Monday, August 13, 2018

Minister - Called and Equipped

Last week, I read a blog, "How Much Education Does a Pastor Need?" by David Kamphuis, the pastor of Martin Luther Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Youngstown, Ohio.  His post was prompted by Luther Seminary's plan to shift from a four-year M.Div program to a two-year program for those preparing for ordained ministry.

That article stayed with me this week.  I reread it again this morning.  Kamphuis argues that the church can no longer afford to equip its clergy with an academic degree in order to effectively be ministers of word and sacrament.  In other words, the seminary education, which we used to train our clergy leaders for generations, is no longer affordable or practical today.  He writes" There is no longer enough money to sustain the expense of hard-nose theological degrees for pastors.  Ages ago seminary was virtually paid for by the church and what wasn't paid for could be paid off with a well-paying job.  As churches have declined so has support to seminaries and the costs of higher education have ballooned.  M.Div programs now require tens of thousands of dollars, Put simply, few people have the money for that anymore."

I do not disagree that the way clergy are formed must, of necessity, change with the times.  Yes, we must find another way to pay for equipping those who will serve as the next generation of church leaders.  That way must not continue to place the economic burden of a seminary education solely on the shoulders of an individual minister.  It is too heavy a load to carry.  The church must again accept responsibility for sharing that load.  Nor is it helpful to have seminaries become preoccupied with institutional survival and fundraising.  They have more important work to do.  We need the seminaries, for a local setting cannot do all that is required to equip the present and future leaders of the church.

The second observation Kamphuis makes moves from an economic to a cultural critique.  Clergy are no longer valued as professionals in the society.  Once they were on a par with lawyers, doctors, and educators.  Now, we don't know what to do with them.  To quote the author, "Even if we had the money, the world of institutionalized cultural support for Christianity is dead or dying.  We live in a world where, depending on your generation, many have never had an encounter with pastor or priest.  The pastor is, at best, an odd duck in this world and we will probably not receive the same cultural respect we did in days past."

I think of clergy scandals and the erosion of confidence in those called to serve with integrity and truthfulness.  Can we trust our clergy?  I think of lost and wounded souls who have found their path to ministry but never healed or grew in the process.  The society needs a voice in the pulpit and the public square--a voice that calls for truth, justice, and mercy.  Priests and pastors need not be comparable to other professions.  We are our own profession with a season of preparation, codes of ethics, discipline and oversight, and standard practices that center in word and sacrament.  We are ambassadors of Christ's love.  Denominations are indeed changing, but they still serve an important purpose in equipping ministers to serve and in holding them accountable in their calling.  Clergy are part of a network that is larger than an individual calling.

I believe that it is not just the society that has a low assessment of clergy leaders.  Too many churches have never helped their sons and daughters to hear the call to serve as pastors and teachers.  I remember an educator who argued with me at the church door.  He came to worship every week, sang in the choir, and participated in the life of the church in many generous ways.  When I suggested in a homily that the church should encourage its members to listen for Christ's call to ordained ministry--a life of service and leadership in the church--the man became disturbed.  He did not see ministry as a future for his or other children of the church.   He respected my leadership, but he would not encourage others in a similar way.  Perhaps he only saw the hardships, the sacrifice, the conflicts associated with being an authorized leader of the church.  It is not just that the culture has shifted; the church itself has changed and no longer values its clergy.  A card in October for "Clergy Appreciation Month" does not address the issue.

So, the blog raises questions in an old debate:  Is ministry a vocation or a profession?  Is it Christ's call alone that qualifies one for ministry?  Or, is ministry a profession with certain covenantal standards and expectations?   Is ministry about an individual who hears and responds to a call or is it about fulfilling the needs of the Church in a variety of ministry settings?

This is my response:  Yes, ministry is primarily a calling--whisperings in the soul and in the ears: "Have you ever thought about being a minister?"   "Come, follow me."  And yes, it is also a profession for which disciples must be equipped.  A season of intense discernment and study is still required. There must be a separation, a time away from the local setting that has nurtured us, for ministry, of necessity, will cause us to move away from the comfortable confines of home to serve in places that we had not imagined we would go.

The word in the scripture will move us to deeper commitment and encourage us to speak up and to stand up in places we had never expected that we might go.  To be equipped to serve is to be broken open and to find our healing.  To serve at the font and the table is deeper than presiding over ancient rituals.  It is to allow oneself to be an agent in the mystery--to be a participant in God's grace and mercy--that is extended to all the world.  That, too, requires that our spirits and our minds be equipped.

Finally, I believe that those who are called and equipped to serve will also be collegial, that we will reach across our doctrines and theologies to be in relationship and support others who do what we do.  There is already too much isolation and loneliness in ministry.  It is time for those who lead to befriend one another and to hold each other accountable, to speak the truth to one another in love.

I am grateful for the blog and its question, "How Much Education Does a Pastor Need?"  To it I would add my own question:  "What Does a Pastor Need to be Equipped Today?"

Friday, August 3, 2018

The End of an Era

I suppose it was bound to happen.  This little building was one of the few remaining businesses in the rural community where I was raised.  The State Bank of Bay was chartered in 1911 and was the only bank in Gasconade County to remain open through the Great Depression.  That was the legendary story our grandparents taught us.  It was a story of perseverance in adversity, prudent management, and fiscal conservatism.  Our bank was strong and stable, and so were we.  Our community had wealth and resources.  We were resourceful folks!

Earlier this week, I read that the bank, which is now a branch of The Missouri Bank, will be closed on November 2.  It saddens me to think about the changes that have occurred in the  little community that nurtured my identity: The closings of the Bay Feed Mill, the Bay Mercantile Company, Ollie's Repair Shop, and now the Bay Bank.  Bethel Presbyterian Church has been closed for some time.  Ridder's Store at "Little Bay" is also long gone.  One center of activity still remains in Bay: Zion-St. Paul United Church of Christ. 

Yes, I suppose it was bound to happen.  The village of my childhood has been passing away for a long time.  The world has shifted away from those small, out-of-the-way villages to technology and social media that connect us virtually with whole world.  Banking can be done from almost anywhere with a smartphone.   We are more connected, and yet, more isolated than ever.  On November 2, when the Bay Bank closes its doors, something important will be gone forever.

Well, I could wax nostalgic.  And, a protest now would do little good to extend the life of the bank.  These changes are not the outcome of malicious outside influences that have attacked the little community of Bay.  As families moved and died away, the cultural centers in the community did so as well.  It was easy to become insular, retelling the traditional stories while the community was dying around us.

So, I wonder:  Does this closing serve as a metaphor for the church?  Churches are resilient.  They tell stories about grand times in the past when they had lots of children and young families, when it was fun to be a church, when our mission was clear, when the buildings were new, and when there was a great spirit of cooperation rather than endless conflict.  We look back to the founding families, admiring their commitment to be the church and their enduring faith in the face of great peril  and adversity. 

Perhaps there is still time for us to learn a new story, to find our own purpose and identity in this day, to stop living in the past, and to be clear again about our identity and our purpose..  May God grant us vision, love, and courage for the living of these days!


Friday, July 20, 2018

Vacation Bible School

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:14-15, NRSV).

We just completed five days of Vacation Bible School (VBS) last night.  What I appreciated most about these evening sessions was getting better acquainted with some of the children of St. Peter's United Church of Christ and the children of the other churches who came to participate.  Sadly, a new pastor often meets the children last.  Children do not appear on search committees or church councils or in the adult fellowship groups.  They are visible--we want little children to be present--but in some ways they are also invisible, left in the background.  It was a joy to finally meet our children in the context of Vacation Bible School.

This week I went back in memory to the first time I was able to attend VBS.  Just across the back fence from my childhood home was Zion United Church of Christ (Zion-St. Paul UCC) in Bay, Missouri.  In the summer, in the years before I was old enough to go to VBS, I would hear the happy sounds of little children at play.  I would catch glimpses of them darting around the church yard at recess.  I could see them touching the old cistern pump as a base, a safe place, while playing tag.  When I was finally old enough to attend VBS myself, I was delighted to be there.  I had grown up!  It was all very good.

I remember VBS.  I remember Miss Ricka Leimkueller telling us a story about the danger of guns.  I remember Mrs. Lillian Schneider, the pastor's wife, teaching us to sing "We Shall Overcome" in addition to the songs with motions that little children loved to sing.  While I was unaware at the time, I now see that it took some courage to teach us to resist violence and work for the liberation of others.  We learned those songs during the civil rights movement and Vietnam.  At VBS, we received resources to be compassionate and understanding, to begin to find our way faithfully in the world.  Even as little children, we began to imagine a "Just World for All."  I remember the Bible stories about God creating the world, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments,  and Jesus calling his disciples and calming the stormy sea.  I remember the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  I remember the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down for the sake of the sheep.  I remember craft projects that took some time to complete and are still among the treasured artifacts in my study.  Later, when I was a youth in that church, the adults trusted me to help teach at VBS.  This was a formative influence in who I am today.  I am grateful.

So, I wonder what VBS might mean to the children I got to know a bit better this week.  I wonder whether we have provided them with resources that might guide and steady them throughout their lives.  Did we teach them to trust Jesus through life's storms?  Did we teach them to sing the songs of freedom and hope?  Did we teach them to be compassionate and loving with all people?  Did we give them songs and stories to anchor their faith in God now and in the times yet to come?  Did we teach them to resist evil and violence, to choose another path in life?  That is certainly the prayer of my heart as I remember the week we shared.  It is my prayer for our children.

I also wonder about the way we are doing Christian education/Christian faith formation now.  It seems churches have such a compressed schedule.  Everything overlaps--especially on Sunday mornings.  We are in such a hurry, controlled by the clock and our overloaded lives.  The children come to worship, but they do not stay there for long.  When are they present for a whole service?  We trust the curriculum and the videos to do the teaching for us, rather than sharing the scripture stories and our own experience of God.  A lot appears to have changed in the time between my first experience with VBS and what we do now.  Perhaps I am just getting old and overly anxious.  I wonder, however, whether we are providing the depth, the foundation for faith that will last for a lifetime.  What are the texts and stories that our children will take to heart--resources to sustain them when sickness and sorrow, conflicts and troubles come into their lives?  Will there be depth of soul, resilience of hope, and reality of love?  Will they know that they are always accepted and accompanied by a God who knows them by name and loves them forever?    So, I am wondering if we can go deeper, rethinking and adapting, revising our ways of doing Christian faith formation, so that we incorporate what was good from the past into today's ways of teaching our children.  

O God, grant us faith that endures and sees us through.  Bless all the little children . . . those near and dear to us and those who are distant and unfamiliar to us.  Bless them with your love.  Bless them, Lord Jesus, with your life.  Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2018

My Spiritual Advisors

In recent days, I've read about Paula White, a televangelist and spiritual advisor to President Donald J. Trump.  Every president has had a prophet, a pastor, a spiritual guide to whom they have turned.  In refuting those who are protesting present immigration policies by claiming that Jesus was also an illegal alien (when his family migrated to Egypt), Pastor White has countered that Jesus never broke laws, for if he had, "he would never have been our Messiah."  I disagree with White's interpretation, but that is not the point of this writing.

I have been thinking about those who are and have been my spiritual advisors, my mentors and counselors.  Once, just  when I had bid farewell to my first parish, I was deeply troubled in spirit.  A friend had died suddenly.  I got a call from the grieving family, inviting me to return to do the funeral service.  In my mind, I had every reason to return.  Then a friend and fellow pastor took me aside and said, "It's not your place.  You are gone.  You cannot go back without doing harm."  It was not what I wanted to hear, but those wise words were what I needed to hear.  A true spiritual advisor tells us what needs to be said even if it challenges  our own ideas and practices.

When I was a senior at Eden Seminary, my dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  I had decided that I would forgo my final semester, postponing graduation in order to care for my parents.  I was standing in the aisle in the seminary chapel, relating my plan to a wise professor who said, "You will be of more help to your parents if you finish your education and follow your call."  For a time, that counsel caused deeper soul searching.  It was not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear.

In these days, as I settle more completely into my call and new life in Washington, there are spiritual advisors whom I trust to speak the truth.  There are voices that call me to accountability.  There are those friends and colleagues who do not let me alone.  They speak wise counsel--not necessarily what I want to hear, but what I need to hear.

One of those spiritual advisors spoke when I was installed in April.  Bishop Dwayne Royster reminded me of a higher calling that is grounded in the counsel of the prophet Micah.  "What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"  (Micah 6:8).  I seek to be a spiritual advisor who speaks and serves with integrity and truthfulness.

O Righteous One, when I am called to be a spiritual advisor, a pastor, to another seeker on the way, remind me of what you require.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be just and true. Move me from pleasing others to serving you.  May my life and ministry be grounded in deep reverence and humility, for you alone are God.  I am grateful!   Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Practicing Kindness

Every morning, I'd meet him on Highway K.  Bob was on his way home after an early morning at the coffee shop with his buddies.  I was on my way to the church to begin my day.  I recognized Bob's red pickup truck traveling in my direction long  before I saw Bob at the wheel.  When we are yards apart, there would be a welcoming wave, an acknowledgement that we were neighbors.  We did not belong to the same church.  We probably did not vote for the same candidates in the elections.  We did not socialize beyond that morning wave.  

Once, if I remember it correctly, Bob turned too soon onto Highway K in a snowstorm.  He ended up in the grassy ditch.  I remember stopping and helping to pull the red pickup back up onto the pavement.  That morning wave created a relationship, a bond of care, that transcended whatever differences might have been between us.  The wave built the bridge to mutual care and help when that was needed.

So, I'm wondering about waving.  In the Northeast where I lived for more than a decade, folks seldom waved to one another.  I recall driving into the parking lot at our Conference Office and waving to staff who were taking a short walk during lunch.  They looked at me quizzically, as though they had never seen me before.  Waving was not part of that culture.  It felt strange, not to have a friendly wave reciprocated.  The gesture was not understood.

Now that I am back in the Mid-West and serving as pastor and teacher in a small city, I find waving is again important.  I want to be know as the pastor who waves in recognition and greeting.  I also want to practice simple acts of courtesy and kindness.  

Recently, after a funeral at St. Peter's UCC, I observed three cars speeding along Fifth Street as the grieving family was trying to cross the street.  The crosswalk did not matter.  Those three cars did not stop; they did not even slow down for the group of ten or more that was waiting to cross.  I thought, "How rude!"  "How disrespectful!"   In the Northeast, motorists would slam on their breaks to make sure that pedestrians were given the right of way.  That is a major difference from the way we often drive here.

Perhaps today would be a good day to think of those simple acts of kindness and care.  Take time to be considerate of others--all others--even if they annoy you or disagree with you or make life difficult for you.  Wave, smile, and give them the right of way if they stand before you in the crosswalk.  Stop and help if they are stuck in the ditch.  You see, I believe, in those simple acts God's love and mercy are made visible for us all.   If ever there were a time when compassion and kindness were needed in human relationships, it is now! 

O Gracious God, help me to show forth your love in the ways that I live this life.  May simple acts of kindness help to change hearts and minds.  May a friendly wav make a difference in someone's life today.  Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2018

I Belong!

Yesterday, the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism suddenly came to my mind.  It was an unexpected moment of inspiration.  The Spirit spoke.  The day was nearing its end.  A lot had been accomplished, but a lot still remained undone.  It is often hard for me to close the door and walk away.  Just one more email, one more letter, one more phone call, one more . . . and then one more . . . and then one more.  The endless pattern is addictive.  The catechism's piercing question is this, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?"  That question brings focus to a life filled with too many distractions and obligations, too much guilt and worry.

And the answer creates a great calm, an antidote to the addiction of my endless busyness:  "That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ."  This is grace!  I belong to Jesus Christ because God in Christ has claimed me even before I was aware of it.  God has named me.  Those baptismal waters are alive with God's embracing love.  I belong--no matter what I may do or where I may go.  My work is important but not ultimately so.  Belonging to Jesus Christ is the foundational relationship that shapes all the others.  I belong!

So, in those seasons when life is filled to overflowing, may you also ponder this question and take its answer to heart.  There is joy and peace in belonging.  Through all we have already experienced and through all that is yet to come, "I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ."

Thanks be to God!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Letting It Go

I am writing this morning from the Holiday Inn in Columbia, Missouri, where the Missouri Mid-South Conference, UCC is meeting for our Conference Annual Gathering.  This is my first Conference meeting since bidding the New Hampshire Conference, United Church of Christ farewell in August of last year, when I was blessed on my way.  This is also an anniversary.  It was one year ago on this same weekend at Horton Center that I informed the Board of Directors in the New Hampshire Conference of my emerging call and requested appropriate confidentiality until that call was accepted.  I remember hiking with the Conference President to the ledges to survey the expansive, magnificent view of the White Mountains before leaving the camp for the last time.  The photos are etched in my memory.

What I am concluding in these days back in my home Conference is that I need to let some things go.  Sometimes the memories are too pointed, too painful, and far too subjective to be helpful.  I miss my days in Conference ministry very much.  I miss the relationships, the colleagues, and the friends.  I miss pinochle games and Hallelujah Farm.  I miss the beautiful geography that had become home in a very deep way.  I miss the spirit of those rugged New Englanders.  I miss the engagement in the public square where we raised our voices in song and prayer and courageous witness to the love of God for all people.  I miss being up front and offering a word of encouragement, hope, and challenge to the Conference at an Annual meeting.

Yes, I am waxing nostalgic this morning, but I also know that I am again at home.  St. Peter's United Church of Christ is my calling body and I have promised to serve that setting faithfully--as faithfully as I know how--in this time.  I am grateful for those who continue to lead in the wider settings of the United Church of Christ, but it is good to be grounded again in a living community of faith.  It is good to get to know more and more people in Washington, Missouri and hear their stories and share their prayers.

So this post is a way for me to let it all go so that I can really be where I am called to be.  I cannot go back, but I can be here and look forward to what God has in store for us in the future.  Through it all, I know that in the baptismal waters, I am forever blessed to be a child of God, a disciple of Christ, and a member of the Church.

Thanks be to God!