The Shape of Ministry

14 September 2018

This is a speech I imagine giving at a seminary chapel. Nobody — for reasons that will become obvious — has invited me to actually give this address, so I’m gonna just publish it as a blog post.

As I look out across this auditorium, I see eager, bright people. I see the makings of a corps of intelligent, upwardly-mobile ministry professionals. And I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you. I have some good news for you too, but unfortunately the bad news has to come first. If you will stick with me through the bad news, then the good news will be — for some of you, at least — profoundly liberating.

So, the bad news. Secure corporate jobs are a thing of the past. It’s a gig economy now, and it really shows no signs of changing anytime soon. What does that have to do with you? Well, the same thing is true in the ministry world, albeit for slightly different reasons. The pool of ministry jobs that pay a decent full-time salary is shrinking. There are tons of bright, motivated, qualified people who — despite papering the country with their resumes — haven’t even gotten so much as a call back in the last year. There’s a bunch more who have done a ton of interviews, but someone always just seems like a slightly better fit.

Some of you — a very few of you — will land good ministry jobs out of school, and stay in that world for your entire careers. I wish you well, and you can probably tune me out now, because the rest of what I have to say won’t really apply to you.

The problem is, most of you who think I just gave you permission to tune me out — you’re wrong. You will spend at least some — and maybe most or all — of your career outside that glorious, enchanted, nigh-mythical land that is paying full-time ministry. So unless you have a crystal ball telling you otherwise, just assume that at some point, what I’m about to say will be relevant to you.

So much for the bad news. Let’s move on to the good news, which is that you don’t need the permission of some paycheck-issuing body to do ministry. I know a bunch of folks in the full-time, fully-paid ministry world, but let me tell you about the other folks I know for a minute.

Gabe started a handful of drop-in youth centers around Denver, and supports himself by working at a brewery. Heather runs a cafe, which she uses as the site for a very fruitful ministry. Dave started a day center for the homeless. He’s also the world’s leading expert on Victorian trade cards — you don’t know what that is, and I’m not going to try to explain it now, but he’s written a half-dozen books on the subject, edited a magazine for the field, and supports himself buying and selling these things on eBay. Bob is a full-time missionary now, but for years he supported his ministry projects by working 10 days a month for a marketing firm. Jenny is an itinerant prayer warrior who splits her time between here and Africa; she supports herself as a massage therapist.

Let me tell you about how this has worked out for me. I got hired out of seminary to teach. I was half-time as an adjunct faculty member, and half-time associate pastor at a local church. After a year, the seminary brought me on full-time. I quit the pastor gig, but then got another, very part-time gig with a little church plant (that turned out to be a counter-cult exit ministry disguised as a church plant, but that’s a story for another time.) I was full-time at the seminary for four years. That was the last time I had a stable, full-time paycheck from ministry — more than 10 years ago now.

You know what? I really liked being a professional geek. But life’s been a lot more interesting since I got dynamited out of that comfortable gig.  Since then, I’ve worked for another seminary part-time, and a couple more churches. I’ve started a nonprofit, done youth work, written Bible curriculum, driven a school bus. Presently, I’m a pastor-at-large ministering in the gaps between churches. I’ve baptized people in the Platte and served communion in shot glasses off the tailgate of my car. I’m also a massage therapist, because pastor-at-large is not the sort of job that comes with a fat paycheck.

Or any paycheck, most of the time.

You may not want this kind of life for yourself. You’re investing in a good education, and why shouldn’t you have a solid career, just like if you went into medicine, finance, education, or some other well-educated profession?

By way of an answer to that, let me tell you about another guy. He was a professional theologian; good education, pretty secure gig, and then he got mugged by spiritual reality. He spent the next 14 years trying to figure out what happened to him. After that, he traveled around sharing with anybody who would listen. Sometimes he planted churches. Sometimes he was fully supported; other times he supported himself while he did the work. He even wrote a few books, but they weren’t really theology books. They were mostly compilations of good pastoral advice to other people who had been mugged by the same spiritual realities, teaching them how to live with what had happened to them. For those of you who haven’t caught on, I’m describing Saint Paul. If he wasn’t too good to support himself, then what makes you so special?

God has a destiny for you, and if you step into it, He will supply what you need. You certainly will have needs, and here are some of them.

  • You need a useful trade. If you have no marketable skills, I advise you to get some, and soon.
  • You need a team. Anything really worth doing is big enough that it won’t be sustainable to tackle it by yourself. And we’re Christians — we’re the image of the Trinity; we’re not meant to do anything alone.
  • You need oversight. It is not healthy to have nobody who can tell you no. You need open-minded, experienced people who believe in what you’re doing — even if they don’t quite understand it — and are willing to help you do it. That last bit is important. Don’t trust people who are not invested in your success to give you directional guidance.
  • You need excellent self-care skills. That means you need a regular sabbath, you need retreat time, you need to clear margin for your relationships, and build a good support network.
  • You need to be able to say no without feeling guilty. The more you divide your time between different places, the more people will feel that it’s reasonable for you to give them just a little more — and you can’t give “just a couple more hours” to 4 different places in the same week.

If this sounds daunting, it is, but remember the examples we’re following. Paul faced some daunting prospects himself: go out into an overwhelmingly pagan world with virtually no support and plant churches. (And be quick, because you’re going to have to skip town before they kill you.) The good news, again, is that you do not need anybody’s permission to have a powerful and fulfilling ministry. If you are willing to go outside the shiny, professional box, it’s a big world out there, and the opportunities really are endless. I wish you well. 

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The Fall of Ecclesiastical Communism

28 June 2018

Many American churches are closing, or merging, to survive. In many denominations, there are now the equivalent of hospice nurses for churches–interim pastors who specialize in closing churches down. The widespread feeling is that the church in America is shrinking. In fact, however, research suggests that “only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

Serious engagement is another matter entirely.  

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

This also means, of course, that those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people.

What is this?

I submit that we are seeing the fall of central planning in church ministry. Central planning was one of the great idols of the twentieth century, the idea that if you could systematize an endeavor on a large scale and execute it “scientifically,” there would be greater efficiency, less waste, and so on: the worship of technique with a capital T.

In 1917, a visionary went to Tsarist Russia to put this theory into action. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and his experiment failed horribly. Not only did the communists have to murder a bunch of people who didn’t really fit into the grand “scientific” design of the new society–which would have been bad enough–they were also notably less prosperous than the free world, and the entire enterprise eventually collapsed under its own weight. Everywhere central planning has been implemented on a national level, it begins by destroying those who don’t fit, and ends in dire poverty and starvation. Think East Germany versus West Germany, North Korea versus South. Cuba was once the jewel of the Caribbean. And so on, though endless 20th-century examples, right up to present-day Venezuela.

In the West, the publishing world offers another strong example of central planning in action. The Big Six publishers moved away from a broad set of offerings and responding to orders by booksellers to a “push model,” which allowed them to manufacture bestsellers by deciding on them in advance, and “pushing” them out into the market, whether the market wanted them or not. The market didn’t, as it turned out. And again, they began by destroying the careers of the authors that didn’t fit their vision — authors deemed unsuitable for whatever reason would never be “pushed,” and would not be allowed to become bestsellers. (They literally let books that were surprise successes go out of print rather than incur the cost of extra print runs to meet the demand. It’s nuts.) The Big Six became the Big Five, and the whole enterprise is looking increasingly green around the gills.

They blamed declining reading habits. Then Harry Potter taught a whole generation to read for fun, and they had to find another excuse. They blamed ebooks. Yeah, sure. There’s a bunch independent authors making a good living from ebooks, but never mind. They blame anyone and anything, except themselves and their failed theory.

The central planners are always looking for scapegoats, people to blame when the plan doesn’t work. They need a lot of scapegoats, because central planning never works.

Which brings us back to the church and its relationship to millennials. If my generation (Gen X) was so independent as to be fundamentally unmanageable (and we are, mostly), millennials are not. They are generally collaborative and team-oriented. They should be flocking to church in droves.

They aren’t. In my experience, that’s not because they’re rebellious. There’s a good bit of confusion and spiritual tourism, but that’s nothing new. The Boomers and Xers had plenty of that, too. It’s not because they don’t hear from God; in my experience they’re more open than Boomers or Xers there, too.

The fundamental problem is deeper: what they hear from God doesn’t match what they hear from church. God says to heal the brokenhearted; the church wants to point out all the ways it is their own fault. God says to seek the peace of the city; the church is mostly concerned about the peace within its own four walls. God says feed the hungry; the church wants a vision statement, a mission statement, an overseeing staff member, a proposal for the budget committee, and then of course we’ll need to run it by the property committee, which only meets every other month….

Most churches in the US are very top-down enterprises. There are a few people at the top that are allowed to have ideas, and everybody else is recruited to be support staff. Touted as “vision-driven leadership,” this pyramidal endeavor is actually central planning at its finest. And it works just as well as the other examples.

It’s vision-stifling leadership. Millennials as a class aren’t confrontational enough to try to take over the church from within (that would be my generation.) They’ll just go elsewhere. And they have.

So there’s a parallel reformation happening. You can find it in service organizations, at parks, in community meetings in city halls across the country. You can even find it in church basements–where there’s an AA meeting in progress, or a food bank at work.

When the Spirit is in a ministry initiative, of course, He also calls the necessary people together to make it run, whether that means two or a small army. But He blows where He wills, and that can’t be controlled in our day any better than it was in Jesus’ time.

When the American church learns this, and develops eyes to see where the Spirit is at work, we will be surprised at what is already under way.


Children of Hagar and the Reformation Settlement

31 October 2017

On this day 500 years ago, the sound of a hammer rang through the streets of Wittenburg. An Augustinian friar, a nobody named Brother Martin, was posting a set of statements on the church door for debate. Although written in Latin, intended for scholarly debate, they were a raw challenge to some of the Church’s worst excesses. Brother Martin was calling the (then desperately corrupt) Church to repent, and he was doing it with style.

Someone translated Brother Martin’s work into German, and—as we would now say—it went viral. Suddenly everybody wanted to know (for example): if the Pope could pardon your sins for an exorbitant fee, why wouldn’t he just pardon everybody’s sins for free, out of simple Christian charity? (Answer: basilicas don’t build themselves, you know.

Brother Martin never intended to start some sort of alt-Christianity in Europe. He just wanted his beloved Church to reform. But there were really only two options with reformers, back in the day. Either the Pope would bless the reformer to start a new monastic order (thereby getting him out of everyone’s hair), or they’d burn him at the stake. With Brother Martin, they tried pretty hard to exercise option B, but a powerful prince objected, and one thing kind of led to another. 

A bunch of churches wanted to be part of the reformation that Brother Martin was hoping for, but the organizational headquarters in Rome wasn’t having any of it. The result was a church split, and next thing you know, a bunch of churches were having to figure out what it meant to be the Church and follow Jesus Christ without fitting into the organizational structure that everybody had been accustomed to for the last 500 years. The Reformation settlement was that Word and sacrament were the marks of a true church, with discipline following closely behind to maintain the first two.

That settlement has persisted for 500 years, and on paper, it still stands. In reality, though, there’s been quite a bit of drift, not because of theological discussion, but due to financial convenience and cultural expectation. Today in America, the marks of a church are corporate papers, a 501(c)(3) exemption, and a charismatic talking haircut with preternaturally straight teeth down front, in the spotlight. 

It’s time to revisit the Reformation settlement. First, we need to allow it to critique where we have come. Are corporate papers essential? Do we really need a charismatic talking haircut with a blinding smile to lead us? Does the 501(c)(3) exemption compromise the independence of the pulpit? How would our reformational fathers see where we have come? What would they say? Would they be right?

Second, we need to take a critical look at the Reformation settlement. We are not looking for perfection, but is it true, is it adequate, to conclude that Word, sacrament, and discipline alone distinguish a church from other types of organizations? Have not these very things been used and abused to quench the Spirit in our midst? Is it possible to have Word, sacrament, and discipline, and nonetheless be a sort of religious country club rather than a church? 

I know spiritually aware, awake, lively followers of Jesus whose leaders have clubbed them with the Word, denied them the sacraments, and driven them out through the discipline of the church. The Pharisees did this very thing with the man born blind, for the twin crimes of being healed and telling the truth about how it happened; do we think we are immune?

I know many more children of the Church who—never formally driven out—nonetheless found no place for themselves in the churches. Their gifts were not acknowledged, their discernment was ignored, their calling was trivialized (or, as in my case, cursed outright). God handcrafted them for a destiny that the church deemed unwelcome or unimportant. Denied their rightful place in the churches, they have gone out into the world, bearing the church’s reproach, taking shelter where best they can. They have been called by God. Drawn by Him, they are seeking His embrace, and they are seeking it outside the church because they did not find it there. 

The guardians of the institutional church call them rebellious; they are the furthest thing from it. Like Hagar, they did what they were told, and they were blessed with fruit that the lady of the house was unwilling to accept. But God-Who-Sees loves them, seeks them in the wilderness, and will yet make of them a great nation. Despite the separation, through Christ He offers them entry into the family of promise. He has raised up David’s fallen tabernacle, and through the Spirit we are all welcome to come and worship together. But what will it look like for us to honor this spiritual reality that God has already accomplished?

It is my belief that in addition to Word, sacrament, and discipline, we need two further things. We need liveliness — the living presence of the Spirit working supernaturally among us — and we need real, functioning discernment. Not doctrinal screening —nothing wrong with that, but that’s just table stakes here — but discernment, the actual ability to tell one spirit from another, to recognize good and evil even when (as God often does) it defies our expectations.

It is my hope that we can recognize each other for what we are and be united in our common ancestry. This is our eventual destiny, and God will accomplish it. When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, we will all be united. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so today.