Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten Things I Think I Learned in 2011

Does this thing still work? Hope so. After a truly compelling, challenging, difficult, draining year, here's the ten things I learned, for better for or worse. Here we go...

1) Kids grow up fast

Good thing this is free, huh? You surely wouldn't pay for this obvious observation. But this learning is a learning I learn just about every day. I have a son who played a tuba solo at a Christmas Eve service, rotates in his own social orbit I know less and less about, and is almost my height. Yesterday it seems I was walking him in a stroller past the house owned by the crazy lady who beat on a drum to scare the birds out her tree. Now he's texting. Seems like I've missed the better part of the last almost 13 years times four. What I do with that information will determine the level of my wisdom (great to non-existent) between now and 2024.

All in all, I'm proud of my boys. Thank God for their mother. After 13 years of tremendous personal sacrifice professionally, it's time for some changes.

2) Forty isn't the new thirty. It's just the same ol' forty, and I'm running out of time.

I spent a few days at the "Change The World Conference" at Ginghamsburg (UM) Church this past fall, and came to the conclusion that professionally I am running out of time. The mission of God is great, and I am finite. This realization has given even greater urgency to my sense of time and responsibility.

Over the last two years I kind of got waylaid. In 2009 I had a pretty clear picture of what I thought God wanted in terms of pastoral ministry and leadership. The goal, I sensed, was more active involvement in serving our local community.
  • Help those who are spiritually hungry, find a faith community that fostered within them, a faith life that matters. That makes a difference. That's hard, but rewarding.
  • Alleviate hunger and poverty, while helping those who were hungry to do so, improve their lot.
  • Break down racial barriers that - as they exist to the degree they do - are holding our community back, submarine new investment, contribute to a negative attitude regarding our town, and quite frankly make the local church a fraction effective as it could be.

I wasn't shy about sharing these goals with the congregation, or anyone else for that matter, but in 2009 we weren't in a position to make any of this happen. Our discipleship ministry - the act of fostering a faith life that matters - was still our Achilles heel. This, in turn, limited our ability to invest in ministries that make a difference. And if you want to take on the most difficult task in the world, then make breaking down racial barriers in any kind of meaningful way a top priority.

For whatever reason, as we've worked on some other stuff we were supposed to do to serve our community, the work we've been doing has helped us clarify those objectives and positioned us to make real in-roads into making disciples. The lessons in entrepreneurship, taking risks, finding out what we could and couldn't realistically do will be essential in our community of faith becoming a force inside God's mission to transform the world, and shake up the way people relate to one another in this community.

It just takes time, and time is something each one of us has less and less of, each and every day.

3) Everything important begins over lunch

A couple of weeks ago our music ministry led worship in the form of their annual "Christmas Cantata". The term "Christmas Cantata" though, doesn't really do justice to what it was they did. When I hear the word "Cantata" I think of choirs singing in Latin or German accompanied by an organ and orchestra. Our music ministry led worship that featured music that could only be described as "hymns to hip hop", a term embodied by the choir singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" completed with a bridge in the middle rapped out by our friend and Future Church member, Aaron Henderson.

During the first service, which is designed to be very traditional (but not boring, which seems to be a hallmark of the traditional church), some folks from Aaron's church who were there to enjoy the worship, would on occasion, as they were moved by the music, stand up, sing, clap, and just generally enjoy themselves while letting those on stage know how much they appreciated their gift that morning. I know that whole scene stretched some our more traditional members. Hip hop. Standing in a worship service without some sort of prompting. Rap. Believe me, while I wasn't here that Sunday (I was preaching at our Bath campus), I heard about it.

But you know, what I overwhelmingly heard wasn't just positive, it was almost reverential. Folks who have been going to church here before Nixon was President who never thought they'd see the day we would actually, even in a moment, worship diversely. It actually made some people cry with joy. One lady, a retired librarian, described the experience as being "overwhelming, in a good way".

We don't enjoy these kinds of experiences, made possible via a relationship with a diverse urban church who genuinely loves us (and we love back), without lunch. Numerous lunches. Lunches between the pastor of that church (now an associate pastor here) and myself. Lunches between various members of those two churches. Formal lunches celebrating Christmas. Informal lunches on the go thru Arby's drive thru. Lots of lunches.

If you want to change or improve anything, find someone in a different circle but still like-minded, and start going to lunch. That's where Jesus will begin to be incarnated... over bread and the cup.

4) Once you get a ball rolling downhill, the hardest thing to figure out how to start pushing it faster.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, mustering a discussion of any kind of change was a real chore. My entire first year as lead pastor here at Shawnee UMC was a year of trying to slowly coax folks into thinking about our future while changing almost nothing. There's nothing quite like trying to get people thinking about what kind of church God wants us to be while at the same time changing as little as possible so as to not freak people out.

Admittedly, those people who had been here the longest felt like they had the most to lose with any kind of potential change. But something strange has happened along the way. As small changes were made, tweaking in worship style and content, changes in mission emphasis, lots of lunches, and an openness to more entrepreneurial lay leadership began adding up into large changes (new leadership structure, second campus, new staff hires, expansion of ministry and mission), the demands made on me by this church, particularly the senior staff, began to change.

Now I find myself not leading change fast enough. It's like when I was a kid and for years people tried to get me to try shrimp, and I refused. Lots of energy was expended trying to get me to take a little nibble, and finally one night at a New Years Eve party, the nibble was taken. Within short order my Dad had to figure out what to say to a son who wanted to order shrimp cocktail and fried shrimp whenever our family went out to dinner.

Shrimp, like institutional change, is expensive, man. How do you keep growing appetites satisfied after the first nibble becomes a craving?

Not long ago I was getting chastised by one of my senior staff for only "talking about change and not actually leading it", and the words coming out of that mouth were being uttered in a totally renovated building on a campus rescued from the dead over the last two years at great personal and corporate sacrifice. Needless to say, I felt like strangling somebody, but upon further review, that's the price paid for selling a vision and people buying it.

Expand our footprint? Grow in diversity? Challenge the congregation to greater depth of spiritual resolve? It's all happening. Now the question is, how do lead this kind of change when it's "in motion", buy-in is expanding, some of the more traditional folks are getting a bit nervous (see "rapping during Cantata), and you want to make a few changes in your own life (see kids growing up fast)?

I used to be behind the boulder being rolled up a hill. Now there are bunch more people with me doing some pushing. How to cheer them on and figure out how we can all live together in relative peace is the new challenge I'll face in 2012.

5) Bureaucracy isn't a dirty word

I know, I know.... this coming out of the mouth of a guy who genuinely hates going to meetings, keeping files, and ran from being a conference bureaucrat only eight and half months of pushing those kinds of papers. But largely thanks to my SPRC chair, Esther Baldridge, I'm beginning to see the wisdom in a paper trail. In evaluations being made, goals being set, boundaries laid out, strategic plans planned, and the bar of accountability raised. Also, it's good to develop a good poker face. I'm going to spend much more time with those who have learned to do this well over the next year. It'll be vital to the cause.

6) Whatever the "default" position is on a person's expectations, is the "default" position you are left to work with.

Once upon a time I thought church was all about after-church dinners, meetings, robes and traditional (mainline) forms of worship. Over the years those "default" expectations have been slowly eliminated.

My time in Goshen, Indiana had a lot to do with this. At the time Goshen First UMC was one of the few multi-site congregations in the country. And as far as second sites go, for the first year and a half I was there, the second one was really a rented middle school auditorium and a truck. In was in that setting that my sense of what lengths a church should go to in order to be faithful to God's mission was seriously altered.

If preaching in a middle school auditorium was beneath me, it wasn't after that experience. If the expectation that the church would be replicated by the preceding generation growing up in it's pews or that everyone knew "how to behave in church", those expectations were blown away as the unchurched flooded our auditorium seats. If I thought church people would be overjoyed to rub elbows with people who largely weren't in their meetings and classes, I found out quickly just how wrong I was. If asking people to sacrifice to build a structure or ministry they would largely never utilize themselves seemed foolish, after "The Life Center" experience I became willing to play the fool.

But along the way what I've discovered is that there are some "defaults" I still struggle with, and I'd consider me to be pretty progressive in my understanding of what is or isn't a "sacred cow". If I'm progressive, then the mainstream church is as a whole pretty attached to their "defaults". Relax even for one second on coaxing, inspiring, and occasionally exhorting people out of these default expectations, and you pay a price later because they never really go away. Ever. You just have to convince most people to put them away in their attic, again, again, again, and again.

7) Good friends are invaluable and keep you sane.

I think this speaks for itself.

8) Institutions who benefit off the backs of others solely for their own perpetuated existence will at best end up looking foolish, and at worst will end up being destroyed from the inside, out.

I think every Tunisian or Egyptian or Libyan or Syrian, the NCAA, Penn State's athletic department, all the folks bilked by MF Global learned this lesson this year, in spades.

9) You aren't working out whilst laying down on your couch, even if the can you are lifting is filled with Diet Coke.

Worked out day before yesterday after months of nothing but physical inactivity. My body is still reminding how stupid all that inactivity was, which is why I need to get this done and go up to the Y.

10) Most of us set expectations that are too low. Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss it, you'll still be among the stars.

I actually had a sticker with this phrase on it on my mirror growing up. It was given to me by a guy named E. Larry Moles, or as he was known around these parts, "The Man from Pinch". E Larry grew up in Pinch, West Virginia, a sleepy little hamlet (or more accurately, "holl'r") in the Elk River Valley. During my year playing for the little league team from Big Chimney (sponsored by Myres Funeral Home) we played a couple of games in Pinch, which puts me in the small minority of people who have any idea where it is. When we moved to Lima in 1980, E Larry, who sat with us every Sunday at church, loved it that I had experienced as a small child his home town.

E Larry (and I always used the E) ended up moving to Lima with very little in his pocket. By the time he died he owned a number of small businesses locally and was in demand as a motivational speaker all across the country. He used to say hokey stuff like "shoot for the moon, and even if you miss it, you'll still be among the stars", but the thing was he really believed what he was saying. It was, besides the grace of God, the only explanation he had from growing up dirt poor in the small town of Pinch, West Virginia, to becoming someone governors now called "Mr. Moles".

I used to see that sticker every day in my mirror, and now I think maybe - even in all its hokeyness - has sunk deep into my psyche. If anything I've learned a lot this year as to what was possible if only you keep your eyes on the only prize that matters: Making disciples of Jesus who transform the world. In the process the disciple finds meaning and peace, those served receive a little break from a difficult life, and space is made for the grace of God to draw his children closer to them.

Oh... and you get to do a bit of space travel.

My prayer is in 2012, you lift your eyes to find your "moonshot". Start saving up for your rocket, and hang on tight. It's a heck of a ride.