Turning Money into Mission

 

Just an FYI - I'd like to remind all that the New England Synod has funds available for projects related to Sabbaticals, Congregational Renewal, Youth and Young Adult and Racism & Multicultural ministry. Every year we have funds that are not awarded because people don't apply. I'm not interested in being a Hedge Fund. Let's turn this money into mission. (OK that's corny, but you get the idea) Start meeting with your leaders and discuss. Plan now to submit in the fall. http://nelutherans.org/resources/documents Then click on Grants

What does a Bishop Do?

A short snapshot of three days

I walk, I talk, I listen.  I wish I drove less.

In the last few days, in a non-chronological order, this has been my work.  I talked with several different pastors from around our synod.  They had various challenges they were facing.  One has a staff member who is not playing well with others and this pastor sought advice and counsel on how best to address the matter.  We came up with some ideas.  Another was facing the challenge of boundaries, not sexual boundaries, but professional.  At what point is it appropriate to engage a colleague regarding their behavior?  How do we maintain the interests of the church, even when it calls on us to put our friendship with someone at risk?  Tough questions.  I later heard back from the pastor, and so far so good - but it was not an easy conversation.

I met with a congregation that is in the middle of a call process, but their finances have restricted them to searching for other models of ministry.  We discussed part-time pastors, part-time ministers from another tradition, lay leadership, partnering with other congregations.  The conversation was honest and open.  It reflected the changing times we are in, and the need to think differently about parish ministry.

I walked with someone who had some very creative ideas about how to address the clergy shortage, train a new generation of ministers and offer them an experience in community.  The ideas were alive, and fraught with all kinds of landmines, but suggested a new vision that is emerging.

I sat with our deans, leaders of conferences, as we learned the value of how to apply organizing principles to congregational renewal.  It was challenging, thoughtful and inspiring.  Our speaker framed every single step in a context of Biblical reflections.  I saw hope coming to life.

In the office, I sat with our Synod Assembly planning team coordinator.  We reviewed details and plans, made lists of tasks to be accomplished along with deadlines.  After three hours, I returned to my office exhausted and exhilarated.  I then sat and signed 60 some certificates for graduates from our coming School of Lay Ministry, and another 40 plus certificates for deacons and pastors celebrating anniversaries at our coming Assembly.  

My hand in a spasm from all the signings, I headed to the car.  On the way home, I listened to a pastor as we talked on the phone.  She shared her sorrows and disappointments in her work.  Her multi-year efforts to teach, preach and visit.  Yet, so many in her congregation don't seem to care or value the teachings of Jesus.

Another conversation centered around concerns for people in the LGBTQ+ community.  How can we as a church, a synod, and I as bishop, best understand, support, challenge, encourage, celebrate.

Three days.  A glimpse into the work I do.  In the words of a colleague of mine, "This work is relentless."

True, but it is also good work.

Keeping the Porch Light On

Our next door neighbor often leaves the porch light on through the night.  Despite the woods that separate our homes it shines in my bedroom window, so I pull the shades.  It has been two years now since her father died.  He had lived in that house for decades, and now it's hers.  I noticed new siding went up last fall, and the UPS delivery truck making more frequent stops.  All the benefits of a new owner or an inheritance, or both.  Yet, the porch light stays lit, as if expecting a visitor late in the evening...or hoping for one.

The Podcast is Hummin' Along

If you haven't jumped over to the Podcast page, I suggest you do that soon.  We've had some great conversations of late.  Jeff Thiemann of Portico, Carrie Smith of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem are two recent guests.  They will also be speakers at our June 2018 Synod Assembly.  So, have a listen and get a preview.

Reading the Bible

The following diagram has been making its way around the internet lately, and I've got a problem with it.  But not for the reasons you think.

 

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First, let's look at what the diagram gets right.  It's actually not a bad depiction of how we understand all the source material that went into what we read in the four gospels.  Most biblical scholars believe that Mark was composed around the year 70, Luke and Matthew around the year 85, and John later, maybe 90 or later.  So these are all gospels that were recorded at least 40 to 60 years after Jesus knocked on doors handing out leaflets in Jerusalem around the year 30 C.E.  (CE = Common Era, used to be AD, but that's another story) The purple represents material that is common to three Gospels, the Blue is just common to Luke Matthew, etc.  You get the idea.  John is off writing his own thing, probably at a Starbuck surrounded by a bunch of Greek philosophy students.  The chart communicates, with limitations, the essence of the idea that a) there are different sources for the three synoptic gospels and b) the gospels share a lot, but not everything.

But, here is my problem with this chart.  We are losing something in this deconstruction approach to biblical reading.  We are losing a sense of story.  Yes, it's true that the stories of Jesus were collected, handed down, oral tradition, told and retold, probably edited for the community that originated the narrative.  But, that doesn't mean they aren't true.  And I don't mean true as in literal newspaper reporting true.  I mean deep true.  Are the parables of the prodigal son and the good samaritan less vital and vibrant because they only appear in Luke and nowhere else.  Does that mean we should discount them as, maybe Jesus didn't actually tell them, or why did only Luke record them?  How's that for a run on sentence?

Even if you are a person outside of the Christian faith tradition, or just a healthy skeptic, you still have to appreciate the power of these stories, and the power of the Jesus story.  I mean come on people.  A man of humble beginnings encounters a radical prophet (John the Baptist) and his alternative community, participates in an initiation rite and heads into the desert for some kind of temptation experience.  After being tested in a wild mystical encounter with spirits and angels and demons returns to his homeland and begins teaching a new way of life and living.  As he begins healing people and teaching he dislodges the current religious and economic systems and brings his teaching right to the face of the empire that has dominated his people for decades.  They respond with brute force, persecution and death.  But, he and his message are so significant that the community and the power that initiated the whole movement lives on.  

That's a story that needs to be told again and again and again.  It's also a story that needs to be lived over and over.  You can't diagram that.  

Two quotes

I heard these two quotes today.  Different but both significant.

"Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes God calms the sailor."  - Anonymous

"Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”  - Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Talking with Reggie McNeal

No, not the former NFL player.  This Reggie McNeal is the author of the Get off Your Donkey, and most recently Kingdom Collaborators.  I had the opportunity to speak with Reggie via a Skype call, and recorded it for the podcast.  You can listen to it here.

Reggie has a perspective on US American congregational life that spans the range of mainline as well as evangelical christianity.  He used to work with leadership Network, as well as serving as a denominational executive in the Southern Baptist church.  But, now he is working on a new project helping cities discover ways they can improve the quality of their communities.  Check out what he has to say about being a 21st Century church.

 

Stir it Up - Going Forward as a Synod of Experimentation

Readers of this blog, and people active in the New England Synod, may already be aware of my emphasis on experimentation.  Last fall, I began writing a paper that reflected on 'where we are and where are we going.'  It's now had multiple versions, and the latest one is now published at this link.  Click here.

The paper is my attempt to speak into the challenging circumstances that confront mainline, particularly Lutherans, congregations in New England.  It's an evolving document, and the latest version includes some significant additions.  In this version 12, I wanted to respond to frequent requests for examples.  Essentially, I was hearing, 'look, we go it, we know the problem, show us some solutions.'  OK.  There are some, and we can add more.  Hopefully, the examples will generate some energy and inspiration.  But, remember, "inspiration is good, but inspiration plus action is better."

This is the version that will be available for conversation at our New England Synod Assembly.

 

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The Wave of Retiring Clergy is upon us

The chart below depicts the wave that we have seen coming for a while.  It's now here.  If you work in almost any field, you know this graph.  As the Baby Boom generation (born 1946-1961) moves into their retirement years, we in the church are asking, what next?  In New England, we've got three projects going:

1.  A New England Synod Fund for Leaders designed to raise money to send the next generation of people through seminary.  Like to make a donation?

2. We've started a Licensed Lay Ministry program for our smaller rural and urban congregations.

3.  Fortunately, many of those retiring pastors still want to serve, but usually part time.  This is a good thing.

 

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What's an Evangelical?

This word might be among the most confusing for people.  In recent years, the phrase evangelical christian, has come to be associated with a more conservative branch of christianity.  But, it's a range.  On one hand you have someone like Tony Campolo and Shaine Claibourne who speak openly of their Christian faith and espouse care for the poor, economic justice and racial reconciliation.  But, also in the evangelical christian camp is Jerry Falwell, Jr who espouses gun ownership and anti-abortion anti-choice positions.

Then you have the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is really a mainline denomination, rooted in a European understanding of the word evangelical.  In Germany the name of the Lutheran church is the evangelical church or Evangelical Kirche.  The idea is that it is the church of the Good News.  Around the world, many Lutheran denominations or churches are called the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, as one example.

All this can be very confusing for the average US American driving down the road when they see a sign for Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church.  What does that mean?  It depends on what that driver has recently heard, experienced or seen on TV.  Most of our (ELCA) congregations in New England do not resemble anything like the evangelical congregations that are often baptist, covenant or independent.  Should we shed the E word?  If it's a barrier to connecting with people, then yes.  It may be time to be Our Savior Lutheran Church, and let the evangelical, meaning good news, be something you live out in the actions of your congregation.

Is it Economics, Financial Freedom, or Christian Stewardship?

The answer is Yes!

Heck, it's life stewardship.  The only thing that makes it Christian is my lame attempt to follow Jesus, dance with the Trinity and enjoy God's ever Evolving Creation.

Today, the CBO, (Congressional Budget Office  -these are the men and women who actually count real numbers in our economy, unlike what each political party wants the numbers to be)  Anyway, they released news today, that the federal debt is expected to soar to more than $33 trillion in 2028.  Yes, indeed, that is a big number.  There was a day when Republicans, Independents and Democrats would have screamed at such a number.  Now, I guess it's only a few people, like me that look at that and shudder.  Or is it shutter?

What's a fiscal conservative socially liberal bishop to do?

To start with, I'm doing everything I can to pay off all my own debts, including the mortgage.  Then I'm going to save every stinking' penny I can.  Why?  Cause, it don't look pretty in 10 years.  You might want to consider the same thing, cause there ain't free lunch, and you can't spend your way out of this mess.

 

The Post Easter Reading Work Week

I'm laying low for the week after Easter.  Why?  Cause I pretty much worked everyday during the month of March.  In addition, I drive 4372 miles.  1500 of those was a 2 & 1/2 day straight shot from Minneapolis to Rhode Island cause I was transporting my father in laws car.  He doesn't need it anymore, since moving to assisted living at the spry age of 94.  I realized that 4372 miles translates into three 24 hour days behind the wheel.  OK. I'm done. 

So this week, I'm home.  A couple of projects like priming and painting our basement, which has been left undone for, too long.  A major cleaning of my home office.  Oh, and then there is Taxes.

It's also a reading week.  Here's what I'm diving into:

Heart & Mind by Alexander John Shaia.  It's a look at the Four Gospel's through the perspective of  inner transformation, using the tools of ancient wisdom, modern therapy and a flair for re-sacralizing the texts.  Loving it.

Sapiens : a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - Haven't started this one yet, but it looks to be an evolutionary view of how we made it to this point in history.  We being peoples.

Poor Richard's Retirement  by Aaron Clancy.  Basically, it's a mother twist on the Minimalism path that I've written about previously in this blog.  This is one of those in-your-face testosterone heavy smacked down books.  On the one hand, I really can't recommend it.  On the other hand, it made me realize that what makes life worth living is people and purpose.  The end conclusion is that retirement is not something one should do.

The Essential Rumi - Coleman Barks, translator - When I went to hear Rob Bell last week, he mentioned in a throwaway line, his love of Rumi.  I pulled my copy off the shelf and dusted it off. Wow.  This is poetry that sings the Body Electric, and will remind you that God's Creation is something we are all invited to dance and sing with the Divine.

Even the Stiffest People Can do the Splits - Eiko.  Yup, won't this be fun.  How'd you like to see a 6'7" Bishop do the splits on stage at Assembly.  OK, maybe not, but this combined with Yoga for Cyclists is destined to get me limbered up.  I just need to do the exercises, not just read about them. 

Managed vs Solved

There are things that can be solved, and there are matters that need to be managed.  You can rarely do both, and the real challenge is to figure out which is which.

For instance, our recent Synod Council meeting discussed updates to the Compensation Guidelines for Pastors and Deacons in our synod.  We spent more time than originally planned, and even had to add additional time to our Saturday morning agenda to address the topic.  The challenges are many, and the discussion centered around how to do this work well.  The overall sense in the room was one of people wanting to do the right thing, while mindful of the many challenges.

During a break as a few of us talked over coffee, I realized that this was not a problem that could be easily solved.  However, it was and is a topic that can be managed.  The Synod Council can't solve the problem of clergy student loan indebtedness, nor can it solve the income/offering struggles of our congregations.  What it could do was hold the tension and try to best manage the conversation, and approve a document that creates room for guidance and healthy conversation about compensation.

Another example, for me was my time serving a congregation in Brooklyn, NY.  The altar guild was consistently frustrated by a lack of participation by other members of the congregation.  I tried to solve the problem by recruiting new people, but when those new people offered to help, they were rebuked.  The altar guild kept saying the new people would work because.... the reasons varied from legitimate to the absurd.  I finally realized that the altar guild was not a problem I could solve, rather it was a situation that I had to manage.  So I shifted to a positing of offering options for the altar guild, such as inviting them to make announcements, come to new member classes to speak to new people or write newsletter articles.  They declined all of those opportunities, and continued to express frustration.  The difference was my ability to step back from the chaos and confusion.

Some things can be managed, some things can be solved.  This is true of most of life.  the challenge is getting them in the right alignment.

New Podcast Episodes Coming

If you go over to the Podcast page, you'll see that I have been engaged in numerous conversations.  I've got several episodes coming out this month, including a conversation with Diana Butler Bass, Pastor Carrie Smith and some folks who started a Coffee Shop as a ministry in Manchester, CT.  A new episode releases every week, and if you haven't you can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or Spotify.

Lent - The Times Test Us

I've never been one to believe that God tests people.  You know the idea that there is a divine being up in the sky looking down, making decisions about who should struggle and who should be spared.  That has never worked for me.  However, it's clear to me that the times we are living in

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test us.  The experience of life, the pains we inflict on others, and are inflicted on us.  Those are in deed testing, and at times make us testy.  Amen?

What to do?

Many of us have been taught by our families that and culture that we must pass some kind of test in order to become worthy to receive the gift of grace, namely that love is something to be earned.  But, I believe that God reverses this pattern.  The gift of love and acceptance requires nothing more than opening our hearts to an ever present invitation.   God call us through a bleak landscape, testing times, so that we may get to a place where love will mature in and around us.  Perhaps each crisis that we face is a fresh invitation.  An invitation to enter more deeply into a relationship with God, as the life journey that yields further resolve.

I have a friend I call when the tests become so  dominant that I become quite testy.  He recently said to me, "Jim, every time I face a challenging situation, I try to ask myself a question.  How is it that God wants me to grow from this experience?"  I sit back and ponder that, and it gives me some fresh resolve, insight and hopefully, maturity.