Friday, February 20, 2009

The Power of Honesty

I have just returned from my second 'retreat' as a member of our Conference's Board of Ordained Ministry.  I spent two days this week interviewing candidates for ordination and one morning discussing and voting on the candidates.  As a result, I have been, once again, consumed with thoughts on how best to form the next generation of clergy leadership.  How is it that we can cultivate calls to ministry within the best and brightest in our congregations?  How is it that we encourage young people with significant gifts to not only consider using their minds to heal people in a doctor's office or influence policy with a law degree, but to be a healing agent of change through pastoral ministry - by leading a congregation and exposing people to the transformational power of Jesus Christ.

When I returned home, I was sharing some thoughts with one of my clergy colleagues.  Both of us have high hopes for the church.  We set the bar high for ourselves and those around us.  We believe with all our hearts that the Gospel still has the power to change and transform lives. And, we cannot stand mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness in our churches.

When I shared with her glimpses of my week along with probing questions about how we can improve this process and better shape individuals preparing for ministry, my colleague shared with me some thoughts on her role as a mentor for a seminary student.

She wrote, "He is the nicest guy in the world and a very willing and hard worker when it comes to setting up tables, etc, but a minister?  I just cannot see it!  And I'm having this awful moral dilemma - because I'm his supervisor.  Do I tell him, 'You have no emotional expression.  You're paralyzed by anxiety which renders you incapable of making a decision.  You are a tedious and boring worship leader.  Your sermon presentation is dreadful.  You lack the most basic leadership skills.  You do not take initiative.  You are not creative.  You have tunnel vision and cannot think outside the bold line.'  Do I write this in my final evaluation?"

What is the role of a teaching congregation?  How honest are we supposed to be with the students we are privileged to work alongside of, helping to shape with practical experiences that go alongside of their classroom work?  Is it better to tell the truth, the whole truth, or should we pat someone on the back, "Saying good job," trusting that somehow they will figure out their need to improve - that someone else will point out the deficiencies?  And, what is the role of our screening bodies - our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Conference Boards?  Even more, what is the role of our seminaries?  Should we be accepting any warm body because we have country churches lacking pastors or seminary budgets that will fall short if everyone is not accepted?

I am aware - fully aware - that there are people in seminary who should never be pastors.  I am also fully aware that there are people serving our churches who should not be pastors.  And, I take all of this a little personally because neither of my parents are United Methodists anymore.  While both were raised in the United Methodist Church - my mother was the daughter of a United Methodist minister - both of them have left the church in their middle ages.  And, my mother left the church just a couple years ago because of a lack of clergy leadership.  The pastor of her local United Methodist Church worshipped the congregation down from 120 to 80 to 50 to now less than 40 people.  The local United Methodist pastor proudly proclaimed how she does not believe in the resurrection.  The local United Methodist pastor should have never - NEVER - been ordained.

Our churches are declining.  Many of them are almost dead.  Thousands of people are unchurched or dechurched.  It is going to take exceptional leadership - creative leadership that thinks outside the box - to change the current sinking ship.

What is our role?  How honest are we to be?  What is the definition of a good pastor?

What do you expect in your pastor?

Please note that this pastor values your honesty.  How is it that I can be better?  Where am I not meeting the bar?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Quite the Contrast

An article on the front page of today's Metro section reads, "D.C. school officials have registered about 462 homeless students this year, twice as many as the same time last year.  Schools in Fairfax County, one of the country's most affluent areas, counted 1,314 homeless students early last month, up 20 percent from the same period last year." (Maria Glod, "Schools Face Sharp Rise in Homeless Students," in the Washington Post, Sunday, February 8, 2009, C1.)

The article shakes me to the core of my being.  I cannot imagine trying to learn as an elementary school student and at the same time not knowing where I would sleep that night.  I cannot imagine being a mother trying to make ends meet without a place to put my child to bed at night.

As I pondered the sadness in the article, I was reminded of Millard Fuller who passed away last week.  Millard once said, "'There are sufficient resources in the world for the needs of everybody but not enough for the greed of even a significant minority" (Frances Romero in Time, February 16, 2009, 15).

Almighty God, forgive us.  Help us.  Fix us.  Amen.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Jeans in Church

I'm thinking of wearing jeans to church tomorrow.  I know that I won't, but I am tempted to trade my normal suit and heals for jeans and Uggs - for just one day.  

The congregation has been invited to come casual tomorrow and then stay after worship for a couple of hours, helping our Trustees clean out a room that has been filled with music, moving the music to the 4th floor where it belongs.  At the same time, we will be letting go of some of the furniture that was damaged in the move or no longer needed.  We have invited people, even encouraged people, to wear jeans to church.  And yet, I know that when some people wear jeans to church, other people complain.

Is this the way they dress during the week?

If they can wear a suit to the office all week, then why can't they wear a suit to church?

Would they wear that to their grandmother's church?

This, my friends, is not your grandmother's church.  Your grandmother's church is almost dead - or probably is dead - unless it has made some changes, adapting to the changing landscape of our communities and changing lifestyles of the people who live around us.

There is an article in today's Washington Post called "Bush White House Assails Obama."  The article is complete with a picture of President Obama and several of his staff members doing the God-forsaken thing of sitting in the Oval Office without their coats on.  It seems as though our new President and his staff work better without their suit jackets.  Dan Eggen, writer of the article writes, "And Andrew H. Card Jr., George W. Bush's first chief of staff, took Obama to task for allowing shirtsleeves and loose collars in the Oval Office - arguing that they are a clear departure from Bush's sterner sartorial rules."  Eggen quotes Card saying "'There should be a dress code of respect.'"

Now, I have to tell you that I believe in respect.  I believe that we are to respect our elders and also some time-honored tradition.  But, I also believe that people have a tendency to get all bent out of shape on ridiculous things - like young people wearing jeans to church and a young President not keeping his jacket on in the Oval Office.

I would much rather that the President roll up his sleeves and get to work on fixing the miserable mess our country is in right now.  I would much rather his staff wear what most suits their ability to work well.  I want the staff of the White House to be focused on fixing what is broken.  I want these individuals entrusted with power to think about the poor and not how to appear more powerful.  I don't want their energy consumed by how they should appear when they are in the West Wing or the Oval Office.

And, I want the doors of our church to be open to all - to those dressed like my grandmother dressed when she went to church and to those who do not own anything that nice.  I want the doors of our church to be wide open for those who appear to have it all together and those who appear to be falling apart.  I want the doors of our church wide open to those who wear ties and to those who wear sweatpants.  I want the doors of our church open to anyone who dares to come in - not matter what they wear or anything else!

Come on, people, let's focus on the big picture - both at the White House and in our houses of worship.

At Mount Vernon Place, you can wear whatever is most comfortable to you.  Come in what pleases you - come in whatever you want.

Maybe I'll wear jeans to church tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


For the past several days, I have been amazed at the tax problems that have somehow surfaced before the Senate. First, it was Timothy Geithner who failed to pay $48,000 in Social Security and other taxes from 2001-04. The person who is now our Secretary of the Treasury - the one responsible for regulating financial issues for our country, did not know that he needed to pay estimated taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund!! Then, tax problems started to surface in the home of Tom and Linda Daschle. Over $100,000 was owed by Tom Daschle. The person spent many, many years in the Senate but did not realize that a car and a driver were more than gifts. While Geithner was confirmed, former Senator Daschle backed out today. Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, not wanting to be a distraction to President Obama.

One man is confirmed in the midst of his many mistakes. The other man backs down, withdraws his name from consideration.

One man makes it through. The other one seems to acknowledge that there are standards - high standards - for the President's Cabinet.

For the last week, many of my thoughts have been consumed by the subject of clergy leadership. I spent three years as a student at Duke Divinity School and then four years as an administrator at the school. For seven years, I was consumed by the school's literature about "excellence in ministry." While working as the Director of Admissions, I labored hard to increase our number of applicants, pulling the acceptance rate down from 90%+ to 50%. We set new standards. Even though one had a 3.8 GPA, they might not necessarily get into the school. Even though one had a clear call to ministry and great letters of recommendation, they might not be accepted. We tried to recruit the best of the best, making the incoming classes as strong as possible, hoping that these individuals would go out and transform the church and the world. It was a privilege to serve in this capacity. But, my time at Duke forced my standards pretty high - very high.

Craig Dykstra at the Lilly Endowment talks a lot about how much of our clergy leadership is "mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness." I believe Dykstra's statement is right on. More of our churches are declining instead of growing. Nearly half of our United Methodist Church's did not take in a single new member by profession of faith last year - there was not one new person who came to the faith in 50% of our churches. And yet, we keep on paying these pastors, even guaranteeing them an appointment for life.

After sitting through my first week of interviews as part of my Conference's Board of Ordained Ministry last week, I keep thinking about mediocrity and faithfulness, excellence and ministry. I keep thinking about how we can call forth the best of the best - how we can identify gifted people for ministry while in high school or college, how we can raise our standards, how we can make sure that every clergy person is offering their best - their very best. I keep thinking about how some people need to be stopped and others need to be encouraged.

I'm not sure that anyone who fails to pay nearly $50,000 in taxes should ever be our Secretary of the Treasury. I believe that Daschle did the right thing by stepping down.

There are some weeks when people in my church would be appalled at how little time I spend with God. There are other weeks when I might appear to be the picture of faithfulness. There have been some moments when I have been able to perfectly articulate my theology and other weeks when I was not sure how God really works. There are some days when I can tell you exactly what it takes to turn around a dying church and other weeks when I'd rather be reading the employment ads in the Washington Post. There are times when I offer my best and other times when I offer something far from my best.

I wonder how many people we have ordained who have something like a $50,000 tax payment owed. I wonder how many other people have gracefully stepped down - even though they had significant gifts that could be used in our church. I wonder if our process of calling forth and examining individuals is working like the process did for Geithner or like it did for Daschle.

What are the standards for clergy excellence? Clergy leadership? What do you expect from your pastor? Have you seen mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness or have you seen faithfulness - real, transforming faithfulness?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Do Unto Others

Mount Vernon Place UMC, the church I serve in Washington, has long been a staple in ministries of mercy and justice in Washington. The church has had a 'Social Concerns Commission' almost since its inception. At one time, this particular commission had some six subcommittees, one to work with prison ministries, one to work with the homeless, one to work on poverty, etc. Several decades ago, the church owned a camp - not for members of our church - but for children in our community who would otherwise not be able to go to camp. The church used to have several people on staff who provided a variety of social services. This church has long been the Body of Christ - a body of people who have been faithfully trying to discern how best to be Christ's hands, heart and feet in Washington.

Yesterday, under the leadership of two very passionate and capable individuals, our Serve Ministry Team met for the first time in 2009. We had 64 people in worship yesterday. Twenty - twenty! - of these individuals gave some time on Superbowl Sunday to gather after worship in order to talk about what service means and where we might be called as a congregation to serve in this city, this nation and this world.

The gathering started by people responding to the question, "What does serve mean to you?" Here are some of the responses people offered:
  • transcending self-interest
  • interacting with others so that all are accepted
  • helping others to have a more normal life
  • working for the restoration of God's kingdom on earth
  • helping others to live the life God intended for them
  • bringing the Kingdom of God to earth

Of the twenty people present, 14 are members of the church and six were visitors. Of the six visitors, one lives in a women's shelter. She knows firsthand the things that are helpful and the things that are not helpful. We learned so much from her as we want to take warm fried chicken dinners to the shelter but what she really need is something to deal with a horrendous bedbug issue. We want to provide food - but what she really needs is full length mirror because of all the shelters where she has stayed, she has never been able to see her entire body in a mirror before leaving for a job interview. We want to provide food - but what really nourishes her are good books at the day center's library. We want to give her something, but what she really needs is people willing to work on her behalf, fighting for more affordable housing and sanitary conditions in the city's shelters in the meantime.

It was a remarkable gathering. It was as if I had been to church - as if the people were feeding me - pouring the Gospel down my throat - when they defined service to me and then shared what service really means.

Can you imagine what this world might look like if we were all trying to transcend self-interest?

I hope you'll join us on the first Sunday of every month, beginning at 1:00 in the afternoon, as we seek to discern what exactly this means for us.