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Response to editorial about pastoral mobility

This is my reply to this editorial:

http://www.thebanner.org/departments/2014/04/time-to-move-on

I’m responding as a preachers kid and preacher who is now a Specialized Transitional Minister — where moves every 2 years or less are the norm. There is a frustration to that part of it, because Transitioning is about culture change, and 2 years just barely gets you out of park.

About moving frequently: This will affect each person according to their constitution and the way parents handle it. In my youth, moves were just announced to us kids. With my own family, the entire family was made aware and as much as possible was part of the process. Since one of our moves was to the real Holland, I have gained a ‘culture reading’ ability that is a crucial tool in my work now.

About leaving before the church wants you to: The writer may be clinging to a notion that was once appropriate for his father, but is no longer so. In a day when our churches were more mono-cultural and cookie-cutter pastors could fit almost anywhere and repeat their evening Catechism sermons somewhat creatively enough to maintain interest for 3 to 5 years, and a day when democracy and pop-poll-arity were not strong in the church, it may have been valid. But today churches believe too much in democracy (one strand of the problem) and that a pastor has to ‘keep them happy’ (a second strand in the bigger problem) and where each congregation and pastor position within them can be very different from church to church (strand three) and where – from both sides, pastors and congregations – we have tremendous difficulty being clear about expectations and abilities in an open and transparent way (four) the case is no longer valid. Plus, the statement “leave before they want you to” hints at a lack of biblical perspective on serving God in a congregation, where it is God who might want you to stay while the congregation wants you to leave (fifth big strand ‘prophetic calling’ and sixth strand ‘discernment’). I take pleasure in reading the first part of Numbers 14 with people and asking what would have happened if a congregational meeting had been called followed by a vote?

Clergy Mobility: I do see the housing equity and spousal career factors which have changed mobility ability. But the writer needs to make the case for why itineracy should be the norm, rather than simply state, like a traditionalist would, that this was handed down from the forefathers as accepted truth.

We most definitely need to revamp our calling system:

In my work I have seen that churches have lost touch with the principle of the two-fold calling, where a personal sense of call must be confirmed by the church. Congregations do not know that they are affirming a person’s called-ness when they extend a call. They tend to see it more as a ‘hire’ or electing someone (there is a lot of ‘gaming’ of the equation that happens around the ‘vote’ to approve extending a call) who they can then un-elect and un-hire. Re-teaching is needed on calling.

Pastor Church Relations has a new book out that can help a lot with the search process, but still, if a pastor is deluded about their abilities or inabilities, or a congregation is misrepresented by it’s search committee as wanting outreach when the congregation really wants to hunker down and be safe with ‘their own kind’ we end up with stuckness. In one of his books, Eugene Peterson, in one of his books, even refers to the search process as “Ecclesiastical Pornography” where too much airbrushing goes on and shock sets in when the real blemishes become apparent. The church could learn much from the recovery movement about the value of being open about struggles, rather than continuing to hide the fact that we all create dirty laundry and carry that baggage. We need much more transparency in the call conversation.

I don’t know much about the past, but pastoring has, in my experience, become much to political and resident chaplain-esque. Buying a house and having a spouse with a good job, or having massive student debt will hinder most preachers from risking-in-faith in a pastorate. The unstated value in congregations seems to be that the pew must remain comfortable and the pastor may be unique or intriguing, but may not speak God’s word in a way that rattles comfortable core values. We need a return to strengthening the prophetic side of pastoring. (I know that may mean all kind of things to people, but have to risk that misunderstanding).

More and more it is a fact that churches and pastors seem to get ‘stuck’ with one another. Too often one or the other or both languish in pain for too long and then there is a rupture. We certainly need new and creative processes to get churches and pastors unstuck from each other, and for preventing stuckness in the first place.

My thoughts here are in no way comprehensive. All of this is evidence to me that a major change in the way we are church, based on scripture, Reformed principles, and cultural context is needed. This will not be fixed by more mere tinkering. The kind of change needed is Adaptive (as another article in the Banner describes), it needs to run deep into our hearts and worldviews, and we need to find the courage to drop everything Egyptian and Pharaohic that has become comfortable for us, and forge ahead into whatever shape God’s promises have for us in the land of the future.

 

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Trauma in the life of those losing what they believe they cannot live without

(this is a repost of a post I put up today on a blog I keep in order to communicate non-sermonic information and observations to the congregation I am currently serving. It is pretty well unchanged, except I did not feel comfortable specifically identifying the congregation in this version)

“Trauma in the life of those losing what they believe they cannot live without” is my summary of a main thought from a book I was reading last week. Losing things we believe we cannot live without is indeed hard and traumatic. If we don’t have a healthy way of letting go, we are going to have a hard time.

I doubt this will make sense to you directly if you are 20 or younger and reading this, but it may help you understand grandma or grandpa better.

In crass summary form, we can say: Life begins at conception, and physical growth goes forward from that point until the human reaches their peak shape, somewhere between maybe 19 and 29. From that point on a loss of physical ability usually begins to be experienced. And it continues for the rest of life. It is hard to accept.

In my High School days I was an unbeatable sprinter in the 100. I only ever lost once, and  that was a heat where I got cocky and complacent. I set records that stood for almost 20 years. On my 40th birthday I wondered if I “still had it” as I found myself on a wide wet beach with a group of my son’s friends. I drew a line in the sand, paced off about 100 meters, and came back and challenged the guys. They of course thought this was going to be easy racing a desk bound pastor, but after the “go!” their attitude changed as they saw me burst away. I could hear the sounds of flippant laughter change to determined breathing and pounding behind me. Near the finish line one guy was breathing down my neck, and I know that in a few more paces he would overtake me, but I crossed the line first. I still had it!

But boy did I suffer for three weeks afterward for believing I could still do that. Of course, I suffered with a big satisfied smile behind the grimaces. And I just knew that it was wise to let go of the idea of being an always-winning sprinter anymore… except to tell the stories of course…

Life has a lot of those kinds of things that over time we need to see that we need to let go of: when to let go of the farm; when to let go of helping out so much in the church; when to let go of making choices for our kids; when to let go of a career hope that is not suiting us; when to admit we are not hearing or seeing as well as we used to… the list is endless, and to make a long one would just be depressing. The fact is, if we do not learn a good and healthy way of letting go of what no longer is fitting, we create problems for ourselves, but more-so we create problems for others.

The same thing happens in religious and spiritual life. A group goes on a retreat, and they have a great experience, and they learn a song that for them expresses that whole experience, and every time they sing that song they try to relive that experience, not acknowledging it has passed, and the song can’t spread the experience to others. In their unwillingness to accept it is past, they stimulate confusion and maybe irritation in others. The same can happen with any song or any religious practice that has had meaning in the past. People can lock into it as if it is the be-all and end-all of being a Christian, and it creates confusion and irritation. If a church does not find a way to deal with that, and keeps caving to the need for comfortableness, it will be held back from being all that it can be in the moment of today.

The book I was reading that got me thinking about all this last week is about the immigrant experience of coming from Europe to Canada. And the part of the book the idea is expressed in, is where the author is talking about the struggle to change from Dutch to English, especially in worship and in the teaching program of the church. There was huge resistance and difficulty. The people resisting thought they could not live without that language. After all, they had learned the things of God in that language, and they probably believed it was the only language spoken in heaven, as all immigrants tend to do. So both the language itself and the teaching of the things about God in that language were hung on to for far longer than they should have been — we see that now. But they didn’t, and it was hard. But seeing their mistake gives us a chance to ask ourselves: “What might we be hanging on to inappropriately today?”

I can say with confidence that this pattern is part of the organizational DNA of our congregation. I have seen significant evidence of it myself already. It shows anytime someone is clinging to things being done “as we’ve always done them” as if we cannot live without them being done that way.  And I can see how hard and traumatic it is for people who have not learned some important things about growth and life. You see, if there is growth, that automatically means things will change. (by the way, the reverse is not as true: if there is change therefore there is growth, which is also where a lot of churches make a mistake, making change happen without growth). Think about this: Do you know anything that grows that is not changing in some way? I can’t think of one thing. The same is true of spiritual and religious growth. If there is growth, then understandings are changing, relationship with God is adjusting, deepening, widening and along with that often one’s practices of the faith and even teachings about the faith change because of new and deeper understanding. Yet — like 40 year old former sprinters — we cling to something that is not fitting anymore, to what used to make us great. Can you see the silliness of it?

Another reason I feel confident saying this about our congregation is that the book I am reading that got me writing this is about her history. The summary statement I started with is an abbreviation of a sentence that for some reason gripped my attention when I read it last week in Tymen Hofman’s “The Strength of their Years.” Here’s the full quote in the context of him telling what difficulties came about from some wanting to switch to English:

“To outline the significant dates and decisions which moved a strictly “Dutch” congregation to become a church worshipping “in the language of the land” does not begin to reveal the struggle and the trauma that was involved in the lives of individuals and families, even in situations less dramatic than in the life of the Postman family. The trauma was mainly in the life of those who could see they were losing, slowly but surely, something without which they believed they could not live. They were people who immigrated a bit later in life, who came somewhat later in the life of the settlement and in almost every case, people who made little effort to learn the English language. It was possible for such to live in the settlement without doing so; learning English seemed to them an insurmountable task. They felt terribly threatened by every evidence that the church was changing.” — Pg 67 “The Strength of their Years”

Spiritual and religious growth can feel like an insurmountable task as well. And we by nature prefer to stay comfortable in what we know, thereby resisting growth, because growth has risk and possible pain and loss to it in order to gain it’s benefit. I think Rev Hofman — who knew the local context better than I probably ever will since he grew up here — absolutely nailed one dangerous dynamic that is woven into the way we operate here. Our challenge is to find a spiritually and psychologically healthy way forward in faith.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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