Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

I’m a United Methodist Pastor.  At ordination, I submitted to the authority of a bishop, to go where I am sent to serve.  In some denominations, pastors decide for themselves whether or not to accept a “call” to serve a particular church or to live in a particular locale.  Not so with United Methodist pastors.  We go where we are sent.

Once upon a time, the basic assumption was that all United Methodist pastors were more-or-less the same, as were most United Methodist churches.  UM pastors were trained in UM seminaries to perform uniform ministerial practices – always men wearing black suits, black ties, and black robes.  Every UM church sung the same hymns, followed the same liturgy, observed the same traditions, heard sermons from the same texts on the same days, etc., etc.  Every church and every pastor was assumed to be, more or less, the same.

We operated under the assumption that pastors were like cogs and that churches were machines.  Every few years, bishops could remove the cogs, re-sort them, and insert each cog into a new machine, press the “on” switch, and the machine would continue to operate, just like it did before.

We don’t live in that world any more.

Each church is wildly different.  Some are traditional.  Some are contemporary.  Some are both – though I’m finding the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” are highly debatable.  We have churches that are primarily white, primarily black, primarily hispanic, primarily Islander, etc., etc.  Some churches lean liberal, and some conservative.  We have city churches and rural churches.  Some churches are more socially conscious and some are more evangelical.  We have churches that are growing and healthy and others that are declining and dying.  We have churches within churches, especially in our larger congregations.

Likewise, pastors are wildly different.  We attend different seminaries, with different theological emphases.  Some of us are stronger leaders, stronger administrators, stronger preachers, stronger teachers, stronger evangelists – but none are strong at everything.  Some are traditional.  Some are entrepreneurial.  Some are more pastoral.  Some are more visionary.  Some are more political.  Some are more passionate about missions.  Some are more focused on the needs of the congregation.  Some are more focused on the needs of the world.

No two pastors are alike.  That’s always been true, of course.  But, I think UM pastors were once expected to perform their duties in a fairly homogenous manner, that was more similar than dissimilar.  Those days are long gone.

Pastors aren’t cogs.

So, the question is asked, “Is such-and-such pastor a ‘good fit’ for such-and-such church?”  But, the problem with that question is, that while it acknowledges that pastors and churches are different, it betrays an assumption that we are still just cogs that need to fit into the “right” church/machine.

Pastors aren’t cogs.  And, churches are not machines.

While some pastors and some churches might be more easily compatible than others, ultimately we’re talking about people and relationships.  Churches can’t expect pastors to fit like cogs into their established machinery.  Neither, can pastors expect churches to be machines that adapt to the particular shape of their particular cog.  A successful pastor/church relationship is far more organically relational than that.

While there are dating websites that profess to “match” people, based on compatibility, I suspect that many of those matches don’t actually work out, and that those that do require time to get to know each other, a lot of learning and discovery, and ultimately negotiation, patience, and understanding as each learns to appreciate the uniqueness of the other.

“Compatibility” is not a word I use to describe my relationship with my wife.  We are so different – opposites, in fact – in so many ways, that we might even be considered incompatible.  And, yet, we’re good together – really good.  We were and are attracted to each other, despite our differences.  We respect and appreciate each other.  We’ve found ways to share life that is mutually beneficial.  We love each other for who we actually are.

Here’s a metaphor:

My wife’s family always has a “relish tray” for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; offering various pickles and olives.  My family never did that.  To this day, the “relish tray” does not “fit” on “my” holiday table. It’s weird.  Similarly, my family always had chocolate desserts for the holidays.  My wife’s father is allergic to chocolate, so she never considered chocolate a holiday dessert.  They had fruit pie.  Fruit pie!?!  At Christmas!?!  That’s weird.

As you might guess, at the holidays, in our house, we now have olives, pickles, fruit pies, and chocolate.  We’ve also added a few new dishes, which I’m sure my own children will have to negotiate with their future spouses.

That’s how relationships work.  It’s not about “fit.”  It’s about learning how to make a life together that is mutually beneficial.

This Sunday, in some United Methodist churches, announcements will be made that some pastors are being moved and that some churches will be receiving new pastors.  The first thought, in many minds, will be, “Will our new pastor be a good fit?”  The answer is “no.”  They won’t be.  Don’t expect them to be.

Rather, churches should expect that the new pastor will be very different than the last, and pastors should expect that their new church will also be very different than those they’ve previously served.  What should be expected – by the pastor and the church – is everything that goes into forming any successful new relationship…

  • painfully-slow relationship building.
  • awkward, sweaty hand-holding.
  • uncomfortable conversations that lead to misunderstandings.
  • possibly a honeymoon period – that inevitably ends.
  • discovering really annoying habits in each other.
  • unsuccessful attempts to change each other.
  • working through – on both sides – unrealistic and unfair expectations, and the disappointments that come with unrealized expectations.
  • lots and lots and lots of negotiation.
  • maybe, a few arguments.
  • together, forming new ways of being together.
  • mutually learning how to honor and appreciate the other.
  • shared experiences, that create intimacy.
  • eventually, hopefully, the blossoming of mutual respect, love, affection, and harmony.
  • and – if we want to extend the metaphor even further –  possibly the “birth” of something shared, new, and beloved!

Last July, I was unexpectedly sent to a new congregation.  I was told it was going to be a better ‘fit.”  How silly.  There’s no such thing.  Now, in my ninth month of “dating” my new church, I would say that we are very much in the midst of the process I described.  AND WE SHOULD BE!  Why would we expect anything else?  Forming a relationship takes time.  And, that is what a pastor and a congregation creates together – a relationship.

Pastors are not cogs.  Churches are not machines.  One does not “fit” into the other, or vice-a-versa.  That’s not how it works.

The Sin of Being Passive

The Sin of Being Passive

I can easily be accused of being passive.  I don’t move quickly.  I take my time making decisions.  I tend to be quiet – taking in more than I express.  I don’t get very excited very often.  I prefer peace and calm.  I don’t show much variation of facial expression.  I can watch grass grow or paint dry, and be perfectly content.

But, I wouldn’t say that I am mentally passive.  In fact, my mind is so active that I have trouble shutting my thoughts down.  But, externally, I realize that’s a different story.

During Lent, I’ve been reflecting on that line from a familiar prayer of confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done…”  We not only need to confess our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission – in other words, our sins of passivity.  While I may not be guilty of this or that particular action (though I likely am), I am very likely guilty of inaction.

It recently occurred to me that Adam was standing next to Eve – passively – while the snake tempted the two of them to eat the forbidden fruit.  Then Adam blamed God for making Eve.

When the angels told Lot’s family to leave Sodom, they dragged their feet.

When Dinah was raped (Genesis 34), her father, Jacob, did nothing.

Passive.

Isaiah 1:17 says, Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

That’s action.  That’s what it means to God’s people.

But, by verse 23, Isaiah says that, our rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  Their actions were evil – bribery, corruption, theft.  But, equally evil was their inaction – including the distinctive call to God’s people to love justice and do kindness – “they do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Oppression is not only the result of sinful action.  Oppression is also the result of passive inaction – MY passive inaction.  YOUR passive inaction?

Though I read and speak and write about justice, acting on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized is another matter.  I cannot – we cannot – passively watch the injustice in our communities and broader world, and do nothing.  We are called to be people of action – to be a hand of mercy and a voice of prophecy.  We are called to act.  To do less, is nothing less than sin.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selfish – I just don’t want to do anything.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selective blindness – if I don’t see it, it must not be happening (ostrich syndrome).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is rooted in busyness – I am so busy doing church work that I don’t have time to do Kingdom work (there is a difference).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is a result of cowardice – will I be criticized for this, and am I willing to pay the price?

I confess that sometimes I am passive because I don’t know what to do – ignorance becoming a convenient crutch.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther king wrote the following words from a Birmingham jail cell, largely to white passive pastors, who were discouraging his actions, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

This week, chemical weapons were deployed in Syria, Isis killed over 50 people in Syria and Iraq, and – as is true every other week – multitudes of people are suffering and dying in countless ways, while I passively do nothing.

Forgive me, Lord, for what I have left undone, and those things which I ought to have done. 

What will we do?  What will I do?

 

Home

Home

The home, pictured above, is the setting of two of my favorite movies – “Father of the Bride” and “Father of the Bride, II.”  It is the movie-home of the fictional Banks family, where George and Nina Banks lovingly raised their three children – including late night one-on-one basketball games in the driveway and the site of an elaborate wedding for their daughter Annie.  It’s more than a house.  It’s a home – in every sense of the word.

I’ve lived in two of my parent’s houses, a fraternity house, student housing, numerous apartments, and numerous houses.  A few have been home.  There are also a few places that I’ve never technically been a resident, but have also become home to me.

Through the years, as a United Methodist pastor, I’ve moved a few times, living in numerous church-owned parsonages.  Typically, these are not communities, neighborhoods, or houses I have chosen.  As a United Methodist pastor, my family has been sent to the ministries I’ve been assigned, to live in the parsonages that have been provided.  Thankfully, I can honestly say that we have been fortunate to live in nice houses in nice communities.

Shortly after arriving in each new town, my wife will ask me, “Are we home, yet?’, meaning, “does this place feel like home, yet?”  Some places have.  Some places haven’t.

I think all of us long for home.  For some of us, it is a longing for a place that once was home, filled with nostalgia and memories for what used to be, and possibly a place we can still return to for holidays and to be with family.  For some of us, it is a home that does not yet exist – perhaps future hopes for family, creating new memories, and putting down roots.  For some, it is a dream house, in a certain location, and a certain size and architecture.  For some of us, home is less about a place and physical structure, and more about the people we share our lives with, wherever we go.

Either way, there seems to be something in all of us that longs for home – not just a house – a home.

The word “home” implies family, safety, acceptance, tradition, comfort, belonging, welcome, memories, and, most of all, love.

Some of us are fortunate to have lived in such homes.  Some are not.

Some homes are not safe or loving.  Some people are displaced from their homes.  Some people seem to live as perpetual wanderers, moving from place to place to place – perpetually unsettled.

Whatever homes we have in this life – good or bad, ideal or less than ideal – all of our earthly homes are only temporary.  Most us, grow up and leave our homes.  Our children grow up, and leave the nest.  Many of us will eventually move to a retirement or nursing home.  Many of us live in numerous dwellings and locales in this life, some of which become homes, and some just temporary residences.

The truth is, in this world, really, we’re all nomads, wandering from year to year, from place to place.  But, eventually, we’ll all be home.

Jesus said, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”  

No matter what our earthly dwellings may have been, or will be, our ultimate dream home is already prepared for us.  Some of us will see it sooner than others.  We will be safe there.  We will be welcome there.  We will be loved there.

Forever.

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  (Psalm 23:6)

What Have We Lost?

What Have We Lost?

Disclaimer:  I don’t I have a nostalgic bone in my body.  I don’t look back to my childhood, or any other era, as idyllic.  Every day, month, year, or decade of human existence had its problems and challenges.  Humans have never been perfect.  

Now.  Onto today’s topic.  Sabbath.

I try to keep Mondays as my Sabbath day.  No, the Bible does not say that Monday is a Sabbath.  Technically, the Bible doesn’t say that Sunday is a Sabbath day either.  Saturday – the seventh day – is the commanded day to Sabbath.  But, early in Christianity, the Sabbath was moved to Sunday, to commemorate Jesus’ day of resurrection.

On my Sabbath Mondays, I tend to rest.  I’m exhausted after Sunday, which is why it really can’t be a Sabbath day for me.  As a Pastor, Sunday is a work day.

On my Sabbath Mondays, I spend more time reading, writing, and praying.  I intentionally move slower.  Depending on the weather, I might work on my bonsai trees or go for a motorcycle ride.  Some days I just read.  Occasionally, I work on some tasks around the house.  All in all, I tend to be un-productive, which is the idea of the Sabbath.  Sometimes I have some work-related obligation on a Monday, like an evening meeting.  But, I try to avoid those as much as possible.

It  has taken me a while to realize that I need to Sabbath.  For years, I lived at an unsustainable pace, and burned out over and over.  My pattern was go-go-go-crash, go-go-go-crash.  I practiced sick-Sabbaths, only taking time to rest and recover when I got too sick to do anything else.  That really was sick.

I just can’t do that any more, and shouldn’t have done it to begin with.  I still go-go-go – for six days.  But, now, I fight to keep my Sabbath day.  I just have to.

Now, as I take Sabbath more seriously, I’ve become more observant of how little Sabbath I see in other’s lives.

I live near a conservative, traditional Jewish synagogue. On Friday nights and Saturdays (the Jewish and Biblical Sabbath), I observe Jewish families walking to the synagogue, dressed in traditional Jewish attire.  They are walking, because they believe that driving is a violation of the Sabbath, which also implies that they have chosen to live within walking distance of their synagogue.  Though I have never spoken with any of them, my observation is that Sabbath keeping is a priority in their lives.  They are honoring and keeping a sacred duty.

I respect that.  I envy that.

Though my family never consistently attended church, when I was a child,  I can still remember the influence of the Church on Sundays.  Sunday morning worship was followed by chatting with fellow congregants in the church parking lot, followed by lunch with church friends, followed by family time, and perhaps concluded with some evening church activity.  Sunday was for church, friends, family, and rest.

I still remember Publix being closed on Sundays.  I remember the glass doors at gas stations being locked on Sundays, prohibiting the sale of beer.  I’ve been told that movie theaters and bowling alleys were also closed during my childhood – but, I wouldn’t know.  We never would have gone anyway.  Instead, most Sundays we visited my grandparents, which included long afternoon motorcycle rides on country roads, followed by big dinners.

Things have changed.  The Sabbath is no longer sacred in our society – nor in our churches.  I observe so many young families (the vast majority, really) that come to church when they can.  They are torn between attending church and various sporting activities.  I watch families scurry out of church, when they can make it, on to the next activity, which I am sure will be followed by several more.  More and more people have to work on Sundays.

I’m not saying that sports or other Sunday activities are bad, necessarily.  I just wonder what we have lost – and are losing – and are stealing from our children – by habitually violating the Sabbath.  What are we teaching them about priorities, rest, and the value of worship and time with family?

Sabbath is a commandment, by the way – not optional.

I’m thankful to have finally discovered the wisdom of Sabbath-keeping – even if I have to do it on Monday.  Now, it’s time to finish my coffee, eat my breakfast, and see where my motorcycle takes me today.

Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons…

Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons…

I’ve been thinking a lot about motives lately – my motives, specifically.

Sometimes, I do things because I’m paid to do them.  It’s my job.

Sometimes, I do things because I have to – like paying taxes

Sometimes (too often), I do things out of selfish desires.

Sometimes, I act on impulse.

Sometimes, I do things to earn the approval of others – or to avoid their criticism or disapproval.  If I am going to be honest, I do this a lot.  A lot.

We all do, I suspect, to one degree or another.  We want people to like us.  We crave validation.  It doesn’t feel good to know someone is disappointed in you.

But, I fear, especially for pastors, this can be a slippery and dangerous slope.  It is for me.  Rather than doing what is right and good for the intrinsically right and good reasons, it is easy to slip into doing whatever it takes to make and keep people happy, and to avoid upsetting anyone.  As a pastor, it is easy to slip into being a people-pleaser.

It’s easy to do the right things for the wrong motives.  Not evil motives.  Just not the right motives.

I’ve told many prospective pastors that the hardest thing about ministry, for me, is always knowing that someone is unhappy with me.  That is just reality.  No matter how hard a pastor tries, someone will always feel let down.  Pastors are only human.  We can’t be in two places at once.  We can’t give everyone equal attention.  We can’t make everyone happy.  We aren’t omniscient.  We can’t fix everything.  We only have so much to give before running out of steam.  We make mistakes.  I make a lot of mistakes.

After all, many of us even struggle, from time to time, with feeling let down by God.   If God can’t escape our disappointment, how can any of us expect to be spared from it?

A counselor once told me, “Vance.  You have to confess and repent your idolatrous desire for human approval.”  He was right.  I am painfully aware that too much of what I do is divided between earning human approval and avoiding their criticism.  I know that I have God’s love and approval, unconditionally.  But, that’s never enough.  Why, is this particular idol so hard to cast down?

So, let’s get back to motives.  I think Jesus would say that everything we do should be motivated by love.  He certainly didn’t make everyone happy.  He only seemed to care about his Father’s approval, who said, “This is my son, whom I love.”  But, he loved.  He loved God and he loved people.  He loved the broken, the outcast, the sick, the sinner, the demon-possessed, the confused, the doubtful, the rich and the poor.  His greatest act of love, of course, was the cross.

Here’s a fact – if I love you, I will gladly do anything I can for you.  If I don’t love you, I may still do it, but for entirely different motives.  I would much rather be motivated by love.

Love is the only motivation that matters.  Maybe someday my motives will be purer than they are today.

What motivates you?