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?

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