Tag Archives: Theology of Work

Practicing Covenant Leadership: The Virtues of Christ

In our particular cultural moment, have you noticed a longing for values or traits that may seem absent in public life? Warren Bennis famously outlined key leadership characteristics, identifying vision, inspiration, empathy, and trustworthiness as essential leadership characteristics.  We long for leaders who model them; this longing seems innate in us.  In Scripture we quickly see that Jesus modeled these qualities. As the ultimate Servant, Jesus also modeled listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (see Robert Greenleaf’s work). Have you had the space to reflect on what characterizes your own leadership during this season?  Let’s take up the challenge to examine our leadership in light of Christ’s teaching by better understanding covenant versus contract leadership.

There are many examples of contract leadership. For instance, Dr. Richard Gunderman, M.D., a professor of medical humanities, might argue that the United States was founded on a contract. James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and considered a father of the Constitution, understood the voluntary nature of contract leadership when he wrote about the restraints on, and rights of, the government and citizens of the country.  As suggested in a 2011 lecture by Dr. Gunderman, contracts are required because of a lack of trust.  Contract leadership characteristics may include concern for profit, narrowly defined responsibilities, and expectations of performance. The transactional nature of contract leadership requires adherence to rules and procedures and does not insist upon supererogation. 

Regarding transactions, the way in which rational people relate to each other through economic terms is sometimes referred to as homo economicus.  Within the realm of homo economicus, the primary desire is the acquisition of wealth and the primary ability is the choice between means (Gunderman).  John Stuart Mill suggests that humans desire to accumulate the most necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries with the least quantity of labor, which is the modus operandi of homo economicus.  

For example, many employment relationships operate with this paradigm.  When employees do not perform, they are in violation of their employment contract, and the employment is terminated.  In this sense, contracts limit relationships, have expiration dates, and are concerned with personal benefit. Contract leadership seems to be a form of transactional leadership. This can be effective in some contexts, but Dr. Gunderman suggests that we find a better word than greed and a better idea than economic transactions on which to base our leadership.

In fact, he challenges us to “not be concerned with writing our personal story, but discovering the larger story of which we are part.” This suggests that a worldview change is required to be a covenant leaderCovenant leadership is an other-focused leadership style which is transformational, as opposed to transactional contract leadership. Transformation or metamorphosis is expected by the covenant leader: that followers and leaders would become something more than they were previous to the relationship.  As opposed to contract leadership in which breach of contract might mean loss of employment, Dr. Gunderman cites the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate breach being met with forgiveness, healing, and celebration. For the covenant leader, concern is for the relationship and the wholeness of the covenant, not on the breach of contract.

Where homo economicus operates assuming lack of trust, Dr. Gunderman calls leaders to operate in the mode of homo ethicus, relating to each other through principles. Where homo economicus operates out of greed, homo ethicus operates out of sacrifice and generosity. Although many non-Christian examples may illustrate the sacrificial, transformational leader, many examples are found in Scripture.

Considering covenant in Scripture, one can begin with the creation of humanity through inspiration, the breathing in of divine influence. Humans are to imitate God’s creative nature, needing inspiration – the breathing in of divine influence – “to be fully alive, and to help those around us to be fully alive.” The biblical arc is full of examples of the characteristics of covenant leadership: trusting like the Good Samaritan, bestowing blessing like Isaac to Jacob to Joseph’s sons, being transformational like Jesus to Lazarus (called back to full life), and being changed like Paul on the road to Damascus.

As a physician and leader in the ethics of health care, Dr. Gunderman calls organizational leaders to choose covenant leadership, issuing a challenge to assess whether we operate according to homo economicus or homo ethicus. We must evaluate what is most important to us and what we are striving to become. In the domain of homo economicus, work is punishment, a means to make money so that we can afford to do the things that we enjoy outside of work. In the freedom of homo ethicus, we work because God worked as a creative Being, creating not from necessity but from joy. Relationships within the work environment are to be enjoyed and used to generate transformed, better lives.

For covenant leaders operating from an assumption of homo ethicus, there is real opportunity to make a substantive difference. This is true even in a short time constrained by the brevity of working relationship. This leadership style is an active, ongoing choice.

Each moment, the organizational leader who desires to operate from the values of a homo ethicus approach must think of the sacred in the other, sacrifice selfish desires, and commit to the kind of creative, transformational covenant leadership found in the Creator’s actions throughout Scripture. 

Using the practice of covenant leadership as a guide, pastors and church leaders can endeavor to choose a homo ethicus approach as a consistent emblem of our servant leadership. When we cast vision, is it for the growth and transformation of those we influence? Do listen with awareness so that we can inspire people to Christlike character? Do we exercise empathy in healing, restorative, community-building ways? Are we trustworthy as we steward the leadership to which God has called us? What choices might you need to make in order to live as a covenant leader rather than a contract leader? Can you identify obstacles to this calling?

See Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

See Dr. Richard B. Gunderman 2011 lecture Leadership: command, contract, or covenant?

For more from Dr. Richard B. Gunderman, consider We Make a Life by What We Give. His new book Contagion: Plagues, Pandemics and Cures from the Black Death to Covid-19 and Beyond is available now in Great Britain and is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in early 2021.

Doctors & Dying: Caring for Caretakers

In the tug of prolonged strain, physicians, like their patients, are vulnerable. Some corners of the United States remain relatively quiet and unaffected by outbreaks of the coronavirus, Covid-19. In these areas, extra sanitizer, virtual appointments, and doctors’ office face coverings are the cue that something is happening elsewhere. But in other regions, despite the summer months, health care systems are overwhelmed; at the time of writing, Texas, Arizona, and Florida are being pummeled by significant spikes. For some cities, hospitalists have seen a steady stream of critical patients for months.

For doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, anesthesiologists – anyone who spends hours in personal protective gear, anyone who spends months caring for critical and dying patients – several dynamics are changing the way in which they encounter death. This is significant for clergy caring for burned-out parishioners; it is significant for laypeople who approach their career in medicine as a vocation; and it is significant for hospice chaplains and workers, and for hospital chaplains.

One journalist, writing on the challenges of administering last rites during a pandemic, observed:

“The Coronavirus has led the United States to the valley of the shadow of death. In just three months, a microscopic particle has laid bare human mortality. The entire nation has worked to avoid death, shutting down cities, masking faces in the streets, and isolating the dying from their loved ones in their final hours. And yet, more than 100,000 people have died, and often, died alone.

Many rituals, a guide through life’s most sacred moments, have been impossible. Children said final goodbyes to dying parents through windows or on FaceTime, if they bid farewell at all. Only rarely have religious leaders been allowed into hospitals and nursing homes. Families attend funerals on Zoom.

The country is facing a deeply personal crisis of spirit, not only of health or economics. A virus has forced a reckoning with the most intimate questions we have, questions not only about how we live, but also about how we die. About what we can control, and what we cannot. About how to name human dignity, despair and hope. And especially about how to make meaning of our final hours on this earth.

‘This major disaster is going to change our relationship to death; I’m not exactly sure how, but I am certain it will,’ Shannon Lee Dawdy, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, said. A century ago, priests were ‘answering sick calls night and day,’ one Catholic newspaper reported at the time. Now nurses and doctors, not spiritual leaders or families, are most likely to be death’s witnesses.”

In cities like Boston, priests occasionally have been allowed special clearance to administer last rites in personal protective equipment. During the early coronavirus outbreak in Italy, priests were given some freedom within pandemic protocol to visit the dying; some who offered spiritual care to coronavirus victims themselves died of it.

Meanwhile, American hospital chaplains accustomed to offering comfort through personal presence have struggled to serve patients and family members through the distance of a device screen. Last spring, many hospitals put restrictions on chaplain presence due to shortage of personal protection equipment. Other chaplains are present in hospitals and able to respond to a request for their presence if they don protective gear and follow protocol. Distanced or present in mask and scrubs, chaplains are offering support not only to patients and family members but to exhausted health care workers. One journalist writing on the changes in hospital chaplaincy noted:

“The infectious nature of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has changed everyone’s jobs in healthcare, including chaplains. The obvious shift is the inability to physically visit patients in hospitals to be a resource to them and their families.

The subtler changes are the extent of tending to those who tend to the ill. It’s watching out for what [chaplain David] Carl describes as ‘compassion fatigue and burnout’ among healthcare workers. Because nothing is routine now in healthcare.”

One chaplain noted how fatalities took a toll on New York City doctors during the tragic spike in the city: “How do I help a nurse who is new to nursing and has walked into all this death and it’s nothing that she had ever imagined? …This is very hard because this is personal. No patient is a number. And this is a very good hospital. Our patients usually live. And to have so many of our patients not making it — it’s even hard on the seasoned doctors.”

Even experienced chaplains, who have developed routines and habitual pressure valves to let off steam from regular engagement with grief, aren’t immune from the additional strain of providing care during a pandemic. As one journalist observes, “For most hospital workers, as for so many others around the country and the world, the last couple of months have been something like a prolonged trauma. ‘We’re all living right on the cusp, in this buzzing, anxious place’ [says Reverend Kate Perry]. She’s seen hospital workers who are typically reserved, now living on the edge of panic. ‘Every patient, family, and staff is all living with the same emotions,’ she says. ‘They feel anxious and helpless and this deep sadness. And then there’s this anger.'”

Usually, hospice workers provide robust, sensitive end-of-life care for dying people, from the elderly to cancer patients to a variety of patients; occasionally, patients rally and make a partial recovery, even able to leave hospice care. Whatever the outcome, hospice caregivers and facilities excel in quietly tending to the physical needs of the dying and the emotional needs of their family members, shepherding them through the process of dying, death, and loss, answering mundane questions, being present in grief.

But with Covid-19 patients, isolation is often required to contain further spread. For some patients, their last moment to speak is right before they are sedated and placed on a ventilator, so the good-bye may come weeks before the moment of possible death. Not only that, often critical Covid patients take a quick turn for the worse, so that even if one family member is allowed to come to the hospital, they may or may not make it in time. The loss of a typical progression of dying, the loss of hospice or chaplain bedside presence, these are also fatalities of this disease. Not only are family members unmoored and chaplains frustrated at a distance, but in strained, crowded Covid units, at times doctors find themselves attempting to calm patients terrified of being intubated and dying; and as chaplains noted above, even seasoned hospitalists have been caught off guard by the sheer number of fatalities during the worst spikes.

Just like testing and treatment protocol are becoming more familiar and hopefully more efficient, as time progresses, chaplains and hospice workers will find new means of offering care to the dying. Last spring, hospice workers creatively tackled obstacles to meaningful connection in a variety of ways. Hopefully, curves will flatten in Miami, in Houston, in Tucson, relieving pressure on overtaxed hospitals and exhausted doctors; hopefully, spikes will be prevented in other states on the edge of exponential growth.

In the meantime, health care workers on the front lines of Covid outbreaks face unprecedented losses, often without the physical presence of chaplains or hospice workers to bear the brunt of witnessing death. What might be some starting places for clergy and chaplains spiritually caring for medical caretakers?

Hospice resources are extremely valuable for everyone – pastors, laypeople, and those working in medicine. If exhausted doctors are feeling the absence of hospice workers, there are still bite-sized, helpful hospice resources that can help provide a new lens with which to approach dying patients – even in unbelievably hectic times. For example, often in-home hospice nurses have short pamphlets they give to family members. While medical professionals are familiar with the basic biology of the dying process, hospice resources also frame the process of letting go and grieving. For instance, while this printable resource is primarily for families of terminally ill people, a portion of the caregivers section is relevant to frustrated specialists encountering critical patients suffering from a little-understood disease, Covid-19, still being researched: “Caregivers are often overwhelmed by the intensity and mixture of emotions they feel. These may include: Fear that you do not know the right thing to do and that you are failing as a caregiver mixed with moments of realization that you are doing the best you can and amazement that you can do as much as you are doing.” These kinds of insights can help reinforce the reality that family caregivers and doctors alike sometimes experience very similar dynamics. In other words: this response is not unusual; it is common; you are not alone. In The Family Handbook of Hospice Care, the physical toll of grief is named: “Grief can take a toll on you physically. You may lose interest or gain interest in food. You may lose weight. You may have intense dreams or disturbing sleep patterns—if you can sleep at all. You may be extremely restless, unable to concentrate or relax. Furthermore, grief can hurt: You might feel a knot in your stomach, a tightness in your throat, or a heaviness in your chest. Often grief requires more energy than you would need to chop wood. You may require lots of rest to maintain your health.” In areas hit by a surge of infections, many ICU nurses and specialists are simply – grieving; or, they would be if they had the energy to do so. Grief can be delayed, but it will come out in some form or another eventually.

Be ready for both the curve and the flattening. In the middle of a huge spike of positive cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, few ICU nurses will have time or energy to read up on a theology of death and dying, or the problem of theodicy – how suffering can exist if there is an all-powerful, all-good God. During a crisis, there’s barely energy left over just to do laundry. The waxing and waning of relative normalcy vs an explosion of emergency can also be captured in Ignatius’ approach to seasons of life as “consolation and desolation.” If you’re a chaplain or physician in the midst of relative normalcy (or “consolation”), now is a moment to explore resources and shore up mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Now is the time to call up a pastor or professor friend and talk through hard questions; now is the time to read God on Mute. However, for doctors numb with exhaustion, forcing themselves through rote motion each day (“desolation”), you probably simply need to eat, sleep, sweat, and laugh daily. Though Ignatius was addressing Christians, some of his advice would be picked up later by recovery groups as well: in a time of desolation, followers of Christ should practice the habit of recalling God’s faithfulness in prior times of desolation; resist the temptation to see suffering as pointless; resist desolation through meditation and prayer; avoid making big decisions, “because desolation is the time of the lie—it’s not the time for sober thinking. That is, in our disheartened state, we’re more prone to be deceived”; pay attention to the spiritual insights found during desolation; and confidently look for the quick return of a season of consolation.” It can be challenging to see the possibility of a season different from whatever you’re in now; but even identifying these rhythms can encourage the exhausted or motivate the distracted.

Develop a Personal Ritual; Don’t Feel Ashamed of PTSD

Rituals help order chaos; they are, as someone once described, a kind of “scaffolding” exterior to our own emotions. Rituals also pause activity out of deference to something bigger. In the absence of chaplains, medical workers of any or no faith may find a swift motion, gesture, or pause helpful in marking the passing of a patient. A few seconds holding their hand, silently offering a quick thanks for their life, or even folding their blanket before it is taken to laundry can help acknowledge loss of life before moving on to the next pressing need.

After several successive losses in my own life, I had simple black silicone bands debossed subtly with the words I’m Grieving. On especially hard days, I wore one. The simple visual cue often gave family members quick insight into a mood, and sometimes it opened up meaningful conversations with strangers. I mailed some to others going through season of grief. Decades after the common use of black mourning armbands to signal grieving in public, the simple wristbands were a good modern substitute. In times of grief and loss, tangible items are valuable in marking things that are difficult to verbalize and express.

Tangible touchstones are also helpful for anyone with PTSD. Doctors, clergy, military medics, chaplains, nurses – people in all these professions sometimes come away with post-traumatic stress. Panic attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, obsessive habits – none of these experiences are shameful; none of them indicate a lack of faith or a lack of expertise or a lack of professionalism. Certainly, none of these experiences or others indicate a lack of strength. They simply mean we are all finite, neurological creatures.

It seems likely that we have quite a ways to go in order to flatten curves, wait for vaccine production, understand the long-term health impact of this virus, and discover whether or not yearly vaccines, as with influenza, are necessary. Would you describe your days as being in a time of consolation or a time of desolation? Are you finding a need for ritual – for scaffolding outside of yourself? Take it gently. Remember – for now is not forever. And recall the words on how, “even in the darkest places, joy and goodness can be found” from International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen: “Joy is the oxygen…”


Physicians Start Hotline for Doctors Struggling with Mental Health

Physician Support Line: For Doctors Navigating Covid-19

A Caregiver’s Guide to the Dying Process: The Hospice Foundation of America

When Death Enters Your Life: A Grief Pamphlet for People in Prisons or Jails

Spanish Language Resources: from the Hospice Foundation of America

For American Healthcare Workers Coping with Pandemic Stress: from the CDC

For Emergency Responders Coping with Pandemic Stress: from the CDC

Edgar Bazan ~ The Rest of God

I believe that God wants us to enjoy our everyday lives.

John 10:10 says that Jesus came to us so we may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, until it overflows). But it seems that far too many people who say they believe in Jesus are not enjoying their lives.

Now, it is not only fair but it is necessary to say that life gets hard in spite of our faith. So although we believe that God wants what is best for us, we also recognize that while we are living this life, we all face challenges.

The key to dealing with the tension between what we know God wants for us and the struggles we face is to rest wholly in Jesus; to know that no matter what may come at us, we are not alone and he will always bring new life, resurrection to our brokenness and pain.

Do you believe that Jesus can bring healing and reconciliation to your life? Do you believe that he brings you rest?

Let’s look at Matthew 11:28-30 to hear what Jesus says on this matter:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus is talking about two main things here: his rest and yoke.

He refers to himself as the provider of healing and redemption from the things that hurt, oppress, and possess us: that which disfigures the image of God in us. All the ugliness of the heart and mind is forgiven and transformed. Jesus speaks of this as the new birth in John 3. Paul also mentions it in 2 Corinthians 5:17 by writing, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

So when we hear Jesus talking about rest, it is not the kind that you find in a couple of weeks in the summer, in a hammock, or in bed, but it is the relief in life that leads us to experience joy and the blessings of God through a grace/faith relationship with him. This is an invitation aimed at all people to bring them to a place of belief, trust, and a deeper level of commitment in which they are to follow Jesus and become like him.

But what does all this mean?

When Jesus says “come to me” he is offering an open invitation to everyone who hears him. For those without Jesus, it is equivalent to a call to believe in him, meaning, to repent and confess sin, to welcome healing into their lives, and to follow Jesus as new disciples. For those who are already believers, it is a call to follow him as a committed disciple; it is a call to turn their lives over to him completely.

In either case, the invitation is to be saved and to be healed, reconciled, and renewed. And then he says this: “and I will give you rest.”

This is a fascinating theological concept that we find throughout the Bible: rest.

In the first two chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1 and 2, we read about how God created everything, the heavens, the earth, plants and animals, man and woman. All these in six days. Some people may argue that these were six literal days as we know them; others would say they represent a process of millions of years, and that the language of “days” is figurative to indicate the beginning and end of each creative process. Regardless, what I want to bring to your attention is that after God created everything, on the seventh day of creation, God rested.

The Bible says that all God created was good and that God gave humanity all this goodness for them to enjoy. Creation is a reflection of God’s love and purposes. God moved creation from disorder and formlessness to a place of beauty, order, and creativity. And rest is the final gift of God to creation.

So, let me ask a theological question: are we supposed to be living on the seventh day right now? Meaning, in the rest of God? There is not an eighth day, right? Perhaps we may understand the eighth day as the day when Jesus comes back in glory. But for now, what if all this time we should be living in the time that God intended to be a time of rest for all creation?

This is not a difficult question; the answer is yes. God did not create us for misery but fruitfulness. I believe the exact words that God used were: “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.”

This is a beautiful picture of God’s heart. God wanted us to enjoy life and be part of God’s creative purposes as we fill the earth and govern it. But that did not last long.

The first man and woman distrusted God and rebelled against him. They did not believe that God wanted the best for them and they decided to seek life somewhere else. Here is humanity walking away from the rest of God. Humanity was created to be partners with God, to enjoy creation alongside God and then become fruitful, but their sin brought upon themselves what Jesus describes as “heavy burdens.” Genesis 3:17 describes this saying, “All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.” Of course, this does not refer only to work in a literal manner, but to our relationships, thoughts, feelings, happiness, justice, goodness. Aren’t we all scratching in this life to find rest in all the areas of our lives?

Now, there is one more passage that speaks profoundly about God’s rest, too. Hebrews 4:9-11 says,

[A] sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

This is a fascinating Scripture. I encourage you to read chapters 3 and 4 and mediate further on them. But let it suffice to say for now, that what we are reading here is a reference to how the people of Israel failed to enjoy the rest of God promised to them as the Promise Land. It clearly says two things: God’s rest is still available, it has always been since day seven of creation, but because of sin through disobedience, we do not enter it. In fact, we run away from it.

The promise of rest we read here is the same as what Jesus is saying, Hebrews says, “for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors.”

Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

The implications are the same: We no longer are at war with God and each other. We no longer fight and kill each other. We no longer are slaves to sin and disobedience. We no longer are infested by fear, anger, hate, and guilt; all those things have been lifted from us, they no longer weigh us down, control us, or define us. And most importantly, we no longer are in a struggle against the voice and will of God. We are at rest in the controversy between our souls and our Savior.

We are at rest in him.

It was unbelief, a distrust that led the first man and woman to abandon God and lose the rest of God. It was unbelief, a distrust that kept the people of Israel from entering into the promised land and the rest God had promised there.

And these stories, sadly, continue to repeat themselves in every person.

Now that we have established our theological framework let’s come back to Jesus and learn about what he means when he said,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus wants to heal us and help us live in complete trust in God. In other words, he wants to position us through our faith in him to live on the seventh day of creation: the rest of God. By resting in Jesus, we begin to enjoy our life in the ways God intended for humanity to do so. This is a reality, a place, where we assume our purpose to be fruitful and enjoy life as God intended for us to do. This rest is not a rest from work—it is rest in work. It is partnering with God to do what he is calling us to do by his grace and leaving the part we can’t do in his hands, trusting him to do it.

When we do this – believe and trust God – we find enjoyment. Being good is not a task or an effort, but what we have become. Living by faith is not a struggle either—all of these are rest, finally living in the desires of God’s heart for us. And you can enter into God’s rest in every area of your life.

However, we fail to enter or remain in God’s rest due to unbelief, distrust, a hardened heart, and disobedience. And that’s where the “yoke” comes in. Jesus said, “I will give rest, but you need me to keep it. Otherwise, you will squander it as everyone else has done it when they think that can make it on their own.”

What is the yoke? In practical terms, it refers to our continual walk alongside Jesus. It is about trusting God, telling Jesus: guide my steps, set my direction. It is not about controlling you but for you to not forget that you are not alone. To keep you close. Because if you stay close to Jesus, you can listen to him better, you can see him better; you will have a supernatural sense of security and confidence because you know who you are walking with. If you are close, you will learn faster from him, and you will become stronger and wiser for life in this world.

But at the end of the day, if we truly want his rest, it is about the Lordship of Jesus over our lives. Is he our Lord? Does he influence our life?

You know, we get yoked to all kinds of bad stuff throughout our lives that have brought burdens, hurts, and brokenness of all types. Adam and Eve tried to become independent from God, and they hurt themselves. Israel, the people God chose to represent him before all the nations of the world, did the same thing. They yoked themselves to themselves. They distrusted and rejected God altogether. Let’s not make the same mistakes.

So, try now to yoke yourself to the giver of life. Let’s say with all our hearts: I surrender, I trust you God, I want what you want for me.

My friends, if you do this, if you find rest in Jesus and commit yourself to walk alongside him, he will keep you on the new things, living the new life you received in and through him, to nurture you like the new creation that you became. He will take you to places you had never imagined; places where you become who God imagined you to be so you can bear the resemblance of God in the world. You can’t become what you can’t see.

Can you see Jesus?

Have you wandered away from him?

Jesus is saying to all of us today: I want to bring you back to goodness, to be a reflection of my glory.

Andy Stoddard ~ Receiving the Value of Sabbaticals

I’m at just about the halfway point of renewal leave (i.e. Sabbatical).

I took my first church job in 1997, and ever since then, I’ve worked in the church.  A couple of them were part-time, and then I took my first appointment at a pastor in 1999 to three small United Methodist Churches outside of Cleveland, MS.  In other words, I’ve worked in the church for over 20 years and never really taken a moment to breathe.

First, let me tell you what I’ve done:

  1. Spent time with my wife and kids.  I feel like I’ve been more present with family than I have in years.  Holly and I talk, really talk, more than ever.  We’ve always been good, but I feel like we’re closer than ever.  I’ve also done a lot of Mr. Mom: I’ve taken the kids to appointments, VBS, camps, I’ve been the taxi service this summer.  It’s been fun to spend lazy time with them.  I haven’t done that during their lives.  Something (or someone) else always took importance over them.  I’m doing my very best to focus on them and spend both quantity and quality time together. Sarah and I went to Hamilton and are going to another concert this summer.  Thomas and I started playing golf together.  I’m just trying to spend as much “present” time with them as possible.  I know I can’t make up for missed time, but I can be present now.
  2. Spent time with family.  On the weekends we go south to either my parents or Holly’s parents.  My mom is 89, daddy is 79.  Just like the kids, I haven’t been present with them.  I’m trying to take advantage of this gift and just be present with them as well.
  3. Gone to church.  While with family, we’ve gone to church with them.  We’ve worshiped at Holly’s parents’ church and my home church.  It’s been great to be on the same pew with family, and for the first time since 1997, I’ve been able to go to church with my mom and dad.  I am thankful for that.
  4. Prayed.  One of the hardest things to do as a preacher is to read the Bible and pray simply for your own soul.  So often when you go to the Bible and pray, you are looking to feed others, not to be fed yourself.  I’ve been serious and intentional in my prayer life to not think about what God wants me to say to you.  What does God want to say to me?  And I am thankful because I’ve heard his voice this summer.
  5. Exercised.  One of my great weaknesses is that I am unhealthy in my lifestyle.  I eat too much.  I don’t exercise.  This summer I have been intentional in this area as well; I’ve sought to walk, every day.  It’s been good for my body and my soul.
  6. Reconnected with old friends and mentors.  I’ve had some dear friends and mentors in ministry that the last few weeks I’ve reconnected with.  For this as well I am thankful.
  7. Oh and I’m growing a beard.  Just because.  Thus far Holly hasn’t killed me.  Yet.

Interesting observations:

  1. The number of clergy persons older than me wishing they had done it.  At Conference this year, I had many people come up to me and tell me that they wish that they had done this: taken a break and focus on their family and their health.  Listen, I don’t want to sit here and tell you that being a preacher is harder than any other job.  My daddy drove a truck for a living.  But I will say this; preaching has a way if you are not careful, of burning you out.  You put everything over your family.  You live and die with weekly worship numbers.  You put pressure on yourself to be perfect.  You can’t have a bad day.  You can’t mess up.  It can just get inside your soul.  I am not going to live like that any longer.
  2. The number of preachers my age and younger that would love to do it.  But they are worried about what people would think. What about their church?  Their DS?  Others?  I can tell you is this, if taking a break is something that you feel like you need to do, do it.  You will be more effective for the Kingdom by doing this.
  3. Social media gets into your soul.  One of the things I’ve done is gotten off Facebook. It’s been good for me.  I am less anxious about a lot of things, I’m not as worried about so many things.  Am I less informed?  I still read the news and the newspaper. But I don’t feel the same onslaught that I have before.  But at first, you don’t realize how much you are on it until it’s not there.  I took the app off my phone, and for the first week I found myself going to it subconsciously all the time.  That really surprised me.
  4. I am thankful to be a Mississippi United Methodist.  I have an amazing church, District Superintendent, and Bishop.  They have all loved me enough to help me take this time.  I am thankful for each of them.

What I’ve learned spiritually:

  1. I care too much about what people think.  For too long I have worried more about what people think than I do with being faithful and following the call of the Gospel.  I have worried more about what people think than what is best for my soul, my family, and honestly, the church. Through God’s grace, I will not return to this way of thinking.
  2. I have forgotten that Jesus is the main thing.  I have focused on numbers.  Success.  Growth.  All of these things.  They don’t matter. What matters?  Jesus.  Being loved by Jesus, loving Jesus, and loving others through Jesus.  That is what matters.
  3. My spiritual life had become a chess game. If I am faithful spiritually, God will do amazing things. Or if I am not, God will not be. And if I mess up, God will get my family or me as punishment. If I read my Bible and pray, God will protect my family and grow my church. If I don’t, he won’t. And it will be my fault. But it’s not my church; it’s his. And he loves my family even more than I do.  I was not seeking God to know his face and his grace, but for protection and blessing.  I need to delight in him because that is where my life is found.  For no other reason.

What are we going to do the rest of the summer?

  1. Spend more time with family.  We’ll be heading south to see our family some more.  We’ll get to go to Homecoming at Johnston Chapel, worship with our family on the coast, and just spend some time together.
  2. Go to the coast for a short vacation.  We don’t have big plans, just spending time together.
  3. See Imagine Dragons.  Sarah and I have gone to Hamilton and later next month we’ll go to an Imagine Dragons concert together.  We are having a good time.
  4. Golf with Thomas. Thomas and I have been going to the driving range a good bit, and I’m looking forward to some more.
  5. Go to Church.  We’ll worship with family, probably go to church with a friend who serves here in Madison, and worship with one of Sarah’s friends, whose dad is a pastor in Jackson.

I’ll be back in the office August 1 and my first Sunday back in the pulpit is August 5.  I am thankful for this summer, this renewal.  I really believe it is making me a more faithful follower of Christ, a better husband and father, and hopefully a better pastor.

Tammie Grimm ~ The Work of Our Hands: Celtic Christianity & the Way of Wesley

I am “old school.” I freely admit it. When it comes to writing, whether it be drafting a letter or revising a doctoral thesis (and I have done both in the last year) I would rather sit down with paper and pencil than a laptop or tablet. Turns out, studies indicate, I am not alone; there is something about the mind-body connection that allows for deeper processing of thought and concept. That is important for me when it comes to the creation of thought and presentation of idea, but I am not a complete throwback. There are times when sitting down and pounding out my thoughts through my fingers on the keyboard allows me to keep pace with the flow of thoughts in my brain and not to be slowed down by them as my hand struggles to keep up. When it came to making minor edits in my thesis, I was ever so grateful my doctoral thesis is stored in a cloud and could easily be corrected with a few keystrokes. So my preference for drafting with pen and paper does not mean I do not appreciate the ease and convenience of electronic writing. I suppose that makes me a “wryter”—a hybrid of writer and typist.

Writing and typing are both physical acts; words are generated onto a page. Research suggests that writing by hand allows a person to do analysis and concept mapping* that is foregone in the action of typing when the emphasis is on copying and capturing words verbatim in a streamline form. In other words, writing by hand allows our brains to operate with generative ability that is stifled when it comes to typing through a keyboard. There is something about using our hands that allows us to create in ways that are important to how we think, reason, and function as human beings.

The Celtic tradition reflects this integration of mind, body and soul. Whether it be the kneading of bread, the weaving of cloth, the shearing of sheep or the plowing of fields, there is a mind and body synergy that allows the worker to engage the craft in such a way that their work becomes a prayer. They found a richness in the rhythms of their lives as the patterns of their daily life and work formed prayers. As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, these prayers accompanied the physical labor that resulted in a lifestyle in which people sought to cooperate with God in the work that they did. A prayer the farmer offered for his livestock as he set them afield was not for his physical stamina to do the chore, but sought the welfare and protection of his herd:

Pastures smooth, long, and spreading,
Grassy meads neath your feet,
The friendship of God the Son to bring you home
To the field of the fountains,
     Field of the fountains.

Closed be every pit to you,
Smoothed be every knoll to you,
Cosy every exposure to you,
Beside the cold mountain,
     Beside the cold mountain.

The care of Peter and of Paul,
The care of James and of John,
The care of Bride fair and of Mary Virgin,
To meet you and tend you,
     Oh! the care of all the band
     To protect you and to strengthen you.

The farmer understood that his cattle, his sheep, his goats, his crops depended upon more than the elements and his steadfast caretaking, they depended on the protection of the One who created them, the Triune God of the universe. He knew that his family’s welfare depended upon a successful and bountiful harvest whether his fields helped stock the stalls of the butcher, the weaver, the tailor or the baker.

Considering the ways of the Celtic Christian is not some nostalgia for old ways of doing things, nor is it meant to demean our contemporary culture and the modern conveniences that come with it. Electronic innovation allow us to enjoy hands-free mobile devices and voice-activated technologies in every space of our lives. But in the temptation to reach new high scoring quotas to one-up our competition, whether they be adversaries or friends, many of us engage in mindless busy work at the expense of our souls. Though Dilbert, Office Space and The Office are designed to entertain us and make us laugh, how many of us truly ask for God’s help in our daily work—and not just as a desperate prayer to get us through a mandatory meeting or a looming deadline?  How many of us have a definitive line that separates our work and career from our personal life, rarely mixing the two together? I wonder if, as sophisticated twenty-first century people, we really envision our lives as contributing to a tapestry that is woven together and endlessly creative as opposed to a cog in a machine that endlessly spins and turns until enough widgets have been produced.

Many prayers of the Celtic Christian sought God’s blessing upon their labour. Each prayer, whether it was said by the woman who started the fire or churned the butter, or the man who laid the bricks or tended the fields, were a unique expression of the Psalmist who prays, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:7). Collectively, their prayers are mindful that their work is not theirs alone but that their work is given to them by God so that they might contribute back to the whole of creation.

No doubt, the modern day labor force is varied and defies simple classification no matter what color collar that represents a chosen field. It is highly unlikely that one single Celtic prayer will necessarily encompass all the possible workplaces we might inhabit. But it is entering into and going about our daily work that draws us together. The following Celtic prayer, traditionally said upon rising in the morning, elaborates the cry of the Psalmist and reminds the worker that their work is done in the presence of God and for the whole of creation. How might it change your work day if prayed before you started your shift? Before you entered that meeting? Before you met with that client? Before you tackled a mountain of paperwork?

Let us go forth,
In the goodness of our merciful Father,
In the gentleness of our brother Jesus,
In the radiance of his Holy Spirit,
In the faith of the apostles,
In the joyful praise of the angels,
In the holiness of the saints,
In the courage of the martyrs.

Let us go forth,
In the wisdom of our all-seeing Father,
In the patience of our all-loving brother,
In the truth of our all-knowing Spirit,
In the learning of the apostles,
In the gracious guidance of the angels,
In the patience of the saints,
In the self-control of the martyrs,

Such is the path for all servants of Christ,
The path from death to life.


*[1] Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” Psychological Science 25, April 23, 2014: 1159-1168.

Celtic Clues to Feeding Body and Soul

“What’s for dinner?” It might be the most dreaded daily question an adult can be asked. If only there was a simple answer that did not hinge on a barrage of underlying questions: Who’s making dinner? What time are we eating? How many for dinner? Will there be any dislikes or allergies represented at the table? What’s in the cupboard? Is the shopping done? What will be done with leftovers? What’s quick and easy to make? How long since we had that meal? Should we do take-out? And after all the responses are in and the meal is hopefully declared a success, the questions are all relevant again the next day and the next and the next. Menu planning, shopping and meal prep require a tenacity that can try even the most creative and skilled among us.

Enter the meal delivery kit or boxed meal services. Begun in Sweden in 2008, companies such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Purple Carrot don’t just answer the age-old question but deliver fresh ingredients and detailed recipes to the subscriber’s kitchen door each week. All that is needed is dinner preparation, or as one company calls itself, Just Add Cooking. Designed for working couples and their households, food industry consultants predict this booming market has the potential to become a five billion dollar business before the decade’s end.

What’s the attraction? I asked a few friends who are subscribers, “why go with the meal service and not just do take-out?” Their answers were revealing. Beyond the simplicity of having the decision made about menus and the convenience of having everything delivered with no worries about how to use leftover exotic ingredients is the fun, enjoyment and satisfaction gained from preparing and eating a home-cooked meal. Though often tired at the end of a long work day, people reported that they found satisfaction in sharpening – and in several cases, learning – culinary skills in order to make the labeled and pre-measured ingredients become a tasty, nutritious meal for the whole family. And even though food prep could sometimes be longer than if they made a standby from their normal rotation of meals, they found the preparation and cooking to be valuable time spent with their spouse and families. What had been a thankless job was something they now found enjoyable thanks to their meal delivery service.

But can satisfaction with menu-planning and food preparation only be found through a meal delivery service? Of course not. Though for many families already subject to the demands of extended work hours, exhausting commutes and the conflicting competing schedules of all the various family members, the idea of cooking together, let alone sitting down to eat as a family is more likely to be a well-intentioned thought than an actual lived event.

I doubt the medieval Celtic woman found daily meal preparation to be a complete joy that she eagerly looked forward to either. But for her, and yes, I am being gender-specific per the time period, food preparation constituted much of her regular work. Bread and butter weren’t staples she conveniently picked up at the market, but laborious, time consuming tasks that required her regular attention if she was going to provide the basics for her family. Baking the bread not only required kneading and proofing the dough for each individual loaf, but also keeping the starter from going rancid to provide the family with a regular supply of bread. Churning the butter meant an hour or two of physical labor that had been preceded by carefully skimming the cream off the milk which sat for a day or two previously in order to separate. She had to be as strategic as any of her contemporary equivalents are today—just at very different tasks, ones we often consider to be old-fashioned and obsolete as a result of technological advances.

But how did she do it without losing her religion?

By understanding her chores as part of the wholeness and fabric of life. Specifically, by inviting God to be a part of her daily work. She understood her efforts provided the essential food and nourishment on which her family depended and she asked God’s blessing upon it. The sign of the cross was slashed into the top of bread loaves and a traditional prayer that accompanied her butter churning chore actually sought its success so she might help sustain those less fortunate, as represented by St Peter in the following refrain:

Come butter come

Come butter come

Peter stands at the gate

Waiting for a buttered cake

The plea and blessing she sought from God wasn’t just hers alone. Guests and visitors who arrived to a home in which the daily chores were being tended greeted their hosts with the Gaelic blessing Bail o Dhia which translates to, ‘God’s blessing on the work!’ The declaration of such a blessing expressed the implicit knowledge that the monotonous backbreaking work was not simply the laborer’s alone but a joint effort blessed by God upon which all of society depended. Daily food preparation was streamlined into the weekly chores that made up everyday life.

Inviting God into her work wasn’t some magical incantation that made the work any less onerous, mundane or exhausting. But inviting God’s blessing and receiving the encouragement of others kept her tasks in perspective – it was done for the glory of God, as an act of love for God that showed God’s love to others. How many of us have that kind of awareness today when we face the daily task of dinner preparation? Or are we blinded from seeing how we participate in the greater good for all, simply because we are confounded and frustrated in figuring out what to serve our own families for dinner?

Despite the fact that most of contemporary society is freed from the backbreaking daily chores of food growth, harvest, storage and food preparation, there is a deep disconnection we have from our food and the source that provides it. Food is an easily accessible resource, stocked on shelves in grocery stores with plenty of reserves in warehouses ready to re-fill the shelves even before they are fully emptied. We take food for granted and our frustration with daily dinner prep might stem from the fact that we have too much choice. We want things made simple—but not so simple we must give up the conveniences of modern life.

Ultimately, I believe, we yearn for the connection experienced by early Celtic Christians: to their food, to its sources and to God who is the source of all food and nourishment—physical and spiritual.

So is it necessary to subscribe to a meal kit delivery system to understand the many connections and the community that goes into preparing our meals? No – though for some families, it is a step towards simplicity and in coming to a greater awareness that the meal they are able to make and enjoy with their family is because someone has helped them prep the meal. Regardless of whether your meal is made from scratch or assembled with some pre-made ingredients, it can be an eye-opening exercise for the whole family to consider the preparation that has gone into making the food on the dinner plate.

Being mindful our of meal and its greater purpose is just one initial step to recapturing the spirit of Celtic Christianity in our cooking and dining. Retrieving the practice of saying grace before each meal is a simple and concrete way of understanding the many ways in which we are nourished at mealtime. One advantage to keeping a prayer book with short simple graces handy at the table is that it allows anyone, even a guest, to choose a grace to say before the meal. Thanking God for the hands that have helped make the meal and to bless those who receive it, we begin to practice our awareness of just how far our dinner table extends. And as a recent video celebrating the 150 years of confederation of Canada suggests, overcoming the challenges of eating dinner in our insular homes might be worth it as we begin to know our neighbors and enjoy the community with which God has surrounded us.

Dinnertime dilemmas will not likely go away anytime soon, but practicing an awareness of how God has blessed us and intends us to bless others might be one way in helping make a thankless job something for which we are truly thankful.

A Traditional Celtic Grace

Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat; and we pray you, O God, that it may be good for our body and soul; and if there is any poor creature hungry or thirsty walking the road, may God send them in to us so that we can share the food with them, just as Christ shares His gifts with all of us.  Amen. 


Resources for Saying Grace:

Blease, Kathleen. Mealtime Blessings: Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations for Saying Grace. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012.

Kelly, Marcia M and Jack Kelly. 100 Graces: Mealtime Blessings Harmony Publishing, 1997.

McElwain, Sarah. Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table. Chronicle Books, 2003.

Faith and Worship http://www.faithandworship.com/Celtic_Blessings_and_Prayers.htm

Daily Prayer Ministries http://dailyprayer.us/before_meals_prayer.php

Living Prayers: Contemporary Prayers for Today http://www.living-prayers.com/events/ prayer_for_food.html


Featured image courtesy Vicky Ng on Unsplash.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Will to Prepare the Way

“The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.” – Everyone from Vince Lombardi to Bear Bryant to Bobby Knight is cited as the source of this quote. The wisdom found in it has outlasted the origin.

Everyone wants to win. It doesn’t matter how you define winning – career success, relationship goals met, curling up everyday by a fire to read, being left alone, having friends, running marathons, sitting quietly, however you define it, everyone wants their goal to be met in the area most important to them.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately. Most people don’t Instagram the moment when they’re scrubbing the toilet bowl, or taking out the trash, or dusting the mantelpiece. Most people don’t live Tweet the truly difficult parts of a workout, or share a Facebook Live stream of a mundane, grinding dispute with a loved one. We like to edit our ongoing portrayal of our lives, and in part, that’s alright.

We pray, “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” We ask God, we submit to God, that God’s will might unfurl across the universe, on earth, just as it is in the heavenly realms. Whether or not we see the connection between scrubbing a toilet and God’s will being done on earth, we do the first and pray the second.

Consider this passage from James 2:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.

Any Christian who wants to appear pious knows that he or she should want God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Few people want to scrub a toilet, wipe down its exterior, and clean the floor surrounding it. But you cannot separate faith from works. 

In other words, the will to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven is not nearly as important as the will to ask God how we might help bring about God’s will to be done on earth today in our home and town and nation. If I ask God to take care of lonely shut-in’s, but I leave them off my Christmas card list, I am a, “resounding gong, a clanging cymbal.” And if I ask God to bring peace, but I harbor resentment in my heart, giving it room to settle and nest, then, “if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” If I believe the right things, but I do not live sacrificially, I have missed the Kingdom of God. Even the demons can recite the Creed, say the Eucharistic liturgy, quote modern saints, recall Scripture passages. So what? They do not love their neighbor.

James demands, “can faith save you?”

Can praying, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” save you?

We read in the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40,

A voice cries out:
 In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

The Gospel of John follows up on Isaiah, as we read in John 1:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

John the Baptist did not just pray for God’s will to be done: he obeyed God by preparing the way for the Lord. John the Baptist went ahead in the wilderness, crying out, clearing the path so that Jesus could be revealed to Israel. The will for the Messiah to appear was not nearly as important for the will to cry out in the wilderness, clear the path, and make straight the way of the Lord.

God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we, like John, can prepare the way for the Lord. Only instead of looking for the first coming of the Messiah, we look for the second. Advent is a season when we celebrate both: we read of the census and the wise men, the slaughter of the innocent and the shepherds, Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus and Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John, while also reading from Revelation, of the prayers of the saints and the blood of the martyrs, of the Lamb of God and the loud chorus of heaven.

Do we have the will to pray without the will to prepare the way of the Lord?

We must both pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven, and prepare the way of the Lord, clearing his path, making God’s road straight and even. Otherwise, we’re a clanging gong, willing to Instagram our Sunday morning piety but not scrub our elderly neighbor’s toilet.

The will to see God’s Kingdom come is not nearly as important as the will to…what?

What is it you hope God doesn’t ask you to do, to prepare the way for his Kingdom?

Maybe that’s what we need to present to God this Christmas.

God, help us to be willing to prepare the way for you to arrive in people’s hearts and lives.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Greatest Spiritual Need…

A college professor at my faith-based liberal arts university used to make a bold declaration.

“The greatest spiritual need on this campus,” he would state, “is sleep.”

Every semester he saw the same thing. A student would come to his office for a meeting feeling discouraged or depressed, defeated or frustrated, struggling. Whether it was addiction or relationship problems or academic anxiety, the student would spill out their woes for a few minutes until he gently interrupted.

“How much sleep did you get last night?” he would ask. Their faces surprised, students gave answers that revealed a pattern. Four hours. Three hours. Five hours. “How much the night before last? Last week? What did you do over the weekend?”

Soon, a picture would emerge. Attempting to operate on three or four hours of sleep a night, students began making poor decisions, finding their tolerance or resistance low, their emotions unpredictable. And often, they looked first to emotional or psychological or spiritual factors before taking into account one very practical influence.

So instead of telling them to pray harder or switch majors or break up with their significant other, Dr. Keith Drury would tell them to go take a nap. And then to start going to bed earlier.

Sound familiar, Church?

Are you feeling discouraged?




Is everything a struggle?

Church members, small group leaders, pastors – how long did you sleep last night? The night before? Last week?

Do you wrestle with hidden addiction – alcohol, porn, eating disorders, binge shopping, prescription pills? (PS – it won’t stay hidden forever, as we’ve relearned the past few weeks.)

You may scoff. Maybe your ego won’t let you consider being or appearing less productive (why is productivity a god in our culture?). Maybe your feelings of insecurity won’t let you put away Pinterest ideas for creative cupcakes you’re taking to a bake sale hosted by a snide woman. Maybe your auto-pilot won’t let you question how healthy it is to let your kids sign up for so many extracurriculars.

Recently I half-jokingly commented to a friend that I felt holier.


My husband had traveled out of town for a while and the absence of my beloved epic squirmer resulted in the best nights’ sleep I’d had in years. I noticed I had more patience with the kids. I was making better lifestyle decisions. I was more sensitive to the pushes and pulls of the Holy Spirit. I noticed feeling more free to be intentional.

The truth is that all the dark circle correcter in the world won’t erase bad decisions, broken relationships, and vanished months and years. Besides knowing that sleep deprivation leads to more obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, slower reaction time, less creative thinking and poor immune systems (30% of adults get six hours of sleep a night or less – and getting less than six hours of sleep a night makes you four times as likely to catch a cold), we might also ask how many church board conflicts, 15-passenger van accidents, extramarital affairs, social networking snark, and small group meltdowns are influenced by what, according to one wise college professor, is the greatest spiritual need on any given college campus.

Jesus was inside the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow. The followers went and woke him. They said, ‘Teacher, don’t you care about us? We are going to drown!’

Jesus stood up and gave a command to the wind and the water. He said, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind stopped, and the lake became calm.

He said to his followers, ‘Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?'”

You can choose to be like an alert disciple, panicking and awake.

Or you can choose to be like Jesus, and go take a nap, ready to face the storm with calm and clarity and authority.

Or are you better than Jesus?

Tom Fuerst ~ Pastors, Moral Failings, and the Thing Nobody Wants to Talk About

When a pastor has a moral failing, especially of the sexual nature, everyone wants to talk through the sordid details. That thing that happens behind closed doors, that thing that is supposedly “no one else’s business” when it comes to my sexuality, becomes everyone’s business when it comes to the pastor. People want to know who the other party was. They want to know what led to the moral failing. They want to know (blame?) if the pastor’s wife didn’t “keep herself up” for him. They want to know how long the affair’s been going on. And they want to highlight all the possible ways the pastor might be a hypocrite for espousing a stern sexual ethic in public while living in blatant sin in private.

Everyone wants to talk about these things. Everyone wants to know.

But there’s an issue behind all of this that no one is addressing. There are questions to be asked that no one really wants to ask because such questions don’t make for good water-cooler gossip.

You see, lost in all the pastor-gone-wild media porn out there is the fact that pastors have jobs that, as largely defined in the American setting, are not sustainable for healthy living. The way the pastorate is defined in American culture, whether the church is large or small, reflects the larger systemic issue of an over-worked American society that knows nothing of a work/life balance. And this is not only the minister’s fault for living into this kind of lifestyle (though it is certainly our faults, too), but it’s also the church’s fault for expecting their pastors to live this way, or rather, for not expecting their pastors to model a better way of living.

The contemporary American pastorate in larger churches looks more like a CEO. His/her job is to make sure the investors are happy, engaged, and committed. S/he must provide a weekly presentation that emphasizes the entertainment factor to maintain the interest of the people. The pastor spends his time visioning, executing, managing, and promoting himself/herself and the church. The church becomes a commodity in this model, another thing people might consume or not consume, depending on whether or not they like the product and the person – the pastor – who advertises the product.

But it’s not much different in smaller congregations. In smaller churches, the pastor is always on the run doing all the hospital visits, administrative tasks, cleaning the church building, writing his sermons (often on Saturday nights), putting out congregational fires, and making sure the few parishioners are happy.

What strikes me here is that, when it comes to the moral failings of pastors, we want to talk as if this is an individual issue. As good Americans, we cannot look beyond the specific free will decisions of the isolated individual pastor. But whether we’re talking about large churches or small churches, when pastors are working 60+ hours on a consistent basis, we are setting him/her up for moral failure.

And yet, despite the plethora and increasing number of major pastoral moral failures in the last three decades, the American church continues to insist that this particular structure of pastoral ministry is not only the way it should be, but many argue, in fact, that it is biblical.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. When the ministry of the church became too great for the apostles, the church didn’t come to them and offer them more money in exchange for more time spent at the church building. No, the apostles and the church worked together to find a way to ensure that the Apostles could focus on very specific things and let others concern themselves with what was left.

This is exactly what we see in Acts 6, when the ministry to the needy became too great for the apostles to take care of. Due to the size and demands of this early ministry,certain people (widows) were being neglected because the apostles couldn’t handle it all (6:1). When the job ministry is too big, matters of justice, things of importance to humans and God, get neglected. And the early church found a solution:

 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community…

The apostles don’t see themselves as CEOs or slaves to the church. They see themselves as fulfilling a specific duty for the church: the ministry of the word of God and prayer. Everything else was dropped from their plate. And not only did the church not look down on them or call them lazy for a desire to emphasize these two tasks alone, but this suggestion “pleased the whole community.”

I’m not arguing here that a pastor’s moral failings are somehow excusable. They’re not. These men and women make terrible decisions that have long term impacts on their families and their churches. But make no mistake about it: these decisions are not made in a vacuum. These decisions are made in the context of a church structure that fails to emphasize what the apostles in Acts 6 emphasized. Pastors are encouraged to be leaders and counselors, friends with everyone and visioneers for the city, but I wonder how often pastors are simply encouraged to be ministers of the word and prayer.

I wonder when the last time a church simply wrote on their senior pastor job description, “we’re looking for a man or woman who simply focuses on the word of God and prayer.”

In the end, this Americanized, degenerate pastorate has already failed. The only reason we can’t see it is because our American individualism blinds us to how structures of oppression work. And, yes, I use the term oppression on purpose. A consistent 50-70 hour work week is not liberty, but enslavement – a return to Egypt. A consistent neglect of family in order to meet the needs of everyone else’s family is not freedom, but bondage.

The American pastorate is bondage.

We want our pastors to be the moral reflections of a godly humanity. We demand that they live in glass houses and sit on pedestals. But we’ve structured their lives in a way that inevitably leads to failure. This is a no-win situation for anyone. I just wonder how many lives will be ruined before we seek a better way. How long will it be before the church demands a better, more biblical way? I don’t know. But I’m not holding my breath for this trend of pastoral moral failings to stop so long as we continue to view the ministry through the lens of the American way instead of the way of the apostles.

Read more from Rev. Tom Fuerst at www.tom1st.com.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Are American Clergy Suffering a Crisis of Faith?

Are American clergy suffering a crisis of faith?

From megachurch pastor and quintessential church cool guy Rob Bell to Seventh-Day Adventist pastor-turned-atheist-for-a-year Ryan Bell, 2014 was a doozy (the topic even emerged as a central theme in Steven King’s new novel “Revival”).

From Rob Bell: “All of these things that people think dropped out of the sky by divine edict are actually a reflection of ongoing human evolution and a thousand other factors that have shaped why we as humans have done what we’ve done.”

From Ryan Bell: “I do think I’ve now seen both sides of the coin. Being with the atheists, they can have the same sort of obnoxious certainty that some Christians have, and I don’t want to be a part of that. It feels like I’m stuck in the middle. I want to be for something good, but I don’t want boundaries, and religion just feels like a very bounded thing. The question I am asking right now: Why do I need religion to love?”

But I don’t just have to look at the headlines about Rob Bell’s seismic theological shift (he learned the most about Jesus from…Oprah? She’s great if you want to know if you’re wearing the correct bra size, but – Oprah?) or about Ryan Bell’s wrestling with the problem of evil and whether God exists (I completely applaud him for being honest about his struggles and for stepping out of the pulpit if his beliefs were in flux that deeply).

No, I don’t have to read stories like this one or this one to wonder if these North American clergy suffering crises in faith and theology are part of a greater trend. I have too many friends who are going through a similar process to wonder if it is, as my Facebook feed daily demonstrates.

It’s a mistake to think that clergy suffering crises of faith are something new under the sun, though. If Mother Teresa recorded her struggles and doubts, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s also a mistake to criticize questioning by and in itself. Buddy, you better. An unexamined life is not worth living, and an unexamined faith will last about as long as Farrah Fawcett hair, Hammer pants, beanie babies, MySpace, “Gangnam Style” and every other grass that withers and flower that doth fade away. Or as I occasionally put it to my congregants from the pulpit: “I really believe this. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste your time. Join the Rotary if you just want to be a good citizen.”

Why here, though? Why now, and why so many?

Orthodoxy itself is not bankrupt. In fact, if you feel disillusioned with the church or faith (though people rarely actually say they’re disillusioned with Christianity itself, which is why you don’t hear, “you know, the Apostle’s Creed really disappointed me today”), reading G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” might be just what the doctor ordered, a breath of fresh air that anticipated with remarkable acumen what the intellectual challenges of the next century would be. No, orthodoxy is not bankrupt even if modernism is. As many clergy or church-bred people I know who are slowly, gradually breaking up with the church, I know nearly as many drawn not just to orthodoxy but to an additional packet of dogma as well, eschewing North American Protestantism for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

If there is this crisis of faith among North American clergy, then, why here? Why now? And why so many?

Here are a couple of factors that I suspect are shaping this trend.

The fault lines in fundamentalism have taken their toll. What a heartbreaking process to read (former Seventh Day Adventist pastor) Ryan Bell’s intellectual turmoil. Fundamentalism is all baby, no bathwater, as the LA Times piece recounts: “All along, his doubts grew. The more he tried to reconcile the Bible with science, the more it seemed he was putting together a puzzle with parts that didn’t fit. The more he thought about the unceasing suffering in the world, the more he doubted God’s existence.”

If your faith falls apart when you pull on the string of literal, six-day creation theory, you probably grew up a fundamentalist. There are good, loving, generous Christian fundamentalists who are the salt of the earth. But if your faith – the whole of your faith – could be shaken by the discovery of millions of iconic, undisputed, beautiful “missing links,” then your faith wasn’t in the Creator God whose mysterious ways caused all life; it was in one narrow interpretation of a complex language. This intellectual legalism has churned out more atheists and universalists than even Ricky Gervais could ever hope for.

What happens when you go through college and seminary without working through these theological issues? You work through them after you’ve joined the ranks of other clergy, after your own faith gets hit with challenges while you’re also trying to serve in ministry. American clergy are in part suffering a crisis of faith because we’re still recovering from a wicked hangover left by the well-intentioned fundamentalists of the 80’s, committed to coalitioning everyone to heaven.

The fatigue of the faithful has taken its toll. Show me a pastor who is struggling with theology or philosophy of religion and I’ll show you a pastor who’s also very likely burned out. Clergy see the best and the worst. Consider this statement from a Huffington Post piece on former megachurch pastor-now-Oprah-network-show host Rob Bell:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church. ‘We have a little tribe of friends,’ Bell said. ‘We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us. Churches can be places that help people grow and help people connect with others and help people connect with the great issues of our day,’ Bell said. ‘They can also be toxic, black holes of despair.’

Competition from colleagues, church members fixated on petty, ego-driven concerns – these realities can knock the wind out of a beautiful baptism, a tender, hard-fought reconciliation, or a quiet “thank you” after a sermon. It’s not always the moments when a church can be a “toxic, black hole of despair” that send clergy into a theological tailspin. Sometimes it’s what they’re also dealing with themselves: grief, loss, depression, mental illness or addiction.

In At Home in Mitford, writer Jan Karon hits the nail on the head in this fictional letter from a bishop to his clergy friend:

You ask if I have ever faced such a thing as you are currently facing. My friend, exhaustion and fatigue are a committed priest’s steady companions, and there is no way around it. It is a problem of epidemic proportions, and I ask you to trust that you aren’t alone.Sometimes, hidden away in a small parish as you are now – and as I certainly have been – one feels that the things which press in are pointed directly at one’s self.I assure you this is not the case.An old friend who was a pastor in Atlanta said this: “I did not have a crisis of faith, but of emotion and energy. It’s almost impossible for leaders of a congregation to accept that their pastor needs pastoring. I became beat up, burned out, angry, and depressed.”The tone of your letter does not indicate depression or anger, thanks be to God. But I’m concerned with you for what might follow if this goes unattended.

Keep a journal and let off some steam. If that doesn’t fit with your affinities, find yourself a godly counselor. I exhort you to do the monitoring you so sorely need, and hang in there. Give it a year!

Any pastor “worth their weight” willingly exposes himself or herself to extraordinary amounts of pain. Even those who attempt to engage in “self-care” frequently short themselves or fear criticism from colleagues and supervisors. Does your denomination offer sabbaticals?

What percentage of your pastors actually take the offered sabbaticals? Do you communicate expectations to your staff that they will not only take their days off but their vacation days as well? Do you make sabbaticals mandatory? Do you admire a colleague’s “work ethic” and then raise an eyebrow when he has an affair? Do you demand 60 hours a week for a salaried position and then make judgments on your employee’s health and fitness level? Do you give compassionate leave to those in your district or conference who lose a parent, or do you send them carefully worded correspondence reminding them that their church is behind on apportionments, budget, or whatever your denomination calls the money a local congregation sends to its hierarchy?Dear pastors, superintendents, bishops: remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy. Rest your way back into faith.

For clergy suffering through the epidemic of faith crises that seems as miserable, unwelcome and persistent as this year’s flu strain, what palliatives might be offered? Plenty of rest (see above), but also these comforts:

Good-enough pastoring. When I became a new parent, I was panicked, constantly waking the baby by checking on him. Then I read just a short review of a book with a title that, in itself, calmed me down. The book? “Good Enough Parenting.”

Thank you, sensible reviewer, who, having had enough of the neurotic 21st century moms and dads who overparent so lovingly, gently suggested that perhaps parents need to relax a little and simply aim their expectations at “good enough.”

Dear clergy slogging through a crisis of faith: I know you are pressured on all sides to be intuitively genius at social networking; to have the preaching abilities of your congregation’s favorite pastor from 20 years ago; to have the evangelistic zeal of Billy Graham; the charismatic charm of Jimmy Fallon; the generational with-it-ness to know who Jimmy Fallon is; the biblical knowledge of a cloistered New Testament scholar; the entrepreneurial spirit of Donald Trump; the organizational abilities of Martha Stewart; the leadership abilities of whatever current “best practices” guru is popular; the financial soundness of Dave Ramsey himself; the parenting insight of Super Nanny; the technological and fundraising prowess of the 2008 Obama campaign and the humility of Mother Teresa.

Oh. And the holiness of our Messiah.

Let’s prevent a few existential crises by saying, here and now, that the Body of Christ in North America might better be served simply by pastors who are “good enough.” You may never have a multiple-book publishing deal, but you never got sent to federal prison, either. You weren’t ever a keynote speaker, but you also avoided major public meltdowns. In our quest to give God our best, maybe it also would have been valuable to give God quiet, almost invisible consistency.

Philosophy matters. Some of the most pastorally gifted people I know, who seem to intuit the pastoral needs of those in their care, are extremely well grounded in philosophy. I’ll never forget what a seminary friend once said to our philosophy of religion professor. After a tragic loss while she was young, she was left with enormous life questions that threatened to engulf her. In all her questioning, it wasn’t counseling classes or time with therapists that ultimately gave her peace: it was the content of an introduction to philosophy of religion class, where questions like “why would a good, all-powerful God allow suffering?” were dissected with compassionate logic and reason rather than answered with a quick-fix Bible verse or a prod to rehearse the blank abyss of her own sorrow on the therapist’s couch.

The best response to bad theology isn’t an absence of theology: it’s good theology. And the best response to deep philosophical questions isn’t to throw away faith, but to acknowledge that faith and reason complement each other, and that any version of Christian faith that rejects intellectual and philosophical questioning – or claims – is a version of the Christian faith that is cheating you.

And dear friend, you deserve more.

Let’s eavesdrop on G.K. Chesterton in closing:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Oh God, take our cynicism and hand us back our wonder.



A reading list for the underwhelmed, overmarketed and disillusioned:

“Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton (non-fiction)

“At Home in Mitford” by Jan Karon (fiction)

“Heaven, Hell and Purgatory” by Jerry Walls (non-fiction)

“Harry Potter” books 1-7 by J.K. Rowling (fiction: trust me on this)

“Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism” by William Abraham (non-fiction)

“Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality” by David Baggett and Jerry Walls (non-fiction)