Stay Safe and Healthy in the Wilderness by Learning All About the Animals and Plants Around You
Last night, unable to sleep, I stumbled across the following video. It is worth a watch for entertainment value alone, but I cannot stop thinking about the video’s content as it relates to other topics: spiritual formation, leading both oneself and others successfully through change(s), etc. With that in mind, I would encourage you to watch the video. Then, if you are interested, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to my blog, so that you can be notified regarding upcoming posts exploring the implications of the video with regard to such things as personal transformation, discipleship, leadership and the like. I hope that the video, and forthcoming posts, will spark a conversation. So, please, take a moment to leave a comment or two.
What ‘The Backwards Bicycle’ can teach us about…
I’m proud of Quinton. For the last few days, Crystal and Maddie have been away. As part of our father-son time, Quinton wanted to try to best our reaching of step 700 last year. He not only made it to the top, but managed to spend a couple of hours exploring the mountainside. Good times.
I discovered Blue Like Jazz in college. Donald Miller’s ‘Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality’ was fresh. Honest. Raw. Naturally, it resonated deeply with many, including me and my peers.
In the years since Blue Like Jazz, Donald has written other books. Good books. Books that I’ve enjoyed. Books that I’ve discussed over coffee with close friends. Books that have made me think.
Scary Close is the most recent of those books. And it is more than good. It’s great. Scary great. Better than Blue Like Jazz great. To be clear, I didn’t pay for the book. Book Look Bloggers provided me with a free copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. It was one of those ‘sure-why-not’ reads. I had nothing to lose. I’ve liked Don’s other books, so it wasn’t like I was going to suffer through this one.
So here’s my honest review…
Scary Close is, without a doubt, Donald Miller’s finest work, to date. It’s a book about intimacy. A memoir about intimacy might be a more apt description, as Scary Close chronicles Don’s courtship with Betsy and the lessons learned along the way. Regardless, Scary Close is a masterpiece. The raw, transparent Donald Miller that won me over with Blue Like Jazz returns. He shares his faults. He’s honest about his failings. He lays his relational baggage on the table.
But Don doesn’t just vent. He doesn’t just air his dirty laundry. He offers hope. Hope in the form of healing, growth, maturity. His healing, growth and maturity. The Donald Miller that we fell in love with in Blue Like Jazz was young, immature, relationally-challenged. The Donald Miller that we encounter in Scary Close is older, wiser. Still not perfect. But more mature. More honest about who he is. Less pretense. No facade.
And, in the end, that’s what he challenges his readers to. To be more honest. More transparent. More of who they really are. Because, unless we do, we’ll never experience true intimacy. We’ll never be seen (and known) for who we truly are.
Scary Close is a must-read.
Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure should be required reading for anyone entering into, or already engaged in, ministry. It is jarring. Raw. Author J.R. Briggs writes about failure in a refreshingly honest way. At times he shares from his own experiences with failure.1 In other instances, he shares lessons that he’s learned through relationships that have been cultivated as a result of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, which J.R. created. That is not to suggest that Fail is simply a book of anecdotes about ministry failure. Far from it. As the title suggests, the book is primarily about ‘finding hope and grace in the midst of ministry failure.’ In other words, Fail is a book about picking up the pieces, healing and moving forward.
With that in mind, we now turn our attention to the book and its content. We will begin by looking at the two forms of failure. From there we will look at the four sections into which the book has been divided: unlearning success, learning failure, embracing failure and the way forward.
Before diving headlong into the subject matter, it would probably be beneficial to discuss rather briefly the four forms of failure. Many times when it comes to ministry failure, the type of failure that we hear about and discuss is what could be termed ‘moral failure.’ This type of failure might include such things as: misappropriating finances, sexual misconduct, or some form of illegal activity. J.R. refers to this as a mighty fall. The second form of failure is the tragic event. J.R. has this to say regarding tragic events: ‘often [they] are not sinful, but they are often sudden and tragic… It may include the news of a spouse’s cancer that took his or her life within a matter of months, a shocking termination that seemed to come out of nowhere or a searing betrayal by close friends.’2 Third form of failure, the slow leak, ‘is the result of the subtle wearing down of the soul. Slow leaks are the constant drips of encouragement. It may include the unending barrage of negativity from an elder board, depress, disillusionment or severe resentment when thinking about how one’s life and ministry has turned out.’3 The fourth and final form of failure is what Briggs terms the burned-out statistic. This type of failure results from ‘jumping from one crisis to the next.’4
It is worth noting that of the four forms of failure only one, the mighty fall, is a moral failure. The other forms of failure are what we might refer to as ‘amoral ministry failure.’ That suggests that many of those who leave ministry will leave not because of a moral failure. Instead, they will leave because of betrayal, unrealistic expectations, weariness, depression, loneliness, etc. A fact that should be noted by those preparing for ministry and should cause those who are in ministry to pause and spend some time reflecting on where these forms of failure may be subtly eroding away at their health, joy and peace.
From a short summary of the forms of failure, we now turn our attention to the four sections into which the book is divided.
In the first section of the book, the author looks at the religious landscape of North American Christianity. Dotting the landscape are a myriad of denominations, networks linking together non-denominational churches, and not-a-few independent churches. At first glance, the religious landscape of North american Christianity appears to be anything but homogenous. Upon further examination, however, it becomes clear that despite their apparent differences, the North American church by-and-large shares a common understanding of success.5 J.R. suggests that the predominant understanding of success comes with three accompanying temptations. The first, ‘the temptation to be relevant comes when we want to be sought out–when others desire to hear from us,’ has us believing that ‘the more relevant we are in our leadership, the more people will come to our church.’6 The second, ‘the temptation to be spectacular comes when we are asked to don the cape and attempt something heroic.’7 It is a temptation that leads us to do crazy things, tell outlandish stories, and attempt great exploits in the hope of garnering applause. The third and final, ‘the temptation to be powerful comes when we seek to control people–their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, giving, attendance and involvement.’8 At its core, the temptation to be powerful leads us to engage in manipulative behavior, so that we might achieve the expected and/or projected outcomes.
Bottom line of Part 1: We must unlearn success as we currently know it. We must redefine success in terms of health and faithfulness.
In Part 2, J.R. contends that failure is a fact of life (and ministry) and that we must learn to fail in ways that are healthy rather than defeating. Oftentimes, when we fail, we become angry, bitter. We feel betrayed. Bogged down in the swampland of the soul (shame), we feel unworthy to receive love. So we put on a mask and pretend to be someone other than who we truly are. While these chapters were rich, my big takeaway was that ‘for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen-really seen.’9 This is true with respect to our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, as well as our relationship with others. The psalms, especially the psalms of lament and grief, provide us with a pattern for how we might allow ourselves to be seen, really seen, by God. Additionally, we must summon the courage to be vulnerable–’to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart.’10 It’s an exercise in truth-telling. Telling both ourselves and others who we are, rather than pretending to be someone that we are not. It is an exercise that teaches us to be loving, forgiving and compassionate with ourselves. Something that is incredibly important because, ‘where there is little compassion for self, there can be little compassion for others.’11
Bottom line of Part 2: Each of us fail. We must learn to fail in a way that results in health, relationship and connection rather than isolation and disqualification from life/ministry.
Part 3 employs Israel’s roundabout wanderings in the desert as a metaphor for our wilderness experiences, our own experiences of failure. J.R. contends that while we try to avoid the desert and wilderness at all cost, we should, instead, embrace the wilderness, as it represents an opportunity for growth and maturity. He says it this way: ‘We grow in the wilderness because the only way to survive is if God shows up.’12 Thus, it becomes important for us to live into and embrace the wilderness experience, rather than endeavoring to short-circuit and/or speed up the process. We do this by allowing ourselves to grieve and/or mourn our failures.13 After we’ve given ourselves permission to grieve, and have entered into the process of grieving, we can then begin to look at re-entry. Chapter 9, the chapter on re-entry, provides a brief sketch of Dr. Stephen Burrell’s research regarding amoral ministry failure and how a person might begin to prepare for their next ministry opportunity. This chapter, and Steve’s insights, are excellent. (In fact, I’d humbly suggest that this chapter alone is worth the cost of the book.) One of the most important insights in this section has to do with the ‘recovery window.’ Burrell’s research revealed that the average pastor took somewhere between seven and fourteen months to walk through the stages of grief toward acceptance.
Bottom line of Part 3: Post-failure is a dark time. Most of us try to avoid the pain and frustration of this season. However, health and future ministry vitality demand that we not rush through or dismiss our grief. Instead, we must embrace the wilderness and wait (patiently) for God to show up.
The final section explores life and ministry after failure. In particular, J.R. looks at how our past failures prepare us for future ministry. Rather than disqualifying us, they shape us. One of the ways that our failures shape us is by reminding us about our ‘need to breathe.’ Briggs contends that this happens when we begin to exercise self-care. When we embrace rhythms and practices and enter into relationships that help us to be a full-time human before being a pastor.
Bottom line of Part 4: Pastors are not super-human. As such, we need to exercise self-care, as ‘self care is the first step in caring for others, for loving your neighbor as yourself.’14 What is more, ‘as pastors, maybe more than almost anyone else, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves or at least have the courage to ask others to preach to us.’15
In Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership, authors J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt contend that ‘when a church lacks structural health, that local body suffers, and there’s no hiding it.’1 According to the authors, ‘the local church is most healthy when it is pursuing God’s heart and oriented around his mission.’2 Thus, church leaders – Briggs and Hyatt term these people ‘elders’ – play a crucial role.3
But what is an elder? What are the responsibilities of an elder? Who can be an elder?
We begin with the question: What is an elder? Simply put, elder ‘is the most commonly used term for a leader in the New Testament, while the word pastor occurs only once in the New Testament.’4 Often, the biblical writers use the term to refer to a person of old age or someone within a community that is tasked with decision-making or other official functions. In short, an elder is someone whom others look to: a leader.
But we aren’t talking about any old leader here. Briggs and Hyatt are concerned with leaders within the body of Christ. So we must ask: What are the responsibilities of an elder? Or, more specifically, What are the unique responsibilities of an elder that differentiate them from other leaders? In Chapter 3, the authors suggest that elders have five primary functions, according to Scripture. First, elders are to serve as overseers, exercising both spiritual and organizational oversight.5 Second, elders are to shepherd. Shepherding, according to the authors, is anything but glamorous. It’s messy. Shepherding necessitates being involved in the lives of those entrusted to the elder’s care. The defining quality of a shepherd is love. Love manifested in the form of protecting the flock, confonting those who stand against truth and engaging in intercessory prayer.6 Third, elders are to teach. A good teacher isn’t just someone who can convey knowledge. Rather, a good teacher is characterized by: a) a hunger for Scripture, b) a craving for knowledge of God’s heart and, c) a teachable spirit.7 Fourth, elders are to equip others. Equipping entails beginning ‘to address the issues of brokenness and healing in the world… [preparing] others for the journey, and [helping] restore people to their original condition of shalom.’8 Fifth, and finally, elders are to set an example for the flock.
Having outlined the five functions of an elder, Briggs and Hyatt turn their attention to the question: Who can serve as an elder? Utilizing Scripture, particularly 1 Tim 3.1-7 and Titus 1.5-9, the authors suggest that we should be more concerned with who elders are than what elders do. In short, we should be concerned with character more than ability and/or skill. As such, Briggs and Hyatt contend we should look at a person’s situational, family and moral qualifications when considering them for leadership.9
In other chapters, Briggs and Hyatt explore the process of selecting elders, the role of elders in decision making and whether or not women can serve as elders, among other matters. Rather than summarizing these chapters, I’d like to suggest you purchase a copy of the book Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership. It’s an excellent book. A quick read. And a phenomenal resource.
My takeaway from the book is this: Leadership is important to the health and well-being of the church. In fact, without mission-oriented elders/leaders there will be a lack of alignment between God’s people and the heart and mission of God. For this reason, we need to carefully examine the role of elder/leader and select men and women to serve in these roles who won’t just fill a seat on a board, but will see themselves as stewards who ‘take what God has entrusted to them and care for it as best they can.’10
I struggle with insomnia. The last few weeks have been particularly challenging. Usually, I try to take advantage of my sleepless nights by reading, researching and writing. The other night, I felt like a member of the walking dead, so I perused Netflix for something to watch.
While perusing I stumbled upon Mile…Mile & a Half. (The film can also be streamed via Amazon). The film follows’a group of artists who] leave their daily lives behind to hike & record California’s historic John Muir Trail, a 219 miles stretch from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney.’1 Over the span of twenty-five days, the group documents their adventure, while capturing some breathtaking scenery.
Admittedly, I watched the movie, mainly, because it seemed like it would be relaxing. Yet, two days later, I can’t stop thinking about the film. As beautiful as the scenery was, it’s not the spectacular landscapes or the panoramic sunsets that I can’t stop thinking about. Rather, it’s the group’s nature and dynamics.
The group begins small. Five friends hitting the trail with camping gear and audio/video/camera equipment in tow. Days into the journey, one of the five bows out. The remaining four continue. Over the miles the bonds of their friendship are deepened. The hike is a liminal experience, leading to self-discovery and a new group dynamic.
What impressed me the most, however, wasn’t the introspection of the group members or the ways in which the relationship of these four friends was transformed through the experience. The truly captivating thing for me was the way that the group grew. Four became six, as a couple from Colorado decided to complete the John Muir with four acquaintances, who would become their ‘trail family.’ And, over the course of the remainder of their journey, the group continued to grow. The friend who had dropped out would return for a brief while. Two other friends would join up towards the end, completing the journey that their friends had began. A solitary Japanese hiker would conclude her journey by traveling the last few days with a group whose language she couldn’t speak.
By the end of the film, there’s a rag-tag ‘trail family’ sitting around the fire, eating and singing together. They are a diverse group. Old friends and new. They don’t share a common language. Yet, it’s clear that they’ve come to appreciate one another. Care for one another, quite deeply. As they summit Mt. Whitney, the pauses to rejoice. Collectively, they celebrate their shared accomplishment. They sit atop the mountain, singing and making music together.
I’ve found that last scene inescapable. The four who initially set out on the journey have grown. They’re different. The journey has changed them. But, they’ve not just changed as individuals. As a group they’ve grown. Their friendship has deepened. They’ve become a family. A family that has adopted others. A family that has welcomed, with open arms, strangers and vagabonds. Their shared experience has united them––forging bonds that would have possibly taken years to develop under any other circumstance. And, as they reach the end of their journey, together the join in song, as they eat together for one final time. (An act that is ritual in nature and felt incredibly sacramental, as I watched as an outsider looking in).
I can’t help but think: This is how the church should be. The church should be a diverse people, who journey together and through that journey are transformed individually and corporately. Along the way, the group engages in shared rituals––rituals that both shape the group and reflect what is taking place. Rituals that remind us of the sacredness of the journey. And, at the end of the journey, the group shares in an impromptu expression of glory and praise that wells up and explodes from within.
I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In recent posts, I looked at the book’s Introduction, Chapter 1 & Chapter 2. Today’s post looks at Chapter 3, the years 1816-1850s, and the role of print in Methodism’s efforts to nuture congregants, train preachers, etc.
The year 1816 was significant for American Methodism. Francis Asbury died on his way to General Conference. The Methodist historian Nathan Bangs, who eulogized the recently deceased Asbury, provided ‘counsel and leadership [that] guided the church.’ It was counsel, in the eyes of many, that led to a ‘softening of discipline, embrace of the world, compromise of fundamental Wesleyan practices and precepts, abandonment of the evangelistic mission to society’s marginalized, and loss of Methodism’s prophetic nerve.’1 It’s an assessment that not everyone agrees with, but one thing is undeniable: under Bangs’ leadership Methodism aspired toward ‘respectability, progress, recognition, and refinement.’2 In short, Methodism was moving ‘from side street to main street and toward inclusion in the Protestant establishment.’3
A (more) respectable Methodism necessitated a different approach to educating both the clergy and laity. Enter the burgeoning publishing arm of the Methodist movement. Again, Bangs played an important role when, as as book agent, he ‘transformed what had been essentially a distributing operation for British reprints and official denominational publications into a full-fledged publishing house capable of its own printing and binding.’4 It was a development that would make it possible for Methodists to produce and distribute their own: Sunday School curriculum, tracts, and books of children and youth. While the significance of these developments should not be understated, in many respects they were not quite as significant as the rise of the Methodist paper, the Western Christian Advocate, which quickly became the most successful and widely read paper in its region. Less than a decade later, there were six Advocates, which,
…competed with one another, with Baptist and other denominational voices, and with the secular press. They covered national and world events, scientific developments, medical remedies, farming information, obituaries, and everything Wesleyan, in short, any and everything that would appeal to Methodists as citizens and saints and sustaining a connection-wide textual community.5
In short, the Methodist papers made it possible for Methodist doctrine to make its way into homes across North America.
As Methodism moved to main street, its new address necessitated a reconceptualizing of pastoral life and ministry. It is a reconceptualization that can be seen in three key arenas: expectations, living arrangements and growing educational expectations. We’ll look briefly at each.
As has already been stated, the influence and impact of Nathan Bangs, during this season of Methodism’s growth and expansion, was significant. As Methodism moved from side street to main street, she gained an address. Quite literally. Methodism, whose initial success was largely tied her itinerant preachers, found herself setting up shop and occupying towns and cities. As itinerancy waned, the movement became more established. Establishment meant providing more services and accouterments–Sunday School, weekly worship, regular observance of the sacrament, etc.–things that itinerant preachers had not previously had to worry about. Things that had, until this time, been left to other churches.
As Methodism became established, Bangs advocated that houses were necessary. A house of worship, where Methodists could meet together was necessary and a house for the preacher and his family were also needed. Methodists would heed his plea and by the 1830s, Bangs was able to report that significant progress had been made regarding these items. By 1856, the General Conference made it mandatory for ‘conferences to report on the number and value of church buildings and parsonages.’6 Clearly, change was afoot.
An itinerant preacher meant that many of the duties that we now refer to as ‘pastoral duties/responsibilities’ were initially tended to by the class leader. As Methodists purchased property, constructed houses of worship and as pastors and their families settled in parsonages that would change. Many of the responsibilities previously relegated to the class leader were assumed by pastors and their wives. There were two primary reasons for the shift: 1) the class leader, increasingly, had less time that they could devote to such concerns and, 2) in setting up a home, the preacher and his wife, were stationary and able to devote themselves wholly to ministry.7
Cokesbury College was a failure. While Cokesbury’s failure could have resulted in paralysis, instead it seemed to serve as a catalyst for further educational ventures. Over a two year period (1817-1819), Methodists would establish as many schools. In all, by the time of the Civil War, some two hundred schools had been established. Many would close their doors, but approximately thirty have survived and continue to flourish.8
While the recently established colleges served the wider world by providing a broad education, the colleges served the Methodist movement by training her leaders. The men’s colleges, in particular, became the training ground for ministry–with as many as a third of a college’s graduates entering ministry in the Methodist church.9 In so doing, Methodism now had a ‘formal training alternative to the Course of Study.’10 While, the Course of Study would remain the norm, the newly established colleges helped to give shape to what would become ‘the Wesleyan ideal of a scholar pastor.’11
Later, ‘in the Civil War era, Methodism began to think seriously about formalizing its program for ministerial education through the establishment of (post-baccalaureate) theological seminaries.’12 Not everyone appreciated this trend. Some, like Peter Cartwright, thought that on-the-ground training–i.e., ‘brush college’–provided the best training and formation for the Methodist preacher. Despite objections, it is clear that, increasingly, there were growing expectations regarding the education and formation of the pastor.
As pastors and their wives increasingly assumed the duties and responsibilities of the class leader, the class meeting no longer served as the primary vehicle for spiritual formation in Methodism. Eventually, the class meeting would be replaced by Sunday School, missionary societies, the Tuesday Meeting, and the like.
Sunday Schools had initially concerned themselves with education––providing ‘basic literary outreach to children of slaves, servants, the poor, and working folk.’13 Increasingly, Sunday Schools devoted themselves to the spiritual formation and instruction of its members’ children.14
Missionary societies proved to be a place of empowerment for women. In these societies, women often took the lead. They would raise funds that would make missions work possible, correspond with missionaries, and promote missions to the congregation.
Established by two sisters, Sarah Lankford and Phoebe Palmer, the Tuesday Meeting (for the Promotion of Holiness) revived ‘American Methodism’s perfectionist emphasis, create a space for women to speak publicly… stimulate the revival of 1857-58, and result in the formation of a number of holiness denominations.’15 In short, ‘the practices of the Tuesday Meeting established a new template for religious life, one that stimulated an entire holiness movement.’16
I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In recent posts, I looked at the book’s Introduction and Chapter 1. Today’s post looks at Chapter 2 and reforming of the continent and the spread of scriptural holiness.’
From 1792-1816, Methodism wrestled with issues of identity. While the issues were many, and while they were wrestled with in a myriad of ways, to get a sense of the identity issues facing Methodism at this stage of her development, we need look no further than the Christmas Conference and the decision of the 1800 General Conference to ordain black local deacons.
On December 24th, 1784, there was ‘a preachers-only assembly, effectively a constitutional convention known as the Christmas Conference.’1 The conference, held in Otterbein’s Lovely Lane Chapel, accomplished a great deal. Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes’ were edited and adapted, yielding the first Discipline. The group settled upon a new name, the Methodist Episcopal Church.
While these changes were important and noteworthy, it was the group’s ability to effectively forecast the future of religion in America that proved to be of greatest significance. Anticipating what was to come, the group resolved to embrace disestablishment, proposed an eventual break with European headquarters, and institute voluntarism.2 The break with European headquarters would not occur right away, however. In fact, in response to the proposal, the conference determined to ‘explicitly [concede] final authority to Wesley.’3 What is more, they would agree to accept ‘Wesley’s plan for the church, in principle if not in every detail.’4
At the same time, however, the body made some rather key decisions that would eventually lead to a uniquely North American Methodist experience. For instance, the conference resolve to make decisions by debate and majority rule. It was a decision that seemed rather minor, yet it effectively paved the way for future conferences to revise, alter, adapt and/or reject Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes.’ Additionally, the Christmas Conference determined to add ‘a rubric on U.S. political autonomy’ to the Articles of Religion,5 thus Americanizing the document. Furthermore, the conference selected elders and provided for the election of superintendents––decisions that further evidenced the establishment of a more Americanized form of Methodism.
Methodists remained staunch in their anti-slavery affirmation. However, with Methodism thriving in both the North and (slave-holding) South, things were anything but easy and clear-cut. For instance, while Methodists opposed slavery and confronted slaveowners, Methodists classes remained segregated. Additionally, black chapels were established and separate cemeteries established.6 In short, there was often a disconnect between stated Methodist values and reality.
Despite the disconnect, new African American leaders emerged. Consequently, the General Conference of 1800, ’empowered bishops to ordain Black local deacons.’7 On one hand, it was clearly a step forward. On the other, however, it was further evidence of the disconnect, because while the bishops were empowered to perform said ordinations, at the same time: 1) the Conference did not include a provision for this in the Discipline and, 2) the African American leaders were required to function under white elders. Eventually, this would lead some Black Methodists to split with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816.
Alongside the many reforms of this period is an equally important development: the spread of scriptural holiness. While in some sense linked to matters of race and gender, the spread of scriptural holiness is inextricably linked to the development of the camp meeting. Camp meetings were not unique to Methodism, but they were adapted to Methodist life, for Methodism’s purposes. A clear example of this is the close association between camp meetings and the quarterly meetings of the Methodists. To wit, the authors note, ‘Once the camp meeting emerged and had the church’s blessing, routinely and for several decades, quarterly conferences across the whole church voted to hold one of their warm-weather sessions as a camp meeting.’8