Category Archives: unfinished thoughts

Hectic Pace

Hectic Pace (unfinished, from 10/5/2011)

One of the common problems that members of my congregations cite is the hectic lifestyle so many people experience today. Yet, when trying to compare that with an alternative, they fall short. Not only could they not think of an alternative, they cannot conceive of ministries to help people reach one. This, I think, is one of the core life issues for people the church needs to respond to, for the quality of one’s life is denigrated by the speed with which so many of us live it. The old cliche is to “take time to smell the roses,” and it holds a great deal of truth.
(From a November 29, 2004 entry in my journal – edited for this post)

Seven years later, and these words strike me as just as powerfully true and needed today as they did then. In these intervening years, in both charges I have served – Armstrong/Dunlap in Illinois, and Song of Life in Arizona – I have run one series on slowing down the pace, drawing from Kirk Byron Jone’s book “Addicted to Hurry.” Yet I, as do many of our church members, still feel the crunch of deadlines and the hurry that permeates our lives.

On Facebook today I was alerted to a TED talk on limiting stuff and living in smaller space. There was nothing particularly novel in the presentation, but it remains an important lesson that we seem to need to learn. My perception of the talk leads me to reflect that perhaps just as we take the amount of space we have and then over-fill it with stuff, so we do with our time: whether it be personal time or professional time, we overfill it. We attempt to fill our time with more “stuff” than it can contain; but, in this case, we can’t send things off-site for storage!

I am not the only one to recognize that we are over-booked, over-committed, and over-whelmed. It is, by far, the modern norm – and one that I believe the church needs to share a viable alternative to.

Remember Jerry McGuire? Part of the midnight epiphany that led to his Catcher In The Rye-like assertion to pursue “less (agents), less money…”, Jerry also discovered a means to greater meaning. (He also discovered a young Rene Zelweger, but I digress!)

I wonder: do we fill our lives with stuff and activity because we are lacking meaning?

Are we unable – or just unwilling? – to stem the tide of cultural and social pressures? And what does an alternative look like? It is much easier to reflect on what it is like to live with less stuff, or in smaller space. But to reflect on being less hurried, less committed, less busy… I’m unsure. What does that look like?

Perhaps The Academy For Spiritual Formation gives me one image of such life, but it is clear that weeks in the Academy are obviously an exception for participants, and not the norm. A slower life balancing study, work, prayer, and reflection after the example of monastic communities is, by its nature, difficult to achieve outside of a cloistered community!

As I reflect on this, I wonder: what alternative to the hurried and hectic pace of life today have you experienced? How do you think the Church can speak to helping people create a healthy alternative?

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Great Expectations

Great Expectations (an unfinished entry from 9/21/2011)

Q: What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design, in raising up the preachers called Methodists?
A: To reform the Continent, and spread scripture holiness through these lands.
(1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church)

The above Q & A is taken directly from the first edition of our Discipline, the 1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church created with the founding of our denomination at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. Recent events have led me to reflect on a similar question, and the radically different answer I perceive being exerted upon me and my fellow clergy colleagues:

Q: What do you think we might reasonably believe is God’s intent and desire for our Methodist leaders?
A: To save the United Methodist institution.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve been snarky and skeptical (and even, to my shame, cynical) plenty before, but I have always loved our Church and our heritage. Even as a seminarian championing “we need to change!” in order to reach GenX and Millennials, I was formed in and through our Church. I was influenced by Christians of deep passion and serious thought, and continue to grow in my admiration for John and Charles Wesley and the earliest Methodist movement.

But lately – as our Church and leaders continue to require new ministries and “practices of fruitful churches” and “Calls to Action” and tools for “vital congregations” and surveys about “church vitality,” etc. – I’ve begun to feel further out of place than I did as a young(er) clergy person championing for change. Suddenly everyone is encouraging change – but (it seems to me) there is an aimlessness to it. We have gravitated to a number of programs or gurus or dashboards or other indicators and methods for change, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. And if our leadership is questioned about it, we’re simply told “it’s all important.”

I love our history and our Wesleyan roots, but frankly I am increasingly discouraged that the unwritten expectation for our clergy at large – and younger clergy specifically! – is that we will make the changes (and, often, sacrifices) to save the ship. Mission statements or challenges from our denominational leaders increasingly sound and feel like they are coming from a survivor mentality rather than a true passion for Jesus Christ. Our desire for change seems motivated more by a desire to save ourselves, rather than a true desire to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. Indeed, I have heard our leaders tell us that we need to start new churches not to save new people, but to increase the number of Methodists to sustain our Church!

At the same time, we young clergy can expect to lose what has been the equivalent of “tenure” for decades – e.g. guaranteed appointments for ordained elders – while also being held accountable for greater growth and health than the church has known since 1965! We will continue to be expected to itinerate – going where we are told to go – and then evaluated as to whether we effectively “fit” the community we serve. Even as our conference structures are loathe to change insurance or pension plans for our current retirees, it is no far stretch to recognize that retirement for currently active clergy will be diminished and more challenging. In short, the current path of leaders focused on our struggling institution will continue to negatively impact our clergy, leading to increasing feelings of alienation and isolation.

As clergy respond to a difficult but often irresistible calling from God to lead others in making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we feel pulled in multiple directions to support, sustain, or outright save the denomination. Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I hear this struggle from too many of my colleagues to ignore it, and it deeply concerns me.

So what do we do?

I believe that our hope, and the foundation for any substantive or positive change in our situation, lies in the (re)discovery that as pastoral leaders, our primary calling is doing our best to follow Jesus and bring others to follow Jesus. As Methodists, we do so – we live, serve, and journey as servant leaders of Jesus Christ – in the company and guidance of the Wesleys and other Methodists. Our heritage (and denomination) is a resource to aid our mission, not a sacred cow to drive numeric goal-setting.

Our focus needs to be not on the institution, but on the people around us and the unique means our Wesleyan heritage has of sharing the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Which naturally leads to the all important questions: why do we, and our neighbors, need Jesus Christ? This question, taught for decades by Bill Easum and others who would coach churches, remains the ultimate question we are called to ask of ourselves and our churches.

Perhaps instead of worrying about how we will grow the church, we need to spend more time focusing on questions related to why we need Jesus today. I can’t even say I know the right questions, but I think I might start with some like…

What are the real – and felt – needs of the communities we serve in that Jesus would address if he were here?
What issues facing our neighbors might faith in Jesus Christ positively impact?
How can re respond to our neighbors’ needs in such a way as to fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?
How can Jesus help with the disintegrating sense of family and community felt by so many?
How can Jesus and Christian faith help overcome social additions to hurry and material possessiveness?
How can our daily choices and teachings encourage people toward the life of holy happiness God calls us to (eg. “spread Scriptural holiness”)?
How can the witness of our faith, the ministries of our churches, and the very vocations of our lives (whether we be clergy or laity) positively impact our communities (e.g. “reform the Continent” or “transform the world”)?