This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Recovering the Means of Grace to Renew the Church.

The Means of Grace.  I.

In the church, change that does not well up from below is going to be pointless.  More than anything else we need to start by having our churches become places of healing, transformation, joy, hope, and compassion.  They need to be places where people meet the living Jesus Christ and learn to follow him.
This will be done through better attention to the traditional “means of grace,” which are: (1) the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures that attest to him, (2) worshiping and celebrating the sacraments together with integrity, knowledge, and conviction, and (3) deepening of our prayer lives both corporately and individually, including giving new attention to meditative practices like Centering Prayer.    
It will be objected that I said nothing about mission or service.  That is because the means of grace have priority in the formation of disciples and provide a necessary foundation for the mission of the church.  Before it can be missional, the church has to be contemplative.  Before it can go out and make disciples (the Great Commission in Matthew 28) or serve the needy (Matthew 25), Christians need to be aware of who and whose they are.  Before we can be active witnesses in the world the church and disciples have to be in relationship with the One who sends us.
In other words, we have to go inward before we can go outward, but the going inward is for the sake of going outward.  Faithful advocacy has to be based on the invocation of the Spirit.  
One danger right now is that the Presbyterian Church, in its new, more explicitly “progressive” form (having lost much of its conservative-evangelical wing), will advance with a shallow social activism that has barely any root in an experience of God’s saving Presence.  This leads on the one hand to burn-out, and on the other to a reductionistic faith in political power and a toxic identification with a particular party or faction.  Evangelicalism is now completely discredited by its drinking of the Republican — and now Trumpian — Kool-Aid.  This must not be allowed to happen to a progressive church.  Focusing anew on Jesus Christ and the means of grace will prevent this.  An active, progressive, missional church needs a strong foundation in the Word, sacraments, and prayer.  The social justice that is inherent and essential to the gospel has to be energized and nourished by a profound and rich spirituality.    

  1. The Word.  In too many churches, Bible study is shallow, weak, compromised, and so flavored with evangelical literalism and sentimentality as to spawn in congregations a reactionary knot of resistance to change… which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the Bible is about.  We need to promote and even mandate Bible study resources that deal with context and present the Bible as the revolutionary and transformative document it is.  Presbyterians understand Scripture in and through Jesus Christ and his ministry, which is about compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and healing.  We need to require elders to have a minimum of Bible knowledge from this perspective.  
  2. Sacraments.  In too many churches worship is geared towards what the current attendees want, like, and are used to, rather than towards God.  Instead of plugging into the Christian tradition in worship, with attention on the sacraments that incorporate disciples into the life of Jesus Christ, we have worship more reflective of the 1950’s or a sentimental evangelicalism, permeated with bad, self-serving theology.  There is little of mystery, wonder, majesty, or depth in Presbyterian worship these days.  At its worst it is nationalistic, individualistic, antiseptic, irrelevant, overly informal, and spiritually empty.  And the Sacraments are habitually performed in a superficial and obligatory way.  What we need is worship that brings people into God’s Presence and forms them for responsible discipleship.  Our worship should have integrity, coherence, substance, direction, purpose, and meaning.          
  3. Prayer.  In too many churches prayer is completely disregarded, assumed, left to the minister, not taught, and limited to a vague “talking to God.”  It is chatty and self-centered.  We give God a “to-do” list of concerns that need to be addressed, but leave no time or energy for a conscious relinquishing of our ego-centricity and falling into an awareness of the eternal life Jesus promises.  It is “off the top of our heads” rather than delving into the depths of our souls.  The idea of listening to God is unfamiliar, and any kind of meditation practice is dismissed as un-Christian and even dangerous.  Presbyterian churches need to be places of prayer and mindfulness, where the Spirit becomes real in our lives.  We need to plug into the Christian contemplative tradition in intentional ways.  
If we want renewal in the church, we are going to have to start with the basics: bringing people into an awareness and experience of the living God, revealed in Jesus, by the Spirit.  That is what the means of grace are designed to do.
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Thursday, March 1, 2018

It Is Time for Churches to Consider Standards for Membership.

A Covenant of Commitment for Members.

The Book of Order says that “No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith” (G-1.0302).  This provision is intended to prevent sessions from denying membership to people on the basis of categories like ethnicity, sexual orientation, or mental/physical capacity.  These have nothing to do with Christian faith and should not influence a session’s decision about whether to receive someone as a member.  (My mother used to tell a story from the 1950’s about a woman rejected as a church member because she wasn’t D.A.R.  I’m serious.)  

Unfortunately, we have often taken this to mean that sessions may not apply any standards or requirements to active membership at all.  This waters-down membership to a merely verbal affirmation, turning faith into mere cognitive opinion, and separating it from the actions that necessarily embody it.  This is our Presbyterian version of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.”  It’s well-meaning and inclusive… but it has huge unintended consequences.

For one thing it encourages the corrosive belief that faith doesn’t matter in the real world, that it is just a private, personal hobby that has no impact on our relationships or commitments.  By thinking this way Christians have become nearly indistinguishable from anyone else.  Our faith is invisible, unobtrusive, and insignificant, with less of an effect on our daily life than if we were to declare ourselves  “fans” of Jesus.  Worse, we may imagine that we can follow Jesus and at the same time live a life doing and supporting exactly the things he opposes: like racism, violence, injustice, arrogance, and inequality. 

I see Book of Order G-1.0304 as an attempt to mitigate this.  It gives 12 specific actions that do embody faith and membership in the church.  Thus we have established the principles that (1) faith is expressed in behavior and (2) that the church may articulate what kinds of actions it looks for in a member.  

Here they are:
  1. proclaiming the good news in word and deed, 
  2. taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, 
  3. lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support, 
  4. studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, 
  5. supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, 
  6. demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church, 
  7. responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, 
  8. living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life, 
  9. working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment, 
  10. caring for God’s creation,
  11. participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and 
  12. reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful. 
I believe that sessions may get even more specific and build on those 12 categories by identifying positively or negatively, particular actions on the part of members.  

For instance, a session can say how often worship attendance is expected.  It can require participation in a Bible Study class or other small group.  It can recommend levels of giving.  It can add something like “reducing one’s carbon footprint” or even “not using styrofoam” to number 10.  And it can interpret number 12 in terms of a “covenant renewal” practice in which everyone, in effect, periodically applies to rejoin the church.

In fact, even if they don’t go as far as specific requirements for membership, I wish every session would add something to each to these categories, interpreting how they understand it.  What do we imagine that “a new quality of life” looks like?  What do we actually mean by living responsibly in our relationships?   

A session would want to be in close consultation with the rest of the congregation when developing membership requirements.  Such conversations could bear good fruit in helping us understand how faith is embodied and actually lived, and not just something we think about.  

Such standards would be applied with grace and gentleness, not to exclude or judge and certainly not to divide churches.  Indeed, at least numbers 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 12 have to include humility, patience, and openness as values for disciples of Jesus.

I hope churches start considering what would make membership in the church more meaningful and consequential.  At least we could give examples and suggestions about ways of expressing in our lives the 12 points of G-1.0304.  Churches would only benefit from talking honestly and faithfully about how our faith may be translated into action.

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At least one small church has been experimenting with this idea.  Christ Presbyterian Church, in Martinsville, NJ, has used a “covenant of commitment” with “eight core spiritual practices” (http://christchurchemerging.org/about-us/covenant-of-commitment/ ) to guide its understanding of membership for several years.  (These were developed before the categories above appeared in the Book of Order and therefore do not reflect them.)  Here are their practices:
  1. On-time weekly worship.
  2. Undertake an inward journey including at least thirty minutes of daily prayer with an emphasis on listening.
  3. Participate in planned study of the Bible, theology, ethics & Christian spirituality.
  4. Demonstrate responsible stewardship honoring God’s earth, its resources, people and all creatures.
  5. Give sacrificially, proportionally and regularly to Christ Presbyterian Church beginning with 3% of income as a minimum goal and generous in-kind giving.
  6. Discover one’s spiritual gifts and unique call to mission with the aid of the community.
  7. Commit to participating in a mission group consisting of people with a shared calling and common passion to serve Christ through a specific ministry.
  8. Be accountable to a compassionate spiritual partner for these practices.  
The church is entirely gracious about this; there is no enforcement.  The standards are still relatively general.  And people are asked to sign on to some, but not necessarily all, of them.  The church’s mission provides pathways for people to keep the covenant, like having resources available for discovering one’s own calling, and providing opportunities for study.

Considering requirements for membership also impacts how we think about membership.  CPC has developed an understanding of membership which includes “covenant members" (who are participating in the covenant) and “worshiping members” (who have not made that commitment but still participate in church life).  The former group is the one identified with “active” members in the Book of Order.  

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Get Real.


In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out three primary practices that define fruitful spirituality: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  There is no point to doing Lent unless it is to strengthen these central areas of our spiritual life.  

Regarding all three Jesus criticizes “hypocrites,” that is, people who superficially go through the motions of pious acts, but whose main concern is the benefit they believe they will receive from being seen doing them.  In other words, they are doing these things, not out of a sincere trust in God, but for show.  They think other people will see them and admire them.

Jesus insists that we keep to ourselves with our spiritual life, not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.  By rejecting any notion of receiving recognition or reward for our behavior in this existence, Jesus says our reward is a treasure “in heaven.”   

It makes me think of how much we do “for show,” from choosing what to wear in the morning to deciding what purchases to make.  Indeed, in America a lot of what we do is an expression of our inner fantasies about ourselves.  We don’t just do things for other people to see, but “for show” to ourselves, to convince ourselves we are really living this or that dream.  Like when we buy a car that is designed to travel over the open landscape, thus feeding our fantasy that we are adventurous wilderness explorers, when in reality the car will never leave pavement. 

Jesus wants us to get real.  The false, superficial, public narratives we tell ourselves need to be relinquished.  We need to get to the bottom of who we are.  That’s what’s going on when we reflect on the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes are basically carbon, the primal element of all life.  The phrase that is spoken when ashes are imposed is: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  This may serve to oppress us with guilt, remorse, or feelings of worthlessness.  But this is not an exercise in self-abuse of self-hatred.  Rather it is about honesty.  We are reminded of what we are at our most basic and physical.

Our false, old, ego-driven, small self doesn’t want to remember this.  It projects delusions of grandeur about ourselves.  Just like we don’t want to be reminded of our own death, or even our aging.  

But dust and ash are more than reminders of our mortality.  They also represent our connection and integration into all of life and all that is.  I believe it was a Joni Mitchell song from the 1960’s that included the line, “We are stardust.”  The elements of which we are made are created and used by God in the beginning to form life.  They were taken on by God in becoming flesh in Jesus.  Dust is what God speaks to in creating each one of us.  It is not bad, it is not neutral; it is explicitly and exceedingly blessed!

Lent is about getting back to basics and fundamentals.  It is about clearing out the clutter and silencing the noise of our existence.  This means abandoning what we do because of  what we calculate we will get out of it, and instead emptying ourselves so that God may use us as raw material of a new creation. 

Lent is therefore a joyful time!  To be connected back to our original nature is to realize that we are made in God’s Image.  It is a time to discover who and whose we really are, and to embrace that as the priceless gift that it is.  For while the dust is what we are reduced to after our bodies give out, dust is also what God breathes life into in creating us.

In actual practice this means taking on tasks that return no profit, gain no reward, and accrue no earthly credit.  Indeed, it means taking on tasks of selfless service that society frowns on or even punishes.  For in these we quietly affirm a common humanity with each other and with Jesus.    

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Reformation at 500.


The Reformation tried to be about restoring the New Testament church.  Instead it refitted Western Christianity to suit the Modern Age.  We ended up with a church supremely suited to express people’s faith in the 16th through the 20th centuries.  And that’s why we’re having so much trouble now: those days are over.  

The question becomes: what do to with a church designed to function in one era when that era ends.  One answer that is getting a lot of traction these days in many circles is: adapt!  Meaning, adapt to the new situation.  Adapt to what people are used to today.  Adapt to new technologies, new economic realities, new music, new social norms, new demographic realities.  In other words, pay attention to what is going on all around us and institute major changes in the church’s life to keep up with the changes.  In the place of a church designed for Modernity, let’s redesign the church for the new era that is now emerging, and which doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name.

I get that.  I really do.  I have written about how the new church will be decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, open-source, nimble, flexible, and so on.

The danger is that in moving into the future we will engage in a reflexive rejection of the past.  This was a problem for the Reformation, which tossed out some things simply because they were “too Catholic.”  Thus we lost many important elements of the faith, impoverishing our spiritual lives for centuries.  Mary, the sign of the cross, the saints, monasticism, and church unity all got dispensed with, not because they did not express the biblical faith in Christ, but they had been abused in the middle ages and did not fit into a Modern sensibility.  Instead of reforming and recovering them, we got rid of them.

The insightful observer of the religious scene, Phyllis Tickle, noted that the church goes through a “rummage sale” every 500 years.  We are in one of those periods now.  As with any rummage sale, the questions are: what have we found in the attic that we will decide to keep?  What is sitting in the middle of the living room that is no longer appropriate or useful?  What do we not have room for these days?  What makes no sense anymore?  Indeed, what is offensive?  And what do we need to add that we don’t now have?

Every church is having to answer these questions today, including ours.  In coming to these decisions about what will help us going forward, we do need to keep one thing in our minds and hearts: that is the mission of Jesus Christ.  What does Jesus Christ want for us today?  How do we best obey and follow him?  The church will always have before it one main task, which is discipleship.

On the one hand, we will have to be ruthless in our willingness to get rid of things that do not serve this purpose.  For there are things among us — from ideas and practices to objects — that actually detract from Jesus’ mission.  At best they distract, at worst they counteract and obstruct.  These things need to be identified and purged from our modest.

On the other hand, we will have to be radically open to the movement of the Spirit showing us new directions, new practices, new ideas, and new ways of discipleship.  Some will have a venerable history in the church and just be new to us.  Others will be things we never imagined, or even assumed were not fitting for us.

One characteristic of this new era is that “one size fits all” is over; there are and will continue to be many different expressions of Christianity among us.  Our task will be to discern our own, and to welcome, accept, and learn from — and yes, sometimes challenge and question — others’ ideas, practices, and perspectives.

Allergy to change and addiction to the past are simply not going to work.  At the same time, we do need to immerse ourselves in our history and tradition to find authentic things that will work.  This is the most exciting time to be a Christian in 500 years!  Let’s dive into this with all our hearts, depending on Jesus Christ to lead us by the power of the Spirit!
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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Living in Fulfilled Time.

The first words Jesus utters in the Gospel of Mark proclaim that “the time is fulfilled.”  On one level this may mean that the 500 years since the building of the Second Temple, after the return of the people from exile, have passed.  Some non-canonical writings, like the Book of Jubilees, seem to predict that the Messiah would appear at this time.

But on a deeper level the Lord proclaims a radical understanding of time itself.  Instead of living in the linear time which the Greeks called chronos, and which has always characterized secular, imperial, economic time, the time in which memories of the past and fears/desires for the future dominate present existence, Jesus talks about time as already fulfilled.  Fulfilled time — the Greek words used by Mark are pepleirotai ho kairos — indicates a unified, coherent, interconnected, and undivided view of time.  In other words, fulfilled time sees time all together, not cloven into lost past and unknown future.  This kind of time presents itself as kairos, which means time as opportunity, grace, openness, transformation, destiny, and origin.

We see fulfilled time in the places where the Scriptures describe God as the One “who was, who is, and who is to come”.  It has to be stated in this somewhat awkward manner because human languages (at least English) don’t have a way to talk about time in a unified way.  Chronos infects even the way we speak and therefore think.

We see fulfilled time as well in God’s seminal self-identification to Moses in Exodus, as “I Am Who I Am,” which in Hebrew includes “I was who I was” and “I will be who I will be”. 

What would it mean to think and act in terms of this fulfilled time?  Can we even imagine rising above history, which is the record of how humans persistently choose to live in lies, tragically resulting in our inflicting violence and injustice on each other?  Our literally chronic misunderstanding of time-as-divided spawns human sin.  How much does fear about an unknown future determine our whole existence?  It leads us to concoct self-serving interpretations of the past, which dump us into the classical deadly sins.  In these practices we mangle, corrupt, debase, and destroy the world and people.

If we could lose our misconceptions and come instead to understand time in a unified way, especially coming to see the future as a beautiful and beneficent reality available even now, and which no amount of ignorance and violence can prevent, we may emerge into what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God.”  We may realize in our own lives and relationships the glorious presence of God.  We may come into focus, while the rest of the world, still chained to the broken vision of chronos, falls out of focus, and appears as ultimately unreal.  

This sense motivates Christian worship and spirituality.  Centered on Baptism and the Eucharist, we see how everything works to change our way of perceiving and thinking — a process called repentance (metanoia = new mind) — so that we may live according to the truth — the values, practices, insights, vision, and wisdom — of fulfilled time, the Kingdom of God, the Real.

The Eucharist in particular explicitly places us in Jesus’ fulfilled time.  Jesus gives us this specific way to “remember” him, but this does not mean looking back into the past.  This kind of re-membering brings the past into the present.  The Eucharist both re-presents Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross, and presents his coming again, making him spiritually present and available in the community and in the elements of bread and wine.  Jesus makes himself present in the Sacrament, and we feed on him.  Thus we literally become him, sharing in his Presence, his eternal life, his fulfilled time.  In this Sacrament, then, God delivers us from our broken and distorted world of chronos to the real, unified, integrated world of kairos.  Thus we do not remember his saving death just as a historical event.  Nor do we merely wait for his coming again in the future.  Rather, we participate in his being lifted up for the life of the world, living the new life of resurrection and eternity, now.

God gives the commandments — reimagined and intensified in Jesus, especially in his Sermon on the Mount — as the shape and pattern of this life in the Kingdom/Kindom/Realm/Reign/Commonwealth in eternal/fulfilled time.  (And, frankly, embodying this in actual structures and procedures is the purpose of ecclesiastical polity.)

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Monday, January 8, 2018

Presbyterian Bishops?


One of the more unbiblical things that the Reformation seems to have done was get rid of bishops.  The New Testament clearly says that the early church had an office of episcopos, which literally means “overseer” or “supervisor.”  (See Philippians 1:1.  There are several other mentions in the Pastoral Epistles.)  The tripartite shape of ecclesiastical ministry — bishops, elders, and deacons, in addition to the laity — was articulated very early in church history, in the work of Ignatius of Antioch.  The Reformers would have been wrong to dispense with bishops altogether.

They were no doubt reacting to what bishops had become in the West, which was all too often tyrannical, corrupt, mercenary, hypocritical men swathed in ridiculous pomp.  Bishops had too much power and some of them abused it horribly, which caused the whole institution to be debased and defiled.  The very word has been radioactive to many Protestants ever since.

Even today, bishops seem to imagine themselves to be ecclesiastical CEO’s and allow all kinds of benefits, honors, compensation, and privileges to accrue to themselves.  We Presbyterians don’t have bishops, but we do have “Executives” who sometimes see themselves in the same way.  They can become exactly what the Reformers were trying to unload, as if all that were offensive about being a bishop were the title.  Of course, it's about the power.

But if we look carefully at Presbyterianism, we may see that we did retain a kind of  episcopal office reimagined in a different form and given a different name.  We drained the office of as much corrosive power and venality as possible, even hiding every connection to what bishops had become so well that what I am about to say will surprise most Presbyterians.  The episcopal office emerges in Presbyterianism in the role of the Moderator.

Our polity makes a point of preventing Moderators from degenerating into knots of corrupt power, at least at the presbytery and synod levels.  In our current practice, Moderators are unpaid.  They usually serve one-year terms.  The Book of Order gives them almost no explicit power of disposition or decision-making.  Moderators oversee and preside over meetings of councils, and they represent councils in ordaining and installing elders.  Often they have a seat on whatever board manages the council’s work.  

I believe we do not pay enough attention to Moderators.  We do not recognize their authority or the continuity of their office with the biblical episcopacy.  We treat the role as little more than an honorific.  Sometimes it’s almost like an onerous job people get by turns, if we can convince them to do it at all.  

But I have found Moderators to have amazing and remarkable wisdom and insight.  Most have been active and committed presbyters for many years, and they have invaluable knowledge of the community and institution.  I have learned to trust and defer to Moderators at the presbytery level, even when they seem to be doing things “out of order.”  They can have a kind of moderatorial intuition from the Holy Spirit.  Because even if we don’t take Moderators seriously, God does.

In my view, we denigrate Moderators when we make them adhere to imported and non-Christian procedures that demand adversariality, foment divisiveness, and drive to premature decisions.  Moderators should embody the principles of inclusiveness, openness, mutuality, and equality embedded in our polity.  They should have a missional sense about what a council is doing.  They should be about fostering honest and civil communication, discerning the body, and finding real consensus.  They should be trusted.
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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Why the PIF is a flawed and faulty tool for evaluating ministry.

As many Presbyterians know, “PIF” stands for Professional Information Form.  Ministers fill out this long document when they are open to receiving a new call. 

The content and process of our PIF ensures that our call system has the dignity of a beauty pageant, the sensitivity of speed-dating, and the spiritual depth of an episode of American Idol.  It is a routine in which we are encouraged and even required to place on display our most ego-centric, personality-driven, shallow, superficial, achievement-oriented projection of our selves.   

After completing it, I craved nothing so much as a two-week silent retreat and a full-body cleanse.  

Apparently, if the PIF is to be believed, Presbyterian congregations are interested mainly in being served by ministers who are exceptionally good self-promoters.  Humility is not considered a positive trait. 

Imagine Calvin having to fill out this PIF.  How about Dorothy Day?  Any saint of the church would simply roll their eyes and shake their head when confronted with this absurd bureaucratic instrument.  They would wonder where, in God’s Name, these Presbyterians came up with such leadership values.      

The heart of the PIF is the set of four essay questions.  They address success and fulfillment, growth, leadership, and change.  Apparently, these are now the most important categories that all ministers and churches have to relate to.  Maybe we think that if we can get ministers to refer to and define themselves in such terms then these things will somehow start happening in our churches, and that that would be a good thing.   

And yet, strangely enough, these words are not prominent in the New Testament.  One searches in vain for much talk about “success” and “fulfillment;” neither word appears in the NRSV at all.  “Growth” shows up in Scripture mainly regarding nature or the body, or as a synonym for “become.”  The New Testament does talk about “change” a bit more, but when it isn’t used eschatologically or about Jesus’ transfiguration, it means repentance.  I wish the PIF was talking about this kind of change of thinking and direction, then we might be getting somewhere.  But it clearly isn’t.  And while the epistles do have a handful of references to leaders in the church, in the gospels, the “leaders” are almost always Jesus’ enemies. 

While Scripture may not care about success and fulfillment, they are important categories in our culture.  We use these big words for building up the individual ego.  They stereotypically define the meaning of life for most Americans.  When the PIF wants me to relate a “moment” in my recent ministry when I felt good about myself and something I did,  it wants me to wallow in and polish what feeds my personal self-esteem.  Like that matters.  Like that is anything but spiritually toxic.

The PIF asks me to describe the ministry setting to which I believe God is calling me.  We understand that God’s call comes through and to a particular place.  But if I am only looking in one direction for one kind of ministry, does that not make it more difficult for me to hear if God calls me to something else?  This question asks us to lose ourselves in a fantasy about our “dream church.”  It could easily prevent us from developing a relationship with a real situation.  God almost never calls us to the familiar, desirable, and the perfect.  What if a committee reads what I have written and decides, “Well, we’re not anything like that.  It is pointless to contact this guy”?  What if that’s where God wants me to be?  Maybe God calls churches and pastors out of their comfort zones to work and build something new together?  I have seen this happen repeatedly.

Another PIF question wants me to talk about the “areas of growth” have I identified about myself.  The virtue here, presumably, is self-improvement.  The minister is encouraged to show off her/his ability to spin shortcomings into strengths, a skill that apparently our churches feel they need in a pastor.       

Finally, the last question is about when we have “led change.”  There are two things going on here.  

First of all, the word “led” raises that question of leadership.  The Book of Order lists the qualities and tasks of a pastor.  Significantly, “leadership” isn’t one of them.  This is because there is only One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Pastors are disciples just like every other member of the church.  Some disciples may be a little farther along the Way.  This makes them good examples and possible teachers.  It does not make them authoritarian “leaders” with coercive power.  Ministers lead by asking questions, encouraging, suggesting alternatives, sharing expertise, and speaking out of their experience.  They do not lead by having a goal — change! — and manipulating others to attain it.  We are sometimes called “teaching elders,” not “leading” elders.

Secondly, we see here again our fetishizing of “change.”  We assume that the church needs change more than anything.  It doesn’t even matter what kind of change we are talking about, we seem to be at the point where any change is better than keeping what we have.

How often do churches want to hear about the real change that Jesus is about?  That kind of change involves, well, taking up your cross, renouncing your life, and giving up all you have.  At most they seem to want advice about how to adapt to a changing religious marketplace.  By “change” they mean moving to guitars in worship, or improving the church’s use of social media.  How do we attract millennials?  How do we change without alienating the older people who donate the most?  Churches mainly want to know how they can avoid real change by making these provisional, superficial adaptations.

What does it mean that Louisville can come up with PIF categories that bear no reference to the New Testament or even the Book of Order?  Why do we have to conjure things like this from scratch, relying on the imaginations of GA entities or people sitting in offices in Louisville?

What if we started evaluating ministers based on something related to Jesus, like the Beatitudes?  Does this person exhibit poverty of spirit?  Purity of heart?  Is she a peacemaker?  Does he hunger and thirst for justice?  What does that look like in their ministry?

What if we discouraged ministers from talking about themselves, but relied on how their vocation is perceived by people they have served with?  Congregants and colleagues might provide a better measure of someone’s faithfulness.

Such a strategy might work for the twin document, the MIF (Ministry Information Form) that churches are asked to complete, which has identical problems.  Only these are filled out by a committee.

It comes down to the basic question for a post-Christendom church: are we going to adapt ourselves to the standards of a secular and pathological society, or to Jesus Christ?
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