For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘pastoral ministry

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.

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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.

 

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown, Gotham Books, 2012, 287 pp.

Daring GreatlyBrene Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability took my circles of clergy friends (especially women) by storm. Everyone was talking about it, talking about her, talking about vulnerability and the role it might play in pastoral leadership and preaching. As someone who prefers to stay fairly tightly protected and invulnerable, I knew I had to read it.

Brown’s writing reads with the invitational, conversational style of a self-help book, but it presents information developed from her enormous qualitative research projects. Using a “grounded theory” methodology, she has spent 12 years conducting in-depth interviews with more than 1200 people on the topics of shame and resilience, along with other forms of research, including leading many seminars on the topic. Vulnerability has emerged as a core theme related to shame and resilience, hence this book.

The book’s prelude summarizes its conclusion like this:

Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. … We must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. (2)

Brown lets her research subjects give definition to vulnerability, offering lists and nuances that point toward a meaning. However, she settles on this moment of brilliance: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” (37) Vulnerability is taking a risk and putting yourself out there, even if it means you might fail.

Brown’s subsequent chapters address various themes around shame and vulnerability. She starts with scarcity, noting that our “never enough” culture leads to feelings of shame about being ordinary. The opposite of scarcity is not bounty, it is wholeheartedness. (29) I might call it wellness, or satiety–a rare quality.

The next section debunks myths about vulnerability–associating vulnerability with weakness, believing we can go it alone, and understanding the difference between vulnerability and oversharing. She then differentiates between vulnerability and shame. Shame is a feeling that our flaws make us unlovable and unworthy. Vulnerability requires us to trust that we will be loved even when we fail and our flaws are revealed. Shame resilience can be learned, and one of the most important ways to overcome shame is with empathy.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. (75)

This strikes me as such an important insight for pastoral ministry. I listen to people’s stories so often, and I can even see sometimes in the very moment of empathy the way it liberates them from the shame they carry.

In order to break through, we must get through the “vulnerability armory,” which includes foreboding joy (mistrusting joy as a sign that something bad is coming), perfectionism, numbing, oversharing, running away and more. This was the most insightful chapter for me, as I recognized my own use of many of those tools and shields to protect myself.

The final chapters teach us how to practice vulnerability and learn to change. Disengagement must become re-engagement, as we let our hearts out in the open. Brown offers specific practices to help free us from shame and allow appropriate vulnerability in the classroom, workplace and in our families. Her chapter on parenting both identifies places where parents act to shame, and strategies to behave differently–including being vulnerable ourselves.

did not generate the kind of excitement or life-changing insight that it has to some of my friends and colleagues, but it was still an interesting read and offered much wisdom for pastoral work and many ideas that could appear in sermons about forgiveness, shame, healing, redemption and strength.

Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.

Blessed are the CrazyThis book is brave. Sarah Lund commits from the very beginning to testify–to bear witness to the heartache and struggle of her own life and where God has (and hasn’t) been present and active in it. Then she follows through, confessing to her own pain, the pain of her family, and stories of brokenness and hope. Her vulnerability as a writer, pastor and person left me humbled and challenged to pursue that kind of testifying in my own life and ministry.

Before the book even begins, there is a definition offered for “crazy in the blood,” referring to the genetic predisposition to brain disease and “why some families are more dysfunctional than others.” This is Lund’s family and her story. She begins in her own voice as a five-year-old child, recalling a story of violence from her father after church. Her testimony unfolds through her teen and young adult years, as her father’s violence and mental illness unravel his life. Even as a local church helps her to know that “not everything in my life was ruined,” (7) Lund feels as though a God of love cannot reside in a home filled with such hate, and that faith and hope are set out to sea. She finds faith renewed in her college years, along with the perspective to understand her father’s violence as an illness.

After her years as a child and youth, her testimony turns to a faithful wrestling with how to love members of her family whose mental illness risks destroying their lives, and hers along with them. It is not just about her father. Her eldest brother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she comes to care for a cousin on death row for a murder likely triggered by untreated mental illness and family abuse. It is painful to read, but her truth-telling is healing and liberating.

While my own testimony is not shaped by “crazy in the blood,” I found myself relating to her journey in many ways. This is what makes it testimony–that it was not just a story about her life, but about God at work, which means I could come to see God at work in my life through it. She describes her father, brother and cousins as her greatest spiritual teachers, and they became my spiritual teachers too. For example, her brother Scott describes his relationship with God:

When he is mentally stable he believes in God; when he is feeling manic he believes he is God; and when he is feeling depressed he believes there is no God. (44)

While I am not subject to the pain of Scott’s illness, I can recognize my own relationship with God in his description. I too find myself thinking that I am god-like when I feel strong and capable, just as I doubt God’s existence when I falter and fail.

Healing is a word that Lund uses carefully and sparingly. Mental illness has no cure. Though it can be managed throughout life, it will again and again flare up to cause damage and distress. She uses the powerful metaphor of bearing the cross.

By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it–not rid ourselves of it or deny it–to a place of transformation like Golgotha. … Instead of only being the instrument that killed Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the power of God to overcome the sins of the world. In the resurrection, God shows us that what is broken by this world can be made whole again. … I believe that by telling our stories of mental illness, by giving our own testimonies for mental health, we can carry our crosses to more healing places, even places of transformation. (51-52)

Subsequent chapters challenge social notions (and Christian ones) about people with mental illness. She talks about the execution of her cousin and crushing power of state-sanctioned murder. She asks, “if God was with Paul and in Paul, what happened to the God-part of Paul when he was executed? Did part of God get executed too?” (68) Her answer–that “part of me and part of God died the night of Paul’s execution”–indicts our whole system of “justice.” A similar indictment follows as she talks about a kind of Christian faith that believes faith and prayer are sufficient alone to combat the brain diseases that her family has suffered, or that they suffer due to insufficient faith in God.

Instead, Lund offers a better, more compassionate way for churches and Christians to journey with people with mental illness and their families. She evokes a theology of suffering, where mental illness is neither a blessing nor a curse, but a situation in which God enters to accompany humans in their suffering. As people of faith, we should join God in that faithful, compassionate work of accompaniment. The book concludes with practical suggestions for churches about how to begin those kinds of ministries.

At first,  what stands out most about Blessed are the Crazy are the personal stories, whose vivid drama draw attention and stick in the reader’s memory. But the book matters not just for its storytelling, but for the theology of suffering and God’s persistent love in the midst of it, and for the challenge to people of faith to live out that love by walking together with those who are suffering from “crazy in the blood.” This book is a gift to all clergy, to families seeking hope in mental illness, and to church communities seeking to respond.

Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall, Alban Institute, 1999, 104 pp.

Creating Generous PeopleI’ve been reading a lot of book about stewardship lately, as my congregation is struggling to learn and grow in this area. Michael Durall’s book was cited by several others as an important resource. It is no longer in print, but I found a copy easily at half.com for less than a dollar.

I was surprised by the tone of this book, from the beginning. Most stewardship experts write in a way that is frank, but relentlessly encouraging. They seem to say, “You’re doing it wrong, but if you do these things, you’ll be rich!” Durall has all the frankness, but a much less cheery outlook–while maintaining that congregations can create generous people and provide ample resources for their ministry.

First, Durall acknowledges that most people give the same amount, year after year, without significant increase. He argues that traditional pledge drive methods (especially those that emphasize the annual budget) actually encourage and reinforce low-level and same-level giving patterns. Durall names the 80/20 rule–that 20% of the people carry 80% of the load of work and giving. What makes his work different, though, is that he argues that increasing stewardship is not about going after the 80%, but increasing the 20%. He says that most people in the bottom 80% do not know why they give the way they do, resist changing it, and that “attempts to increase the giving level of the bottom 80% of the congregation may be futile.”

Durall backs this up with experience and research. He counters the dictum that “money follows mission,” common in so much of the literature, including the popular J. Clif Christopher books.

Increased programming (expanding the mission) will not motivate 80% of the members of most congregations. … Parishioners who give the least are motivated by maintaining the building and the congregation. More generous parishioners believe they are also helping people who are less fortunate, and strengthening their relationship to God. (26-27)

He names the deep intransigence of a church’s giving culture, and the sustained effort required to transform it. While he does agree that people should be encouraged to give to God and not to church, that we need to be emphasizing mission, he does not think this is enough to overcome longstanding patterns of same-level and low-level giving.

Durall instead invites us to nurture the trait and spiritual discipline of generosity throughout our churches.

Charitable giving should make some difference in how we as religious people experience life from day to day. If giving to your congregation is similar to writing a check at the end of the month to pay the phone bill or the electric bill,  and then forgetting about it until the end of next month, you are not giving enough. Similarly, if you take spare change or a dollar or two from your pocket or purse for the weekly collection and never notice the difference, your giving has too little meaning either for you or for your church. (38)

The remaining chapters offer some practical advice and exercises, some of which are familiar (like not encouraging giving to the budget) and some of which were new to me. I found his advice to ministers especially helpful. While he agrees with J. Clif Christopher that ministers should know what people give, Durall assumes they probably will not, and that makes his guidance most helpful. He says that the minister should “introduce the importance of stewardship to the congregation at the earliest opportunity,” which is best accomplished by making a leadership gift and sharing that intent with the church, even before a call is issued. (49) I love this idea. He adds to the minister’s list: stressing the importance of giving to new members, encouraging a mentality of abundance over scarcity, setting vision and clarifying roles, and including stewardship in worship regularly–especially by finding ways to thank people.

Durall’s concrete advice about stewardship builds upon his realistic assessment of congregational giving culture, his claim that we are to be building generous people, and a commitment to year-round stewardship. Though it is older, Durall’s book offered new ideas and perspectives that I have already shared with my Stewardship Team and we are finding ways to use in our congregation. Some might find his less-than-optimistic read on giving cultures depressing, but I found it honest and helpful. I think this is a worthwhile addition to every pastor’s stewardship library.

Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change by Dan Moseley, Upper Room Books, 2010, 140 pp.

Lose Love LiveI am using this book to start a Grief & Loss Support Group at my church, and this resource came highly recommended by a friend for that purpose. It was a challenge for me, in some ways, to be reading a book about grief at a time in my life when I am (blessedly) not walking a grief-filled path. I feel inadequate to judge how helpful the book is for those in the midst of a grief journey, because my point of view is somewhat removed.

What I most appreciate about Dan Moseley’s approach to the journey of grief is his simultaneous ability to name that grief is not something that you “get over,” especially not in some predictable time frame, and his wisdom that new life and unexpected joy is still available after a life changed by grief. He handles the agony of pain, anger and loss without glossing over it, yet points to the promise and possibility available only through grief, the “spiritual gifts of loss and change.” It’s not simply a positive outlook or word of encouragement, it’s a deeper sense of hope in the resurrection. Moseley’s mantra is, “To live is to love. To love is to lose. To lose is to live.”

The book itself follows the journey of grief in its many twists and turns. There are chapters that attend to naming the loss, feeling pain, anger, remembering, guilt, forgiving, gratitude, play, practice and becoming new. Each chapter describes what it is like to journey through that particular aspect of grief, and includes stories of diverse people facing different kinds of losses. One of the best features of the book is the “Good Companions” section at the end of each chapter, which describes the kinds of friends and relationships that can best help you when you are experiencing each part of the journey. This book therefore makes an excellent resource for those wishing to offer support and care to loved ones who grieve.

One of the insights that spoke the most to me was about losing faith in the midst of grief. Moseley writes,

The guarantee that we will lose holds true for our faith as well. Faith is a human construct. We create an understanding of our lives in relationship to God. We use symbols and language to create that understanding. These symbols, while shaped by divine power and history, are constructs of the human mind. … Therefore, when we are faced with a crisis that results in losing whatever we have come to count on, the way we imagine God can also change and we may lose our faith. … Since we constructed it, we can lose it. (25)

While God does not change, our relationships and perceptions of God are nearly guaranteed to fall apart when we grieve. I take strange comfort in that truth-telling.

Another section I found especially insightful were his chapters on playing and practicing. Grief doesn’t just strip us of the one we loved, but of our identity in that relationship, forcing us to change who we are.

We play our way into new ways of being and living. … To grow spiritually involves imagining ourselves as different kinds of people, playing with different ways of being in the world. (94)

After we have explored a variety of options for living again, somewhere along the way we will discover that some of those options represent who we are more than others. When we come to that awareness, we begin practicing those options more than others. (103)

Moseley encourages the deep, transformative work of grief that invites a new way of living and being in response to the loss we experience in our lives. I have found the group discussions so far to be helpful and productive. This could be an excellent resource for a church group or therapy group, since the context is not specifically Christian, although Moseley himself served as a pastor for many years.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor, ed. by Rev. Martha Spong, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2015, 215 pp.

Woman in the PulpitFor years, my clergywomen friends and I have been swapping stories about what our lives are like in the crazy, beautiful work of ministry. “You should write that down.” “We should write a book someday.” “Somebody needs to publish all these stories,” the voices echo. Finally, someone did!

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit captures the stories of dozens of clergywomen across denominations and cultures and across the world. The initiative began with the RevGalBlogPals, a blog ring of women in ministry that I read for a long time and was honored to join when I became a blogger myself. Many of these women have been writing their stories for years, others are new to ministry or to writing. They pulled together the best of the best from all the submissions for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.

Here’s my response: I laughed. I cried. I shouted, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to put the book down because I was too deeply moved to turn another page. I wanted to answer back by swapping stories of my own. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends (and, truth be told, several of the authors are my friends–in person or via the internet). I said a deep, sighing “yesssss” on multiple occasions.

The breadth of the stories moved me. While I expected the stories about tender moments with the dying to bring a tear or two, I was surprised to also find myself sighing deeply over the stories of mothering through ministry, or presiding at the communion table, or preaching. There were stories I immediately recognized as similar to my own, like keeping vigil at the bedside of a beloved church elder or searching for a nice pair of preaching heels, and stories that offered me a window into another’s life, like parenting a child with a disability or juggling a church and a farm.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in ministry (or just a person in ministry–not all stories are gender-specific), this is the book for you. If you are a person in ministry and want to read something reflecting our experiences with beauty and wonder and humor, this book is for you. If you love a woman in ministry, this book will offer insight into her world. While there are occasional stories of sexism or gender bias, most of the book is just about the beautiful, messy, holy lives we share with beautiful, messy, holy people and congregations.

When I have shared stories like these with others, including male clergy colleagues, there is often disbelief. “That doesn’t really happen, does it?” You might read this book and feel the same question arise. Here is my three-part reply: 1. Yes, this stuff really happens. 2. Yes, I mean it. It really does. 3. Isn’t it beautiful and messy and holy, and isn’t that just what God is like?

I’m so proud to know many of the women whose writing is contained in this book, and I feel blessed to have our stories told for the world to share. Get it, read it, love it.


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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