Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Morning Reflections -

One of my favorite movies of all time is Top Gun.  Ask anyone that I hang out with on any kind of regular basis and they will tell you I look for opportunities to drop in a Top Gun movie quote during the course of conversation.  I will frequently utilize the quote, "Negative ghost rider, the pattern is full."  However, today my mind turns towards a conversation that Charlie has with Maverick in the movie where she tells him, "When I first met you, you were larger than life. Look at you. You're not going to be happy unless you're going Mach-2 with your hair on fire and you know it."

Here's the truth, some of us are hardwired to be busy; constantly on the go.  Others of us fall into that trap because of circumstances do to job, family or other commitments.  In the fast paced life we often encounter here in the western world (whether self-imposed or contextually imposed), we find it next to impossible to really slow down.  This, my friends, is counter to the scriptures.

The God who created us and loves us knows that we must have times of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual renewal.  We must get out of the hectic pace of life and slow down long enough to re-encounter God.  We were given the gift of sabbath for that very reason.  Jesus modeled time in retreat and prayer, I believe, for this very reason.

In Psalm 46:10a, the psalmist writes, "Be still and know that I am God..."  While this is counter-intuitive, it is a necessary practice for our connection to God and our continuing spiritual growth. Many of us that practice daily morning or evening devotionals could still learn something from this gentle reminder from the psalter.  Getting still, clearing the white noise of our lives, and leaning more fully into our relationship with God can help to renew our very beings.

Today's prayer - Holy God, even in the midst of our time that we set aside for you, we can find ourselves inundated with pressures from the outside world.  God, help shape our devotional lives.  Help us to clear our minds and focus solely on you.  Use our times of retreat into you to convict us, shape us, mold us, and recreate us more fully in your image Lord.  Still our minds, quiet our hearts and do a deep work within us.  Not that we would be glorified Lord, but rather that in our drawing closer to you, we would come to know you more and in our returning to the world, would be better reflections of your Holy image.  We ask this in Christ's name.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Morning Reflections - Christian Maturity

Ephesians 4:11-15 states:  "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,  to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ."

For me it is the last line of this text that is one of the most challenging to live into.  Somehow, it serves as a call to admonishment and accountability; something we humans don't do very well.  It seems to me that we either err on the side of caution, hiding behind some fantasy notion of love, and fail to speak the truth at all or we run to the opposite end of the spectrum and use the truth as a weapon with no sense of compassion for the other person involved.  Dallas Willard once put it like this, "truth without love is brutality and love without truth is hypocrisy."  If your experience is anything like mine, we have visited both sides of this spectrum as both victim and perpetrator.

If we are ever to grow into the fullness of Christ in our lives, we will need to learn the art of truth telling.  This will require us to see God's gifts in others.  This will require us to work together as the body of Christ; growing together in faith, knowledge and unity.  This will mean that we will have to learn to navigate the space between hypocrisy and brutality; to live so authentically that we are able to speak truth in love and grow in Christ likeness. 

Today's prayer - Gracious God, help us to see others as you see them.  Guide us to be reflections of you especially in times of difficult conversations.  Grant us the discernment and grace to speak real truth in authentic love that way the body of believers to which we belong is strengthened and might grow in your promise of knowledge, unity and faith.  We ask this in Christ's name.  Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Morning Reflections - Living in Hope

Every day I encounter individuals and groups that are in the throws of change. Whether that change is relational, physical, job related, church related, or family related, it is still change and it is still stressful.  I personally think that the greatest challenge of change is the uncertainty or fear of the unknown future. This fear drives us to ask such questions as how will this turn out?  What's next?  How do I get through this?

A well known 20th century author once wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Thomas Merton

It is important to recognize, as I believe Merton did, that what is before us is not all that there is.  Change will happen; it is inevitable.  It is not the changes themselves that cause us to grieve, but rather it is the way that we engage those changes and respond to them that determines our stress level.  The good news is that there is a power that is greater than ourselves, whose face is Jesus, that has prepared the fulfillment of hope and faith for us.  As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us:

For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Jeremiah 29:11-13

Today's Prayer - Gracious God, we give thanks that in our times of fear and frustration you are only a breath away.  Father, we want nothing more than to live in hope; Your hope.  God we ask that you might grant us the strength we need today to face our fears and walk through the changes that lie before us.  We know that you are faithful to your promises and so we lean into this wondrous hope that we find in our relationship with your Son, our Savior, Jesus and we ask these things in his holy name.  Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Morning Reflections - No More Pew Potatoes

Max Lucado in his book Just Like Jesus compares church services to airplane rides in one of his chapters.  He discusses how we are content to just show up and as long as nothing is too out of whack, we say things like, "that was a nice service."  So long as there isn't meddling or turbulence in the worship service, we are satisfied.  Just like on the airplane, so long as there were no delays or turbulent encounters, we say it was a good flight.  In worship, we often come with little expectation and sometimes even less engagement.  According to Lucado, we have become pew potatoes instead of engaged worshipers.

The scriptures say, "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24)."

Today's prayer - God, liberate us from our past experiences and ways of doing things.  Breathe new life into our liturgies and worship gatherings that we may be freed for joyful celebration and able to worship in a way that is holy and honoring to you.  Help us to connect in such a way that we may fulfill the scripture and worship you in spirit and truth.  Let us expect to encounter you, our risen Lord and Savior and to be so engaged that we don't miss your Holy Presence.  Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Morning Reflections - A New Beginning

I have been asked by some of my new congregation members if I would provide some words with which to begin each of our days.  In years past I have done daily prayers and other series postings here at Radically Altered, so I have agreed to give it a whirl.  I will post them daily here at the blog (so please feel free to add me to your RSS feed or other reader).  Additionally, they will appear as links on Facebook and Twitter.

This new series we will call Morning Reflections.  My hope is to provide quotes, scriptures, thoughts and prayers that may inspire or provoke thought and action.  As with each new adventure, I am sure it will take a bit to settle in and get a rythym going.  As such, I ask for your patience and your input to make this series the best that it can be. 

So here we go:

“The chief beauty about time
is that you cannot waste it in advance.
The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you,
as perfect, as unspoiled,
as if you had never wasted or misapplied
a single moment in all your life.
You can turn over a new leaf every hour
if you choose.”
Arnold Bennett

Today's prayer - Holy God, we give you thanks that you are our source for new beginnings and new life.  We give you thanks that our new beginnings are only a breath away.  Help us to lean into our relationship with you that we too may experience the God ordained fullness of each of our upcoming moments.  Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Renovate or Die" - A Review

As the time to move into my appointment continues to draw closer, I continue plowing through the books that were on the reading list for the Vibrant Church Initiative consultation program my new church and I will be engaged in.  The most recent book, "Renovate or Die" was written by Bob Farr with assistance from Kay Kotan, the forward by Adam Hamilton, and the Epilogue by Doug Anderson.  This is one of those situations where I was able to meet and spend a week with the author a little more than 3 years ago when I was at a training for new church starts.  This is extremely important because much of the information that was presented to us during that training has been formalized and re-organized into this book.  Simply put, this was not my first introduction to the material or the author and I feel that I might have gotten some different things out of the book than those reading it for the first time would.

After a 13 page introduction on why we need to renovate and an overview of his model of urgency, vision and reality with hope, Farr gives us 10 ways to renovate our churches.  These chapter titles include:
1 It All Starts with the Pastor
2 Understand Your Present Reality
3 Get the Basics Right
4 Create Momentum
5 Inspire through Experiential Worship and Life-Application Preaching
6 Think Strategies, Not Programs
7 Staffing for Leadership
8 Disciple with Clear Steps
9 Network, Network, Network, and Then Market
10 Dare to Simplify the Structure

In reading the chapter titles you might get a realistic sense of where each chapter is going.  If you have read Paul Borden, Bishop Schnase and Adam Hamilton much of what you will read here is a direct outpouring of Farr's experience relating to these other texts.  He utilizes references to them heavily in many areas of the book.  This is not a bad thing.  It just may mean that this book ought to be at the top of your reading list rather than the bottom because it summarized a great deal of what I had read in these other venues.  Beyond the recapping, however, there were real life examples in the Methodist realm (our conferences, churches, etc) that showed how putting these strategies to work could pay dividends in a denomination and I think that is extremely important when presenting this type of material. This simply eliminates the excuses one might think of when sourced out of other denominational affiliations.

The last four chapters in this section were the most impactful for me, but again, I longed for more to be said. 

In the Staffing for Leadership chapter, only 2 pages were given to the discussion of "Getting the Right Paid Staff."  This is an area that has plagued many of the churches that I have served as both laity and clergy.  Pages upon pages could be written about this topic alone and we would do well to have those pages written and shared with us.  Let's address the codependency that happens in most church staffs.  Let's look at what it means to be an employee and worship at the same organization.  Let's talk about how assessment tools and consultation systems can help us grow a healthier church staff.  And let's take a fresh look at family systems as they play out in our churches, because this affects not only the paid staff, but the volunteer staff and lay leadership as well. Finally, let's look at the added stresses of lay staff members with Pastoral Leadership changes in the itinerate system.  Don't get me wrong, Farr makes some great points, even in this small section of this chapter, there is just so much more that needs addressing.

In the chapter covering "Disciple with Clear Steps," I applaud Farr for bringing the obvious to our attention again, because apparently the obvious is not so obvious to many any more.  I would suggest additional study here as well.  There is a growing surge of material available from both inside and outside our conferences/churches relating to this topic.  I love the quote, "...the level of commitment with which people join your church is the level they most likely will remain for their whole time with your church."  That is a spiritual 2x4 regarding our intentional pathways of discipleship if I ever heard one!

"We have to move from a membership mentality to a missionary mentality," is one of the quotes that jumped out at me from the chapter on networking and marketing.  There is definitely so much more to a Christ centered church than marketing.  With marketing as the 12th of 12 steps in this chapter, Farr's work serves as a good reminder for us not to put the cart before the horse!

In the final chapter of this section of the book, Farr implores us to streamline and "Dare to Simplify the Structure."  I can feel the fear and angst that most Methodist churches must feel when they see these words.  The key here is something I have always said, but Farr put it more simply, "meetings are not ministry."  We need to stop filling committees and teams that meet with no action and calling it ministry.  In every ministry context I have been in during the last 15 years, the more streamlined the leadership was, the more fruitful the ministry was.  The key is that we must not sacrifice accountability and Farr does a great job of pointing this out.

The part of the book that causes me to want to jump up and down and give attaboys and kudos to Farr is the inclusion of the chapters involving Five Strategies for Judicatory Leaders from Bishop Schnase.  While all of the other information is great for us leading local congregations, it was affirming to see that leaders in our jurisdiction and denomination are desiring to have tough conversations at all levels of governance.  Systemic change will involve us all, so it makes sense that the conversations that Annual Conferences and bishops must navigate should be as public as the conversations and change that we as local church leaders navigate.

At the end of the day, Farr does a good job with Renovate or Die.  My only recommendation is that you perhaps read this one first before you read some of the other books that are on the VCI list or that his work references.  By doing that, you will get a glimpse of those authors/works that you want to read more about.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Direct Hit - A Review

In this age of church decline, many congregations and pastors are searching for solutions to turn their churches around.  In his book Direct Hit, Paul D. Borden sets out to redirect real leaders towards the mission fields in which they reside.

Borden does a good job of identifying the inward focus of congregations as one of the primary reasons for decline.  Simply put, churches sometimes stop allowing the main thing (making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) to be the main thing.  More subtly, Borden identifies the lack of leadership as an additional reason for the decline that many churches are facing.

There is a plethora of practical advice relating to developing and implementing vision, motivating congregations as preparation for change, developing ideas and personnel, and launching systemic and long lasting effective change.  Additionally, Borden cautions readers about the costs (pastoral, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc) of leading change.  As a broad spectrum, shotgun approach, Borden's 110 pages (not counting forwards, appendices, etc) packs a lot of punch.  He gives us plenty to think about with field tested methods and strong generalizations.  As an introductory book to pastors or congregations desiring change, it serves well and would be a great book to study in small groups to launch deeper conversations.

I would caution, however, that it is only a jumping off point.  Systemic change is hard to instruct fully in only 110 pages.  Many pastors and coaches have spent a lifetime developing such strategies and it is challenging, at best, to cram that much experience and learning in so few pages.

Here are a few areas that I think are either understated (ie. if Borden were ever to do an expanded version, more should be said about these things) or may be lacking in some additional information:

First, in discussing the prayer team (the developing resources team), I am convinced that more than 6 paragraphs are needed to truly convey how important prayer is to undergird this process.  Every successful change endeavor I have been involved with has only been successful when it was bathed in prayer.  Not sprinkled, dabbled in, but literally drenched in prayer.  Perhaps some insights and testimonies from some of the 200 successful churches they referenced in the forward would have been helpful here.

Second, in several places throughout the book, Borden refers to the process in terms of years related to the preparatory phases of systemic change.  It takes time to communicate change, cast vision, and for people to fully embrace the hope of a better tomorrow over an uncomfortable and stagnate present.  I want to say that every ministry situation that I have entered into in the past decade has been different.  Everything is contextual!  If you are entering into a situation where the stark reality of an immenent death has already created congregational urgency, then look for where the gaps are in the process (casting vision, providing hope to the hopeless, giving guidance to next steps, etc) and move in that space.  Simply put, there is no need to start the process from scratch...capitalize on the work that God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.  I have seen mergers take place and extension campuses thrive within months (yes months, not years) because we were following the movement of the Holy Spirit not a chronological road map.  Sometimes, God will surprise you!

Finally, I am in complete agreement that outside interventions are extremely beneficial.  There is a caveat, however, that those interventionists/consultants/coaches need to be well researched and have a mode of operation that is a fit for the congregation.  This requires work on the part of the pastor and congregation.  Pray about it.  Call references.  Check success rates.  Ask excellent questions before committing (where are our opt out options?  How does your model allow for our uniqueness of geography and people? etc).  If you are pitched a cookie cutter model, trash it immediately.  It is a proven fact that what works in suburban Chicago won't work in rural Texas or urban Los Angeles.  Processes are often able to be utilized in various areas, but cookie cutter programs that don't take into account the unique culture and context of the area in which they are deployed are usually doomed for failure.  Trust me, I have been involved in cookie cutter consultation before and it will set a church back years because they won't see any effective fruit from their labors and the process may poison the well for later intervention possibilities.

In the church that I am moving to at the end of June, they are already involved in a process very similar to the intervention that Borden describes in this book.  I am excited about the process and am looking forward to what the small groups that will be studying and discussing this book will have to offer in the form of their reflections.

In closing, I was left wanting a little more...whether it was a little more depth or testimony...I know that Borden has only scratched the surface in this book.  With that said, I would still strongly recommend it as a resource for churches and pastors as a beginning step in moving towards systemic change.