Paying for School

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Reflections on SVS 2018

A week ago I spent a few hours in Wilmore, Kentucky. The time went by so quickly for me that I still can’t believe that I was there for two and a half days.

Vineyard Scholars is as nerdy as it sounds but not as academically upscale as you might think. Being rooted in the Vineyard, we have a high value on making conversation accessible to everyone and if anywhere “everyone gets to play” is true in the Vineyard, it’s among the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS).

I’ve been reflecting on the experience I’ve just come back from and I want to share some of my thoughts with you. I’d like to tell you about it in 3 parts: 1) the things that I have a problem with about SVS, 2) the things I love about SVS and finally 3) some awards, some unofficial SVSees I'd like to award.


First on this list is how quickly it all went. I still cannot figure out why this SVS went by so quickly and seemed to be almost a whole day shorter than past conferences (this was my fourth). Being together with other people with Vineyard roots and thinking and talking through the issues we covered (and didn’t covered) is, for me, more important than the time we have. Given the pace of life, I don’t have much of a solution for this other than to attempt to cultivate mini-gatherings in our respective regions at another time during the year in order to encourage and provoke each other.

The second of my problems is that I worry about the nature of SVS within the Vineyard USA (VUSA) system. We were admonished one morning by Eleanor Mumford with a message that sounded to me a little like the old children’s Sunday School song, “O be careful little mouth what you say /O be careful little mouth what you say / There's a Father up above / And He's looking down in love /So, be careful little mouth what you say.” The implication seemed to be that we need to be careful, as people doing theology, not to tell everyone around us what we’re thinking and working through as our thinking out loud has the potential of being equivalent to a spiritual drive by shooting.

And for God’s sake, don’t Tweet it.

But that wasn’t my problem. My problem is that Eleanor has a very different impression of SVS than I do and I’m not sure which of us has it right.  My problem is that I am afraid that SVS exists primarily as a distraction. A little bread and circuses. As much as I’d like to think SVSers have some impact in our Vineyard Movement, I’m not sure where or how that happens. Theological position papers come out but they haven’t been discussed and vetted first (or second or third) by SVS members. SVS does not discuss or discern the theme for the National Conference or important issues to be discussed at Regional conferences. We don’t vote or come to a consensus on “the Vineyard position” or create papers for the Movement on aspects of theology. And sometimes I get the sinking feeling that SVS has just become a very convenient pressure release valve for those who like to drink deeply from theological wells and drink just as deeply from wine barrels (one in moderation, the other not so much).


The worship. Songs of substance. Hungry hearts. Loud voices raised in adoration and devotion. Seeing the inclusiveness of the worship team from GCF, our hosts (more on them to come). Seeing some of my favorite people from Campbellsville (who I most know from their legendary status) leading two sets that made my heart explode (in the best way). I loved that we were singing songs that came from the early days of the Vineyard and one of the newest songs in the Vineyard and our common story is woven together by the songs with which we worship.

The opening panel. A great way to begin our time together. Provocative thoughts from across a spectrum of specialties and interests on a single theme, “Entangled in Babylon, Free in Christ.” Powerful insights that were, alone, worth the price of admission. For me, this session set the table for how good it was going to be.

The babies.  There were babies at SVS this year. It might be my status as grandpa now but I was deeply encouraged that the parents of these little ones felt comfortable to bring their babies to sessions.  It was, for me, a simple example of what makes this gathering so beautiful. Theology is for everyone and babies keep us rooted.  I think all papers need to be delivered from now on WHILE holding a baby.

GCF. Great Commission Fellowship in Wilmore, Kentucky, were amazing hosts. They treated us very well, brought the best coffee, showed great hospitality and made us feel very welcomed. Jason Duncan is a star and is pastoring an amazing Vineyard.

Heroes. I was in close proximity to two of my theology heroes. One, Craig Keener, has been very influential for me in both Bible study and in pastoring. Sadly, I didn’t get past my fanboy paralysis to talk to him. Some day.  Getting to listen to him and his incredible wife, M├ędine, live and in person, was brilliant. On Thursday morning I got out of my own way and introduced myself to another theology hero, Howard Snyder. Dr. Snyder has been an influence on my life through his writing since I became a Christian and has shaped my vision of what the Church can and ought to be. His session was very encouraging and thought provoking as well.

Friends. Old and new, connecting with both was a beautiful gift. Meeting people in the real world – at least the ones you like – is deeply satisfying and something I hope everyone does more of. It was not enough of a good thing but I feel richer for it nonetheless.

Papers. Papers are presented and while I appreciate everyone thoughtful and brave and kind enough to prepare and share one, here are some favorites I was able to hear presented. 1) Communities and Spiritual Maturity: Rooted with Wings by Walter Thiessen. 2) Theology from Below: What Do the Oppressed Owe Their Oppressors by Donnell T. Wyche. 3) Speak Truth to Power: God’s Kingdom People Against Empire by Nick Fox. 4) Living Liturgies: Embracing the Liturgical Tradition as the Vineyard Movement by Kyla Young Morgan. 5) The dueling paper presentation of Being Vineyard, Being Evangelical: An English Perspective by Tom Creedy and ‘A Parting of Ways’? The Future of the Vineyard within Conservative Evangelicalism by Steve Burnhope. I loved these two friends staking out opposing positions in the kindest, most polite and friendliest way possible. Tom made me glad to be an evangelical and Steve made me want to never use that term again.  6) Quadrilateraling in the Vineyard by Luke Geraty.  All of these papers and presentations have given me a lot to think about, some things to change and a reason to hope moving forward.  There were many more papers that were great, these are just some I heard and some I heard that meant the most to me.

Caleb Maskell.  Caleb heads up the SVS and did a fantastic job pastoring this gathering. Caleb not only embodies good scholarship but he also embodies the very marriage of head and heart, mind and spirit, that I think we are looking for, not only in SVS, but the Vineyard as a whole.


Can I give out some unofficial SVSee Awards for 2018?  Most quotable theologian of SVS 2018, Tom Creedy.  Best presentation given under pressure with our National Director sitting 8 feet away, Luke Geraty. Best insights saved for Q&A time that deserve their own papers, Mike Raburn. Most provocative but also right, Steve Burnhope. Best and Most longsuffering host, Thomas Lyons. Best lunch company who kindly listened to an old man (me) ramble on and on, Dan and Katie Heck.

As I have said in other places, SVS represents the best of the Vineyard movement to me for all the reasons above. I am grateful for this group of people - that they exist and that they gather and that they are so deep and wide.

If you attended SVS, any awards you’d like to give out?

If you didn’t attend SVS, why not go next year?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Very Modest Proposal

Jeff sat in his office staring at his door. He had been sitting and staring like this for twenty minutes.

In the past he had told people something “blew my mind” and he had shared things with people that would “blow their minds.” Now he knew what that felt like for the first time.

An hour ago two men had stopped by his office in the small church building where he worked as a pastor.

Jeff pastored a normal sized church of 100 people, give or take, and he had been pastoring at this church for 5 years. He’d seen and heard and experienced a lot of strange and wonderful things in the 25 years he had been a pastor but none, he realized now, had actually blown his mind.

Until today.

An hour ago.

Two youngish men in golf shirts and khakis had stopped by and asked is they could have a few minutes of Jeff’s time to share something they thought he would be very interested in. “A kingdom opportunity” is what they had called it.

Jeff had learned to smell an Amway presentation from a long way off but this didn’t seem to be that and so a little curious and always hopeful about connecting with people who might start attending his church, Jeff invited them to sit down and share their story.

Or to be more accurate, Jeff agreed to jump down the rabbit hole and see where the White Rabbit was going with Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as his guides.

Over the next several minutes the two fit young men leaned forward and explained to Jeff the purpose of their visit. For a long time they talked about the struggle to grow churches, the potential for the kingdom in their city, how much they admired Jeff and other pastors who struggled with pastoring small churches, and they told Jeff they were there representing the pastor of a very, very large church in the city with a vision for taking things “to the next level.”

These eager young men explained to Jeff how their pastor had led their church to be one of the largest churches not only in their area but in their whole state. “But,” said Tweedle Dee, lowering his head, “our growth had leveled off. We add new people but we lost new people and we can’t gather the number of giving units we require to achieve pastor’s vision.”

He lifted his head and met Jeff’s eyes. “This is where you and your church come in. You can help us achieve God’s dream for our city and reach our kingdom goal.”

Jeff’s head was spinning by this point in their “presentation.” All he could get out was, “I…I…I…”

Then Tweedle Dum jumped in. “We realize you are probably both excited about this opportunity and eager to hear how you can help. Let me explain.”

And explain he did. It was simple, a very modest proposal.

They explained how it just came down to math. The charts and graphs and spreadsheets on their iPad illustrated their point. After serious cost analysis, it was more economical for their big church to purchase smaller churches by making deals with the senior pastors, first in their own denomination and then other churches that looked and smelled enough like their denomination to be an easy fit. “It just makes good dollars and sense!” said Tweedle Dee as if he'd just made that up.

Jeff would become a part of their pastor’s vision by leading the small church he pastored to become a part of the big church. Big youth group, big missions trips, big worship, big espresso bar, big outreaches and a whole upgrade to Jeff’s profile as a pastor to one of their prospering satellite campuses. “Bigger is better, am I right or am I right?” Tweedle Dee asked. Jeff would be listed on their staff page, “Totally good for your resume,” said Tweedle Dum. And Jeff would receive a salary boost, more vacation time and, of course, a signing bonus.

“But…but..but…” Jeff was now pretty sure he was being punked but these two young men seemed as serious as a heart attack – which Jeff was also pretty sure was about to happen to him.

Tweedle Dee jumped in, “But why would you join the big church just to keep doing what you were doing as a small church pastor even though you would be getting more pay and more vacation time? I understand your question…let me explain the rest of our proposal.”

After a year or two at the most, Jeff could decide to retire – actually he should decide to retire. The senior pastor of the big church would then absorb everyone from Jeff’s current church into their main campus. They were projecting a 20% loss but felt very confident they would retain 80% of Jeff’s current members as well as any new members who joined prior to absorption. “These giving units,” explained one of the Tweedles, “already give so we don’t have to spend time getting them up to speed on tithing.” The building and property, the office where they were currently discussing this very modest proposal, would be sold and Jeff and his wife would receive the full amount of the sell, less 10% as a pre-tithe to big church.

Jeff would then be free to do as he pleased with a very sizeable nest egg as well as the income from one to two years of the salary boost and signing bonus for joining the big church. After he signed the non-compete agreement that would bar him from starting or joining the staff of another church within a 100 mile radius of their current city.

 “It’s what we call, win/win, Pastor Jeff. You want to be a winner don’t you?” Said one of the Tweedles. Jeff really was not sure who was talking to him anymore, his eggs were scrambled and he was starting to think he’d actually fallen asleep at his desk and was dreaming all this. It was at this point that the Two Tweedles mistook Jeff’s mind blown silence for a tough negotiation tactic.

“Look pastor,” Dee said a little more aggressively, “there are 10 other pastors to whom we are making this same offer and the first 3 to say, “yes” will come onboard. You don’t want to be one of the ones who get left behind do you? Let me tell you what happens here. First place is inking this deal and becoming a winner because there is no second place, Jeff. Pretty soon the people coming to your church will finally be won over to our big church, it’s inevitable, especially when they see other churches joining us and becoming part of the amazing things we’re doing in this city. Everyone wants to be a winner, Jeff. Everyone. You can join us or you can watch your people join us.”

“We have our own Starbucks and Chick-fil-a inside and ours are both open on Sundays,” added Tweedle Dum, leaning back and crossing his arms.

“What do you say?” asked Dee with a smile that struck Jeff as being disproportionate to his head.

“I. Have. No. Words.” said Jeff.

“We understand,” said Tweedle Dee, glancing at Tweedle Dum as they stood in unison, “We will give you some time to pray about this very modest proposal and get back to us. But don’t forget,” leaning down and lowering his voice, “the clock is ticking.”

“Tick, tick.” Said Tweedle Dum, smiling.

And the two men walked out the door of Jeff’s office.

Jeff didn’t move.

Possibly couldn’t move. Until twenty minutes later he picked up his phone, called his wife and started the strangest conversation the two of them had ever had.