Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm Sorry if You Feel...

Way back in 1991, Johnson and VanVonderen published a book called, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I hope it’s hard for you to imagine the words “spiritual” and “abuse” going together.  If you’ve been in the church for over a decade, I can’t imagine it is.  Recent events have drawn me back to some of their observations.  Paul said it’s not about people but about Principalities.  In chapter five of their book they nail down some of the symptoms of an abusive system – a principality – that hurts.

First, they identify something they call power-posturing.  “Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.” Team leadership ought to be a remedy for this one but experience has shown that the “team” part may only exist on paper.  Or one person on the team will make sure everyone knows that they are the “coach”, setting them apart from and above the team.  Another key word here is, “mine.”

The second brick in their sick system is performance preoccupation.  “Obedience and submission are two important words often used.”  The authors ask an important question, “Do we come to church to be encouraged about trusting Jesus, or to be pressed to try harder?” At a recent event I was able to attend, Stanley Hauerwas said, “Church growth strategies will work for 10 years until the kids grow up. They will recognize manipulation for what it is.”  Sometimes we don’t smell manipulation but we can tell we’re experiencing it by how we are feeling about ourselves and the church.

At number three is one of the most pervasive and deadly aspects of an abusive system: the unspoken rules.  “If you disagree openly or publicly, you would break the silence – and you would quite likely be punished.”  Breaking one of the rules, spoken or unspoken, leads to consequences.  In an abusive system, the authors say, it will either be “neglect (being ignored, overlooked, shunned) or aggressive legalism (questioned, openly censured, asked to leave – in extreme cases cursed).” Or maybe even thrown under the bus.

The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is either extreme objectivism or extreme subjectivism.  In those that lean towards EO, “authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to his Spirit.”  For those that lean towards ES, “it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who as ‘a word’ for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your spiritual growth-history.”  They write, “In the name of some “higher enlightenment” by the Holy Spirit, you may be withering under a teacher with a limited reality who won’t be taught by anyone else.” 

Often abusive leaders insist you quote the chapter and verse that they have violated when you confront them with pain you are feeling over something they have done.  No chapter or verse that covers what they’ve done?  Then they haven’t really fouled you – but you’ve fouled them by making an unfounded accusation against a leader of the church.  Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.  Alternately, their experience or knowledge of the Holy Spirit trumps your own (ES). The common refrain and misappropriation of Scripture usually goes, “God’s ways are not our ways.” Which, when translated means, “my way is God’s way, not yours.”  The other subjective chestnut, “The new move of God is always opposed by the last move of God.” This, of course really means that what they want is always the new move, what you think can’t possibly be newer than their new and you confirm  it by your opposition to them and their way of thinking.

Can I suggest that love has never been superseded as God’s movement in the world?  Can I suggest that any leader who boasts about throwing people under the bus and who prays that there would be a mountain of bodies behind the bus before they are finished should, well, be finished?  Can I suggest that the moral failure of a pastor is not confined to adultery, chemical addiction or grand theft but ought to include abusing the flock of God they were meant to be shepherding?  Peter seemed to think so.  May healing come to all who are hurting, hope to all who are in despair, and life to all who are living in the valley of the shadow.

(all book quotations are from Johnson, David, and Jeffrey VanVonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1991. p 63-71)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Whipping Boys

I’m dealing with a little writer’s block at the moment.  As I try to dial down into what I’m supposed to writing about, I keep hitting on something.  So I’m writing this in an effort to clear some of the blockage.

You know who it’s o.k. for Evangelical Christians to hate?  Especially Charismatic Evangelical Christians?  You might be guessing President Obama or anybody who tries to take their guns away or maybe even Democrats.  But no, our real whipping boys are the Pharisees.  I suppose it’s a posthumous sort of hate but then we also love to whip the name label out and use it on anybody who makes even the remotest suggestion that God is unlikely to do what we say he does or that our behavior may, in some way, be affecting our relationship with God.


And we make careless judgments about the Pharisees simply because it’s o.k. to hate “them.”  We somehow feel like we know them and know them well simply because we've read about them in the Gospels and we've met them in everyone who ever said, “No.” to us or we feel is opposing the “current move of God” which, when translated, usually means, “Us.”

Can I respectfully request, on behalf of Pharisees past, present and future, a moratorium on judgment?  At least ignorant judgment?  Can I plead with you to read an actual history book (a real history book, not someone’s supposed conversation with an angel, Abraham or one or more aspects of the Trinity)?  Just take a step back and forget what you think you know about the Pharisees and try to understand what they were really all about?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah or Epic Fail

I went in to see the movie Noah, wanting to like it.  Wanting to love it.

I wasn't looking for a biblical epic.  I didn't feel a need for it to be “true” to the Text.  I didn't even feel it needed to be true to the flannel graph.  I just wanted it to be good film.  It wasn't.

What I did like.  I loved the performances of the two leads: Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.  Particular Jennifer Connelly who was given very little to work with but when the time came for her key scene it was the only thing truly epic in the entire film.  Crowe was excellent throughout as a man tortured by visions, the task and the rape of the earth that precipitated the coming judgment.

In jokes.  If you know the story of Noah from Genesis then you’ll get references, both visual and dialog that other people unfamiliar will miss.  Some nice little Easter eggs here that tells you that someone aware of the source material was consulted.

Noah’s creation account.  Beautiful CG version that was the best of both worlds.  I liked it a lot.

What I didn't like.  Pacing.  The movie couldn't decide between epic adventure and drama and suffered as a result.  Scenes that should have taken longer, pauses and reflections that should have been there weren’t and other scenes of much ado about nothing, stretched on and on.

Transformers.  How did Transformers get into this movie?  This stopped being an epic story as soon as they became a part of it.  Their appearance in the story pulled me out of the film and into my imagination of the office where the merchandising spin-off opportunities were being kicked around.

Hermione.  Emma Watson was incredibly good at playing Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise.  Put her beside Crowe and Connelly, particularly when her big scenes put her in the same frame as Crowe and Hopkins and immediately following Connelly’s big scene (the best scene of the whole film) and she just can’t pull it off.  It was a terrible casting choice or directing choice or both.

Story.  What was Noah, the movie, about?  Man’s tendency to destroy the perfect balance of creation with his greedy ways.  No, wait, that was Avatar.  Um, energy beings that fall to earth and get trapped in the form of inanimate objects that can transform into super powered robots to help protect mankind.  No, wait, that was Michael Bay’s Transformers.  An ancient Hebrew story that was really a thinly disguised political commentary on recent world events.  No, sorry, that was The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.  O.K., hold on, I just saw this so I should be able to tell you what this story is about…let’s just say it didn’t feel original.

In this version, Noah isn't a good guy, just the least offensive guy left on the planet.  No one in his family or the rest of humanity thinks he’s crazy for building a huge boat miles from water. Of course, when your work crew consists of talking, stone robots, crazy has already been tossed out the window.  Noah’s boys are literally boys and the oldest two are really horny boys.  The oldest is a vampire, I think, and the middle one is Percy Jackson (where was Poseidon?).  The Ark takes almost no time at all to build (thanks to aforementioned robots).  The marauding bands of bad guys from the first half of the film completely miss or ignore the giant forest that suddenly erupts and never go in to investigate until the Ark is completed.  Methuselah is sort of like Dumbledore and has all this power that he uses at odd times and nobody ever asks him why he’s hanging out like a homeless man instead of living with the only family he has on earth.

What could have been a fascinating drama about a family with a crazy patriarch, cooped up in a giant boat with wild animals, becomes about something I couldn't feel anything for other than confusion.  I haven’t read any other reviews on this one yet, but I will and maybe I’ll learn how brilliant this film really is.  For me it was not good film.

If you've seen it, leave a comment with your reaction and if you think I saw a completely different movie from you and you loved it, tell me why:

Thursday, March 27, 2014


One of my favorite movies is Zelig.  It’s the fictional story of a man, told in documentary style, who has a curious ailment.  It seems that he is so desperate to fit in and be liked that he takes on the dominant characteristics (down to facial hair, accent, weight gain/loss and profession) of the people with whom he shares space.  I think the movie, as a whole, is a pretty good metaphor for the pastoral profession.

I think it’s time we acknowledge that we have (at least) two “notebooks full of pastors”.  One is full of professional pastors and the other is full of vocational pastors.

The professional pastor is like Zelig, generation after generation they are defining themselves and what they do by the spirit of the age.  We trend.  And we’ve lived through trends in pastoral leadership that are constantly being shaped by the dominant culture of which we are a part.  We figure out what we do by sensing what our culture wants us to be.  There’s a hunger for acceptance by those in power (the dominant) and for us to gain access to them and the power behind them.  And of course we do all this for the glory of God, our own popularity and acceptance is just for the sake of reaching everyone with the Gospel.

I will be the first to admit how powerful the want to be wanted is.  But I will also say that, from firsthand experience that “want” is really the Siren’s song that beckons us come closer to the rocks.

It’s no wonder we have experienced and continue to experience a pastoral identity crisis.  In the absence of a clarity about who we are and what we do and why we do it, we’re bound to fall into the gravity of the personality of the dominant culture around us.

A pastor is all about building a church and what is a church but a startup business?  And what is a church planter if not an entrepreneur?  And has there ever been a time more conscious of what it takes to make business grow and be successful if not now?  What a rich time for a pastor to be able to use the resources available to become wildly successful at franchising our startups, let’s call them ‘multi-site’s, and generating the revenue that allows us to REALLY do the will of God.

But really a pastor is all about gathering and what is a church if not a brand and church discipleship if not brand loyalty?  People love a rock star and what is a pastor if not a rock star, the lead vocal (bandmates come and go but the lead vocal guides the narrative – Pete Best? never heard of him)? What an amazing time to be a rock star pastor with all of the multi-media platforms over which to promote your brand, the stylists you can hire to tweak your brand and the consulting companies you can pay to research and write your messages, your books and even get your books to #1 on the Best Seller charts.  It’s a good day to be a rock star pastor.

And the beauty of our zeitgeist driven pastoral profession is that we have large publishing houses that will spare no expense, once you are marketable, to make you believe all those things the desert fathers used to fast over to silence the whispering voices: you deserve this.  You’ve earned this.  You are special.  It’s easy to justify our bad behavior now and then (we even have people who take care of that for us) because look how big we've our church has become.

All the while, quietly off in various places, the vocational pastor goes about his or her calling.  They invest their lives into the messiness of the lives of the people among whom God has placed them and commissioned them to guide and feed and guard.  These vocational pastors, year after year, quietly go about raising up men and women (rather than perpetual nurseries) by being with them, sharing life, speaking words that are true with a heart that is moved, not by the Siren’s Song but by the steady, unforced rhythms of God’s Spirit.  These men and women, you will never know their name.  You will probably never see a book they wrote on a best-seller list and they won’t be on a TV chat show.  Their churches will be the size God gives them to pastor, some growing, some shrinking, some holding steady, some big, some small, and some somewhere in between.  But what they need to know, what they absolutely need to be sure of is that they are called by God and the investment they make with their life is never for nothing.

Who are we, pastors?  We have a 2000 year old tradition from which we can know, into which we can anchor our lives, from which we can figure out how to improvise the act in which we find ourselves, with confidence, relying on the stories of faithful men and women who heard this music before we had ears and whose lives call us to join and become and follow and improvise and be.

But there are at least these two choices and every day we decide to be Zelig or to live out our own part in the closing act of this story in which we find ourselves, faithfully in step with the vocational tradition.

Monday, February 10, 2014


In Jurassic Park, the beginning of the end was the discovery of a mosquito, full of blood and trapped in amber, preserved from the time of the dinosaurs.  Extracting a little DNA from that source was science fiction but it’s also one model for how we sort out what a pastor is and does.  In this case, the amber is our New Testament or the first century record of the Church and some of us believe that inside that sample we can extract the DNA that, when incubated properly, will produce the original intentions of its Creator.

For others, the amber is not found in the first century when they hardly understood the Gospel but rather found in the Reformation and particularly in the work of Luther and Calvin.  In the Reformation, you will hear suggested or argued, the Gospel was finally realized and therefore in the outworking of that understanding can we see what a pastor is or does.  In this case the DNA comes from those men like Martin Luther and John Calvin and their distinctly unique pattern determines our form and function today.

And there is a third choice that prevails today. That of apostolic succession.  There are churches today that lean into this kind of amber as their source code, their DNA for what is, what was and what shall ever be, amen.  This group tends to look more medieval than the other 2 and they maintain more than just attitude but even the external forms and wardrobe from the period of time in which they became solidified.  Amber, after all, begins in a liquid form and over times solidifies.  The who and what of pastoral care, for this group, was trapped in amber centuries ago, solidified in the middle ages and that DNA continues to be extracted and replicated (with a few minor revisions) until the present day.

I believe there is a fourth way.  This isn't an original thought, but I think, the least successful of the four.  This fourth way imagines that the amber isn't the key but the DNA is.  The source code isn't found in past DNA but rather it shapes the formation of the DNA through every generation.  This fourth way relies on the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to create and continuously recreate the Church (and its ecclesiology) for the present age.  Rather than ignoring or rejecting our past, we embrace it as the journey that brought us to now.  Instead of critiquing yesterday for its faults, we mine yesterday for its gold.  But I am not trapped then, like a mosquito in amber, doomed to be what was for a time that no longer is.  I am free to be born again again and become what this generation, this particularity, needs.  I am not my grandfather or my great grandfather or my great great grandfather, but I am nothing without them.

This fourth way is a living way.  It is the most challenging way.  It is the way that requires more from me, from us, than any of the other ways.  It is dynamic.  It expects more of me/us and it depends more on me/us. We are living forward in this fourth way, not to be the church of the first century or the fourteenth century but (as Pannenberg says) the church of the last century.

What are the implications you can imagine for this fourth way?
What issues does this fourth way raise?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mind the Gap

What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary…

A friend of mine once took a youth ministry position at a church and as he settled in, putting books on his shelves, the senior pastor asked him if he had any good books on church leadership.  My friend offered, “A Theology of Church Leadership” by Larry Richards.  The senior pastors reply, “I was looking for something more practical than theology…” A little piece of my friend died in that moment.

Somewhere along the line we hit this gap between the stuff that is true and the stuff that works in pastoral ministry.  I can’t point to the exact time or circumstance because they are different for each one of us but mind the gap because we all come across it.  In Bible College, we had one dear brother who taught his Practical Ministry classes that you can never be friends with the people in your congregation; your friends will be other pastors/ministers.  It’s just easier that way.  I've listened to many messages preached by pastors whose theology holds that we are saved by grace through faith alone who also berate their congregations or twist the guilt screws about tithing, gossip, volunteering- because it works.

Man is a giddy thing.

Here are some quotes from references on my thesis topic.  Along with the words that are helping me sort out what pastoring is all about, are my own comments about the book, the author or the points they are making. In all these cases, I frequently observe the gap between what we know and what we do.

The Christian Pastor by Wayne E. Oates, Westminster, 1982.
“Many are the tasks into which circumstances press the Christian pastor, but he thinks of himself at his best as being a shepherd of his flock, a minister of reconciliation whose task is the care and cure of souls in the face-to-face relationships with individuals.”   He then goes on to break down the “Pastoral Task” like this: The Crisis Ministry of the Pastor, The Symbolic Role of the Pastor, The Personal Qualifications of the Pastor and The Identity and Integrity of the Pastor.   I have to admit that his outline seduced me at first glance and as I’m getting in to the book itself I’m developing a relationship deeper than the initial seduction promised.  Ultimately I think this is the book I wanted to write.

Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry by Donald Messer, Abingdon, 1989.
“In his play Zalmen or the Madness of God, Wiesel struggles with this prophetic understanding of hearing and obeying the voice of God.  It is to speak the truth in love even when silence is the better path to survival.”  And this, “Critical to the process of accepting God’s gift of ministry is to move beyond the stereotyped images that we encounter, create, accept, internalize or perpetuate.”  The chapter these quotes are pulled from is titled, “The Divine Madness of Ministry.”  That would have been enough to get me to buy the book but the chapter starts with quotations from two of my favorite authors, Garrison Keillor and Eli Wiesel.  Keillor’s quote is from A Prairie Home Companion and it starts the chapter, “You’re only human, even if you are a minister.  But if you stand up in the pulpit and say that, the first thing people in the congregation will think of is adultery!  And the second thing is “with whom and when?”  That’s gold right there!

And finally this, from one of the first and still best books I ever read about being a pastor…

Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1987.
“I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as ours.”  And this, “It is an image thing…you discern what people expect and fit into it.”  Indeed. This book still cleans my clock every time I read it.

Last year, about this time, a friend shared an article with me from the business world.  The point of the article was that business leaders often found themselves in a dilemma.  They recognized their system was broken, could even describe exactly what was wrong and what it would take to fix it but things were moving so fast at the speed of life that they couldn't stop keeping the day to day going long enough to implemented the course corrections needed to get their company back on track.  A systemic shut down, rather than tweaking, was the only way to get a different ending to the story they found themselves in.

I wonder if pastors are in that same situation.  We see the things that need to be done but we've got this list of weekly stuff that has to get done or the wheels will come off.  Expectations, both internal and external, drive us and we see what needs to be done but stuff it in the closet in favor of what has to be done.  In a family system, when one member chooses to stop playing by the dysfunctional rules that are making everyone else sick or in pain, they are rarely applauded, rather they are attacked for upsetting the system, the equilibrium, the status quo.  I wonder how many pastors have stopped pastoring in order to maintain their job?  How many of us have given up our vocation in order to keep our career?

Hi, I’m Debbie Downer, and I can’t see the pony, all I can see is a load of poo.

I’m not down about my church or my vocation.  Seriously.  But my thesis project has me thinking and asking myself questions about this thing we do, called pastoring and this thing we are, called pastor. I stand on the shoulders of giants to find answers.

What do you think?  Do you see a gap between the stuff we know is true and the stuff we do because it’s practical?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Is a Pastor Expected To Do?

Found via Google Image search for "pastor".
Thesis Project part 1

I am wildly behind on my thesis project work.

I think about it every day, more than a passing thought.  It’s not just the “blank white page syndrome,” where you struggle to start writing because you've got a whole, empty page to fill up.  I think it’s the “blank white book syndrome.”  There’s so much to be said, so much to say, so much to research and read, that I start to experience paralysis.

It starts with this question, “What is a pastor?” or this question, “What does a pastor do?”

Having been at this (pastoring, not the thesis project) for almost 30 years, you’d think I’d have a ready definition or description. And I do. I have my own.  But as I read the work others have done it has become apparent that mine is as different from theirs as theirs are from each other’s. I’m fascinated by the sheer number of pastors working around the world and the fuzziness that surrounds the description of what we do.

Mirriam-Webster online comes up with this, “PASTOR - noun \ˈpas-tər\ :  a spiritual overseer; especially :  a clergyman serving a local church or parish — pas•tor•ship  noun. Origin of PASTOR, Middle English pastour, from Anglo-French, from Latin pastor herdsman, from pascere to feed — First Known Use: 14th century.”  When you look for the verb form, Mirriam defaults to the classic no-no and uses the word in the definition – pastoring is to pastor.  Sure it is.

But I can’t blame Mirriam’s ambiguity on a lack of research.  We who claim the title have taken it on quite a ride over the last 2000 years.  I can default to what I think is a biblical definition of pastoring but that fails to recognize the complexities of both the life and the times in which we live and others have lived before us.  In part, this is precisely why I am developing my thesis project around a classic approach to pastoring.  A classic approach takes in to account the richness of pastoral tradition and history.  Rather than re-inventing our role for a new generation we can make the most of the deep wells others have already dug, stand on the shoulders of giants and anchor our expectations in generations of experience.

One of the great challenges to a classic approach though will be modern expectations of pastor as CEO and entrepreneurs who turn their start-ups and small businesses into Big Boxes and franchise locations.  I’m on the hunt for a Mega-Church pastor who has maintained a classic approach to pastoring.  Let me know if you see one.

In the meantime, my question du jour is, “What is a pastor expected to do?”

Saturday, January 4, 2014


For 2014, I've decided to return to regular blogging.  I've avoided it over the last 16 months (other than during school modules) but I realize now how much I need the discipline in my daily life.

My hesitancy to blog revolves around this little passage in the New Testament that says,
“And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him— speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.” – 2 PE 3:16, 17

I’m not making claims about writing a new epistle, just a recognition how easily the things we say or write, can be twisted and can hurt or lead to unnecessary pain and confusion.  The Elusive has stopped me abruptly in the midst of one of my theological rants, warning me that she’s either going to slip into depression or lose faith if I keep ranting.  Some things are to be pondered and some things are to be shared.  I occasionally have a hard time telling the difference.

But I need to write.  And so I’m returning to regular blogging for 2014.  In part, I’ll be chronicling my work on this pesky Thesis Project that I’m supposed to be about.  Ask not for whom the clock you hear ticking in the background ticks: it ticks for me.  August is my deadline.  And at present I’m the proverbial mosquito loose in the nudist colony: I see the job, I’m just overwhelmed by the work ahead of me.

I need to write because it’s also one of the ways I discover who I am and who I am becoming.  It’s an opportunity to get the inside out in a way quite separate from everything else I do.  Writing, for me, is like a garden where revelation grows.  As my insides are drawn out onto the screen, the blinking cursor seemingly conjuring them from thin air, I come face to face with my good, my bad, my ugly, my beautiful and my most sacred.

And I’ll keep holding this all in the delicate tension that comes from knowing that I am arming those who are bent on despising me, confusing those who want to love me and perhaps even hurting those who care for me.

So, I will return to blogging, whispering my prayers as I write, seeking more to understand than to be understood and continue to share the education life is giving me.

“All along I thought / I was learning how to take / How to bend not how to break / How to live not how to cry / But really / I've been learning how to die / I've been learning how to die” – Jon Foreman