Passing the test

Aside

How can the work of a pastor be thought of as getting people ready to pass their final exam? (Rev. 20:11-14)

It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.

Did you see this study of pastoral effectiveness?

I missed this report when it came out in 2012.

I found a couple of aspects of the study interesting. First, these four qualitative assessments of what is required for clergy effectiveness are not surprising but still are interesting:

Calling
Effective pastors possess a profound inner sense of being called by God and called to ministry. This calling is manifested as a deep trust in God and the willingness to act boldly and to take risks as part of that called ministry.

Leadership
Effective pastors have the ability to cast a vision and mobilize and empower people to work toward it. Effective pastors influence people in ways that will help them achieve their goals.

Transforming Lives
Effective pastors are able to transform lives. People with transformed lives experience spirituality as part of their identity; that is, they incorporate spirituality into their everyday lives. People with transformed lives experience God in their lives every day of the week, not just on Sundays. Transforming lives involves helping people grow in their love for God and develop a deeper relationship with God. People with transformed lives also have a genuine desire for spiritual growth.

Helping Others
Effective pastors help people discover and utilize their gifts for the good of their communities. They help people grow personally as well as spiritually. They help people become better, more spiritual people who make better decisions and have stronger, healthier relationships with God and others.

I’m struck in this list by what is not here. Knowledge of doctrine, theology, church history, and the Bible are not here. They are implied behind some of these things, but they are not up front. Most of the education offered through seminary serves as the building blocks that are drawn upon as effective pastors exhibit the four attributes list above.

As I read those four, I also find myself thinking about reading lists and training opportunities. How much do we read and how much training do our conferences provide on how to grow as a leader, for instance? In my teaching, I spend some time with students looking at the leadership theories of Daniel Goleman. How many of our pastors in seminary or subsequent training learn about similar theories or find themselves in settings where leadership development is an important focus? Certainly this is hard for solo pastors without mentors or senior pastors appointed above them.

I have similar questions about the way we train pastors to transform lives and help other people find and develop their gifts.

Later in the report, it takes a more quantitative look at the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics that are important for pastoral effectiveness. The report argues that things that can be taught (knowledge of doctrine and skill at preaching) should be less important in ordination decisions than things that are more stable and resistant to change (a sense of trust in God, personal integrity, etc.).

I’ve never served on a Board of Ordained Ministry. Reading the report makes me wonder how these various things are weighed in actual practice.

I’m curious whether readers have seen this report before and what you make of its findings.

Pastor school via Ezekiel & Jeremiah

Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

I’ve been thinking recently that every seminary and pastor training course should include a lesson on Ezekiel 33 & 34 and Jeremiah 23, not just as part of a general Old Testament class but specifically as part of pastoral formation. There are probably other chapters that should be thrown in there as well. What they all have in common is the stern words of God for shepherds or prophets who do not teach faithfully, who do not warn the people about the utter seriousness of being God’s people, and who do not strengthen them with the pure word of God.

The word is a hammer that break rocks to pieces.

How often is my preaching more like a velvet blanket?

In Ezekiel, God warns of the watchman who fails to warn people from their wickedness. The blood of the wicked will be on the hands of the watcher who holds his or her tongue. Jeremiah lashes out at the prophets who say “peace, peace” to the people when there is no peace.

God’s desire is not to destroy or burn. His desire is to turn people from their wicked ways.

And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right — if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil — that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. (Ezekiel 33:14-16)

The message is one of grace, in the end, but it is grace on the heels of a word that burns like fire and shatters stone. God does not desire that anyone should perish, but that is what will surely happen if we do not repent of our wicked ways. (And just to be clear, this is not only about sex. It is about oppression and violence and exploitation of the weak; also it is about sex.)

I read these passages today, and I wonder how my ministry has heard them and whether it reflects the heart of God in regard to these things.

I read these words from Ezekiel and Jeremiah and I wonder how my brothers and sisters in the clergy hear them.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.

Aiming for heaven?

I get the feeling at times that the church tries to be more than it is and tries to do more than it reasonably can do. It feels at times that we don’t know why we exist, and so we grab on to virtually anything that justifies our existence.

John Wesley — whatever his faults — did not suffer this problem. He saw the purpose of the church as getting people to heaven. He sums this attitude up no where better than in the preface to his sermons when he discusses his own attitude toward the Bible.

I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.

Elsewhere he wrote more directly about the church, but the spirit was the same. The point of what we do is to land people in heaven.* This was Wesley’s passion and purpose for his entire ministry.

And I wonder what would change in the UMC if that was our goal. What if our mission statement was something like this: The mission of the United Methodist Church is to get people into heaven?

I have to confess that it feels like a goal with a great deal more clarity to it than “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” We won’t know if we have met the goal in this life, but the goal feels like the kind of thing that could actually organize our work in a way that our current mission statement does not.


* I am aware that the idea of heaven as the goal rather than the new heaven and earth is a debated point. I find the term “heaven” a convenient place holder for whatever we understand to be the end of all things.