Posts Tagged pastor

Churches in America: too fragile to fight (at least with each other)

BILL LEONARD* | SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 – Baotistnewsglobal,com

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner cites this comment by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary:

“The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis – not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”

Labberton’s insightful, poignant challenge might require a small caveat: The Church is indeed in crisis, largely because of multiple crises, few of which are momentary. We’re in it for the long haul. In America 2019, to confront one crisis or multiple crises, you must stand in line. It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.

Public crises alone are daunting enough, even on the briefest of lists: opioid addiction; gender and sexuality issues; racial and political divisions; immigration and the treatment of immigrants – documented and undocumented, sick or well, adult or child; healthcare or lack thereof; religious liberty or lack thereof; global warming with melting glaciers and flaming forests; species extinctions; sexual abuse inside and outside the church; increased suicides; and mass shootings, mass shootings, mass shootings.

“It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.”

As these and other public crises demand multiple responses from Christian communities, so do an increasing variety of ecclesiastically-specific crises that confront congregations across the theological spectrum. Here are but a few:

Denominational support systems are disconnecting, disengaging, even breaking apart.
Religio-political divisions create tensions throughout denominations and congregations.
The changing sociology of Sunday often means even “active” members attend worship services only intermittently.
Estimates vary widely, but some 4,000 to 10,000 churches close each year.
The “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, remain an ever-expanding subgroup in American religious life. A recent study from Eastern Illinois University put Nones, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in a statistical dead heat, each at around 23 percent of the population. A 2017 Christian Science Monitor report on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans noted that the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016 – and only 11 percent of white evangelicals are under age 30.
Many congregations now experience decreasing and/or aging membership; declining finances that impact staff salaries, programs and building maintenance; waning attendance, membership and baptisms; and escalating intra-church conflict, often directed at ministers.

Worse yet, with both documented and anecdotal evidence, new and enduring doctrinal-cultural-political debates continue to impact congregations, fomenting unrest if not outright schism. Headlines in recent months outline multiple crises:

“After Disagreements over LGBTQ Clergy, U.S. Methodists Move Closer to Split” (NPR)

“Hate Thy Neighbor: When American Evangelicals Fall Out” (The Economist)

“Battle Lines Form Over Social Justice: Is it Gospel or Heresy?” (RNS)

“Pastor’s Exit Exposes Culture Rifts in a Leading Liberal Church” (New York Times)

“Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye” (Wall Street Journal)

“Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” (Christian Century)

“Amid Evangelical decline, growing split between young Christians and church elders” (Christian Science Monitor)

We all know that congregational conflicts are not unique in Christian history. Disputes arose the moment the Apostle Paul proposed welcoming Gentiles into the church. The Pauline epistles alone document congregational infighting among the fledgling Christian communities. Take the ever-factionalized Corinthian church, please! Paul rakes them over the gospel coals for arguing over food (“meat offered to idols,” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13); kowtowing to certain “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 1-15); and debating when, whether, with whom or never to have sex (“better to marry than to burn,” 1 Cor. 7:1-9).

(Those crises convince me that the Corinthian Church was essentially proto-Baptist.)

“Contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them.”

Across the centuries, doctrinal disputes, sacramental differences or participation in “wars of religion” could get you exiled, burned, beheaded, hanged or drowned by Catholic and Protestant alike. Thank God, we’ve left that behind (mostly).

Historically, American congregational conflicts illustrate the adage that “churches multiply by dividing” amid multiple disputes and crises. Yet contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them, making recovery at best lengthy if not altogether impossible. In fact, some congregations are now so weakened that schism will simply hasten their demise.

That reality ought to sober us all toward cooperation and reconciliation. In that vein, might we together:

Distinguish between genuine dissent and petty animosity?
Develop creative measures for nurturing healthy debate and the boundaries of disagreement before crises occur?
Enlist the services of trained mediators and conflict managers when necessary?
Resist airing disputes outside the Christian community, especially on social media?
Recognize the difficulties of recovery in the face of contemporary institutional and individual exhaustion?
Cultivate congregational unity around shared ministry that energizes beyond, alongside or despite differences?
Gravitate toward those congregations that best reflect our gospel commitments; then work to make them better, not tear them down?
These realities confront us with yet another “Bonhoeffer moment” in this country and the world, a time of decision when the best elements of Gospel and Church call us to remember and reaffirm who we are and what we are about as participants together in the Body of Christ. To our crisis-ridden times Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks yet, writing from prison in 1944, the year the Nazis took his life:

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men [and women] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate the importance of human example” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Crisis or not, that’s quite a calling, then and now.

*Bill Leonard lectured at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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When People Talk, It Can Make or Break Your Church – Bill Owen- ethicsdaily.com

When People Talk, It Can Make or Break Your Church | Bill Owen, Leadership, Community, Center for Healthy Churches, Healthy Churches, Conversation, Speech

Unhealthy conversations that go unchecked damage culture. It leads down a path of dissension and decline, Owen writes.

Church people talk.

They talk about all kinds of things: the pastor, her sermon, how many people used to be in worship, and what we ought to be doing but haven’t yet.

This kind of talk can be threatening to a pastor, but it doesn’t have to be.

Having people care enough about what’s happening at church to talk about it is a good thing. Conversation creates culture. It’s the path toward vitality and growth.

Effective church leaders must learn that the surest way out of an unhealthy climate is by changing the narrative, by reframing how “people talk.” This process is nuanced, but the gospels help.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all began as conversations. These writing evangelists stood in a long line of communicators, stringing together stories told and retold, heard and recounted.

They gathered the best and wrote them down so parents could recite them to their children, teachers to their students and neighbors to their neighbors. Before long, friends from remote places were also talking about Jesus as the Son of God.

The political talking heads tried to spurn Jesus’ story by mocking him and killing him for blasphemy. But those who had been near him had gotten word to those now far off that he was so much more.

They re-authored the culture surrounding Jesus’ story all because church people decided to talk.

Conversations can be powerful.

If you think about it, not one of us would have ever come to faith apart from someone having said something to us. Words as simple as “Hey, why don’t you come to church with me?” Maybe it was “I’ll pray for you” or “God bless.”

Whatever it may have been, the fact is someone at one time or another said something that touched us, “spoke” to us or maybe challenged or even angered us. It whetted our appetites or made us curious enough to take a step toward God.

This is how church has worked for two millennia now. It thrives on people talking to one another. This is how a carpenter’s son from Nazareth becomes known all over the world.

People talk and word travels. People talk and lives transform. People talk and churches are established. People talk and systems get established like hospitals and nonprofits to help the poor, the sick and the broken mend.

Just think what churches have accomplished, are accomplishing and still can accomplish by how they focus their talk.

But beware: Having people care enough about what’s happening to talk about it can also be bad.

Unhealthy conversations that go unchecked damage culture. It leads down a path of dissension and decline.

Too often, we underestimate the effects of how people talk. Serious matters treated too casually or electronically reduced to 140-word tweets or diminished to emoticons or scrolled across the bottom of television monitors threaten the culture being shaped.

Talk is seldom cheap. What we say, when and how we say it, counts. It matters in every realm – political, relational and spiritual.

When political leaders articulate with moral clarity our highest values, citizens rally to form a more perfect union.

When friends surround one another during times of crisis, words of comfort and concern give strength and peace.

When a neighbor tells the truth in love to one who has asked for it, when a spouse ends a quarrel with forgiveness, when a teacher bends to encourage a student to use her voice because every child matters – it makes a difference.

Pastors should never underestimate the power of conversation, whether in the hallways, around the table or from the pulpit. It all matters.

It’s easy to settle for tepid, empty words – to exchange pleasantries, to bless the status quo, to comment on the weather or exchange sports scores.

Don’t be duped. While everyday banter can help build rapport and establish trust, left alone or left unshaped is not pastoral leadership.

Good pastors articulate a consistent, clear vision of a God-sized future; communities of faith respond.

Effective pastors are able to spread the message: “Here’s the picture; this is what we’re doing; here’s why we’re doing it; if things go right, here’s what the picture will look like a year from now.”

The really good pastors are able to use their pulpits to offer a prophetic call to congregations to follow the narrative of Jesus without feeling threatened by a low trust culture.

The best pastors are able to get their ministerial staff to be collaborative leaders shaping the new narrative while they lead teams.

When this occurs, specific steps of implementation follow and real ministry takes root shaping the church’s culture, spilling over into the life of the community.

I, along with my colleagues at the Center for Healthy Churches, work to help church leaders and churches identify processes that enable such a shift in narrative building.

Healthy churches and pastors know how to establish a high trust culture that focuses attention on what and how people talk. Churches that put a premium on healthy, intentional conversations thrive.

People are going to talk. Why not make it a healthy conversation?

Bill Owen is the south central consultant at the Center for Healthy Churches. He served previously as pastor of Mount Carmel Church in Cross Plains, Tennessee, before retiring after 32 years of ministry. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog website and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @owenrevbill.

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Understanding One’s Life As Part of God’s Work of Redemption – Amy Butler – Baptist News Global

There is extended to each of us a perpetual invitation to live into the possibility God holds for each of our lives.

By Amy Butler

Butler Amy ColumnThat day as I stood in front of the gathered congregation, I could feel their dismay — an almost desperate exasperation and lack of hope at the state of their community. It was my first congregational meeting as the pastor.

To say that I was wholly unprepared for leading congregational meetings, much less many of the other pastoral duties I’d been recently called upon to perform, may be rather an understatement. Still, as is my way, I endeavored to be as over-prepared as I could. I read up on Roberts Rules of Order; I scoured past congregational meeting minutes; I made a list of all the office volunteers to thank publicly; I looked and looked for a prayer or devotional reading that might communicate in some deep way all that my young and naïve pastor’s heart believed for this church.

Perhaps it was inexperience that led me to believe that this current state of affairs in the church was not its sad end, as so many seemed to think. Sitting in my very first history of Baptists course in college I learned the astounding idea that God’s Spirit might show up wherever she will, and that her action in the world is unpredictable. This shocking awareness was what allowed me to even consider the possibility that I might become a pastor myself, so it makes sense that as I stood up to face my congregation at that first business meeting, I just assumed that God’s Spirit was showing up, that we should just welcome this force that seems to blow in to the most unlikely places in the most unlikely ways, unhinging certainties and mixing things up, creating new possibilities we’d never considered. After all, isn’t it fundamental to our faith to understand that God’s way in the world is a way of insistent and perpetual recreation, where situations we’re sure are beyond redemption can finally find their way to hope again?

After fumbling through my report, in which I mistakenly left off the list of volunteers to publicly thank the longest-tenured and most difficult older member of the congregation, I finally got to my closing prayer. Earlier that week as I’d struggled to write a closing prayer in preparation, I soon realized I didn’t have the words I felt I needed. That week, in a frantic attempt to come up with something, I stumbled across what is commonly known as the Prayer of Oscar Romero, although it was not written and never prayed by him. The prayer speaks of taking the long view; its theme is blessing the work we do right now, in the immediacy of life, when we cannot see what the future holds, sure that the work of becoming is ever-ongoing. It proclaims the truth that the kingdom of God always lies beyond us, and that the substance of our work is found in living into a future we do not experience but believe with all our heart will come.

Those are lofty words for a novice pastor in her first congregational meeting but they named with such depth the possibility I could see in front of me.

From that lectern on that day, I’m sure I thought the task ahead was a professional task, one for which I’d prepared for years.

Since then, I’ve come to learn that the words of this prayer, words that call for becoming at every turn of this human journey, thread their way through my own life, inviting me to a rigorous engagement that relentlessly unfolds all around me.

I’ve come to believe that there is extended to each of us a perpetual invitation to live into the possibility God holds for each of our lives, and a divine insistence that we — and the world around us — can be about better things.

I think the words of this prayer are truer than I suspected, even as I read them with quavering voice at that very first congregational meeting of my first pastorate. Walking the human journey at God’s invitation plants in each of us, even in the darkest moments, an invitation to something better.

This pull, this understanding of my life and my calling as one small part of God’s grand work of redemption, has saved my life again and again. It has offered me an identity and purpose; it has invited me into holy places I never would have gone otherwise; it has given me words and meaning to ascribe to the darkest parts of my human living; it has planted the story of my life firmly within a larger narrative; it has helped me become the pastor.

Rev. Amy Butlet is pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.

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Welcoming the stranger = Amy Butler

By Amy Butler

It’s a pretty commonly accepted biblical mandate that we welcome the stranger. As we’ve witnessed in the news of late, in our better moments we people of faith can manage to cross wide valleys of opinion to agree on that sentiment. It occurred to me recently, however, that we make these determinations around occasional issues, and most frequently from the position of establishment — we’re rarely the strangers. We can be good about quoting Scripture, but I wonder if a change of perspective would make us even more vigilant about radical welcome.

What does it feel like to be a stranger? After my first week in a brand new city, I began to remember what, honestly, has not been a common experience for me. And, while acknowledging that my experience of being a stranger has very little desperation associated with it, this brush with being new has reminded me just a bit of what it might feel like to really be a stranger in a strange land.

The first thing I experienced in force was anonymity. While navigating the world with no recognition from the folks around you can be freeing, there’s also something a bit unmooring about it. When nobody trains their eyes on you with recognition, it’s easy to feel a bit adrift. The freedom to fly beneath the radar comes at the price of irrelevance. And I remembered: we all need to be recognized, to fill a role in the lives of those around us.

Being a stranger also comes with a strong discomfort. Nothing feels quite normal; everything is brand new. As soon as the excitement of the brand new passes, however, a nostalgia for the familiar rises to the surface. It’s not that the familiar was especially better but the territory was navigable. As feeling uncomfortable has been a constant companion in these days, I remembered: we all long for familiarity and comfort.

And this experience of constant newness brings to mind the built-in sense of incompetence that comes with being a stranger. Need to get across town? Milk for your cereal? A doctor? These are all puzzles of varying degrees, at first presenting a challenge but shortly growing tedious. As these experiences fill each day, the constant feeling of incompetence humbles, then wears down the spirit. Reminder: competence and value go hand in hand in our society; it’s discouraging to live with a steep learning curve.

With the incompetence of newness, the stranger finds himself in constant need of help. Asking for help isn’t always the most comfortable exercise, and living life as a constant receiver can be frustrating. To learn the art of accepting help can be a challenge for those of us who are accustomed to being on the other end of the equation.

I’ve noticed and tried to mark something especially valuable in the experience of the stranger. Strangers see the world around them with new eyes. In that little window of time before anonymity becomes familiarity, discomfort relaxes into ease, incompetence develops skill, constant receipt gives way to opportunities for generous welcome to others, the stranger can see her world with a clarity familiarity does not afford.

And that gift of new eyes may be worth the pain of newness. Once everything starts to feel a little more normal and I’m the one giving out advice on subway routes, I hope I can remember what I saw when I was the stranger. With that memory, perhaps a stranger’s perspective can more powerfully inform the way I navigate my comfortable world.

And welcoming the stranger might become, not an issue-specific anomaly, but rather a regular Christian practice.

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