Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rediscovering Method in Our Madness

"Methodists" was a term of abuse heaped on those Oxford students so long ago. Derisively they were labeled such because there was a live and let live, lackadaisical atmosphere among the students and genteel society in general.  The door to self-discipline was marked "Method"; having a plan of what to do each day to achieve certain goals in their public and spiritual lives.  I need to pray more? I must plan time for that in my schedule, even if it means I must arise while it is still dark to achieve this goal. To most Americans issues of self-control have so often battled with deeply seated individualism. No one - not even ourselves sometimes - will tell us what to do? This creates issues in spiritual life when the Christian should be listening to, and heeding, the instructions of the Holy Spirit about what they need to be careful of in their life and what areas may need to be placed under the control of Christ more intentionally.
Over the years there has been a large distance opening up, a chasm, between modern "Methodists" and those earlier "Methodists."  The ordered, methodical, process based strengths that so aided the movement in its early growth was replaced by a scatter-brained, 'flying by the seat of my pants', committee driving in circles, approach to just about everything.
I remember a series of district training events where local church leaders could meet at a church and pastors and leaders from all over would share with them practical, useful skills or model for them innovative new methods of operations or programs.  I recalled one where a person from outside the denomination was brought in to share about a specific program. There was an outline, there were handouts, there was an engaging presentation that had been well thought out and expressed.  In comparison, a Methodist minister representing some conference office breezed into a session and opened with , "Well, what do you want to know about XYZ?" 

For me, this is always the opening that hints that someone did not do their homework.  Sure enough, the presentation was nothing more than an extemporaneous collection of off the cuff rambling comments more or less related to the assigned topic.  When I first began writing I remember reading an article that warned about several styles of writing: 'all over the road' was one, indicating the lack of focus and pointless type of  article and another was the 'spontaneous me' style that seemed to express that whatever is said will be delightful because it is just so darn 'spontaneous'. Kerouac with too much caffeine muttering out street signs may be spontaneous but it is senseless and dull.
The difference in the two presentations was painful in comparison.  Where, I wondered, had the methodical, planned, and organized approach in Methodism gone?  Like a youthful driver flinging a car from one side of the road to the other, the approaches being seen  ranged widely.  They were the  ponderous and hesitant planning that occurred at the rate of geological change and thus insured no changes in content or processes. The other bounced off the curb with a breezy, 'don't make me think about tomorrow' causal style that passed for contemporary management for far too many decades.
Calendars are useful; very useful. Long range planning is crucial to steady growth and effectiveness.  In some professional positions I have held a three or five YEAR planning calendar was a necessity.   In too many churches, I believe, we have let the yearly change over of volunteer leaders substitute for clear planning on the long range scale.  We wait and let each new leader fumble around for 6 months, plan something and then, opps!, it is time for them to step off the roster.  Is it any wonder many churches are challenged and moribund in effectiveness?
It is time for a rediscovery of the "method" to our madness. To plan not in small segments of time but to see the big picture as part of the strategic planning and mission development. In three ,or in five, we want to see A,B, C, and D happen!   At the start of each conference year we should say to everyone from the conference level to the local church: Welcome to the ministry team of the church, this year these things have to happen to make sure we reach this three or five year goal to be effective in our mission and purpose in this community. You now have the ball - move it down the field!
Method, a system, a process, an effective and organized movement that advances the church or a personal spiritual life into greater levels of accomplishment and service to God.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Soul Friends

In 1997 an Irish monk wrote a book that captured the imagination of many and crossed denominational boundaries.  The title "Anam Cara" (unnam kara) was a Gaelic term meaning "soul friend" and referred to the mentoring and advisory process.  It was based on an older meaning that stemmed from ancient Celtic beliefs that the soul glowed with a nimbus or halo and when a person encountered other people the glow could magnify in strength. If it did so, it was a clear indication  of a "soul friend" who would be loyal and true.
“One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.”    ― John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
The Wesleyan United Societies emerged as a way by which people could share a covenantal relationship, know they were not alone on the journey of faith, and have developed in them positive habits of prayer, accountability, confession and encouragement.
As such, these groups functioned as mentors and advisors to one another as they asked their questions.  The questions themselves served to cause reflection, dedication and faith. How goes it with your soul? Has anything come between you and prayer, service, church?  What have you done to advance the cause of the Gospel? Are there any issues that keep you from fully serving God and loving your fellow humans?

Sometimes, people in helping work can be the most lonely and isolated. They give and give of themselves but are so often never filled themselves by gracious acts and loving kindness that supports and builds.

Everyone needs someone to let them know they do not travel the road alone. Everyone needs someone to help put their problems in perspective and to minimize fears that grow to giant proportions when alone in the dark of isolation.  Everyone needs a gentle, loving, honest, and faithful friend to keep them on their path, help them be true to their best self, and remind them of the ultimate, eternal, goal.

Many people could benefit from rediscovering the "Soul Friend" who mentors, advises and is our friend.  Clergy spouses often need these more than others because they are without a pastor.  Who ministers to those who minister? Who serves those who serve?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bearing One Another's Burdens: Clergy Spouses and the Connection

One of the most important features of Methodism, historically, has been its focus on connection, covenant, caring for one another.  An area where this has sometimes been weak has been in the care of the clergy family.  In most regions of the country, "Minister's Wives Fellowship" groups sprouted in the 1930's to provide social and spiritual support to the women married to the ministers. In a gendered society that still had only one working model of the role of women in society. These groups helped acclimatize new wives to the proper methods, attitudes and behaviors of the parsonage woman.
In the 1930's -1950's books on being a minister's wife (written by people from numerous denominations) included many gems of dismal expectations.  I remember reading one that said a wife such disappear into the world of her husband, abdicate her desires to fulfil his mission, and negate her abilities so they did not overshadow her spouse.  Other classics painted a confusing picture of making everyone happy, raising perfect children, and being totally clueless about anything in the church while fully supporting and attending the services.  Such conflicting advice was often spiced up with the need to be lovely at all times and devout. Sometimes the information on marriage was included in books by ministers for other ministers.  I remember one that had as its sub-titles "procedures and problems."  I always wondered which one that pastor considered his wife, a procedure or a problem?
Flash forward several decades to the 1960's and 1970's and a couple of stories help to illustrate the attitudes of churchmen to churchwomen.  Stories shared by elderly wives of pastors recounted how that they would, each year, pack up their entire house and give it a good cleaning while their husband went to annual conference where assignments were announced.  She would wait, breathlessly, for the call that said either "unpack" or "we are moving."   Other women shared the presiding bishop's requirement that women wear white gloves, hats, and hose at all times while at church or conference events. These were the decades where under the surface of society there was a revolt brewing against just such highhanded control and stringent dictates of decorum. 
Speeding through the 1980's and into the early 21st century there has been a roller coaster of change. More spouses working outside the home and diminishing the church as single social interaction and source of concern.  Worlds expanded and worlds collided.  I recall serving on a district fellowship group where many of the older women were still firmly rooted in that 1960's and 1970's world. Others, like myself, were progressive, for lack of a better term.  We were educated, we had experiences and views that said we as women should be engaged in important work in the church. No teas for us!  No traditions!  We were modern, we worked, and we had brains.  A lot of women felt that way (few male spouses at that time) and there was a general falling away from the concept of a fellowship group based on what we saw as an outdated paradigm.  We were not defined by what our husband's did!
We would be - we all agreed - just a person sitting on the pew and being actively engaged in mission like any other church member.  No special privileges expected or desired. No "queen of the manse", "first lady" or similar nonsense.
What we failed to understand that we were different: neither fish not fowl. As long as we were specifically mandated to not serve on certain committees in the church (see the Book of Discipline) , we were different.
What we failed to remember as well was that connectional aspect. That caring for one another and being supportive of the burdens other people might be struggling with as they lived the life.  We failed to remember people need friends who understand and the local Bible study group is not the place to rail against the son of Satan who keeps hurting your husband or to complain about the gossiping and bad behaviors of the church in general.  Talking about it with a spouse often merely added to the stress that person was feeling in their position as leader and spiritual worker.
The problem, looking back, was that the idea was basically sound: a group to offer social and spiritual support to a cadre of people sharing a similar journey.  The fault was in confusing a maintaining of the status quo as the goal.  The fault was in 'gatekeeping' those spouses instead of strengthening them through friendship and prayer. The fault was in failing to realize that as much as you might want to be just another lay person on the seat the church and community will always see you as "the preacher's wife" (or husband).  To hold back that tide of inevitability is too exhausting and can be detrimental to a marriage.
The best advice I can give is to go into a church slowly. Do not assume positions or roles too quickly unless there is a passion in you to do them.  Too often I have seen churches fail to develop the gifts within them because a willing spouse, or some paid staff,  make the process unnecessary.  The role of the person married to a member of the clergy is a hybrid one and perhaps that is the greatest potential there is in the discussion. They understand both sides of the equation (ministry purpose and function and church dreams and desires) and can help in the translation process. 
As the 21st century dawns it is time to explore what the spouses need and how to best support them in their travels, transitions, and tribulations. What would it be like to have a supportive group who can say "how goes it with your soul?", "have you laughed today?" or "come, let us pray".    It would be a very Methodist thing to do.
Some excellent examples of conferences working to support the families of clergy as they transition through moves they have no voice in and over which they have no control. Like other fields, the military and some companies, the worker is moved and the family is just part of the furnishings.  In a church setting,  however, there should be so much more to the process. There should be a concern and care given to how the family copes, feels supported, and encouraged in the process of re-location. These are emotional health issues that are sometimes hard for people to express or acknowledge. We have so often made people feel that in the spiritual world we cannot have weaknesses, uncertainties, and even dislike for the lot we are given.
Professional counselor and wife of a Methodist minister, Marilyn Brown Oden, gives insightful commentary in "Stress and Purpose: Clergy Spouses Today" (1988). 
The Mississippi Conference has this delightful page with a very formal take on organization. The clergy spouses have a verse on their page that seems to say it all: "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." I Thes. 5:11 
The Eastern Ohio Conference has a truly broad and helpful document on the moving process. The content ranges from practical aspects and timelines to the emotional health of people who are going through a grieving, loss, and separation experience. A Guide to a Good Move for Pastors and Families
The Texas Conference has a webpage devoted to the Clergy Spouses.
The diverse makeup of Clergy Spouses in the UMC was the focus of a 2009 study that included for the first time a significant look at the male spouse of a female clergy. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Art of Evangelism

Several recent studies have underscored the role of art in helping relieve stress, of helping seniors retain memory functions, and cognitive clarity, and its apparent impact on people dealing with severe health problems. The church and the world of art have often gazed at each other across a wary canyon of mutual distrust. The church, often too concerned about issues of appropriateness and subject matters, limited subject matter and ways of representing spiritual themes or topics. The art world, often filled with extreme individualists rankled at such and turned their back on spiritual aspects in a search for expressions of their inner vision.  As Francis Schaeffer pointed out in "Art and the Bible", the inner spirit and motives of the artist will shine out of whatever they do.  As the 20th century waned, it was clear there was a deficiency in what was feeding many of the artists of the world. Jars of urine with crucifixes in them were called proudly 'art'.  The source of this problem was a general move by the church world to remove spiritual issues and expression from its own sphere and leave it for others to shape.

Responding to that was a flowering of artists who explored the rich field of the spiritual with new and expressive eyes. 

One such place was the Visual Arts Center at Wilkes Ave. Blvd. UMC in Columbia, Missouri.  Here art melded with evangelism and spiritual healing to offer a way to make disciples of Jesus Christ. 
Another program is Paint and Pray at Wesley UMC, Oklahoma City. Here the program was originally intent on using interest in art to introduce Jesus Christ to a new group of people. In the pilot project, it was found that there was so much more such a program could and did offer: creative discovery, fellowship, friendship, distressing and devotions that touched hearts.  Offered as a pilot for a $5 a week donation to support the unfunded program, those who could soon gave more in support, and then a grant was awarded that would allow a summer program targeting the community to enjoy the lessons and spiritually rich environment for free.  As part of the process, students create 'random works of art' that they leave for people to find, have an art show, and create a group work to reflect their journey through the lessons.

Go OUT and Share the Good News

Dateline: OKC

The homeless and those in need are ministered to in a dynamic manner through an organization called "Church Under the Bridge".  In this ministry, churches unite to feed those in need, share the Gospel,  provide clothes, and spiritual guidance to those they meet.    Every service includes a sermon with special music and prayer.  Food is proved to upwards of 70 to 100 people (men, women and children).  Clothes are brought to be distributed to those in need. The "Church" - followers of Jesus Christ - being "The Church."    Here, again, we could say, "Here is ministry!"

There Be Ministry Here!

Dateline: Wilkes Blvd. UMC, Columbia, Mo.  We traveled to this historic and busy college community as part of a mission strategy team to see the ministries implemented in this once dwindling congregation and learn how they had begun the process of turn-around. In the process, we met wonderful people and saw a renewed emphasis on real mission oriented outreach and ministry.

 The walls between fellowship and worship had, literally, come down. Each Sunday people are served breakfast in this area, find cups of steaming hot coffee, a place to sit and friendly people. The church knew that some people are allergic to "pews" and moved in couches and chairs to one side of the sanctuary and many sit with coffee at the tables and participate in worship.
Underused upper floors acquired new vital purpose as a center to help the homeless was begun. Showers, laundry, mail center, job center, and clothing source all at this church!

 One of the most innovative and rich areas was the Center for Visual Arts where dedicated artists ministered to the soul through the medium of art. People were encouraged to come and explore, try their hand at creating, and finding friends who shared the love of God through a love of artistic expression.

The visiting group was excited, enthused, and encouraged to return to their home church and begin to make their church more mission driven and more purpose filled in its own setting.  Leaving Columbia and the "Church at Wilkes and 7th" we could heartily say, "Here, There be Ministry!"