Monday, February 26, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) I think that once again, I am under the academic gun. Two papers and rough drafts of the first two chapters of my dissertation need to be done this week. The end is drawing near which is at both a relief, and yet, and not a relief as I don't think I'll have much time for resting when I start back at Shawnee in May. You know what they say... no rest for the pastor simultaneously in a succession process and doctoral program!

Or maybe it's just "no rest for the wicked". I'm sure some of you are asking, "What's the difference?"

2) My Uncle Dennis (my Dad's older brother) has been diagnosed with prostrate cancer. He's the member of the family that was smart, and moved from Northwest Ohio to settle down in Southern California. I hope to see he, his lovely wife Sandy, and my fun-to-be-with cousins sometime in March (I'll be visiting a church out there for my dissertation). The prognosis for him is good, but your prayers for him would be appreciated.

3) And while we're on the subject of uncles, I don't think I've ever written about it here, but one of my Dad's other brothers, Kenny Bucher, is looking to finish up a stretch in the federal pen for drug trafficking later this year. Kenny is the, uh, "colorful" member of the family. I'm sure his life hasn't been squeeky clean (obviously), but this time his association with a certain motorcycle gang (he's been an "Outlaw" since the sixties) ended up getting him into a fair amount of trouble. As part of the investigation of the gang, (who was prosecuted under the RICO statute which my brother, the lawyer to be, said was a gross misinterpretation of the statute itself), a good many members of this "motorcycle club" were arrested in the hope that they'd roll on some folks that were higher up in the organization. Kenny refused to flip, so now he's doing time. As the day approaches that his debt to society is paid up, and he's allowed to go free, a prayer that maybe the rest of his life is lived maybe a little less "colorfully" would be nice.

My favorite Uncle Kenny story (and there are a lot of them) is one that came out of my experience at Shawnee. I used to live in an old house that was next door to the church (until they tore it down last summer), and every so often Kenny would stop by (usually at dinner time) to see how were doing. By no means were these visits on a regular schedule, and if you didn't know him, riding up on his motorcycle in his leathers, long hair and beard flared out everywhere (he's never worn a helmet), a metal hook where a hand usually is (he lost it in an industrial accident years ago), he'd probably make you nervous. Anyhow, not long after we moved, the youth pastor hired to replace me, who now lived in that house, called me at my new home in Toledo:

"Um... Bryan? It's Mark. We have a little problem down here."

"Oh really? How can I help?"

"Well, do you have an uncle who looks a little....... interesting?"

"(without pausing, knowing exactly who he means) Oh yeah. My Uncle Kenny. He's pretty interesting."

"That's him. Well, could you talk to him? He's here, and he's worried we did something to you. I don't think he'll leave until he knows you're OK."

"(suppressing great laughter) Well, probably if you just fed him dinner, he'd leave, but sure, put him on the phone."

I'm sure that particular youth pastor, who grew up living on a Christian campground in the rural south, got an education that day. That and I learned that my Uncle Kenny had my back. Remember that before you try to make my life miserable.

(Just kidding! Remember... I want him to stay OUT of trouble, so relax.)

4) So now OSU is going to be #1 in the country. Didn't we just do this? As I remember, it did not turn out well. Couldn't the Bucks just sneak up on everyone this time, instead of being one of the favorites going into the tournament? Especially since nobody seems to want to throw Oden the ball (just read he's averaging 9 touches a game, while the team is launching 24 attempts from 3-land... yikes!).

And what was with that score? 49-48? I'm glad they beat Wisconsin - I really am - but what year is this? Did someone run the stall the entire second half? Did Shooter tell the team to run the "picket fence" to win the game? Were they playing by "ones"?

Just another reason I'll never understand why people prefer college over pro basketball.

That being said... Go Bucks. Restore the pride, boys!

5) On another note, I just read that the NHL All-Star game, which was on some channel called "Versus", finished in the ratings behind, among other things, a repeat of the Andy Griffith Show, one of the shows on the Home Channel where they fix up a house, and reruns of celebrity poker.

I know you love it Eric, but isn't Hockey in a little trouble? Is it time to send Bettman packing, and start over? I don't know any other hockey fans (except Neil Whitney), so you gotta explain this to me...... how can the All-Star Game lose to celebrity poker?

Check that.... a RERUN of celebrity poker? I know you're busy saving lives and all, but help a brother out. Inquiring minds want to know.

6) Since Aimee and the boys were in Lima this weekend while I was here trying to get too much work done in too little time, I slipped out this morning over to the Waffle House to get a waffle, some eggs, and hash browns (smothered, covered, and peppered). I don't know how often (or ever) you go to the Waffle House alone, but it is an interesting study in a particular sub-culture of America... especially here in Kentucky.

Since I was alone, I sat at the counter, and since I "left" my book back at the study carrel, I spent my time watching the help prepare food, heckle the customers, clear tables, and generally keep the place running. Listening to all the servers talk, I'm convinced that they are the most overstressed bunch of people in the world. The place is almost always busy, so they never stop while they're on the clock. I heard three of them say they had just worked all night, and now were going home to watch their sister's/friend's kids. There were tales of woe... relationships gone bad, kids in trouble, medical issues. It's the kind of place where country music is playing, and all the people working are singing the words coming out of the loudspeaker... especially the sad songs (no lie).

And yet, on the counter next me was this big bucket, with a homemade sign on the front, asking for donations to help a fellow server who had fallen, hurt her back, and now was going to be off work for a month. Every person who came to pay was told the story, and on more than one occasion, I saw tip money end up in that bucket. Virtually everyone leaving threw in a couple of bucks, except for one guy who looked a lot like Larry the Cable Guy. I'm guessing he's a regular, as the ladies teased him mercilessly all morning. He tossed a twenty in the bucket as he headed out the door to his rig.

All this to say that there are a lot of working poor in this country, they're one illness or injury or blown transmission away from financial ruin, and they'll give the shirt off their backs to someone in need. It is, quite honestly, heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time. If it weren't for the vast network of family and friends helping one another in this nation of ours, there'd be anarchy. It is a "love your neighbor" value at the heart of the ethos of what it means to be a Christian and American that preserves our liberty. We should teach this to our children, and protect the sanctity of this idea of mutuality, at all costs.

That's why I paid for my breakfast with a debit card, and threw my cash in the bucket. Aimee can take it out of my spending money for next month. It was well worth it.

7) Am skipping a Beeson Pastor trip next week to Montgomery, Alabama to see Frazier Memorial United Methodist Church... one of our denomination's largest congregations. For whatever reason, the director of the program made it optional, and I actually went to Frazier years ago at the request of my former boss, Dick Lyndon. I'd have probably gone again, but with some major deadlines looming, and trips to LA, Tuscon, Wethersfield (Connecticut), Atlanta, northern Florida, and Seoul in the offing, I thought it better to stay close to home. Besides, they're traveling to Montgomery in a fifteen passenger van.... that's 10-12 hours hunkered down in a backseat. Ugh.

I'll miss my Beeson peeps. They'll be in my prayers.

8) Received some nice emails this past week from former youth groupites, telling me what a positive influence I was in their lives, and how it was instrumental in the development of their faith. That's the thing about MySpace and Facebook... you end up getting discovered by kids who know how to navigate those digital seas. Funny thing... in every email, and my subsequent questioning, none of the kids could remember much, if anything, that I had said or taught in a lesson, but they could all remember something I did for them, or a personal word I said to them (usually in a time of crisis). It was in those moments Christ became real to them.

Which leads me to this.... I don't think when it comes to youth ministry, in particular, that it's the teaching or upfront speaking that's critical to a youth pastor's success. I leaned this late in ministry, and put the idea to work in Goshen, where I taught very, very little (if at all). Instead, I just set the table for the adult volunteer small group leaders, who over material (discussion questions and active learning experiences, mostly) provided by me, did the teaching, listening, explaining, and in the end, praying. It was over the years that as I learned that my influence and "centrality" to the youth ministry experience had to diminish, while other faithful saints were lifted up, that I became more efficient and effective. It's a telling statement that the person who replaced me at Goshen, replaced the 20 minute praise time and the 30-40 minute small group time, with one song and 45 minutes of his preaching, and was gone before a year was up. I didn't teach 40 minutes in total maybe over three years, and yet in those same three years my volunteering as the ski club adviser at Goshen Middle School ended up resulting in dozens of conversions.

Strange, but true.

Now, I must figure out how, in the context of a large church where I am the Senior Pastor and the sermon is so central to the weekly life of the church, how this lesson of "diminishing" I've learned can be applied. They say a great sermon can cover a multitude of sins, and after a year of looking at huge churches, it would be hard to argue against this. The church that emerged out of the Reformation, by virtue of the fact that liturgy became secondary and the importance of the sacramental life was diminished, made preaching on scripture central to the life of the community. For Protestants, that's really never changed. But really, what do people remember, what truly touches them, and ends up changing lives? I'll be pondering this aplenty over the next three months.

9) I'm reading "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard, again for my preaching class. What a classic!

10) And finally, word from home is that maybe in the next week or so Joseph, my Senior Pastor, will know what he'll be doing next in ministry. I think something good is probably on the table, but as I've learned in this system, the appointment ain't made until you're moving into the parsonage. Hopefully it will all come together very soon. Pray for him and for the Cabinet, as they look toward the future.

Also too, congrats to "The Thief" a fellow blogger and UM-pastor who adopted with his wife, young Andrew this week, and to a former intern, Shannon, who, in a civil ceremony, was united in the eyes of the state with the love of her life on Friday. Cheers to you both!

Friday, February 23, 2007

My Greatest Frustration

At the end of my life
I've a sense that I'll find out
how messed up my priorities have been.

How all the things I thought were important

being liked, financially secure,
respected in the community,
always trying to say and do the right thing,
and beating myself up when I didn't

in the end will amount to very little.

Not that all these things aren't important.
They are.

But I have walked with you
lingering with you
basking in your presence
and it unearthed what has formed me
and us.
It was there I began to find clarity.

I have walked by the lakeside
sat down on a bench
looked across the waves and wind
and marveled at how delicate
and yet how resilient
is this creation,
and heard you speak deep truths
how we are too.
It was there I began to find direction.

I've spent too much time trying to be interesting
and not enough time being interested.

Too much time trying to know,
when all the comfort and direction came
out of the mystery.

I'm in a constant battle against myself.

Wanting to be connected
while looking for comfort in isolation
and then working too much out of what I have
which is quite thin.

I have been afraid while you have not.
I have been weak while you give life to all things.

Why do I worry, when the birds of the air are fed
and the lilies of the field are clothed so beautfully?

I loathe the idea of being a failure
and yet you would rather see me fail
than succeed at the things I thought were important
but were really just illusions, phantoms....
holographic projections with as much substance
as the sum total of a twinkie.

I'd rather conspire with you
to overthrow the ways of this world
the ways of my heart
where disease and hunger,
despair and loneliness,
busy-ness and escape,
reign in too many fiefdoms of the kingdom.

I want to live with a sense of peace in this world...
a world where people are consumed with working,
or relaxing, or carving out time in a schedule
or putting if off tomorrow, or making the deal.

a world too busy
to adjust to the weight of lingering in the garden,
and the depth of dwelling by the lakeside,

you are meant to be grasped over a lifetime
and yet you must be grasped quickly
as our mortality
or the mortality of someone we love,
looms not theoretically in the distance,
but before the dawn of the next day.

There just wasn't time enough to thing about such things.
And yet all the things there was time enough for
didn't sort out where we came from,
why we're here,
what to do about it,
and where it might lead us.

What I've wanted I've found.
I found it wanting
and yet I keep looking for all the same crap.

If I continue on this trajectory,
I will end my life looking,
when really I just want to be found.

That is my greatest frustration.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Aaron Wymer is a Cinematic Genius

Below is a "going away" video for Jack Connell, the outgoing Assistant Director of the Beeson Center. Jack is taking a new job as the Vice-President of Church Relations at Houghton College. Jack moved down here from Rochester, New York not too long before all of us did, and since he wasn't able to sell his house in New York, his family lived in the townhouses with the rest of us. Their family became a treasured part of our community, and will be greatly missed.

Which explains this "going away video" from Aaron Wymer. Two things before you watch it: One, the train you hear is about a stone's throw away from our townhomes, and two, you gotta like someone a lot to make this video. It brought a tear to my eye.

Did I mention that tear was from laughter? Good luck, Connell family. We'll miss you all.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Beautiful Thing

Today I heard a lovely sermon given by a Roman Catholic priest whose job is to preach to Pope, from a pulpit at a school founded by people who would have never allowed a Catholic to preach. Such is the presence and force of virtue that is Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a man ordained in what is probably the most exclusive stream of all the Christian streams, who is confounding human wisdom by fostering ecumenical dialog all over the world. Father Cantalamessa has been instrumental in bringing Protestants and Catholics together at the same table to talk about that which we can agree on: The Creator God, the person of Jesus, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. A professor who was the Dean of the Christian Sciences school at the University of Milan, Cantalamessa describes his as an experience in a later life of having, in Wesley's words, a strangely warmed heart. Since those days, God took him out of Academia, into the Vatican, and now as a speaker uniting all different types and kinds of Christians all over the world. He's become a leader within the charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic Church, and on that basis is helping to open discussion not just between Catholic and Protestant groups, but also between Catholics and Pentecostals... which just blows the mind.

I remember the point in my Christian upbringing when I first started asking questions about the difference between "Methodists and Catholics". It was the first time that I was told that the Catholics were "over there" and that we "Protestants" (so named because we're still sayin' "Nope to the Pope"... that's how it was described to me, word-for-word) were "over there". At the time, I was growing up in what was largely a Catholic neighborhood, so a sense of division between me and kids who I had been friends with was erected in a place that it had not existed before. These lines were driven every morning when I would walk east toward Roosevelt Elementary School, while the kids who lived all around me (literally) walked west toward St. Charles. Since St. C's was so close, after school, often my buddies and I would walk over, and challenge whatever "catholic kids" (they'd often still be in uniform... which we made fun of mercilessly) to a game of basketball and football. Nobody wanted to lose those games, because it always seemed that there was more than just school pride on the line. The Catholic/Protestant division was real, and you could feel it every single day.

It wasn't until I went to seminary that some of the mythology I had about Catholicism began to melt away. Methesco (described recently by someone on Asbury's bulletin board service as being "the community colleges of seminaries" - ouch!) is a part of the "Columbus Consortium of Theological Schools" which is a loose association of a United Methodist school, a Lutheran school (Trinity Lutheran), and the Pontifical College Josephinum, which is only one of two school in the western hemisphere that reports directly to the Vatican. If you attend these schools, you are required to take at least one class at one of the other schools (at no additional cost). I ended up taking three, all Bible courses, from Father Robert Bauer. Father Bauer was an amazing guy. He never gave us a test or an exam. You just had to schedule three meetings with him during the semester to talk about the books he had assigned to you. I remember getting my reading done because I really enjoyed talking, and mostly listening, to him talk about the Bible. He presented to me a very orthodox view of the Bible that was rich and deep. I'm still living off that which I learned from him, even until this day.

A Silesian priest (an order committed to serving children), Father Bauer lived with the other Silesian priests in the floors above the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus. Each Sunday, he would go to the only maximum security juvenile detention facility in Worthington to offer mass to kids, which generated great stories for us in class. He offered me nothing but kindness when as a young youth pastor, he invited me to come see the Silesian Center in Columbus. He offered also to take me to Rome, where as a student he gave tours of Vatican, which I bitterly regret never taking him up on. His willingness to share his time, his knowledge, and his life made the impression that Bible taught in the vacuum of a Bible study, and outside of personal relationship, was incomplete.

He's one of the most Christian Christians I've ever known.

In the kindness, warmth, grace, and faithfulness of Father Bauer, my thinking about the Catholic Church, and the Catholic/Protestant split began to change. It seemed unlikely to me that we were on different, let alone opposing, sides as I had been led to believe as a child. This was an idea that was confirmed for me while working in Haiti years ago, where the division between Catholics and Protestants is very real. The depth of need is so great in that country, that out of my prayer I heard God saying to me that the world could ill-afford a Christian faith where all the various family members are at one another's throats.

Over the last couple of years, this desire to cooperate across the Protestant/Catholic divide has been manifested in the relationship that Shawnee has with St. Charles... the same St. Charles where I played basketball as a kid. Joseph was really the one that first ever made contact with Father Steve, but by virtue of the fact that I've been in charge of our community food drive (Harvest for the Hungry) Steve and I have been able to establish a good working relationship together. Working with him on issues of poverty, the gambling issues, ecumenical bridge building, and hopefully even in some international mission work (he's a heart for Haiti) has been, and I hope will continue to be, a source of healing for our community.

Seeing Father Cantalamessa up there this morning was, for me, another sign that the Holy Spirit is doing something powerful in this world that will transcend the little doctrinal neighborhoods we have established for ourselves. Something that will be less, as Father Cantalamessa would say, fighting among the servants, and instead servants striving to do the bidding of the King.

That would be a beautiful thing.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think - v2.0

(Note: If you read this post, and you don't remember this little note, you might want to scroll down to the bottom to see Columbus' greeting of a Florida Gator statue placed on campus by Nike.)

1) It was a nice weekend here at the Bucher house. We started it off by celebrating Max's eighth birthday. The Beeson Pastor program sports not one, BUT TWO Maxes this year. Both are in the second grade. Both like Legos, Bionacles (don't ask), and video games. AND both have birthdays this month (kinda spooky). Since they like doing everything together anyway, the two families, the Buchers and Lairs, teamed up to create an M&M Birthday Extravaganza. Here are few pics (lifted from Aaron Wymer's blog (click the link to read his latest installment, which reveals that Aaron doesn't know the difference between MonGALS and MonGOLS - am still chuckling to myself)

Here's Max in all his eight-year old glory.

I remember when we lived in Bloomington, to save his mother's sanity, I used to take him on long, long walks past a little park, around the IWU and ISU campuses, and through a neighborhood that had a lot of beautiful old homes, one of which we were thinking about buying. I'd put him in the stroller, but inevitably he'd start crying to get me to pick him up. He was so little. Now when we wrestle, he's big enough to mess me up. Time goes by quickly.

This is other half of M&M (as they've taken to calling themselves), Max Lair. Max has two brothers and two sisters, but that still didn't stop his parents from inviting my Max and Xavie from spending the night last Friday. They watched the original Star Wars (episode four). Needless to say, it was the greatest birthday, EVER.

About thirty of us crowded into our 900 square foot townhouse for the party. A good, if crowded, time was had by all.

2) Read an interesting book this weekend. The Starbucks Experience details the five principles that the author, Joseph Michelli believes lay at the heart of the rapid growth of Starbucks. Not to steal the book's thunder, but the principles are:
- Make It Your Own: Taking an experience or product and re-defining it
- Everything Matters: No detail is to small in the service industry
- Surprise and Delight: Find unexpected ways to make the customer's experience a great one
- Embrace Resistance: Listen and, if necessary, respond to your critics
- Leave Your Mark: Make community and world transformation, not just selling product, your aim

Normally I turn a jaundiced eye toward making applications from business books to the experience of church life, but in terms of serving others, these five principles aren't bad ones for all of us to think about. While one can get a little nauseous thinking about thinking of people who attend church as "customers", reversing that thought, and thinking about all of us being servants of others opens up new worlds of thought. Which leads me to this...

3) Have been meditating much on The Beatitudes, particularly the first sixteen verses of Matthew 5:

1 One day as the crowds were gathering, Jesus went up the mountainside with his disciples and sat down to teach them. 2 This is what he taught them:

3 "God blesses those who realize their need for him, F29 for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.

4 God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 God blesses those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will belong to them.

6 God blesses those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will receive it in full.

7 God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

9 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

10 God blesses those who are persecuted because they live for God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

11 "God blesses you when you are mocked and persecuted and lied about because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted, too.

13 "You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.

14 You are the light of the world like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. 15 Don't hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (New Living Translation)

It's interesting to me (NOTE: I am accepting the text as being stated at the start of his ministry, as opposed to meaning being read back into and added to this text by the biblical author later) that Jesus realized that if a person or church demonstrated being desperate to know God, was open about their feelings even when mourning, were gentle, servant-minded, stood for justice and mercy, tried to approach everything with an open mind and heart (as opposed to being cynical or jaded), and lived to bring peace into the world that they'd be ridiculed and mocked.

Which leads me to believe that for all the talk I hear from people that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that the world of Jesus was just as hard, cut-throat, competitive, and brutal enough to inspire people to take to all forms of self-destruction as a means of escape, as it is now. The problems might be bigger in scope and potentially more destructive because billions more live in the world than they did in Jesus day, but the basic hard wiring of humanity was the same. And for all the strides we've made over the centuries, people like the one described by the Beatitudes would still be identified as both "easy marks", and also the hope for all our children's present and future.

4) I've discovered yet another former young person whom I served as a pastor in Goshen is serving in the Iraqi War.

Lance Yoder is a combat engineer for the Marines in Company B. He's also a history major at Purdue, scheduled to graduate in the next couple of years, and engaged to a lovely young woman named Wendy Buss

I remember the night Lance came to me after TGIW and told me that he wanted to enlist in the Marines. You can't imagine my surprise. He was an honor student who had no trouble getting into college. His parents, convinced their boy was heading for school upon graduation, were not happy in the least that Lance had decided to do this. We talked it about it a good long time that evening, as Lance expressed a desire to find out not only what he was capable of as a human being - what his intellectual and physical limits were - but also a desire to serve his country. If I told you I was excited about his decision, I'd be lying, but the kid had always exhibited such high character and integrity, I knew I had to give him my blessing, and then help him talk it out with his folks.

Now, Lance is in the desert, trying to do the right thing. There are those who would argue that joining the military is anything but the right thing, and I'd probably have been one of those people when I was younger, but the older I get I find that the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways. He works within and among persons in unexpected places in unexpected fashions. Knowing this makes me thankful that someone like Lance is in Company B, because I've a sense his commitment to Jesus is not being put on the back-burner as he attempts to uphold his duties as a Marine. Your prayers for him would be greatly appreciated.

5) So how are you living out being a "Beatitude Person"? How to live out Jesus' teaching in the midst of a less-than-ideal world? Are you choosing to withdraw from society and subsuming yourself in a Christian sub-culture. Have you assimilated into the culture so completely that you wonder if your own values, Jesus values, and culture's values are really all that different? Have you become militant, secretly recruiting others to bring down the temporal powers of this world as you seethe over issues of injustice? Or do you blame those who are poor and irresponsible as those who are bringing down society?

Is there a way to successfully remain fully engaged in society, looking to redeem it and those in it, while still maintaining some sense of civility toward those in power, and a willingness to serve the poor and irresponsible? That's the challenge we're given. How easy is it to pull it off?

6) Other toddlers walk around with a blanket or a stuffed animal. I, myself, carried my puppy-pillow pretty much everywhere I went. What does my kid carry? A spoon. Yes, for whatever reason Elijah has taken to taking a spoon with him wherever he goes. I don't know if he thinks he needs to remain prepared for an ice-cream emergency that could occur any minute, or what, but that spoon is ever-present. Anyone else out there have a kid whose favorite toy is a spoon?

7) Been wrestling with my negative attitude toward mega-church preachers. While I suspect that some of my criticisms of them contain some validity, I've a larger sense that maybe I just like sitting in judgment of other people for petty reasons. I've decided to commit myself to praying for a number of them, particularly a few I seem to be the most judgmental of as pastoral leaders. I mean, we're supposed to love everyone right? At what point to we get to violate that ideal, even if we think it's for heavenly reasons? That's what got Darth Vader. He ended up turning to the Dark Side out of concern for his wife and unborn children.

Did I just write that? Yikes.

Anyhow, I don't want to be that way. God and his people deserve better.

8) There is a real chance that the Bucks will over take Florida in this week's college basketball poll after Florida dropped a game to Vanderbilt. Both teams seem to suffer from the same malady that they can't really seem to get UP for a game until they fall behind. Thus, they tend to play at the level of their opponent, as opposed to their full-capabilities. The question, though, is what are their full-capabilities? We think we know Florida's. What are the Bucks?

And more importantly, in a year where all of fellow BP Aaron Wymer's favorite teams are winning championships, (Gators and Colts) is it possible for the Gators to NOT win the NCAA tourney? Considering he's a big Indiana Pacers fan, you've got to figure "The Year of Aaron" is bound to come to an end, but will it happen sooner (March) or later (June)?

I vote for sooner. Go Bucks!

9) Stumbled on a feud that's occurring in the world of comedy. Joe Rogan, the host of "Fear Factor" and a former "Newsradio" cast member, is accusing Carlos Mencia (who hosts a show on a cable channel) of stealing other comic's jokes. I'd give you the link to the on-stage confrontation the two comics had at The Comedy Store in LA about a week ago, but let's just say the language is a bit, er..... blue. The situation is interesting to me because in a world where digital production and mass availability on the Internet is now the norm, stealing intellectual property is a real issue. Even a personal issue.

- We've never flushed out the conversation together completely, but I think the main reason that Shawnee doesn't reproduce sermons for download on its website is Joseph's concern that his sermons will be lifted by other pastors who will claim them as their own. I gave up on the issue after hearing say for the umpteenth time that the only people who listen to online sermons are pastors looking to steal material.

- My wife had a student last semester who for every assignment turned in, had lifted his answer from some other place on the Internet. Aimee caught him every time by noticing the difference in work quality, and then Googling the subject. Considering she teaches on-line, she's wise to this, but I wonder how many students are skating by in high school and college cutting and pasting essays and answers from some bulletin board?

- I'm finding that as I work on this dissertation that I'm finding myself going to Wikipedia to find leads on information on my topic and various sources. Considering anyone can change the definition of a Wikipedia subject, I figure that if I cite it as a source, I'll get laughed out of my hearing. And yet, it has proved invaluable as my work evolves.

I wonder as more information can be transmitted even more quickly and easily, what impact this will have on the church? Theoretically, this could result in making "live preachers" obsolete. It could create virtual support, study, and fellowship groups that span the country, or globe. Your church bible study could be taught by a respected professor or pastor somewhere else in the country. Seminary campuses, as we know them, might disappear, or downsize significantly. It will probably force congregations, who have largely been working out of a capitalistic mindset where they feel like to have to offer all kinds of programs, to start networking in real ways as a means of lowering costs and serving communities more efficiently. And, with the proliferation of YouTubing and on-line information gathering, it will make the idea that hidden sins have real costs as a less theoretical reality.

The possibilities are endless.

10) Finally, Haiti Sunday happened yesterday at Shawnee, to rave reviews (or, at least my Mom and Dad really liked it - that's who I talked to yesterday). Here's hoping that thousands were raised so that service to those who are among the world's destitute poor might continue in earnest. Can't wait to get home and become a part of it.


My only question is "Why did it take five hours?"

Saturday, February 17, 2007

10 Reason Jack Connell's Class Was The Most Important One We've Taken This Year

We just finished about half of our "Organizational Leadership for the Local Church" with Jack Connell, the current and (unfortunately) outgoing Associate Dean of the Beeson Center. Jack, who is heading off to become a Vice-President of Something Really Important at Houghton College, just recently finished an 11 year stint at as the Senior Pastor of Crosswinds Wesleyan Church in Rochester, New York, where the church grew from about 200 to over 1500 in worship. The entire class dealt with nuts and bolts ministry stuff: budgets, strategy, program, staff hires, and the like. Here are ten reasons I think it was the most important class we've taken this year.

1) It was important because of "when" we took it. Instead of placing it early in our schedule, it is essentially the last class we're taking (although we'll continue the year-long preaching class until its merciful end in May). What this means is that largely we've been taking a lot of classes stating how things ought to be, and we concluded the year with five days rooted in reality. You can talk or even go see the ideal church a million times over, but the fact of the matter is there are a lot of very basic, important, and necessary things that must happen if the church as we know it (more on that later) is to move anywhere in the direction of ideal. Thus, whatever dreams we might have had, came crashing down back to earth the last three days (we do two more days of class in April), which helped us get a foot outside the "ivory tower".

2) Jack is not a jerk. Why bring this up? Well, quite frankly, most (all?) guys I've met who grew churches as fast and successfully as Jack, ended up being jerks. Admittedly, that I'd say this might actually reveal more about me, than them. What kind of jealousy or angst might be coming out as I assess successful pastors as jerks.... it's probably not good. But then again, I've met more than a few jerks, and I was beginning to think believe becoming a jerk was a requirement for growing a huge church. It's good to know that good guys grow big churches, and it's good know what dark side might lurk inside of me given my perception of those pastors who could be deemed as "successful".

Note: Most people reading this right now don't know how much this point changed since I wrote the first time earlier today. Wrestling with this idea has been an exercise in personal growth.

3) One of the things I'm discovering is that when it comes to the conventional church, there isn't too much theory about how to do it out there that I don't know. I'm aware of how that sounds... but let me remind you that there is a difference between knowing all about something, and being able to do it. That's what keeps me humble. I "know", but I have not (for the most part) ever "done". But all the basics about funding, budgeting, visioning, strategic planning, staffing, leadership development, and the like I have all heard, thanks to three mentors who forced me to read, observe, and thinking about all these issues.

I have the model of Joseph's earliest years at Shawnee to get a sense of how to get a vision-less congregation excited about the future. I have the model of Barry DeShetler who is still the best schmoozer and systems pastor I've ever seen (for all the angst I had about my time at Toledo Epworth, I have to admit that Barry had that place running like a watch, and no one was better on a golf course or a restaurant with church members. Considering his track record at Kettering Christ UMC, which went from "troubled" to averaging over a 1000 people a Sunday over the last seven or eight years, you gotta admire Barry's ability to streamline and systematize). I also have the entrepreneurial/evangelistic example of the late Dick Lyndon, who through his work in multi-site ministry and helping people learn how to serve people, has helped revolutionize the church (literally.... you can't measure this guy's impact). It because of them I spent time listening to or reading, Kennon Callahan, George Barna, Herb Miller, Craig Groeschel, Mike Slaughter, Bill Hybles, Andy Stanley, Ken Millard, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, James Cone, Reggie McNeal, Rob Bell Jr., Brian McLaren, John Maxwell, Wayne Cordeiro, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Dave Ferguson, Lyle Schaller, Clyde Williams, John Ed Matheson, Bill Hinson, John Domenic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Rick Warren, Mark Beeson, and a host of others that have forced me to think about the practice of church.

Now, it's just about putting theory into practice... which is the hardest thing to do.

4) Kent Reynolds was in the class. Kent has served in little, dying UM churches, big hopping UM churches, and everything in between. He's been through heart ache, personal transformation, times of great celebration, and moments where just about every important decision that had to be made, was. Now, in is early fifties, he's in this program not as much to learn how to do church, but to figure out how he wants to spend the rest of his life making the maximum impact he can for the Kingdom of God. To have him as a friend and resource, is quite frankly, a huge "plus" for us as a class... and that was never more true than this week. Between he and Jack, we profited from a huge wealth of knowledge.

5) Jack kept the class moving, but was willing to slow down and take questions and promote dialogue, which happened more than in any other class we've taken to date. Sometimes the questions asked were pointed, and other times they were pointless, but he addressed them all. When he didn't have an answer, put it out there for discussion so we could pool our ignorance, and maybe ask even better questions. He handled this bizarre format of intense class work in very short periods better than any other prof this past year.

6) Jack was real. He talked about his mistakes, and not in an aggrandizing way (like John Maxwell does.... that dude can make the biggest flop he ever made sound like the most inspirational kingdom story you've ever heard, in the end make himself look even bigger-than-life than he did before). I never got the sense that in the eleven years his church went from a sleepy little suburban chapel, to something that was really kicking, he ever thought he had it all figured out. Instead, he just went with the best advice or information he had, and took the next step after the one already taken. Thus, he adjusted on the fly, and kept moving forward, in a very practical way. That he was willing to discuss where he believed he fell short was important in understanding the importance of recovering from mistakes. Good stuff.

7) Jack never tells you how to do it. He tells you how he did it, but not how to do it. Maybe that's because the way he did it was to collectively work with the church body at large, and navigate with them where to go next. His is an egalitarian model that doesn't discount the need for someone to say, "Hey, let's think about this" or "OK, enough talking let's keep it moving" or approach the congregation at-large about things that may not be all that pleasant but necessary. Since this is his approach, the message I received was that developing a vision for a church is as much about listening as it is anything else. Listening to church members, lay-leaders, staff members, other pastors, the best of whatever is out there in fields applicable to our situation, and most especially, the Lord, and then making some decisions that will impact the future. To listen, and act, and not spend too much or little time doing either... that's what I got from Jack this week.

8) We talked about money. I mean, let's face it, cash is the elephant in the room in virtually every church. Asking for it, spending it, accounting for it, borrowing it, paying it off, allocating it.... it is always a major issue. Jack, I thought, addressed the issue of money head on, with no flinching, and gave us the forum to voice whatever it was we had been thinking about fiscal management. He helped us understand where it might be wise for us to re-think some of our pre-conceived perceptions, and affirmed us when we seemed to be on the right track. Capital campaigns, stewardship campaigns, mortgages, tithing, preaching and money, people who think all preachers want is to get rich... nothing was off limits.

9) Jack didn't pretend to know what might be "next" in terms of the future of the church. Now don't get me wrong... I've got great respect for people that are experimenting with new forms of church and shared Christian life. House churches, virtual churches, emergent churches, etc... I've a sense that a revolution in how people live out their lives as Christians is taking place right now (although, to be honest, I wonder if in some of these ways we're simply seeing the end-point of an individualistic ethos that wants no accountability to anyone), and some people are going to be on the cutting edge of that revolution.

But as for me, I'm too far gone as far as identifying myself with modern, institutional church to really do anything else very well. If I tried, for example, to plant a "house church", everything I would do would be in relation to my own mainline denominational church experience, as opposed to thinking about things, fresh and new. That's why when I read young seminary students blog postings (like Shannon, a former intern of mine, now at Union Theological Seminary in the Big Apple) or on bulletin-board services (like the one here at Asbury) express a desire for something more as far as church life, and their role in it, I read their words somewhat wistfully (and chuckle a little at the idealism) knowing that this will not be my lot.

I'm an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church... that's the way God raised me up as a Christian leader, and with what little time I have left (20-25 years... maybe?) that's where I'll be.

Thus, for all the theoretical talk about the "attractional church" versus the "missional church" we've done this year, and the need for post-modern forms of worship and praxis, we focused on our reality as pastors who will serve in congregational settings shaped by modernity, filled with moderns and post-moderns, and attractional in nature. Jack taught and led discussion about the kind of church most of us are going to serve for the remainder of our careers as institutions that aren't necessary evils (like some of the authors and profs we've encountered this year), but as places vital to the unfolding of the Kingdom of Heaven.

10) And finally, I think the class was important because it got me thinking in systematic ways about what I want to do when I get back to Shawnee this spring. Not just NOT messing up this leadership transition, but thinking about areas of ministry that need some goal setting and futuristic thinking. I realized, maybe again, that I will make mistakes. I will say or do the wrong things, and yet we must keep moving forward as a community of faith as best as we can. I thought about the future of the Haiti ministry and of Harvest, the creative ways we might "attract" some folks in the community into our family, and what kind of staff hires this might eventually take to make this happen. I thought about the role of lay-leadership, the need for collective discussion. I made mental notes of some people I need to visit when I return, and begin praying for people who will help us manifest God's calling for our church who aren't yet with us or might just be sitting quietly in the seat or pew.

I'll need to do a lot of listening.

It got me excited about coming back, getting to work, and spending whatever time I've left to help people find themselves in Christ.

All in all.... it was a great class. I couldn't have asked for more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Some Churches Buy Snow

Spent the last couple of days with two pastors, one from Mobile, Alabama and the other from San Diego. They both told stories of doing massive Christmas outreach events in their communities, both of which featured as their centerpiece, man-made snow that children can play in.

Yeah, you heard me.... these churches are buying snow, and thousands of people line up to see it.

On another note, this is Shawnee UMC as of this afternoon:

Conclusion: This is why people live in places where churches buy snow for Christmas.

Ok, new topic.

My wife put up a blog today featuring a number of pictures of her mother and her mother's garden. She's been scanning these pictures for the purpose of sending them off to her family (on CD's) so they can all have digital copies. I know the last two days she's been working on this (there are over a hundred photos) have been tough, but I hope she knows that the result is really worth it. The pictures look great and she did a great job on her blog. Click on the picture below, Carol as a girl playing in the snow, to see and read Aimee's post:

I think the finality of Carol's death has just hit me over the course of the last few days. The reality that she is not coming back is one that is creating a lot of personal contemplation about what it means to die, and how that should affect the way we live.

You know, in many ways, the last ten years of her life were the best she had lived. All of her kids had grown up and had all succeeded in becoming responsible adults and good citizens. They all married well (although the character Aimee married is a little shady) and seemed to be building good lives for themselves... which was important to their mom. She found a job she loved for the first time in a long time, and she bought what was a dream house because it sat on a huge lot where she could plant her garden.

Carol had always loved flowers and plants. I remember even in the earliest days Aimee and I dated (over 20 years ago!) that their home was well-landscaped and filled with house plants. It really wasn't until she took the Master Gardner of Allen Country training that a new kind of creativity that had apparently been trapped inside, was released. When they moved out of the city to the house near Gomer (which isn't the end of the earth, but you can see it from there), she finally had the "canvas" she could "paint" her great masterpiece upon. Here's a shot of one small piece of the masterpiece: The Allen Butterfly Garden:

This new zest for life led Carol to want to try even more new things. She got a tattoo. She signed up to take the classes this spring out at Apollo to get her motorcycle license. She was making plans to do some traveling. She was in the running for a promotion to a regional manager position at work (which excited her to no end). She talked to me about going to Haiti and volunteering to work in a medical clinic or an agricultural project.

She was, much like her flowers, blossoming, as she grew older.

And it occurs to me... for lots of people, the "golden years", aren't. As the years go by, retirement nears, the body starts falling apart, family moves away, and the world changes, many people go into a funk. The culture has sold us the lie of fighting getting older to stay young for so long now, that we've bought it: hook, line, and sinker. It's a losing battle we choose to fight anyway, which is insane. I just think Carol woke up one day and said, "Heck (although she didn't say "heck"), I've got one life to live. Better make it as good as I can while I've got the chance". She did, and in return getting older didn't seem so bad. Not so bad, in fact, that she gave death a tremendous fight until the end of her life.

That's the way I want to live. I want to give death a heck of a fight. I want to fight it personally each and every day. I want to fight it in the suburbs and city streets of Lima. I want to give it a run for it's money in tiny Haitian hamlets. I want to chase it out of my house. I want to live giving death the cold shoulder, and laugh in its face even on the day it thinks it beat me. I want to live less in fear of what death can bring, and more in fear of what won't be manifest if I don't listen to a God who whispers in our ears that he wants us to live like we love the way he put together creation and all that's in it. A fear not of death, but a fear that in some quarters in the world death has people cowering in its presence and that I could have given them the news, the good news, that life is a never-ending gift. Filled with flowers, and gardens, and mother-in-laws who make you rib dinners on days you helped moved yards of dirt.

I want to live that kind of life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bring a Really Big Bag

So with five papers due this Wednesday, two more written assignments involving another 700 pages of reading due in a couple of weeks, two chapters of a dissertation breathing down our neck come mid-March, and what are we spending our time doing down here?

Well, here you go....

Eight months down here and the best advice I can give is bring 200 mugs and big bag. Sharp!

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Short Ten Things I Think I Think

1) I think that with nine books that have to be read, and five papers due by Wednesday for my Pastoral Leadership class, that this might be the shortest "Ten Things..." ever. Yikes!

2) Had a nice marriage retreat/birthday weekend. The confluence of the two events was a nice coincidence. Aimee and I, on Uncle Frank's dollar, spent a couple of days at the Embassy Suite Hotel in Lexington, hanging out a little with the other Beeson Pastor couples, and most of our time just reconnecting. We hired a couple of babysitters (also on Uncle Frank... that guy is generous!) to watch the boys (although Eli did stay with us overnight both Friday and Saturday... we just dropped him in the morning, and picked him up in the evening). Aimee and I spent Saturday, my birthday, looking at motorcycles, reading books, buying birthday gifts for the boys (Max's b-day is Friday and Xavie's is in mid-March), and just spending some time together. We ate with everyone at a nice place eating good prime rib in downtown Lexington, which was a zoo because of the game with Florida. All in all, though, a nice weekend.

3) In relation to the idea of marriage, am trying to wrap my head around being more intentional about my relationship with Aimee. Given that I'm not exactly the easiest person to live with anyway, it's easy to just kinda start not being real intentional after over 16 years of marriage and three kids. Eli is just starting to get with the idea of being with a babysitter, so that's going to help skads in us doing stuff together, sans kids, which we enjoy immensely. The weekend was a good start to maybe the next chapter of our journey together.

4) My schedule is so bad right now that I've gone back to using an electronic organizer. Between classes, papers that are due, weeks I need to be back in Lima to preach, family events, and an abundance of travel, I'm drowning in details. I need a calendar that goes with me, so I'm back on the iPAQ bandwagon. Just forgetting too many things.

5) With no Antwan Jamison, and with LeBron's hurt toe, my fantasy basketball team is heading south quick. Three head-to-head losses in the last four weeks don't bode well for the future. It's a testament to how strong the team has been in that I'm still holding down first place the league... but I gather that won't be long for this world. My brother is creeping up on me.


6) There are some birthdays that are joyous (10, 16, and 21 being the ones that stick out in my mind - 10 cause now you're in the double digits, 16 cause now you can drive, and 21 for reasons that no longer apply to me as a UM-Christian minister), others that are tough (didn't care for 23 too much - seemed like the "death of my youth"... don't try to understand what I just wrote), and others that just come and go. 38 is one of those years. You're breathing down the neck of 40, but it's still far-enough away that you aren't really thinking about that yet... so it just kind of comes and goes. I suppose, too, that working on a doctorate and looking at a "promotion" professionally kind of eases the blow of growing older. I feel like maybe, for the first time in awhile, like I'm moving forward, so maybe in time 38 will become, in retrospect, more momentous than it appears right now. Who knows.

7) Received a lot of comments about my "King of Cars" post. Some folks found it fascinating, while a couple were put out that I'd draw an analogy between what he's doing and what a church is supposed to be engaged in. Just wanted to highlight how Chop seems to get the idea of being a "Primal Leader" in that it at least appears that he has a greater concern for his employees and the community than just as a entities that potential profit. Even though the methods used often result in consumers biting off more than they can chew (which seems to be a problem for most of the upper-middle and middle class in this country), understanding the need to make something as stressful as car-buying an exciting, fun experience is what captures the imagination.

I mean, have you ever worked in a place where people didn't particularly like working together OR the leader of the pack's mood kind of dictated how things were going to go that day? It's no fun. Connecting people with the idea they are a part of something bigger, and caring about them as much as people as employees is critical, I think, in managing a church staff. How to do this and also stay mutually accountable what God is calling the church to do is the murky sea that must be navigated, and pondered by this pastor, a little bit more.

8) Didn't watch the Grammys last night. The only thing I wanted to see was The Police play together, but I just had too much to do. What's it say when the only thing that interests you about an awards show that rewards the best in music made in the past year, is the performance by a band that hasn't made music together in over 20 years? I guess when the concerts you'd most like to go to in the coming summer are headlined by Genesis, The Police, and Van Halen, you've kind of gotten stuck in the 80's.

9) Well, Ohio State is ranked third in the country in basketball right now, but after having watched them a couple of times, there is something about the team that's leaving me more than a little uneasy. Bill Simmons, a columnist for the claims that folks he knows who know the team believe that the upperclassmen aren't taking too well to the influx of the "Thad Five", and appear to be "sulking" when they don't get their minutes or points. While I suppose this is possible, at least everything I hear about Jamar Butler (one of the said upperclassmen, and a Shawnee HS grad) is that he just wants to do whatever is necessary for the team to win, so I'm skeptical of Simmons' assessment (click to read the column)....


it does appear that the rotation for the Bucks isn't set enough that the unpredictability of playing time is causing problems. Watch enough NBA basketball, and you'll understand how too many talented players and too little playing time can destroy a team (although that's not a problem for any team in the NBA this season). Couple that with a Big Ten that just doesn't look all that strong, and this team could be looking at a short-tourney run in what will probably be only year they have Greg Oden. Too bad the NBA didn't raise that minimum age to 21 (which would, actually, be bogus, just like the minimum age of 19 is bogus right now, but what would it have been like to see Oden play with his right hand for a season? Scary).

10) And finally, since we were at a hotel all weekend, I not only saw the Cavs destroy the Heat, but also caught a little of the media frenzy that is the aftermath of Anna Nicole Smith. Of all the "talking head" commentary I heard, the most salient were the words uttered by none other than Danny Bonnaduce (who knows a thing or two about self-destructive behavior). His comment:

"Anna Nicole's death wasn't nearly as tragic as her life."

Gotta say, that seems true. Given all the law suits, guys claiming to be the father of her baby, and endless tabloid garbage this will generate, I fear for her 5-month old daughter. Here's hoping she ends up being raised by someone who sees her as a daughter, and not a meal ticket. That's my prayer.

OK... back to work.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Did the "King of Cars" Read This Book?

One of my favorite TV shows before I went "cold turkey" and went a very long year without cable here in Kentucky, was the "King of Cars" on A&E. It's a reality show about a car dealership in Las Vegas called Towbin Dodge which is the biggest dealership in Vegas, making it one of the largest in the country. If you want a taste of what the show is about here's a clip about Chop, the owner of the dealership:

Right now you're thinking, "So what? You like some dumb reality show... what's the point?"

Well, I don't think I could have articulated why I enjoyed watching Chop so much until I started reading Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee for my upcoming Pastoral Leadership class. The book, in short, posits and then explores this idea:

The emotional task of the leader is primal - that is, first - in two sense: It is both the original and the most important act of leadership.

Leaders have always played a primordial emotional role. No doubt humankind's original leaders - whether tribal chieftains or shamanesses - earned their place in large part because their leadership was emotionally compelling. Throughout history and in cultures everywhere, the leader in any human group has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat, or when there's a job to be done. The leader acts as the group's emotional guide.

In modern organization, this primordial emotional task - through by now largely invisible - remains foremost among the many jobs of leadership: driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog created by toxic emotions. This task applies to leadership everywhere, from the boardroom to the shop floor. (Primal Leadership, 5)

Thus, because of the way people are neurologically designed, according to these authors, the most important task, the most important job for a leader is "determining the shared emotions in a working group" (9). Quite simply, this means getting everyone working together positively, in an upbeat atmosphere where all people are free to be at their creative best. The author claims that if a leader works to "balance the group's focus on the task at hand with its attention to the quality of members' relationships" they will unlock the maximum "Group IQ", where the environment "...naturally create(s) a friendly but effective climate that lifts every one's spirits. (15).

Which gets me back to the car thing....

Have you in your life ever bought a car at a dealership? Well, as someone who has owned about 30+ different cars in his lifetime, and even paid more than $500 for a few of them, I can tell you that personally, I find it a miserable experience (so is going to a "Buy Here, Pay Here"lot.... but that's another post for another day). You bring in a car that's probably not all the way paid for, and cause:
1) it's been running funny
2) you need something more reliable
3) you somehow falsely attach what you drive to who you are (a big deal in our culture... just ask a mom who's been driving a mini-van too long) find something else you "kinda like". I say "kinda" because sticker-shock has most likely (but not always) scared you away from the fully-loaded sleek model you really like, to something that doesn't have all the bells and whistles, but has enough of them at the right price to lessen the anxiety.

Of course, to even sit in the car, let alone drive it, you have to make the acquaintance of a car salesperson who inevitably gets you inside, sitting as his/her desk, and after procuring you a refreshing beverage, asks the inevitable question:

What do we need to do to get you into this new car today?

That's when things start running off the rails. For, up to now, you have probably been thinking about the TOTAL bottom line (sticker price of the car you want v. the trade-in value of the heap you own now), when three things really mess up your thinking:

1) The heap you own now.... worthless. Doesn't matter what that Honda Civic goes for in the paper. The dealer is going to pay you half of that, or worse.

2) Now, the sticker price, minus the value of your car, isn't as low as you thought it was going to be... and now in most cases for a trade-in, since most Americans are taking out longer loans on vehicles whose "used car" values are sinking due to manufacturing over-capacity, you are "upside-down" on your loan... i.e. you owe more than they'll give you. So now, the sticker is HIGHER than what you planned... which is really confusing and depressing.

3) The salesperson, realizing that you think it's too much money, gets you thinking about "how much you want to pay each month". Now, you aren't thinking sticker price, you are thinking about monthly payment, which is generally only "three zeros" as opposed to a sticker's "five zeros"... which eases the fear, but without you really realizing it, locks you into spending about 8-30% more TOTAL over the lifespan of the loan.

Now, as you are looking at all the figures your brain is saying "Maybe I can make this work?", when your stomach is churning, saying

"What are you, crazy? Who spends $29,000 total on a Chrysler Mini-van and is happy about it in the seventh year of the loan?"

This where the TV show comes in!

Would there be a TV-show at a car dealership if the goings-on at the said enterprise weren't at least mildly entertaining? Well, Chop is this high energy guy, who, make no bones about it, puts serious pressure on his salespeople to move boatloads of cars, but creates an atmosphere of.... well, hope. He convinces them that he WANTS them to make a lot of money, getting them so pumped up and optimistic, that even though the reality that if they don't produce they are out the door is very real, it's not the pressure the salespeople are focused on, but rather making the sale for Chop. I mean, it's phenomenal to watch. I'd have never thought it possible if I didn't see it with my own eyes.

And, what's more, Chop, via a late night infomercial produced each and every week (one of the highest rated shows in Vegas) has created such a carnival atmosphere around his dealership, people come just to see what all the hubbub is about. A character that shows up in every infomercial, a salesman dressed up as a blue genie, has even become a local celebrity. In Vegas, the Blue Genie is as big as Wayne Newton. People come in from all around to buy a car from him. Is that crazy or what?

Well.... it's crazy all the way to the bank for Chop.

For me, the best parts of each episode are 1) getting inside the head of the salesperson who is hungry to make a sale and 2) watch what happens as the three step "Monthly Payment Mambo" begins to play out between the salesperson and the customer. Chop has made the environment so upbeat that the salesperson wants to make the sale (not only making some cash, but probably also winning one of Chop's incentive prizes) and the customer wants to make a purchase, largely so they can (I am not making this up) bang a gong that hangs in the middle of dealership. I mean, you watch people leaving that place, often paying more than they really wanted to, happy cause they bought a car from Chop's place.

The gong, in particular, is a fascinating study. In a clip you can see at the link to the show above, Chop explains that the gong was an idea a salesman had years ago. The idea was that buying a car, being a major and often difficult task, should be rewarded in some way beyond the acquisition of the car itself. Banging the gong elicits major cheering from the sales floor (about 70+ people), which affirms to the buyer that they have made the right choice and makes them feel better about the commitment they have just made. And at the same time, if the gong keeps going off, simultaneously the message received by salespeople in the room that people are buying (thus giving them hope they'll make a sale too), while the customers they are dealing with begin thinking that if a dealership is making this many sales, they must know what they are doing.

And they want to bang the gong too. Pure genius.

It is, in the real world, an excellent example of what the Primal Leadership authors call "creating a sustainable culture" where positive emotional relationships can be fostered among groups who see themselves in something together.

Of course, I'm not going to defend the blatant materialism that the show seems to celebrate. One of the more horrifying aspects of the show is when we see the numbers of the final deal, and how many times people end up spending a whole lot more than what they say their budget can manage. Remember friends, dealers don't sell cars to customers.... they sell them to banks, and what might be good for the dealer or the bank, might not be so great for you (which you'll realize when making the 68th payment on a 2001 Dodge Durango that needs $600 in new tires).

But if we look at what the authors of the book term the "six different leadership styles" which are employed by leaders to get things done, let's see (based simply upon whatever articles have been written about Chop and the time I killed watching footage of Chop's dealership, which was admittedly highly edited, but a video record none the less) how Chop employs all six with a degree of "emotional intelligence", which the authors have defined as:

Driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog created by toxic emotions

Visionary : "Giving people the sense of the dream they want to reach" (56) but "not how it will get there - setting people free to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks." (57) Chop unabashedly sates that his goal is for his dealership to be 1) the biggest in the Las Vegas area and 2) a place where employees can make a lot of money. Each day at Chop's dealership, the salespeople are gathered together to talk about goals for the day which feed the greater goals, and whatever incentives might be at stake over the course of the next workday, or week. The goals are generally dealership wide while the incentives are focused on individual sales. So there is both working so that the team succeeds, and the individual is rewarded within that context. The talk is very high-energy, employs a lot of humor, and unabashedly celebrates success. This attitude is demonstrably carried over to the customer, either via the local infomercial and in the props and or events used at the dealership to make it more "experience" than an economic transaction. Thus many customers admit that they've come looking to buy a car as much to be a part of the atmosphere, as they do out of an expectation that they will get a good deal.

Coaching: "Having deep conversation with a an employee that goes beyond short-term concerns and instead explores the person's life, including dreams, life goals, and career hopes."(60) In many episodes, salespeople or floor-managers who are under-performing are given one-on-one time with Chop himself. While the consequences of not meeting goals is made clear, Chop takes time to observe his salespeople, and tries to identify where their sales method is weak or ill-defined. Chop points out these weaknesses, and then attempts to give direct coaching in the context of actual sales as a means of helping the salesperson understand where they can improve. Salespeople who make improvements are not only praised one-on-one, but publicly. Public humiliation is not (often) a tool embraced to evoke greater performance.

Affiliative: "Putting value on people and their feelings - putting less emphasis on accomplishing tasks and goals, and more on the employees' emotional needs. They strive to keep people happy, to create harmony, and to build team resonance" (64) While the bottom line is making car sales, the Chop seems to understand that each day is a new day for each salesperson. Maybe one day no sales will be made, and maybe the next nine cars will go out with happy customers out the door. While expectations of performance are maintained, encouragement is offered that time remains for goals to still yet be attained, or in the absence of this, that tomorrow is another opportunity to succeed. This goes to a basic idea voiced more than once by Chop that an unhappy, nervous, upset staff does not create the kind of positive atmosphere conducive to selling anything. Thus employees, while in competition with one another, follow his example by also engaging in mutual encouraging behavior. Chop also, on a number of occasions, takes advantage of opportunities to celebrate or provide comfort, depending on the situation, to his staff, who he seems to know a deal about despite its size. The result is an atmosphere of mutual affirmation, resulting in affirmation for customers who choose to do business at the dealership.

Democratic: "A style where a leader "gets buy-in from his/her constituents [which builds] feelings of trust, respect, and commitment." (67) A number of the ideas employed by Towbin Dodge to creatively promote the dealership, and make the purchase of a vehicle a more well-rounded experience, were offered by salespeople. Ideas for characters in the infomercial are often the product of salespeople dreaming of ways to get air-time. Opportunities for customers to write in, as a part of the purchase agreement, dunking their salesperson in a dunking booth (which sits outside the sales room), receiving a "Chop" autograph or picture, or some other creative form to create greater satisfaction are encouraged. Even the "gong", which customers get to hit after they've made a deal, was the idea of a salesman on the floor, which is freely celebrated and praised by the owner.

Pacesetting: "The leader holds and exemplifies high standards for performance, is obsessive about doing things better and better, and asks the same of everyone else. He or she quickly pinpoints poor performers, demands more from them, and if they don't rise to the occasion, rescues the situation him or herself" (72) Because of the ongoing energy and focus on making things fun and helping employees succeed and his track-record of success, Chop is able to set the bar high. Goals he sets for numbers of cars to be sold in a day, that are unrealistic for other dealers of comparable size to meet in a week, are often the norm because the confidence in Chop's business sense is very high among his staff. People who do not succeed in meeting sales goals have been provided every opportunity to improve personal performance, have demonstrable examples of other salespeople who are doing quite well in the environment. Thus, while the pace that is set is rigorous, and the goals exacting, because the other four "positive" forms of leadership style are exhibited on a day-to-day basis, Chop is described by his staff as "fair", even as those who are not able to perform, are dismissed with regularity.

Command: "Leaders who demand immediate compliance with orders, but don't bother explaining the reasons behind them. If subordinates fail to follow their orders unquestioningly, these leaders resort to threats. And, rather than delegate authority, they seek tight control of any situation and monitor it studiously. Accordingly, performance feedback - if given at all - invariably focuses on what people did wrong rather than what they did well. In short, it's a classic recipe for dissonance" (76) The reality show is edited very closely, thus it is not often that this kind of leadership is exhibited by Chop. That's not to say that it doesn't happen, as in a competitive, high-stress business like car sales, it's reasonable to expect leaders, on occasion, to lead in a dissonant style. However, the size of the operation, dedication to creativity, number of long-term employees, and the perceived relationship Chop seems to have with his staff would suggest that the use of this leadership style would be more the exception than the rule.

Thus, in the final analysis, it would appear that the proliferation of the four "positive" kinds of leadership style has created an environment where positive, not negative, re-enforcement, and reward, not punishment, drives the agenda of the employees, theoretically to the benefit of the customer (although, where the customer does not have a good sense of their own financial life, this might not always be the case). It is a culture where building on past success, bounded by a willingness to listen and act on what is heard, has resulted in a high amount of trust in an organizational leader who seems to understand that a positive, healthy emotional environment results in high performance. In this way, high standards can be expected and maintained, while dissonant behavior is kept at a minimum.

Why blow all these words on a car dealership in Las Vegas? Well, in the context of the Shawnee United Methodist Church, what does it mean to be an emotionally intelligent leader where the end product is not the sale of vehicles, but people finding Jesus and following Him into building in partnership the Kingdom of Heaven? Particularly in the context of a church, where a dissonant, coercive leadership style would appear to be out of step with the message of the Gospel (summed up as "Love God" and "Love neighbor as yourself") what must be done to create the kind of trust necessary so that honest discussion, listing, and measuring of goals can take place among staff and laity alike?

And how do I, as a leader, submit myself to the same kind of tools of goal establishment and evaluation that I expect of others? That's what I'm wondering.

Creating a place where laity believe in the possibilities of the Kingdom of Heaven being extended to all people, and staff/volunteers come with an attitude of hope and excitement every time they walked through the doors. Where lives getting straightened elicits the kind of celebration within the church community experienced at Towbin Dodge when a person closes a deal on a used Chevy Impala. Where we aren't empty-headed-happy-clappy people, but folks who really do enjoy being around one another, and willing to work through whatever comes with the intent on maintaining our relationships with one another.

What does the pastoral leader of that kind of church look like, and what are the possibilities to change the world? It's an answer that must be worked out in the context of that community, where collective "buy-in" can begin to take place, and adjustments can be made in the course of the journey. A journey, which if "successful" (by the definition given to what it means to be "successful", which will necessitate, I'm sure both quantifiable and qualitative aspects) can feed in on itself as people are able to discern more easily the core values of the movement. These are questions and answers that cannot be laid out right now, but will be established as I seek to understand the way I lead people either through personal reflection, or through the observations of others, some of which will be offered with affirmation, and others, not so much. How one hears and pursues this, I think, in the end will determine the effectiveness of the church in terms of changed lives and a changed world.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

All The Meaning You Have Given It

Just returned to my carrel from lunch and some time with the boys. Our townhouse isn't that far away from the Beeson Center, so all of us walk up and down the hill between the two. I was doing just, walking down the hill, past the dumpster that serves a couple of the dorms located between home and carrel.

The dumpster was full. A man who lived and worked on campus passed away last week, and the suite he lived in, which was in one of the two dorms, had been cleaned out. The man, named Sam, had been born with a rare disease that forced him to live life confined to a wheelchair and dependent on aides who would come throughout the day to help him take care of his basic needs. Fortunately, in this day and age, Sam was able to make his living with his mind. Outside of a couple of "hellos" when he'd be resting outside on a warm summer evening, I didn't know him. The word on campus, though, was that he bright, articulate, and well-read. He wrote articles for various campus publications, and was a active in helping produce Asbury's on-line course offerings. Upon his death, a number of the most prestigious faculty on campus wrote about Sam, and how much he had meant to them and the community. The school even hosted his viewing and funeral service in its chapel, and I'm told the place was packed with people who had come to celebrate his life. He was a celebrated, and treasured member of this campus community, largely because he used what he did have to the benefit and delight of others and the Lord.

Last week, at some point his suite was emptied and cleaned out. Today, the dumpster was filled with Sam's things. and the garbage men from who work for the City of Wilmore were poking through it to, I'm assuming, see if there was anything of value they could salvage. You couldn't blame them, really. I could see a printer resting on piles of personal effects... lots of books, posters, household items, and all the stuff that helps make living easier and more bearable. For some, I'm sure, these effects just by virtue of the fact that they belonged to someone they loved, were charged with emotional value. For the men who load the garbage truck, they are simply more evidence that people throw away perfectly good stuff... nothing more, and nothing less.

Why bring all of this up?

Well, one of the guys, who was balancing a box on the back lip of the truck was milling through each and every book, and upon inspection, either tossed the book back into the box or into the truck. And the thought occurred to me:

I wonder if there are any Bibles in that dumpster? Are they going to end up in the box, or the dump?

In an age where it is said that the average American will own nine different Bibles in their lifetime, great lengths are made to personalize it for us. You can buy Bibles that are geared solely to men's or women's issues. You can buy Bibles that are designed to be read in a year, or two years. You can buy Bible for people in recovery, teens, athletes, musicians, business people. You buy them chock full with maps, or "helps", big or small, leather or metal bound.... in dozens and dozens of different translations. You can even buy a Bible that lines up four, or six, or eight of those translations in front of you simultaneously so you can compare and contrast them with one another.

But in the end, a Bible only gets personalized by the person who owns it. It is the value they place on it, and the perception of that value by others, which will determine whether or not it is placed with us in our coffin, passed on to someone who will treasure it largely because they treasured us, deposited at a local second-hand bookstore (which are always filled with them), or even pitched. In the end, it won't matter how many helps or how durable or beautiful the cover is... it's worth will only be measured by the depth of investment we made in it as exhibited in our lives.

The dumpster is empty now. I have no idea what it contained, what was salvaged, or what will slowly rot in a landfill somewhere in the wilds of Kentucky. But I do know that a Bible is probably on your shelf somewhere in your house....

and it has all the meaning that you have given it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A World That Needs Re-Shaped

Just finished reading this article, and am thinking I might vomit. Hard to believe that more than 2000 people in the world paid money to watch children get sexually abused, to the point of screams and crying, via digital reproduction.

Something is wrong with this world.

Something is seriously wrong with this world.

And something is seriously wrong with the church. Why?

I doubt that in many pulpits the story of an international child porn ring existing will get much airplay beyond the idea that it's just proof that people are broken and sinful. Not much will be said about the poverty and corruption that exists in Eastern Europe (where the images were made), or about a culture that has become so over-sexualized that people are turning to ever more degrading and exploitative imagery and practice as a means of stimulating something not easily stimulated anymore. In one case the preaching will get dismissed as too "social justice oriented" ("...that preacher doesn't believe in capitalism or the free market...") or too "puritanical" (although you don't need to possess Victorian sensibilities to be offended by child porn.... I hope).

At the same time, I can guarantee that there are churches in the coming weeks that will get upset because a worship service used "the wrong kind of music", a pastor said something or maybe used a piece of imagery that was deemed profane, or because a budget isn't balanced.

I can guarantee it.

So, in thousands of pulpits this Sunday, preachers will immerse themselves in that which probes the furthest reaches of what is wrong with the world, but mostly won't say much that their congregations don't already know. They'll throw in a couple of Greek terms, or maybe a bit of biblical history that will make people think they are listening to something new.... but really, in the end, if they inspire a bit of laughter, maybe a tear, one "ah ha" moment, and no angry words or letters from listeners in the crowd, they'll consider the day a success.

And little, or nothing, will be said about how in Eastern Europe, in 2007, little kids can be exploited in a such a grossly personal way, all so someone can collect a pervert's $89. And lest you think I'm just throwing dagger from the self-righteous position of my own soapbox know that I'm largely no different. I too have exchanged speaking dangerous prophetic words for the safety of parsing a Greek verb.

I am finding that my two biggest struggles as a Christian pastor are the following: 1) How not to live as if the minutia that occurs in everyday living in a church during the week isn't the most dramatic event in the history of the universe and 2) Maintaining a sense of peace in a world where little kids get abused for profit.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I'm captivated by the idea that writer of Genesis would choose a talking snake as the means to deceive Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I mean, it was a talking snake.... why, in the name of all that's holy, would a human being listen to a talking snake? That's how good a grasp the writer had on human nature... it doesn't take much to make us forget everything that's really important in life. In our loneliness, pain, and/or self-absorption, we abandon the great work given to us by God (which in Adam and Eve's case, was naming the animals in the Garden they were take care of) and embrace the ludicrous, ridiculous, and destructive.

We're still people who can be duped by a talking snake.... as if a talking snake knows anything about diddly-poo. So the snake whispers into the ear of the guy behind a computer screen to get him to de-personalize the experience he's about to have with a victim, the snake makes us think that God really cares whether the pulpit is located in the middle of the chancel or not, and the snake whispers "you can't do anything about happens in Eastern Europe anyway... preach on something else that really matters".

Surely Jesus didn't die so that a world where boys and girls could be violated for money could keep on spinning. That kind of world, a world where people listen to a bunch of clueless talking snakes, has to make God's heart ache.

It's a world that needs re-shaped by people working with God
out of an attitude of determination and not anger,
peace and not frustration,
hope and not a sense of resignation,
love and not disdain.

How does that happen? How does that story get told?

You can sure bet it ain't by Aunt Becky being upset with Darby Sue for reading out of the NKJV as opposed to the KJV last Sunday, or some wise-acre doctoral student/pastor screaming at the heavens in anger for God to do something,

or by just living our life tomorrow the same way we lived it today.