Friday, November 30, 2018

When the Horse is Dead, Dismount

You can do a Google search on this quote, but the results on its origin are ambiguous.  Most likely, it is a Native American tribal saying popularized by leadership gurus like Peter Drucker.  The meaning, of course, is clear.  When something no longer work, it is time to move on.

This is easier said than done.  In business and industry, abandoning a project may mean the loss of jobs and capital investment.  In education, old approaches must be unlearned and new ways learned.  In the church, there may be some fear that we are giving up part of what makes us faithful when we end a program, ministry, worship service, or building.  It is not only about change, but loss as well.

R. Buckminster Fuller  said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  So what do you do when the existing model is already obsolete?  You had better get to work on an alternative!
Of course, it is important for people to face reality first.  The old no longer works. People need to honor the past but get ready to invest in the future. We can come up with a new way of doing things but we need to get to work now.  
A sense of urgency is not a bad thing. Knowing that we only have a short time to come up with something new challenges our creativity and builds community. Of course, some will not be willing to do this hard work and probably will leave rather than deal with the tension. Honor their choice but don’t regret their leaving.
Finally, sometimes quick fixes are only temporary and are only the first step to a more sustainable existence.  Hold the new approaches rather lightly.  Experience and learning may well push to the next level of innovation.
Getting off the dead horse is good advice. Finding a new horse will take some work.
(This blog originally appeared here on March 27, 2017.)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Information or Formation?

Sociologist Brene Brown once said, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more."  This applies to our understanding of Christian discipleship.  As Christians, we often struggle with the balance between orthodoxy (right knowledge or doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice or action). This is the challenge that James presents when he writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18, NIV)

Both right belief and right action are necessary in the life of a follower of Christ, but can one get in the way of the other?

Historically, Baptists have been very good at communicating information about the Bible and the faith.  They delight in asking questions of scripture that exegete the text in an attempt to understand the who, what, how, and why of the passage.  We are less open to letting the text speak to us.  

For example, when I attempt to introduce Lectio Divina to a Baptist group, they often want to question the text rather than let it question them.  The practice of Lectio Divina treats the text not as something to be studied but as the Living Word that questions us.

Certainly, we need to understand the text to avoid its misuse.  There are three questions we should ask in studying a passage of scripture:

  • What does it say? Do we understand the words and their meaning?
  • What did it mean (in context)?  Every part of the Bible was given first to a particular group of people in a specific context.  What did it mean to those who heard the text for the first time?  Was it teaching, exhortation, or worship?  What life circumstances did it address?
  • What does it mean to me?  Study of scripture without application is incomplete.  What does this text say to me today and what should I do about it? 

Ultimately, the goal of right teaching is right action.  If we become experts in the study of the Bible but never put it into practice, we have missed the point.  Information is important, but formation for Christian living is the real goal.

(This blog originally appeared here on August 23, 2017.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Are Cooperative Baptists Really Interested in Supporting Theological Education?

The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is closing its doors at the end of this academic year.  BTSR has blessed many through its capable administration, gifted faculty, and effective alumni.  Born with a great vision in a time of Baptist turmoil, the seminary encouraged many who were seeking an alternative path for theological education and ministry formation.

In light of the seminary’s closing, Paul Baxley, senior minister of First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia, asked these questions: “As Cooperative Baptists, are we really committed to the importance of theological education in preparation for ministry? While there is still time, are we willing to act boldly to strengthen our remaining schools so that congregations may thrive and ministers may be trained? Are we willing to envision a new covenant between our churches, our current ministers, our theological schools and those whom God is calling into ministry now and in the future?”

My answer is an equivocal, “Maybe.”  The statements I am about to make are based on my own experience and impressions. I welcome rebuttal and correction from those more knowledgeable.  I suggest we look at the categories that Baxley lists--churches, ministers, and theological schools--and add CBF Global and the state CBF organizations.

First, my impression is that the seminaries who wish to serve CBF and its related churches have done most of the heavy lifting up to this point. They may be free-standing institutions, affiliated with a university, or related to another denomination. In each case, they raise their own support, handle the recruiting of students, and attain the instructional and administrative standards to maintain accreditation.  They have taken the initiative to reach out to churches for support, developed donors and foundations as contributors, and encouraged their students to be part of CBF General Assembly meetings and CBF missions.

Second, ministers who have graduated from these schools have been good representatives of their institutions through their ministries, networking to help graduates find placement, and often urging their churches to support their alma mater. Unfortunately, many of the graduates of the CBF-oriented theological schools have found more opportunities with American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians than with progressive Baptist congregations, so their impact in the CBF system is lost.

Third, churches just don’t get it.  Unless there is a CBF-oriented school in the immediate area, most church members and search committees don’t know the difference between Liberty’s Rawlings School of Divinity and Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary.  I have consulted with members of more than one pastor search committee who were struggling to distinguish among the theological schools on applicants’ resumes.

Fourth, CBF state and regional organizations have worked to keep the theological schools before their constituents through presentations at meetings, hosting seminary exhibitors, and funding scholarships (there is one named in my honor that is offered by the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).  Rarely, however, do these entities provide any direct financial support to theological institutions.

Fifth, what is CBF global doing?  For one thing, seminarians are included in the Young Adult Network. According to the CBF website, this network includes individuals from the following categories of young Baptists: seminarians, young clergy (up to age 35), young adult laity (ages 21-35), and those who minister alongside individuals from the above age ranges.  For another, CBF provides or has provided scholarship funding to students who attend 20 theological education programs and regularly provide direct scholarships for 15. That is about it.  I believe that CBF Global is interested in seminarians but is concerned about becoming too connected to theological institutions.  Perhaps the institutions feel the same way.

Finally, here are some general observations.  

  • Certain programs provided through CBF Global encourage students in CBF-oriented seminaries, but it is too little.
  • Although early graduates of the theological schools are rising to places of prominence in CBF churches and life, the support for those schools has not increased.  
  • The entire system is informal, loose, and tenuous.  Due to what happened to Baptists in the South in the late 20thcentury, perhaps that is what all involved prefer.  Is there anyone who really wants to forge “a new covenant” to assure the future of CBF-oriented theological education?

So, my response to Dr. Baxley’s question is, “Maybe.”  But I am an optimist.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Diversity Makes Everything Better

"We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color." --Maya Angelou

Diversity is something of a buzz word today.  Most often it refers to a racial and ethnic mix, but it can also be applied to any number of other categories.  Diversity recognizes the reality that society itself, as Angelou noted, is a tapestry. Although there may be similarities, no two people are exactly alike, not even identical twins.  We are part of a rich and variegated society.

Perhaps the greatest gift that diversity provides is the opportunity to learn from others and to create a stronger society, organization, church, or product by incorporating the unique experiences and abilities that each person brings to the table.

We make efforts to create diversity by reaching out to individuals who are unlike us, but inherent in any group is a thread of diversity.  Diversity means that people approach things differently.

Although the quote, “Where is everyone is thinking alike, somebody is not thinking” is attributed to George S. Patton, the idea has been around for a long time. Just having a group of people working on a project doesn’t mean that everyone’s abilities are being tapped.  “Groupthink” can lead to a lock step approach that either follows the leader without question or brings discussion to the lowest common denominator.

Tapping into diversity and the rich knowledge base in a group is a significant skill for a leader.  It requires the ability to put one’s own assumptions on hold, listen to others, ask good questions, and value other’s insights.  When it works well, the result can be phenomenal.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Healing Racial Divides: A Review

A positive aspect of teaching classes for Central Seminary (Shawnee, KS) has been the diversity of the student body.  In addition to working with students from a number of denominations, I also have the opportunity to engage students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  I have especially learned from the experiences of African-American Christians who have been willing to share not only their church culture but their personal experiences as well.  Even with this exposure, I still have a lot to learn about relating across the racial gap, so I appreciate Terrell Carter’s informative and challenging book Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Our Diversity.

Dr. Terrell Carter is an artist (he provided the cover art), pastor, theologian, educator, and former police officer.  He combines these experiences with the insights of theology, the social sciences, law, and cultural analysis to address the key issue in American life--the racial divide that inhibits our interactions and poisons public discourse.  Carter’s very personal engagement with the topic encourages us to find strength rather than division in our diversity.  His approach is fresh, informative, and a source of healing.

In Healing Racial Divides, Carter helps us: 
  • Understand the roots of racism in the world, the church, and ourselves;
  • Gain a biblical perspective on the sin of racism, as well as the biblical call to Christian unity;
  • Examine how racism continues to be perpetuated in America today;
  • Explore the concept of "white normality" and its aftereffects;
  • Discover a way across the divide through the creation of multi-cultural relationships, churches and communities.

I think you will find Carter’s observations not only informative but uncomfortable, especially if you are not an African-American.  I appreciate his willingness to tackle this tough subject.

(Note:  The book will not be released until January 2019, but it is available now for pre-order on Amazon.)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Strategies for the Future of the Church

We see the articles and blogs daily: church membership is in decline, mainline influence is waning, church buildings are a burden, membership is declining, fewer people are entering the ministry.  Despite the challenges, there is a way forward for the church.  I believe that the church will survive and prosper in the days ahead, but the form It takes will change.  Here are some strategies that may allow the church to remain vital and relevant.

First, congregations must learn to engage in a deeper spirituality that will foster meaningful discernment.  Spiritual vitality is at the core of a healthy congregation.  There must be a significant shift from voicing what parishioners want to seeking where God is leading.  This will require both personal and corporate prayer, Bible study, and sacrifice.

Second, we must recognize there is more than one path to leadership in churches.  Churches will continue to call out and employ members with little or no theological training for leadership roles because they have the gifts to do the work.  Trained ministers will continue to follow their callings but may have to supplement their incomes through work beyond the church.  Lay leaders will have to take on responsibilities that were once assumed by paid staff.  Both denominations and seminaries are recognizing these realities and developing new approaches to form, equip, and encourage these individual ministries, but the shift will not be easy.

Third, churches must adopt leaner, more agile organizational structures.  With fewer leaders, declining resources, and time pressures, people in the church will be less inclined to waste their time on meaningless or maintenance-oriented tasks.  We need to focus on the essentials, eliminate redundancy, cut committees, add short-term teams, and outsource functions that can reduce staff workload.

Fourth, churches must look outward to develop dynamic externally-focused partnerships.  Christians must come to realize that God is at work not only within their churches but with others as well.  If we are not already partnering with other Christians to do Kingdom work, this is a good time to discover where we can work together to multiple our impact. We must seek out “persons of peace” in other faith traditions who want to work together for community improvement and social justice.  We should also seek partnerships in the not-for-profit community or consider ways that we can join with those outside our churches to make a difference in the lives of people through new community organizations.

These strategies are not easy.  Such steps require a reorientation of our priorities and a willingness to let go of some things, but as we do so, we will be free to embrace new possibilities.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

A Test of Leadership

The relationship between God and Israel recounted in the Hebrew Bible is a bit of a roller-coaster ride.  A good example is found in Exodus 32.  God has delivered the Israelites from Egypt. They have gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to worship God, receive the Ten Commandments, and affirm a covenant with the Deliverer God.  Moses goes up to the mountain for 40 days to receive the commandments etched on stone by God and full instructions for a Tabernacle to symbolize God’s presence with the people. Then it all falls apart.

For their own reasons, the people despair of Moses’ returning and are afraid that this God he has proclaimed has forsaken them.  They call on Aaron to help them create a golden idol that they can see and worship.  They rebel.

God sees this happening and declares to Moses,“Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.”  (32:7, NIV). God’s new plan is to destroy them and “then I will make you into a great nation.” (32:10).

Here is a major test of Moses’ leadership.  He can abandon the people and embrace God’s new plan and join the ranks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a new patriarch.  Moses has had his own times of frustration with this group since they left Egypt.  Maybe it is time to cut his losses and move on. He chooses a different course of action.

Moses accepts his role as leader and argues on behalf of the Israelites.  He reminds God that they are not his people, but God’s (32:11) and that God has already invested a great deal in them.  God relents of destroying the people and joins Moses in a plan of redemption.

Perhaps this was God’s intention all along.  When times became difficult, would Moses abandon those he led and look out for his own welfare?  To his credit, Moses accepts the challenge. The next steps will not be easy, but he affirms his mantle of leadership and addresses the problem.

The test of a true leader is her or his ability to accept responsibility.  Plans will go astray, people will fail to follow through, and events will complicate things.  When life happens, the leader can throw someone else under the bus or step up and try to make things right.

Moses passed the test.  Leading this ragtag group would never be easy, but he had found his place and accepted the responsibility of a leader.  What a great example!