Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Putting on Our Christian Clothes

When one of our grandchildren was in Kindergarten, he attended a private Christian school.  He loved the school and even enjoyed wearing the uniform required of all students.  We would pick him up sometimes, and his mother always provided clothes for him to change into so that he could keep his school clothes clean. One day, we did not have a change of clothes and he said, “I really need to change out of my Christian clothes.”

I admired his desire to keep his uniform clean, but this caused me to think about the way that many of us experience Christian discipleship.  We tend to think of discipleship has only impacting certain parts of our lives, so we can put on and take on Christian living at will.  

I have been in conversations with adults, even church leaders, who have a very limited view of discipleship.  When they use the term “discipleship,” they are thinking of Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, and evangelism.  They concentrate on this practices that are clearly “Christian” in nature.  They fail to see that discipleship encompasses all that a believer does.

The ways that we use our finances, do our secular work, relate to our families, and spend our leisure time are all impacted by the fact that we are Christian disciples.  We don’t put on and take off discipleship, but we wear it all the time.

Another way to think of this is that being a discipleship is not a job, it is a lifestyle.  We are not “on the clock” when it comes to following Christ.  He is part of lives when we get up in the morning, during the day, and when we lay down at night.

We wear our “Christian clothes” all the time.  This means that they may get a bit dirty in the experiences of life, but Jesus expected that to happen.  Being a disciple is not a nine to five responsibility; it is 24/7.

Monday, September 24, 2018

My Involvement in Theological Education: An Unexpected Journey

Ircel Harrison, Molly Marshall, and Rita Harrison at 2018
 commencement in Shawnee, KS
Thanks to the reminder from LinkedIn, friends started sending me congratulations on my work anniversary last week.  I had to think for a few minutes but realized that these messages were in connection with my tenure at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 2004, I was serving as the coordinator of the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Mike Smith, my pastor at First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, and I began talking about the challenges of theological education for those who were called to ministry but had families, jobs, and were already serving churches. They couldn’t easily pull up roots and go elsewhere. He mentioned specifically Beth Duke, someone I knew but he was more aware of her desire for a theological degree. She certainly fit the profile. She was a nurse at Southern Hills in Nashville, living in Smithville, Tennessee, where her husband had an established practice as a dentist, and had two grown kids living nearby.  She was called to ministry, but her options were limited.

The challenge was, “How do you provide accessible, affordable, quality seminary education for someone like Mary Beth?”

I contacted several seminary presidents that I knew, but their response was, “We don’t do that kind of thing.”  I was still looking for possibilities when I saw Connie McNeill at a CBF General Assembly. I knew Connie from campus ministry days when she worked in Missouri. She was then serving as Vice President for Internal Development at Central.  She suggested that I talk with President Molly Marshall. We had a good initial conversation.

Mike and I had been thinking about offering a few courses locally with the idea that a student would have to do some of their work on campus in Kansas, but Molly responded by e-mail that she thought the seminary could offer an entire accredited degree program in Tennessee.  I think there were times that she regretted sending that e-mail, but it showed clearly her visionary approach to theological education.  She stuck with us through some difficult days.

We launched in September 2005 with First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, as host church.  The first two classes were Hebrew Bible I, taught by Laura Moore from the Shawnee campus, and Christian Heritage I, taught by Mike Smith, the host pastor.  I served as volunteer site director.

Much has happened since then.  I was asked to teach some classes and then became part-time site coordinator upon my retirement from the state CBF organization.  The site was moved to Nashville in 2012 and Dr. Sally Holt became our site coordinator.  TCBF, under the leadership of interim coordinator Don Dixon and coordinators Terry Maples and Rick Bennett has continued to support the work.

We have had our challenges, but we have also had our successes:

  • Many students have been exposed to theological education, even if some who never completed their degrees;
  • We have offered lifelong learning for over 20 adults;
  • We became a full-degree granting site in June 2011; 
  • We have been inclusive, ecumenical, and egalitarian;
  • We have graduated 14 students with the Master of Divinity degree;
  • And Mary Beth Dunbar-Duke was our first graduate in 2009 and is now an ordained minister and a full-time chaplain at Vanderbilt University.


After completing my work as site coordinator, I was asked to teach in Nashville, teach online classes, and serve as interim director of the Doctor of Ministry program.  The opportunity to develop deeper relationships with colleagues in Shawnee and the other satellite locations as well as students around the world has been remarkable.

There have been major changes over the time I have been affiliated with the seminary.  Curriculum for the Master of Divinity has changed with all classes now being offered in a synchronous, online format.  The curriculum for the Doctor of Ministry degree was redesigned.  The Nashville site became home to the Women’s Leadership Initiative which recently launched its third cohort.

The opportunity to work in theological education has been a blessing but it has also been exciting to be part of the creative and fluid approaches to theological formation led by Robert Johnson, Provost and Dean of the Faculty.  Central continues to be on the cutting edge of seminary education.  I have enjoying being a part of that innovative community.

(Based on remarks to the Women Leadership Initiative cohorts on September 7, 2018, in Nashville.)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

Our lives are controlled by habits.  They are the default settings that guide our behavior.  Unfortunately, it seems easier to learn bad habits that good habits.  The length of time to form a new habit has been a topic for much debate.  In a study conducted at University College London, Dr. Philippa Lally determined that it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic--66 days to be exact. However, the length of time varies for individuals and can be anywhere from 18 days to 254 days!

In the text from Nehemiah 9:16-31, we learn that the people of Israel tended to fall into bad habits rather easily.  Although God continued to walk with them, they persisted in going their own way.  One way to look at the history of the Israelites is to see it as a struggle between God and God’s people.

Nehemiah 9:28a (NIV) observes, “But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your [God’s] sight.” They were trapped in a cycle of bad habits and needed to break that cycle by adopting a new way of following God. 

 James Clear suggests that there are three steps to adopting a new habit:

1.  Reminder--the trigger that initiates the behavior;
2.  Routine--the behavior itself; the action you take;
3.  Reward--the benefit you gain from doing the behavior.

The writer of Psalm 119:103 (NIV) seems not only to have discovered the trigger for a good habit--immersing himself in God’s Word--but developed a routine of practicing that habit and perceiving the reward as well: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

The people of Israel had a choice and so do we.  The good news is that we do not have to be controlled by our habits; we can choose to follow another path and adopt new ways of acting and behaving in our relationships with God and humanity.  

(This originally appeared on the Center for Congregational Ethics Facebook page on August 28, 2018.)








Friday, September 07, 2018

Back to the Future: What Bivocational Ministers Need from the Seminaries

With bivocational ministry emerging as a necessity for many churches and denominations, most theological institutions still focus on preparation for full-time congregational ministry and tend to ignore any other ministry model.

Sharon Miller, director of research at the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary, was questioned about the role that seminaries play in preparing students to assume bivocational or biprofessional ministry roles. “The bivocational [model] by necessity is rarely, or never, talked about even as more and more graduates find themselves in this situation,” she says. “This is the arena where I think schools and students really need educating.”

What are some ways that seminaries can address this opportunity?

First, seminaries should acknowledge biprofessional ministry as a valid calling. Ministry has been done in many ways over the history of the church including tentmaker, worker priest, farmer pastor, and circuit rider models.  The common denominator in all is the vocation of ministry.  A practical way to address this in a seminary setting is to spotlight bivocational ministers in seminary programming rather than always calling upon full-time clergy as chapel speakers and class guests.

Second, all students, not just those who will be bivocational, need to develop time-management skills.  Good use of time is especially important for those whose time is divided between ministry and another area of work, however. Classes could address things like efficient use of time in Bible study and sermon preparation.  Familiarization with digital study tools, accessing online library resources, and effective use of social media for communication are necessities.

Third, students need to learn effective people development skills such as identifying and equipping lay leaders, how to lead meetings, and how to encourage and show appreciation to lay leaders. Good pastors, full-time and part-time, need to be mentors, coaches, and facilitators.

Fourth, students who know they are going to be biprofessional needemployment coaching.  This includes writing a resume that clearly communicates their skills, networking with potential employers and others in their field of interest, and interviewing preparation.  

Packard Brown also provides another possibility for employment, the “gig economy.” He writes, “The ‘gig economy — contractual or freelance jobs in which workers set their own hours and fees — also offers possibilities for secondary income streams. Hundreds of sites exist online where bivocational pastors can post their skills for hire (like tutoring or writing reports) or apply for short-term work assignments.”

As the need grows, some seminaries, such as Central Seminary in Shawnee, KS, are adapting to the reality of biprofessionalism in ministry in creative ways.




Thursday, September 06, 2018

Back to the Future: How Bivocational Ministers and Churches can Thrive

In 2017, 68 percent of the 156 congregations affiliated with the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ had no full-time clergy.  Darren Morgan, the associate conference minister said, “They recognize their reality that they can’t afford a full-time pastor, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have a ministry. . ..  The leadership within those churches is strong. They say, ‘We’re not going to be a weak church. We’ll be a strong, small church.’”

Whether a church has always had a biprofessional minister or is shifting from full-time to part-time, members should consider some guidelines for helping to make their pastor successful so that the church can thrive under his or her leadership.

First, there should be a clear understanding about time commitment.  The church and the pastor should clearly state boundaries including when the pastor is available for calls, how much time the pastor will be “on the field,” and time off for holidays and vacations.  This is especially important when a church shifts from a full-time minister to a part-time or bivocational minister. Often, members expect the same time commitment.  Respect the pastor’s time.

Second, pastor and church must develop a fair compensation package.  Each situation is unique.  Often the bivocational has his or her own insurance which helps the church, but this is not guaranteed.  The pastor’s other income may come through self-employment or part-time hourly work where no insurance coverage is provided.  If the pastor has to travel some distance to the church, the church might consider mileage reimbursement.  At least for the present, the church might designate all or part of the pastor’s salary as a housing allowance to avoid taxes.  Tax professionals and denominational leaders can be helpful in negotiating a compensation agreement.

Third, lay leaders must understand that they have to share more of the load for administration, building supervision, and pastoral ministry.  Although the pastor will still want to visit members and do hospital visitation, trained and committed leaders can share those ministry opportunities.

Fourth, a congregation with a part-time pastor should not think of themselves as a “second-class” church.  In most cases, the church is getting a shepherd who is highly committed to ministry and willing to make sacrifices to serve the congregation.  By entering into this relationship, church members have the opportunity be innovative, flexible, and more connected to the work of God in their midst.

Clear communication and shared goals will allow both the church and its biprofessional pastor to thrive.


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Back to the Future: Bivocational Ministry

Chuck Strong, former biprofessional pastor
 of Olive Branch Fellowship
In a recent article, United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter shared three New Testament models of stewardship: the beggar, the patron, and the tentmaker.  He asked, “Can we re-imagine these roles for a new age?”

The one that caught my attention is the “tentmaker,” also known as the bivocational or biprofessional approach.  Carter points out that about one-third of UMC churches have 35 or less on Sunday mornings.  Some are served by ministers with two or three charges, but many are also served by ministers whose primary income is from another source.

In my work with Baptist churches affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (now the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board),  I found that out of 3000 churches almost two-thirds had bivocational pastors.  One observer wrote, “About 10,000 bivocational ministers were working in the Southern Baptist churches in 1998. By 2004, that number had doubled, to 20,000.”  This is almost half of the churches affiliated with the SBC. This trend seems to be true in other denominations as well. Over half of Mennonite pastors are biprofessional.

Although some of these pastors lack formal theological education, many have advanced degrees. In fact, one article points out that the October 2017 issue of Colloquy, the newsletter of the Association of Theological Schools, reports that 30 percent of graduating seminarians anticipate entering into bivocational ministry.

Although some may see this as a step back, this model was very common in the nineteen century in rural and frontier America and has never really gone away.  Some of the most effective pastors that I have known made their primary income in other professions.

Carter notes, “Rediscovering the ancient-future practices of a missional movement, and re-imagining the roles of beggar, patron and tentmaker in our own time, may help us to support and sustain the renewal of our congregations and institutions.”  I think this is particularly true when it comes to bivocational pastors.

How can churches make the best use of their bivocational pastors and how can seminaries support them?  We will look at that in the next two blog posts.









Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Making the SHIFT from Member to Disciple

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren writes, “It is worth noting in this regard that the word ‘Christian’ occurs in the New Testament exactly three times and the word ‘Christianity’ exactly zero. The word ‘disciple,’ however, is found 263 times.”  It is also interesting that “member” is only found 45 times in the New Testament and 9 times in the Gospels. Of the 263 references to “disciple” in the New Testament, 235 are in the Gospels.  This seems to have been Jesus’ preferred term for His followers.

Being a church member is not necessarily the same thing as being a Christian disciple. The SHIFT process takes this emphasis into account by challenging the 21stcentury church to move from the idea of church membership to Christian discipleship.  We don’t need more members, we need more disciples who are responding to the call of God into the world.

How do churches go about addressing this and encouraging the movement of individuals from membership to discipleship?  Let me suggest some ways.

A first step is understanding all that a disciple is or will be is grounded in that individual’s relationship with God. This reality changes one’s values and priorities.  This might be called a “whole life stewardship” approach. Whatever God has placed at our disposal--spiritual gifts, time, relationships, finances, the created world--must be used as good stewards or managers.  The life of a disciple is not meant to be fragmented but unified under the leadership of God’s spirit.  This concept empowers the church to address not only the disciple’s spiritual formation but the implications of discipleship for all areas of life--family, work, service, hospitality, creation care, and so many more.

Second, many churches are developing and calling disciples to practice a rule of life. In Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson describes a rule of life in this way: “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provide structure and direction for growth in holiness . . .. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be.” Communities of faith are recovering this ancient practice to encourage growth in disciples and provide accountability.

Third, “disciple” and “discipline” come from the same root.  Following a certain practice or discipline helps one to grow in his or her vocation.  This is true of the vocation of being a disciple as well.  Many ancient practices of the Christian church such as centering prayer, lectio Divina, fasting, and meditation encourage disciples to grow in their faith. Churches are reclaiming these disciplines as means for Christian formation.

Fourth, as believers join together in disciple development groups, they support and encourage one another in their spiritual growth, service, and relationships.  These groups go further than the usual Sunday school or Bible study groups by focusing on intentional growth and application of scripture.  Members hold each other accountable for their individual progress as disciples.  The Disciple Development Coaching© process of Pinnacle Leadership Associates can inform and resource these groups.

As we move the emphasis from “member” to “disciple” in our churches, we open up our congregations and ourselves to new ways of being on mission for God in the world today.  We are no longer simply voluntary members of an organization but an essential part of the Body of Christ.

(For more information of the shift from member to disciple, read Mark Tidsworth, SHIFT:  Three Big Moves for the 21stCentury Church.)