the Student Ministries Department of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and to succeed him as director of that ministry in 1987.

Glenn was a classic “Builder” in generational terms.  He was a man of few words, and you often had to reflect a bit to understand exactly what he meant by those words!  He was an intellectual who read Foreign Affairsmagazine for fun, studied and taught the Bible with great enthusiasm and insight, and often shared quotes that were both classical and whimsical.

Although he was a consummate administrator, he gave me (and other local collegiate ministers) the freedom to explore new ideas and try new approaches in reaching and discipling students. When I admitted that I had tried some things that just had not worked like I thought they would, he responded, “Just keep on trying.”  He was giving me permission to fail.

Especially during my time as his associate, Glenn helped me to understand the ins and outs of working in a denominational bureaucracy.  Once I was questioning a statement in the TBC’s Personnel Manual.  “This is ambiguous,” I argued.  His comeback was, “It’s not ambiguous.  You just don’t like what it says.”  He helped to be able to discern where you could tinker with the system and when you had to let the system run its course.

Another place where he taught me a great deal was in selection of personnel and in supervision. Glenn was patient in identifying and selecting people for any collegiate ministry position, whether it was full-time, part-time, or volunteer.  He considered all the possibilities, consulted with others about candidates, but took the ultimate responsibility for the decision.  In supervising department staff, he was attentive and available, but he treated everyone like a responsible adult with respect for their individuality. This saved him a lot of grief when problems developed and, by following his example, this approach saved my skin and the reputation of the organization more than once.

I’m not sure that Glenn ever understood or accepted my decision to step away from the leadership of collegiate ministries at the state convention, but I always knew that he trusted my judgement and commitment.  Those qualities made him a great mentor and a good friend.  We will not forget him.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Challenge for the 21stCentury Church: Leadership

In the middle of the last century, the ideal staffing of a mainline church looked like this:  a full-time, seminary trained minister (male); at least one associate (often seminary trained) who specialized in youth and/or children’s ministry; and a full-time or part-time music leader.  Of course, this was not the reality for every church. Many churches, especially rural churches, had a bi-vocational minister (one with another vocation), a volunteer or part-time music director, and lay volunteers for other ministries.

As we move further into the 21stcentury, the second model is becoming more common. Even mainline denominations which have high standards for ministerial preparation--both in the discernment process and in educational preparation--are looking at other options to fill the pulpits of churches who have both declining memberships and smaller budgets. 

On the other hand, there are the non-denominational or community churches who place more emphasis on leadership ability than formal preparation, calling pastors and staff members who lack theological credentials.   There are also alternative church models that depend entirely on gifted volunteers to lead the fellowship of believers.

The landscape has changed as well as the viability of the ideal.  What does this mean for leadership development--both for clergy and lay--for the church in the 21stcentury?

First, this means that the distinction between clergy and laity is less clear.  Many churches are affirming that Christian baptism equals a call to serve. Whether one is compensated for service or not, each believer has a role to serve in the life of the church.

Second, a number of churches have decided that the most effective leaders for their congregations are those who have been nurtured there.  They have gifted lay people who can preach, teach, and serve.  What hinders them from becoming the ministers of the congregation?

Third, new structures of leadership are being either created or revived.  The “circuit rider” model of Methodism where one minister served several congregations is alive and well.  Baptists often had “farmer preachers” who plowed six days a week and preached on the seventh.  This model has never gone way, but those bi-vocational preachers are now business people, educators, salespeople, and professionals.  The major change is that these models are spreading to other denominations who have been used to full-time professionals.  

Fourth, churches are realizing that it is finally time to give leadership to women, the young, and marginalized people.  Crisis drives change.  Unfortunately, it takes a leadership bind for many churches to finally call out, train, and ordain women and men who should have been in lead roles already.

Five, new types of leadership call for creative ways of educating and equipping. Both accredited and non-accredited programs are emerging, some church-based and some are alternative denominational structures.  Seminaries and theological institutions are also recognizing that they can serve this population of learners.  Although many of these programs are developed out of necessity, this does not mean that they cannot be quality academic programs while developing necessary ministry competencies.  

We are just at the beginning of a major shift in religious leadership.  What is the Spirit of God saying to us in this time of change?

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Networking for Church Health

One of the realities of church life in the 21st century is networking that is not tied to or limited by a particular denominational affiliation.  As churches identify and pursue their unique callings as part of the mission of God, they discover partners who can help them along the journey.  These may be missional partners, advocacy partnerships, or developmental networks.

Pinnacle Leadership Associates has developed such a network to facilitate congregational and leadership development.  The network is currently made up of over 30 partners--church and judicatories--from seven denominational families.

Becoming a partner allows access to all Pinnacle webinars, plus these services:

  • Four one-hour Coaching/Consulting Sessions - In person, by phone, or video conference;
  • 20% discount on all Pinnacle Services;
  • Participation in any Pinnacle Webinar or Teleconference at no cost;
  • Participation in Monthly Network Video Conference – A Pinnacle Associate hosts, presenting relevant content plus facilitating discussion among participants (First Wednesday Each Month, 1PM Eastern Time);
  • Priority scheduling for Events;
  • Listed as a Pinnacle Network Partner on the Pinnacle website.

The cost for one year’s membership is $500. Membership begins at time of registration and runs for one year.  

See the Pinnacle website for more information or contact Mark Tidsworth at 803-673-3634 or

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Crown--Season Two: A Review

The Royal Family at the end of Season Two
Season Two of The Crown does not quite measure up to Season One.  Perhaps it is because I miss Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) or because this season requires viewers to deal with the continuing affairs of Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and the boyish adventures of Prince Phillip (Matt Smith), but a handful of episodes are memorable.  Even so, Netflix’s The Crown is the still the best television series available.  Two of the best episodes of the season show the grit of the heroine and both involve Americans.

In “Vergangenheit,” Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) is brought to a crisis of faith when her uncle, the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), seeks a return to Great Britain and restoration to a place of influence.  Past events are disclosed that indicate that the former king once plotted with the Nazi High Command to become a puppet ruler if the nation were conquered by Germany.  There are reliable historical sources that David (or Edward) was indeed a Nazi sympathizer who sought approval and favor from Hitler’s regime.  

This betrayal comes to light while Billy Graham (Paul Sparks) is preaching his first London Crusade. Elizabeth is taken with the evangelist and is depicted as seeking his counsel on the nature of forgiveness as she considers how to handle her uncle’s treachery.  In the series, Elizabeth is shown as a faithful believer who takes her role as the titular head of the Church of England very seriously.  In one scene, she asks Graham, “Can a person be a good Christian and not forgive?” Graham’s response is, “One prays for those one cannot forgive.”  She is shown taking that advice literally, but it does not preclude her rejecting David’s efforts to find favor in her eyes and vindication for past sins.  Although her faith calls her to forgive, her role as Queen requires that justice be done.

The episode raises questions for us as believers about how far we can and must go to offer forgiveness to others.  Since the former king never acknowledges either his political treachery or family betrayal, forgiveness in this case does not seem to be an option.

Another outstanding episode is “Dear Mrs. Kennedy.”  When Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) and President Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) visit Britain, Elizabeth finds herself uncomfortable in comparison to the charismatic First Lady but also offended when she learns that Jackie criticized her privately.  Her response is a bold move to travel to Ghana, despite lukewarm support from Prime Minister Harold McMillan (Anton Lesser), and launch a charm offensive with Kwame Nkrumah, who is aligning his country with the USSR.  When she seeks out the African ruler to dance the foxtrot, she is asserting a personal power and prestige that many have underestimated.  She becomes comfortable in her own personae.

Throughout the second season, Elizabeth is shown as a person of faith who must assume the moral high ground especially when surrounded by men who lack the commitment and conviction needed to do the right thing.  In so doing, Claire Foy is able to capture both the vulnerability and the tenaciousness of the young queen.

The season ends with a family photo.  Phillip and Elizabeth have a full house of children and have come to respect and support one another.  Elizabeth has established herself as a power that cannot be disregarded.  With season three, we will see a new cast of actors in the lead roles.  One hopes that they can continue the momentum of the first two seasons.

Monday, July 02, 2018

What Seminaries Can Learn from Land-Grant Universities

The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1980 encouraged states to establish land-grant universities (or colleges) across the United States. The mission of these institutions was to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science, military science, and engineering as well as the liberal arts.  This mission was somewhat in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on a liberal arts curriculum.

The Hatch Act of 1887 strengthened the work of these institutions by establishing a system of agriculture experiment stations, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a system of cooperative extension to be operated by these schools to educate people across the states--especially in rural areas--about current developments in agriculture, home economics, community development, and related subjects.

Growing up in a city, I knew little about this vital part of America’s educational system until I began learning more about the history of higher education and then serving as a campus minister at a land-grant institution. This system--combining research, teaching, and community service--not only transformed rural areas but helped to build a strong and economically dominant nation.

Theological education could learn a great deal from this educational model.  Although many seminary degrees today are provided not only in a campus setting but also online, theological educators have the opportunity to make an impact by adopting some aspects of the “extension service.”

First, theological educators are experts in both academic and practical fields.  They not only have spent years studying the biblical, theological, and historical background necessary for effective ministry but also have applied this understanding to disciplines such as preaching, pastoral care, ethics, practical theology, and community engagement.  Churches, judicatories, not-for-profit agencies, and individuals can benefit from this professional expertise.

The seminary can provide this expertise through physical conferences--both on and off campus, online learning experiences for laity and clergy, and consulting.  The seminary might well partner with satellite teaching sites, churches, or community organizations to provide resource centers geographically distant from the main campus.

Second, churches, judicatories, and not-for-profit organizations provide a “test bed” for the practices originated in the seminaries.  Theological education is not done in a vacuum but in the context of an evolving and changing world.  As students engage in field education or contextual learning, theological educators can assess the effectiveness of their carefully formulated ideas and concepts in a real-world setting.  Feedback from the field strengthens the theological institutions.

This dialogue between the field and the seminary is even more important in a rapidly changing context--spiritual, cultural, economic, and political.  Dynamic interaction between the two is a “win-win” for both and calls all involved into cooperative Kingdom work.