New Clergy as Detectives

Well, one to two weeks are under the belts of newbie clergy who just moved to new parishes and, if they are like me, they’re pondering potential changes. Of course, someone wisely suggested to new clergy that, “You shouldn’t change anything for the first six months except your underwear!” Some may be wondering if they can wait that long. You’re probably wondering if you don’t make some strategic changes now, your “Honeymoon Advantage” may run out and be for naught. What are we to do as we make these first critical and highly analyzed/criticized decisions?

For me I have to first remember that every church is its own unique organism, family system, and culture. Therefore, what works in one place may or may not work in another. I also know that I need to find people that I can trust to tell me the unvarnished emotional history of the church. The factual history is easy enough to find in available documents, but find someone who can give you the “skinny” on the emotional processes that have occurred at nodal points in the church’s life.

How does the church handle decision making and crisis? What gets stirred up when there’s tension? Do people fight fair? Is passive-aggressive behavior the norm? Bottom line, become a church psychological detective and connect the dots of the family system.

Family systems theory, as in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is fascinating. There’s no way that I can summarize such an important tome, but here’s one quote that is illustrative: “One’s life course is largely determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment to family of origin, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and what to do with it.” The question for newbie clergy is to discover the hidden wounds, the unresolved emotional attachments embedded in the psyche of church members and even their larger community.

You have heard the story of the young bride who marries a guy and cooks her first pot roast. She does everything just right, but her new husband is visibly disappointed. After a heated discussion he admits that his problem is that it’s just not the way his mother made pot roast, so she dares to go talk to his mother. The mother-in-law is clueless and assures her new daughter-in-law that she didn’t do anything special. But she does admit that she learned how to make pot roast from her husband’s mother. So she suggests that she go see her mother-in-law explaining that maybe she would have some insight.

The bride goes to see the grandmother and tells her everything that she did. The grandmother nodded approvingly and with a quizzical smile and asks the bride to step into the kitchen because she had made a pot roast that very day. The bride immediately sees what the difference is. The grandmother’s pot roast is square! When asked why she had a square pot roast the grandmother said that she and her husband were so poor when they got married that the only pot that they had to cook a roast in was square so they cut off the edges of the roast to square it up to fit the pot.

Wow! This was an unresolved emotional attachment that finally made sense when the bride connected the dots and did some research. Upon explaining this to her new husband, he was okay with the change. The discovery is that a family’s, and, I daresay, a church’s emotional processes are much more important than the facts or content of the issue(s), but once the emotional processes are uncovered you can more easily accept the content of the facts or the way things are.

Some new clergy have inherited churches with “square pots” and emotional operational systems that are begging for illumination and exposure. The risk is in when to do it. Two analogies come to mind in this whole endeavor that separates emotional process from content: one about doctors and medicine and one about “river babies.”

The doctor and medicine one is pretty straightforward. Tests and procedures provide facts about a person’s condition, but we don’t rely on facts alone when we are in the throes of illness. Whether or not we trust the doctor is of huge importance. A doctor can have all the facts (content) straight but have the bedside manner of a frog run over in the road (emotional process) and we are not happy, and say that we want a second opinion when what we really want is a second doctor who really cares and takes it personally that we survive!

The story about “river babies” is also helpful to ponder in a who-done-it assessment of our new churches. In this story many of townspeople are down at the nearby river and they notice a toddler floating by about to drown. Many rush in and rescue the child, then another child starts floundering by, and then another, and another and on and on. They call to get more townspeople to come help pull all these babies from the river when two men desert them. As the deserters are heading up the riverbank someone calls out and says, “Why are you leaving us? Where are you going? We need you here to help us save these babies!” The guys reply, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

In our decision to let things slide for 6 months or not, do we keep pulling babies out of the water reacting to the tyranny of the urgent, or do we try to figure out what the systemic cause is of our under-functioning? Every situation, family, church, and community can be better. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. God bless us as we determine whether or not to tread water or go upstream against the flow and do something about the real issues. Happy detective hunting as we separate the facts from the emotional processes at work in our new places of ministry.

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Flying the UMC Trapeze

I have been thinking about this in-between time of being the Columbia District Superintendent and the new senior pastor of St. John’s UMC, Aiken. At 12:01 on this coming Wednesday it will be official, but I have already been flying the trapeze by attempting to let go of one bar to grab the other one. We have already moved into a house in Aiken. We have eaten in some great local restaurants, walked the streets, and met great new people both in the community and in the church. I have been acclimating myself to new surroundings while driving back to Columbia to fulfill my last days as DS – attempting to live in two worlds.

Jim Elliott, deceased missionary, was absolutely correct when he said, “Wherever you are, be all there!” I can’t reach out and be fully the pastor that St. John’s needs unless I let go of the other trapeze bar, and I surely don’t want to get caught hanging in the middle between the old and new. Flying the trapeze with one hand grasping one bar while the other hand is clenching the other is untenable. How many of us have found ourselves caught in similar circumstances between jobs, relationships, or situations? We catch ourselves wondering if we should risk a new thing or hold onto the familiar. One has to let go and be all there, wherever the “there” is.

As preachers move this next week there is going to be a lot of anxiety. There will be anxiety for churches and for clergy, and fear can be paralyzing. One church sign was frighteningly near the truth in this appointment transition time for churches and clergy: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help!” It’s almost not funny! For pastors and church members caught in pastoral transition, worry and church can often go hand in hand. What do we do with our worries? Do we bury them, or let them bury us? Do we have enough faith to take risks for God? Are we ready to move into God’s new opportunities for us? Are we ready to let go of the former things and embrace the new?

One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” was the answer as he continued, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.” The visitor then asked, “Well, how’s your corn?” The farmer replied, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.” The visitor continued his line of questioning, “How about potatoes?” The reply was familiar, “Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.” The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?” “Nothin’,” answered the farmer. “I just played it safe.”

Playing it safe can be downright disastrous. Divine motivation demands our willingness to go out on a limb. Fear has to be defeated. Some of us anticipate the worst and don’t try anything. God wants us to put on our wave-walking shoes and get out of the boat of our comfort zone. I know that we all fear the unknown. I like routine as well as the next person. I’m infamous for ordering the same dish in restaurants. It’s simple really. I don’t want to be disappointed, but if I’m not willing to try something new, think what delights I’ve missed.

When a person fears the worst will happen, their own thoughts may help bring it about. Someone once wrote, “Fear is the wrong use of the imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.” The story has been told about a salesman who had a flat tire while driving on a lonely country road one dark and rainy night. He opened the trunk and discovered that he didn’t have a lug wrench. He looked around and could barely see a light coming from a farmhouse. With relief in mind, he started walking through the driving rain toward the house.

The salesman began to think all kinds of thoughts. He thought, for instance, that the farmer would surely have a lug wrench that he could borrow. Next he thought about how late at night it was, and, of course, the farmer would be asleep in his warm dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. And so on and on his thoughts went as he was walking to the farmhouse. Being soaking wet didn’t help his thought process, either.

He pondered that even if the farmer did answer the door, he would probably shout some rude vulgarity at him. This thought made the salesman mad. After all, what right did the farmer have to refuse him the loan of a simple lug wrench? He was stranded in the middle of nowhere soaked to the skin, and the farmer was a selfish clod! Fuming, the salesman finally reached the house and banged hard on the door. A light went on inside, and a window opened above. A voice called out, “Who is it?” His face white with anger, the salesman called out, “You know darn well who it is. It’s me! And you can keep your blasted lug wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now if you had the last one on earth!” Anticipating the worst can become self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to give God a chance and stop worrying!

I hereby covenant to take a risk by trusting in God’s unfailing providence. Because God always provides, I am going to take flight on the trapeze bar of United Methodist itinerancy. I will not be caught in the middle, but will risk letting go of the past and embrace the glorious future called St. John’s UMC, Aiken! What risks are you willing to take on God’s trapeze?

The Goodly Fere and Adventure

In the aftermath of General Conference 2012 I cannot help but reflect on the tendency I see in struggling local churches or denominations that prefer to look back toward the “good old days” rather than to the future. It’s an understandable desire to go back to the Garden of Eden when churches were packed and finances were good. However, if the good old days were that good then why are we in the mess we’re in now? Easter People are supposed to be headed to the New Jerusalem anyway. It’s a risky thought to stake your hope on the future, but looking backwards makes for crooked furrows whether in plowing or being a church.

It’s no accident that God put cherubim with flaming swords to guard the entrance to Eden after Adam and Eve’s exit. If we could have gotten back there after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then get another chance to partake of the Tree of Life, too, then we would be doomed forever to know both good and evil. The Gospel takes us to a better place, a New Jerusalem, where we can live forever in Christ knowing only good. We need to press past halcyon memories of yesteryear, celebrate the good of our history, but keep as our primary objective the risky but Christ-like adventure of the future.

Playing things safe is a natural tendency for most of us. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is in trying something. General Conference 2012 was a more than a bit deficient in attempting a new thing or anything. So much for making history!

Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of my most frightening experiences was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow as we followed the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a shelter and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.

The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, something impossible in the Adirondacks.

The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.

The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. My notions of time and space were pierced by the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a rare contentment.

Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reacquaint our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for the unforeseen adventures that lay ahead.

I share this in the aftermath of GC 2012 to say that I know we had better days in terms of metrics years ago, but we worship a risen Lord who wants to take us into an uncharted future. It is not an unknown future, however. It ends in the New Jerusalem. Therefore, we need to lay aside our fears and our tight grip on institutional preservation. If Jesus is Lord then the future is where we need to be. We have Jesus with us and He’s no wimp. My favorite poem describes Jesus as a risk-taker better than I. It’s by Ezra Pound and called the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.” It helps to understand the poem if you know that “fere” is Old English for “friend” or “companion” and the poem’s perspective is from one of Jesus’ original followers:

Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

O Goodly Fere, Thank you for inviting us to be a part of your grand adventure. We will leave behind Eden for the New Jerusalem!

Leap of Faith

>Playing things safe is a natural tendency for many people. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is to try something.

Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of the most frightening experiences to me was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
 
Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow along the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a tarp and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.
 
The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, an impossibility in the Adirondacks.
 
The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.
 
The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. Nature and God finally pierced my notions of time and space with the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a contentment that was rare.
 
Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reaccustom our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for what came next, rappelling down Mt. Jo.