When it’s time to write a resume or talk to a boss or discuss a project glitch with colleagues, the instinct is to spin, to avoid a little responsibility, to sit quietly. Put a best face forward, don’t set yourself up.
When reviewing just about anything you’ve done with yourself (in your head), the instinct is to be brutal, relentlessly critical and filled with doubt and self-blame.
Do not link all of your social media together. If I wanted to follow you on Foursquare, I would follow you on Foursquare. Finding out on Twitter that you are the mayor of the Boerum Hill IHOP doesn’t meet any current needs I have.
I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself.)
We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our fourth year to meet, and here’s how it works:
We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently 15 people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 30 weeks of preaching. From time to time we think about adding members, but haven’t figured out how to do so without cutting into evening free time, something we are not willing to do.
People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.
1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.
2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.
3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.
4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.
5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. This year we’re uploading our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due by Saturday morning before we leave, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.
6. Schedule for the week: We do 40 minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and this year we even have a free afternoon. Heaven.
7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.
So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.
This article has been making the rounds, questioning the utility of long expensive seminary educations as a means for training pastors:
Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.
Meanwhile something like half of the churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are without pastors. Many cannot afford to pay one, especially not a full-time salary. All sorts of prognosticators say we’re moving back to the “tentmaker” model, in which the pastor has a paying job independent of the pastoral ministry. (The term goes back to the Apostle Paul.)
This is a multivalent issue and a complicated problem. (I disagree with the author’s argument about the reasons for mainline decline; it’s not lefty politics, it’s primarily demographics.) But one thing I haven’t heard anything about is a source for these “tentmakers”: stay-at-home mothers. So in addition to people who work full-time and have a part-time ministry gig, why not encourage “full-time mothers” to become part-time pastors? I live in an area that has quite a few stay-at-home moms, and I have met countless of them who have incredible gifts for ministry. They run VBS programs. They teach Bible studies. They could be trained and paid for doing what often amounts to a small part-time job.
I am a pastor who works part-time in a small congregation. I love the part-time schedule on its own merits. And I love it also because I parent three small children, and there is incredible flexibility to be home when they get off the bus, or to work from home when they’re sick, or to take a day and chaperone the school field trip (Friday, pray for me). It feels way more flexible than, say, teaching, which is another profession that many women find appealing because of its supposed family-friendliness.
Of course, the times it’s not flexible, it’s really not—crises, hospital visits, deaths. But with the right support system in place, it’s incredibly workable. The congregation I serve has been nothing but gracious when it comes to my kids, their schedules, and illnesses. Unfortunately, the predominant view of ministry as a profession is that it’s all-encompassing, and family life suffers. Stereotypes abound about PKs who grow up to resent the church. Those stereotypes are not without basis. But I’m telling you, I can think of hardly any profession that is as family friendly as ministry.
I think if the church could somehow harness the gifts of these women, it would be incredibly beneficial, both for churches and for the women themselves, who may feel like they want something of “their own” that’s not related to child-raising.
I’ve witnessed such a dejectedness when we think about our churches not being able to pay for full-time ministers. There’s a real sense of shame, like the church has failed. And I know that some people are called to ministry and want to work full-time and/or are the sole breadwinners in their families, and that has to be part of the equation too. But with this crisis comes an opportunity. I talk to more and more minister-moms who work full-time and would give anything to move to part-time. In many cases, their family can make it work economically; it’s just the church that needs to shift its attitude about what makes someone a “real” pastor.
Could denominations be creative in how we certify pastors? Could seminaries be creative in how we train them? I met recently with a woman who’s incredibly gifted, and is even considering seminary, but how does she do that with school-age children? Does she have to wait until her children are in college before she starts a cumbersome M.Div. program that could take three or more years? The church has need for her now.
A non-religious friend of mine read the sermon and said this, among other things:
Your approach made me feel it’s possible that religion can be open to the non-religious, which is a nice feeling—but it also leaves me wondering that if the central myth of Christianity being true or not is irrelevant to believers, what’s the difference between believers and nonbelievers?
Our conversation went all over the place from here, but this is what I said to him initially. I post it not because it’s all that polished or finished, but because it’s where I start with these kinds of conversations.
There’s a book out right now called something like, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian.” It attempts to strip out the more literalist stuff that is not really the core of the gospel. Do I have to believe Genesis 1 is scientific? No. Do I need to believe that Jesus somehow has a claim on my life and that impacts how I live? Yes.
Your basic question is right on. Perhaps there isn’t much difference between believers and non-believers. If Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God/heaven is an enacted thing, you don’t need to profess Christ in order to be a part of it. And Jesus said as much (he who is not against us is for us—though he also said the opposite somewhere else, so whaddyagonnado).
What I hope to do in my preaching is to speak a word to people who are what Flannery O’Connor called ”Christ-haunted”–who struggle with profound doubt (and really, what person with a brain doesn’t doubt?), but who just cannot quit Jesus. And the best I can come up with for those folks is this idea of master stories (not my own invention). What story are we living in? Might makes right, look out for #1, only the good die young? Or life out of death? So last Easter was the anniversary of King’s assassination. And I said [paraphrased] “it is crazy to think that a bullet could put an end to Dr. King’s dream.” That’s where I see resurrection.
And for people who aren’t inclined toward faith that’s ridiculous. The man died and his children were left without a father and there were riots in the streets. I can’t argue with that. But there were also redemptive elements in the aftermath too.
Roger Ebert’s review of Of Gods and Men (the movie I mentioned in the sermon) was interesting. He just could not get his head around the monks’ decision to stay and be killed. If they had left, he said, the group of them would have had a hundred years or so of service to give to the poor in some other community. I respect that view and also recognize it as the product of an atheist mind. I’m pretty utilitarian myself, but that calculated way of looking at their lives demonstrates a lack of understanding of what motivates them. Those monks are not primarily social service providers, they are participating in a story of Christ’s emptying himself for humanity, even unto death.
I don’t know if the faith thing is genetic or what, but it’s clear there are people who just aren’t oriented that way. I’m not sure there’s anything I could say to them and it’s probably insulting to try, so peace be upon them. But for people who perceive the world in a more intuitively faith-based way, I hope I give them a place to stand, or pace around scratching their heads, or whatever they need to do.
It’s not so much that the truth of the Christ myth is unimportant, but that the facticity of the physical resurrection is a red herring in that pursuit of truth. By living in the way of Jesus, we participate in the resurrection story, and that brings its own insight, even if that insight results in a further lack of clarity.
I wanted to share with my clergypals something we did yesterday in worship that I felt was simple but effective.
One of the tensions in the church is how much to emphasize the passion of Christ on Palm Sunday. It seems unfair to “cheat” Palm Sunday and insert too much Maundy Thursday/Good Friday into it, but attendance at those midweek services is usually a fraction of what it is on Sunday. So, many pastors reason, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the themes of MT/GF, otherwise most people don’t get them at all. And resurrection without a death is cheap grace. But what about starting Easter with Good Friday, and giving the Easter crowds a little taste of that theme? I’d personally never seen that done, but it makes sense.
At Tiny Church, we hit the Palm Sunday themes pretty hard two weekends ago—even sang “Joy to the World” after the sermon. We shifted to passion late in the service—really, just the last hymn. During “Go to Dark Gethsemane” we extinguished the candles, recessed out with the Bible, and draped a heavy black cloth on the communion table.
On Good Friday we did a Tenebrae service with seven candles on the communion table. These were all extinguished except for the one on the far right. It seemed right to have one remaining candle as the other lights dimmed or went out, and to have it off-center, since there is something off-kilter and out of balance about the death of Christ.
Sunday morning the black cloth was still there, and the off-center candle was lit again. The pulpit and chancel was mostly bare (although the lilies were there on the front wall because they have to be arranged ahead of time… what’re you gonna do?)
We adapted this call to worship from the book Before the Amen, which was perfect for our purposes:
Leader: Look! The dawn is breaking. Morning is on its way.
See, on the hillside the sun is beginning to rise!
People: Leave us alone and let us sleep. We doubt the good news; We see nothing but darkness.
Leader: Look! The tomb is open. A new day has begun.
People: Leave us alone and let us grieve. We have lost hope,
and all our dreams are dead.
Then we played the song “He Lives in You” from The Lion King musical. If you know the song, it starts low, with the word “Night,” but builds and builds until it ends in joyful adulation, with the words “He lives in you, he lives in me; he watches over everything we see” repeated throughout. From the moment I saw that show in Atlanta I thought “I will use that on Easter some day.” Only took 8 years…
So during the song I had people come forward and “bring Easter” into the sanctuary. First someone came up and took the candle off the table and used it to light the other candles in the chancel. Then I removed the black cloth with a nice swish at the first mention of “He lives in you.” The next section was a flurry of activity: white tablecloth on table, communion elements brought down the aisle, large bowl placed on the baptismal font, pouring of water with a big flourish, pulpit adorned with Easter parament, procession of Bible and placement in pulpit.
Then we picked up with the rest of the call to worship:
Leader: But look! The grave is empty. The stone is rolled away. The Lord is risen!
People: He is risen indeed!
The folks who participated are not dancers, including me. I’d always imagined some kind of liturgical dance to this song, but this was authentic for Tiny Church, and I think it worked well.
Sometimes, while I’m leading worship, Margaret likes to come up and stand quietly next to me. She doesn’t need acknowledgement, she just wants to be close. Yesterday she saw me coming down the aisle and came up beside me and took my hand. So she and I swished off the black cloth together. Then I had her bring in one of the loaves of bread. Very lovely… especially since Margaret likes to skip in the aisle. Yes, Easter is definitely a day for skipping.
BTW, if anyone ever does this, make sure you use the reprise, the one Rafiki sings, not the one Mustafa sings. He sings “They live in you.” Not as good for Easter… though maybe on Trinity Sunday.
BTW, a friend of mine who heard I was going to do this decided to wake her teenage kids on Easter morning by playing this song. That makes me so happy to picture it.