How to Handle the Trumps in your Life!

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

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Top 12 Essential Sayings For Ministers

Have you ever wondered how to respond to someone? The holidays often provide more than a few awkward moments that test our wits. I didn’t write this list of “Essential Sayings,” and can’t even remember where I got it, but as a District Superintendent with 7 months to go in an 8-year term, it seems wise to pass these along now. Think of these as gestalt therapy for preachers – helpful self-talk. With Thanksgiving coming up, everybody, clergy and laity alike, might need to put these to good use.  I wonder if there are any that you would add as essential sayings – write them in the comments!

TOP 12 ESSENTIAL SAYINGS FOR MINISTERS

12. That sounds like a great idea! I encourage you to take the ball and run with it.

Empower those with passion. They might look confused or disappointed that you didn’t add their suggestion to the top of your to-do list – that’s ok – or they might have just gotten the permission they needed to be a member in ministry.

11. Thank you for sharing your conflicts with [name] with me. Let’s think together about how you might address them with [name].

Develop an aversion to geometry – particularly getting caught in triangles between adversaries.

10. That is not an appropriate question/comment. My appearance/family/financial situation is off limits.

Ah, Life in the fishbowl. Gently remind (generally) well-intended people that if they wouldn’t say it to other professionals who provide care to them, they shouldn’t say it to you either.

9. [When grabbed on Sunday mornings] I appreciate this information. Could you call or email me this week to remind me? What you have told me is important, and often I don’t retain what I’m told in passing on Sunday mornings because there is so much going on.

Sunday mornings are your best opportunity to interface with the largest number of church members, which means you’re bombarded by information about pastoral care needs and ideas for new ministries. But you’ll also need all the brain cells at your disposal for the five-hour sprint, so put the onus back on others to remind you later about what they want you to recall.

8. I do not give weight to anonymous complaints, but I would be happy to talk face-to-face with anyone who has a concern.

Emphasize this early and often, and get your leadership on board so that they can encourage others to put on their big girl/boy pants and confront issues directly.

7. I could use your experience/expert help with [task].

Even the most broad-based seminary curricula don’t include construction, marketing, or tech support. Give folks a chance to lead by asking them to share their talents in God’s service.

6. I’d love to meet/attend your event on [day], but I take that day for self-care so that I will be fully ready to minister with you and others the rest of the week.

This one is tricky, and there are exceptions. Learn what yours are, and flex the time out elsewhere when you exercise them.

5. Let’s bring [colleagues/trusted lay leaders] in on this situation to help us think it through.

Lone rangers are prone to mistakes and have no one to back them up when the junk hits the fan.

4. Thank you for your email. Since the situation you name is both important and has some nuance and complexity to it, I think it would be most helpful to continue the conversation in person. When can you meet?

There is a time for email conversations, especially when you need documentation of your steps and others’ words. But real quagmires are often exacerbated by the limitations of text, the option to hit “forward,” and the lag time in responses.

3. The [rule/policy in question] is in place to ensure the safety and welcome of everyone in our community. This [rule/policy] applies to everyone equally, and I enforce it because I care about you/your child.

In a world full of excuses, exceptions, and entitlements, showing fairness and putting a person’s well-being over your need to be liked is uncomfortable but prophetic and pastoral.

2. When I am on vacation, my phone will be off and I will not be checking email. You may contact the church if you need immediate help.

Remind your people – and yourself – that you are not indispensable. The church will stand and time will march on if you take a week or two to rest your body and feed your mind. You can always have someone who is qualified on call or let your administrative assistant or Lay Leader discern if the situation is an absolute emergency that demands your response.

1.  Thank you!

Say this sincerely, often, and in a variety of ways.

When the Ship Hits the Sand What Do You Do?

Human nature embraces love and intimacy, but also accepts and even promotes inevitable differences of opinion. Sweet and bitter water flow from the same spring, namely us (James 3:10-11), and it is sad. Putin spars with President Obama; Democrats with Republicans; Clemson fans with South Carolina; husbands with wives; and the list goes on. We foment division more than we seek peace.

We wipe our enemies’ and occasionally our friends’ faces in the poo of life and think we’ve done something necessary, even noble. Who made us judge and jury? When did we become the Holy Spirit and get the task of convicting others of their sins? How do we avoid the alluring temptation of revenge, smack talk, or the insidious passive-aggressive entrapment of people? What are we to do when the well-intentioned and ill-intentioned dragons attack us?

We really need to be careful here because countries do go to war, couples split up, and friends never speak to one another again. Pardon the crassness but when the ship hits the sand, it is never evenly or fairly distributed!

Pardon my further indelicacy, but maybe you’ve heard the story of Great Bear and Furry Rabbit’s journey. They were out walking together one day when both literally experienced nature’s call. Great Bear asked Furry Rabbit in a loud voice, “I’m wondering, Furry Rabbit, you’re so sleek and so soft. I’m wondering if I might ask you a rather delicate and personal question.” Furry Rabbit in a meek and nervous voice, “Great Bear, we’re good friends, please ask your question.”

Great Bear lowered his loud voice and said, “I’m wondering if you ever have… the problem,” he hesitated. Furry Rabbit said, “Go on Great Friend. Ask your question.” “Well,” the Bear began again, “Do you ever have the problem… of poo… sticking… to your sleek fur?” Furry Rabbit giggled, “Why no.” He chuckled. “Of course not,” He said and giggled again.

Great Bear looked down for a moment, pensive, and looked back at Furry Rabbit. Then his great voice boomed, “Good!” Great Bear then picked up Furry Rabbit, wiped his great behind and set Furry Rabbit back on the ground.

We have all unwittingly or intentionally used our friends to alleviate our messy situations. Maybe you have not only heard the story of Great Bear and Furry Rabbit but have been in the story, on one end or the other. So, God, what are we to do with these situations? May I suggest, in an alliterative manner, that we have three options when tensions arise: Laugh it off, Let it go, or Love it away.

Laughing it off was an effective way for Abraham Lincoln to dispel anxiety and tension. There was one situation when one of his Cabinet members was totally out of line and a bunch of legislators wanted the whole Cabinet swept clean. Lincoln told the story of a farmer who had a problem with a family of seven skunks. They would raid his barns on a nightly basis and cause all kinds of havoc. One night the farmer got out of bed and told his wife that he was going to get his gun and take care of the whole lot. His wife heard a single blast and the farmer returned. She asked him what happened. He said that he shot one of the skunks. Then she asked why he didn’t get rid of the rest. He said very wryly, “The one I got rid of raised such a fearful stink I decided to let the other six go.” The legislators got the point and slinked out of Lincoln’s office. Presidents, court jesters, and you and I need to learn how to dispel tension with the friendly ease of a well-turned phrase. May I dare say that Jesus’ use of parables is an example?

Other times we need to let offenses go. My Daddy called it, “Giving people a horse to ride home on.” In other words, give people an out so if they explode they do it somewhere else and hopefully in the confines of a safe place. Jesus practiced letting offenses go. He practiced unilateral forgiveness, one-sided forgiveness. For instance, not one time in the Gospels does anyone ever ask Jesus to forgive them, yet he forgave! The woman with the alabaster bottle of expensive ointment never asked to be forgiven, but Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven (Luke 7:48). The guy whose four buddies lowered him down through the roof didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus told him, “Your sins are forgiven. (Luke 5:20)” Of course most memorable in evidence of unilateral forgiveness was when Jesus was hanging on the cross. There’s no evidence that anyone in that crowd asked to be forgiven yet Jesus looked upon them and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)” What a powerful thing to forgive especially when no one asks for it!

Lastly, love it away! Love is defined as not seeking its own way in I Corinthians 13. So should it be with us as we put others first. Get this – as much as some like to sing the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Jesus very seldom ever called anyone “friend.” As a matter of fact he does it only directly when talking about three people: Lazarus, Judas, and the unnamed paralytic lowered through the roof. With the paralytic we can only imagine. Lazarus we can understand since Jesus wept at his death, but Judas is a whole different story. In Matthew 26:50 Jesus is about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas comes up to him ready to give the prearranged signal of a kiss so the soldiers would know who to arrest. What does Jesus say? He says, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus called Judas “friend” even when he was his most unfriendly. That’s love!

So when things get tense try these three things: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away! It’s a worthy challenge every day and in every situation. When the ship hits the sand, what do you do?

Conflict Control

I just reread Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17 and a timely theme has guided my prayer thoughts this morning. Four times in this short passage Jesus prays that we might experience a unity like that of the Trinity. Wow! What a thought! Listen to the verses. In John 17:11 Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me –so that they may be one as we are one.” In John 17:21 Jesus prays, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” In John 17:22, He prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” Finally, in verse 23 Jesus prays, “… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to be united – one! It’s a powerful testimony to how we reflect God in our witness to the world. One of the primary ways that we as United Methodists celebrate being made in God’s image is in our use of the words connectionalism and conference. We try to do things together because we focus on being made in God’s social image. If God is revealed as Trinity and works in community, so should we!

But, why don’t we? Selfishness and “My-way-or-the highway” attitudes too often prevail. What makes you angry? Are you one of those people that get bent out of shape by inanimate objects? I admit that I can much more easily deal with bothersome people than an uncooperative computer. Anger can consume us so quickly that it overruns most of our controls. I even heard of one guy who shot his computer because it kept crashing. Well, he took care of that didn’t he? Needless to say, anger can be dangerous to the point of injury, murder, and harm. My grandmother readily preached the admonition of the Sermon on the Mount that if anyone calls someone a “fool” they are in danger of hell-fire. Unfortunately, this did more to inspire a quest for synonyms than conquering my temper.

So how can we effectively deal with our anger? The anger advice of none other than Rodney Dangerfield makes great sense: “It would be great if people never got angry at someone for doing something they’ve done themselves.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus put it similarly in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, saying and living the Golden Rule is extremely difficult. It’s easier said than done!

Abraham Lincoln had a couple of skunk stories or sayings that keep my anger in perspective. One was “What kills a skunk is his own publicity.” This reminds me to be like Jesus and not toot my own horn, plus give troublesome people enough space that they are found out on their own. The other story occurred when Lincoln was about to replace his Secretary of War. Some senior members of his own party urged him to make a clean sweep of the whole Cabinet while he was at it. He responded by telling them a story about a farm family in southern Illinois that had a problem with a skunk. The farmer’s wife told him to take care of it, so he got his shotgun out one night and waited for the skunk to appear. His wife heard a blast shortly thereafter. The farmer came inside and his wife asked him, “Did you get him?” The farmer said, “Well, first of all, there was a family of six skunks, not one.” Then he added, “I shot the lead skunk, but he raised such an awful stink I decided it was best to let the other five go.” All the people left Lincoln’s office chuckling, but they certainly got the message: Sometimes raising a stink causes more trouble than it’s worth. It reminds me of United Methodism’s first rule: Do no harm.

So why get angry if it doesn’t help? That doesn’t sound like a Spirit-filled reaction to conflict. We need Jesus’ Spirit to help us when we’re dealing with troublesome people. God’s Spirit can do for us what we can’t do ourselves. The Holy Spirit can give us creative nudges and new eyes to see ways that we can live at peace with others. The key to the Spirit’s infilling is a yielded life. Rather than retaliate, fly off the handle, or overreact inappropriately, we can exhale our anger to God and inhale the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s fruit then becomes self-evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There’s not much room for ungodly anger in this list!

The late Dr. Wallace Hamilton, novelist and playwright, was a Spirit-filled Christian and it showed in his anger-control. He liked to tell of an American Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Second, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children, and the children loved them! When the lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up the dogs and his problems were solved. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” May peace be with us all today as we act like Jesus’ peacemakers!

Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.

If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.

Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.

This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.

Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything.  We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.

No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”

His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.

Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.

Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.

It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!

Steve Jobs, Daddy, and Abraham Lincoln on Reconcilation

Have you ever felt like telling someone to go to the bad place? My Dad was a master at telling someone to go to you-know-where and they would still walk away smiling. It was amazing to watch. He always said if you were around someone who was having a fit of anger, “give ’em a horse to ride home on.” What I saw him do and what I think he meant is that conflict happens and it can literally blow up in your face. The secret to surviving is being peacemaker enough in what you say so that after you say it, it doesn’t hit them until their on the way home. You want them at a safe enough distance when they figure out what hit them. I’m not trying to say Daddy was sneaky or passive-aggressive in his goat-getting. He wanted to say the right thing so that people’s anger would dissipate. He didn’t compromise but he said things in a way that people could hear it. He was a peacemaker.

Man, have I had some humdinger charge conferences and need to remember Daddy’s advice. Actually it didn’t originate with him. The Proverbs say that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” Paul told Timothy similar words  in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Sounds like a New Testament version of Daddy’s method. Use humor, reframe the question, don’t let it get personal, pray and, yet, stand your ground speaking the truth in love. Gosh, we’re terrible at that part, aren’t we. We would rather kiss up or a little lower down than dare to confront the bully who’s been ramming their version of the truth down everybody else’s throats at church.  How can we avoid it?

Steve Jobs’ death reminds me of the uncanny knack he had in making peace with his naysayers. Sure he was exacerbatingly obsessed with details, but he was a survivor of trench warfare in the business world. He knew how to let off steam, keep his integrity, and be a peacemaker. I won’t bore you with details you haven’t already heard on CNN, but, suffice it to say, he had the art of giving people a horse to ride home on down pat. He started Apple with Woz his partner then got ousted by the Board of Directors, started Pixar of “Toy Story” fame then was brought back to Apple on his own terms after making a bundle selling Pixar. Instead of a long list of angry Steve Jobs haters, there’s a long list of people he worked for, was fired by, and with whom he then reconciled. Genius! He turned computerese from lines of unintelligible code to a extension of a person’s hand via the iPhone thereby blurring the lines between phones and computers, but he did so much more. What was one of his best gifts to humanity ? It was both his secret to gadget building and peacemaking: perspective.

Perspective is a key ingredient to any recipe for peacemaking. Why is this person so  miffed in this church meeting? What is the underlying cause? If the response is way over the top for the context then, trust me, the issue isn’t about you. There’s something else going on in this person’s life so grin and bear it, use some humor, clarify the facts and speak the truth but don’t sink to the emotional level of the offensive party. Stay objective and, like Steve Jobs, you can not only go back to work for them but actually enjoy it. Wow! Take a listen to his speech for Stanford’s commencement address 6 years ago, right after he found out he had cancer: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It cleans out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic but it is quite true.” MSNBC said of this quote: “That was typical Jobs: Dramatic and no-nonsense all in the same breath.” Perspective! When you think the junk you’re going through is enough to make you want to fire everybody or lambast the whole church leadership – Whoa, keep the big picture in mind, state your piece, let the chips fall where they may, and give ’em a horse to ride home on. Use some perspective!

And, by the way, Steve Jobs was wrong in his Stanford address, at least sort of wrong. He said “Death is the destination we all share. No one has escaped it.” Well, yeah, except for Jesus. He did die. He couldn’t escape the process on Golgotha, but he did get out of the tomb!!! Now that perspective actually makes the small potatoes of church conflict or any conflict for that matter seem more bearable. Abraham Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, decided to get rid of one of his prominent Cabinet members. Republican Senators met with him and demanded that if he was going to get rid of one then they should all go. Lincoln said, “Let me tell you a story about a farmer from Illinois. His farm had a family of skunks that bothered everybody. The farmer’s wife told him to do something about it so the farmer went out one moonlit night, shotgun in hand, and the family of seven skunks came around the barn. He blasted away. He went back inside and his wife asked him what happened. He told her this: I saw the seven skunks and shot at ’em and killed one. He raised such a terrible stink I decided to let the other 6 go.” The senators left Abraham Lincoln laughing, rode their horses home and figured it out. Thanks, Daddy and Thanks, Steve Jobs for giving me a little perspective on life and keeping the peace. Give ’em a horse to ride home on.

Staff-Parish Committees & Clergy/Well-intentioned Dragons

Ill or Well-intentioned dragons abound in some churches. I have been set up before by a person who said that she was concerned for her church and wanted to come by and talk. Through her tears I unfortunately said “yes” to her request only to be greeted by a group of 8 or more people. I gave them hospitality but quickly said, “You need to take this to your SPRC.” I have a meeting like this coming up.

At first glance I thought let’s have the pastor present, too, so it’s a fair fight and I get to stay out of the triangle, but then I thought better of it by the grace of God. If I pulled the pastor in, it becomes a contest between conflicting sides escalating into a win by the dragons who just want to go back and say to people, “We told the preacher off in front of the DS!” So I’m not going to meet with the people and the pastor. I’ll meet with the people and limit the number, defect in place, show them Jesus, hear their concerns, AND, the biggie, determine what the spiritual issue is.
You have to hear people’s grievances in this office, but you don’t have to empower the naysayers. Paying attention to the emotional process and not submitting to it is the key. Hoping to pay more attention objectively to the content is important, but, nonetheless, a rabbit-chasing fallacy. Anybody can juggle facts to suit their emotional purpose or their agenda. If their agenda isn’t Jesus then the conversation becomes a counseling session of pastoral care thereby defusing the anger not by authoritarian fiat, but by relationship salvaging. I’ll call the pastor later and give that person a heads-up, but I am NOT going to be caught in the triangle of “they said, you said” ad infinitum.
This time of year is anxiety laden for clergy and congregations because of last week’s move or stay deadline. People are taking sides and getting in digs or bribes to try to get the best appointment either for the pastor or the church, often at the expense each other’s expense. Of course, this isn’t the way it always is. Thank God there are churches and clergy who amicably part ways just because it’s time for someone else to take them over Jordan.
I pray that I can avoid the manipulation, the anxiety, the arguments, and the unrealistic expectations of both churches and clergy. I am reminded once again that this whole process is mostly about churches, then preachers; but most of all it’s about Jesus and the Kingdom – not friendships, sucking up, or people making up “bad” stuff about a preacher they have supposedly loved for so long. Rather than face the fact that it’s just time for a change people start the rumor mill of innuendo just to have an excuse to push someone out, or to leave a church. I have even had clergy tell me in my office they want to leave then go home and tell their spouse that I’m making them leave. Then I catch it from the spouse. It’s a strange dance that we move to in this process.
Well I pray that we move people this year like every year based on gifts, graces, needs, and primarily what Jesus wants for the Kingdom. So I’ll be heading to meetings with SPRC’s and consult with pastors, attempt to speak the truth in love, and show them all Jesus, both meek and mild & forthright and faithful. Here goes!

Bears Up There or Lions Down Here

I left yesterday afternoon for 6 nights away, dashed to Asheville, stopped at an Ingle’s and bought supplies then drove through the swirling mists of late afternoon to Mt. Mitchell – my Fortress of Solitude though I’m certainly no Superman. The rhododendrum were in perfect bloom and the temp was 30 degrees cooler than Columbia. I got to the peak at 8:45 pm, 15 minutes before closing – ready to unpack, cook some supper, and put on my reading light, crawl into my sleeping bag to read myself to sleep. But… the campground was closed.

I went back down to the ranger station and asked, “What’s up!?” He said that they had several hours earlier shut down the camping area because of BEARS. Several Black Bears had ripped into an occupied tent, no injuries, and two cars – trying to get to food. Therefore, the campground is shut down for the next 9 days. I thought about heading to one of the National Forest roads 5 miles up that you can camp at, but bears could eat my Mini Cooper with too much ease. So I traveled last night up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Crabtree Meadows. I’ve camped and hiked there since college days. It’s not as high in elevation, but the scenery is nice. One problem – it was raining cats and dogs, and I’ve done the put-up-the-tent- in- the- rain deal before. So, with wondering what to do in my heart I went to Spruce Pine and ate at the Burger King, hoping the weather would let up. It got worse and worse. SO… I called Cindy and said, “I’m coming home, it will be late, don’t be frightened.” It rained all the way home until 15 miles from Columbia. I crawled into bed a little after 2 a.m. with a weird afternoon and evening’s journey under my belt. I did get to feel the 58 degree air and see the balsam and douglas firs, the swirls of clouds, and the flowers, but I’m back!
But today it’s been one phone call and email after another and another about either ill or well-intentioned dragons in churches, screwy decisions, and making interpretations about the Book of Discipline. Power and control people have been sharp on my heels all day. Here is where I am right now: I rather be eaten by the bears up there than by the lions down here. What does that mean? If you have ever had to work with people, especially church people – you know. I may just pack up my car and head back up there, though it won’t be the same if it’s not Mt. Mitchell. I know I can still read my Bible, novels, and eat all the junk food I bought sitting comfortably on my sofa and just not go to work. But thanks to having a cell signal here and a computer, the work comes to me. On Mitchell I’m all alone except for God. So, stay tuned, the mountains are still calling and I’d rather be eaten by bears up there than by the lions down here! Ever felt that way?

Good News!

Sunday, Sunday – For the last month or so, I’ve been preaching in Columbia District churches which always gives me great hope for our future as a denomination. We have some great ministries! Today is a little different in terms of what happend today. I’m not preaching anywhere, but I have already been to a New Member’s Class at one of our churches and stopped by the office to get ready for my next two stops: one with a SPRC in a conflicted church, and another with a prospective Senior Pastor and Prospective Associate.

We had Cabinet Meetings for 3 long days last week and it looks like we are going to have very few moves this year. With the economy there seems to be an incentive for people to try to work together without making a pastoral change. I have high hope that this will encourage people to actually work through their issues without a “critical mass” causing an explosion. As a Cabinet we will have the opportunity to give each appointment more attention and effort. Rather than the economy causing bad news, this is an opportunity to get it done right whether a clergyperson moves or not.
Tomorrow is Monday, Monday and I start meeting with clergy 3 hours each doing whatever they want to do. This is a breath of fresh air to my spirit and I hope to their’s as well. This is going to be a good year in the United Methodist Church! May it be, Lord; May it be!

Too Christian to Tell the Truth

>High anxiety and the tyranny of the urgent is what I’m feeling because I have just opened all of the Advisory Response Forms about potential pastoral moves. Clergy exist for churches, not the other way around, but I want what is best for both. Sometimes I feel the adage as truth: “If I could buy someone for what they’re worth, and sell them for what they think they’re worth, I’d be a millionaire.” Some of us clergy have unrealistic expectations about the appointments or churches that we deserve. This lack of realistic expectations sets us up to be disappointed or disappointing.

Part of the problem is we’re “Christian,” which means we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Pastors tell SPRC’s that the DS is making them move. Some even tell their families that it’s my fault. Then there’s the lack of truth-telling that SPRC’s do. They don’t really want to tell their pastor what they think, and they end up giving an innocuous non-helpful hail-fellow-well-met do-nothing evaluation without “speaking the truth in love” about what makes us clergy more effective in that given context.

I’m doing SPRC training this weekend, and I’m going to lay it on thick about SPRC’s doing their job so I can do mine for their church’s sake and the clergy’s sake. It is going to be an interesting year to say the least. Pray for wisdom, grace, clarity, and truth on everyone’s part. It’s all about Jesus and growing the Kingdom, not a “protect the fishbowl” for the churches or a “take care of each other” mentality for clergy. It’s about effective Kingdom-building.