Tag Archives: church leadership

Of Pastors and Love

chapel cross

People still think the pastor can save the church.
I am 30 years old and I do not want to be a hospice worker.
My church is so scattered. The task is to try to get them to focus.
One third of the church split off and left.
I had nine years of a dark night.
                                                                -overheard at a retreat for clergy

I have been listening to the conversations of small groups of clergy about their lives in a once, honored profession. Pastoral ministry has suffered loss of prestige, respect, and influence over the past thirty years in the eyes of many Americans. Some of the reasons for this include sexual misconduct, greed, hypocrisy, ethical failures, cultural upheaval, and changing demographics.

In addition, the rise of fundamentalism produced considerable confusion about what a “real” Christian is or is not. Some  Christians have promoted particular understandings of Christianity as normative for all disciples of Jesus. Often these perspectives have held media attention, while many other Christians do not share the same understanding. When only extreme and headline grabbing faith expressions are discussed, distorted impressions of faith end up defining religion in ways distasteful to many, including Christians themselves.

Most of the conversations I heard from pastors were about adjusting to sweeping change, which, though in the long view the human species excels at, at the same time, has never come to embrace without struggle.

Statue follow me

Cultural differences in what people are valuing
I worry about the bottom dropping out
My congregation worries that I will leave.
I want to be fully employed. I have all this stuff I want to express.
I want to finish well, stay fresh, and spiritually dependent on my God.

Earlier this month, I listened to new pastors engaged in ministry for four years or less. More recently I immersed myself in the wrenching, painful, joyful, and, yes, hilarious stories of men and women serving churches in Iowa from a range of Christian traditions. They were invited to attend a retreat by their judicatory heads and supervisors from nine different denominations, including AmericanBaptist, Lutheran (ELCA), Roman Catholic, Reformed Church of America, Church of the Brethren, Episcopalian, Presbyterian (USA), and United Church of Christ. The gathering called, The Imagination Retreat, was sponsored by the Des Moines Center for Renewal at Grandview College and held at The Shalom Retreat Center in Dubuque, Iowa.

We were all from what are generally considered mainline churches. These include the once great, proud churches with huge stone buildings, in some cases, now nearly empty and in need of repair, as well as fifteen member rural churches, bustling parishes, and missional congregations.

I want to get to know my daughters and grandchildren.
This is the first time off I have had in 32 years.
There is a whole generation ignorant of the language of God.
I am really content and happy, but maybe I am not supposed to be content.
My church worries about dying.

We had two pregnant moms in the group, older clergy nearing retirement, and ones in the middle wondering if it was time to pull up their roots and move on to a new parish. We probably did not all agree on the hot social/political issues our governments are fighting about. However we had not gathered to solve problems, debate, or convince others of the rightness of our positions.

We came because we were weary, hurting, looking for something more, and needing a safe place to be ourselves and be honest. We came because we were exhausted from being in charge and offering living water to thirsty souls, while our souls had dried and shriveled for want of the refreshment of Christ Jesus. We came for Sabbath and renewal and to imagine what seemed nearly beyond our comprehension as we began: peace, hope, faith, unexpected freedom, and joy – all gifts, which amazingly arrived pretty much on schedule at the end of day three of our four days together.


All of it is about this one woman,[or – man, secretary/choir director, organist, trustee, Sunday School teacher, family/person who runs everything,] . . .

They don’t see themselves as a vehicle for Christ. They just write checks.

How long… before I retire, leave, this church dies,
do I have to wait, until we start seeing some growth?

There isn’t a Roman Empire anymore, but there sure are a lot of Italians.

Church happens. It just happens.

I hear recurrent themes in their conversations. I hear the subtext of the laments, the confusion, and fatigue of these pastors as the groaning of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ. We use Walter Brueggemann’s masterful little book, The Spirituality of the Psalms. Brueggemann relates the form of the Psalms to the realities of human experience as –

Psalms of orientation: songs of guaranteed creation
Psalms of disorientation: songs of disarray
Psalms of new orientation: songs of surprising new life

Christians find in these psalms, not only the story of Israel’s suffering and God’s redeeming love, but also the foreshadowing of the Paschal mystery: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as their own personal and corporate experiences of orientation, disorientation, and surprising new orientation.

One recurrent theme is that of impasse, a condition of disorientation, when one doesn’t know what to do next. Our response to impasse is often anxiety and rising panic. Soon anxiety’s children show up: shame, blame, judgment, polarization, disengagement, or the increasing need to impose control or force. Learning how to manage the inevitable anxiety of change, my own, as well as that of my congregation is vital for spiritual leadership.

I have changed. They have too.

So this guy on the board says,
“That’s not what it was forty years ago.”
And I think, “I wasn’t even born then.”

On my Sabbath I ask, What is going to give me life today?
The ministerial association is horrible.
There are local pastors’ groups, but they are not nurturing.
Change means giving up something and that is scary.

And God said, “Why don’t you let me do that for you?”

For me – I am always sort of thinking I need the next class,
books, conference, skill set. Now I see I have everything I need.

9134246995_8d62e4e10d (1)

I also hear isolation and grief. I hear resilience, like the fertile, spongy sweep of a bog, a rich, deep, ground of being. I hear love, sometimes entangled and enmeshed, sometimes pure as a meadowlark’s song, sometimes self-emptied and sacrificial, always full of passionate yearning for Shalom.

It only takes me about twenty minutes before I am in love with them all.

It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man [or woman], in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.                            Flannery O’Connor


May Jesus hold us all close in that hidden love.


Special thanks to those who dreamed up this gathering: The Rev. Dwight DuBois, Director of the Center for Renewal, the Rev. Myron Herzberg, and the Rev. Mary Beth Mardis-LeCroy. And deep gratitude to all who gathered!

For more information about this retreat you may email Dwight DuBois .
Photographs by Suzanne Gorhau.


AUGUST 17-18

I will be Scholar in Residence at  First Presbyterian Church, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa on August 17-18, 2013. I will lead workshops on Saturday afternoon, and preach Sunday morning, followed by a Q&A forum.

     . . .from one degree of glory to another
Growing in the Knowledge and Wisdom of Love

We live in a time of sweeping changes in our personal, corporate, and global lives together.  The rapid pace and depth of change reach into every corner of our lives and leave many feeling confused, fearful, and grieving.

This presentation will consider what Christ teaches us about such change and how we may respond to the changes we face from the stance of a growing and deepening faith required for such a time as this. Our particular focus will be on the practice of contemplative prayer, which fosters wisdom, creativity, compassion, and love.

Find out more here


Church Meeting Postmortem

I cannot for the life of me
figure out
how people who love God
good people
 faithful people

are able to spend so much time
talking about God
reading about God
and running here and there
doing God’s work

and not have to stop.

And bow.
Lost in love.

Every five minutes or so.

I know well the sweet seduction
of anxiety, power, and that little harlot,

I have fallen for their whispered lies,
and empty promises.

I have wakened from a night
in their arms,
unsatisfied, restless, and fretful.

But, I ask you,
do we not have a clue
that the Beloved is in the room
right before our eyes?

How many epiphanies are omitted
from the minutes
of last month’s meeting?

How can we go on pretending
that Holiness is not breathing
shivers of ecstasy
down our necks?

Am I crazy?

But I am also sick and weary of sitting on this Wonder.
Don’t be surprised then,
when I rise up and prostrate
during Carl Mitchell’s report
on the cost of replacing the pews
with movable chairs.

I just couldn’t go on pretending any longer,
and this hungry Love has taken me

beyond propriety,
and order.

The kingdom of Heaven will come when men and women
allow themselves 
to be penetrated by bliss.    M.C. Richards

Spineless Christians and the Courage to Be

Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.  John Wayne

“Church people are too nice to each other. They need to grow spines,” a friend said to me the other day. My friend was commenting on the surface relationships, which exist in some faith communities, where we all want to get a long at almost any price and work really hard at being nice. A member’s problematic behavior is tolerated, at the expense of developing a healthy community. Neither the deep needs of the member, nor the needs of the community as a whole, are addressed, and both suffer.

Perhaps you have heard someone comment about a member who is overbearing, controlling, or in some other way hard to take, “Oh that’s the way he is. That’s just how he does things. He means well. Don’t take it personally.”

From my vantage point of thirty years of pastoral ministry and thousands of hours spent listening to church members and pastors in spiritual direction sessions, people do take it seriously, when they are run over, ignored, or otherwise misused. They take it very seriously. I have watched new people walk away and never return after a hurtful encounter. I have seen older members pull back and clergy stymied by power struggles. I have observed churches stuck in relational impasses for years.

Why does no one speak up? Why does a church system seem to harbor and implicitly support bad behavior in the body of Christ? Where did we get the notion that following Jesus meant that we were supposed to be nice? The word nice originates in a Latin word meaning ignorant, literally, not + knowing. In its original use in the thirteenth century nice meant foolish, stupid, or senseless. Today nice means agreeable, pleasant, or satisfactory.

Jane Austin captured the tired, feeble sense of the word in this passage from Northanger Abbey:

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.”

When Christianity is reduced to being nice people, it loses its spine and the energetic power of Christ among us.

Many factors may foster spineless Christians. Maybe I am related to the irritating individual or live with him. Perhaps the person has influential friends, or contributes a lot of money. We keep still, because we are afraid of offending others, or being attacked, or rocking the boat.

 We also may be enmeshed as integral parts of a codependent church system in which we find ourselves manipulated by another. Codependency is a psychological condition, which develops when one’s behavior is controlled or determined by another, who is ill with an addiction to a substance or a behavior.

In such cases we walk on eggshells, work behind the scenes, have parking lot conversations, protect, and placate the person in question, while the system stays stuck. We help perpetuate the dysfunction and become sick ourselves.

Most people do not like confrontation. We shy away from speaking the truth as we see it, because it doesn’t seem safe. Instead we swallow our truth, question our own perceptions, try to make do, and from time to time acquiesce to bullies.

Of course, there are times, when we have good reason to be afraid. And, likewise, there may be occasions, when it is best to not confront someone, who contributes to problems in congregational life. There are times to step back, pray, and wait on the Holy Spirit to resolve impasses. There are times for us to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We always will see only part of what is going on, and our particular analysis may be incorrect.

Further, it is important to note that the so-called problem is not with the so-called problem person. The issue is not what we need to do about him or how we can control or manipulate her. The issue is ultimately with us, who are experiencing it. The issue rests with my particular and limited view, and my responsibility and willingness, not to change someone I do not like, but to share my perspective with humility and love in service to the greater community.

My responsibility is to be an expert witness to my reality and experience. Such witness might sound like this: when Susan does this or says that, I feel like this – angry, controlled, sad, hurt, left out, etc.

Such responsible truth-telling with love and humility may open doors of deeper understanding and freedom for everyone.  Fear can grip an individual, a family, or a community in such a way that the fear becomes a lie, which obscures or distorts a larger truth. Such a lie may seriously compromise the mission of a church. Whenever fear and its expression in “being nice,” become a bigger motivator, than love and honesty, something is seriously amiss.

Jesus offered a different answer to a religious establishment and an empire, which used fear, threat of ostracism, and power to control its members. Instead of becoming terrorized, or becoming a terrorist, Jesus “set his face like flint,” as he turned to Jerusalem to look fear in the eye, calmly grounded in a sense of something larger, more loving, more powerful, and stronger than fear, which would sustain him and the whole world with him.

And then he said to those who watched, “Follow me.”

What would the world look like, if we were motivated by faith and love, instead of fear?  The fear response, lodged in the brain stem, is primal and necessary to survival. Yet what does fear motivate us to do – circle the wagons, huddle together, adopt a world view of scarcity, and become rigid, defensive, offensive, and suspicious?  Such postures hinder generosity and imagination. Faith, which requires trust in the unseen, is blocked by fear. Without faith, the flow of the Spirit through hearts in love with God is obstructed.

I am not sure that we know how to speak our truth and disagree without resorting to anger, blame, and attack. I am not sure we really believe there is a common ground beyond our dissent. Deeper truth is revealed as smaller truths are shared with courage and love. Discovering God’s will for our communities requires all parties to surrender to something greater than their individual points of view. We need, both to hear individual perspectives, and to bow to a larger more encompassing vision, which asks something heroic of each one of us; namely, to give up our way, even our lives, for the larger good of the whole.

I believe there are Christians with spines and with the courage to be Christian, who create spaces where the bullied and the bullies, the controlling and those who feel controlled, the powerful and those without power come together in mutual appreciation and surrender to the One beyond fear who offers abundance and sanctuary to all her children.

We all need to hear and be heard, to listen and to speak. The Holy Spirit with her bright wings dwells in the naked soul of each member of the body of Christ. We dare not silence any voice. It only takes a few divinely inspired souls to change the course of history or the climate of a local church.

May we all find the courage to set our faces like flint against the ghostly shroud of fear, which diminishes us and turns our spines to Jell-O.  Then let’s saddle up and head out toward the Reign of God with possibility, love, freedom, and justice for all.