Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Point

Harry Nilsson wrote this really cool cartoon musical called "The Point". It's about a people who all have pointed heads except for one boy named Oblio: he has a round head. In a story line straight out of the book of Esther, a count reminds the king that, by law, everyone has to have a literal point on their head. So even though they love Oblio, he is banished from their kingdom, but only for a time. After his travels outside the kingdom, he comes back to reveal to everyone that all things have a metaphorical point even if they don't have an actual point. 

Admittedly, Nilsson said he was inspired to write this story and musical after an acid trip. But I suppose you can deny the truth behind it: everybody has a point, a reason, a value. 

I was talking to Summar the other day about the handful of youth pastor Facebook groups of which I'm a part. Along with the usual discussions about curriculum and discipline issues, there seem to be an inordinate amount of posts about the conflict: with elders, with senior pastors, with other people on youth ministry teams, with parishioners in general. A lot of these posts involve people in the church pushing the youth pastor/leader out of their position; some of these involve other adults in these churches meeting with students without the student minister, or perpetually causing drama in student ministry situations. Pre-Facebook I knew of stories like this, but the frequency with which they are posted is disheartening and shocking to me.

I read these posts (and again it bares saying that there are a lot of them) and wonder how we've missed the point so many times. And I feel conflicted: I know that I've not led a single ministry perfectly. I am, to a fault sometimes it seems, acutely aware of my deficiencies, of which there are quite a few. But I would never presume to take a ministry from someone else. In my thinking, it seems you're messing with something that God has ordained. And I don't mean that people shouldn't be removed from ministries, but there are God-ordered and appropriate ways to do such things. To take something that isn't yours is mere thievery. 

Most of the time these conflicts lack even a modicum of grace. There are certainly youth pastors who are deficient to the point that they must be removed, and this isn't a blanket defense of all pastors in all situations. But the way in which many of these stories unfold seem to be an adventure in missing "the point". After all, the statistic that youth pastors last an average of eighteen months (at least that's what it was when I went to school) should give the church pause. 

If you attend church, you have heard it, time and again: we all have gifts. We are all loved by God. God has a plan for us all, etc., etc. If you hear sermons regularly, you've probably heard these concepts over and over. My guess is that the players in those Facebook posts have heard it, too. And yet, there seems to be a lot of church folk who don't want to apply that truth to everyone, including, on occasion, their pastoral staff. As Sly Stone sang, "We got to live together." And yes, we got to. That's how this church thing works. 

Pastors are reticent to say it at times, but I will: we trained for this work. Just like you trained for your work. And we not only trained, but many of us have done it for decades. We are not infallible, but we speak and decide from experience. And even if a pastor and leader is young and new, it's likely that they have blind spots that they haven't filled in yet. There is no doubt that, if the roles were reversed, these people would want and need the grace to find their footing. So they need gentle guidance and support. And yet, in so many of these stories I read, among the body of Christ who collectively is supposed to bear each other's burdens, that grace and gentleness is simply gone. 

And that is the point: we all bear each other's burdens in the body of Christ. There isn't an asterisk that says "*except for pastors" or "*except for elders" or "*except for people who we disagree with". It doesn't work like that. And while this post is specifically about pastors, I think church people could stand to be nicer to each other in general. After all, that is a part of our "point", that life that God said we are to lead. It's all over the New Testament:

"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:9)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you." (2 Corinthians 13:11)

"You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But don't use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." (Galatians 5:13)

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." (Ephesians 4:2)

When I worked at a shipping company during my college years, I spent a week training on how to sort packages and load trucks and planes. When we finally went to the floor to start the actual work, one of my fellow trainees complained: "When we were trained, they said we were supposed to do things a certain way. When we got down here, it's not like any of that." At first I thought, "Well, yeah...that's how this stuff works. It's never like the ideal that you're given initially." But the church IS supposed to work hard toward that ideal, even if we never quite make it. I read these stories in these groups and sometimes it feels like people aren't even trying. And we really don't have that option. We'll get it wrong, we'll make it messy, we'll screw it up, but we have to keep trying. If you are a Christian, you don't get to opt out. 

One time, in a particularly tense leadership meeting right after one of the pastoral staff had been let go, I shared with the leadership what it's like to start and leave a ministry. I shared that when you come to a new church in a pastoral role, that's most likely all you know. You only the know the people there. You have uprooted yourself and your family and everything you know (and in many cases pulled yourself away from the rest of your family) to come to a place you don't know much about to serve a people that you're only marginally familiar with. You're trying your best to fit into what is going on, and at the same time you want to be yourself and also assimilate in a way that is true to you and your gifts and calling. On top of that, your social structure, at least initially, emanates entirely from your new church. All the people you know attend there. People call and visit to encourage, for sure, and also, on occasion, to vent their frustrations and sometimes even get you on "their side", whatever that even means. You sometimes even live in a church parsonage, so even your home is tied to church. Either way, when people come to visit, some make note of how your home is kept. In general, some people in your church family comment on your appearance, your car, your child. I've had more than one person talk about my son in a negative way to other people in the church after a church service. 

I shared in that meeting that, because of all of this, church is your life. You can't leave anything "at the office". You're always on call and available. You never truly leave. For those of you who have jobs like this, you know how tiring this can be. Even then, there aren't that many professions besides pastoral work where most your friends are also your fellow workers or volunteers, and at any moment could be people you are also counseling through trials like divorce and death. You fill more roles in the lives of the people you know than any other work that I can think of. When you are asked out to social functions or you attend activities in the community, you are always "on". You don't get to not be on the clock. People at your church see you in stores and restaurants. They sometimes note what you wear, what you said or didn't way, how you talked to a cashier. 

And then, when you leave or are asked to leave, it's like putting the film in reverse. All those roots you planted (because you have to plant them to get involved in the lives of the people in your church so that you can minister to them) are pulled up. If you live in a parsonage, your house may be gone. If you were asked to resign, you were uprooted immediately. If you resigned simply because it was time, you may still have people angry at you (or, even worse, do a happy dance, which I've seen). If you are leaving on bad terms, the majority of the people you've spent years pouring into will never speak to you again, even if they personally had no issue with you. Your child(ren) has to change schools, make new friends, and leave the church that they have grown up in. 

So I shared some of this in that difficult meeting, and afterward, an elder came up to me and said, "I never thought about it like that." And I think that's the problem: most people don't. They know what it's like to leave a job; they may know what it's like to relocate and leave family. But few know what I would consider to be the unique situation of a leaving pastor. You may disagree. And while I have enjoyed the vast portion of my last twenty years of pastoral work (and I truly have), that doesn't mean that it doesn't hold unique challenges. 

And so when I read those Facebook posts about how people have turned on those youth pastors, all of those things go through my mind. It very much saddens me. When I resigned at one of my churches, I asked one of the leaders how long they wanted me to stay on. He said, in an increasing volume until he was literally yelling at the top of his lungs, "Where I work, you don't stay on. We escort you out. That's it. You have no more time." I stayed there two more months, but he wouldn't speak to me after that. Keep in mind that I resigned and left there on good terms, and I was close to this person before I resigned. Some invisible line had been crossed, I suppose. 

So, my exhortation to all believers is this: don't miss the point. Living in communion with one another is about love and grace. And although I've written mostly about pastors, it's true for everyone in your church body. You are obliged to live, as far as it is possible, at peace with everyone. I share this post not to illustrate how tough pastoral life is. A lot of people have tough jobs, and everyone is fighting their own battles on a daily basis. But I want people to know that, by and large, your pastors and church leaders are trying. They're wrestling. They want to do the right thing. I know there are exceptions. But don't forget that we are all, in the most important way possible, on the same team. That is the point. Don't miss it. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Everyday I Write the Book

I'm coming up on my twentieth anniversary in ministry. I was ordained on January 1, 1997 (my birthday!). I guess I can't really count the year-ish we spent in Nashville, so next January, that will be around twenty years.

I never thought I'd do anything for that long.

In college I was convinced that in a couple of years I'd be touring the country in a van with three or four other guys playing songs that we'd write in hotel rooms and record in ramshackle studios. That was literally my dream, in that I sometimes actually had dreams to that effect while I slept. I was sure of it, as if I had been told that I'd be fated to this life, much like an Old Testament father names his son a word that seals his future.

Instead, I have been a paid, professional musician in a different way. And I only recently realized this. I suppose the appropriate way to look at twenty years in ministry is to look at it as twenty years of pastoral work. And that's true. That, of course, comes first. But I have also been paid to play music in that pastoral role for two decades. I really like that. I suppose, then, I did achieve my dream, and found another one in the process. This is typical of how God works, at least as much as I've understood such things.

Along the way, I've done all the other stuff of ministry: preached, counseled, taught, performed weddings and funerals, taught youth and children, etc. I've enjoyed most of it. I used to teach adults a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told early on in ministry by quite a few people that I should write a book. I am. Three, in fact. But I struggle with the tone of the book that will be about my experiences in ministry. And here's why.

My guess is, if they felt comfortable enough to be honest, that most pastors would tell you about the roller coaster ride that is ministry. And it is. I could just as easily write a book about all the kindness expressed to me and my family as I could the hurts and wounds. The surprise Christmas gifts and the surprise scathing and insulting Christmas card (yes, this happened to me). The wonderful relationships and the abrupt ends to some of those relationships. The wonderful comments about my family versus the harsh words that both my wife and son have had aimed at them. In my more negative moments, I suppose my flesh would love nothing more than to write a tell-all expose about all of the nonsense me and my friends in ministry have experienced. But, of course, that is only part of the story, and, much like most good writing, you have to tell it all. There is plenty of good, more than bad I would guess, by far. It's humbling to be told that people continually pray for your ministry, or be given a car out of the blue, or be told that you've made an impact in a student's life. Telling it all would mean taking an account of all of those wonderful, unexpected instances where God showed up through those around us. That alone would make a great read. But there's much more to the story.

I could write about my ignorance or impatience instead of the mistakes of others, feverishly scrawling all of those things I didn't know or thought I did but didn't. That would be fair and true. But most people don't really want to recount their failures and failings. Some of those are too embarrassing to conjure up for a chapter (or chapters) on what not to do. I hesitate to say I could write a book solely on that, but it would at least be booklet, if not a multi-volume tome. I'd like to think that the successes would take up more space, but I really don't care to find out.

My wife remarked the other day that our moves, our changes, have taken a toll on us, and I'd agree. If you have uprooted your family a time or two, you know this. Although we've always left churches by our own choice, it didn't always feel that way, and those separations and distant friendships sometimes make you yearn for when everything will be made right. I reminded her of something a pastor friend told me early on in ministry: don't get too close. When he said that, I scoffed in my youthful idealism. For a variety of reasons, I now understand the sentiment, even if at times I don't heed his advice. It makes me sad that anyone, no matter what role they play in church, would feel that they have to circle the wagons around themselves for protection against other believers. I'm not naive enough to think that this isn't necessary at times. But I'm idealistic enough to keep wishing it weren't so. When my wife and I have shared openly, without thought of any judgment, we've never regretted it, because it was true. I hope that's true for most pastors and most people in church in general, because we all have crud, right? And we don't just have crud that we talk about; we have crud that we'll never share. That's true for all of us, and it'd be good if we could all remember that. It'd be good for me to remember that more, for sure.

I do know that my book will talk about the unique nature of the vocation of ministry. I've gone back and forth on this over the years. I've heard pastors talk about how difficult the ministry life is, and sometimes I dismiss this summarily because I know we all have difficult situations in our work and home life. I won't say it's harder, because to do so would be to diminish the struggles all of us have. But I will reiterate that it is unique: unique because you live your life with the people you serve, and when you go home you still wear the hat of pastor. You certainly don't do that in retail, or most jobs that I can think of. Your bosses and those to whom you are accountable are also people you are called to build close relationships with, which means they get to see you at your best and your worst. This is daunting. The operative phrase now is "do life together". I know that at times the veil will fall and I won't be the best me and I can be (how's that for some 1980's self esteem phrasing!) and I know that this could hurt what I do. But I suppose, in our best moments, that's what grace is for. In those best moments, we'll give it until it hurts a little, or even a lot. And that's why it's tough. By letting people in (and by them letting you in), they are getting power (and so are you).

This is true of all relationships, of course, but I am especially mindful of it regarding pastoral work, because your close relationships, your community, and your source of income are all rolled into one. I suppose if I were to think about it, there might be other professions of which this is true. But right now, at this late hour, I can't think of one. When your vulnerability is somewhat tied to your livelihood, you feel that tension. If you cross an invisible line of expectation, you could damage relationships or possibly be fired. If you withhold too much, your ministry might not grow. And although I've had twenty years to grapple with this, there won't be much advice in my book on how to navigate this. It remains a challenge, I would guess, for most pastoral staff.

Being introverted, I prefer to write. That way, I say exactly what I want to say. I can refine it before it goes out into the world. I love that. I'd much rather text or e-mail than speak face to face, unless I'm having an in-depth conversation about apologetics or music. So the idea of compiling a book about the church I know, the good, bad, and the indifferent, is appealing. I can tell my story exactly how I want it to be told. But I don't want it to be filtered or laden with agenda. As I said before, in my more negative moments, I might want people to know about the scars. But the problem with that is it's a skewed account, and it's the kind of thing I would like to avoid at all costs. Because we're all David: murderers who are after God's own heart. Maybe not literal murderers, but you get the point. And that's the story that needs to be told, about me, about you, about everyone. You don't need redemption if there's nothing to redeem. And that's the story of the church, really: perpetual redemption, which means there's a whole lot of good coming out of a whole lot of bad. That's the book I'll write. In fact, it's the book I'm writing as we all are everyday. And it's the lesson I hope to continually learn.

Friday, February 03, 2017

It's Been a While (And Other Stuff)

It's been over two years since I've blogged. That's really odd, but I've been quite busy. Lately, I've actually had some time to think and felt like maybe it was time to jump start this thing again. The election and its aftermath have had some influence on that. I have a lot I'd like to write about that (because Facebook posts just don't cut). Maybe some day.

But today I'm thinking of childhood. I'm currently working on a collection of songs about where and how I grew up. I want to portray it all honestly without giving it all away. This project started a couple of years ago, and it began with an epiphany.

In the last decade, it seems to me anyway, there's been a lot more talk in schools about bullying. When I was in school, I remember very little "awareness" about it. If some kid bullied you, you'd either tell the teacher or take it. If you told the teacher, that'd probably be bad ("snitches get stitches" after all) and you'd probably get more of the same. If you took it, that meant that you'd probably get more of the same. Because of some of the problems my son has had in school (although it's been a lot better in the last couple of years), it made me start to think about my school days and the bullying I encountered.

It was weird because I'd never really thought about my school experience in those terms. After high school, I'd never had anyone try to do to me what kids in high school did. I'm a big guy, and although I love me some Jesus, I can be blunt and defensive when I feel a situation warrants. So I really have never had any problems during my adult life, and as time went on, I've become less and less passive (to a fault at times I'm sure) and simply forgot about the past. But a couple of years ago, all this stuff started to flood back, and I realized that my experience in school was not normal.

It was not normal to be called denigrating names day after day. It was not normal to be hit by any number of people at random times for no apparent reason. It was not normal to never be picked for anything, whether it was in a gym class or classroom setting. That was my school experience growing up, and it didn't fully end until I graduated. I was fat and poor and socially backward. This is not a great combination for social success.

As for school itself, I hated going. I loved sitting in a classroom and learning. I still do. But I absolutely loathed getting on the bus everyday knowing what awaited. I took every opportunity to miss school, and milked every sickness for all it was worth. I may have been the only kid who loved class but always missed the maximum number of days. In the last couple of years it got better. I got less awkward and made some friends. But that stuff sticks with you.

I wanted to share all this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's just on my mind, since I'm kind of digging into that time period to pull out some ideas for lyrics. I can't say that it's really that painful because I've made whatever peace I needed to so that I could move on. I'm not the same timid kid, so I'm not perpetually bothered by any of it.

But the other reason is that I've seen the bullies come out of the woodwork in the last few months. There is some nasty speech and behavior going on, as you probably know. And whether or not we want to blame the election or politicians, the truth is that those individual people are responsible for their actions, no matter who is elected or what their ideology is. We seem to be quick to throw up epithets like "libtard" or "racist" or (and this has got to be the weirdest turn of a phrase ever), "snowflake". I mean, who would have called that as being an insult?

Anyway, we're not doing each other any favors. I could point fingers about this stuff. A part of me would like to. But it wouldn't accomplish anything and any discussion that came out of it would be charged with vitriol. We should be discussing this politics and debating the merits of policy, but no one should get to resort to bullying tactics to make their voice heard. I know that people will respond that this is the reality of the world, but that is no excuse since the reality of the world is whatever we make it. The world can be a hard place, but don't we have the strength to be better?

A seventeen year old kid killed himself this week. He'd been the subject of ongoing ridicule at both his workplace and school. Most likely, if I had my guess, he was a nice kid who was just different enough that everyone else, and he probably seemed weak. He was overweight and spoke with a speech impediment. His boss has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. I have no idea if that's the right thing to do or not. But I know that us humans love to pick at weakness, like we're chickens, mere animals who don't have the sense or will to stop.

The anonymity of the internet has obviously given us license to be more crass and outspoken. We all know this, but we're unwilling to stop it. Online behavior seems to have allowed us to be subhuman: people send death threats, call people names that they probably don't say in public (and most likely wouldn't say in front of their kids), and generally treat each other like garbage when they disagree. We have to escalate because clearly, if someone doesn't agree with us, they must not be as intelligent. I don't like to let arguments go, either, but I stop short of name calling. How does name calling prove me right? If an argument is solid, you don't need anything else, ideally.

So be nice, would ya? Seriously. Ratchet down whatever rhetoric you're engaging in that doesn't accomplish anything. If you can present your case cogently and calmly, you might actually win some folks over. Unless your goal is to just hate people who aren't like you. Now we would never do that, would we?