At the end of each of the seven pastor-interviews I concluded with this question: Do you have any other advice and/or wisdom to share? I wanted to give each pastor a chance to share any kind of advice or feedback they would have, independent of the specific questions I came with. Here are the answers I heard:
Pastor #1 (42 years experience) -- The last word is integrity. It’s extremely important in ministry. If I were saying that to a younger person coming in, I would emphasize that remaining true to what is right and wrong in terms of the gospel is so important. Don’t buy into the power plays that are easy for clergy to buy into. There is power that we have by virtue of our position. It’s easy to get blindsided by that and then to use it for the wrong purposes.
Also, to me it’s really important to connect with pastors of other churches in any community – to make things happen.
Pastor #2 (16 years experience) -- Love God’s people, and let them love you.
Pastor #3 (37 years experience) -- The trick to being a minister is being faithful to what you know. It’s keeping that relationship with God and with other people around you alive, with the Holy Spirit. It’s being faithful with what you know and do. Do your best, but realize it’s the Holy Spirit that makes things happen. Try not to be anxious. The key to not being anxious is to trust in God. And sometimes it’s to keep on keeping on.
Pastor #4 (22 years experience) -- My advice and wisdom comes down to a doctrinal point of view, but it’s very crucial. Believe in your heart that God is sovereign, in control, and that He has a plan for your life. We have to totally surrender to His will. In CPE language it would be to trust the process. Trust the Holy Spirit. Trust in Him and things will work out.
Pastor #5 (51 years experience) -- More and more I turn to the wisdom literature (i.e. Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, the Proverbs, etc.). We ought to spend a lot more time preaching on these and living towards wisdom and seeking wisdom, and that’s maybe what’s happened for me. Maybe in old age I’m a lot more wiser than I was. It is one component of faith and it’s something that’s neglected in the church these days. It may actually bring us closer to the heart of God than prophecy or a lot of other things.
Pastor #6 (54 years experience) -- I think that while there are reports of great negative news and situations around us, we still live in a very positive day. I think with our younger clergy, probably the theology that they have wouldn’t be one I would hold to, but I wouldn’t be against it either. I enjoy their enthusiasm; their good friendships… the way they love each other.
I’m not a good person with technology, but I see facebook. It’s one of the reasons the young clergy are close; we communicate that way. We post who we are, but other people see that and praise God. It brings the connection together. So I look with great enthusiasm to the future. Today’s church with its younger clergy are much more spiritual than we were at your age. We were afraid of each other. We put on facades. We put on masks. It’s a whole different idea. We challenged each other’s’ theology, which made us more afraid of each other. A lot of times we didn’t understand where the other person was at.
Pastor #7 (34 years experience) -- Love the people. Preach good sermons. Work like a dog. Survive the pain. It can be a lonely and discouraging place in ministry. You put your soul out there and someone comes along and knives you.
A sabbatical is a good thing. I took one a few years ago where I went to visit people who had made a difference for me, and to tell them about it. Most of them were surprised.
Something I've struggled with in the ministry is how to deal with the business side of church life. There are two schools of thought:
1) Nonconformity: The church should provide a counter-cultural alternative to the world of capitalism. It goes back to a clash of values. Capitalism pursues customer satisfaction, while the church is about self-abandonment and the cross.
2) Adaptive: The church doesn't succeed in modern world when it doesn't operate like a business. Churches that adopt sound business practices will be the ones that succeed, just like Wal-Mart and Microsoft and other businesses have succeeded.
Obviously I'm much more in line with the first of these two, yet I struggle with the inevitable part of being entangled in the business side of things. There are pressures that pastors face to be successful in accumulating members, buildings, dollars, etc. (Perhaps at times they may be more self-generated than they are imposed, but they are still present.) And the populace often acts like a customer base, looking at the religious industrial complex through the lenses of their consumer interests.
To gain some insight in my summer sabbatical interviews with different pastors I shared a resonant quote from Ed Stetzer as a lead-in to my question: "'Greeks turned gospel into philosophy, Romans into a government, Europeans into a culture; Americans into a business.' Explain your assessment of that quote. And how does that play out in your ministry?"
All the pastors asked me to repeat the quote from Stetzer before they responded. Here are the replies I heard...
Pastor #1 (Methodist - UMC) -- All of that has influenced our thinking, but where does it become a passion? A story? A thing that moves us to action or to change? How do we determine that?
The piece that has most influenced me has been the gospel of John – in how I understand who Christ was and how Christ has been connected from the beginning – the pre-existent Christ. I think that’s a Greek understanding. At that time it was a Hellenistic understanding. But I have to agree that it’s really become a culture, a business, and all that junk. To me it’s political as well, with political candidates, and religious stuff being used as campaign promises. I have a hard time with that. Maybe that’s culture.
Pastor #2 (Lutheran - LCMS) -- In terms of everything in America, we want to do it with a business model. The concern becomes that we often see churches that want to be turned into business. But our mission is to proclaim the gospel. Sometimes people adapt a hire-and-fire mentality, or a 'we have to make a profit' mentality, etc. In reality we are in Christ’s service is to grow up people, to build relationships that lead people to Christ.
I think of the Greeks and their philosophers, the Roman empire and their teaching, etc…But it all comes back to relationships. In America everything becomes a business, but it ultimately has to be relating people to people.
Pastor #3 (Congregational - NACCC) -- My first reaction is that it sounds good but it’s very simplistic. The reality is far more complex than that. We need to be careful. We’re tempted to be guilty of doing all of those to some degree. We need to be careful of one of those being us at any time. Look at our churches: sometimes it’s all culture, politics, etc.
Pastor #4 (Congregational - CCCC) -- Yes, it’s true. I think we’ve commercialized Christianity where it’s all about metrics instead of true spiritual growth. I do agree with that. We have commercialized it. We need to get back to the spiritual essence of Christian thought – almost where it’s more similar to what the Greek and Russian Orthodox would do. They have a spiritual and mystical understanding instead of the consumer mindset.
I have to realize that it’s not about numbers. It’s not about how many souls were saved, or how much the offering is. When you get wrapped up in that you get lost from the fact that I was here for somebody who lost their pet, who was having a hard, day, etc. You may cry with them. Those are spiritual moments; they’re not metric moments.
Pastor #5 (Baptist - ABCUSA) -- Historically that seems to be pretty accurate. It’s a description of how the church evolved going back to the ancient philosophy of the Greeks and the influence in the New Testament. The gospel to me is independent of culture. It’s independent of ways that the culture adapts and bends religion to its own will. The gospel is to be independent of all these things. The gospel gets bent, warped, and reshaped in ways that are worldly. In a real sense the gospel stands alone and should not become captive of the cultures of the world.
A very influential book was this one: H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ in Culture. It has sections about Christ above culture, Christ in culture, Christ against culture, etc.… There are five ways that he looks at the life of Christ.
Pastor #6 (Congregational - NACCC) -- << nodding >> All of that is important, but none of it should be the essence (or all in all) -- but it’s all important. But we should definitely be doing it as more than business. It’s lost some of its power because we’ve turned it into a business. We should not be making budget meetings the center of our conferences. We say: "We can’t do ____ because we don’t have the money." We should do what we’re called to do, and then look for the means to fulfill that calling. God will provide.
Pastor #7 (Methodist - UMC) -- …and Jesus intended it to be a lifestyle. There's a great quote from Shane Claiborne: “Most great ideas have been talked about for too long; they need to be lived.”
Also, it’s not my ministry. It’s the ministry of Jesus, and we’re privileged to be a part of it.
Every job has things you like to do and things that you have to do that you don't particularly want to do. And it's no different for pastors, but it varies depending on the gifts and calling of each person. Two of the questions I asked each pastor in my summer sabbatical interviews were the following:
Pastor #1 (Retired Pastor) --
Pastor #2 (Small Church Pastor) --
Pastor #3 (Senior Pastor) --
Pastor #4 (Small Church Pastor) --
Pastor #5 (Retired Chaplain/Pastor) --
Pastor #6 (Retired Pastor) --
Pastor #7 (Senior Pastor) --
As I was doing interviews with pastors this summer one of the questions that I asked was one that I picked up from Dean Schmitt, who was a longtime Wesleyan pastor in Topeka several years ago. This is the question: How/where do you get your motivation? And an easy answer to this might be: “Jesus Christ is my motivation.” I’m sure that’s true, but how *specifically* do you get motivated for your ministry?
Here are the answers I heard...
Pastor #1 (42 years experience) --
It’s not as easily obtained now as it used to be for me <<laughing>>. Motivation comes from calling, and that comes from Christ, but I think there’s something in many pastors that keeps us wanting to keep our hand in it. There are times when I don’t want to keep doing that at my age, but I still feel that need to allow my gifts to be used. So it’s really a calling. I don’t have it enough to pastor a church right now. It always amazes me with pastors that go back, almost to full-time, after retiring. Not me.
Back when I was younger – then it was not only a calling but a full-time vocation. There was a point in a previous church when I turned 65 and I could’ve kept on going there, but I didn’t feel like I had the energy or passion to take the church to the next level that it needed to go to. When you reach that point, it tells you something. Some people reach it much later. I could’ve kept on keeping on another 5 years. No one was asking me to leave. But it was a sense that I wasn’t going to be as effective in my own mind as I have back then.
Pastor #2 (16 years experience) --
Through Jesus Christ, and through God’s people: through the hearts and lives of God’s people that He puts before me in ministry -- loving them, and letting them love you. I’m a hugger. For some people that’s the only hug they’re going to get all week. And by encouraging them -- being somebody that seeks to lift their spirits.
Pastor #3 (37 years experience) --
I have never doubted my calling. This is God’s plan for me. My minister and my youth director cornered me back when I was young and said, “Do you think God’s calling you into ministry?” They were convinced I had a call. They asked me, “What do you want to do with your life?” I told them, “I don’t care, just as long as it pleases Jesus.” That was my answer at age 19. It’s still my motivation today.
It was back in the Vietnam era. I was in the National Guard for a year. It was my freshman year of college. I had opportunities to do other things. I had opportunities to commit myself to other careers. I was agonizing over what to do. There was family pressure to go into pre-training with the FBI, along with other options. Even the FBI was being aggressive about it. I just didn’t know. We were talking about it; and I said that all I want to do is please God. When I said that, the youth director said with a knowing smile, “Do you think God might be calling you to be a minister?” My response was, “Are you crazy? Normal people don’t become ministers.” I had no awareness of other people besides my pastor being a minister. I walked away from that evening with an awareness of what I was supposed to do.
Pastor #4 (22 years experience) --
For me I have this inner drive. I have this inner presence. I believe it’s the Holy Spirit. It’s always before me, driving me, revealing things to me. It’s a constant abiding presence that I felt from the very first day I was called. It’s never left me. Without the Holy Spirit I’m not going to have that inspiration.
Pastor #5 (51 years experience) --
I really feel that a lot of my motivation comes from my childhood experiences in the church, and seeing my father (who was a pastor) serve people and being a compassionate person. It comes from seeing him be compassionate and that flowing into my life. I just continue to borrow from that motivation.
Pastor #6 (54 years experience) --
I think that you really have to walk in the spirit as best as you can. I’m a very complex psychological person. I live with my past, and it’s not bad – it’s just wrestling through some things. I came from a working class family. I had a good father, but he didn’t understand the idea of me becoming a minister. I can relate to the story I heard from a President of an engineering school. This man was President of the University. At a luncheon I heard him tell the story about the day that his father laughed and his mother cried when he announced he’d become a student at that college. They thought he was fooling himself, that he wouldn’t make it. He didn’t have the high school classes in topics that were required. He went to admissions and they rejected him four or five times but he just wore them down. He had a part-time job at UPS that paid $25/month to cover his tuition. It's a college that had been rated #1 in a number of competitions and is a very challenging place. People who grow up in that town aspire to go there. This relates to my motivation because I remembered that my parents could’ve had same reaction when I told them I had the calling to be minister. We were blue collar. Mom would’ve loved it, but she thought, “He’s just going to get hurt.” Plus, I’m very dyslexic. I have a deep learning problem. Academics aren’t my strong suit. Also, my father died suddenly. I was the oldest child and became a bread-winner in the family.
I think that God at that point and in all my life has been framing me in the Holy Spirit and calling me and empowering me to do ministry, so I have to stay in touch with that. I need a contemplative prayer life every day. Everything I do is not of my own ability.
Pastor #7 (34 years experience) --
I had some very shocking experiences of call – including being hospitalized with meningitis at the age of 13, back in the days before your parents stayed with you in the hospital. I remembered waking up and seeing an angel at the foot of my bed. And I said, “If you let me live I will serve you.” These kinds of things have never left me. They made me feel seized-upon. I can’t not do what I’m doing.
In the years since I've developed a passion for the people too. It’s a privilege to get paid to do this. I find a lot of joy in this life – in the work of Jesus.
I'm continuing to share gleanings from my sabbatical interviews with 7 different pastors. In my last post I listed out the most important things each of them said they learned in seminary. The natural follow-up question was this one: "What would you say are the three most important things you’ve learned in ministry since seminary?"
In any vocation you will learn at least as much (if not more) from "on-the-job" practical experience than from classroom learning. Plus, most professors will want the seminary experience to launch a pattern of life-long learning, with graduation being a beginning rather than an ending. With that in mind, here are the answers...
Pastor #1 (age 69) --
1) A huge piece of pastoring with people is being able to empathize with people, to be able to get in their shoes and understand what’s going on with them. Maybe that comes naturally. I don’t think all pastors do pastoral care easily or effectively. I think that’s a gift that I have. That’s something I’ve always done in my ministry – not that other people aren’t doing it too. But I like to keep that connection to my congregation.
2) To be a good leader means working very much in a team approach – with staff and such. It’s about working as a team for the same goals, and respecting each person and what they bring to the team, and not having to be in control all the time. That’s a big one. Being in charge is different from being in control. Being in charge means I know of everything that’s happening, but it also means being willing to let go and let other people on the team (who often have more expertise than I do) do what they do best – and not having to control that.
3) Learn to appreciate your congregation not only as parishioners but as friends. That’s a fine line for pastors. Appreciate them and allow the friendships to develop. I’ve always been sort of extroverted; it’s not hard for me to get to know them. And we’re not friends in the sense of going back to them. If people call me and want to reconnect, I do that without stepping on other peoples’ toes. It’s about allowing friendships to develop. As opposed to having an “I’m a pastor-professional, you’re a lay person” demeanor. But I also have a strong ethic of not going back unless the pastor asks, and even then…I’ve turned down several things at the church I used to serve at.
Pastor #2 (age 45) --
1) I've learned leadership dynamics, in terms of what type of leader are you. What leadership perspective do you come from? Are you an enforcer? A leader? An equipper? What’s your style to motivate God’s people? Are you authoritarian? For me, it’s the gift of being a teacher and an encourager. Being a pastor is like being a lead cheerleader. (Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s how it is). Ultimately, how do you engage God’s people to be God’s people? Pastors can lose sight of that fact. One problem in our denomination sometimes is arrogance. We wear robes and such – which isn’t bad by itself. It’s done to set the man apart from the office. But people become arrogant. We’re servants. What is your servant heart?
2) I've learned how to understand change that happens in people, in lives, and churches – and how people react to it any time a change happens: There’s the joke about Lutherans and changing a lightbulb that can carry over to other denominations as well: How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? One to change it, and a committee of 9 to say we didn’t need it. People react differently. Some embrace change. Some come to embrace it with time. Some will just react negatively. A pastor is better equipped if he understands how people are and their differences.
3) I've learned the whole purpose of alignment: As a pastor we can come into churches where every person is swimming in their own direction. So I’ve always been big on emphasizing the mission statement of the church. The one we developed in my first pastorate was “reaching out with the love of Jesus.” Now as I walk out of the worship service I say, “Go in peace, sharing the love of Jesus.” In my first church I would say, “Go in peace, reaching out in the love of Christ.” We go out to be the church. We come to be fed, but then to be sent and to go and be God’s church.
Pastor #3 (age 62) --
1) I’m more convinced than ever of the traditional biblical truths: e.g. the trinitarian faith, the need for redemption, God is good all the time, etc. I’m more convinced of the reality of orthodox theology and beliefs.
2) If there’s anything I say all the time it’s that it’s all about relationships. First with our faith in God, then with others (in the church), and then with others outside the church. It’s all relational.
3) I don’t take myself too seriously. I take God seriously, I take Jesus seriously, but not myself. The biggest deal is that it’s not about me. It’s not up to me. I’m a servant. I think that my role needs to be one of humility and gratitude. The old saying of WWJD? -- Well, Jesus would not assert Himself. It’s the meek, the humble. I’m very flawed; I can’t take myself seriously. The Kingdom of God is not up to me, thank God.
Pastor #4 (age 47) --
1) I’ve learned not to have high expectations; keep your expectations realistic. For me this means that I have to be authentic to who I am, and not conform to what others think I should be (e.g. more holy, working longer hours, etc). I had to learn to keep myself in check, to know who I am, what my limitations are, and what my strengths are – to know myself. This came out of Clinical Pastoral Education. I came to it late in the ministry – the need to be self-aware.
2) You need to look after your health. Get sleep, exercise, and have time to play and goof off.
3) Never neglect God’s word. You need to (no matter if you’ve been in seminary or have a doctorate) continually read the Bible every day and pray every day. Stick with the simple fundamentals. That’s what’s kept me going. Pray every day. Get in the Bible every day. Spend time with your spouse and your family. Everything else comes after that.
Pastor #5 (age 74) --
1) I’ve learned that the ministry is a time to celebrate life and peoples’ lives in the church.
2) I’ve learned that listening and conversation is more important than telling everybody what I believe and what I think – i.e. listening to other peoples’ stories, and developing the art of conversation. I may write a book on this: Theology ought to be seen and done in conversation rather than some kind of a lecture. It needs to begin in terms of story-telling, with listening to other peoples’ stories.
3) I’ve learned that the most important ministry is caring about people – whether they’re in the church or outside of it. It’s learning to care about people. Part of this for me is that the church isn’t nearly as important as I once thought it was. When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus, I see Him as involved in the world and not in the church. He wasn’t as interested as forming the church as in bringing the presence of God into peoples’ lives. And the church in many respects is an obstacle to that. I’m much more anti-institutional. It’s not that I’m against the church; I still value it, but God is at work in the whole world, and not just in the church. That’s why I was attracted to ministry in the hospital, in hospice, and in prison. Much of my main ministry was not in the institutional church in those regards.
Pastor #6 (age 76) --
1) Spiritual life is important. That’s a big difference. Academic life is important too, but spiritual life is important.
2) I like personal relationships with theology. The serendipity things from the 1970s and 80s emphasize the relational side – relationship theology. The spirit binds us together as people, so to me at least (and I’m not criticizing others) it doesn’t matter really so much what happened in the Bible story 2000 years ago if it doesn’t relate to a situation I find myself in with another person. Relationship theology unlocks us to see other peoples’ real needs – spiritually and psychologically (and sometimes physically too).
3) I've learned the whole idea of discovering a deeper understanding of the Trinity, particularly the Holy Spirit. In the 1960s I was invited to go with a man (who was actually a Mennonite pastor and farmer. He became pastor of his church by the old Mennonite practice of drawing straws. He was a beautiful man in the spirit – with no formal education at all. Maybe he had been through the 8th grade.) He wanted me to take him to a large city for a charismatic conference. So I did, and it changed my life. There was a whole experience there. I became involved in the charismatic movement. I had a profound experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. I probably came away from there as a real radical. I had to balance that off. Probably today now that whole experience that I still cherish lends itself into the more contemplative life.
Pastor #7 (age 57) --
1) Read. Learn what you don’t know. Learn how to become proficient at things that don’t come naturally to you.
2) Learn your way into things that you naturally recoil from. If your default tendency is to hide, don’t run away. Step into it; fix it.
3) (most important and key): Christianity is a life lived outside of ourselves. Lots of Christians in America don’t understand this; they prefer to sit and absorb. Really the Sunday service is best understood as a launching pad. It involves following the way of Jesus, and learning to live life outside ourselves.
I'm continuing to share some of the things I learned in doing interviews with other pastors over my sabbatical. One question I asked each of them was this: "Looking back, what were the 3 most important things you learned in seminary?"
It's a question I've thought about myself a few times. Here are the answers I heard...
Pastor #1 (Saint Paul School of Theology) --
1) The first thing that comes to mind offhand is that I had an amazing insight about how the scriptures were all connected, part of the same word so to speak. That kind of gradually came to me. I didn’t realize it before, and I have taught that way ever since – centering on these themes, intentions – of what God was intending.
2) Saint Paul did a wonderful job helping us integrate the practice of ministry and the classwork, the theology – putting the learning process with the practice process. I was able to integrate a lot of what I was doing. I was working the whole time; that was a lot of what they wanted to happen.
3) For me at least, I learned a sense of community and how important that is. I wasn’t learning in a vacuum, but with other people. I’ve remained connected with a lot of those people through the years.
Pastor #2 (Concordia Seminary) --
1) The tools for ministry: Where the resources are and what they are, to draw for understanding. When somebody asks me a question, I have the tools in a toolbox and I know where to go to find the answers – particularly on knowledge or doctrine knowledge, history issues, etc.
2) The doctrine of the church: The teachings of the church, the positions of how we understand scripture. I take a confessional understanding in this way: I’m a Christian first, and then a Lutheran as far as the understanding of God’s word. But definitely first a Christian.
3) A love for people: Certain professors over and over emphasized this, including in vicarage (i.e. internship/residency): They’ll never care how much you know until they know how much you care. If God’s people can see how much you love and care about them, then they’ll want to know the doctrine. Sometimes pastors come in and thump doctrine, but they haven’t taken the time to develop a relationship. This is much more difficult - to help a person, show them that you care about them by having a pastor’s heart, a servant heart, a caring heart. Our people want to see that we love them. They, in turn, want to love you. But it doesn’t work if you’re a miserable and hateful person. I see that in some clergy; they have the answers because they went to seminary, but they come across like a hammer. Peter tells us not to Lord it over the church.
Pastor #3 (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) --
1) Theology – The school was run by the theology department. Everything was about right thinking. You had to have four required courses to get through (Louis) Berkhof’s systematic theology. It took a lot of time. It was ultra-reformed – just a hair below Westminister. The theology professors were OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). I’m moderately reformed, and a believer in biblical theology. Any system is flawed. The Bible is too fluid and alive to be systematized. A little systematic theology goes a long way. I came out appreciating Joachim Jeremias far more than I did Berkhof or any other scholar. He promoted a biblical theology, not a systematic one.
2) I didn’t learn everything I needed, but I learned how to find it. The seminary was poor in practical pastoral ministry at the time. It was heavy in biblical studies, but weak in practical application. I didn’t have any idea how to run a church or about visitation. I had two preaching courses, but I had to teach myself how to prepare a sermon. Whatever it was that I had to do, it didn’t do the job for me. Part of the problem was that Gordon-Conwell had gone from two seminaries to one, with 650 students. They were overwhelmed. It was a merger of two dying schools.
3) You have to recover from seminary. It was such an intense hotbed; everything was so important. Every scholar thought that his issue was most important. It was like, “You cannot be a pastor without this book,” - there referring to very obscure works. I had to realize that they had different ideas from what was important than reality. Everyone has to recover from seminary. Our school was controlled by the systematic theology department.
Pastor #4 (Bangor Theological Seminary) --
1) The reason I liked Bangor was that it was out of the box. It wasn’t a traditional type of seminary with tests and quizzes. It was the type of learning where they really wanted you to learn. It was up to you to know the material. They would give you an assignment that was more reflective in nature. It gave me a sense in ministry that you always have to be thinking outside the box; you can’t be stuck in one way of learning.
2) I learned the dynamics of interfaith. I realized that I’m going to be ministering among people that don’t have the same beliefs that I have. Not everybody’s going to be conservative like me – because Bangor was a classical liberal seminary.
3) I had to learn that it was up to me to come to grips with my own spiritual growth, to seek Christ, to study. They didn’t hold my hand there. I needed to seek out other believers to fellowship with. It was really on me. All these years later I can’t go out and expect people to hand me things. I have to be diligent to form these relationships. You have to be a person to want to seek.
Pastor #5 (American Baptist Seminary of the West, Drew Theological Seminary, Saint Paul School of Theology) --
1) I learned a lot about European theology at Drew - especially studying Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, etc. It was very academic there. I realized that scholarship and getting to know about European theology was important there. The professors influenced me in that regard.
2) Another one came from taking classes from John Swomley at Saint Paul. I was interested in social justice and Christian social ethics.
3) And at (ABSW) Berkeley, it was a turning point in my life. Three things became important to me for the first time: Christian education, pastoral care & counseling, and probably the influence and connection with Asian people and Buddhist and Hindu thought. I was making the transition from being a change agent and social advocate to being a pastor and as someone most interested in my personal spiritual growth and the growth of the people in my current and future parishes.
Pastor #6 (Clarksville Theological Seminary) --
3) Old & New Testament studies
It was more academic than it was spiritual.
Pastor #7 (Oral Roberts University) --
1) Relevant theology makes you relevant; obscure theology makes you obscure.
2) God is loving and trustworthy; He’s not out to catch you on a technicality.
3) Flee from manipulation, power-control, and hypocrisy. It comes quite easily. You have power in ministry. Some people use it in ways that are unfortunate. I watched people use power in ministry to hurt other people – including shame and guilt.
Over the course of my sabbatical I was able to interview seven different pastors, asking questions about their ministry perspectives, experiences, insights, and other things.
One question I asked each pastor was this: "It seems like we’re very polarized in America – some of it driven by politics. How do you respond to this in your ministry?" Here are the responses I got...
Pastor #1 (Methodist - UMC) -- I’m a very liberal person. I have a really hard time when any kind of Bible references are used that seem to stand over against who Christ was. And for me Christ was always on the side of those who didn’t have, those who were looked upon with no respect – that’s who He was and who He related to. Our politicians today always seem to be in some kind of stance over against that – all of them. The gospels become a self-serving shtick – a self-serving thing for people to use. If they truly understood who Christ is, how could they say and do some of the things they do? It undermines integrity.
Pastor #2 (Lutheran - LCMS) -- For me, I share my perspective and why I hold it. The polarization of America also has to come with a respect for the other side. What I sense is that we have a segment that screams for tolerance but are some of the most intolerant voices in our country. If you’re going to demand it you should present it towards the other side.
Also I like the country song that says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The Bible says to let your yes be yes, and your no be no. And I keep in mind the relationships. I come from this angle, but that doesn’t mean I dislike you because you disagree with me.
Pastor #3 (Congregational - NACCC) -- I try to urge everybody to be moderate in how they hold their beliefs. Ideology is like a backbone or a spine. You can have it rigid or flexible, but it’s still the same backbone. We have people who have pieces of the backbone, and it’s so rigid they can’t bend or flex.
I don’t want to tell people not to believe what they should believe, but to be much more flexible in how they live out what they believe. In my ministry, I listen, I love, and I allow people to have space. Even if they disagree and I know it, I still allow them to have that space. I have people in my churches who are far more liberal or conservative than I am. Every now and then people think, “You’re gonna get mad at me and I’m gonna have to leave.” And I tell them no; you have a place at the table.
Pastor #4 (Congregational - CCCC) -- "I take a reformed Calvinist view. We as Christians can’t hide from politics. We have to allow people to engage the culture and to talk about it. I don’t believe we should be fighting about it. I don’t see anything wrong with having political discussions in church, as long as things are done in a decent way.
Polarizing to me is one source of divisions. It’s us versus them. I don’t think that’s healthy.
I think that the church’s role is to change society. We’re not to be separatists. We’re change agents: We’re out to change creation. My favorite image is where Aslan is on the move to change Narnia. Our role is to transform and change. That means having someone who follows Jesus who is going to be a Democrat or a Republican. It means don’t run away from organizations. That’s the best way to put it."
Pastor #5 (Baptist - ABCUSA) -- I try to be a listener to the people who are polarized. And I try to challenge them whether they’re on the extreme left or right with dialogue, and with questions that I hope will help them rethink their positions. And I try to preach and teach that there should be a dynamic middle, not the extremes.
The middle is dynamic. The extremes are very rigid. And that’s one of the biggest challenges to the gospel in America. The right is very strong in American religion now. The left is near absent.
But I try to challenge in a way so that they’ll listen. I don’t say that they’re wrong. I try to help them to discover other peoples’ perspectives and to find meeting ground, common ground with people they’re opposed to or against.
And I try to have them come back to the gospel – to appreciate the faith as something other than a political football. This is different for me. It used to be I would’ve tried to use it on the left, but now I don’t like it on the right or the left. I think it does a great disservice to human beings and to the social fabric. But to say that I’ve got a system where I can bring people to reconciliation and seeing eye-to-eye, I don’t know I’ve got that way figured out either.
Pastor #6 (Congregational - NACCC) -- Politics should respond to peoples’ needs. It should be the processes of systems that meet peoples’ needs. If we fail to do that, we have failed in our politics.
I’m silent about a lot of things – maybe too silent. Garrison Keillor had on his radio program the Mayo Glee Club from Carleton College. They were singing the tune and idea, “I’m eating instant Ralston in a Quaker Oats town.” That describes me in every town I’ve been in. But I never made it an issue – because if I do that then I’m shut off from really ministering to them.
Of course if there’s something that’s important, that’s different. There are times when you have to speak. For example, I was in [Indiana] when they executed Timothy McVeigh. I was opposed to the death penalty. There is a time to speak. We had different rallies where they had them speak against the death penalty. There have been times when I’ve done this.
I have hosted the programs for the Martin Luther King Day. One time the local symphony played. I was active in the NAACP. There were times when we were quietly involved – in marches &c. But I never want it to come to the place where it would divide the congregation on issues that are marginal. Allow the people to be who they are.
When I was pastoring in one town there were four mayors. I was friends with all of them. God led me to be their friends. Three were Democrats, and one was Republican. We never got into politics even though they were city leaders. But we got into some issues – human rights &c.
Pastor #7 (Methodist - UMC) -- I believe in addressing this. We draw too many lines and not enough circles. Jesus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I imagine the scene at the great banquet where people are placed directly across the table from someone who voted differently and are left to ask, ‘How on earth did you get in here?’
Richard Rohr has written on the dualistic mindset – where everything has to be good or bad, right or wrong, etc. So many things don’t need to be judged. A couple examples:
1) Joe Biden – I don’t need to see him as a person I agree with or disagree with. This is man who just lost his son.
2) Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner – Maybe it’s none of my business? If we spend more time loving people, the world will be a better place.
I don’t preach about social issues. I listen to a lot of my pastor-friends; all they talk about are social issues. Looking back at the time of Jesus: the Romans were terrible oppressors, and Jesus didn’t address it. There was vast homosexuality, and Jesus didn’t address it. The same issues as today were present. In the church when we make it the main theme we lose people, and the Kingdom of God isn’t like this.
Personally, I was raised in a Republican household – but I don’t identify with that today. A lot of money is put into the systems and it has to do with maintaining that system. An example: The flat tax is a good idea, but it’ll never happen because it robs Congress of the ability to give privileges to people through tax breaks.
We elect a lot of people who set out to do good, but either they don’t last long or they get sucked into the problem end of it. The church’s role is to provide an alternative: The church should be a haven for all people to feel welcome, whether I like them or not.
All good things on this side of eternity must end, and so my sabbatical will come to a close in a couple of days. Part of the blessing in this final stage was to be able to spend some time in Portland, Maine. Portland is a city that has resonances for us in a couple of ways. For one, Hillary was raised in Portland, Oregon, which as it turns out was named for Portland, Maine. She felt like there were some similarities and a common atmosphere between the two Portlands. And also, Portland has the same street names as Emporia, including Commercial, Exchange, State, Congress, Union and a few others.
So it felt right at home for us but also unique in several ways. It is a beautiful city. This was the view from our hotel room...
Previously in my Kansas county-seat travels I mentioned that Gove County in western Kansas was named for Grenville Gove, a Civil War veteran who was originally from Readfield, Maine. Readfield happens to be the nearest town from the cabin where we stayed. I also found out in our tour of Portland that the state of Maine had the most casualties in the Civil War. A large memorial statue honoring the the veterans lost in action is displayed prominently in the heart of the city...
Another part of Portland's history was the great fire of 1866. It actually began with some boys who were setting off fireworks on the 4th of July near the harbor, and it ended up destroying most of the city. The old U.S. Customs house was one of the first buildings built afterwards. It was made with granite intentionally in order to be fire-resistant.
Also notable in Portland was the city hall building. The city seal (displayed above the middle door) has a phoenix rising up, and the theme is based on the city's resurgence in coming back from the fire. There are times of loss, but there are also times of restoration and renewal...
South of Portland there's a string of beachside vacation communities that are swarming with middle-class tourists. There are numerous motels and other lodging places. Many (but not all) of them had "no vacancy" signs out. We managed to find a parking spot in Orchard Beach that was a short walk away from the ocean. Hillary wanted to put her feet in the Atlantic. I thought it was her first time for doing this, but I was wrong. Years ago on a trip to Mauritania (in West Africa) she visited the Atlantic. But still it was a beautiful moment...
Portland is a city that is famous for its food. Besides the state-honored traditions mentioned in the previous post (i.e. whoopie pies and blueberry pies), Portland is famous for having many local home-grown local restaurants and famous chefs. It's a bit like Lawrence in that it's a great city for dining experiences. On our first day there Hillary and I were able to take a food tour, and then later we ate at some of their esteemed restaurants. For snacking, one of the local favorites that we tried was "The Holy Donut" -- where they make donuts from Maine-grown mashed potatoes. They are a popular local delicacy, and so is "Moxie" -- which tastes a bit like a coke but with a heavy clove flavor. It's a unique item to the northeast.
Over by the harbor near the visitors center in Portland I saw this flag display and I wondered why they were flying the Canadian flag in an American city. Hillary suggested that maybe it was because Canada is right close to Maine. But that didn't make sense to me. Missouri is right close to us in Kansas, and we certainly don't fly their flags on our side of the border.
I found out the answer from the pastor of a sister church. It was done as an enticement for tourists from Canada, to make them feel at home and encourage them to spend their money in Portland. It seems to be working, and it sounds consistent with the love-your-neighbor thing.
It was great to visit both the city of Portland and the state of Maine for the first time. It's always fun to see a new place, but of course the call of home beckons. My sabbatical will end in a couple of days. I'm looking forward to being back in the pulpit this Sunday.
On Friday Hillary and I were able to spend a bit of time in Augusta -- the state capital of Maine. One thing I wanted to do was visit Maine's Capitol building. Since I grew up in Topeka I know what it's like to live in a state-capital town. And you get to see your own places with fresh eyes when you go out and look at other ones.
Maine's capitol building is similar to the one in Kansas, but it's a bit smaller and less ornate in about every part. It's a nice building, but it doesn't feel nearly as grand as ours in Kansas does (though I acknowledge my bias here.) Below are pictures of the exterior, the rotunda, and the House and Senate chambers. One unique feature is a balcony with a great view. It was completely open and accessible to visitors, with rocking chairs to sit in...
Every state has its own roster of famous political leaders, and several of the ones from Maine had paintings displayed in the Capitol. These included...
In Maine the talking books services are a part of the outreach department which is an arm of the state library. It's located directly across the street from the Capitol. Since this includes the functions that are done by the office Hillary leads back home in Kansas, we decided to stop in briefly to visit with their director, Christopher Boynton, who gave us a tour.
State governments take on important projects like helping people with visual impairments. They also sometimes do symbolic gestures that promote some of their state's popular features. In Maine the official state snack is the whoopie pie, and the official state dessert is blueberry pie -- both of which we were able to sample. (See the pictures. We did not lose any weight on this trip).
Kansas currently doesn't have any official food items. Maybe this is something our legislature can work on? True -- it's not a matter of great official legislative substance, but I don't think it would cost anything either. And it might engender some fun and positive competition among the different food providers in our state...
Trivial matters aside, Capitol buildings were designed to be big and grand and impressive for a good reason: Public governance is important business. Sometimes it's easy to forget this in times of political chaos and silliness. All the crazy things that happen can entice people to become either cynical or disinterested. But many peoples' lives are effected by the decisions that are made in these halls. We ignore them at our own peril. Our voices need to be heard, and we need to pray for our elected leaders too -- since politics is not an end, but a means to the end of good governance.
I didn't know the correct answer to this question until I came to Maine. A friend told me it's this: a pond has its source in a spring, but a lake has it from somewhere else. Maine uses this distinction in how they label their bodies of water, which is why they have some very large ponds.
Thanks to the generosity of a pastor of a sister church, we've been blessed to stay in a cabin on Lovejoy Pond this past week. It's very large; in Kansas we would call it a lake. It's definitely larger than Lake Inman, which is the largest natural lake in Kansas. And it makes for a beautiful place to swim and watch the sunset. This is a great place for a retreat...
Lovejoy Pond is situated in an area with several similar lakes and ponds, some of which are connected in networks. On Monday Hillary and I got to go see an old friend of the family, Eric Hooglund -- along with his daughter, granddaughters, and his daughter's mother-in-law. There we got to go swimming on Long Pond, up in the Belgrade Lakes region. We enjoyed our time together. I hadn't seen Eric since the late 1970s, when I was just a kid...
Among the things that are celebrated in these parts of Maine are the loons and the lobsters. Phil Jackson, the pastor who owns the cabin we're staying in, told us to try to listen for the loons. They have a prehistoric sort of sound. In the night their calls are mixed in with hoots from owls. In the daytime hours the crows will also chime in. And during the day sometimes you can also see the loons swimming in the waters, diving for fish. These are things we just don't see much of in Kansas...
The cabin we're staying in is on the grounds of what used to be a Jewish boys camp. It was founded in the 1920s, and was in operation up into my lifetime. It closed in the 1970s, and a group bought it for family recreational summer use by the cabin owners. They have a group owners' association that runs the camp, but it still has the feel of a boys summer camp. In the old dining hall (which is now a community building) there are plaques around the wall from each year's summer session. The oldest ones on display go back to the 1930s, and the latest one I could find was from 1973. This one in this slideshow was from 1970 -- the same year I was born...
The sabbatical concept is loosely based on the biblical sabbath teaching. In general terms it's about having a season of rest and renewal. The Bible recognizes that this is a human need, which is important to remember in our modern over-worked society where everything runs 24/7. The academic community has been tuned into the concept for some time -- and in many cases these universities got the concept from the churches that founded them. It's only natural for the church to make this a part of its routine for clergy/leadership -- and in some cases the corporate world is even catching on to the value of offering sabbaticals.
Camp Menatoma has been a great place to spend a week of my sabbatical. I'm thankful for my friend Phil Jackson for giving us use of his space, and for our chance to see the great state of Maine for the first time.