The Ministry of Words

The Ministry of Words

I stood in a hospital room crowded with family members of one who, without a single word, had summoned us all together. She was ready, after almost 94 years, to leave this life. So that is what she did. She left a hushed silence unable to muffle the emotion of time spent, joys remembered, and sorrows borne. Hospitals are places of healing. For those who work there it must be wonderful to take part in someone’s battle for life and equally devastating when healing does not occur. These caregivers are on the front-line, walking alongside people on the road toward wholeness. Sometimes, after a visit to see a parishioner, I would imagine my life as a physician, instead of a pastor. That happened most often on Monday mornings, discouraged by a Sunday that was, at least by chosen metrics, showing signs of failing health, if not impending death. Pastors put tremendous pressure on themselves, especially when it comes to the sermon. After all, pastors are purveyors of words, trained in seminary to craft powerful, life-giving words, as they lead Sunday morning worship. No wonder that on most weeks pastors feel weak in the knees as they ascend the steps to the pulpit. No pressure. Hear me when I say that corporate worship on Sundays can and should be life-giving and healthy. The words proclaimed from the pulpit both in sermon and song should be dynamic and relevant, worthy of dedicated study and preparation. But the truth is the pastoral call to ministry transcends the Sunday experience. Corporate worship can’t be all there is to a healthy church.  Sunday morning...
Courage to Become

Courage to Become

I’ll never forget August 3, 1995. The family and I were in Destin, Florida with good friends. We vacationed here regularly during the child-rearing years. We did the same thing every summer. We had our place to stay, our spot on the beach, and our list of restaurants we loved. The image has never left me—the water was literally “rocking” in the commode! I was searching for a “safe” place for us in the condominium. Hurricane Erin was making landfall on the Florida panhandle. For most of that week, we followed its route from its origin in the Atlantic Ocean across the Florida peninsula, projecting along with the “experts” the path it would take. All along, convincing ourselves that this year would be like every year. We could expect our experiences in the past would prove to be so again. The weather channels predicted a Texas coast event. However, all residents and tourists were encouraged by local authorities to evacuate. Despite the warning of Southeastern Conference basketball expert, Joe Dean, the night before at a local restaurant, we still decided to stay put and do nothing. At 2 a.m., Erin turned due north, straight toward Fort Walton Beach, leaving us just to the east of landfall at 8:30 a.m., August 3. We were scared, all day long. Hurricanes come early and stay late. They aren’t like tornadoes. Suffice it to say, though shaken, we were not hurt. A section of the roof from our condo struck our van. Thankfully, it was still drivable and we made it home. I will never make that mistake again. Today’s church finds itself...
The Practice of Warming

The Practice of Warming

I love this time of year, don’t you? Even though the days are getting shorter, I love the cool, crisp air and the changing colors of fall. It’s nice cutting the AC down at home. Pleasant evenings find Cindy and me sitting in the backyard around a crackling fire reminiscing. I’ve even noticed that Cindy and I are sleeping a bit closer together!  I’m reminded of a verse in Ecclesiastes: “Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”  Over the years in pastoral ministry, it has been a privilege to counsel couples in preparation for marriage. Often I asked them to tell me exactly what it is that they cherish about each other. They would tell stories of how they first met, where they were for their first kiss, and other fond remembrances. I would be careful to write it down. I would then weave their words into the homily for their wedding day. Afterwards I would give them a copy, urging them to read those words again when times get tough. And, you know like I do, times always get tough. There comes a day in almost every relationship when we are so far from one another that the relationship gets cold. And it is then that we need to WARM one another. It’s not just true in marriages, but in most any relationship—friends, neighbors, co-workers. It’s true also in churches. Marital therapist, John Gottman, writes: “Fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance. Although happily married couples may feel driven to distraction at times by their partner’s personality, they...
Pastor, Which Hat Will You Wear?

Pastor, Which Hat Will You Wear?

At the Center for Healthy Churches we often consider the distinctions implied between serving congregations as “consultants” and “coaches.” Implied are the hats we wear when we engage churches and their leadership. Pastors must do the same kind of identity work. Why? Because our identity drives our perceptions of the church and the community we serve. When pastors are clear about who we are it guides our interactions with others, our choices and behaviors, and the way we fulfill the responsibilities of our many roles. Consulting is one of those roles. It implies the skills of a mentor. Like a mentor, a pastor builds capacity by sharing new learning which arises from experience, directions in current thought, as well as fresh perspectives and strategies. This hat is often monogrammed with the letter “E” for expert. In the best sense, a consultant brings fresh perspective on common issues facing churches and organizations. Those conversations encourage and equip pastors and churches to face a new and exciting future. At worst, consultants come with a notebook in hand, promoting a message that says, “if followed, it will lead to new success and vitality.” Long-time pastors might find two or three of these “canned” approaches on their bookshelves from past denominational programs or conferences. The problem with this approach is that the solution is devoid of any history or context. Too often pastors are tempted to wear the “expert” hat exclusively. Presenting themself as a strong, confident leader, the pastor is tempted to present a false self that has all the answers and stands ready to lead the congregation forward if only “they” will...
When Church Gets it Right

When Church Gets it Right

As soon as I walked into the church building, I felt it. The day was significant. In fact, it’s what brought me here. The preparation was obvious. The choir was poised, the orchestra full, and the worship brochure 4-color. But it was more than that. There was a flow that was undeniable. The pews were teeming with expectancy. “Installation Sunday” marks a new chapter in a church’s history, and today was special. As I sat there, I thought about how good church is when it’s at its best. If worship on an “ordinary” Sunday could be like this, I mused. Beyond the single purpose and obvious preparation, what was it that gave this day such flow? The early church tried to communicate this notion as a mutual participation in the Divine. If you have been to a Greek wedding, you may have seen it played out in a dance. It’s called perichoresis. There are not two dancers, but at least three. They move in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern of motion. They go so quickly and effortlessly they becomes a blur, their individual identities part of a larger dance. The early Cappadocian church fathers looked at that kind of dance and said, in so many words, that’s what God is like; not one but three, not three but one. Whatever is going on in God is a flow that’s like a dance; and God is not just the dancer, God is the dance itself! Richard Rohr says, “Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force...