congregations

Thirty Years (Almost) In Ministry and Some Lessons Learned.

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The 25th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry will be coming later this year.   If you add to those twenty-five years the four years I worked in congregations before my ordination, I’ve been at this work of congregational ministry for nearly three decades.   I suppose I’m getting to be one of the old guys.  That was reinforced last week when my invitation to join AARP came in the mail.  My daughter also wants me to check at our local Goodwill to see if I am old enough to get the 30% senior discount they offer on Wednesday.   

Well, after nearly thirty years of working in congregations and experiencing the highs and lows of church ministry, I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.  If another minister were writing this post the list of lessons learned would likely be different.  And that is just fine.  We all have our own lessons to learn in life.    

One very important lesson I have learned is that preaching still matters.  Despite all the jokes we hear about people “falling asleep” while we are preaching or about the importance of “keeping it short,” the truth is people long to hear an important and relevant word spoken from the pulpit.  People hope to hear something that engages their life.  It might be a word of comfort or it might be a word of challenge.  It might soothe or it might provoke.  Either way, the sermon is an important part of a congregation’s life and thus should be given priority in a pastor’s life.   To preach on a regular basis to the same group of people, I have found it necessary to have a consistent schedule of study, reflection, prayer and writing each week.  In addition, I spend about an hour every day reading – novels, journals, works on faith and theology.  I allow the words of others to become a primary source of helping me speak words to my congregation.  Though many weeks present challenges to staying on the regular schedule for sermon preparation, I have tried never to step into the pulpit without having done the work appropriate to the task of proclaiming the truth we claim to believe.  I think the congregations I have served have benefitted from this practice.  I also think the parishioners have been appreciative that the time they give to listening to a sermon is valued by their preacher.

Tied to the first lesson is the second.  I have learned over time that it does no one any good to avoid difficult subjects because of the fear of conflict.  The church should be the place that we address in-depth the matters that our media laden culture often turn into sound bites.  Our fear of death, sexual orientation, our cultural obsession with violence, our uneasiness with those who are different, the relationship between faith and science – all of these, and so much more, are matters that the church should be in conversation about.  We should wrap our conversations in prayer and humility, and have a commitment to be respectful and loving to each other when there are differences.  But to not address the important matters of life out of fear of conflict is to render the church irrelevant.  That’s the last thing our world needs.  I have heard the church described too often as a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Such a river can dry up quickly.  The world needs a church that has depth; a church that is thoughtful and engages the important questions and matters of life.    

I have learned during these thirty years that I am not called to be a chaplain to the congregation.  Appropriate pastoral care to people is one of the most beautiful and sacred parts of ministry.  I have sat with numerous families over the years who have suffered tragic loss and been with many people who have had to deal with unwelcome changes in their life.  It is an important part of what I am called to do.  Yet, I have learned that the primary role of a pastor is not that of a caregiver to the congregation.  Our primary role is that of a teacher of the Christian faith.  Even when we are offering pastoral care, it is with the goal of helping people understand what their faith means in this situation.  Though I strive to be as present as possible with people of my congregation, I no longer believe I have to be present in every moment of crisis.  In fact, if I have done my job well they understand that God is with them in all places and all times.  They will remember that God is with them through the gifts and graces of many people, not just the pastor. 

During these years, I have learned that the people in the church I serve will sometimes disappoint me.  And it is mutual, because I will sometimes disappoint the people in the pews.  We are all human beings and thus none of us are perfect.  We seek to live together as a community of faith and sometimes that living together, because of our mutual shortcomings, is not easy.  But recognizing that it is a relationship of mutual shortcomings allows us to practice grace toward one another.  In the church, where we acknowledge that sinfulness is part of the human condition, we should not be surprised that we don’t always measure up to the way “it is supposed to be.”  So hopefully we practice grace, forgiveness, and patience toward each other which helps us move one step closer to the way “it is supposed to be.”

Over the last fifteen years, I have learned that even though technological advances play a role in helping the church share the gospel in this day and time, we have to be very careful with where, when and how we use this technology.  One of the important parts of our work is to help people live into their full humanity and today what that sometimes means is for people to disconnect and look up from the screen and see the life that is happening all around them.  Smart phones and ipads have their place.  We should not fear them, loathe them or honor them.  We have a screen which we utilize in our worship services and for a while I was preparing power point presentations to go along with the sermon.  I soon discovered I was spending a lot of time making certain I had just the right picture for a slide.  Then when I showed it during worship, I was losing something I think is vitally important in public communication – eye contact.  I still use the screen occasionally during my sermons, but don’t utilize it on a regular basis for sermons anymore.

Finally, I think the most important lesson I have learned is even though I take my work as a pastor very seriously, I don’t take myself too seriously.  Over my thirty years of ministry, I have pastored four different congregations, having been in my present church nine of those years.  All three previous congregations I served continue to gather for worship and be engaged in ministry in their communities.  The work I did as their pastor was important while I was there, but I was by no means indispensable to their life as a faith community.  There is a wonderfully freeing aspect to that lesson learned.  It isn’t all about me, and I am just fine with that.

Well, those are some of the lessons I have learned over the past three decades of pastoral ministry.  Even as I was writing I thought of a dozen others – one of those being it is better to say too little than too much.  So, I am done except to say that because of the lessons I have learned I am able to laugh more freely, love more deeply, and care for others more honestly.   After thirty years, I’ll take that.

        

Clergy Appreciation Month

By Rev. Mindi 

In the past month, I have had five clergy friends think about quitting, look for a new (non-pastoral) job, or actually leave the church for good. And there have been a few times I have thought about joining them.


What is going on?

It’s Clergy Appreciation Month, but not a lot of clergy appreciation seems to be happening. Instead, it seems more like Clergy Expectation Month:

--Expectations of working a 9-5 work week plus evenings and Sundays

--Expectations of pleasing everyone, of not making waves, of getting along

--Expectations that if the pastor is effective, more people should be coming in the doors

--Expectations that pastors have a special gift to handle more stress than others

Perhaps I’m just exaggerating… or perhaps you have been there, too. With clergy salaries frozen or cut, and the cost of seminary education continuing to rise, I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it to tell those who are thinking about ministry to maybe think about some other way that they can serve God.

But I know the truth. When you are called, you know that if there was something else in life you could do that would make you happy, you’d do it. But there isn’t, and that’s why you are here. Because this is who you are.

So how do we make it through? How do we make it through the terrible meetings, the exhaustion, the emotional toil? How do we make it through when our blood pressure is (literally) rising to unhealthy levels because of the stress? How can we serve God best when we have these unrealistic expectations loaded onto our shoulders?

I’m not saying anything new here, but it needs to be said again. 

We feel so alone. We feel that there is no one we can turn to.

We cannot allow ourselves to become isolated.  And the best way to do that is to make sure that others aren’t isolated either.

Clergy friends, we need each other. We need prayer partners, we need accountability groups, we need retreats. We need respite care for ourselves. We need to be able to talk and laugh and cry and hug and care for each other.  We need to share our crisis of faith as well as our frustrations about church life. But most of all, we need to lift up one another, to listen to one another, and be there for one another.

But I think we need to take it a step further. I know that in this last move, I have had a hard time finding clergy groups to be a part of.  Within my own denomination there are groups, but I’m more removed from the urban center so there are few near me. I’m also limited because I’m part-time and have other community events, parenthood and other commitments. But I’ve never been invited by another local clergy person outside of my denomination even for coffee. I have introduced myself to a few clergy members, but nothing has ever come of it. It’s been easier to be isolated than ever before, it seems.

But then I get that green light on my email and see that there is a Google Hangout of clergy friends from back in Oklahoma, or a Skype call from clergy back in Massachusetts.  I receive a prayer card in the mail from a retired clergy member I knew when I started in ministry, and that Facebook message that says, “Thinking of you.”  And I remember that I’m not alone.

Friends, we cannot be alone. We need each other. We need to know that there are those who will help us through the tough times. Perhaps if we can reach out to one another and help bear each other’s burdens a bit, we can slow down the thoughts of giving up, and instead give to each other. 

My prayers are with you.

Don't give up on the work for justice

By Rev. Mindi

As I write this, late on Saturday night after the verdict has been read for the George Zimmerman trial, I’m overwhelmed with emotion.  Sadness for Trayvon Martin’s parents and friends. Grief that our court system failed, once again. Anger that an unarmed teen was killed, for no reason other than he was perceived as a threat because he was black and was wearing a hood. Frustration that racism is alive and well and even more flustered that so many in the United States don’t believe racism exists.

A boy is dead. And there is nothing that can change that. Not even a guilty verdict could have changed that.

I believe, and hope, that most of us Christians would not want retribution against George Zimmerman. God’s justice is not about retribution but restoration. An acknowledgement that racism is prevalent. An understanding that racial profile is real. A push to change our patterns of suspicion. And work to end unjust laws such as Stand Your Ground that allow for someone to shoot and kill another person who is unarmed, who is only perceived as a threat.

But we can’t give up hope just yet. We can’t just pray for the Martins in our prayers and not do anything as the church. We have a voice. We have power that can be used to speak out for justice.

We can work to change unjust laws. The “Stand Your Ground” laws are designed for people to be able to defend themselves on their own property. When they are expanded beyond that, we end up with people taking matters into their own hands, such as George Zimmerman following and then shooting an unarmed teenager instead of waiting for police, or, in an infamous case near my hometown in Alaska, people who had committed a crime who were running away were shot in the back and the shooter was also found not guilty. We can work to change “Stand Your Ground” laws in restricting how they are applied.

We can work to change our cultural attitudes. In our congregations, we must begin preaching against the violence in our culture, the attitude that says live in fear and carry a gun everywhere, the attitude that says everyone who looks different might be a threat, the attitude that violence is the only answer.  We have to work on teaching nonviolence as the way of Jesus, as integral to our faith as our baptism, our communion, our Bible study, our worship. Nonviolence is the way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

We have to talk seriously about racism. We are not in a post-racial society, not even with a black president. Black men are still profiled regularly, not only by authorities but by everyday people.  I hear racism even in church circles. We have to speak out and stop the stereotypes, stop the profiling that happens. And we have to talk about the fact that we live in a white privileged society, that white women and men will not be suspected of wrongdoing most of the time. We have to talk about the mass incarceration that is occurring of young black men (and I highly recommend purchasing and reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). We need to talk about race especially in our Euro-American congregations, even when we don’t want to, because we have to acknowledge and recognize our privilege. When only white faces on TV talk about how justice is served, while our prisons are full of young black men, we have to have this conversation.

We have to continue the work for civil rights for all people. While we work for equality for LGBTQI folks, while we work for inclusion for disabled folks, we also have to continue to work for equality, inclusion and justice for people of all races and cultures. We have to work for immigration reform. And we must not give up or assume the fight is over for civil rights for people of color.

I will dare to say it is evil that wants us to believe we are color blind. It is evil that wants us to believe everyone is on equal footing in this society. It is a systemic evil, rooted in our sins of the past that we have never fully repented of, that continues to make white people afraid of black people, that continues to profile young black men and continues to say violence is an appropriate response, especially against black people. We have to repent of this evil, and we have to change, and we have to talk about this in our churches.

Do not forget Trayvon Martin. And do not hate George Zimmerman. Instead of hate, let us use righteous anger to work towards justice. Let us use anger and frustration with the repetitions of sins of the past to repent and work for justice and true equality, in the nonviolent ways of the Prince of Peace, who stood for justice and nonviolence even at the most violent cross of capital punishment.  But please do not let our justice be only passive conversation. Let it be active change, in each of us, in our congregations, and in our communities. This time, let us not give up.

THE SECOND COMING - RECLAIMED

Regarding the future of the church,we have made a mistake.

It is not about Reformation II (or III or IV or V or...) It is about the Second Coming of Jesus

It is not about the coming death of the church. It is about the coming transformation of the church.

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The Second Coming is an inside joke.... ...To those who do not "get it" - The Second Coming is an apocalyptic view that awaits the arrival of a militant Jesus who will violently eliminate evil from the world. It makes for best-selling religious literary fiction, great cinematic special effects, and lousy-abusive-useless theology. ...To those who do "get it" - the joke is that Jesus is already here, peacefully present. Jesus "returns" for each person as they discover and embark on the life-path that Jesus walked. The "Second Coming" is personal - it is neither an apocalyptic nor a global event. The epiphany by the women on Easter morning was that, even though Jesus was executed and buried, the path walked by Jesus still exists - and by walking that same path, the message and example of Jesus is resurrected. Many find this epiphany to be transformative, their old self dies and a new transformed person is resurrected from a dead and buried former life. By walking the path - living The Way of Jesus - they continue and extend the path and message and life of Jesus. In doing so, our lives proclaim:

Jesus is arisen! Jesus is here! Jesus appears to us! Jesus walks with us! Jesus breaks bread with us! Jesus lives! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The church must go the same way as Jesus. The church must die and be buried - and be reborn through an epiphanic resurrection and transformation. The church cannot be rescued. The church cannot be reformed. The church cannot evolve. At some point, the current church structure, structures, hierarchy, and institutions must be abandoned and demolished and replaced - existing only in our memory as a history lesson of how not to be church.

Those of us who are Baby Boomers or older - and regardless of whether we participate, oppose, or sit on the sidelines - the church we know, have worked so hard to grow and maintain, has been so important to us, and indeed which we love so much - that church is about to disappear, must disappear - and there is nothing we can do about it or should be able to do about it. As a statement of objective emotionless fact - the generations that come after us will re-create church in ways that will have little to do with church as it has existed since the end of WWII and even less with church as it has existed since the early 19th-century "Great Awakening" revival that birthed the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other denominations. Do not be surprised when the future church finds it can exist only by abandoning and demolishing the structure, structures, hierarchy, and institutions of the 200-year-old American church in all its denominational and independent expressions, colors, sounds, textures, architecture, rituals, liturgies, and self-righteous self-assuredness. Do not be surprised when this abandonment and demolition is completed with no sense of sadness and no sense of loss. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has been completed just in time to be abandoned.

There is no pleasure in being the last of your kind, a breed on the verge of extinction. However, the WWII "Greatest Generation" and their "Baby Boomer" kids will not leave quietly and not without generating rippling resonating repercussions as they pass into memory. We have been faithful generous tithers and - most dangerously and in a final fit of useless spite and exasperation - we will continue to support the church after we are gone. We are wealthy generations who have retained lawyers to write wills that are specific and enforceable. The problem for future lawyers, judges, CPAs, and juries will be how to allocate funds for a church that is closed, abandoned, or demolished. They will have few or no options for diverting those funds to a living congregation or a worthwhile project. Already, we can see that the generations who follow us do not tithe to churches. They support specific projects and missions. Unlike us, they do not want their giving to be for slogans and annual reports and push pins on a map. They want projects and missions that are tangible, immediate, and - most important - participatory. Where we gave strictly of our wealth, these next generations will give of themselves - of their time, talent, labor, and presence - as well as their treasure.

At the forefront of the church demolition will be recent college graduates, college students and the high school students that will follow them. They will abandon (are abandoning) Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, and congregational events as well as mainstream campus ministries, Campus Crusade, Youth for Christ, and any Christian organization that values exclusion over inclusion or has any hint of structural rigidity, hierarchical authority, membership requirements, or dogmatic rejection of or does not live the theology of universal justice and compassion infused with divine love and grace.

Expensive specific-purpose church structures will be replaced with the use of former stores, abandoned theatres, rented warehouses, and individual homes. The traditional Sunday morning worship will diminish and be replaced by conversations in food courts and bars and coffee shops, studies in quiet places inside and outdoors, meditational Taize gatherings, loud Praise concerts, other worship experiences yet to be created - all arranged through social media and sometimes occurring more as a flash mob experience than a scheduled service. Future church will occur while flowing with the stream of life, not alongside or outside of it as a stationary event.

The seminary/ordination track as well as clergy as a profession and calling will be vastly different from what it is now, if it exists at all. There is no justification for ministerial candidates having to bear the crushing burden of a 5-digit (6-digit?) school loan to earn the formal label/prefix "Rev." and to be eligible for employment in a shrinking system and a disappearing paradigm. The concept of clergy will not be reformed, it will be so revolutionized as to be re-created. Future clergy will see themselves as scholars and counselors and project/mission managers and will reject calls to be church/congregational CEOs or mega-entrepreneurs. Clergy will find that their calling includes a responsibility to freely and openly share their formal studies. Denominations that currently have multiple seminaries will collapse them into one. Some denominations will find it necessary to join together to form a cooperative organization to support a single ecumenical seminary. Many seminaries will disappear. One possibility is that ministerial candidates, from the beginning of their education, will serve a sponsoring and supportive congregation. Seminary scholars representing the various necessary ministerial disciplines will hold regional classes or, when the technology becomes inexpensively ubiquitous, hold synchronous video conferences.

A major contributing factor to the clerical revolution will be public access to church knowledge. In an age of Wiki sites, there is no justification for the Catholic church or any denomination or any church institution to have secret archives or to have historical documents or ancient biblical texts hidden from public view. Every document, every scroll, every parchment fragment must be scanned, indexed, hyperlinked, and its high-resolution digital image placed on-line within a single web site. The biblical texts, both Jewish and Christian and regardless of whether they are currently considered canonical, must be on-line and referenced to a source document or source documents as well as being referenced to differing source documents. What will be paperless is not the office, it will be knowledge.

One of the identifying marks of living The Way is fearlessness. In this context, it means not being afraid to die and not being afraid to live. This article is neither a vision nor a prediction, neither a warning nor an advocating. It is a call to the church to move confidently into the future and to fearlessly embrace and enable its coming death and resurrection and transformation and new life.

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Technology Postscript: As on-line conferencing and smart-phone/tablet technologies improve and take advantage of increasing transmission rates and bandwidth, virtual worship and gatherings will be normal, common, and expected. As the virtual world is populated and utilized, the realization will slowly sink in that while virtual connections are immediate and easy and global, virtual connections are better at enhancing human disconnectedness than creating human presence and are better at amplifying loneliness than creating community. At some point, it will be generally recognized that virtual connections are an inadequate and invalid replacement for the connections we form when we are in the presence of each other. No matter how much we tweet, text, Facebook, email, YouTube, or Skype - at some point we have to see each other in the same physical space, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball. We relate best when our mutual presence is tangible and accessible. Personally and communally as well as psychologically and technologically, at some point the virtual connection will be deemed unacceptable and generally harmful and best reserved for situations that are emergencies or physically remote or both. We will have to discover that pixels and bits are always inferior to hugs and prayer circles.

...and that will be the next transformation.