I’m married to a teacher. My mom is a teacher. My sister-in-law (whom I’ve known since we were five) is a teacher. My wife’s mother and father were teachers. My best friend since high school is a teacher.
I value teachers and education. (I have two master’s degrees and ponder a doctorate from time to time, so I guess it’s safe to assume I like education.)
Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all my teacher friends and family!
Education metaphors speak to me deeply. A couple of years ago I was in a workshop with Tom Albin of the Upper Room institute when he reminded us of a reality: in your congregation there are people who are, in terms of spiritual formation and development, first graders, fifth graders, high schoolers, and grad students.
So here’s your education metaphor: the worship hour on Sunday is a one-room schoolhouse. You have about an hour a week to help people in all stages of spiritual formation level up at a healthy pace. You have some struggling with basic math facts, some wrestling with long division, some learning to solve for the quadratic equation. You have some struggling with Green Eggs and Ham while others make sense of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.
One of our jobs as pastors is to help each of them move up a level, one step at a time. Just as the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse had to be masterful at differentiation in instruction, we have to learn differentiation in preaching. We have to drive home both the simplicity and the nuances in a confession like “God is love.”
Spiritual development doesn’t correlate nicely with age. You can have people in their 60s and 70s who are spiritual 3rd graders and teenagers who are spiritual college sophomores. It’s also not linear. A crisis of faith can cause regress.
Of course, no single sermon can adequately address the spiritual formation of people in every possible stage, but over the course of a year all should be addressed in a balanced way based upon the spiritual maturity of the real people in your congregation.
I don’t have any solid advice or super-deep insight here. I just acknowledge that the task is difficult.
My personal goal is: “don’t judge ’em, nudge ’em.” Don’t judge anyone in the congregation for being spiritually immature, just try to lure them forward and help them grow. Don’t venerate anyone for being spiritually mature, either – there’s still growing to do, and we can help them level up, too.
I’m grateful for the teachers in my live who did more nudging than judging, and loved me enough to help me move forward from where they found me.
“When Stephen your witness was being killed, I stood there giving my approval, even watching the clothes that belonged to those who were killing him.” – St. Paul (Acts 22:20 CEB)
Among the realities that a small town – small church pastor must face is the harsh one that she or he is always an outsider in a crowd of insiders. The congregations of small churches don’t change much in terms of the core lay leadership and the heart of the group. They’ve seen pastors come and go. Some last a couple of years. Some last five. Some last nine or ten, or even longer. But they never really become “one of us.”
Especially in an itinerant system like my own United Methodist Church, no matter how much they love you, care for you, and accept you the fact is that you were sent to this place and you will eventually be sent away. The other folks in the congregation are very likely there to stay. They’ve been friends for many, many years and they plan on being friends for many more. Pastors come and go. The core congregation doesn’t.
Dan Dick, in his wonderful book Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness identifies some church members as toxic influencers. Toxic influencers are not bad people, but they consciously or unconsciously exert toxic influence on the church. Toxic influencers “work behind the scenes to ‘poison’ people’s minds against new ideas, changes, innovations, and new people in leadership. These people hold incredible power to undermine the authority of elected leaders and working groups” (pages 22-23.) They spread rumors and begin “whisper campaigns,” they confront pastoral leaders with “people are saying…” and “I’ve heard…”, and badmouth the pastor and/or the church to their friends in the community. Sometimes they threaten to withhold their tithes and offerings if they don’t get their way. When angry, they sometimes disappear from church life for a few weeks or even months as a form of protest.
Again, they’re not bad people. Often they have the best of intentions. For the most part, toxic influencer is a role that people play from time to time when they’re upset. Some folks can be chronic toxic influencers, but that’s a topic for another day.
Because of the steady stream of gossip, rumors, criticism, nit-picking, silent protests, and overall toxic influence exerted on the church, pastors often feel like piñatas.
But this article isn’t about clergy-killers or toxic influencers. Actually it’s about everybody but the toxic influencers. It’s about the ones standing by, giving their approval and watching the coats.
Yes, pastor, there will be those who beat up on you. They’ll run you down in the community and they’ll criticize you to your face. They’ll ignore you when you try to be nice to them. They’ll threaten to leave, to withhold their giving, to call your District Superintendent, and to write the Bishop.
And no one in the church will have your back.
They’ll say they do, and they kind of mean it. They like you. They think kind thoughts about you. Some pray for you. Some will even go out of their way to tell you they think you’re doing a good job, to hang in there, and they care about you.
What they won’t do is stand up to their friends who are throwing the rocks. And that’s just reality.
They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t take it personally. They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t be so thin-skinned. They’ll tell you that the trouble you’re having will blow over soon and it’ll all be alright. But most of all they’ll avoid conflict with their friends.
That’s just the way it is. Pastor, you just have to deal with it. And whether you’ve been stoned with fist-sized rocks or nibbled to death by ducks, you have to stand up on Sunday morning and proclaim hope and grace and mercy and love. (I was once asked why I preach so often on grace. My answer was “because none of us are any good at it.”)
I started this post with a Bible story, and I’ll end it with a Bible story. One of the lessons we pastors need to learn from Moses is that even if you are leading them to the promised land, they will grumble and argue and fight with you for the whole trip. So just keep leading.
In the movie Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt’s character tells a Nazi prisoner his group has taken, “We ain’t in the prisoner-taking business. We’re in the killing Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.”
When it comes to the relationship between Church and Politics, we have to ask ourselves, “what business are we in?”
Politicians are in the government-running business. Church, we ain’t in the government running-business. We’re in the healing-redemption-salvation-sanctification business. And business, church-wide, is not exactly booming. It’s not booming partly because too many Church-folk think the Church should be in the government-running business (or at least in the telling-the-government-how-to-run-itself business). We’ve allowed the divisiveness of left-right politics frame the way we live out church life. Some of our churches and pastors sound more like shills for political parties than churches and pastors.
Church, we’ve let politics distort who we are as a church. Maybe it’s the Stan Hauerwas in me, but I believe we fall far too often into the trap of viewing the pressing issues of the day through the lens of conservative or progressive politics rather than through the eyes of Jesus and his church. We get so tied up in the idea that we can elect candidates who will legislate solutions to the nation’s problems that we forget that churches are here to address those problems on a local, community level. We mistake political involvement for discipleship. We mistake voting for ministry.
We stop asking what Christians should do, and worry exclusively about how Christians should vote. And then we sit back, content that showing up to vote was our most important Christian-American duty and we’re done until midterm elections.
Swing and a miss.
Instead of asking ourselves “what is a good legislative or political answer to these issues,” we should be asking “what is a sound ministry answer in this community?” Instead of fretting over the rightness or wrongness of the laws of the land, or the morality/immorality of our elected leaders, we should be concerned about the souls of the people just outside our church doors.
This year, presidential politics revealed an issue that the church should address: that sexual assault is far more common than we all like to admit. It’s been swept under the rug far too long, and we’ve allowed perpetrators to get away with blaming their victims. Instead of arguing about which candidate or party has the worst record when it comes to sexual assault (answer: both parties are terrible – one sexual assault is too many), the church should see an opportunity to be in ministry with sexual assault survivors in our communities.
We’re supposed to be a shelter in the storm, a safe place where those who have been beaten up by life can take refuge and be loved and cared for. A sanctuary.
Instead, the voices arguing for and against presidential candidates drown out the voices of those crying out for help in our own neighborhoods. Those voices drowning them out are yours and mine, Church.
Instead of arguing about whether abortion should be legal, the church should be discussing how best to be in ministry with women who are faced with that decision. Instead of arguing about how many Syrian refugees should be allowed in the US, the church should be asking, “if a Syrian refugee family settled in our town, what’s the best way for us to be in ministry to them?”
See a pattern here?
The church should absolutely be attentive to and engaged in politics, but not in the way we’ve traditionally done it. Politics reveals issues that need to be addressed, but the church isn’t about issues – it’s about people. People who are tangled up in issues. People who have been hurt, stepped on, ignored, swept under the rug, and silenced. People who need to hear that they are not damaged goods, and that they are loved and respected unconditionally. People who need to know that their voices are heard, and heard with compassion and grace. People who need their dignity reclaimed and affirmed.
And it’s about the person of Jesus Christ, who gave us his church so we could be that safe place.
We have an opportunity for it not to be the same old story this election year. By all means, go out and vote for the candidate of your choice. Just don’t confuse your civic duty with your religious/spiritual/Christian duty. Let our Church’s story be this: when politics revealed problems to us, we offered a lifeline to our neighbors who have been affected by them.
I had just graduated from college and was living with my then-wife in a little one-bedroom apartment. I was looking for steady work in my field, psychology, while I explored graduate school options. I would get up every morning, turn on the local Classic Rock station, and eat some breakfast.
Well, the local station didn’t play Stevie Ray very often. No mainstream radio did. But I was a fan and my Stevie Ray Vaughan cassettes were in heavy rotation in the car. But that morning, as soon as I switched on the radio they were in the middle of “Life Without You.”
“YESSSS!” I thought. I might have even made a fist and said it out loud. They NEVER play Stevie Ray! And the first thing I hear on my birthday is THIS! I love it!
Then the DJ started talking.
“Stevie Ray Vaughan, along with members of Eric Clapton’s entourage, died earlier this morning in a helicopter crash after a concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. We’ll report more details as they become available.”
This can’t be right. Check the TV.
Good Morning America. The Today Show. Both reporting the same thing.
Then the tears started. I’ve missed him and new music from him every day since.
He was bigger than life. He’d made the cover of the guitar magazines several times while he was alive. While he wasn’t huge on the charts, the radio, or MTV, he was huge among musicians and real music fans. His music was a rising tide that lifted the whole blues music scene with him. Teenage kids were buying Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Albert King, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Copeland, AC Reed, Lonnie Mack, Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny “Guitar” Watson…. hell, ANYTHING on Alligator Records. Because they fell in love with the blues. Because of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Because of this force of nature from Austin, Texas who dressed funny, wore interesting hats, and had the most beat-to-hell Strat you’d ever seen and played it like no one you’d ever heard.
In the age of Duran Duran, the Smiths, Madonna, U2, REM, and Prince? When members of the E Street Band bought SYNTHS? A Blues Revival in the 80s?
An underground blues scene had been building for a bit, but Stevie brought it to heights no one imagined. Local blues festivals became a thing. Public and Community radio stations began programming blues more heavily than before. And a new generation of musicians and fans discovered the power of the blues. And all the living greats cried.
The pastor taught him the basics. Breathe, and concentrate on your breathing. Allow your mind to become quiet. Be mindful of how your body feels. Focus on how you feel in the moment, allowing the past and the future to not matter so much. Visualize stress leaving you, and God’s love filling you.
The student assumed a meditative posture and started.
After three minutes, the pastor flicked the student on the ear.
“Hey, what did you do that for?”
“Sorry, you failed this one. Try again,” the pastor answered.
The student took a few deep breaths and began to meditate. The pastor began coughing loudly, making all kinds of racket.
“Could you please leave the room? I’m trying to meditate here.”
“Sorry, you failed this one, too. Try again,” the pastor replied.
The student took a few more deep breaths, closed his eyes, and began to meditate. The pastor dropped a book loudly, and the student kept meditating. The pastor tousled the student’s hair, and the student kept meditating. The pastor called out the student’s name, and the student kept meditating.
“Now he’s getting somewhere,” the pastor thought to herself.
Yesterday I received a phone call from a young lady in our community whom our church has helped before. As far as I can discern she has never abused the system. In fact, a couple of years ago she asked the church for a loan. Not a handout, a loan. When I gave her the money she requested and explained that it was a gift and she did not have to pay it back, she insisted it was a loan and she would be back in a few days to repay us. And true to her word, she did.
So back to yesterday. She called asking if there was any way we could help her with gas money because her father-in-law (who lives with her) had a serious medical issue that needed to be taken care of right away but his specialist is in a town an hour and a half away. I told her that the church would buy her gas and she could come by the office to pick up the money.
I hung up the phone, sat it down, and it rang again. Same number. Her husband was on the line, obviously tearful and full of gratitude. “I just want to thank you, Pastor Willie. Every time we’ve needed help, you’ve come through for us. I love you. My dad and I will be at the service on Sunday. I’ve never had a church show us this kind of love before. Thank you.”
Later last night, the guy who coordinates the Narcotics Anonymous meetings at our church stopped by the parsonage to drop off some money. Every month the NA group gives us a few bucks to thank us for giving them space for their meetings. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve developed a rapport with this guy and I think he grasps that I just view him as a person not as his past. As he handed the money to me, he again thanked me for everything our church does for them, and out it came: “I love you, Willie. Thanks again for everything.”
We’re far from the biggest church in this little town. It would be easy to focus on our struggles and our challenges. But yesterday was evidence that we are bearing good fruit. There really is something to that love, grace, mercy thing.