Wednesday, October 19, 2011

shared vision: walk far, not fast

"If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together." When I heard this proverb in a recent gathering, upon the occasion of the installation of a very promising leader in an equally crucial and challenging role in the church, I sensed a profound truth. I have come to realize that we ignore this truth at our peril, and we embrace it to our benefit.

The theory of the "great man (or woman)" as leader is rooted in our belief that the intellectual life is a solitary endeavor (and this is in fact the way we are trained and evaluated) and the spiritual life is a personal experience (and this is deeply embedded in our popular piety). Thus the individual studies, prays, reflects and assimilates information toward the purpose of action; if he or she is in a leadership role, all of this is shared with or imposed upon a group of people.

Such an experience is efficient, it is "fast"and on the odd and random occasion it may even produce a constructive outcome. There is, however, a shadow side to traveling fast and walking alone: it creates spectators and not fellow-travelers; it is marked by over-functioning (of the leader) and under-functioning (among those not in leadership) and it does not build community or capacity.

To travel together is move in step with others: we may perceive ourselves to be more intelligent, more spiritual or more committed than those around us, and at times some of this may be true. And yet in walking together our eyes are opened to the gifts of others. These gifts lead us to insights that may not have been possible given our naturally limited experiences, and they can become, in time, sources of hope and inspiration. The people who walk with us, and we might even say that this is primary way that God walks with us, help us to travel "far". They help us to live a sustainable life, which is, in Eugene Peterson's memorable phrase, "a long obedience in the same direction".

Finally, the walk with God and each other leads to a shared vision. The leader walks with his or her people and, in coming to know them, senses the hopes and dreams that God has placed in their hearts. In the best of all worlds, the leader is moved by these very same hopes and dreams, and when this occurs it will often be said that the leader loves the people. And when this happens---and, to be sure, it is a gift---the journey is not tiring at all: indeed, as the prophet promised, they mount up with wings like eagles, they run and are not weary, they walk and do not faint.

If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together.

Monday, October 10, 2011

soundtrack for a spiritual life

Most of you know that a few months ago I transitioned from being a pastor of a congregation to the role of superintending an area that covers seven counties, sixty nine churches and several other ministries. I travel a great deal in this work, and the Sunday morning experience is very different. I anticipated that I would need to find a new structure in my spiritual life, and in a future post I will share what that his meant in relation to study. But I knew that my experience of music would be very different. I had been blessed by a weekly proximity to extraordinary choral music and a congregation that loved to sing hymns. All of this would change. So I began to put together a list, on my iPod, of what I call "spiritual music". I listen to it during the week but mostly on Sunday mornings when I am traveling to churches that can be near our home in the mountains or as far away as two hours. Here is a soundtrack of the music that is currently feeding me spiritually:

All Creatures of Our God and King, Patty Griffin
We Shall Overcome, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones
By The Mark Where The Nails Have Been, Gillian Welch
I Feel Like Singing Today, Ralph Stanley and Jim Lauderdale
Laudate Dominum (Vespers), Mozart
When The Saints, Sara Groves
Broken Things, Julie Miller
On God Alone I Wait Silently, The Iona Community
Distressing Disguise, Michael Card
Blessed is The Man (Vespers, Op. 37), Rachmaninov
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down, Band of Joy
He's Always Been Faithful, Sara Groves
Stay With Us, Taize Community
Never Grow Old, Patty Griffin with Buddy Miller
God Believes in You, Pierce Pettis
There is a Reason, Alison Krauss and Union Station
If Ye Love Me, Robert Shaw Singers
Love Is Still A Worthy Cause, Sara Groves
There's a Higher Power, Buddy Miller
Veni Sancte Spiritus, Taize Community
Angel Band, Emmylou Harris
O Magnum Mysterium, Robert Shaw Singers
I'm On The Other Side of Life Now, Emmylou Harris

I would welcome your comments, additions or questions. And if you want to explore some of this music on your own, well, that would be great as well!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

why congregations need denominations

Years ago a friend who had served very effectively in a United Methodist Church moved to another city to join the staff of a non-denominational megachurch. He is gifted in youth ministry and music and became a worship leader in the new setting. When I was there for a meeting later I joined them for worship on a Wednesday night. Over time we remained friends, even as I had questions about the megachurch as the only model for ministry (at that time this seemed to be a given in clergy gatherings).

A few years later I learned that my friend was no longer on the staff. The senior (and founding) pastor had met with him in the office and shared very simply that the church's vision was leading them into a new direction. My friend had no recourse to make his own case or to interpret his own ministry.

More recently, I learned that another friend who has served for a number of years in a non-denominational community church would be leaving. It seems that this church had begun two different worship services to complement its traditional offering; over time, the worship leaders of these two services simply took their communities (which constituted several hundred people) and began new congregations, using the same names the services had been given in the former church in new locations. The church will now enter into an interim season, seeking to pick up the fragments of what is left over, and the pastor will, over time, seek a new call.

I share these two experiences alongside a comment I came across years ago: every church and every member of the clergy, over a span of time, needs to belong to a denomination. I serve as a district superintendent, and I am aware of the church's imperfections, and my own. I watch over 69 local churches and a few assorted institutions within our geographical boundaries, and we are at work on the development of a new church plant and the development of a missional church network. At any given time about 3-5 of these churches are in real crisis: they are in need of outside intervention, mediation, conflict resolution and spiritual guidance. A denomination, at its best, provides a framework for the protection of the clergy in a workplace and supervision of even the most powerful clergy leaders. In addition, a denomination works out the implications of a missional strategy in an area that is more nuanced than simply whatever the market can bear.

I share these experiences at a time when there is much rhetoric around moving energy, resources and attention to the local church. I love the local church. It is the basic context for the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. At the same time, the local church will, on occasion, be stronger as it accomplishes mission that is beyond its own capacity, and as it is accountable to a wisdom that is outside its own day to day movements. Here the analogy of Ronald Heifitz of the dance and the balcony is helpful. Faithful congregations and clergy are engaged in the dance, the daily and weekly movements that, added together, shape parish life: worship, spiritual formation, pastoral care, local and global outreach, evangelism. A balcony perspective, in times of health and in times of crisis, will help the local church to sustain this activity. The absence of such a balcony perspective, in particular circumstances, can lead to chaos and a constricting of the movement of energy. A denomination, at its best, provides that balcony perspective: a person in authority who can intervene in a season of conflict, or a compelling and needed mission that can lift the vision of a community beyond itself.

Yes, in many instances, and in the best of times, we can function without denominations. But we are not always at our best, taking into account our temptation to turn in upon ourselves (and the reformers defined sin in this way) and the complexity of creating and sustaining community. I am convinced that every church and every member of the clergy, over a span of time, needs to belong to a denomination.

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