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The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

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The Church is a Love Story

I’m always gritting my teeth when I’m reading and hearing people talking about the Church as “an organization” or suggesting that we need to “run it like a business.”  I have a hard time seeing that model in Scripture.  We’re so fascinated by the “success” models of American business that we think we have to see them in the Church, too – everything from “the pursuit of excellence” to “best practices” and beyond.

But the model of the Church that I see time and again in Scripture is the Church as the Bride of Christ.  I’ve written on this before, and probably will do so again.  But here it is from a different source.  Bearing in mind that of course the Pope is going to understand / equate the Church with the Roman Catholic Church, he is still right on target in reminding us that there is more to the Church than spreadsheets and bottom lines.

Pope Francis: The Church is a Love Story.

 

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Retirement? Really?

I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues.  This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying.  The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up  (three of us are retired, three of us are active).

 

(Note to my non-Lutheran readers:  in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary.  We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)

 

So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area.  Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them.  But what is his role there after he retires?

 

Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time.  This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end.  Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”

 

Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman.  This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above.  It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.

 

The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends.  Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor.  Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor.  We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!

 

Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:

 

As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement.  The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”

 

We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.”  Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).

 

Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah).  For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.

 

Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king.  While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that.  But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he?  So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading.  Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”

 

Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.”  David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself.  Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.

 

Church and Ministry 2

See the previous post for an explanation of what prompted these reflections.

2.  Describe your understanding of the Office of the Public Ministry

If the church is the Bride of Christ, and Christ is the Bridegroom, those who stand in the Office of the Public Ministry fill the role of the Friend of the Bridegroom.  They take care of the Bride, keeping her safe and protecting her so that she is ready for the wedding.  They take care of the arrangements, the food and drink that the guests will have.  They take care of the guests, providing them with the robes of forgiveness and righteousness that they will need to celebrate this wedding properly and enjoyably.  They make sure everyone has a place and feels welcome in the celebration.

And they look forward with great anticipation to the arrival of the Bridegroom.  He has been away a long time and has entrusted all the arrangements to His Friend.  The Friend is glad of His trust, and wants everything to be good and right.  He is not afraid of losing the approval of the Bridegroom or of disappointing Him; but he is such a Friend to the Bridegroom that He cannot imagine how anyone would not want to join in the celebration.

5.   Describe your pastoral approach and practice

In addition to the basic Friend of the Bridegroom image above, my approach and practice center on the idea that the word “Pastor” means “shepherd.” It does not mean any of the following: chairman, CEO, leader, vision-caster, strategic planner, fixer, analyst, or administrator.  Each of these words carry with it a certain array of tasks to be done and skills to be exercised, but even taken all together they do not entirely comprise the calling that is named “pastor.”  Yet in the United States in this day and age many in the church tend to look outside the church for models of how to operate.  We find exciting, “successful,” and “growing” techniques and images, and turn to them because they give us a sense of accomplishment.  Yet it seems like a shepherd rarely “accomplishes” anything – he just cares for the sheep over a long period of time, without any measure of “success” or “achievement.”  But he probably doesn’t care about those kinds of things, because he just loves the sheep that are entrusted to his care.

My “approach and practice” has been growing in recent years to be much more like a “shepherd.” In the end, I’d be disappointed if people summarized my “pastoral approach and practice” by saying things like “he was a successful pastor” or ‘he knew how to run a church.”  In the end, I’d much rather that people summarized that “approach and practice” by saying things like “we caught glimpses of Jesus in him.”

Church and Ministry 1

I’m back after a hiatus doing some summer family things.  In the meantime I got a note that another District was looking for my vital information and wanted an update on something we call “The Self-Evaluation Tool.”  This is basically an FAQ form that pastors in my denomination are asked to complete so that District officials and calling congregations have an idea about some of our attitudes and opinions.  After some thought I asked my District office to send back the one they already had, because in that one I answered the questions the way I’m pretty sure congregations want to hear.

In the meantime I’ve been thinking about answering these questions in different ways.  I suspect that the answers that congregations want to hear are not the answers that I really believe in many cases, but I’m also pretty sure that congregations are not used to thinking in terms of the answers I really believe.  So while the District has the form, here are some of the questions and what I’m really believing these days:

 

1.   Describe your understanding of the church and its mission, especially regarding outreach to the lost.

 

Before we talk about the church and its mission, let’s talk about the nature and identity of the church.  The church is the bride of Christ, dearly and deeply beloved by Him to such an extent that He gave His life for her, to make her His own bride, holy and blameless in His sight.  So the church is the Spouse of Christ, Redeemed and made Holy in His precious blood.  Her joy and delight is to praise and proclaim the Bridegroom to all, whether they will listen or not.  She rejoices when those who hear join Her at the wedding feast; she is saddened when those who hear decline the invitation.  She praises and proclaims the Bridegroom to all so that they may join her in her joy.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because “they will be lost if we don’t evangelize them” is not communicating a sense of urgency, but manipulating believers by shaming them.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because it’s numbers are declining is lying to “the lost” because it really doesn’t care whether they are “lost” or “saved” as long as they can bring more money / people / members to the church.

Finally, the church that urges outreach to “the lost” denigrates and marginalizes them the same way the Elder Brother denigrated and marginalized the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, calling him “This YOUR son” rather than “This MY brother.”  We need instead to love them as brothers and sisters who may not have received the invitation of the Bride to the Wedding Feast or responded to her delight.

Do we really matter?

An Indispensable Churches Post

As you read the section below the first time, consider first “the church” as “the Christian church in its broadest, most all-encompassing definition.”

Then read the section a second time, considering “the church” as “any randomly chosen local congregation regardless of size, location, or influence.”

Finally, read the section a third time, considering “the church” as “the congregation I am personally currently involved in.”

Now ask yourself, What does it seem like God is saying to me through the words of these brothers?  How might I like to respond to Him?  and How might I like my congregation to respond to Him?

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live.  Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.  The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.  The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.

Unfortunately, an accommodationist church, so intent on running errands for the world, is giving the world less and less in which to disbelieve.  Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and bigger congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching).  At every turn the church must ask itself, Does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989.  pages 94-95

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