New Paradigm

Hope comes in small packages

By Rev. Mindi

Sorry for that terribly cliche title. But bear with me.

I’m in that weird post-election pre-Advent what-do-I-write-about phase. You know, the calm before the storm for pastors, because the next month will be ca-razy!

As a pastor, I’m constantly challenged by outside the church of what I need to preach about, because outside seems to be where so many are.  Outside the church is the real world of political struggle, conflict over debt, taxes and support to the poor; outside is where the difficult questions about ethnicity and religion are happening over in Gaza and Israel; outside is where the “nones” are and we need to reach them and we need to abandon this old way of doing church so we can get out there and be with the “real” people.  Outside is where the homeless and poor are. Outside, outside, outside. The church is stuck inside and is cold and boring and dying.

*Yet this week I heard the story of a 70-something woman who is finding new life after almost dying. After being unable to walk she is starting to learn a new musical instrument. I know another who is reclaiming a passion for art that they had in their teens but lost in their adult years.  Another is struggling with a child who has AIDS, another has a grandson they have never seen.  Another’s brother is in rehab and another’s child is pregnant and not seventeen.  I know grandparents raising children and grandparents going back to school for another degree.  I know of elderly volunteers at elementary schools and young environmental activists reorganizing the church’s recycling. 

For all the criticisms of the church that we might have, for all the “new” and emergent churches that are making a difference, our old churches can still make a difference, too, and may be doing it under our noses.  There are days I throw my hands up in the air in ministry and think, “These people will never change, they’ll never grow out of their habits and they never want to do something new.”  And then I peer under the surface and find they are reaching out in new ways, but also living into hope in new ways.  They are miracles in and of themselves.  And they love their church.  And sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and they know the way they have always done things isn’t the best way, but they are trying their darndest.

So sometimes I think those of us, and I am including myself, who get all critical and huffy about the church being stuck in the past, need to take a moment to pause before the craziness of the world and be thankful for the problems we have, for the people we are with, because these are the real people in our lives.  We may see the conflict in Israel and Gaza and wonder how in the world we can make a difference.  I have friends involved in petitions and protests and peace conferences and interfaith dialogues—they are doing good work.  But the grandparents who keep an eye on the neighborhood kids in our small city streets—they are doing the work of peacemaking as well. 

For those of us in our small churches, let us be thankful for what we have, let us work with what we have, and let us see those miracles, those stories of living hope, and do what we can to tackle the small problems in our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe we can reach out to some of those “nones” by our everyday ministry and stories of hope. 

This Sunday I’ll be dusting off the Advent wreath and getting ready to participate in the traditions that this church has held for a long time, some of which the meaning has been lost.  But there is hope here, hope in the living stories of the people who still gather here, and the meaning of these traditions becomes apparent when I remember that: this is a community of faith, and the ritual of tradition at times stirs in them hope that even when they are gone, things will continue on, and that they won’t be forgotten.

We have plenty of poor people, people on Social Security and food stamps within our congregations.  We have plenty of reasons to speak out for social change and to act for greater change in the world around us.  And yes, we do need to step out of our comfort zones and we need to go out into the world.  But that doesn’t mean we are dead on the inside.  No, for those who have grown up in the church, put their faith in their community, there is life here, too.  And we need to honor and recognize and celebrate that life. 

So as I prepare for Advent as a pastor, to preach a familiar message once again, I am reminded that even in the familiar, I can find challenges and struggles, despair and conflict—and hope, hope, hope.  Hope that is alive in the lives of people going through chemo, recovering after a fall, searching for a new job, dreaming of college.  Hope of those with a family member in rehab, hope for those struggling with health care.  If there is one thing that Advent does, year after year, candle after candle, it is remind us that Hope is always, always possible, in the darkest of times. And maybe there is no greater place to find hope lived out than in the faithful in a small, aging church, as they light the candles year after year.

*obviously I have changed these stories, the details and ages because these are real people I know, but you may know these stories in your lives.

How Do We Evaluate Ministers Going Forward?

If the way the church understands its ministry is shifting, then we must formulate new ways of evaluating how ministers do their jobs.  If things are changing as rapidly as some of us believe, we need new ways to think theologically about the vocation of ministry.  I'd like to offer a few thoughts to begin the conversation.

(DISCLAIMER: This is a reflection on preaching ministry--since that's what I do.  A contribution from from those whose ministries include areas of responsibility like education, shepherding, chaplaincy, worship, and so on, would be extremely valuable.)

I would like to suggest that the function of ministry in the church is to equip disciples for the reign of God.  As such, then, the focus of ministry ought rightly to be on those areas that equip people to be more mature followers of Jesus.  That is to say, not all ministerial activities are created equal—which, of course, is as true for ministers as for ministry programming in the church. If ministry involves helping to lead others in a more mature manifestation of faith, the most crucial area of ministerial expertise and performance ought to be that of model.  In other words, ministers ought to be evaluated first and foremost by their performance as Christians.

  1. Does the minister model the attributes of discipleship that the church wishes to inculcate in its members?
  2. Is the minister’s life one the church feels good about holding up as an example of faithfulness, integrity, and humility for parishioners to emulate?
  3. Can the church say of the minister, “I hope my child grows up to be like her or him?”

Living as an example of Christian maturity ought to be the broadest context in which ministerial evaluation takes place.

If I am right about the function of ministry as the equipping of disciples for the reign of God, then taking that as the touchstone for performance evaluation, the next most important area of consideration should be the minister’s ability to reflect theologically on the implications of the practices of faith, and then to be able to articulate those insights for the congregation.  If what the church is about is helping to produce Christians, ministers need to have an intimate knowledge of what is involved in living out the faith, and then to be able to communicate that knowledge with confidence.  Preaching and teaching, therefore, are arguably the two most important aspects of the senior minister’s vocation upon which the senior minister ought to be evaluated.

  1. Do the sermons challenge people to deeper demonstrations of discipleship by helping them to understand the implications of worship practices, outreach, education, etc.?
  2. Does the preacher have an adequate understanding of the Biblical text and its normative values for the practice of the faith?
  3. Does the minister help to focus energy on spreading the good news?
  4. Is God the focus of worship?
  5. Does the minister offer challenges to follow Jesus that call into question the status quo and current power arrangements?
  6. Is the minister capable of interpreting the world through the prism of faith?
  7. Is lay leadership in worship encouraged?
  8. Does the minister study and pray?

Understanding that the church is a complex system, leadership by the minister should not be confused with bureaucratic administration.  That is not to say that ministers have no responsibility for helping the church to be good financial stewards by timely payment of its bills, accurate record keeping, and in full compliance with the law, or that ministers should not be burdened with the supervision of staff, or that ministers need not worry about typographical errors in the newsletter.  Clearly, part of the minister’s task as a leader in the church is to foster an atmosphere that understands and observes good practices with respect to its organizational commitments.  However, the reason that administrative decisions are made in the church is not necessarily because they work, or because that is “the way we do it in business,” but decisions are made because they are faithful and because they contribute to the process of equipping disciples for the reign of God.  Consequently, ministerial leadership requires a theological and not just a business understanding of the larger picture.

The larger picture that concerns the minister, on this reading, requires the skills and abilities to assess congregational systems and to help those systems move forward through, sometimes, difficult transitions.  Good leadership in the church calls for people willing to make difficult decisions regarding faithful practices, and then to stand by them.  And a good leader needs to help the church make those decisions with the knowledge that not everyone will agree.  Also, the minister must understand that she or he will sometimes be wrong—at which point, the good leader needs to be able to acknowledge poor decisions and to seek to make them right.  The minister, then, ought to be evaluated on her or his ability to lead the system through change.  This will be crucial in the coming years.

  1. Is the minister capable of helping the congregation envision a new future by honestly assessing its present emotional systems and organizational structures?
  2. Does the minister continually help the congregation and its leadership refocus attention on the compelling demands of the Gospel rather than the busy work of maintaining the institution?
  3. Does the minister help the congregation make difficult decisions?
  4. Does the minister seek to enhance the free flow of information through good communication?
  5. Does the minister foster systems of honest, open, and loving communication among the staff and the congregation?

Consequently, if a good understanding of organizational systems is necessary for ministerial leadership, also crucial to the minister’s skill set is the ability to identify, recruit, and develop new leadership in the church.  Given the fact that churches are dynamic systems with constant changes in membership composition, as well as the fact that ministry emphases are continually changing, developing new leadership in the church is consistent with the goal of equipping disciples for the reign of God.  Leadership development is the natural byproduct of equipping disciples.

  1. Is the minister capable of identifying people with the potential for good leadership?
  2. Does the minister have success in recruiting new leaders and working with them to give them an understanding of the expectations involved in leadership?
  3. Does the minister’s leadership style encourage or inhibit people from taking the initiative in developing and sustaining ministry opportunities?

In the process of equipping disciples for the reign of God, the minister is necessarily called upon to embody the love present in the gospel to people—within the congregation and without.  Perhaps, just as importantly, the minister is responsible for helping to teach the congregation how it is called upon to embody that love.  Good leadership requires that the pastor not only be capable of offering pastoral care on behalf of the congregation, but that the pastor take the necessary steps to multiply the scope and breadth of the pastoral ministry by training people to do the ministry of the church.

  1. Does the minister care for the critical pastoral needs of the congregation?
  2. Does the minister seek to give people in the congregation the necessary resources to carry out the bulk of the pastoral ministry of the church?
  3. Does the minister help persons to develop a spiritual life that relates to their faith?

Ministers need to be evaluated.  However, they need to be evaluated within a particular context.  In order to know whether a watch is a good watch or a bad watch, one must first know the purpose or end of a watch.  In the same way, there must be some nuanced understanding of the purpose and end of the task of parish ministry in order properly to evaluate its efficacy.  Whether the minister is nice, whether the minister is ultimately likeable takes a back seat to the question of whether or not the minister does the job a minister ought to do.

What do you think?

by Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and currently a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell has never eaten Grape Nuts and once set the sidewalk on fire with gasoline, while trying to kill a dandelion.