Ministry in the Meantime and Mean Time

Ministry in the Meantime and Mean Time

Ministry happens in the meantime and in the mean time. The meantime is a season of sometimes bewildering change and troubling transitions. It’s an interval between a past we know well and a future which isn’t yet clear and between a familiar way of doing things and an emerging way of doing them. One indication of this interval is a leadership gap which exists in many churches: an older generation of experienced leaders is passing from the scene, and younger generations have not yet developed the skills for, or shouldered the responsibilities of, constructive congregational leadership. We live and serve in the tension between what has been and what will be, and this meantime calls for discernment, perseverance, and courage. Meantime also refers to the climate in which ministry happens these days: it’s a mean time. The tone of public debate is coarsening, and verbal violence is increasing. It’s common to reduce complex issues to bumper-sticker or tweet sized slogans aimed at the single goal of winning an argument, and it’s uncommon to engage in thoughtful listening and speaking with the purpose of mutual understanding. Concern for the common good is eroding. Political polarization and partisan wrangling are more intense than they have been since the late 1960s and early 1970s. These factors adversely affect ministry. Conversations about a church’s challenges and opportunities too-frequently reflect the stridency of public debate. Add to the corrosive tone of public debate other factors that make this a mean time: Decades of worship wars have splintered some churches into factions organized around differences in musical taste, matters of style, and differing opinions about...
Prophetic Priests, Priestly Prophets

Prophetic Priests, Priestly Prophets

In my work as a pastor, I often felt an inescapable tension between the “priestly” and “prophetic” dimensions of my calling.  To simplify a bit: Priests help us with our relationship with God, while prophets call us to reflect our relationship with God in our relationships with other people, with culture, and with the systems and structures of society. The primary locations of a priest are the sanctuary, the hospital, nursing homes, prisons, gravesides, counseling offices, living rooms, front porches, and restaurants where conversations about life’s challenges unfold over a shared meal. Priests listen more than they talk; and, when they do speak, they use the language of prayer and blessing. The primary locations of a prophet are the streets, city hall, the county courthouse, community centers, media outlets, creative studios where art and music are made, and board rooms. Prophets show up anywhere decisions are made or opinions are shaped that affect the common good. Prophets spend a great deal of time in discernment and analysis; and, when they speak, they mainly question what is and describe what could and should be. While the priest’s work is primarily within the church and the prophet’s focus is most often beyond it, we’re living in times when these distinctions are breaking down.  “Out there”—in public realms—a pastor will find many people, not necessarily connected with a church, who yearn for the listening, guiding, and healing ministry of a priest. They long to be heard, to have their spiritual needs taken seriously, and to have someone help them honor the surprises of the sacred that appear in their experience. “In here”—in...
Ministry in an Election Year

Ministry in an Election Year

Across more than 35 years as a pastor, some of the hardest times in which to find a healthy balance between a prophetic engagement with the culture and a pastoral sensitivity to congregational unity were presidential election years. Since I’m no longer serving a local congregation, I admit to experiencing relief—but also confess to feeling some guilt—that I don’t have the responsibility or opportunity to lead a congregation during this challenging season. Here are ways I tried to honor the prophetic-pastoral tension in my ministry at the sometimes treacherous intersection of the political and ecclesial realms. 1.  I aimed for what Richard John Neuhaus, in The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), called “critical patriotism.” It’s a style of citizenship that makes it clear that Christians’ ultimate loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. To be a patriot means to love one’s country enough to hold it accountable to Jesus’s vision of God’s beloved community characterized by justice, mercy, and peace. Critical patriots know that no nation is perfect, not even our own. We also know that to recognize its imperfections does not have to blind us to what is good about the United States. It’s undeniable that, like every nation, the United States is, from time to time, guilty of greed, corruption, dishonesty, and violence. That’s why I resonate to the stanza in “America the Beautiful” which includes a prayer for national reformation: “America!  America! God mend thine every flaw Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.” It’s also true that, however, that at its best, the United States strives, as Dr. King...
Being Constrained Doesn’t Have to Mean Being Stuck

Being Constrained Doesn’t Have to Mean Being Stuck

One of the most significant “leadership” books I’ve read in the last couple of years is A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages and Why It’s Everyone’s Business (Wiley, 2016).  Adam Morgan and Mark Braden have given us a gift: a beautifully-crafted book which is creative, wise, and practical. Morgan and Braden claim that “we sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand, and the reality of scarcities on the other” (p. 4). Every church leader I know would say “Amen” to that statement.  Our restless and questing culture is open in surprising ways to the good news of God’s justice, peace, mercy, and love, especially when the people who give voice to that news embody it in the authentic practices of community life. At the same time, churches wrestle with perceived scarcity of human and financial resources, of creativity and innovation, and of willingness to take risks and venture change.  This scarcity is the source of constraints. Morgan and Braden call these scarcity-imposed constraints “beautiful”because they believe that leaders can see a constraint as “a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving our ambition” (p. 7). Ambition, in this context, is not rooted in pride, but in passion for the achievement of a mission or the pursuit of a noble mission. In the language of faith, it’s the determination to trust that God can “make a way out of no way.” The God who feeds multitudes from meager resources can make it possible for us to carry-out needed ministries in the face of real constraints. When determination and...
Ability to Respond: Healthy Assumption of Responsibility

Ability to Respond: Healthy Assumption of Responsibility

There’s a two-word phrase we often use which sounds simple enough but which is actually quite complex: assuming responsibility (or taking or shouldering responsibility). Being responsible includes considering one’s opportunities, obligations, needs and desires; prioritizing them in order of their significance; making decisions based on those priorities; taking actions to carry-out those decisions; and facing the consequences, good or bad, which result. Responsibility also includes the willingness and discipline of learning about oneself and about life from in the process. Like good parents, leaders of all kinds attempt help people to assume responsibility. Teachers encourage their students, coaches urge their athletes, and therapists challenge their clients to live in ways that do not shirk or shift responsibility for themselves. Personal, professional, and spiritual growth hinges on our willingness to do faithfully those things that are legitimately ours to do. As you know, the meaning or the word responsibility becomes clearer if we break it apart in a way which makes its implicit verb explicit: responsibility is the “ability to respond.”  When we say, “I am responsible,” we’re actually saying: “I am able to respond.” What’s more, the Latin roots of the word respond include the ideas of answering and promising.  In a sense, “to respond” is to answer a calling meaningfully and with commitment.  Responsibility is a thoughtful, committed, and enacted “yes” to a calling. We can’t offer an answer which we’re glad to give and which we’ll be able to sustain apart from listening and seeing beneath the surface of things.  We need to take a long, lingering, and loving look at the realities sometimes hidden from us...