Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Finding Hope in the Mainline Crisis with Brian McLaren

The Mainline Church in the US is now the Sidelinded Church. It has lost influence. It has lost scores of members. It has lost thousands of its historic congregations. And now its seminaries are crumbling down. The crisis is clear. We are facing the death of the institutional Mainline Church as we know it. The hope is that from this death, there will be a resurrection of something faithful, effective, and relevant. What will emerge from this crisis? Many things. Our task is to foster the emergence, instead of choke it. And Brian McLaren continues to offer us resources toward that goal. Since our last post was about the crisis in seminaries, we thought we'd share McLaren's reflections on the hope he sees in the crisis facing seminaries. He offers some helpful words about theological education in a discussion called "The Emerging Church and Mainline Theological Education." Here are a few snippets from that conversation:

"How do we plan public worship experiences that form individuals and form communities? How do we approach the Bible in a world that sees the twin dangers of narrow fundamentalism and shallow relativism? How do we understand preaching and teaching in a digital world that is formed far more by hyper text than linear text? How do we lead boldly in a flattened world?"

What if we said we are not living with a problem, we are living with an emergency...There is an emergency that very few people are talking about. We have all kinds of layers of denial...
What if we were actually serious? What if some people snuck through the system, with enough courage to say, 'How can we leverage our resources for an emergency before it's too late?' Because we can predict what will happen. You know the growth curve of organizations. Once you get beyond a certain point on the curve - I'll say it very uncharitably - all the smart people leave. Because they know this thing is going nowhere but down. And then you end up with the shrinking gene pool of loyal, nice people who will be good hospice care-takers for a dying organization. At some point people need to say, 'Let's have our emergency now. Let's face it now.'"

"The best was to reinvigorate existing churches is by planting new churches...I think we must pour disproportionate, absurd, extravagant amounts of money into the planting of experimental new churches, that may not be a good bet of success, but are as far out on the edge as we can. My motto is that existing churches imitate and new churches innovate."

"The Church is renewed from the edges, not the center. Be grateful for new things happening, even if they are not easily digestible."

"John Calvin wrote The Institutes of Christian Religion starting when he was 19 and he finished the first edition when he was 25. There is no 25 year old that would be listend to in any Prebyterian Church in the world today. How can you become the kind of Church that doesn't drive away the thousands of young John Calvins and Joanna Calivins who are in your circle?"

"What if Mainline institutions could shock the world by unleashing their ties, changing their paths, and welcoming in young leaders. Not to domesticate them and make them docile, but to enrich their wildness with the wildness of a truely liberal (i.e. free/open) education."
If this got your attention, check out his discussion below. It's good stuff. And it just might help us face the crisis in the Mainline Church so we can re-emerge in a faithful, effective, and relevant way.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Demise of Mainline Seminaries...As We Know Them

Eden, Lexington, Seabury-Western, and many other seminaries in the US are going down. Cue the music from Titanic. It's that serious. The financial crunch in seminaries is demanding drastic responses by the boards of trustees. So they are laying off staff, firing tenured professors, and selling their buildings. In fact, my alma mater, Eden Theological Seminary, just sold it's library! Not good.

The financial decline (demise?) of Mainline seminaries is happening for many reasons. Denominations continue to shrink, reducing funding. Education costs continue to rise, increasing spending. The theological gap between seminaries and congregations continue to widen, causing a major disconnect between the ivory tower and the Sunday pew. And the list goes on and on. The outcome is clear: many seminaries are in a major financial crisis.

Enter the economic recession. This has squeezed hurting seminaries that were already just getting by. The recession has caused seminaries to face their financial realities in direct and difficult ways. No more denialism. The "downsizing" that seemed to be years in the future are occurring right now. It could be said even more strongly. The downsizing is turning into a capsizing. And everyone has a sinking feeling about this emergency. But maybe there is a silver lining in these storm clouds.

Perhaps (and hopefully), this is the demise of seminaries as we know them. Not the end of seminaries, but the end of the current era. And the birth of new things. Instead of just offering traditional lectures, there might also be online classes. Instead of a singular dedication to the academy, there might also be a dedication to local churches. Instead of a singular emphasis on abstract theology, there might be emphasis on practical theology. Instead of only publishing academic books, there might be more assessable (and useful) resources produced. Instead of being cordoned off from the popular culture, there might be more theological engagement with the popular culture. Instead of focusing only on deconstructing people's theologies, there might also be attention to helping students reconstruct their theologies. Instead of emphasizing singularly on academic formation, there might also be an emphasis on spiritual formation. Instead of teaching people to imitate "good ideas," folks could be encouraged to develop fresh, innovative ideas for ministry. The list of possibilities are endless - and important.

It's time for change. Existing structures and strategies are failing. It's time to explore the "new thing" (Isaiah 43:19) God is calling us to. Actually, God might be calling us to many new things. It's time we listen to God call us toward innovation and reformation as we pragmatically face this financial emergency. Not to act would be like standing on a sinking ship. And it's going to pull many people down with it. But we can choose to act. We can choose to rebuild and remodel the ship so that it can sail on ever-changing waters.

Seminaries, as we know them, must change. It's not just about survival - it's about faithfulness to the God that is constantly doing a "new thing." As Isaiah 43:19 imagines, God turns emergencies into opportunities: "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." God can guide us out of this storm.

Hope is all around if we only dare to embody it with our actions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Mary's Song"

We wrote this song based on Luke 1:46-55. We figured that something called "Mary's song" really ought to be a real song, so we took the text and put it to music. Plus, these are powerful, prophetic words that deserve to be a song. We like to think that if Mary was an indie folk artist, her song would have sounded like this one! Not sure. In any case, have a happy Advent.

And Mary said,
My soul praises the Eternal One
and my spirit rejoices in God
for God has looked with favor on this peasant girl
the lowliest of all
But God has accepted me just as I am
So others may see me too

God has called me to this mission
All generations will call me blessed
For me and through me great things will take place
For I have known the love of God

Incarnate, revealed to us, God’s perfect love
Holy is God’s name

God has shown justice, God has shown love
God has inspired us to give what we have
Scattered the pride in the hearts of the proud
Strengthened the pride in all those trodden-down

Brought down the lofty from powerful thrones
Searched for the lost ones and brought us back home
God works through people and nature divine
God acts among us from now throughout time

Incarnate, revealed to us, God’s perfect love
Holy is God’s name

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pregnant Teenagers And Other Advent Art

A picture is worth a thousand blog posts. And here are five thought-provoking pictures. Let them work on you a little. What do they say about Advent? Christmas? Mary? Jesus? Santa? Life? Today?

"Mary" by Unknown

"Nativity" by He Qi

"Nativity" by Unknown

“Nativity” by Brian Kershisnik

"Crucified Santa" by Unknown

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"The Body Is Like Mary" by Rumi

The body is like Mary and each of us has a Jesus inside.
Who is not in labor, holy labor? Every creature is.
See the value of true art when the earth or a soul is in
the mood to create beauty,
for the witness might then for a moment know beyond
any doubt, God is really there within,
so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe,
though also needing to be born, yes God also needs to be born,
birth from a hand's loving touch,
birth from a song breathing life into this world.
The body is like Mary, and each of us, each of us, has a Christ within.

This poem was translated and adapted by Daniel Ladinsky.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book Review: "Four Seasons of Ministry"

When a couple is expecting a baby, the most commonly read book is What To Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s a classic and practical book that helps couples navigate the complex journey of parenthood. While parenthood always remains humbling and challenging, What To Expect helps parents to make this voyage with a little more insight and confidence. It’s an important book. But what does a person read when s/he becomes involved in vocational ministry? Like parenting, the journey of ministerial leadership is humbling and challenging. Pastors, too, need help in making this journey with greater wisdom and poise. We need a book such as: What To Expect When You’re Expecting…A Career in Vocational Ministry. Thankfully, Katherine and Bruce Epperly have written a book about just this topic.

The Epperlys’ book, Four Seasons of Ministry, is a guide to navigating the complex seasons of a lifetime in ministry. They bring their theological insight, spiritual depth, and practical wisdom together to help pastors be able to more mindfully engage in healthy and vital ministry through a lifetime in ministry. Their book helps to empower pastors to be able to say “yes” to the following question: “Can a life devoted to ministry continue to bring beauty to God, our congregations, our families, and ourselves” (6)? While each person has a unique journey, this book helps pastors to say “yes” to that question in the various contexts out of which they traverse. In order to break this broad topic down, they divide their book into four seasons of ministry.

The first season is Springtime. The spring is a time of discernment of call, nurturance of gifts, and seminary education. Seminary is the initial major step in this process. During seminary people learn an overwhelming amount of information and theology. This can feel overwhelming and deconstructive. It’s the challenge of the seminarian to explore the practical implications of these theologies as well as find time for self-care and spirituality. As the Epperlys point out, “spiritual formation” and “theological reconstruction” are often parts of the theological education that get downplayed unless one comes to seminary with the goal of exploring these important elements (38). In order to thrive in this season, the Epperlys suggest vital-yet-sensible practices such as: finding a mentor, healthy eating, exercising joyfully, praying mindfully, and practicing Sabbath.

Then comes the Summertime. This is a season of exploration and growth in one’s first call. During this time, feelings of anxiousness and inadequacy can emerge when one encounters the enormity of tasks (and ministerial “firsts”) that are involved in ministry. To get through this phase, the Epperlys suggest seeking the council of colleagues, developing a vision for life, being intentional about budgeting one’s time, practicing healthy relational stewardship, developing a flexible-yet-defined sense of pastoral authority, acknowledging that one’s call is to be faithful but not perfect, etc. They also add a koan-esque question to continually ponder: “Will your spouse, partner, children, and closest friends also thank God for your calling into ordained ministry” (86)?

Third is Autumn. This season is about the “challenges of endurance and new opportunities for transformation” that come mid-career (6). Elements such as perfectionism, grief, and burnout can challenge one’s endurance. The authors suggest that during this season, it’s important to transform one’s ministry through a variety of practices: continuing education, fostering self-awareness, dealing honestly with grief, resisting perfectionism, facilitating one’s own growth through a clergy coach, etc.

Winter is the last season. Obviously this is a time of finding meaning, purpose, and ministerial role in retirement. Some experience this time as exciting while others see this time as disheartening. In either case, the Epperlys argue that it’s important to face this stage of the adventure with mindfulness. Part of that mindfulness is engaging in the following practices: exploring alternative ways to stay connected to ministry, celebrating one’s ministerial history, opening more deeply to forgivingness, expressing gratitude, accepting praise, trusting that God is faithful through all of life, sharing one’s wisdom, etc.

The Epperlys’ exploration of these four seasons gives pastors at all stages of ministry a description of some of the realities they will face, and some of the practices that can help them navigate each season with grace. It’s descriptive without being prescriptive. It’s practical without being overly simplistic. And it offers user-friendly wisdom without offering user-ignorable platitudes. The gift of this book is that it takes on a broad topic yet manages to provide down-to-earth insight: “a commitment to self-awareness, openness to God’s leading, and professional self-care are at the heart of vital and healthy ministry at every stage of life” (153). Simple yet profound. The Epperlys are the “Thich Nhat Hanhs” of practical theology. And if we’re smart enough to practice their wisdom, we might all experience a little more Zen.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: "Feed The Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout"

Pastors are busy people, navigating a complex vocation. Sometimes they barely have time to spend with their families, let alone get "everything" done. The continual stream of commitments is daunting: evening meetings, vacation Bible school, Lent, weekly sermons, and the list goes on and on. Not to mention the pastoral care emergencies. The blessing and curse is that most pastors want to be a faithful presence through it all. But being a faithful presence at “everything” usually means committing 50-80 hours each week. Such a busy pace can wear the best of us down over time. And that can lead to burnout, anger, frustration, etc. The fact is that vocational ministry can attract and create workaholics. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In Feed the Fire, Katherine and Bruce Epperly seek to help pastors mindfully choose life-giving transformation over life-denying burnout. This obviously isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime choice. It’s a continual process of choosing transformation through daily intentionality. In their words, “Healthy, vital, and effective ministry is a matter of choice as well as grace” (20). The way they suggest engaging in this process is through practices that can feed the fire of healthy ministry.
The book is divided into seven main sections that include user-friendly examples of specific practices, affirmations, and covenants.

The sections include: (1) Honoring the body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (e.g. mindful breathing, grateful eating, meditative exercise). (2) Transforming the mind through attentiveness to our changing God and world (e.g. cultivating stature, open-mindedness, lectio divina). (3) Transforming the spirit through receptiveness to God’s ongoing presence and callings (e.g. spiritual formation, mindful prayer, theological humility). (4) Transforming time by finding a healthy faith-family-ministry balance (e.g. self-differentiation, fidelity to Sabbath, saying “yes” and “no”). (5) Transforming relationships by engaging in relational wholeness (e.g. healthy friendships, intentional colleague groups, living by a relational vision). (6) Creating stillness in the storm through prayerful and creative response (e.g. spiritual direction, professional mentoring, reacting pastorally). (7) Celebrating oneself in ministry through self-awareness (e.g. individuation, continuing education, mindfulness of the personality dynamics explored in the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator).

The list above is limited and is only meant to whet the appetite. Feed the Fire is filled with practical application. So, if you want to spend more time with your clergy friends – and you want them to be in a better mood when you see them – this book is an excellent resource. The only thing missing is more details on how to break already-established patterns of over-working. Change is difficult. But perhaps that would need to be another book entirely! Despite that, this book deserves to be commended. The Epperlys have written an important book in the canon of self-care literature.