For The Someday Book

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Mark Greene, The One About… Eight Stories about God in Our Everyday, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, 2018, 66 pp.

TheoneaboutWEBThis is more of a booklet than a book, but I wanted to include it here to give it credit as a potentially very useful tool. I read it in a single sitting, and keep returning to imagine how to use the book or its concept in my congregation.

The book is intended to be a working tool for use to spark conversation and engagement with ordinary Christians about how God is at work in their lives. However, it is descriptive instead of prescriptive in its approach. As advertised, it simply contains eight short stories about how people practice their faith in their work life. None of them are clergy or professional church staff–all work traditionally secular jobs, across a variety of class and educational backgrounds. For example, a hairdresser prays for her clients as she massages the conditioner into their hair, and a manager listens to all his employees and develops a caring and compassionate relationship with each one. The book doesn’t just tell the stories as examples, however–it inserts questions, scriptures and tools for reflection so that the reader is prompted to imagine how they can mimic the example in the story in their own work and life. The stories are true, though names have been changed, and they are relatable.

I am imagining how to use the stories with a small group, or encourage people to read them and host a conversation about how people in my congregation engage their faith in their workplaces, to elicit their own stories and share with one another. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity does interesting work in this area, and I am grateful for this latest resource.

 

 

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Hopefully you can tell that, even though the work of ministry is hard and demanding much of the time, I love it. This week, I got to experience one of the thousands of reasons why:

Because ministry puts us in all kinds of places, with all kinds of people, with both openness and obligation to invite real, deep conversation about things that matter.

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Also, I got to sit on a Harley Davidson.

In the last three days, I have had meetings or substantial conversations with:

  • A community organizer about engaging our church in the work of growing a public voice in Central London
  • A homeless member of our congregation about helping provide a security deposit for permanent housing
  • The leader of a local neighborhood association about the redevelopment of our block, including potential business partners who might help with our own building improvements
  • A church member who, in spite of a year full of her own challenges, agreed serve in a leadership position in the congregation
  • A bright, engaging guest in our weekly night shelter who is a recent arrival from Africa with no money, no right to work, and no recourse to public funds, who wanted to learn more about Christianity beyond his Roman Catholic upbringing
  • The producer of a West End musical renting our space for rehearsal and a preview night, about our shared perspectives on the creative process and leading audiences/congregations into a moving experience
  • The Harley-Davidson bikers who came to display their bikes in front of the church for the preview event, about the differences between Judaism and Christianity, the U.S. military in the UK and U.S. politics
  • A couple who won tickets to the preview on a radio show, about how they spend all their free time and resources going to live concerts, which is a spiritual experience for them
  • The head of my son’s international school, about diversity, social justice, and how our institutions find ourselves in similar moments of change and adaptation, as London shifts around us.
  • A church volunteer at the night shelter about a difficult situation at home, for whom I was able to offer a referral for outside support
  • An actor in the West End show, about his rural home and the tiny chapel only accessible by horse or foot, to which he goes to find holy peace

And those are just the significant conversations, lasting more than a few minutes or touching deeper notes of spiritual and community life. There were plenty of other conversation with staff, church members, Soup Kitchen guests, night shelter guests, theatre guests and members of the public, all week long.

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Theatre cast, bikers, commuters, night shelter guests and volunteers, media and DJs, radio contest winners, church choir members, crew and more, all mingling in front of the church

Aside from the church, it’s hard to think of another organization that breaks so many boundaries and brings together people from so many diverse walks of life. While the great privilege of ministry is the ability to stand in these intersections every day, the even better truth is that anyone can join in. The church community offers anyone and everyone a chance to gather with all kinds of people, in all kinds of places, with both openness and obligation to invite real, deep conversation about things that matter.

Journey Inward Journey OutwardJourney Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1968, 176 pp.

I was introduced to Elizabeth O’Connor in my first semester of university, when I attended a retreat for those interested in exploring ministry as a vocation. (I was supposedly there as a music leader, not a candidate for ministry, but, well, you can see where that went.) A workshop leader used multiple passages of her Cry Pain, Cry Hope that have stuck with me ever since.

There is an ongoing conversation within my ministry colleagues about the crucial role of discipleship and faith formation, and the “competition” between time or investment as churches in acts of justice and compassion and acts of prayer, worship and study. I am firmly committed to the church’s mission and advocacy endeavors, but believe they require investment in the work of discipleship, shaping our inner lives in the mind and heart of Christ. The movement can work both ways–engagement in outward works of compassion and justice can lead us toward inward works of devotion, and inward works of devotion can lead us toward outward acts of social engagement. But it can be a struggle to sort through the balance, and engage those who think one side or the other is more important.

As I am preaching a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices, including both inward and outward ones, this seemed like an apt time to seek O’Connor’s wisdom in a new arena, even though this book is old and set in a different era.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward is the second volume (the first was Call to Commitment) of the story of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC, an intentional, missional Christian community in the 1960s led by Rev. Gordon Cosby. The congregation has sought with care and great deliberateness to develop disciples of Jesus governed by inward habits of prayer, worship and communal living, engaged in outward practices of mission. As always, O’Connor’s gifts as a writer give voice and perspective and ways of framing that capture my thoughts and inspire deeper reflection.

 

She begins with a conversation about vocation, the way of intentionality and consciousness of God at work in our lives. She describes those without vocation, comparing them to the crowd surrounding Jesus (as opposed to the disciples):

They do not receive anything into themselves; things happen to them, but never in them. Their lives are rich in outer events, and poor in inner ones. (5)

The person who has lost his true self has a hunger in him. It may be expressed in apathy or industry. He may try to satisfy it with a job he works at 14 hours a day, or a family that is ‘everything’ to him, or success that is worth all striving, or the acquisition of things, of which there is no end of want. But there is nothing to fill the emptiness of the one who is not following the way of his own inner being. (7)

This is exactly the kind of pain I see so often in the people I meet every day, most of whom are “good people,” dedicated to serving others and trying to live rightly. Yet there is a pain, an alienation, a loneliness, a “God-shaped hole,” as some would say. More outward action and good works will not fill the void. More, it is not the way of Christ.

O’Connor says that the journey inward involves three engagements:

  1. The engagement with oneself — moving toward self-knowledge, plumbing the depths of our own consciousness
  2. The engagement with God — from St. Teresa: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” Prayer, both in daily life and in time apart, along with study and spiritual disciplines
  3. The engagement with others — a real commitment to friendship and relationship with others, even when it is difficult

She summarizes the whole thing here:

If engagement with ourselves does not push back horizons so that we see neighbors we did not see before, then we need to examine the appointment kept with self. If prayer does not drive us out into some concrete involvement at the point of the world’s need, then we must question prayer. If the community of our Christian brothers (and sisters) does not deliver us from false securities and safe opinions and known ways then we must cry out against that community, for it betrays. (28)

The inward must not be sacrificed to the outward, nor the outward to the inward. There is no transformation that way. (30)

That’s what it’s all about–transformation. If we are about the work of Christ, it is always transformation that we seek, and that requires both inward and outward engagements.

The remainder of the book gives practical insight and stories to the way Church of Our Savior has endeavored to live these practices in their life and work together. Specifically, they organize mission groups for all members that practice both inward-looking prayer and worship together and outward-looking engagement in service and justice in the community. The stories O’Connor tells speak of remarkable transformation, in both the communities they serve and the individuals who have opened their lives to God in this way: an army captain turned potter and artist; a homeless shelter for children emptied as children are placed in homes; a coffee shop become worshiping community. Each remaining chapter unpacks the story of a mission group, recounting its many challenges and small victories on both the inward and outward paths.

A few remaining treasures from her writing to share.

After discussing the role of risk-taking in the Coffee House community, and the importance of taking risks as part of the life of faith, she talks about the safety they found to take risks:

The safety was not in protection from ‘slings and arrows,’ but in a group of people who, however poorly they might embrace it, had as the basis of their life in Christ an unlimited liability for one another. (84)

The image of having “unlimited liability for one another” is worthy of further exploration and reflection.

She recounts the exploration of faith in the church’s education program, and in particular one person’s account of the role of Gordon Cosby in inspiring their faith. Quoting this individual:

“I knew that this was a man of faith, and that he included in it the faith that I could have faith. I became expectant myself, and when I became expectant, things began to happen for me.” (105)

There is something true and holy in this explanation of ministry. We hold faith that others can have faith, that God is at work in their lives. Even when we have doubts, the role of pastor and our presence with them represents that to people. And that simple presence and faith of expectation opens the way for people to believe for themselves that God is at work in them.

Dr. Cosby’s education session included three relationships that each of us need if we are to be growing in faith.

  1. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going.
  2. We need those who are our peers–fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ
  3. We need those who are not as advanced as we–a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish (110)

While I resist the notion of being “advanced” in faith, it is true that there is wisdom and excellence in practice developed over time, and helping others navigate terrain that you yourself have already traversed is important to one’s own continued growth.

In spite of its age–some of the book is very 1960s–O’Connor’s writing and perspectives on the spiritual life and the inward and outward journeys remain insightful. If you are curious, you can usually find a used copy of O’Connor’s works online at Alibris. (I know because I have lent out Cry Pain, Cry Hope a few times and had to replace it.)

 

 

 

SilenceSilence by Shusaku Endo, London: Picador, 1969 (English translation, original Japanese published in 1966), 267 pp.

I had not heard of this book until the Martin Scorese movie came out a few years ago. Ever since, I was intrigued, thinking that the story said something that mattered to me as a pastor myself. However, I knew the content involved cruelty and torture, and I could not bring myself to be haunted by images. The book was the way to go, so my imagination could both connect and disconnect as my mind and heart could handle.

Silence is, at face, a story about the secret Christian missions to Japan in the early 17th century, and the Japanese Christians that survived persecution. However, it is really a story about what the Christian faith means, what it means to profess your faith versus live its values, and what courage and faithfulness looks like when those two things collide.

The story revolves around Sebastian Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest, who makes his way to Japan full of passion and youthful self-confidence, but also curiosity, to hear of a beloved mentor who is reported to have apostatized. Christianity is illegal, but Rodrigues is aided by secret Japanese Christians before he and they are caught and tortured, with tricks and twists to encourage them to apostatize.

Endo’s writing is powerful, and the inner journey of Rodrigues compelled me as a reader to my examination of conscience.

A few passages that spoke to me:

We priests are in some ways a sad group of men. Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task. (22)

A chilling bit of foreshadowing in the novel, but a truism to the heart of any pastor–for none of us truly measure up to the task set before us.

Reminiscent of Romans 5:6-8, and worth remembering as a restatement next time I preach on that passage:

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt–this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time. (47)

The silence of the book’s title has many layers in the story, but one of the frequent ones is the silence of God in the face of suffering. Endo writes powerful of the feeling of God’s silence in several passages.

Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent. (79)

On sin, with the distant context of the missionary’s missteps in an unfamiliar culture:

Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious to the wounds he has left behind. (114)

Silence is a beautiful, powerful novel. Although it telegraphed early how the story was likely to unfold, and the moral choice Rodrigues would face, the looming knowledge only made Rodrigues’ surprise and naivete more evident. This would make an excellent book for discussion in a group, especially a group of people that sees themselves as servants or missionaries or ministers to others on behalf of Christ, and wants to explore questions about their assumptions and impact.

 

Strength for the Journey: A Guide to Spiritual Practice by Renee Miller, New York: Morehouse Publishing/CREDO Institute, 2011, 134 pp.

strength-for-the-journey.jpgThis tiny little volume contains tiny little introductions to 20 different spiritual practices, along with a rubric for introducing and beginning each one. It is produced by the CREDO Institute, which runs the CREDO program of mid-career personal, spiritual and vocational development for clergy in the a variety of mainline denominations.

The book is intentionally lightweight and light reading. The 20 spiritual practices are grouped into five categories: Meditative Practice, Ministry Practice, Media Practice, Mind Practice and Movement Practice. Each section and each practice begins with a beautiful and simple color photograph, which invites you to slow down your reading for information and simply reflect on the invitation into spiritual practice. The author follows a formulaic approach to each one, offering a brief rationale for the gift and struggle of that particular practice; practical suggestions for how to begin to engage the practice and what to expect in the discipline; concluding with a short observation about what personality types will be draw to or resistant to a particular practice, and the stumbling blocks each might encounter.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of both ancient, traditional practices and contemporary, creative ones. Alongside praying with beads or praying the daily office, there is attention to technology, even movies as a possible spiritual practice. Movement practices do not just include walking and nature, but handwork. Ministry practices of hospitality and caring are joined by spiritual attention to money and gratitude.

Miller’s reflections made me want to try a few practices I had not sampled or engaged with any depth. She spoke with an honesty about the difficulty and reward (or lack thereof) of spiritual practice, emphasizing that it is not about obtaining a certain feeling or holiness, but about the way the practices take root in your life and shape you by the discipline you exercise in doing them to give attention to God. Her whole style had a sense of encouragement and accessibility I appreciated greatly.

I will be returning to this book throughout Lent, as I am preaching a sermon series called “A Lived Faith,” which is about inviting people into a life of spiritual practices, with a particular focus on those practices that we, as a congregation, should embody in an international, expatriate context. This is a book easily read in one sitting, but best consulted and savored slowly and spaciously.

 

Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 224 pp.

sustainable-youth-ministryBooks hang around on my to-be-read shelf for years, until just the moment they deliver right-on-time information. I went to a workshop with DeVries in 2011, got this book and tons of useful information that I still rely on. But only now, in preparation for hosting an international youth pastors’ conference and with an eye toward building our church’s youth ministry from the ground up, did I finally get around to reading his book. It was outstanding.

DeVries is a professional, long-time youth pastor, and also runs Youth Ministry Architects, a consulting firm for churches interested in building sustainable youth ministry programs. This book contains a systematic approach based on his experience–but it is not a magic fix.

DeVries begins by debunking the deeply cherished myths and prejudices held in churches about youth ministry. I confess that I have been guilty of many of them myself. He argues, effectively, that most churches’ strategy for youth ministry is to gamble–to try something (anything!!) and hope it works. If it is hot for awhile, great! If it doesn’t work or goes cold, toss it out and gamble again. Digging deeper, he warns against making program central, fearing or blaming politics, trying to hire away your problems, and believing your situation is special or unique.

After urging the reader to set down all their hopes for a quick fix, DeVries offers less exciting but (to me) feasible and necessary steps to actually building a lasting youth ministry program. He outlines with specificity the investment required in terms of dollar, staff and volunteer time, along with specific expectations for reasonable numbers of growth. Then he names the infrastructure documents necessary: a directory, an annual calendar, job descriptions, a master recruiting list, a curriculum template. (This was one of my favorite sections, because these are the exact documents I have been working to produce over the last year for my church. I didn’t start with DeVries list, but I had a sense that no growth or program development would be possible without them. Now I have confirmation on the importance of that work.)

Only with this administrative infrastructure can the task of developing vision, mission and values begin. Only then can you start the work of developing the kind of climate and culture you desire in your youth group. And only after that are you ready to pursue the right staff leadership to help bring this program plan to life, and he offers detailed information for search committees on how to go about doing this.

DeVries’ focus is on building broad volunteer leadership and support, so that a church does not rely on a superstar youth minister who, no matter how talented and skilled, cannot last without this kind of institutional framework of support. Along the way, the wisdom he offers does not just pertain to youth ministry, but to church leadership, growth and development at all levels and settings. As we consider how to rebuild our collapsed youth program from the ground up, I’ll be following this book as a blueprint and sharing it with church leaders as we cultivate the necessary capacity to build a sustainable youth ministry.

The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 220 pp.

Godbearing LifeKenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian was one of the best books I read about ministry in the last decade, which drew me to look back at her earlier work. Although she specifically writes about youth ministry, her insights about the way cultural forces and church practices compete to shape our souls rings true in ministry with people of all ages. This book did not disappoint. Even though it’s 20 years old, many of the illustrations obsolete, and a whole generation of youth now parents of adolescents themselves, the book holds up because it is about greater themes of how we as pastors and churches care for the soul.

Dean and Foster operate within the powerful metaphor of Godbearing, which is drawn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a teenager herself who was chosen to carry Jesus into the world. As Christian leaders, we are invited to say “yes” to God’s request to live within us and let our lives be shaped by God’s purposes. Then we form relationships and bear witness to God’s work in the lives of others, helping them to see where God is calling and to respond by saying “yes” themselves.

They write:

I began spending the bulk of my “relational ministry” helping youth, even unchurched ones, develop a vocabulary of faith. I learned that pastors have permission, and even an obligation, to ask questions others do not ask. So I quit beating around the bush and asked up front: “What’s going on between you and God? How goes your spiritual life?” (13)

This is exactly what I am discovering, especially in this particular season of my ministry. I spend a lot of time with people who may or may not be part of my congregation, may or may not be Christian, may or may not see me as pastor or just as a friend. But my role gives me both permission and obligation to have these conversations. For many people, no one else in their lives engages these questions, and people are yearning to be asked, even though it feels scary for both of us sometimes.

They also write about evangelism not as convincing people to believe in God, but to believe that God matters.

The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose between them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (15)

This is not just adolescents. Every day, thousands of people pass by in front of our church on the street, and most of them–whether or not they believe in God in any way–are convinced that what we do inside that building has no relevance or meaning to their lives. Dean and Foster offer incarnational and relational ministry as a response. We don’t just build relationships in order to talk about the Gospel. We live the Gospel in our lives (Godbearing) so that others will experience the incarnation of God.

This approach is grounded in faith practices:

Practices are the constitutive acts of a community that both identify us as, and form us into, people who belong to that community. Christian practices mark us as and make us into Jesus’ followers. (107)

Dean and Foster offer a helpful rubric of organizing the variety of Christian faith practices into six major categories (communion, worship, compassion, teaching and nurture, witness, and dehabituation), highlighting particular faith practices that one uses in youth ministry, but again applicable to all ages. They devote full chapters to each category, but lift out spiritual friendship, “hand-holding and finger-pointing” (presence and direction), service, speaking in familiar language, and sabbath as particularly important.

One of the key challenges for youth ministry and all ministry is avoiding burnout. The authors introduced a helpful biblical metaphor in the burning bush.

God is most evident in our ministries not when we are “on fire for Jesus” but when we burn without being consumed. … God is not calling us to identify with Moses. God is calling us to identify with the bush. (72)

Faith practices are those things that keep our fires burning, and engaging more deeply in growing our faith so we can nourish the faith of others is a model for sustainable Christian ministry for everyone. It’s not about growing programs, it’s about growing faith and relationships.

This is an insightful read that has already helped me shape some of the work I am doing to lead a conference for youth pastors and to engage my congregation in a Lenten series on faith practices. It has also given me new language to understand my own work in ministry. I recommend it not only for youth ministers, but for clergy and lay leaders looking to understand our work in the world in a deeper way, especially around inviting others into relationship with Christ.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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