Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reflecting on Seminary 10 Years Later

10 years ago tomorrow, I went to Boston University for orientation which officially began my seminary journey.  I have been thinking about that and wondering where the time has gone, and then Adam Hamilton said that he was meeting with the pastors of the 100 largest churches and the deans of all 13 United Methodist seminars, and he wanted to know what people thought should be passed on to both groups that our seminaries should be doing.  So here are some of my thoughts:

Business administration:  I was fortunate enough to have been a manager for some Fortune 500 companies. I had handled budgets over $1 million dollars, with the largest being $34 million, although I was not ultimately responsible for that one I just helped track the money.  I had overseen a staff of 25 for a business open 24-7-365.  I had hired, trained and fired people.  Unfortunately most of my classmates had never had this experience, and when they got out into churches didn't know what to do, or even where to begin.  Now there is no doubt they had other experiences and gifts that I lacked, but this one hurts the local church, and I have yet to hear of a seminary that requires a class like this.  BU has a business school, and others are close enough to schools that have similar departments to make this a reality.

Medical knowledge:  BU has also a medical school, but we had nothing to do with them.  Since a large portion of what pastors do is dealing with people with medical issues, and not just those in the hospital (and we can debate whether this is what pastors should be doing), a lack of anything regarding medical knowledge, procedures, etc., is obviously lacking.  I would recommend that everyone who is seeking to enter the pastorate be required to take a semester class on medical stuff, (types of cancers, treatment, side effects, what different things mean) which would include insurance, as well as how to tap into the social services programs available to people.

Pastoral Care:  Yes I know that pastoral care is required, but my pastoral care class was so absolutely terrible that it caused me a crisis that put me into counseling.  I don't think that's the purpose.  In talking with others in the Boston area about pastoral care at the other schools I didn't hear any glowing remarks about them either.  It appeared, at least in Boston, that pastoral care was clearly the one place where the old adage that those who can't do, teach, actually was true.  I don't know how to solve this problem, and requiring CPE isn't the answer as those who have had terrible CPE experiences (which is a significant percentage) can attest.  Perhaps CPE supervisors have the same problem that those who are teaching it have.

Internship:  I loved my internship and the church, and even stayed there for three years, but the biggest problem is where seminarians are doing their internships.  Bishop Willimon has said that he thinks one of the biggest problems in the training of clergy is what we train them to do.  He says we send them to small churches to do their internships (which is true), then their first appointments, and sometimes second and third appointments are to small churches (also true), and then they make their way up to larger churches and we are amazed that they don't know what to do.  Why would they, he asks, when all we've taught them how to do is to run small churches?  Is it any wonder that small churches dominate the conference when that's all our clergy know how to run?  I was greatly blessed to have my first appointment be at a large church, and I had some experiences and gained knowledge there that I never would have gotten at a small church, and it would have had to have been learned the hard way in moving up church sizes in my appointments.  If the largest churches in the denomination want to help create a new future, they need to be taking on interns by the dozens to teach them how to run a large church.  Large church skills can transfer down to the small church, and I believe if you run a church like it is bigger than it is that it will grow, but it's very hard, and in some instances impossible, to transfer small church skills to a large church.

Church Connection:  The faculty I got the most out of and learned the most from where those who were actively engaged in their local churches and were willing and wanted to talk about that experience.  There is always the pull in academia towards being academic, and the church wants to pull in the opposite direction, and there is a pendulum that tends to swing at most seminaries moving from extreme to extreme.  I don't know how you reach a medium between those two, because they are both important, but that should be the goal.

Disconnect:  Someone once asked me how I tried to bridge the chasm that exists between academia and the church in what is taught in both places.  My reply was not that there is a chasm between academia and the church but that he chasm is between clergy and the church.  The clergy know all the information that is taught in academia, and most of them agree with it, but they refuse to teach it or even acknowledge it to their congregations.  So it is not that the academy is off doing there own thing and refusing to interact, it's that the clergy are the ones refusing to interact.  They take what they know, put it on a bookshelf, and move on as if nothing has changed, and the problem is that our congregations then don't know how to interact with the Bible or with fundamentalists churches in any meaningful way, and we don't interact with them in any meaningful ways, which allows those churches to have voice within this culture.

I loved my time at BU, and then later at Harvard, and I am greatful for the experience and what I learned.  Could things have been better, of course they could, but in any professional field there is going to be a disconnect between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world, and if you don't believe me go ask a teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc.  As the military says no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

There is really only so much that can be taught in seminaries to prepare us for the ministry, much of the rest has to be learned on the ground, in the experience of it.  But here is where I would fault the annual conferences and the Board of Ordination, which is that once you are out the experience stops.  I know that we are supposed to be doing continuing education, and there are requirements for that, but I have yet to see a BOOM actually follow up on that, and if they did I would tell them that I have now served two churches which could not afford to send me to continuing education.  This is where there has to be leadership and resources at the annual conference level to provide these things.  Just say that this year we are going to target this area, and work on that, and set the expectation that clergy are going to participate and that we are going to be teaching each other.  I would love to take another preaching class now that I have been doing it for awhile, I would love to know what other creative things people are doing with their sermons, how they are using technology in sermons (and in worship) but good luck finding such a thing.  We are supposed to be connectional and yet we let all these resources rot on the branch because we are too busy running our churches.  If we are moving on to perfection, as Wesley says, then we need to be doing a much better job in helping ourselves to improve and get better at what we do.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rule One: Do No Harm

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 13:10-17:

In the Gospel of Matthew there is an interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and they ask him what is the greatest commandment, and Jesus says, “’You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)  This, or something similar was a question that Jesus got quite often.  Now in this particular instance the Pharisees are trying to get him to say something blasphemous, but in most of the other times the questioner is genuine in their desire to know what it is they are supposed to be doing.  They are saying, I’m at point A and you want me to go to point X, so tell me what I need to do to get there, draw a map for me so I’m sure I’m doing the right things.  That’s something all of us like.  We want direction, we want to know what is expected of us, we want to know that we’re on the right path.  There’s a reason why we have GPS’s in our cars and on our phones, so that we know where we are going and we don’t get lost when we’re driving.  People are looking for the same things in their relationships with God.

As Methodism began to grow and spread throughout England, people began approaching John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, asking him to explain what they were supposed to be doing.  Was their some set of rules, or a road map, that could be followed?  To answer these questions, John Wesley created what became known as the “The Nature, Design and General Rules of Our United Societies.”  The General Rules, which are still foundational to us as Methodists, served to encapsulate a simple set of principles to follow.  Just like Jesus answer to the Pharisees, the General Rues did not tell the whole story of the faith, but they give us a foothold for letting us know where to start in our lives as Christians and where to come back when we have gone astray, and the rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to attend upon all the ordinances of God.  In 2007, Bishop Reuben Job took Wesley’s general rules and updated them a little for a book he entitled Three Simple Rules. Over the next three weeks we’re going to be looking at these three simple rules, and we begin, appropriately enough, today with rule one, which is to do no harm.

Wesley’s original list was certainly geared for its time.  Here is a partial list of some of the things he thought we should not be doing in order to avoid doing harm: 
Buying, selling or drinking alcohol. 
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, returning evil for evil
The giving or taking things on usury
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.

In the early Methodist movement, it was expected that you would abide by these rules and if you were not willing to, or if you failed to obey them then you could and usually would be removed from the society until you repented of your ways and pledged again to abide by the rules.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Passing the Baton

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 11:29-12:2:

On September 21, 2008, the New York Yankees played their last game in historic Yankee Stadium.  Home to the Yankees since 1923, the stadium had played witness to some of the greatest players, some of the greatest moments in baseball history, as well as home to 26 World Series titles.  And for that last game, my family was there.  Linda and I bundled up the girls and drove down to New York City, to 161st and River Avenue, home to the big ballpark in the Bronx, We watched as Derek Jeter became the last Yankee to ever come to bat, and the great Mariano Rivera recording the final out at 11:43 pm, with the Yankees wining 7-3.  And then with tears streaming down my face, I held my oldest daughter who was then 2, and my youngest, who was 5 months, and told them that although they wouldn’t remember this that it was important, and I told them tales of the Yankees and of our trips to Yankee Stadium

Perhaps the moment was best summed up by Derek Jeter who was given the microphone after the game to try and give words to the moment, and said, “There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history, a lot of memories.  Not the great thing about memories is you’re able to pass it along from generation to generation… and we are relying on you to take the memories of this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the New Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation.”  And of course the Yankees christened the new stadium by winning their 27th World Series title.  But one of the things that makes baseball great and unique is that it is about remembering and passing on stories and traditions of the game from generation to generation.  A love of baseball isn’t so much taught, as it is caught, no pun intended, and the same is true with Christianity.

People are always shocked when I say this, but no one is born a Christian.  This is not true of some other religions.  In Judaism, if your mother is Jewish then by tradition you are considered Jewish.  Not so in Christianity.  Your parents being Christian does not make you a Christian, and Garrison Keilor famously said, even attending church does not make you a Christian, any more than sleeping in your garage makes you a car.  To become a Christian is a choice that is made by each individual, recognized in the act of baptism, and like a love of baseball, Christianity is caught more than it is taught.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pop Quiz

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 12:32-48:

I want everyone to put everything away, all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, everything else should be put away under your chairs, because we’re going to have a pop quiz on what I have preached on so far.  Did that make you nervous? Maybe a little scared?  I’m sure it brought back some unpleasant memories regardless of how long it’s been since we’ve been in school, because I don’t know anyone who likes surprise tests.  And if that didn’t make you scared, try this. When Jesus fed the five thousand, Matthew took five times as many fish as Luke, and Peter had one fish less than Luke.  The total number of fish between them is 20.  How many fish does each disciple have?  (x equals Luke’s fish, 5x equals Matthew’s fish, and x-1 equals Peter’s fish, so X plus 5x plus X-1=20 so x equals 3)  That certainly left some of you with chills, because very few people like word problems, and I’m guessing none of you have every faced a word problem in worship before either.  But none of us really like these situations.

We don’t like being put on the spot, we don’t like being surprised, and we don’t like having to do things we don’t like, like word problems.  And yet this is a reality of life, and there is really only one way to prepare for situations like that, and that is to be prepared for them.  Rather than waiting until the last minute to study for tests, cramming and spending all nighters, if we are working at it every single day, then we don’t have to cram at the end because we are already prepared, and we don’t have to worry about the pop quiz that comes up, that gets thrown at us, we don’t have to worry about the last minute project that the boss puts on our desks, because we are preparing every single day, bit by bit, we are doing what we are called to do so that we are ready for these surprises.  And that’s not just good advice for school or for work; it’s also good advice for living a Christian life.

This passage is about being prepared for the second coming of Christ at a time that is yet unknown.  Normally when we think about the second coming, we also talk about the end of time, and typically this is referred to as the apocalypse, but that is actually incorrect.  Apocalypse means unveiling or revealing, thus the apocalypse of John is called Revelation, because it reveals something to us.  But there were lots of apocalypses that didn’t have anything to do with what Revelations is about.  One of the most popular apocalypses in the early church, and one that was included on many lists of books that might become part of the Bible, is known as the Apocalypse of Peter, although Peter didn’t write it, and it is a guided tour of heaven and hell, sort of like Dante’s Divine Comedy.  So although we think of end of time issues being apocalyptic, that is actually incorrect use of that term.  Instead, stories that deal with the end of time are eschatological, or dealing with eschatology, which means something like study of the last things.  It also deals with the parousia, which is the second coming.  And I know some of you are thinking, “there he goes again with the big words,” but this time it’s about more than justifying my education, because it’s important to understand these issues, especially in consideration of how some portions of the church view and talk about these subjects.  In addition, the church really likes big, technical words, and in fact the longest real word in the English language, antidisestablishmentarianism, is a church word.  Next pop quiz, does anyone know what antidisestablishmentarianism means?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Going Shopping

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Colossians 3:1-11:

This weekend is a big one for back to school shopping, as parents and students rush to stores in order to get ready for school to begin in just a few weeks.  Many of us parents are caught off guard because we didn’t realize that school started in August this year, and we didn’t plan on having to spend that money this month, and didn’t budget for it, and that is a topic we will come back to, and just as a reminder Christmas is scheduled for December 25 this year, so that one doesn’t take you by surprise either.  But the back to school shopping involves not just the buying of paper and pencils, but new clothes as well because there is no way our children would be caught dead wearing the clothes they wear every single day that first week of school, maybe the second week, but certainly not the first week.

There is something about clothes and what they say about us.  After all we say that the clothes make the man, or woman.  When I was in high school, which is getting to be much further away then I would like, you could often tell what social group people belonged to simply by the clothes they wore, and it’s really still true in society.  When I put on my collar people instantly know who and what I am, both for good and for ill.  Our clothes can say something about who we are, they can be our identity, and they can also mask who we are, we can put them on simply as a costume.  And the writer of Colossians says that for us as Christians, it’s about the clothes we wear.