Monday, March 16, 2009

8 Things I Think I Think (and they might the last 8 for awhile)

1) I know posts haven't been coming fast or furiously lately, but they're about to become as frequent as Big Ten Basketball Championships at Northwestern. This weekend I received the unsettling news that the Beeson Center at Asbury Theological Seminary which funds my fellowship is for all intensive purposes, broke. There's still money in the foundation (millions one would assume) but the language of foundation reads that none of the principle funds of the foundation may be allocated. With the stock market tanking, only the principle will remain as of June 30th (estimated), and as such the center will essentially go into a state of suspended animation for 18 months.

The upshot of this for me was that I had arranged with my adviser to hand in my work in late June/early July, but now if I wait that long, the necessary funds to pay for my graduation and associated fees won't be available, leaving me with $2500-3000 bill before I can collect my degree. Hence, somehow, I've got to arrange graduating in May with the stipulation that all work will be handed in and ready to go by early June.

To complicate matters further, I've got research left to do on three churches (I'm doing a multi-site case study of 10 different churches that did a planned pastoral succession, involving the in-house transition of an associate pastor to a senior pastor role). One is half-done. The other will be done in a couple of weeks. The third, though, involves a United Methodist Church in the Orlando area that imploded last fall. Hence, now I have to find a new church to fill the void... fast. Needless to say, my schedule, which hinged upon not having to really get back into the saddle until after Easter, has moved up dramatically.

I'm just another casualty of the Great Recession. Uncle Frank must have had a lot of GM stock.

2) To be honest, I've not been motivated to complete this dissertation. Earning a Doctorate of Ministry will amount to very little in real terms personally. DMin's don't qualify you to teach in any institution, including a seminary or Bible college (you need PhD for that work). It doesn't qualify you to do anything new denominationally. It's really just a professional and personal improvement degree. And since I've done just about all the work, I've profited personally and professionally immensely already. The diploma will add little else, other than doctoral stripes to my robe.

I did this initially because my senior pastor, at the time, told me I wasn't ready to lead a church and I needed to do work on a degree in church leadership so I'd be more prepared to take the reigns. I had thought that at some point maybe of working on a doctorate, but at the time I just wanted to do our pastoral transition, move into the lead chair, and put my energies to making that work. But, he insisted, got the DS involved, and next thing I knew I was moving to Wilmore in June 2006. Strangely enough, by the time we were about to move, my senior pastor had recanted his early assertion about my leadership ability, and I think would have been glad to have made the transition in September 2006 but by then papers had been signed, and this train was leaving the station.

Now, I wouldn't mind jumping off the train. It's been a great journey. More than enough to justify the time spent. So, why stay on?

I have four sons, two of which will always remember our Asbury experience fondly, and ten years from now I don't want one of them quitting a degree because their old man did. Just gotta suck it up and summon the will and desire to bring this puppy home even though from a professional position all it does is enable me to put "Dr." before my name on the church bulletin.

Hopefully, the last research church will be in Tuscon where I can rent a motorcycle instead of a car while I'm out there. One last perk before the stress goes to 11.

3) Some folks have been asking how the new service on Saturday night has been going. I'd have to say that at this point we're pleased, but the jury is still out as to whether or not we can sustain it over the long term. We'll have a discussion on the matter in various quarters here at the church. Staff are telling me what they need. Finance is telling me what we can afford. Staff-Parish are weighing out what the ramifications will be long term bringing on new staff. It's a process.

The big question, personally, is whether or not over the long term I am able to preach every Saturday night and Sunday morning without eventually losing my edge. We're not a Granger Community Church or a Ginghamsburg Church where there are a staff of teaching pastors. There's just Charlotte and I, and while she does a fine job when called upon, she has a pretty heavy load of other responsibilities she needs to put her mind to completing. Right now I'm on a pace to about 40-44 out of the 52 weeks this year, and since I haven't learned healthier work patterns I'm currently working seven day weeks... which is stupid and can't last. Another full-time teaching pastor, however, is a huge expense. It would be a giant leap of faith, or a singular act of financial irresponsibility for us. Maybe its a leap need, particularly if the steady stream of new people coming to us continues.

Lots of questions. Few answers. Your prayers are appreciated.

4) Well its the end of the NBA Fantasy League season and our playoffs are upon us. Currently in what has been the closest season yet, Brother Esq yet again leads the league by a paltry game-and-a-half. And who's in second but his better looking but obviously less-Fantasy skilled brother. Our teams are about as even as they can be. His rebounds better, but mine tends to score more. He's had his share of serious injuries (Michael Redd being the most significant), as have I (Manu Ginobelli and Tracy McGrady), but yet we soldier on. I've won the regular season a couple of times, but never the whole shebang. Will this be the year? Will his thriving law practice and addition of a child be enough of a distraction to keep Brother Esq from making that one additional change needed to put him over the top?

Eh... he'll probably just sue me if I win.

By the way, what do you call twenty-five lawyers parachuting out of a plane? Skeet

(It's on. Winner take all and no mercy. You want a sermon, come to church on Sunday. I'm here to play Fantasy Basketball.)

5) A big congrats to pastoral colleague and old high school buddy, Eric (Bubba) Rummel, who will be staying at his church in Bluffton upon graduation from seminary to become the first full-time pastor in that congregation's history. As the ranks swell in the pews of the once-sleepy UCC church (maybe the only growing UCC church in the state..... or midwest... or possibly the universe) the need for a full-time pastor to do visitation, preach, teach, surf the internet, and drink copious amounts of coffee is now deemed necessary. Can't think of a better guy than Bubba to fit the bill.

He called to thank me for my "wisdom" in navigating the murky seas of pastoral ministry while also working on his MDiv at United Theological Seminary, but the wisdom offered was minimal, at best. Bubba grew up in the home of a very conservative pastor, and while theologically they don't see eye to eye, I think he picked up how to do certain aspects of ministry simply by watching his old man.

Bubba also spent a lot of time playing bass for Apostle Leon Stutzman at the now defunct Liberty Christian Temple here in Lima.

(As an aside, he's a heck of a musician. We tried to convince him to apply to the Conservatory at Indiana University back in the day, but the thought of more school literally made him ill. Now I think he's on the verge of earning a second Master's degree. How ironic is that? Just goes to show all my high school readers out there, that just because your grades might stink doesn't mean you aren't higher academic material. It just means you're a lazy punk who hasn't figured out that education is a ticket to do whatever it is you wanna do with your life. Wise up, or end up with multiple degrees and crap load of debt as you shuffle job, school and family at the age of 40. You can survive it, and maybe even be better for it, but ain't no picnic. Consider yourself warned.)

His experience with Apostle Leon, which I think once left him jaded when it came to faith, has been turned by he and the Lord into a formative experience for discovering what a pastor should be. While Leon was notorious for fleecing the flock with great music and preaching that sounded much more holy than it was, Bubba is genuine man of God. Which is to say that his primary concern is for his people, his community, and somehow moving them closer to Kingdom of Heaven. Not easy work done by an imperfect guy, but needed nonetheless.

So, if you are reading this Rev. Bubba, you are welcome, my friend, for whatever guidance you might have received from me. I suspect you've more survived my advice than profited from it. At least my old robe fits. Wear it with pride.

6) Been a bit down in the dumps the past few weeks. A good friend of mine recently surrendered his credentials to his Bishop, which is just United Methodist-speak for "he messed up bad and isn't a pastor anymore". I don't know the details, which aren't any of my business, but I don't need to. Pastors don't surrender credentials they slaved to earn for no good reason. The big downer of all us is that this is for me another instance of "this is the last person you'd ever expect to screw up royally" I've had to witness during my pastoral tenure. Another person I looked up to who, for whatever reason, succumbed to the temptation or boredom or feeling of unworthiness or rebellion or whatever it is that compels pastors to cut corners and take whatever it is (liberties? a member of the opposite sex? cash? who knows) that isn't his or hers.

If I know my friend I'm sure he'd chalk it up to the power of Satan and his need to tear down whatever is good or right. That's the side of the theological plate he bats from. But while I don't discount the existence of a real, tangible evil, coming out of my own experience in this gig, I suspect that most pastors fall less due to a tempting devil, and more out of a sense of their own entitlement. Let enough people tell you that your wonderful, and believe it, and you are setting yourself up for a heap of trouble.

In meeting so many different pastors over the past three years, I've observed, in my humble opinion, that too many churches exalt their leaders to a place they should not be, and too many pastors buy the hype. For example, you find no greater amount of ego than the ego you encounter at a meeting of big-time pastors or when you go visit a pastor a huge church. I used to think it was just me and my own insecurity, the lowly associate pastor in the presence of greatness. But with time I've grown to realize that the traits that tend to attract people and build large congregations are not necessarily the kind of traits, or create the kind of Christian movement, that it seemed like Jesus envisioned.

We walk the line I think, those of us who preach to hundreds or thousands, or long to, of becoming MasterLeaders as opposed to ServantLeaders. Or rather, to lead like a CEO where the bottom line is the bottom line in every aspect of church ministry, as opposed to leading in such a way that inspires people to lead by picking up a shovel or ladle or a Bible in an attitude of grace as they begin to shepherd others looking for direction.

Probably the moment you begin you thinking you deserve "it", whatever "it" is, you're in danger of using the movement, as opposed to being a servant of movement. In any event, while disappointed, I still love my friend. There but by the grace of God go I. To believe anything else will simply fly in the face of that grace.

7) One of the interesting outcomes of my friend's credential surrender is that it has but all the conversations we had together in an entirely different light. Older and wiser, he always told me that in this ministry gig that there was a relationship between the amount of success (in whatever terms you want to define it) a church experiences and the degree with which it is bombarded by evil spirits to derail said "success". I won't pretend to understand the intricacies of otherworldly entities. All I know is when I heard him speak, I heard Biggie say...

Mo money? Mo problems.

When I was appointed at Goshen First, and our satellite campus, The Life Center, was taking off, you would have thought it would have been the most positive of all ministry experiences. Literally hundreds of new people coming out of the woodwork to join us at the church. But with all the added people came all kinds of issues.

People we had but assimilation we lacked. People weren't getting involved or connected with others, and there were so many of them that it was impossible to know who was sticking around at their new church home, and who wasn't. I remember one day eating with my family at a local restaurant in Goshen, and I saw a woman who I remembered had been part of a huge new member class. I went up to her to say hi, and upon asking how she liked the church, found out she was going somewhere else. That was just one example of dozens of issues we were ill-equipped to deal with. Raging jealousy and distrust among those at our older campus of the new one.... staff carping with one another.... a lack of resources of all kinds... shortages of volunteers... it was nuts. Couple that with the stress and depression that can come as problems crop up and aren't being solved, and you get a recipe for disaster.

Now, if you want to call that us being assaulted by Satan, be my guest. I won't argue. I have a hefty appreciation and respect for all things spiritual. But looking back now, I'd say we were pretty unprepared as a congregation for the onslaught of issues doubling in size overnight presents. Church leadership was so far out of their comfort zone that it became impossible to figure what had to be done to find the new "comfort zone". Instead, we were imploding, effectively organizing the "Back to Egypt" Committee And as things started going askew, so did we.

I'll never forget, at kind of the bottom of the mess, the Goshen First staff went on retreat to our senior pastor's cabin near Boyne Falls, Michigan. Under the summer sun on the back porch overlooking Lake Louise, after months of harboring increasing resentment and frustration, we humbled ourselves and started not only communicating with one another, but we also earnestly sought guidance to pull us out of the various dilemmas we had fallen into. I won't say everything got solved or that everything was forgiven, but as the Fall season neared we were a lot more balanced. I think we were just starting to figure out how to lead a large church when our leader fell ill and passed away that following winter.

Whether you understood that situation like the other associate pastor at the time did and my recently de-frocked friend does as spiritual warfare, or as a situation where we had become undisciplined and out of alignment as a leadership team and a community of faith, in either case prayer, humility, a little honesty, and a willingness to ask questions of others was serving us well. That Fall was a good one, promising great things to come. I wish we could have seen what was coming next.


All that to say that maybe the issue, whether things are going well, not so well, or just going is remaining grounded, humble, disciplined, and rooted in the grace and mercy of the Living God. Fail this and you'll be toast. And it doesn't matter if I'm talking about ministry or if you're a hedge trader on Wall Street... lose focus and humility and you run the risk of ending up like Jim Swaggart or Bernie Madoff - hiding behind a thin facade of what you want others to see.

8) Well that's about it. Don't know when I'll get to this again. Quickly on the family front, Max just finished winter swim with a nice performance at our regional swim championships. Xavier is a monkey in a local production of "The Jungle Book". Eli is loving the warm weather and practically living outside. Toby is climbing and running, because running is faster than walking. Aimee is losing her mind, busy with all the boys and a growing business. And as for I, well, I guess its back to the academic grindstone.

See you later. May the good news be yours.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

I Am Going To Take A Nap

My wife says that my blog posts are too long. That instead of ten things I think I think, I should do one or two. She's the web expert, and probably is right. The last post took a good portion of a day, and a very, very late night to put together. One or two things would have been much better choice.

Now, though, she's telling me I need to make a much shorter post of just a few paragraphs as kind of a lure to keep everyone reading. Problem is, I said everything I had to say in my last ten things. She told me that was no excuse, and to write about what I'm thinking right now.

Well, right now, I want to take a nap. Naps are good. They are beneficial for the soul. They cost little more than an hour or two of time. I like naps.

In any case, now I'm sure you can't wait until my next post. Probably be scores of you gathering around the water cooler tomorrow talking about what I wrote about today.

"Man, I like naps too."

"Naps rule."

"I wish I could take more naps."

"Boy, those Spanish really have it figured out. Siesta!"

There. Got you started. Enjoy. I'm off to take a nap.