Posts Tagged ‘pastoral life’
Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.
Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.
Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.
John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.
What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”
Disbelief in universal truth
Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)
Distrust of institutional authority
Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However, active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”
Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”
This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)
The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.
However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)
The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.
As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.
The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)
In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.
Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.
Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.
Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.
The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)
He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.
As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.
The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.
I read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.
Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.
Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.
Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:
The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)
Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”
What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)
One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:
Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)
Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.
My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)
Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.
This book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.
In his preface from 1956, he writes,
The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)
That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.
The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)
So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.
Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.
“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)
It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.
It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.
The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:
We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)
There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)
Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.
Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)
This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.
Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.
Let me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.
I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.
One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.
Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)
I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.
Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)
Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.
Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)
First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).
The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry. I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.
Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.
As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go? Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.
As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder, pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.
After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same. As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.
We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.
Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known. I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.
At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.
When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.
But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2006, 294 pp.
Oh, what a beautiful novel this is. It is a profound testimony to grief, community, ministry and the relationship between a church and its pastor. I need novels for myself, for my own emotional well-being. Sometimes, I have a tough time breaking down and working through my own feelings. The problems are too close and too complex and they feel overwhelming. A good novel lets me do the emotional work a bit vicariously–weeping, grieving, sitting in silence. Abide With Me was just that kind of book.
The novel tells the story of Rev. Tyler Caskey, a pastor to a small town church in Maine. It is the story of his marriage to an unlikely candidate to be a pastor’s wife, of their love and their struggles and her untimely death. It is the story of his daughter Katherine, age 5, and how his grief and her own break down in her life. It is the story of the members of the parish–the organist who wants a new organ and her husband reckoning with his unfaithfulness; the housekeeper who befriends him in spite of her shady past; the teacher and school psychologist who play out their own assumptions on him and his daughter, on and on. It is a story about the heavy, heart-wrenching work of grief, the toll it takes on a life to engage that work, and the even greater cost of ignoring it. In the end, it is a story of redemption and the power of community to move beyond rumor and gossip into love. It is a story of imperfection and vulnerability between pastor and congregation, told with hope and affection.
Strout includes many insightful gems from the life and mind of the minister, like Tyler’s desire for “The Feeling,” the “profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there” (15) and his reflections and comparisons of his own calling with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which many a pastor has done (including this one). At one point, his sister accuses him of caring too much about the feelings of others: “If you’re always thinking of the other person first, you don’t have to bother with what you’re feeling. Or thinking.” (123)
When Tyler’s grief finally overtakes him and he breaks down in the pulpit, the organist subtly begins playing “Abide With Me,” his favorite hymn, while the head deacon comes forward and takes his hand. His seminary professor then tells him,
Your congregation, it seems to me, has given you love. And it’s your job to receive it. Perhaps before now they gave you an admiring, childlike kind of love, but what happened to you that Sunday–and their response to it–is a mature and compassionate love. (286)
I am blessed to serve that kind of congregation, and I was blessed to read about Tyler Caskey’s congregation, the way they cared for each other as pastor and congregation. Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for Abide with Me.