Friday, February 25, 2011

Resigned from Church; Becoming a Dad

I have resigned from my position as pastor of a congregation. It was a difficult decision. There were many positive aspects of this church. A vast majority of people in the congregation were wonderful people. The theology was delightfully progressive. The adult education classes were filled with wise, conversant people. There was a commitment to actively working for greater social justice. The worship services were spiritual, interactive, and creative. There are many wonderful people who make up the congregation. The list of positive aspects could go on and on.

Plus, in my time with the congregation, we accomplished many things together. We engaged in various styles of worship, explored different ways of preaching, developed online ministries, integrated artistic expressions of faith in the sanctuary, incorporated a kids' corner in the sanctuary, wrote/sang new songs, integrated new technology into worship, redeveloped adult education, reached out to the community through local media, hosted the Marriage Equality Bus at the church, assisted Christian members of CORC in the organization of an ecumenical event that featured author Brian McLaren, etc. All of these things were a true blessing.

But things were complicated. There were also some very unhealthy dynamics that made my leadership difficult. I will list three of the dynamics below.

First, there was an “inside group” (5%-10% of the church) and an “outside group” (90-95% of the church). The inside group had more power and sway than the outside group. The inside group also seemed more cliquey, unsupportive of pastoral leadership, and resistant to change. Conversely, it seemed that the outside group was less powerful, more collaborative, more supportive of pastoral leadership, more willing to explore change, and more active in worship and adult education. The longer I stayed, the more it felt like the church could potentially split along the “insider” / ”outsider” lines – especially if I chose to address what I saw as the underlying challenges.

Second, I sensed that the “inside group” thought they had “hired a chaplain” more than “called a pastor.” By this I mean it felt like the inside group thought they had hired me to do a job – and to do that job in exactly the way they wanted me to do it. When I attempted to engage in leadership that was outside their preconceived expectations or plans for the church, it felt like there was resistance and a sense that I wasn’t “doing my job” correctly. Instead of a spiritual leadership position, it felt more like I was expected to perform the duties of an employee of a business.

Third, I felt substantial negative energy from three lay-leaders of the church. This negativity got worse over time. When I noticed the negativity getting more intense, I invited these folks into one-on-one discussions. My goal was to initiate civil, preventative dialogue. However, all three of these individuals refused to meet with me. The refusal of a congregant to meet with their pastor was a red flag for me. But that was just the beginning. The negative energy got expressed through behaviors that I would describe in the following ways: undermining, triangulated, passive-aggressive, antagonistic, and, at its worst, bullying. The level of negativity and conflict that I experienced in this position was more intense than in any job/position I have ever held. There were verbal attacks against me - including one that was in ear-shot of my wife. There were nasty things said about my predecessors. There were comments that compared my physical appearance to those of one of my predecessors. There were undermining and/or triangulated e-mails sent. There were examples of anonymous criticism offered as blanket “we”-statements. There were valid concerns brought up in outrageous ways. There were attempts to triangulate my wife and me against each other. There were distortions of events told as if they were factual. There were occasions where hypersensitivity got expressed through verbal outbursts. There were plans to try to stay on Church Council past the allowed term - and when this failed there were attempts to get on the Pastor Parish Relations Committee. The list could go on and on. It was not a healthy situation.

In the end, I chose to resign in part because of the stress that these dynamics were causing to myself and my family. I knew it was time to quit when my pregnant wife said, “This isn’t just painful for you and me - it’s also painful for our baby.” Knowing that a baby’s development is deeply impacted during the nine months of pregnancy, it was clear that we didn’t want our baby exposed to any more of our stress. If it were just my wife and me experiencing these stressful dynamics, we could handle it. There are many great resources, support groups, and helpful colleagues for couples like us in ministry. But those things don’t exist for a fetus!

Everything changed for us when our developing baby was introduced into the mix. We wanted him to be as happy and healthy as possible during his development. And that included our own happiness and health. So I resigned as the pastor and my wife resigned as the music director. With our newly found free time, we have committed ourselves to eating healthier, exercising more frequently, and spending more quality time together as a couple. We’re nesting. And that feels like the best thing we could be doing with our time and energy right now.

While we need to work on being good parents, this congregation will need to work on its unhealthy dynamics. As a first-call pastor, I didn’t feel adequately equipped to help the congregation address these dynamics. There are skills that a more experienced pastor would have in a more developed way than I have as a first-call pastor. Therefore I decided to step aside in order to allow a different pastor to walk through this journey with them. I hope their new pastor will lead them into a vibrant future. There are some really wonderful people at this church - and the congregation deserves nothing but the best.

For now, we need to focus on being good parents. And continuing our work in special education classrooms of the local public school district. And finishing our first album. And helping with the Brian McLaren event in Iowa City. And cleaning our house (the perennial task of life). It seems like we have plenty of things to do!

Now, where is that Britax car seat? Who knew these things could be so difficult to figure out?!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Brian McLaren: The Iowa City Interview

Brian McLaren is coming to Iowa City for two exciting events. First, on March 4th at 7:00pm he'll give a FREE public lecture called "Following Jesus in the 21st Century." Then, on March 5th at 8:30am he'll be leading a workshop called "Transforming Christian Community in the 21st Century." Both of these events will feature music, prayer, and a chance to dialogue with this innovative theologian, author, and outdoorsman. All are welcome to Zion Lutheran Church, 310 N. Johnson St., Iowa City. For more info click here.

McLaren stopped by this blog for an interview today. He gives us a taste of his upcoming message plus some other interesting tidbits. Check it out below:

Question: Could you give us a sneak peek into what we might expect on March 4th?

Brian McLaren: The title for my public lecture will be Following Jesus in the 21st Century. That means we'll be talking about three things - the 21st Century, Jesus, and following. Each of those three is important. We need to think about our context - because to be a Christian requires us to be faithful in our contemporary world. We need, in our context, to get a fresh vision of Jesus and his core message - especially because these days you see Jesus be brought in to justify just about anything - war as well as peace, greed as well as generosity, fear as well as hope, short-sightedness and reaction as well as foresight and long-term vision. And having considered our context and the core message of Jesus, then we can explore how following Jesus can make a difference in all aspects of our daily lives.

Q: What impact do you hope to have with your new book, Naked Spirituality?

In a single sentence, I hope the book helps a wide range of people become more vulnerable to a genuine and transformative experience of God's presence in their lives.

I'm really thrilled that the first two professional reviews of the book - from Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal - both "get" that I'm trying to write both for committed Christians, whether Evangelical, Charismatic, Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox...and for the "spiritual but not religious." That means I have to try to find fresh, accessible language and get beneath the "clothing" of religion to the "naked realities" of the spiritual life.

Q: Do you plan on writing more music in the future?

McLaren: I think if you'd asked my friends back in high school and college, they might have predicted I'd find my career in music. So music has always been a big part of my life, and I can't imagine that I'd ever start composing and writing. Mostly I write music just as part of my devotional life, or maybe as an act of self-therapy sometimes ... but I'm always happy when one of my songs catches on and is picked up for someone's recording, or proves useful in a congregational setting.

Q: Who are some authors that you are currently reading?

McLaren: I'm reading a brilliant philosopher of religion right now, Richard Kearney. And I just finished two books by Jerome Berryman. And I'm almost finished an out-of-print book by one of my heroes, Fr. Vincent Donovan. And ... well, I'm a rather compulsive reader, so the list goes on.

Q: What gives you hope about the future of the Church?

In my travels, I constantly meet creative and energetic Christians - from senior citizens to young adults, here in the US and around the world. They inspire me. And there are more and more of them out there. I know that there are a lot of complacent, reactionary, or fearful folks out there too, but they don't come to my events so much! Also, I think their average age is creeping up, and younger generations aren't signing up to their agenda, so their influence is waning. We may not be at a tipping point yet, but I think it's coming. So I am hopeful most days!

Q: What advice would you give to young pastors?

McLaren: A few things. First, find some peers...people with whom you can be "friends no matter what." We all need a cohort soul-friends, especially when we're leading in challenging times. These circles of friends are springing up all over the place - reading groups, emergent cohorts, informal networks. Second, find some mentors...folks a little farther down the line to whom you can go with your questions and struggles, and who believe in you and support you without trying to make you mini-versions of themselves. Third, and most important, tend to your own soul. Don't neglect the vitality of your own spiritual life. Nobody else can do this for you. Your morale, your heart, your spiritual vitality is your most precious asset, and it's way too easy in ministry to let it slide. I know that's counter-intuitive, but it's true.

Q: What is one question you’d like to be asked, but often aren’t?

It's way easier for me to tell you the questions I'm asked constantly and wish I wasn't! But I always enjoy people asking about the not-explicitly-religious sides of my life...the things I enjoy as a human being. Near the top of the list would be nature and wildlife (I'm a big bird guy these days, but I'm fascinated by everything living - from dragon flies to komodo dragons.) And then there's music...And then there's literature.

Q: Are you a fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes? In other words, do you like to pander to your audience? :-)

McLaren: Well, I'm tempted to semi-pander by saying that I'm not a fan of the Huskers or Badgers, but then I might be speaking in Nebraska or Wisconsin soon! To tell the truth, I like sports, but I don't have any teams that I devotedly follow. Maybe some Hawkeye fans will try to evangelize me when I'm in Iowa City?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lord's Prayer

Our musical interpretation of the Lord's Prayer:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bullying in the Church

The Lutheran has an interesting article about church members who bully pastors. With the increase of incivility in society, it's not too suprising. Here is one of the stories from the article:

If hindsight is 20-20, Pastor Mary's husband, Paul, has pretty good vision. When the chair of the call committee phoned his wife to tell her the congregation was calling her — but the vote "wasn't unanimous" — he got the first clue of what was to come. He recalls with candor the tumultuous years that followed.

And he remembers back some 17 years ago when his wife first told him she wanted to be a pastor. He supported her call to the ministry, and they narrowed her seminary search to where he could get a job.

But even before the first year in her first call ended, there were rocks on the road. When Pastor Mary gave the nod to another new face to try her hand at education ministry, longtime members became resentful and angry. Mary wanted vacation Bible school to be less about parties, more about faith formation. And she wanted to take a fresh look at the urban neighborhood in which the church had been situated for years.

"She wanted to build connections. It is in those connections that we meet and do ministry. But that requires the congregation," Paul said. "There were people who were supportive, but they were all in the outer ring of influence. The inner ring just wanted a chaplain, not a leader."

Susan Nienaber is a senior consultant and mediator with the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C., a center of learning and leadership development with a focus on congregations, so she's heard plenty of stories similar to this one. Pastor bullying — along with other sorts of bullying­ — is a phenomenon undergoing a resurgence.

"It has resurfaced, perhaps, because of the political climate. We're more polarized than ever," Nienaber said. "But in the more than 20 years I've been a consultant, I've seen an increase in incivility over the years — although congregations are notorious for what they're willing to tolerate in the name of being a Christian community. The healthiest congregations have the lowest tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Unhealthy congregations tolerate the most outrageous behavior."

For Mary and Paul's family, the behavior was outrageous. The same woman who called to offer Mary the job became her nemesis — always behind her back, never face to face.

"[Mary] would come home from meetings shaking," Paul said. "She felt like she'd been physically threatened, like this woman might attack her. Of course, she already had. She was emotionally and spiritually abused."

The couple spent one to two hours every evening debriefing who had abused Mary that day. "I couldn't handle the stuff that was coming home every night," Paul said. "I finally said, 'You need to get help.'"