What If We Made Mentoring Mandatory?

Do any of these situations sound familiar, Church?

  • Your seasoned pastor is beloved by the congregation. And he hasn’t attended a continuing education event or enrichment conference in decades (although he annually attends a gathering of colleagues where they relax and share what’s going on in their lives.)
  • Your new pastor is an impressive young leader. And she scoffs at the idea of getting a coach/spiritual director/mentor because it feels patronizing and she wants to prove herself as Ready to Pastor as a new seminary graduate.
  • Your pastor is stuck and six years from retirement. Sermons are lackluster. Leadership feels phoned in. Members quietly quit. You wonder to yourself what the future holds if things continue to feel so uninspiring.

I’ve written many times about how all pastors (and humans?) need a team of supporters who keep us honest and fresh. And some nod and agree while not taking any action.

Preachers (even the great ones): when was the last time you took a preaching class?

Teachers (even the experienced ones): when was the last time you learned creative ways to teach the Bible?

Pastoral caregivers (even the gifted ones): when was the last time someone assessed your bedside manner?

Administrators (yes, you have to do some of this too, pastors): have you simply given up or are you willing to improve your organizational chops?

We who work with pastors and congregations require certain things. In my Presbytery, we require annual statistical reports from the elders. We consider two weeks of continuing education to be the minimum offered to all clergy. We require all pastors to take both Anti-Racism Training and Healthy Boundaries Training every three years – and if they don’t they find themselves not in “good standing” (i.e. clergy timeout.)

But we don’t require our pastors to have a mentor or ever take continuing education. And – siblings in Christ – it shows.

According to this month’s Harvard Business Review New research finds that mentorship programs can indeed produce valuable gains—for employees and their firms—but only when they are mandatory. That’s because if mentoring is optional, the people most in need of it tend to decline the opportunity.

Yep.

All of us get bogged down in the minutia of ministry. The emails overwhelm us. The zoom meetings may or may not be necessary. Our daily plans are disrupted by drop-in visits or unexpected crises or family needs. And yet creative juices don’t flow by themselves. We need sparks, improv, jolts and nudges. We need stare-into-space time.

This discipline is at least as essential as prayer, healthy food and exercise.

Beloved clergy colleagues: please believe me when I say you need feedback. All of us need someone who loves us to say, “You seem to be unhappy/distracted/unfulfilled/done with this.” And we need to listen.

It’s a mature spiritual leader who knows when to seek renewal, training, and enrichment. If you don’t want to do it for yourselves, do it for the people God loves.

Image source.

When People Are Too Evil To Live

My favorite television show right now is Bad Sisters on Apple TV. It’s got everything: Irish sisters, romance, family dinners, the beach, and a nemesis, who – in this case – is the worst, most heinous character ever created for a television show. John Paul, the brother-in-law of four of the sisters is abusive and vile. And we learn in the first episode that he’s dead. Did someone murder him? Did he die of natural causes? Did God strike him dead because even God couldn’t take him anymore?

The show is clever and twisted and wonderful. Even I want to kill this man. But of course, this is not my call, nor is it anybody’s call to take a human life under most circumstances.

Yes, there is just war. There is compassionate death. There is self-defense.

Even the saint Dietrich Bonhoeffer plotted to assassinate Hitler for the sake of humanity, although he was captured and hanged on April 25, 1945 the day before his POW camp was liberated. His last words: “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”

My very favorite book is also about this theme:

Crime and Punishment is the story of a broken man named Raskolnikov who plots to murder his miserable and hateful landlady both because she is a terrible human being and because he believes he can help himself and others with her corrupt wealth. It drives him crazy.

Hate will drive us crazy. I think about the January 6th mobs that threatened to kill Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence over political disagreements. That was insane.

I think about people who have such irreparably broken relationships with their family members, their exes, their bosses, their neighbors that they act out in ways that could best be described as unhinged. Or maybe I should say we. We act out in ways that will never be confused with Jesus’ behavior even on that toss-over-the-tables day. I confess before you and God, I’ve felt angry enough to kill someone. I didn’t come close to doing it, of course, but the feelings were fierce and real.

I attended an inspiring funeral last weekend for a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly – Price Gwynn – and all three of his fine sons spoke. One said that Price once revealed the secret of life to him. “I can express it in a single word,” the father had said to his son: Forgiveness.

How do we forgive those who have deeply hurt us? How do we forgive those whose lives have been spent destroying people either by falsehoods or physical blows or emotional abuse or taking what doesn’t belong to them?

I can only point to the Holy Spirit here. Yes, the peace that passes all understanding is possible but it takes supernatural power for it to be real and lasting. One message I hope we in the Church can share both in words and actions is that forgiveness is possible with holy assistance.

It’s terrifying to forgive someone who has hurt us because we don’t trust they will not do it again. There is always that possibility. And even if the worst happens, we cling to Bonhoeffer’s words: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”

I can’t wait to find out if it’s possible to forgive John Paul.

When Was the Last Time Your Heart Sang?

When was the last time you did more than take a vacation? (Taking vacation time is essential , but vacations can also feel as busy as non-vacation time.)

Renewal periods are not vacations but times for intentional exploration and reflection, for drinking again from God’s life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry. From the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Page

Last week I was blessed with Renewal Time. It was neither a vacation nor sabbatical time, but it happened during a gathering of denominational colleagues at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

This is a post about the glorious gift of “the free afternoon” during conferences. If you are in charge of a weekend retreat or conference, please – for the love of God – schedule in a free afternoon.

It felt like a sin to use free time in northern New Mexico taking a nap, which is one of my usual top three renewal practices. Although napping outside surrounded by cloud cathedrals and rainbow mesas would have been okay.

One free afternoon last week, my soul was fed Lilly-Sabbatical-Style. It only took one afternoon driving along The High Road in Truchas and visiting galleries there and in Chimayo, NM.

The national treasure known as Bill Franck of the Hand Artes Gallery holding a non-representational tryptych by Carol Fallis.

It truly only takes one afternoon of soaking up the majesty of God’s creation – the buttes and rock chimneys of the Southern Rockies – while adding a few moments to marvel over what humans have created – the sculptures and paintings – to feel like a new person. The Lilly Foundation (jokingly called “The Church’s One Foundation” by some pastors I know) calls this the thing that makes your heart sing.

When was the last time your heart sang? And what can be done to make that happen more often?

It’s a question for Heads of Staff to ask their ministry teams. It’s a question for Personnel Committees to ask the pastors they supervise. It’s a question for parents to ask their children. It’s a question for children to ask their parents.

Life is short. October is busy. Let’s encourage each other to stop and breathe – even for a single afternoon.

What Does It Mean to Be Heard?

[A tip of the hat to my colleague KR who’s been thinking about this too.]

“I just want to be heard.”

It’s frustrating when you don’t think people are listening to you, and in these divided times, it’s essential to hear the voices of everyone in the room. The dominant voices often silence the minority and it’s also true that the loudest voices are not necessarily in the majority.

What does it mean to be heard?

  • Agreeing with everything somebody says?
  • Giving everybody the opportunity to speak, even if it’s incendiary?

Even (especially?) in Church, it’s hard to know what God is saying when everybody is heated or aggrieved or frustrated. Most especially in Church, I’m often in spaces where some feel intimidated and are afraid to speak up and so they don’t – even if they wholly disagree with what the loudest in the room are saying.

How do we create space for everybody to have the chance to be heard? And – more importantly – how do we create space where we allow God to speak?

In times of conflict and strong feelings in church settings, it’s important to set ground rules (i.e. only one person speaks at a time and we take turns offering different perspectives/opinions) and it’s important to remind everyone that we are all Children of God and not one of us knows the perfect mind of God.

Is it possible that God loves pregnant women who want/need to have an abortion? Is it possible that God is calling us to repent for the historic sin of slavery – even if we have not enslaved people ourselves? Is it possible that God loves immigrants who enter the United States without following legal processes? Is it possible that God loves people who believe the opposite of what I believe?

Yes.

It’s essential to remember that each of us deserves to be heard. And listening is not just about waiting for our turn to talk. It’s about listening thoughfully, remember that Jesus died for that speaker.

Note: On this day when we have historically honored Christopher Columbus, I hope we will honor the Native people who were here long before Columbus was born. It was wonderful to be in New Mexico last week and learn more about the many native tribes who first lived in that beautiful part of the world. There are over 100 Native congregations in my denomination comprised of people from the Navajo, Pima, Maricopa, Yavapai, Seneca, and inter-tribal people.

Off to the Desert

Photo courtesy of The Presbyterian Foundation

I’m with colleagues at Ghost Ranch this week. Peace be with you.

Disinformation Destroys Church Too

Hey, remember that time – at a PCUSA General Assembly – when they let a Muslim officiate during Communion? Remember when $10,000 of church funds was given to the Angela Davis Defense Fund in 1970? Oh, and that time that Presbyterians forced all congregations to support same sex weddings?

This illustrates Disinformation shared by a troublemaker. Photo from the Presbyterian Historical Foundation

Not one of these things is true any more than Sarah Palin ever said that she could see Russia from her house or that the current resident of The White House is an actor since Joe Biden supposedly died in the 1990s.

There’s misinformation and there’s disinformation. Misinformation is untrue but it is shared mistakenly and not for devious purposes. Disinformation is untrue and is created to cause mayhem and disharmony.

One of my favorite Tweets from last week is this one:

This illustrates misinformation as shared by a Baptist preschool.

Every Day’s a School Day as my friend AAM says. If we hear something that sounds off, we have a duty as citizens and followers of Jesus to check it out. Sodom and Gomorrah is not about gay sex. Mary Magdalene was not married to Jesus. And your pastor doesn’t work one day a week, even if they don’t keep regular office hours.

Again, if you hear something strange/disturbing/scandalous, you can do either of these two things:

  • Research it. (This is the faithful, curious response.)
  • Spread it. (This is the divisive, unholy response.)

And in the interest of learning new things, I’m headed to Ghost Ranch this week with other PCUSA Mid-Council Leaders. There might be new posts or maybe not.

May every day be a school day for each of us.

There Are No Republican Fire Stations or Democratic ERs

From Eboo Patel’s excellent book We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy:

Here is what diversity lookes like in the city of Mostar, located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you work for the Croat Catholic fire department, you don’t reponnd to the burning buildings of Bosnian Muslims, even if you happen to be closer. And if you work for the Bosnian Muslim fire department, you let the flames engul croat Catholic homes. They have their own fire department.

We don’t do it that way in the United States of America. When Florida (a politically red state) experiences destruction from Hurricane Ian, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – of course – vote to send relief to Florida. When the horrific shooting occured at Sandy Hook in Connecticut in 2012 (a politically blue state) Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – of course – voted to send emergency relief to Connecticut.

Rescuers evacuate residents from the Avante at Orlando assisted living facility on S.R. 436 in Orlando, Fla., due to flooding from Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Actually this is not true. It should be true. We do not support our neighbors based on their political proclivities, their religious background, or their ancestry – right?

Actually, in the past week, there have been politicians, tweeters, and cable news commentators expressing their opinions that those who disagree with us – politically – should not receive assistance. They are not “on our side.” They “do not deserve to be saved.” They are “those people.”

This is the opposite of what Jesus teaches. For God so loved the world . . . Not “the Christians” or “the Jews” or “the good people” or “the locals” or “our people.” Jesus died for Nancy Pelosi and Ron DeSantis and Joe Biden and Donald Trump and Ilhan Omar and Tucker Carlson and the MAGA lady in the Orlando retirement community who is trapped in her apartment and the Democratic Socialist on their roof in Pawleys Island. We have got to get over this notion that some people are not deserving of rescue, love, or forgiveness.

Yes, this annoys me too. What if I believe they don’t deserve it? (News Flash: Not one of us deserves the grace we receive in this life.)

Here’s the infuriating thing about The Gospel: the slackers, the greedy, the heinous, and the undeserving are all people Jesus loves. Errr. It’s enough to make us Pharisees.

A blessed World Communion Sunday, my friends.

Six Things Every Pastor Needs

I’m inspired by this post by Rev. Anne Russ in her blog Doubting Believer called “How Not to Lose a Pastor.” (Thanks KM.) Church people: please read it and remember that your pastor is a human being with priorities that lean more towards service, vision, and spiritual maturity than carpet, dress codes, and institutionalized traditions that have little in common with The Gospel.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with six things every pastor needs to excel in parish ministry:

  1. Appreciation for the absurd.
  2. Fearlessness.
  3. A backbone.
  4. A coach.
  5. A spiritual director.
  6. A therapist.

Ministry is funny. Not “let’s-make-fun-of-the-ladies-in-hats” funny, but “I-thought-I’d-write-a-sermon-this-morning-but-instead-spent-time-talking-down-someone-spitting-angry-that-the-bittersweet-bush-has-not-been-trimmed-and-is-blocking-the-stair-rail” funny.

Celastrus bush – also called bittersweet.

Ministry is not for the fainthearted. In many decades of professional ministry, I’ve been yelled at, threatened, and gossiped about. I’ve had sacks of dirty diapers dumped into my driveway and someone intentionally broke all the planters on our patio. And this was from church members. Especially when we are dealing with people’s comfort zones (i.e. what they’ve always done/had/assumed), it can be scary – for them and for us – to challenge those things for the sake of the Gospel.

Ministry requires an appreciation for conflict. There will be conflicts about everything from which tune to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (Converse or Beecher) to whether or not to lease church property to build affordable housing. Conflict is good. Conflict helps us clarify our priorities and understand each other better. If someone is doing something annoying Go. Talk. With. Them. We are all on the same team (i.e. Team Reign of God) and if we do not seem to be on the same team, we need to talk about that.

Ministry requires coaching. So, you used to manage a bank or an office. Congratulations, but it’s not like managing a church staff. Coaches help us discern how to talk with the choir director whose sister is the Clerk of Session. Coaches help us talk through negotiating a sabbatical. Coaches help us navigate church politics.

Ministry requires spiritual direction. When it feels like all we are doing is managing programs and answering emails, a spiritual director reminds us to look for God in the mundane. When we are overwhelmed, a spiritual director reminds us that we are not Jesus.

Ministry requires therapy. Some of us are traumatized. Some of us are bitter. Some of us are hot messes. Some of us believe we are God’s Gift to the Church. These things will wreck our ministry if we don’t address them.

I for one believe that professional ministry is a joy. It’s also ridiculous, scary, and laden with controversy. But mostly it’s a joy.

Grappling With Ideas Makes Jesus Happy

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus in Matthew 22:37

On the way to TBC’s wedding weekend last Thursday, HH and I saw a billboard that we wished we’d photographed. There was a preacher holding a Bible with his name and the name of his church in the corner. And the headline – in quotations – said, “The Bible Answers Every Question.”

HH and I – punchy from being in a car for a couple hours – immediately offered examples of questions not answered in the Bible:

  • What do you want on your pizza?
  • How old is our dog?
  • What’s the best flavor of ice cream?

Again, we were punchy.

I was in a meeting last week that involved grappling with ideas and the majority of people were not happy about it. The ideas included these:

  • Does God want us to talk about hard things (like abortion, racial justice, climate change)?
  • Can we be in Christian community with people who are our political enemies?
  • Does God want people of different races to be the Church together?
  • Do we in Smalltown, USA have the responsibility to love people in Smalltown, Israel?

Over and over again, I hear people say that it hurts the Church to be political – in the pulpit or anywhere in the church building.

Over and over again, I say that the pastoral is political (thanks RGBP) and that Scripture is an equal opportunity offender in terms of politics. Over and over again, I say that we are called to be non-partisan, but church decisions on mission, pastoral care, and budgets are always political:

  • Do we offer an after school program for DACA students whose parents are undocumented? (This is a pastoral decision with political ramifications.)
  • Do we collect money to send to disaster relief to Ukraine? (This is a budget decision with political underpinnings.)
  • Do we put a rainbow flag on our church signage? (This is a hospitality decision with considerable political connections for some churches.)
  • Do we partner with a church with a different majority skin color to do Christmas Eve together? (This is a worship decision with political implications.)

The loudest voices at last week’s meetings said that talking about and making statements about issues like race, human reproduction, investment policies, and unfair systems are unnecessarily divisive. It was clear that not everybody in the meeting was on the same page in terms of “politics” and yet – again – the loudest voices were opposed to grappling with ideas. It could split the church. It will only make people angry.

My friends, we are talking about faith issues here and the least we can do is wrestle with what God is calling us to do and be. If you don’t believe that abortion, climate change, apartheid, gun violence, or LGBTQA+ issues are faith issues, I worry about your commitment to live faithful lives. Yes, people of faith disagree about those issues. But if we close the door on talking about them, we stop growing in spiritual maturity.

Committed believers are not afraid to discuss hard things. Consider that Jesus was unafraid to grapple with hard things during his earthly time: health codes, Sabbath policies, idols, relationships with enemies, money, power, and divorce. Jesus was also killed for his words and actions, and we can expect people to become angered to the point of violence. But people of faith – by definition – should be able to talk and pray together without fear of personal injury.

Does the Bible answer all our questions? Yes and no. We clearly have to grapple with the whole message of Scripture and not cling to a single verse that supports our own established opinion. If you are pro-choice on abortion, don’t clench these verses too tightly. If you are against abortion in all circumstances, don’t think you’ve absorbed the full understanding of Psalm 139. I don’t know that the Bible has answers about thousands of random life questions. I do know that Jesus loves it when we take our faith seriously and that means studying Scripture by looking under, around, before, and after holy verses seeking God’s Truth and not our own.

God gave each of us brains. And Jesus reminds us that loving God with our minds is part of our responsibility.

Three Weddings and No Funeral

We have finished our family wedding season. SBC was married more than once to the same lovely person in April. And TBC celebrated her marriage (which happened previously in a courthouse) last weekend. Now we rest.

As I shared last Saturday night during the toasts, when FBC was born, my mom died two months later of cancer. When SBC was born, my dad died four months later of cancer. When TBC was born, nobody died. All three of these kids saved my life. Or – better said – God saved my life through them . . . and Jesus.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t written a blog post lately and this one is just about the family. And I’ll have more to say eventually. But mostly I’m thinking about how incredibly fortunate and privileged we are.

If you helped us raise our kids – thank you. A Nana and until 2020 a PopPop – plus Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Sibs, Nibs, Teachers, Coaches, Team Parents, Teammates, Pastors, Church Members, Five Different Preaching Groups, The Pearls, Playmates, Classmates, Their Friends’ Parents, Neighbors, That Scary-Looking Lady in the Grocery Store Who Turned Out to Be Beautiful, Roommates, Authors, Movie Makers, Professors, Counselors, Principals, Doctors, Nurses – Especially The One Named Gabriel on Christmas Eve at the University of Chicago Hospital, X-Ray Techs, Scholarship Committees, Bosses, Mr. Pat At Bradlee Shopping Center. And Now Lots Of In-Laws.

They’ll keep on being our kids no matter how long they (or we) live. Our hearts are full.