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Monday, 26 May 2014

6 Practices to sustain a pastor's spirit

I have been wondering lately how I have made it through 22 years of full time pastoral ministry with my love for ministry still intact. So many who go into pastoral ministry only make it a short time. Pastors can feel ineffective, unappreciated and can often experience ministry as an adversarial relationship with a congregation.

For what they are worth, here are 6 things that I can identify as having sustained me in this work I continue to love.

1. Get a life! That is, a spiritual life.  Just  because we spend our days talking ABOUT faith or God or the Way of Jesus doesn't mean we actually live by faith, connect to God or follow the way of Jesus. As pastors, people often give us more credit than we deserve for being spiritual people. Being a pastor is an endurance sport. We need a life steeped in spiritual practices to make it very far.

2. When you look at the congregation, see the Body of Christ.  If you find you don't see the Body of Christ, beware. Get new lenses. Go on retreat. Talk with someone who loves pastoral ministry. When we slip into cynicism in our relationship with a congregation, we become like nagging parents or snobbish neighbors, giving off the "vibe" that if people would just do it our way, they could become what they clearly are not now. If you believe the Body of Christ was there before you arrives, you will be surprised by the gifts of the spirit that your joy will evoke.

3. Recognize when people see you, their history with God, Jesus and the church flashes before their eyes. When  you walk into a hospital room or meet a disgruntled church member you are not just you. You, for good and ill, remind them of their love or hate for God, their embrace or rejection by a church, their shame or joy in how they have lived their life. This is a gift to you --an opening for ministry. But it is easy to mistake for a reaction to you personally.

4. Preach to yourself. What do you need to hear from a particular text? How does it challenge and embarrass you? How does it rearrange your thinking or dash your hopes? Preaching is not so much deciding what "they need to hear (meaning I'm really off the hook)," but what do we need to hear together?

5. Practice curiosity. Curiosity is a marvelous antidote to defensiveness. When someone seems unhappy with you, the church, the session's decision, the changes in worship, go deeper. Find out what's worrying them, what gives them joy, what life in community means to them.  Explanations and justifications can leave the conversation cold and unsatisfying for everyone.

6. Ask for help.  We spend our days trying to get communities of faith to support each other and reach out for help. Then we put ourselves in some kind of special category as people who should know how to carry out the tasks of ministry alone. There is help everywhere. I have called seminary professors to help me with sermons, seasoned pastors to help me plan session agendas, psychologists to help me address issues of addiction, nuns to help me create a spirituality among church leadership.  I have also learned to deeply trust the wisdom within the congregation, to tell the leaders honestly about struggles in ministry, to gather a trusted team to deal with serious personnel issues, and to invite presbytery assistance in times of conflict. People want to help you succeed and appreciate the opportunity to offer wisdom and insight, to be treated as members of the "priesthood of all believers."

Friday, 23 May 2014

Lord, listen to your children..........

This post is part 5 of a series of responses to questions posed to candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

How does your church community make room for people to share their stories of faith?  How can we listen to the stories of people who are not in the church? 

When I think about how community is built and faith strengthened, I think primarily of personal and often vulnerable conversations in which people reveal their deepest questions and most profound experiences of God. Where do these occur at University Church, San Antonio? Here are a few places…
* The Board of Deacons:  Our current Deacon moderator decided to ask one deacon at each monthly meeting to share his/her personal faith story. This idea irritated the “business as usual” crowd, yet this practice has enriched each meeting and strengthened the whole faith community.

* Newcomer retreats: Newcomers share time with current church officers and other members. At a point during the   retreat we gather in groups of 3 to share conversations about the faith journey “maps” prepared during a time of silence. Stories of addiction and abuse emerge as do testimonies of God’s healing grace.

* Officer training: each church officer is asked to prepare and present a statement of faith, which are shared in small group settings. Many are written in a form of deeply personal testimony to the presence of God in a person’s life. Several have been asked to share these statements in worship.

* Financial Stewardship season: each fall, when UPC engages in our campaign to encourage members and others to make financial pledges to the ministry of the congregation, we  invite individuals to present a testimony to the congregation. Surprisingly, a presentation on “Why I give to UPC” turns out, almost always, to be a story of faith, touching on the blessings and wounds of a person’s life.

* The Way of the Child: this contemplative Sunday School  curriculum, which we use at UPC for preschool and elementary school children, invites the kind of interaction  between children and the scriptural texts that results in the children sharing extraordinary stories of connection with their own lives.

Listening to stories outside the church…
A grieving parent with no church home calls to ask if we would consider having a funeral for their child, who has just died. Two other churches have said no because they are not members. What a sad commentary, that we do not have the time or inclination to respond to a family in their deepest time of need. What more significant outreach could there be?

Offering to hold memorial services for families in the community with no church connection has become a strong ministry at UPC. The church staff and the deacons willingly offer support to nonmembers who turn to the church at this time. When these families gather in my study to tell me about the person who has died, faith stories emerge. Faith questions bubble up, and estrangements from faith communities are shared. There is often a beginning to some crucial healing in these holy moments.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Challenges of Being Church in the 21st century

This post is part of a series on questions for candidates for moderator for the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

What are some of the exciting possibilities facing the 21st
Century church? 
What are the challenges that face the church in this century?

Following Jesus offers exciting possibilities and monumental
challenges in any age. In our time, we probably will not succeed in inventing new ways to be Christian, or brand new ways to be church. We will make the same mistakes and discover in doing so the extraordinary grace of God. We are likely to lead and serve and hope and change and retrench with the same vigor that the church in any era has done. We will meet with fluctuating amounts of acceptance and hostility from culture, family and neighbor. 

Therefore, our first call is to humility, and a frequent backward glance. We are not looking back to the “good ol’ days,” but to the threads of courageous living, exuberant worship, and deep love for God’s world that can be found in the past and present of the church’s life. 
I will name 3 of many challenges the church has always and still does face, and suggest the possibilities that could emerge from facing them with hope and energy. 

Challenge 1: 
Our relationship as Christians with political structures. In other words, to whom are we loyal as followers of Jesus? 
To face this challenge:  
Deepen our spiritual practices and our commitment to being one body so the character of our life as a church surprises and intrigues those around us. But this is not enough. We also have to demonstrate in word AND deed that we are willing to stand with people who are being harmed by the way things are arranged. In other words, change ourselves, then change the world. 

Challenge 2: 
Is that person my brother/sister in Christ? Throughout history the question of who is my sister or brother in Christ has shaped theology, brought about new movements, and fueled warfare...”  The center of Christianity is now the global south, not western Europe. 
To face this challenge: 
Become students of the life and faith of our sisters and brothers in the two-thirds world. Learn their stories, share their struggles, explore their example, seek honest dialogue. Be willing to feel awkward and confused. Seek out “the other” in our own neighborhoods and trust the Spirit’s work to bring connection and new life. 

Challenge 3: Is the world for our use or are we for God’s use?  This challenge has gotten to a crisis point. We have grossly and shamefully abused the earth. 
To face this challenge:  
Make this question central to the church’s life. Our relationship with the earth is not a “special interest group” concern. Let scientists teach us in our churches, and public policy makers debate in our Sunday School rooms, and the gifts of creation always fill our worship. Our relationship with God’s creation defines us.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

13 Ways to say Hope

This post is part of a series on questions for candidates for moderator for the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

If you missed them, you can see parts 1 and 2 below.  

I see hope expressed in the PC(USA) in many ways, people and places,
such as …

... a Presbyterian army chaplain deployed in Afghanistan who gathers with anyone who is willing, for worship and communion in a small chapel. She accompanies fearful, lonely, remorseful, courageous, and questioning soldiers of no faith or other faiths on their journeys as they face challenges and moral dilemmas most of us will never face

… a small group of women who have travelled with me every Thursday for over 4 years to share in Bible study and prayer with federal offenders in a local detention facility

… a recent conference in Tulcea, Romania, during which over eighty helping professionals learned about trauma-informed practices, concrete ways to help heal the broken lives of Roma Children, and the collaboration of PCUSA mission coworkers of Presbyterian Women that made it happen …

… speaking of Presbyterian Women, they have been in the vanguard of the Spirit’s movement in the church for 200 years. Their current initiatives are immigration and anti-racism. They value Bible study, fund creative and healing ministries all over the world, and met in small groups before it was “hip” to do so!

… recent seminary graduates, young, old, passionate about Jesus and savvy communicators, deep thinkers, willing to   sacrifice and experiment and live simply and reach out to everyone

… urban congregations that start community gardens and rural congregations that support Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services

Living Waters for the World and gracious separations that have truly been gracious

Presbyterians Today, which helps us celebrate creativity and strong leadership and bloggers who make sure we know the Body of Christ is SO much bigger than the PCUSA

… ruling elders and deacons who share the Lord’s Supper in homes of those who cannot attend weekly worship

… conversations in adult Sunday School classes about big issues: climate change, poverty, public education

… adults willing to engage youth, straight and gay, in conversations about sexual ethics

… the new Presbyterian Hymnal, specifically the new Gospel “Gloria,” and the old “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”

… those who present their children for baptism. This is perhaps the most daring and amazing expression of hope of all. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

My story of hope

Continuing my series leading up to GA 221... this time talking about hope. 
My most profound encounter with hope was after a car accident in 2003. Two beloved members of the congregation I was serving as pastor were killed, and I was seriously injured. From the moment I gained consciousness while pinned inside the car, I heard the voice of a woman who turned out to be a chaplain speaking to me through the broken back window, asking me if she could call my husband for me. An EMT  spoke kind words to me while he and others lifted me gently onto a gurney. I felt enfolded with care when my whole being could have been filled with fear.

The reality of the deaths of two vibrant women brought our community to its knees in grief. Yet the wounded body of Christ –the church– embodied a resurrection hope I had never experienced. The church did this as truly one body, bone and muscle and skin inextricably linked. Church members, staff and presbytery leaders planned two funerals, others cooked for my family and visited me in the hospital. Neighbors readied our home for my return in a wheelchair.

Some say hope “floats,” but I would say it flows and seeps and saturates. Hope defined the tear-filled testimony of a church member and childhood friend of one of the deceased women offered at the sentencing of the man who had caused the accident. It was a testimony that revealed pain but did not
demand revenge. Hope flowed into the neighborhood around the church into the home of a woman who wrote the church a letter surprised and grateful for the forgiveness that the congregation had demonstrated. Hope entered the journey of the mother of one of the women who had never entered the church before her daughter’s death and is now a deacon.

Across town, the man whose recklessness had caused the death of two women, was enfolded into another congregation, and was prayed over by the men in his church, who pledged to guide and mentor him as he began to grasp what this second chance might mean for him.
In this season of my life, I encountered the truth of our hope in Christ. I saw, and through my brothers and sisters in Christ, experienced a living message of hope: that nothing, absolutely nothing, can have the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is one story. There are countless others. I will gladly share them with you. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

My "Big 3"

In the coming days leading up to General Assembly I'll be sharing some of my answers to questions that were posed to all three moderator candidates. Here are my priorities and values for the PCUSA stripped down to my "big three." If you agree with this vision, share it with others! Don't forget to visit my website and submit any questions you have. I'll try to answer your questions in future posts, as time allows. 

1-A commitment to spiritual practices … the practices that have characterized a vital life with God throughout the history of the church: prayer, worship, Sabbath-keeping, the deep reading of Scripture, generous sharing. Simple yet deep, tried and true yet fresh for each generation, neglected to our peril, in these practices we are drawn closer to God and into more resilient communion with one another.

2-A desire to build community among strangers … our encounters with the “other” often reveal much about us. Changing neighborhoods, expanding variations of faith traditions, shared sidewalks with people whose pockets do not contain enough for the bus ride home-- can we see these as invitations to new relationships and new discoveries, enriching to the church and to our lives of faith? Most of all, can we see in these encounters expressions of the Kingdom of God?

3-A willingness to be bold and bodily witnesses to gospel values. Are we as followers of Christ, seen and heard in the places where brokenness is experienced most profoundly? Do we maintain a silent pity for wounded humanity, when placing our bodies alongside struggling humans (or nonhumans for that matter) might make for life-giving change? Do the things others see and hear from us as we go about our Christian lives in the world prompt them to glorify God?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Book of Confessions, Keepin' it Real for 2000 Years!

Every year it's the same thing. Newly elected ruling elders and deacons gather on Tuesday nights at University Presbyterian Church to be trained by their pastor (me) and Christian educator in preparation for ordination. This group of people, many of whom have not been Presbyterian for long, give me a kind of bug-eyed look when I hand them a shiny new blue Book of Confessions and ask them to dive into it throughout the week. They look at me like they are not sure they will come out on the other side!

Then they get curious --most of them--and decide to read more than we have asked them, taking notes and wondering where these ideas came from. They are amazed at the wisdom of the confessions, confused by the vitriol, and surprised by the words of grace. They ask for help understanding and they look for permission to argue and they find reasons to celebrate a history they had not paid attention to before.

Which always reminds ME of the great stuff that can be found in the confessions of the church. (If you are not Presbyterian and are listening in jealously, you can download a free copy of the Book of Confessions on the website).

Here is something challenging and inspiring from each of the confessions......

1. The Nicene Creed (4th century)
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  
Do we look for the dead to rise? Or do we expect what is severed, broken, lost, unreconciled, to stay that way? Perhaps hope is always being on the lookout for resurrection.

2. The Apostles' Creed (2nd through 8th centuries)
 I the forgiveness of sins....
I'm working on this one. Some days I can't shake the fact that I am part of the hurt that others experience in the world. Other days I am crushed by the heartlessness that others display around me.

3. The Scots Confession (16th century)
This confession speaks of "good works" as two kinds: One is done to honor God, the other for the profit of our neighbor......To honor father, mother, princes, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, to support them, to obey their orders if they are not contrary to the commands of God, to save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, to keep our bodies clean and holy, to live in soberness and temperance, to deal justly with all [people] in word and deed, and finally, to repress any desire to harm our neighbor, are the  good works of the second kind.

In other words, the world, our bodies, our relationships, are all the realm of the work of the Spirit. Words matter, but only inasmuch as they express themselves in how we live.

4. The Heidelberg Catechism (16th century)
Under the heading "Thankfulness" this confession goes through the 10 Commandments and suggest deep and wide meaning for each of them. Here's a great example:
Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment [You shall not steal.]?
A. He forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but God also labels as theft all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor's goods, whether by force or under the pretext of right, such as false weights and measures, deceptive advertising or merchandising, counterfeit money, exorbitant interest, or any other means forbidden by God. He also forbids all greed and misuse and waste of his gifts.

Lots of 21st century relevance here! Ouch. Think about credit card interest and payday lending!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

A thank you to Jacob the college business professor who chairs our Stewardship and Finance committee:

Yesterday evening I wandered a few minutes late into the Stewardship and Finance committee meeting of University Presbyterian Church, where I get to be the pastor.  The group was not pouring over budgets or scrutinizing the latest expenditure of the Director of Christian Education.  They were discussing the following quote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to LONG for the endless immensity of the sea (Antoine de Saint-Exupery).”  

I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like the average Presbyterian finance committee thing to do: to reflect on cultivating longing in others for something beautiful and immense, before launching into conversation about whether to move $10,000 from the capital improvements fund or put PayPal on the church website.

But those few minutes were a great gift to me in these ways…….

1.       The quote is a beautiful statement about leadership, and a wonderful guide for leadership in the church.  It will give me lots to ponder in the days ahead.

2.       The chair of the committee was taking his role as a spiritual and visionary leader seriously in the most mundane of circumstances –a meeting about money in the church. He knows it’s not just the pastor’s job to lead and envision. It is the calling of the people of God.  This is a thrilling revelation to any pastor.

3.       The tone set in a church meeting by opening with a reflection on scripture, leadership or some form of spiritual formation can, over time, form a community of leaders that see each gathering “at” the church as a gathering “of” the church.  It’s easy to be the church in worship, but the true challenge is allowing ourselves to be formed into the Body of Christ in facilities meetings,  session meetings, presbytery meetings.  This takes leaders with eyes focused on the immense beauty of the sea and…………… God.



Monday, 5 May 2014

Lessons I learned from being a foster parent

My husband John and I were foster parents almost nonstop for about 12 years, beginning within our first year of marriage. Somewhere in there we also had Clare, our biological daughter. Our son David, whom we adopted through the state of Missouri, came to live with us in March of 2003.
14 children from 4 days old to 16 years old came into and out of our home, and stayed as little time as 24 hours and as long as 5 years. Our oldest foster son is in his mid 30s now.

What did foster-parenting teach me? Here are 10 things.........

1. There is no more wonderful way to spend time that to read a child a bedtime story, sing a song, say a prayer and tuck them into a safe bed at night.  Every child, every age, loved this ritual, which would always bring beauty to the day, no matter how difficult.

2. You can't fix people. And most importantly, don't try to fix people to avoid your own embarrassment (think tantrums in grocery stores).  People are wounded and wacky, fearful and mysterious. You might be a part of their story of healing, but there are lots of parts to their story.

3. It's lonely on a pedestal. Foster parenting is one of those things that make people look at you and say "Oh my goodness, I could NEVER do anything like that! I don't know HOW you do it!" This is maybe meant to be a compliment, but just makes you feel lonely (and crazy). There are so many kids who need foster parents, and so many foster parents who need support, we gotta stop seeing it as an impossible thing, and realize that most things we say we could never do, we probably just don't want to do.

4. Sadness is part of the deal. Saying goodbye to a foster child is probably the most excruciating experience I've ever had. But sadness is not an enemy, and the sadness I have endured as a foster parent has no comparison to the sadness the children have endured, and the sadness their parents have endured, no matter how flawed they are. I lead a Bible study in a detention facility, and the women whose children are in foster care love their children as much as any other parent.

5. Say what you need. Someone will probably give it to you. I have had toys and beds and books and strollers and babysitters and clothes and birthday presents and counseling and car seats emerge seemingly out of nowhere just by saying the word. Generosity abounds when you don't struggle in silence. This reality may stem primarily from .........

6. A faithful church community can save a family. When you are the preacher and you have 4 children in tow on a Sunday morning, neither you nor the church members have any choice but to start taking kids by the hand and finding crayons and cheerios and children's Bibles and patient words and smiling encouragement. We never asked, it just happened.  Some churches, thank God, have reached out to foster parents in their communities to offer such support proactively. I'm telling you, saving grace indeed!

7. We spend too much time punishing, rather than treating, people with drug addictions. A cynical social worker can see a mom whose children are in foster care as a waste of time and space. We spend a lot more on incarcerating people with drug problems than we do treating them. Let's change this.

8.  Don't make a big deal about Mother's Day at church, unless you plan to acknowledge all the wounds associated with our relationships with mothers. Some mothers have really let their children down, brutalizing or humiliating them relentlessly. Some  people long to be mothers and have never had the chance. Others have mothers who have died. I'm not opposed at all to making people sad in church. I'm opposed to behaving as if everyone has an uncomplicated mother-child relationship to be celebrated with a smile and a cute poem.

9. Give up on perfect. It will get you every time. I was not a perfect parent to foster children, nor am I a perfect parent to the children who have my name on their birth certificate. I've discovered that striving for perfection as a parent, a spouse, a colleague, a housekeeper, whatever, leaves damage in your wake. At minimum it just makes everyone around you nervous.

10. It's not important. It's amazing how you can be doing something REALLY important, but when someone calls you and says, "Can you go to the hospital and pick up a 4 day old baby girl who needs a home?" you almost can't even remember what you were doing that was so gosh darn "important." There are some great reasons to rearrange priorities. And believe me, you don't need that perfect pastel yellow paint with the smiling Noah's ark animals painted on the walls or the 400$ crib to welcome a child .............or anyone else, into your life.