Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pastoral Transition

One of the issues shaping the health of the churches today is pastoral transition: conveying the spiritual authority of the community of faith from one minister to another. Much of the time, it is being done exceedingly poorly.

As a pastor who has followed long leadership tenures both in Lubbock and San Antonio, I am in a unique position to give perspective on the matter. I have postponed commentary on the subject for over a year since leaving San Antonio in order to gain a measure of clarity and analysis about this complex, emotional issue.

In August, Associated Baptist Press did two pieces on pastoral leadership succession that merit your reading. I have posted the links below:

Sunday, July 01, 2007

From Pulpit to Lectern

When Dean Alan Culpepper invited me to teach preaching at McAfee this past year, I had that curious mixture of anticipation and apprehension that attends any new challenge.

On the one hand, the proclamation of God’s Good News has been the compelling enterprise of my life for almost thirty years of pastoral ministry. There is nothing that captures a parish pastor’s imagination and energies more forcefully than preaching.

But, on the other hand, the extent of my teaching experience had consisted of substituting in the county high school of the western Kentucky rural community where I served my first pastorate. I feared that perhaps my pedagogical skills might have atrophied over the past couple of decades since those occasional forays into the classroom!

There is a world of difference between the practice of preaching and the instruction of it.

As anyone who has had to preach—or had to hear-- sermons can attest, preaching is an inexact activity, much more art than science. Subjectivity prevails. Intuition, interpretation, imagery, style, rhythm, and timing are key. There is no homiletical “right way,” and the idiosyncracies of human personality more than a little bit apply. How does one instruct such things?

I discovered early on in my pastoral career a piece of wisdom that I have tried to follow ever since: good churches make good pastors—not the other way around. That old saw had served me well for a long time. Lacking any better core procedural principle as I embarked on the journey from parish to academy, I took that one into the classroom with me: my students and colleagues would guide and teach me. The ones I’m charged to serve would show me how to maximize our time of learning together.

That hunch has, blessedly, proven abundantly true this past year.

The central feature of McAfee’s special life together is community. Professors and students enjoy a quality of personal relationship rare in academic culture. There is a character of collegiality to what happens in the learning environment at McAfee. Values such as partnership, dialogue, engagement, and practice are held highly and cultivated carefully.

The knowing/being/doing missional triad is more than a mantra at McAfee. It is the philosophical and operational template of this place of training. What is done with hand and felt in heart is just as important as what is thought in head.
This tripartite approach to learning is particularly critical in the area of preaching. The practice and the study go hand-in-hand. As every working preacher knows, each delivery of a sermon is the preparation for the next one! Therefore, we not only read and reflect and write about preaching. In our school, we do it! It is the doing that shapes our learning.

Once I located myself in this understanding, I found my sea legs. The rhythm of study and practice is invaluable for the ministry of proclamation: preaching in the churches on the Sabbath week-by-week on one hand; coming together for inquiry and discovery in the classroom during the week on the other.

The year has been a Providential season of growth and regrouping. These wonderful McAfee minister-professors and ministers-in-training have greatly enabled and encouraged me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join them on this exploration.

Because of them, I’ve learned that the journey from pulpit to lectern isn’t such a long one after all.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Your High Calling
It is my delight to emerge from my cyber-hibernation these past three months and reenter the blogosphere with a strong endorsement for
The High Calling of our Daily Work is a ministry of my good friend and former parishioner Howard Butt. For decades Howard has been a pioneering advocate for the awareness and celebration of God's presence in the workplace. He and his creative team contend that God moves powerfully in our respective vocational contexts if we will but train our eyes and ears to see such activity.
Stands to reason. Seems to me that the forty-hour work week constitutes a setting at least as plausible for divine epiphany than our one-hour-a-week sanctuaries.
I remember first encountering this simple spiritual idea in seminary when Glenn Hinson required us to read a book entitled The Practice of the Presence of God by a medieval monk named Brother Lawerence. Lawerence made the astonishing discovery that God was just as present to him among the pots and pans in the monastery kitchen while washing dishes, than kneeling in the majestic cathedral at prayer. Indeed, he washed those dishes gloria Dei.
Martin Luther King, Jr had a similar spiritual breakthrough when he gave his working class congregations the charge to go about their daily tasks with a sense of dignity and self-worth. If you find yourself sweeping streets, Dr. King admonished, then "sweep streets like Michaelangelo sculpted statues, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, and some day all the hosts of heaven and earth will say about you, 'There goes a great street sweeper!'"
Even a cursory reading of the gospels leads one to conclude that Jesus found God more fully on the streets than in the sanctuary.
Please take the time now to browse around this crisp, newly updated website. Wouldn't it be a good thing for us to learn to look for God in the everydayness of where we live and move and make our being? If Jesus is any indication, our God-sightings Monday through Saturday will be at least as frequent as those on Sunday.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Interim Pastoring

The folks of the Immanuel Baptist Church of Nashville have called me to serve as their Interim Pastor. I begin with this morning's worship celebration.

God is good to connect me with this community of faith. Immanuel has served as a beacon of creative, progressive ministry in the city of Nashville for over a century. I will take the mantle of leadership during this season of transition from David George, who has served this congregation with intelligence and distinction for thirty years. A search team is already actively at work to find the pastor God has prepared for this fellowship, and I have every confidence this happy discovery will be made expeditiously.

(In the God's Small World category, David was ordained as a young minister by none other than the Trinity Baptist Church of San Antonio! It is instructive for us to remember that the ancient celebration of the "communion of the saints" means that all God's people of all ages and in all places are wonderfully and intimately connected, far closer than the vaunted six degrees sociologists say separate the human family on the planet at large...)

We are learning that the ministry of the interim pastor, particularly in succession of a long-tenured minister, is strategic for the health of our churches. Pastoral bonds with a congregation are deep and abiding. There are complex dynamics of grief that must be processed in pastoral leadership transitions-- even when those transitions are timely and appropriate. Mature congregations are seeing the need more and more for carefully planned and executed interim seasons between outgoing and incoming senior ministers, during which these myriad emotions and dynamics can be confronted, examined, and understood.

Even as Immanuel has called me, Trinity is wisely embracing this "best practice" in the call of my friend Randall O'Brien, Provost at Baylor University, as Interim Pastor following my tenure there. Reports of Randall's ministry are already universally positive, and Jana and I offer him and Kay our ongoing prayers and support as they lead that special group of Christians who convene at 319 E. Mulberry in the Alamo City each Sabbath!

As I look out the window in writing this, there is a blanket of snow covering the ground here in Nashville. This lovely Belle Meade neighborhood where Immanuel is located has been transformed into something storybook beautiful.

Reminds me of the imaginative promise of Scripture: "All things are becoming new."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dispatch From Germany, Part III

There is a stunning Protestant church in Trier, where we have spent the last several days, that was constructed upon the very edifice first consecrated to the Roman emperor. The power of the Gospel to convert that which is secular into something sacred always astonishes. Indeed, this church is yet another gorgeous structure of old Christendom, almost as high as it is long, and stands, as do so many in this country, as a testimony to Christ's transformative genius.

But, the inspirational story, like most human stories, has a dark side.

In 1930's and '40's, this congregation was deeply complicit in the Nazi regime of terror. Its pastors cooperated with the oppressive authorities, like most ministers of the Nazi era. In fact, there are photographs of young boys being confirmed in their Nazi youth uniforms. Not only did this church refuse band together with the several other courageous "Confessing Churches" (made famous by Bonhoeffer's witness) of the region to resist the cruel order, it ostricized those members of its own congregation who were critical of Hitler and his policies. Of particular horror was the stance of the church toward the Jewish people of their community.

The Allied bombing of April of 1944 severely damaged the church. The ornate wood chancel and altar were destroyed by fire, as was the organ. Everything inside the church was demolished. The only thing remaining were the rock walls erected by the Romans so long ago, perhaps a reminder that moral lessons learned by one epoch have a way of being strangely forgotten by successive ones.

When the fire swept through the church, townspeople say that the pipes of the enormous organ began mysteriously playing by themselves. As the local lore has it, the windstorm created by the destruction forced air through the pipes, creating a haunting dirge that could be heard throughout the city.

A divine recital of judgment upon the cowardice and betrayal of a Christian people who forgot who they were.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dispatch From Germany, Part II

We have made our way from Frankfurt over to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a Disney-charming, remarkably preserved medieval village dating to the 12th century. It is ringed by the picturesque Tauber River, which we can clearly see from our hotel balcony, and nestled quaintly among the surrounding hills.

When the Thirty Years War of the 17th century devestated most of Germany, this place was fortunately spared, and, thereby, frozen in time instead of updated and modernized with successive waves of cultural development. Its cottages and cobblestones make an excellent setting for postcard-perfect German scenery.

But, I was shaken from this pastoral reverie with today's visit to a museum of medieval criminal justice. The museum houses one of the most extensive collection of medieval torture implements in the world. It's one thing to see this stuff in movies, quite another to look at it right in front of you. The cruelest and crudest devices for wresting confessions from suspects were on display for perfectly cultured and refined people like us to view: racks, ropes, cranks, pulleys, pinchers, gallows, stocks, belts, balls, chains. It was a graphic presentation of human barbarism, an ample justification for why historians refer to those ages in our human story as "dark." As we were all wincing and grimmacing, we were thinking: thank God we don't practice justice so primitively today.

Then, I got back to my hotel room and turned on CNN to see, once again, the now-famous cell phone footage of Saddam Hussein's final seconds, and realized that the continuum between what happened then and what happens now is not all that long, that our contemporary moral superiority isn't justified after all, and that eras like medieval and modern and post-modern may be different with regard to what we drive or how we dress, but not so different in how perfectly civilized people still insist on killing people who kill people-- even murdurous beasts like Saddam-- to show that killing people is wrong.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Dispatch From Germany

Last night's New Year's Eve celebration here in Frankfurt was a grand-scale spectacle unlike anything I've ever seen.

Jana, Cliff and I made our way around 8:00 p.m. to Sachsenhausen, the old part of the city south of downtown, across the Rhine. Walking to our restaurant, I was scared silly step after step by the explosions of firecrackers nearby.

The tradition here is to celebrate entrepreneurially: each brings his or her own fireworks to ignite on New Year's Eve. Forget controlled, orderly, safe, secure scheduled displays that are carefully choreographed to go off a few minutes before midnight. Rather, think merry mayhem.

After a wonderful Thai supper (the new world order means, among other things, that you can now eat anything anywhere) and a couple of lively German pubs, where we joined in songs we did not know in a language we do not speak, we walked to the riverbank a couple of blocks away. Despite a steady rain, tens of thousands were already lining the Rhine by the time we got there. We managed to stake out a good spot overlooking the river and facing the impressive Frankfurt skyline to the northwest, right across from St. Leonard's Church, one of the oldest protestant churches in the city, where the people of God confirmed Goethe's faith in the 18th century, and where one of the only existing stained-glass windows survived the Allied bombing in '43.

No sooner had we got settled into our vantage point than the show began. Slow at first, but then more and more, minute after minute, myriads of bottle rockets and Roman candles began to detonate all around us and up and down the river for over a mile, wave after colorful wave of fiery sprays in the chilly and wet night sky, a constant barrage of fireworks, made doubly stunning not only by their Rhine reflection dancing on the water's surface but also by the iridescent skyline framing them, and persisting with increasing dazzling fervor for well over an hour, until the final climax minutes before midnight generated yet a new level of ferociously streaming color and fire that culminated in a magnificent pyrotechnic piece de resistance just as the clock struck midnight and St. Leonard's bells pealed for a full half hour.

It was a happy apocalypse, surreal with the smoke and sulfur hanging over the river. Blessedly, we watched from the elevated sidewalk on the bank. The randomness of it all added to the adventure. Scared us at first (well, Jana and me, but not Cliff), but we soon got swept into the delight and magic of it all. The entire thing was splendid, glorious, with the impressive Frankfurt skyline as the backdrop. Shortly after midnight, it began to rain, which only seemed to lubricate the entire affair into a more adamant revelry. As we were climbing in a cab around 1:00 a.m., I turned to see a young policeman chugging down a beer... which bizarre sight I took as a sign that the party was over for us, and that if we wanted to live the 2007 whose advent we had just celebrated, we had better get to the safety and sleep of our hotel.

I got to see the July 4 fireworks on the Mall in Washington D.C. in 1977, but last night was even more amazing. People were mostly well-behaved, a miracle in itself. Everyone's personal participation in it heightened the sensation of the event, like some kind of ancient communal festival that bound all these complete strangers together. Lots of dancing, singing, hugging-- my kind of party.