Thursday, August 19, 2010


Years ago, as I would drop in to visit with the pastor who mentored me during my seminary internship, there were several warning signs that told me things were not well with him and his ministry work. Bruce could be a warm, cheerful, and ebullient guy, but an ongoing struggle with obesity-related health issues and a resultant propensity to intermittent depression meant that sometimes he'd just completely check out. When he was down, he was barely there at all, distant and muted. That was hard to miss. When his health issues finally took him, I wish I could say I was surprised.

But then there were those times when I'd pop in, and he'd be fine, and we'd chat about life. I'd ask him what was new or interesting or exciting in the church community he served. And he would talk about the facility. About building renovations and new bathrooms. About carpet. About trees that needed to be removed. At the time, this struck me as another sign that things were off. It wasn't as in-your-face as the depression and the health issues, but it seemed symptomatic of where the energy and focus of his work lay. And that work...not ministry, but work...was largely about building maintenance, about the structure in which his community met and worshiped. What I didn't hear was about classes that were inspiring or energizing, or about new or ongoing mission projects in the community, or anything that spoke to vision or to purpose or to the Gospel. Not hearing those things from someone whose primary purpose is spiritual leadership raised flags. It concerned me.

As I've worked in my own ministry context over the last seven years, I've felt that same strong gravitic pull into the administrative and the structural. The nature of my community...small in numbers, with a large and demanding facility...has meant that even with the diligent work of some amazingly committed and stalwart volunteers, I've had to step in to do things that aren't exactly Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I've done budgeting. I've done HR. I've slopped out downspouts and wetvac'd floors and dug ditches and chopped wood and painted and even done some rudimentary carpentry. That's the reality of pastoring a teensy tinesy congregation. I anticipated this, and I'm cool with it.

Up to a point. So long as that work facilitates the stuff that matters, it's fine. But then there are times when I realize that the structural demands on me seem to be...spreading. Extending tendrils. Sometimes I notice that dealing with the latest building emergency seems to consume a greater and greater proportion of my time. I'll listen to the conversations I'm having with church folk outside of that blessed hour of Sunday Bible Study, and they're all about structure. Or when someone asks me what's new at my church, and the first thing that pops into my head is asbestos abatement. And whenever that happens, it raises flags. It's a sign I need to make course corrections.

The relationships we forge as communities of Christ-followers are by nature multifaceted. They include many of the same elements that one might find in a fraternal organization or a secular nonprofit. But when the dynamics of facilities and process grow to the point at which they...and not our faith...are the thing we always talk about, then we've wandered off track.

I feel this strongly whenever I look at the vast overabundance of governance structures in my denomination. They may not be a bricks and mortar building, but they can be even more consuming. The ease with which we fall into a tight-chatter orbit around issues of polity and organizational dynamics reflects, I think, that it is the place we're most comfortable. It's the idol of choice for we highly educated folks who feel somewhat awkward speaking about the things that really touch us.

Shaking ourselves loose from those professional and busy-seeming distractions's something we need to attend to.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Mosque Debate

That after several months we're still hearing about the ongoing "debate" about the construction of an Islamic Center and mosque near the Manhattan site of the September 11 attacks is really quite hornswogglingly baffling. Well, it is and it isn't.

It isn't baffling because the folks on the right who are raking this muck know they've got something that riles their base. When you're able to get over 60% of the population behind you on an issue, you pitch that issue out there as frequently as with as much energy as possible. It doesn't matter what that issue is. Just follow the zeitgeist, and watch your polling numbers rise. And boy, does this baby push all the populist hot buttons. 9/11. Islam. The honor of America's fallen. It's perfectly prepackaged for midterm election demagogery.

But while it works great for talking heads and red-state-representative shouting, what I for the life of me cannot see is how anyone who cares about America's constitutional republic can oppose this mosque. I hear their argument, sure. The terrorists who took so many American lives under those crystal clear September skies were radical jihadists, proponents of a horrifically violent and brutish sect of Islam. So, by extension, any expression of Islam anywhere near the World Trade Center site is a reminder of the evil they committed.

Problem is, that extension is just plain wrong. Moderate, tolerant Islam is not the enemy of America, and the folks who seek to build that mosque are as far removed from the jihadists as I am from Fred Phelps. They are, in fact, precisely the kind of Muslims who make good citizens and neighbors if they live here, and trustworthy allies abroad.

That concept doesn't work for those who want to paint Islam as inherently evil. For the American far right, which rumbles and glowers endlessly about Islamofascism, there can be no good Muslim. It also doesn't work in those portions of rural red-state America that see every Muslim as a potential terrorist, dark hued and almost as dangerous as Mexicans. According to the election year calculations of folks like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, it's best to play up those fears. Gets folks all riled up, and even if it's not technically true, and completely antithetical to the bedrock values of our religious liberty..well..who's to let that get in the way of scoring some points in the fall?

It is a testament to the people of New York City that they aren't buying any of that, which makes this "debate" a complete non-issue.

That, I think, is ultimately the reason folks on the right are still ranting about this. It's meaningless, something that rouses rabble but has no political solution other than the solution already found by the people of Manhattan. Which is, of course, to allow the principles of freedom of worship upon which our country was founded to overcome the shouts of those who love fame and flags and the trappings of power more than constitutional principle.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Proposition 8, Gay Marriage, and the Challenge for Conservatism

As the dust settles from Proposition 8's overturn by a Reagan-nominated federal judge, it is settling in some anticipated ways. Those who support gay marriage are heartened by the vigorous and far-reaching character of the ruling by Justice Vaughn Walker. Opponents are falling back and retrenching, and likely hoping that the conservative Supreme Court will choose to overturn the ruling.

The challenge for the conservative position, unfortunately, is that it is clearly and objectively weaker. That weakness comes because in the public arena, the literalist interpretation of Scripture that is the basic foundation of most opposition to gay marriage has no purchase. You cannot argue an effective constitutional case from a few snippets in Leviticus and Paul. Honestly, you can't make an effective scriptural case, either, but that's a topic I've explored elsewhere. In the absence of the literalist framework, the argumentation comes across as fundamentally shallow. Take, for instance, three current pillars of conservative argumentation.

1) Gay marriage threatens marriage. This stance, which is a standard position, has the unfortunate character of being self-evidently wrong. Anyone who is married knows this. My heterosexual marriage is not impacted in any way by gay marriage. Period. If the state chooses to extend those rights to another class of citizen, that does not in any way abrogate my own rights. No matter where you stand on the issue, that remains true. It also in no way impacts the sanctity of a covenantal union. If you believe that marriage is fundamentally a covenant between a man and a woman, bound together by the grace and power of their Creator, then the extension of legal and civil rights to gays and lesbians can in no way impact those covenants. One is an action of the state, and the other is an action taken from within the framework of faith.

2) Proposition 8 was overturned by a judge who was defying the will of the people. This is materially correct. Justice Walker did overturn a referendum. Problem is, that's the entire purpose of the judiciary in the American Constitutional system of governance. The judiciary exists to serve the law...and the Constitutional liberties of all Americans...over and above the will of the majority. That is its purpose. If a justice is doing his or her job, their fealty is first and foremost to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the case for Proposition 8 has little foundation in our Constitution. Its clear purpose was to deny a particular minority class of citizens a right held by the majority.
3) The overturn of Proposition 8 decision threatens religious liberty. This argument plays directly into the culture of self-entitled aggrievement that seems to define so much of American life. The argument goes like this: I believe, from my faith, that homosexuality is sinful. If I am required to provide benefits to gays and lesbians or tolerate their unions, the requirement that I be tolerant is a fundamental violation of my religious freedom.

This argument seems not to grasp the nature of freedom. Within our constitutional republic, the rights of every individual are protected, in so far as they do not impinge on the rights of other individuals. That's the purpose of the Constitution. There is no evidence that permitting same sex marriage in any way impinges on the rights of conservatives to believe that homosexuality is sinful. This ruling has no impact whatsoever on the proclamation or teaching of that particular approach to faith.

What might be limited is the right of a small business owner to deny health care benefits to same-sex partners, or to refuse to hire/rent or sell to/serve individuals who they view as basically evil. Here, conservatism faces within itself a clear ideological conundrum. Within our republic, freedom is not without limits. If an individual acts in such a way as to restrict the liberty of another, they are using their freedom in a way that undercuts the freedoms of others. Again,the purpose of the government in a constitutional republic is to balance the liberty of all, at the least possible cost to liberty.

Against that metric, the conservative position falters. Gays and lesbians who seek legally recognized marriage are not meaningfully limiting the religious or personal liberty of those who view their behavior as undesirable. It does no harm to the liberty of a conservative, to the life they choose to lead, or to the faith they choose to practice. That's not the way it's going to be played, of course. But it is, nonetheless, true.

What will be interesting is seeing how the Supreme Court handles this. Having read the ruling in some detail, it's striking how deeply founded it is in precedent and "original intent" of the Constitution.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Piled Higher and Deeper

As I contemplate an undesired but likely shift in my employment status in the near term future, I find myself strongly considering something that I've not considered before. That option is a return to school. After seven years in the ministry, I'm at more or less the right point in my pastorly life when a doctorate would be something to think about. It makes a ton of sense from a career perspective. Congregations in my neck of the woods expect advanced degrees, mostly 'cause pretty much everyone in this hifalutin' area has an advanced degree. And my Masters of Divinity doesn't really count. That's the baseline. If I want to have a whisker of a chance of serving a church after the last grain of sand drops through the hourglass here at Trinity, I'm going to need to hit the books again.

While it's both necessary and practical to be thinking about that now, I do struggle a bit with the purpose of it. Having done the pastor thing for a while now, my sense is that a traditional academic Ph.D. is almost utterly pointless if congregational ministry is your calling. The specialization required for a classical academic doctorate seems to provide exactly the opposite of what most congregations actually require.

Pastors are, by necessity, generalists. That's particularly true for ministers who serve little struggling churches like mine. I not only preach and teach and counsel. I need to be on top of church finances. I need to have a good working knowledge of building issues, up to and including knowing how to use a drill and circular saw, and being comfortable mucking out downspouts on a high roof.

But the need to be a generalist isn't just for the teensy churches. Even the Big Parking Lot pastor needs to have a broad range of well-developed skills. Yeah, they need a golden tongue, and they need the ability to convey the message of the Gospel. But they also need to be able to lead effectively. They have to understand congregational and programmatic dynamics. A big church pastor who preaches real good but fails to grasp the intricacies of their church...well...they'll fail.

This has lead me to think that perhaps, perhaps, a D.Min. actually makes sense. The D.Min. is a degree that gets no respect. I've heard it mocked as a degree for folks who lack the academic chops to get a real doctorate. It's a lame degree for church careerists. isn't. As I look into some of the D.Min. offerings at nearby institutions, I find myself seeing some real possibilities for it strengthening my ability to meet the day-to-day needs of a community of faith. Honestly, that feels more relevant to my calling than a traditional Ph.D.

Whichever way, I find myself surprised that having resisted the concept for a while, it suddenly seems both relevant and desirable.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rich Foolish Churches

The sermon "remnant" for this week came as I preached out of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is laying into the notion that material wealth means jack diddly squat to the essential core of his message about the Kingdom of God. Having stuff and desiring material success and seeking wealth is utterly alien to the purpose of the Gospel.

This was a bit of a tough message for my community, which is mostly comprised of youngish Asians whose spiritual upbringing was in churches that preached the Korean variant of the "health and wealth gospel." Jesus wants you in that test prep course! How else will you ever become a doctor and/or a lawyer?

It was tough for me, too. This was not because I buy into the magickal mystery tour of the thriving prosperity movement.

It was, instead, because in reading Luke 12, I encountered two verses that are commonly used by pastors in their stewardship sermons. The first is Luke 12:21, where the rich fool is berated for not being "rich towards God." This is commonly presented as a fundraising scripture. Be "rich" in your giving, or ooooooh are you like this idiot! The second is Luke 12:34, that favorite old chestnut of the stewardship sermon series, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." If you really really really loved the church the way you're supposed to, then you'd have upped your pledge for this year. Show me the treasure!

I may even have used that last one myself at some point.

But the purpose of Christ's teachings in Luke 12 has nothing to do with material wealth, other than to reject it as meaningless and the pursuit of it as irrelevant to the Gospel. As I prepared my sermon, which was much more focused on the individual and the personal implications of this, it struck me that Christ's rejection of material attainment applied just as pointedly to collectives.

Meaning, perhaps it shouldn't just define churchgoers. Perhaps it should apply to churches as well. The energies we pour into the growth of our buildings and our institutions seems really no more relevant to the Gospel than the profitable machinations of that wealthy Judean.

It's not an evil thing, necessarily. For every church whose spiritual life is all about new carpets and building additions, there's a church that is using its building wisely. It's just neither here nor there when it comes to what matters.

I have to remember to forget this come stewardship season.