How Bad Memory is Afflicting Your Ministry (& Maybe Your Marriage)

one-wedding-251029Could your church (or community) be suffering from faulty memory?  I thought about this last Monday when I attended a presentation on the Missional Wisdom Movement.  The movement is relatively new and it is supporting the creation of new forms of Christian community that take the form of everything from a laundromat ministry to co-working space for local entrepreneurs.

What isn’t new are the roots that the movement draws from.  They are building on the contemplative tradition that draws people into the presence of God for discernment of insight and releasing God’s vision into the world.

The possibilities intrigue me.  (What might an intentional Christian community do and be on the Eastern Shore?)  But the presentation also hit me right in the memory bank.  This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

This is the kind of spiritual practice and community dreaming that formed me when I was a seminary student in West Dallas.  Why had I lost touch with this?

The marriage researcher, John Gottman, says that one of the telltale signs of a troubled relationship is bad memory.  As it says on his website, “In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together.”*

On the other hand, couples that have difficulty recalling those formative days of the relationship are usually struggling.

IMG_5611I worry about churches that are so caught up in conflict or in the mechanics of ministry that they can’t remember why they are doing what they’re doing.  I also worry about clergy who have lost their first love and their sense of calling.

To use the Gottman analogy, if a church can’t remember the excitement that got them into a project and celebrate they strength they discovered by going through it together, then perhaps its time to recall their mission.  If clergy fumble for the words to say why they are in ministry, it may be time to get reacquainted with the Lover who turned their lives around.

So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.

This applies to the connection as a whole, too.  So many times our programs, at every level of the church, are tinged with an institutional anxiety that sees everything we do as a way of saving the system.  No disciple lays aside her plans and life in order to save a system.  Disciples became a part of the body of Christ because they heard a call that rearranged their world and the work they do as a result only makes sense in light of that call.

When I am attuned to the voice of God in my life, I know that it because the task before me is a part of a greater joy.  It’s the same joy I knew as a youth coordinator in a West Dallas community center.  That’s a memory I savor.

The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the UMC

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photo by Anna vander Stel – via Unsplash

The last thing I want to talk about is the United Methodist Church’s legal wrangling around the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who came to her office last year as a lesbian pastor in a same-sex marriage. Last week the Judicial Council of the denomination ruled that her consecration as bishop was carried out in violation of The Book of Discipline and now the Western Jurisdiction, where she serves, will be asked to review her standing through the complaint process.  We know this terrain all too well and it is news to no one that questions of human sexuality still divide United Methodism.

The Judicial Council provided some clarity about what the official stance of the church is with regard to non-heterosexual clergy and I expect the Western Jurisdiction to provide more clarity about how deep the divide still is over that stance.  I continue to pray daily for the Commission on A Way Forward, which is tasked with conferencing around the Great Divide, and for an institutional consensus that will allow this church that I love to move forward together.  I also pray for Bishop Oliveto, who seems to be a fine and faithful leader.  But my heart aches to talk about something else.

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Bishop Oliveto shaking hands with Dixie Brewster at the Judicial Council hearings last week – photo by UMC.org

To those who are carrying out ministry with an explicit or implicit threat that if things don’t go the way they desire in this debate they will leave I say, “Enough!”  You are wounding the body of Christ.  And we need a community of creative, covenanted, committed Christians to navigate this age.

There are biblical metaphors about such things.  No one can serve two masters.  When you set your hands to the plow don’t look back.

I know the rejoinder—“We can’t go forward until we have clarity about this one thing.”  We can.  We have.  It took over four centuries to get our Christology right and look what the Church did during that era!  We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.” Methodists, in particular, are the people of AND.  We adapt our structure, our means, and our location for the sake of our mission.  As Paul puts it, “I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means” [1 Co. 9:22, CEB].

We are a people who muddle through gloriously. We do cathedrals AND storefronts.  We do full immersion AND sprinkling. We sing Gregorian chants AND “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.”

Clarity comes down to knowing what and who holds us together.  Our fidelity is to the one who has changed our lives and who calls us to an untamed holiness that is constantly stretching us to “adopt the mind that was in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 2:5].  That’s the reason for my heartache.

I believe it is God’s desire to have a Church that is not constrained by its bureaucratic apparatus.  And I worry that we are not creating spaces for new things to grow.

41ibb2XofKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In their book Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker talk about the opportunity this age presents for reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan and Christian message.  “We are in a full-blown institutional crisis. Is this a bad thing? [We] don’t think so,” they say.  “Self-serving institutionalism is dead. The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead. That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us” (9).  And yet…”Today there are plenty of seekers looking for a model for creating down-to-earth yet spiritual expressions of community. What is needed are multiple examples of how to do it” (20).

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.  These will be small — like yeast and mustard seeds, two other biblical metaphors for the kingdom — but they will be places that are receptive to God’s new thing as it is revealed in local community.  And they will muddle through, gloriously!, until the fruit is ripe.  These are the conversations I want to have.

This is what I want to talk about – the development of new communities, both within and in addition to existing churches, that allow clergy and laity to live out their first love and authentic calling.

Full inclusion and diversity of biblical interpretation, the issues that swirl around the UMC’s current impasse, are important.  But I wonder if we are able, in our current state, to talk about them if we don’t first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.  And we have better things to talk about.

Five Reasons to Look Forward to Ministry in 2017

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photo by David Marcu via Unsplash

Tired of counting the reasons the sky is falling?  Me, too.  The traditional metrics for mainline ministry (church membership, finances, number of organists) may be on the decline and the angst about how the nation’s Great Divide will impact the church continues.  But let me give voice to the hope that is within me during the moments I dare to dream God’s future:

1) We are getting over our generational building fever.  There are some places where investing in major new buildings makes sense and I appreciate the energy that comes with beautiful sanctuaries and new ministry space.  But more and more churches are living out the truth that we often proclaim – the church is not the building.  So I look forward to using the legacy space we have in new ways and doing more ministry in the community in places like homes, restaurants, campus lounges, and coffee shops.

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United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis with Seminarian Virginia Greer

2) Cooperative parish models are offering new life to small churches.  Particularly in rural areas, the joining together of congregations to carry out ministry cooperatively makes sense.  Combining missions committees, youth groups, and even church councils means greater resources for ministry, a critical mass of people, and less burden on small church leaders who often juggle multiple roles.  Churches in cooperative ministry also have more capacity to focus on mission rather than just keeping the doors open.

3) The segregation of our churches along racial lines has never looked more ridiculous.  Half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made the observation that Sunday at 11 AM was the most segregated hour in America, mainline churches are still trying to live into a new reality.  The good news is that our clergy and lay leadership on the denominational level is more diverse than it ever has been and cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments of clergy to churches are now becoming routine.  This is one of the features of our United Methodist appointment system that I most value.  Of course, there’s still a long way to go.

4) Young clergy are transforming the way we do church.  Young clergy have always been seen as slightly irreverent by their older peers, but I admire the way that God continues to use the creativity and gifts of young people in the church.  The young people in ministry that I know are bringing a deep thoughtfulness to their engagement of this changing culture that we live in and from their online experiments with podcasts and social media to their non-traditional gatherings like street liturgy and pub theology, they are challenging us all to take both our tradition and the realities of the contemporary world more seriously.

IMG_54565)  Small, communal experiments are modeling new ways of connecting the church to the world.  The Missional Wisdom movement, Fresh Expressions, and the New Monasticism are all examples of Christians seeking to live in accountable community with one another as they serve the world.  Most of them commit to a rule of life that brings them to a level of sharing and spiritual formation that many people hunger for.  They also tend to take seriously ministry with the poor.

Church is different these days.  No doubt about it.  And if our expectation of success is a model circa 1955, then we’re destined for disappointment.  But if we expect that God can do a new thing and is transforming the world and wants us to be part of it, well, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to in 2017.