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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday Festival: Re-Entry

Today's post is by RevJMK at For the Someday Book, who has just returned from sabbatical to find...that pastoral life and ministry tasks were there ready and waiting.  Her reminder of getting back to the disciplines developed during the sabbatical time can apply to all of us, especially those who, having begun a Lenten discipline, may find that the execution is more difficult than the intending.  Thanks for this reminder.  

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.
 A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---return to the presence of God in everyday life, just as in pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)
Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.
Have you thoughts on re-entry after a time away?  On re-engaging spiritual practices that once were fruitful and now seem...not so much?  Share in the comments or on the original blog post.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lectionary Leanings~~Lent 2...are we there yet?

God of wilderness and water,
your Son was baptized
and tempted as we are.

Guide us through this season,
that we may not avoid struggle,
but open ourselves to blessing,
through the cleansing depths of repentance
and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

Lent is barely a week old, and already there are comments on FB and elsewhere about feeling burdened by the season's demands; perhaps you are feeling like you are locked in a car with young children for a long trip while they ask over and over again, "Are we there yet?" Or maybe you're taking to the journey with gusto.

As we prepare for the second Sunday in Lent, are you feeling inspired or overwhelmed? Embracing the journey or straying off the path? And how do this week's readings speak to you?

Our Old Testament reading continues with the theme of God's covenant with the people, this time the covenant made with Abram (soon to be Abraham) that he will become the ancestor of nations despite his advanced age. This passage is alluded to in our second reading, Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth, in which Paul encourages Jesus' followers to hold onto their faith -- as Abraham had -- and not be distracted by earthly things meant only to serve as pointers along the way (sort of like adhering so fiercely to our Lenten fast as an end in itself that we forget why we fast.)

The gospel finds Jesus rebuking Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" when Peter cannot reconcile his nascent understanding of who Jesus is with Jesus' warnings about his suffering to come. How often do we let our own perceptions of how things "ought" to be stand in the way of true understanding?

Where are you headed on your Lenten journey this week, preachers? Share your ideas, inspirations, questions and frustrations -- comments are open!

Monday, February 27, 2012

RevGalBookPals: Almost Christian

When Almost Christian was published at the end of 2010, it quickly became one of the most talked about books in the mainline Christian internet world. It was hailed as “the most important book we’ll read this year” and other such superlatives. And it’s true—it is an important book, not primarily for or about youth and those who minister to and with them, but for the whole church. The problems Kenda Creasy Dean lifts up are not primarily problems with youth ministry, but are due to the message the church has been giving out for decades—a message that looks, on the surface, like the gospel but is in fact something much less.

The first section, titled “Worshipping at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism” sums it up nicely, beginning with a quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson (interesting choice for a book about Christian faith, but a pertinent quote nonetheless!):

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character . Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Dean then goes on to say that what we worship is often not the God we meet in Christ or in Scripture, but in fact a mild mannered idea of niceness, which the authors of the National Study of Youth and Religion have dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has a few basic tenets. Among them:

1. there’s a god, probably, and he made the world but doesn’t do much with it now. EXCEPT: if you have a problem, he’ll always be there to help you. (yes, the “he” is intentional–this MTD god is always male.)

2. this god wants you to be happy. and nice to people. nice/good people get to be happy and go to heaven. not nice/not good people do not get to be happy and do not get to go to heaven.
That’s pretty much it. You can see why the depictions of the moralistic therapeutic deist god are such metaphors as “cosmic butler” and “divine therapist.”

The difficulty, of course, is that this is not Christian at all. It has almost nothing in common with Scripture, nothing to do with our historic understanding of theology or faith or discipleship, asks nothing of us, and is so vague and floppy as to be basically worthless.

And so Kenda Creasy Dean asks whether it’s any wonder young people leave the church. Why be a Christian? Why be anything? You can believe both of those things and be a pretty good person without bothering with any of that religion stuff.
The problem here is not that we do not pass our faith on to our young people. The problem is that they are learning all too well what we are teaching them, and it is not biblical, missional Christianity that makes disciples and asks us to learn to be holy as God is holy. Instead it’s a pragmatic, get-along-with-the-culture, be-successful-in-life-and-work, be-nice faith.

Through the rest of the book Dean gives examples of teaching and events that are really about indoctrinating young people into the “cult of nice,” shows us how MTD has colonized our churches often without our noticing, and then she goes on to think about some things we could do differently in order to combat Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (There’s something about calling it MTD that makes it sound like a disease…which I suppose it is, of a sort, but still.)

Most of her thoughts in this latter area are things that seem obvious when we say them:
*Learn our actual faith tradition—what does the Bible actually say? What do our creeds and confessions or our classic and modern theology actually teach? What is the content of our Christian faith, both historically and today?

*Teach this content to our children. Dean calls us out on the idea that we can simply “expose” young people to faith—we teach them math and soccer and piano, why not faith?

*Make certain that young people are not segregated from the rest of the congregation. Ensure they have meaningful involvement—not just one Sunday a year, but regular consequential involvement in mission, worship, fellowship, and education. Things where if they don’t do them, they’ll be missed. Youth can serve as liturgists, ushers, greeters, and in missions of various kinds. Be sure their voices are heard in worship and meetings. Allow older youth to teach sometimes. You get the idea.

*Equip parents. Parents are the most important factor in a young person’s faith development—and parents are, like every other member of most of our churches, underequipped for the task. Dean points out that “Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.” (p112)

*Ensure that every young person has multiple “vertical” relationships with other adults in the church besides their parents as well. “Jesus does not ask parents or congregations to be theological experts. He asks us to follow him, to remember him, to love him—and to let it show. The question lurking beneath the data surfaced by the study is “Do we adults love Jesus enough to want to translate the Christian conversation for our children?”” (p122)

*Talk about faith—personal faith and the theological tradition. Do you love God? Why? How does that affect your life? Why should someone else want to know God? Dean says “Since youth do not hear a language of faith, they do not speak one.” (ouch—but true) (p138) What we say and hear shapes what we believe, so talk freely about faith!

*Call out Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when you hear it. It is a cheap substitute for the gospel, and young people know it’s not worth their time or energy—which is why they don’t give it. Be a part of equipping the church of all ages with real theology and real scripture and real desire to follow Jesus into the world. That’s what transforms lives, not MTD. As Dean says, “Youth [or anyone] are unlikely to take hold of a ‘god’ who is too limp to take hold of them” (p36) and “as long as God demands little, we are free to invest little and everyone is happy.” (p77)

“At the end of this project, I find that I have arrived at only two conclusions with any confidence. Here is the first: When it comes to vapid Christianity, teenagers are not the problem—the church is the problem. And the second: the church also has the solution.”

For more in-depth discussion of this book, you can visit our church blog’s online book group exploration from last fall.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Prayer for First Sunday of Lent year B

We offer our thoughts and prayers to you.
We put our trust in you to hear and respond to our needs.
We pray for your tender mercies for those of us who are suffering.
We pray for strength for those of us who are experiencing weakness.
We pray for comfort for those of us who are grieving.
We pray that though we too go through our own wildernesses that you would be with us.
We pray that though the wild beast may encompass us you would protect us.
We pray that though we are tempted that your angels watch over us too.
Mark us with the sign of your love as you marked you own son.
Lord, we believe that your Kingdom is at hand;
And so we repent and believe with all our hearts your good news.
Lord remove from our lives those barriers that keep us from being in relationship with you, ourselves and others that we may truly live into the joy of your Kingdom.

cross posted at a place for prayer and rev abi's long and winding road

Saturday, February 25, 2012

11th Hour Preacher Party: Heavenly Signs

Welcome to Lent 1 and its preaching possibilities!  

We look up at rainbows and doves. 

We hear voices from the clouds.  

The faithful are baptized, build altars, and "are eager to do what is good." [1 Peter 3:13]

For those who come seeking heavenly signs of God's ways, and yet are faced with a blank screen, a Sunday morning deadline, and a sense of urgency, we pray to the Lord.

Welcome, preachers and those who walk with us from Saturday into Sunday!

This is your place to gather, to create, to snack, to laugh, to pray, and to make a new friend or two.  

The coffee is always fresh and hot!  The snack table is open for your goodies.

I found this nugget of preaching inspiration to share:

We are especially prone, in the church, to concentrate on what we are doing or not doing in our relationship with God or, for that matter, what we are doing (or not doing) in the world. One of the tasks of the pastor and preacher is to call us back, to remind us that it's not all about us, but about God. It's about what God is doing and has done not only here and now, but in times long ago and in a future we cannot even dimly see. 
[Kathryn Matthews Huey in Sermon Seeds]

What is God doing in your world today, dear preacher?   

Friday, February 24, 2012

Emptiness Friday Five.....

I have been pondering this Friday Five over and over in my mind, but I am coming up with nothing, so I am wondering; what do you do when you feel empty of all creativity and unable to make/do anything? This is a completely open question, the only rule is name 5 things that fill/ inspire you:

As always, let us know in comments if you play. Even better, get in the habit of posting a direct link to your blog entry in your comment, using the following formulation:
<a href="the url of your blog post goes here">what you want the link to say goes here</a>
For a complete how-to, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Leadership in a New Place

Last week we looked at proper leave-taking, this week we look in the other direction, at how to begin well, specifically when it comes to leading meetings. How do we lead in light of the expectations and structures that are already there? How do we decide when it's time to challenge those expectations or change those structures? Our question this week is a specific one, but it has to do with these broad issues to which all of us can relate. (We were not able to address this question in time for the meeting to which the question refers, but we hope our responses might be helpful for future meetings.)

I am chairing my first vestry meeting this Sunday. The parish traditionally holds it straight after the Sunday Eucharist. I want to use the Eucharist service as a time of prayer for the coming meeting and would welcome some ideas of prayers, intercessions, or any other good advice!
Because I am new to the parish, I tend to do things differently (more through ignorance than anything else!) so people get a bit unsettled though there is no overt criticism.
This may be my first chairing of such a meeting but I have been to many in my life and some have been absolutely horrendous.

Muthah+ responds:
You are the new kid on the block, so pay attention to WHY they are having their vestry on Sunday immediately after the Eucharist. I never have had vestry or council meetings regularly on Sundays because I precisely wanted the parishioners to detach worship from the business meetings. An irregular or emergency meeting is one thing but regular meetings is something else.

The parish I attend now has their meetings on Sunday afternoon which allows people to go home and have lunch, change their clothes, read the funny papers - including the rector. So there is a gap between worship and business.

Did you sit down with your vestry when you first came and ask how they did things? Always a good move. And if this is your first vestry meeting with them, this is the time to do so. If it is "we have always done it that way" then perhaps you need to ask them if it is convenient for them or if it interferes with the way that they worship. Be willing to share what you would like changed. If you are a brand new priest and doing things you are unfamiliar with, discuss with them how it would be if you tried some things. A parish is much more willing to try new things if they know that they are helping their new priest get settled. Everything should be negotiated.

I understand that this is now advice-after-the-fact. No matter. Unless the parish is badly conflicted or there has been a difficult interim, the parish is going to allow you to make mistakes as long as you are willing to learn for the first 3 years. After that then you will have to negotiate changes. All changes need to come with discussion with the body you are dealing with. And for Gawd's sake, don't move the Altar until it is a request of the Vestry! 8>) (personal experience)

What I have done when I have entered a parish is sit down with the Altar Guild and the Acolyte Master and then the wardens first of all and ask how they do things. If you can live with that or have other ways of doing things, discuss it then. As long as they know that you are willing to work with them and respect their customary, then you are able to make some changes that work better for you. Any time you find yourself imposing your will, you need to check your motives - you may be right, but this isn't about what is right or wrong. It is about getting to know may be right, but this isn't about what is right or wrong. It is about getting to know folks who offer you lots of care and work in return for their devotion.

Blessings on you in your new parish. I pray that your ministry will be ultimately as joyful as mine has been.

Ruth offers:
Reading this I would offer a few bits of practical advice:

Leading meetings straight after a service is tiring – try to look after yourself. Is it possible to get someone else to share in leading worship so you’re not too wiped out at the start of the meeting?

I like your idea of linking worship & the meeting – I tend to use lots of prayers for the Spirit to guide us!

I sometimes ‘do things differently’ through ignorance rather than my ‘own deliberate fault’ - and find that if you tell people ‘please talk to me if I do it in an unexpected way, I may make mistakes’ - people will often give you the benefit of the doubt, or at least talk to you so you can explain your thinking behind how you do things, if it is a deliberate departure from tradition.

The best advice I have ever been given about horrendous meetings is that if you think someone is going to be difficult, talk to them before hand – then at least you know their arguments in advance & you aren’t caught on the hop – hoping it won’t happen isn’t a strategy!

Perhaps very general advice but helpful, I hope.

Thank you so much, dear matriarchs, for this very thoughtful advice. What about the rest of you? Do you have some thoughts to share? Feel free either to respond to the specifics of the original question or to  offer your thinking on the broader issues of negotiating expectations and initiating change in a new setting. Join us in the comments section!

And as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot[com].

-- earthchick

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday Festival: Ash Wednesday and Lent

I am wondering how you are observing Ash Wednesday and preparing to observe Lent...or whether you are?

On this blog, we shared information about printed devotionals by RevGals and Pals: on January 30 (Ruth Everhart and Mary Ann McKibben Dana) .  Note also that Lauren Winner's new book Still:  A Mid-Faith Crisis has an online study guide for Lent, available at this link.

And, here's a late-breaking release:  Ring member Derek Maul has published Reaching Toward Easter:  Devotions for LentIt's available through Upper Room Ministries and more information can be found at his blog, here.  

There are a wealth of online resources, also.

Ring member, Presbyterian pastor, spiritual director and devotee of the Ignatian Exercises, Robin, shares a post here an Ignatian Prayer Adventure, created by several bloggers at Loyola Press:  
If you are looking for a Lenten prayer practice, several Loyola Press bloggers have put together An Ignatian Prayer Adventure, an experience that looks as if it will be terrific.   It will appear in a variety of formats across a number of sites, starting on Sunday (day after tomorrow).

A post outlining the structure can be found here.  (And there's a link in my sidebar.) I wish there were one blog on which all the relevant daily posts were being gathered but, alas, such is not the case.  For someone as disorganized as I, it will be a challenge to locate what's happening from day to day, but I plan to keep up as best I can.  (You can subscribe to all the blogs involved, if that would be helpful to you.)

This online series will follow the structure of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, so if you've made the Exercises, the framework will be familiar to you and, if you haven't, it will offer you a taste of what may become a way of life.
Here are some other online ideas for Lent via one of the participants in the Ignatian Prayer Adventure. 

Jan at Yearning for God compiles a list in this post

There is a Facebook Group called "40 Days of Lent Challenge" that promises to post a "calendar of questions to consider or daily tasks to help us all grow in the grace of Jesus Christ and joyfully serve others for the sake of the world."  This is a ministry of Faith Lutheran Church in Dickinson, TX.
And you:  How have you/will you observe Ash Wednesday?  What are your plans for Lent?  Share in the comments, or feel free to link to your own blog post.  Instructions to do that can be found here.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tuesday Lectionary Leanings~~Water, water, everywhere

God of wilderness and water,
your Son was baptized
and tempted as we are.

Guide us through this season,
that we may not avoid struggle,
but open ourselves to blessing,
through the cleansing
depths of repentance
and the heaven-rending
words of the Spirit.

This week we begin our journey through Lent, traveling to Jerusalem and the cross with Jesus. Our readings (found here ) are full of water. The Old Testament reading finds us with Noah as God places the bow in the sky as a reminder of the sacred covenant between God and the people. Noah's story is familiar to all of us; does that familiarity aid us in preaching the text or make it more difficult?

The gospel returns us to Mark's recounting of Jesus' baptism, followed by his being cast into the wilderness. Some of us preached on this text just a few weeks ago, albeit without the wilderness ending. Does that extra bit provide what we need to use it as we move into Lent? Or perhaps the letter of Peter with its reference to both Noah and the baptism will serve as your inspiration.

As we move into this new season, some of you might be choosing to go off lectionary. Do you have a special theme that you'll be using through the season?

If you are like me, you have another sermon to prepare for today before you can think too much about Sunday's. The readings for Ash Wednesday can be found here. For me, the challenge is to bring something fresh to those readings each year. Please share your thoughts on this, too, if you're working on it.

As always, we're here to share your struggles, your flashes of insight, and your questions and ponderings. Join us!

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Still" is en route!

Still is on its way to more than 200 members and friends of RevGalBlogPals! Our thanks go out to author Lauren Winner for her generosity, not only for giving the books away but for shipping them, including to RevGals and Pals overseas. If you missed the giveaway and would like to buy a copy, please think about doing it through our Amazon Store.

Lauren wanted to let her readers know about a study guide designed for using Still during Lent. You may find it by clicking here

We'll have a book discussion and review round-up in this space later. Watch for an announcement of the date. And if you would like, please use the comments here to check in when your book arrives and to add your thanks to Lauren. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday B

Lord, you are the mighty one,
You created light; you send your light around the world.
You sent your son into the world of darkness as the one true light, the light that brings hope to all.
And yet we want to capture it like a firefly and keep it to ourselves so that only we have the good feelings and experience.
 At the same time there are those who would reject your light, try to find any way imaginable to cover the light.
But God you told us to be the light of the world and to let our light shine. And so today as we pray, we want to let our light shine for others whose light may have grown dim, or has almost  gone out or yes even are in the dark.
We want to shine the light of hope to those who are discouraged, dejected, desponded and disappointed.
We want to shine your light of love to those who are our enemies, are hated, are bullies, abused, bullied, disenfranchised.
We want to shine your light of grace to those who have given up, don’t believe
God loves them, and don’t feel wanted, lonely and needy.
We want to shine your light of faith, for those who are hungry to believe yet are not sure, those who have struggled a long time with chronic illnesses, frustration, anger and disbelief.
Lord, we carry your light into this world for all to see what a glorious and wonderful
God you are.

cross posted at a place for prayer and rev abi's long and winding road

Friday, February 17, 2012

11th Hour Preacher Party - Blinded by the Light Edition

Judging by the preacher-type conversations I have been in this week, I think it's safe to assume that I'm not the only one who has felt (or is still feeling) blinded by the texts in front of us. It seems like each year I come to this party and find many of us worried about how to find a new word in an annual story.

Where has the Spirit been shining light for you this week? Is it in Mark's bright, brighter, brighter Jesus? (A friend who has retained much more Greek from seminary pointed out to me that Jesus' face is greatly, brightly, shining. Three times more than the average bleach!) 2 Corinthians pairs beautifully, of course, but stands alone just fine. Or maybe in the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha?

The preaching task, this week or any week, can be daunting. But a piece of the good news for the preacher on this day is that it was right after some pretty overwhelming words that Jesus took the disciples up the mountain where they witnessed God's revelation face-to-face. As we face the holy task before us today, may we be so blessed.

Join the part in the comments. Happy Transfiguration Weekend! (Hallmark is really missing out on a great opportunity.)

Friday Five: Freedom

After spending the past six weeks with my right arm tightly bound to my body with a "shoulder immobilizing" sling due to shoulder surgery, I was able to discard that restrictive device three days ago. Such freedom in movement is to be savored! This brought to mind how we experience freedom in many different ways in our lives.

For today's Friday Five, tell us about your times of release or detachment (freedom!) in such areas as:

1. physical
2. spiritual
3. emotional
4. vocational
5. relationships

Of course, if you want to choose different categories, please feel free to do so.

Let us know if you have played by leaving a link to your blog post in the comments. To learn how to do this, go here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Leave-taking and boundaries

Healthy ministry rests, in part, on creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries; it's something we have to continue to work on in all phases of our ministry. Our question today focuses on how we do that when ministry in a particular setting ends but the minister remains geographically close. How does the minister enforce appropriate boundaries? Our colleague writes:

I started a new appointment just 9 miles down the road from my former appointment in July.  I've attempted to do good leave-taking with varying degrees of success.  In the spring, right before I left, a family announced a difficult cancer diagnosis.  Last week, I picked up a message on my answering machine from a family member that he was on his death bed and could I please come to the hospital.  I called the senior pastor to let him know that the situation sounded grave and was going to leave it at that.  But the family kept insisting that I come and the pastor finally invited me to come to be with them.  It felt weird.  I knew right then, I had made the wrong decision.  As I left the hospital that night, I told the wife that she needed to work with the pastors at her own church from now on.  The man died the next day and then I received another call, asking if I would participate in the funeral.  I said "no.  I did have prior commitments that day."  But it felt hard.  How can I better deal with leave taking?  If I hadn't gone to the hospital, I would have felt cold and uncaring.  Yet when I got there, I knew that this family needed to have a bonding experience with their current pastoral staff because they will be the ones to care for the family from now on.  Do any of your denominational bodies have trainings for pastors as they leave their current church and move to another one?  I did not have these types of issues previously, probably because I moved 3+ hours away.

Muthah+ responds:

Dear Careful Pastor:
My last parish was just 6 miles from my very first church so I know that there is often times a bit of emotional overlap.  I think you did just fine.  You went with the new pastor's grateful permission.  You did the merciful thing for the family AND then had the graciousness for the pastor to be absent for the funeral.  However, let it be known that you are not available to make hospital calls even for all those friends in the old parish.  They will eventually get the message.
This is one of the hardest parts of ministry that I know.  I have been gone from my last parish 2 years and am 1,000 miles away but I still care about those folks and wonder about them.  I have people in all my previous parishes that I keep up with   online but NEVER suggest anything, save my prayers. Those friends know that we clergy have boundaries we are obliged to keep.  We always need to check ourselves to know if we are responding to the needs of others because of our own need or the needs of others.  All too often we are dealing with our own needs.  It is a good way to check our motivations.
I do think we can maintain 'friends' in our previous churches without adding to the pastoral burdens of our succeeding pastors.  Being clear about your boundaries is important.

And Terri writes:
Good leave taking and maintaining healthy boundaries around leave taking is, as you acknowledge, very important for all concerned. The primary concern is that members of the congregation separate from you, the leave taker, and form new bonds and connections with the existing clergy and any new clergy who follow you. When members of the congregation are unable to end the previous relationship and form new bonds conflict or other problems can arise.

That said, in cases where the congregation has formed bonds with existing clergy and or new clergy, but for whom a connection with a previous clergy person remains important in their experience of church, then some flexibility can occur in the pastoral care boundaries. This only works when there is a clear, agreeable communication between members of the clergy – the existing clergy and the previous clergy – stating the boundaries upon which the previous clergy will re-enter a situation for pastoral reasons. If I read this correctly it sounds to me like the Senior Pastor invited you to come to the hospital and visit this family. If that is correct it may be that the Senior Pastor was agreeing to your presence in a pastoral capacity. Sometimes Senior Pastors are solid enough in their role as pastor and busy enough in their schedule that they are grateful to share some of the pastoral care with a colleague they trust. This is a conversation that should take place between the two clergy members, with the Senior Pastor setting the boundaries upon which the visit and pastoral care can take place. So the Senior Pastor might say something like, “I am really busy right now because of so many other pastoral issues. It would be helpful to me, as you are able, if you would visit  this family and help me help them through this end of life time. I will participate too, but their needs are greater than I alone can give.”  In this regard the Senior Pastor sets the limits and you respond. Of course you can always say that you are not comfortable with that and decline. But the idea is that the clergy members work it out, stay in communication, work as a team, and the clergy person who has left needs to ensure that the existing clergy remain the primary clergy, they are just assisting for this one situation. Of course, you run the risk of others wanting that kind of care from you and thus stretching you between two congregations. But on a case by case basis, with good communication between clergy, and the consent (or invitation of) the existing clergy, it can be done. And, calls such as this will diminish over time, with fewer people remembering you and/or wanting your presence. I have been on both sides of this kind of situation and have known it to turn out well, presuming that both clergy members are in good communication and that the previous clergy person does not undermine the existing clergy but serves only as a temporary pastoral assistant.

All that said, it seems that in this case the family has not moved on and formed a healthy bond with the existing clergy. Therefore your presence represented the primary clergy presence for them. That can indeed cause concerns for all involved. Helping to pave the way for them to bond with the existing clergy is important. Doing so in a gentle, firm, pastoral manner is crucial. Hopefully the clergy at the church recognize that they need to do some work to engage this family more deeply and help facilitate the bond. Perhaps, in fact, this happened with the funeral planning, the funeral itself, and the subsequent care that will be needed? Regardless it sounds as if you did a lot to remain appropriate in a complicated situation. And, as I said previously, I suspect that there will be fewer of these episodes as time goes on, even though you are only a short distance away.

Now, in terms of “training” for this kind of leave taking. No, I don’t know of any training in particular. However there are lots of books from the Alban Institute, and a variety of workshops, and other sources that can help understand the process more fully. Also helpful is any kind of “family systems in the congregation” training you can find, and/or the work of “Appreciative Inquiry” and grieving.

Many blessings on you ministry.

Thank you so much, matriarchs, for your thoughtful and thorough responses! We would love for the rest of you to join our conversation in the comments section, too. And, as always, if you have a question you would like for the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[com].

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wednesday Festival: Rambling Thoughts on Health, Salvation and Oprah Winfrey

Longtime ring member LutheranChik posted this recently. We invite you to join the conversation here in the comments, or to visit her blog, LutheranChik's "L" Word Diary. (And thanks to another Lutheran for the suggestion!)

Rambling Thoughts on Health, Salvation and Oprah Winfrey

I've noticed that most people have a real love-hate relationship with Oprah Winfrey -- they either think she's Wonder Woman, or else they can't stand her. And boy -- start talking about Oprah to a theologically literate Lutheran, and you will very often see that scary high eyebrow of disapproval; you know, the Oprah who appears to embody the sort of pretension to spiritual self-reliance and self-improvement that stands in contrast to the insight that, as Luther put it, we are all beggars before God.

But I've been thinking about Oprah as the year's lectionary readings have been leading us into Mark's Gospel, filled with all those short vignettes of Jesus' BANG! POW! BAM! healings, coupled with his message that the Reign of God was "at hand." 

I used to watch Oprah, before her show got so self-absorbed, celebrity-driven and bling-dispensing. And I've subscribed to O magazine, before the ratio of advertising to editorial content and the cognitive dissonance therein -- you know, "You are capable and talented and beautiful and empowered, and that's why you need to look a certain way and buy all this stuff" -- finally got to me. I enjoyed and was inspired by the stories of everyday people who overcame desperate situations in extraordinary ways, I appreciated the practical, accessible cognitive psychology that underpinned many of the articles and I also liked the affirmations and uplifting quotes that were there in between all the cosmetic ads and photos of Oprah's Favorite Things.

So while I find Oprah's self-aggrandizing brand of celebrity spirituality, what I can understand of it, goofy in a Shirley MacClaine/Tom Cruisey way, and while I get tired of her seeming constant celebration of herself as personification of her "brand" -- I also see someone who, having struggled to free herself from a very damaging family experience and destructive personal choices to become successful, has a genuine interest in giving other people hope that they can do the same. And that is not a bad thing.

The problem is, I run into a lot of my coreligionists who, in their ongoing battle against "works righteousness," wrongly conflate the notion of spiritual self-betterment, the climbing-Jacob's-ladder model of salvation that's the opposite of the Gospel message, with what I think is a healthy realization that we can be enslaved by faulty thinking, by learned responses to stress that don't work anymore or that never worked at all, by the messages imprinted on us by parents and our culture, by a paralyzing helplessness...and that there are practical, proactive ways people can overcome those patterns of thinking and doing.
Living in struggling rural America, I see every day the result of "stinking thinking" in the lives of people stranded here -- people who live in communities like mine not by choice but because it's their perceived dead end. The local backwoods culture sends the message to children not only that education isn't important but that seeking anything beyond a kind of minimal literacy and local folk smarts is a dangerous, antisocial thing; the greater pop culture encourages a self-indulgent nihilism that tends to get a lot of young people here in trouble at an early age via pregnancy, paternity, drugs and/or criminal behavior. So by the time people are in their 20's, a great many of them are stuck -- stuck with kids they don't have the tools to adequately parent, stuck in the social-services system or in strings of part-time minimum-wage jobs, stuck in relationships of convenience, stuck in a cycle of whatever chemical or other pleasure-seeking gets them from one day to the next. 

I would like to respectfully suggest to folks who do ministry in communities like these that it is possible in this sort of milieu to be so heavenly minded in terms of affirming the Lutheran idea of justifcation by faith that, when it comes to community outreach and care of the whole person, we do no earthly good. If someone's m.o. from day-to-day is enculturated learned helplessness, high-minded discussions about our inability to earn brownie points for good behavior with God don't make a lot of sense; because that person has somehow internalized the idea that brownie points from anyone for anything -- getting out of pajamas in the morning, staying in school, learning something more than Ma and Pa and Uncle Earl know, aspiring to a challenging career or even to a self-supporting job, delaying gratification in service to a greater good -- are either totally beyond their grasp or else are just not worth the effort. "Don't try to impress God with good works, because God isn't impressed by them," can sound very much like "Don't try," period. 
Take that, steeple-fingered, middle-class Lutheran theologians and pastors and lay leaders. I'm just sayin', me, a little semi-trained church elf here in the depressed hinterlands. What is the good news for these folks? How do you get from the Gospel message that God is our friend, not our enemy, to the message that this life is a good gift of God that's worth living in a mindful way, and that there are ways of escaping the hopelessness of bad thinking and bad choices? Or is that the point where you pull out the business card of the local CMH office and make a referral, because that's not the church's job? I'm not being snarky here; I'm interested in how other people in ministry of whatever kind navigate the territory between "care of souls" and care of the rest of us.

All of which, as I'm sitting here thinking about stuff and procratinating housecleaning on this cold February day, leads me to pondering the Lutheran tendency, at least as I've experienced it, to maintain a very Western, penal model of sin and grace and to reduce the idea of salvation to God's free key to a heavenly condo. I mean, that was certainly the definition of salvation that I grew up with; my unearned fire-insurance policy won for me by Jesus. Many decades later, after having lived a lot of life and being exposed to both the Eastern Church's ideas about salvation -- salus indeed -- being about spiritual and other health in this life as well as the next, and to the very real benefits of cognitive psychology and counseling, I wonder why so many of us are still stuck in a rather simple-minded and to me unhelpful salvation paradigm starring Jesus as our defense attorney, Satan as prosecutor and Judge Sky Daddy gravely perusing our multi-paged record of criminal charges. That's how it seems to me, sometimes, in our collective Godtalk.. How does that mesh with Mark's image of Jesus as One whose healings are a powerful sign of God's intention that we be freed of whatever it is that alienates us from God and from one another and from living "the life that is life"?

(As you can see, I really do not want to vacuum the living room right now.)

Our local fundamentalist churches, of course, offer their own version of the eternal get-out-of-jail-free card (some conditions may apply); and they are also fond of promoting the tempting idea that struggling rural people's personal chaos and community malaise are largely blameable on certain predictable Evil Others, so that if American society just purified itself of the Evil Others life would return to a  comforting scene from The Andy Griffith Show with Jesus, the Duggars and a really big, flappy American flag thrown in. You can laugh at that, or get angry at that -- but do those of us in the Christian mainstream have any kind of compelling alternative vision of a life healed by God that makes sense to a teenager with little competent adult guidance or role models whose only idea of an "abundant life" is a boyfriend, or some aimless young man who drifts between Mom's basement, under-the-table odd jobs and baby mamas, or a proudly self-sufficient entrepreneurial couple who suddenly find their tenuous grasp on a bit of security and dignity yanked away when a major local employer moves its operations elsewhere and all the money bleeds out of the community? 
How does the Gospel we encounter in Mark become real for people like this? Discussion is welcome and encouraged.

~Lutheran Chik 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tuesday Lectionary Leanings~~It's almost Lent, it must be t-fig edition

It's that time again: the Last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Lent begins and that can only mean one thing~~the transfiguration is sure to be among our readings, which can be found here. Does the story of Jesus' mountaintop experience illuminate the beginning of Lent for you, or are you (as I confess I am) a bit weary of this tale, coming as it does every year at this time?

The glory of God is revealed in our OT reading as well as we find Elijah and Elisha traveling together to the spot Elijah will be taken up into heaven. Will Elijah's and Elisha's journey together be a jumping off point for you as you look forward to beginning the journey through Lent?

The epistle from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians carries on with the theme of light revealing the glory of God as we conclude this season of Epiphany. Where do you find your inspiration this week, preachers? Are you on the mountaintop withe Jesus, traveling with Elijah and Elisha, or even off lectionary? Check in and let us know~~comments are open.

And Happy Valentine's Day, if you are inclined to celebrate; there are red hot hearts and chocolate kisses for all

Monday, February 13, 2012

meet-n-greet: midwinter pick-me-up

This must be the month for beautiful language--every single one of these blogs is beautifully written, making me long for the days when I too will write pretty! :-)

Stop by and say hello to our new friends!

Linda, who blogs at Gleanings from a Glens Girl, is a pastor in Scotland.

The Pudgy Parson is "the cute character in my head that represents me, who is both witty and honest about where she stands. The Pudgy Parson is the one who can write about the struggles of losing weight, especially while in a rural, deep south, food loving, exercise shy congregation. So here's my truth and starting place: I think I'm about 60 lbs heavier than I should be. I've gained it, I've lost it, and I've done everything under the sun. But here I am anyway, and I want something better for myself. As a pastor, I know I need to take care of my soul AND body, because if I don't, there's not going to be enough energy to take care of my flock. I'm tired of going it alone. I got myself into this, and this is my journey toward getting out of it. I know I was created in the image of God, but I haven't been living a whole life as God intended. So here's the good, the bad, and the pudgy and the journey toward finally being the person God created me to be."

Amy at Living Water(town) is "an investigative pastor. New to my post at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the fine city of Watertown, Massachusetts, I want and need to pay attention to the here & now. I’m setting out to learn as much as I can about the community, to hear the stories held by the people I meet here, and to reflect on the good, bad, beautiful, and odd as I go about my business."

Elizabeth, who blogs at A Still Life says: "an Alabama native, my husband and I moved to Richmond in 2003 when I enrolled at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. A three-year M.Div. program stretched into five and then turned into an indefinite stay in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. As mother to a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, I am daily striving to balance the many roles of vocation. When not on the job as “Mommy”, I serve a local Cooperative Baptist congregation as associate pastor."

Still Going To Graceland has settled on a new blog address, so update your blogrolls:

And last but not least, our friend Amy Haynie has a new blog--check it out!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Afternoon Music Videos: Lord of All Grace

Our homilist talked about incarnation, God walking among us, as us, touching us as we ourselves touch each other, touching us as we cannot or will not. Jesus touched a leper, an unthinkable act in that time and place.

I love the lines in this song, which we used as our opening hymn, about Christ's hands and presence:

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe...

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, Your arms to embrace...

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm...

Where are we balm, when do we reach out to touch what the world considers untouchable?

What touched you today in celebration, musically or otherwise? Share with us in the comments!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prayer for Sunday Epiphany 6b

Compassionate God,

We are grateful you made your compassion incarnate in your son Jesus, who healed the sick such as the leper.

We are grateful you still show your compassion in this world through your people.

There are so many in this world that need your compassion; those who are sick, those who are outcasts, those who are disabled, and those who are grieving.

Lord we pray you keep pouring your compassion on those in need.

Lord we cry out for your mercy for those who are experiencing injustice in this world.

We pray you will make right the wrongs of this world.

We pray you set free those who are prisoners of dictatorships.

We pray that you unslave those who are trapped by slavery.

And we pray for the children of this world who are often victims of injustice.

Merciful God we pray for our leaders that they may be blessed with wisdom.

We pray for our churches that we may truly be your incarnation in this world.

11th Hour Preacher Party: Seven Dips Edition

Hello, lovely preacher friends and enthusiastic kibbutzers and innocent bystanders! We're about to celebrate a very special holiday, and I'm excited!!!

It's Seven Dips Sunday tomorrow. Yay!!!


Wait, you don't celebrate Naaman the Leper and his seven dips in the river?

But you seemed so excited.

Oh, you were thinking of Valentine's Day.

That's okay, too.

Whatever you're thinking about for tomorrow, or even later today, we're here to work it out together, to share ideas for talking to the children, and to cheer each other along the way.

I've got Blonde coffee from Starbucks, which sounds as silly as what Elisha told Naaman to do, but works just as well. And later there's a plan to make Red Velvet Cupcakes. Stick around and have one!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Five: LOVE!

(Pretend there is an adorable picture of french bulldog puppies surrounded by pink roses that I can't figure out how to paste here in spite of multiple  millions of attempts)

Hey RevGals....
It's Valentine's Day on Tuesday....
Share 5 Valentines you would like to give this year, and why--
but here is the hitch, 
Can't give them G-d, Jesus, Holy Spirit...
or your mom, your beloved, your sweet child(ren)...tell us about the other amazing  beings in your life. 

Can't wait to read your posts!!!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Building Community with Busy People

This week's question is one with which I resonate. Given the busy schedules of our church members, how on earth can the church build and nurture commitment and community? Here is our question:

A long-time lurker on RGBP (my blogging hasn't been consistent enough to join the webring) and so appreciative for this shared ministry!

I am 14 months into my first call, at little-church-in-suburbia.  We are starting to attract new worshipers, and it's about time for a new member class (a good problem, right?). The issue seems to be scheduling.  We schedule many things on Sundays, since life-in-suburbia is over-scheduled to the max.  It's the most viable way of getting decent participation.  Midweek events are easily forgotten and compete with kids' schedules (or bedtime for the littlest ones).

Coordinating the schedules of the new folks so we can get *them* in one place at one time has its own complexities.  Then, between adult bible study, confirmation class, and council meetings, I have very few options to schedule Sunday morning time with these prospective new members.

So, matriarchs, any suggestions on building Christian community - and building the body of Christ - when people have precious little time to commit?  How to set up new member classes to be meaningful and yet compact?

Grace and peace,

Ruth responds:
A previous church where I was minister had a wonderful influx of ‘new people’ at one stage – they took it upon themselves to meet up for lunch (or just a coffee if pushed for time) after the morning service once a month to discuss the sermon. It helped that one of them was more mature in the Christian journey (but you could always suggest an appropriate person to join the group). I tended to have this group in mind when I was preaching (which I think helped the whole congregation, to be honest); they would sometimes feed back themes they’d like tackled in future sermons. I joined  them when I could – but it seemed to be a place of enrichment & growth whether I was there or not (lesson for the minister, there!).

I think what made this group work well was:
A ‘light touch’ group (no extra reading required!)
Related to worship so no sense of ‘baby topics’, it was real stuff
It didn’t depend on any one person to be there – it had a genuine groups dynamic
It was about people following Christ, not church – but it fed people in their life as a church.

I wish I had a group like that going where I am now – maybe I should pray about that??

And Muthah+ offers:
Dear Growing Parish Pastor,
What a wonderful conundrum you have!  It IS difficult to schedule newcomers classes these days, but I have found that "If you schedule it, they will come."  See if you can connect with the majority of those who have expressed an interest and go for the most amenable time.  If other events conflict, see if you can adjust those schedules.  Except for board meetings and funerals, Newcomer events take precedence.  It is the least we can do when welcoming new folk to the faith.

I have always had some who just can't get to classes on a regular basis due to serious reasons.  I will often schedule a dinner meeting with them with a good time for discussing a book I have given them to read.  This one-on-one contact a good way to deal with those whose schedules are bizarre.  It also makes the connection with the pastor and answers their particular questions. 

I have always taught a course in adult education on "What you  always wanted to know about being a (Denomination) but have been coming too long to ask" to invite long-term members AND newcomers to share their experience and their questions about the faith.  It allows for good discussion from all members and a chance to share faith that they might not always have.

Wise and wonderful thoughts, Matriarchs! Thank you!! What about the rest of you folks? Do you have insight or experience that you might share? Please join the conversation in the comments section.

And thank you for responding to our call for questions! Without your questions, we don't have a column. Our queue has a good number of questions now, but there is always room for more. So drop us a line at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.