“All we have to do is . . . “

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

A little time away–and a lot of it spent doing grunt work around the house and yard–gave time for pondering. It’s pretty clear that, minus some cataclysmic disruption, we’re going to continue to struggle with the same issues for some time–changing population demographics, declining rates of religious participation among the young (and to a lesser degree, across all age groups), fewer people in worship, declining resources for ministry, and continuing economic uncertainty, with its attendant needs.

As I visit congregations, I hear different facets of this overall picture expressed as priority problems–”We don’t have enough young people and children.” “The town is dying.” “We don’t have enough money.” “There aren’t enough pastors available.” “We can’t afford a full-time pastor.” “People are too busy to be involved.” “Too many things compete for attention.”

Too often, this leads to the “All we have to do is . . .” Syndrome. “All we have to do is get a few young families.” “All we have to do is get people to give more.” “All we have to do is convince people faith is a priority.” –you get the idea. The danger in this syndrome is that it oversimplifies the existing and increasing complexity of life in our place and time. There is no silver bullet (nor lack of people, programs and businesses who would like to convince us there is).

Yet there are some clear priorities among the challenges. Those priorities need to be identified so that we can faithfully address them and carry out effective ministry. Some priorities may apply across the Church around the country and even around the globe. But some are specific to context–our context, here and now.

So I’m asking you–what do you see as the one, two or three greatest challenges to ministry where you are? And what do you see as their causes? For example, maybe there aren’t “enough” young families in your congregation. Is that because there are fewer in your community? Because they are committed to other activities? Because your congregation has little to offer them? Because your bishop asks too many questions?

It’s foolish to think we’ll ever come to a single “all we have to do” solution to the very real challenges we address. But it’s unfaithful to throw up our hands and say, “we’re doing the best we can in a changing world.” My conviction is that Jesus calls us simply to “fish for people,” not to spend a lot of time counting the catch. Still, it’s better to throw the nets where the fish are, and to know where the shoals and sandbars lie.

I believe the Spirit will help us navigate those shoals and sandbars, but first we need to identify them. There’s a conversation yet to come about proposed adaptations, strategies and solutions. This conversation is a necessary prelude. What are the challenges where you live and serve?

Bill of Rights (and Responsibilities)

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

As I continue to make my way through this first year and work with individuals and congregations alike, it occurs to me that it would be really helpful if all of us who are part of a congregation, whether as a rostered leader or congregational member, could agree to a basic set of principles. Of course we have the whole of Scripture, Confessions and Tradition to turn to, but there are just a few fundamental behaviors that, if we all abided by them, would save a whole lot of pain and effort. And would leave the synod staff with a lot less to do.

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I would appreciate your thoughts on what such a list would include. It would be helpful if we had a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities posted in every congregation of the Nebraska Synod, and reminded ourselves of it every time we gather in Assembly, seat a new Council, welcome new members, or begin any effort. What needs to be modified, removed or added to the following?

We, the members of the Body of Christ, commit to recognize and fulfill the following Rights and Responsibilities:

1. To communicate with and not about. It’s impossible to estimate how many difficult situations arise because we don’t talk to each other–or how many difficult situations get worse because we talk about each other, instead of directly to each other.

2. To have clear expectations, and to be given helpful feedback about them. Whether a pastor, a Council member, a Sunday School teacher, a worship leader or a volunteer, all of us step into expectations. We need to be clear about what those expectations are, and helpful and honest in giving feedback about them.

3. To be in prayer. Too often prayer is an agenda item we just check off, and not a life-giving conversation with God in which we all participate. Congregational (and individual!) vitality and prayer are linked. Every event, every effort, every day should begin and end in prayer.

4. To be in the Word. Daily reading of the Bible, regular opportunities–long- and short- term–for Bible study, and sermons filled with the Word should be markers of our lives together. Pastors and parishioners should demand as much of each other.

5. To learn, endlessly. Lifelong learning is a proven element of mission vitality in congregations, and a contributor to health and happiness in individual lives. Congregations have a duty to insist that their rostered leaders make regular use of their Continuing Education time and funds–and rostered leaders have a duty to expect as much of congregational members.

6. To live gratefully in God’s abundance. We are in bondage to the consumerist definition of “enough,” which is “more than I have right now.” It puts us in a perpetual condition of scarcity. Faith recognizes what we have and from Whom it comes. It lets us get beyond “Can we afford it?” to “What is God calling us to?”

7. To be healthy. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and financial health are all intertwined, and are directly related to healthy boundaries in our daily schedules and daily choices. Making–and honoring–decisions about those boundaries is critical. And making use of professionals in each of those areas should simply be expected, whether it’s an annual physical check-up, an occasional visit with a counselor, a season of discernment with a spiritual director, or a conversation with a financial advisor.

8. To forgive and be forgiven. Painful as it sometimes is, acknowledging our own errors and apologizing for them is often the shortest–and healthiest–route between a mess we’re in and the healthy resolution we could achieve. And forgiving others sets us free from a limiting past to a limitless future. “To err is human. To acknowledge error is exceptional.”

9. To enter worship with expectancy, ready to encounter the living God. Thriving congregations are marked by two elements of worship, and they aren’t the music or the preaching. They’re a sense of anticipation and the experience of God’s presence. Leaders and worshipers alike are responsible for both.

10. To die. Daily. Experiencing these rights and fulfilling these responsibilities are all possible when we let the demands of our pride and the shame of our sin die a watery death, and rise up anew to live as the baptized people of God. These are not high-sounding theological terms. This is what we are called to do, and we need to be more honest in holding one another accountable to it.

I am eager for the collective wisdom of this community to help draft this list. What do “We the people” have to say?

 

Speaking the truth

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

One of the challenges I’ve always struggled with is healthy confrontation. Like too many pastors, my own desire to be liked has blunted my willingness to be honest, direct or prophetic. I have grown over time, but I know I have a long way to go. I frequently grow frustrated with myself, but I grow frustrated with all of us as “church” as well. One of our greatest challenges is speaking the truth, especially to one another.

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I’ve heard people ask, “How do we speak the truth in love?” I think the more important question is simply “Will we speak the truth in love?” We live in an era when we are able to celebrate growing tolerance–an enormous step forward. Yet we too often confuse tolerance with “anything goes.” It really is true that “good fences make good neighbors”–not because they keep people out but because they help maintain clear boundaries. Clear boundaries are helpful, appropriate and necessary to healthy human relationships.

In a community like the church, built on relationships through the shared relationship with Jesus Christ, those boundaries are no less important. Confessing the faith means assenting together to shared expressions of belief, shared norms of behavior, shared mores and practices and stories. Each of the things we share brings with it the task of holding one another accountable, and of speaking honestly when we believe boundaries have been crossed.

We won’t all agree on where those boundaries lie all the time. But unless we’re willing to talk about them, we’re not being faithful to our call or responsible to our relationships. As Lutheran Christians, living in the tension between two different points is as natural as breathing. We shouldn’t be uncomfortable living in relationship with someone with who we have a disagreement–or honestly naming and living into the shared tension of that disagreement.

Yet too often, we find accountability offensive. We find ways to excuse our own behaviors or boundary violations, and/or to criticize those who would dare to name them. We ignore limits and expectations we’ve agreed to, declaring our situations exceptional or dismissing those shared expectations as immaterial.

In the parish, I heard comments like, “we can’t expect people to come to the church more than once a week,” or “setting expectations for confirmation turns people off,” or “we have to make it as convenient as we can to get people involved.” We need to take such concerns into consideration, but those can’t be our sole considerations. The Gospel asks us to die to ourselves and to the secondary demands of the world around us for the sake of growing deeper in faith and stronger in discipleship. How can we pretend there’s any integrity, power or worth to that proclamation if we’re too timid to ask people to choose involvement in the Body of Christ over another activity?

In my current position, I hear things like “we’ve got to stop talking theology and doing mission.” And I wonder–speaking the truth in love–whether we don’t instead need to stop talking mission and start doing theology. An artificial division between one and the other violates the definitions of both–mere talk isn’t truly theology, and mission not rooted in theology is just activity.

These are two small examples; there must be thousands. How do you feel we need to hold one another accountable? What is it that you would like to be able to say in your ministry setting in order to “speak the truth in love”?

Which way forward?

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This weekend brought the opportunity to be at the Nebraska Synod PMA (Parish Ministry Associate) Convocation. PMAs are trained and authorized lay leaders who serve several roles in congregations across the state, though their most common role is to provide pastoral leadership in congregations that are not served by ordained pastors.

The PMA program developed as a response to a growing number of congregations that simply couldn’t afford to call rostered leaders–usually small congregations in shrinking communities. PMAs continue to meet that need, but I’m wondering how we make this program one part of the conversation we need to have going forward, as rapidly changing dynamics affect congregations’ abilities and needs in ministry and mission.

On one end, we continue to face declining rural populations. On the other end, cultural shifts mean even where there are plenty of people, fewer of them have any interest in the Church. Both ends are complicated by an anticipated clergy shortage. Providing leadership in an increasing number of settings with decreasing resources for fewer available full-time pastors is a primary challenge.

One of the gifts of this challenge is the renewed awareness–sometimes out of sheer necessity–of the role of all the baptized in carrying out the mission of the Body of Christ. One of the burdens of this challenge is articulating the need and purpose of ordained clergy. We have for too long reserved too many facets of ministry exclusively for rostered leaders–though this has changed significantly in the last two generations. Yet there are those who suggest we do not need rostered/ordained leaders at all.

Most of us are caught somewhere between these two extremes–right where Lutheran Christians usually tend to find themselves. But what middle ground should we occupy? Should there be new emphases on raising up new pastors? Should there be more training for bivocational pastors (those who will hold a part-time or full-time job while serving as a pastor)? Should there be more training and authorization/certification opportunities for lay leaders?

What are YOUR thoughts, concerns, questions and ideas?

Climbing the learning curve . . .

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

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I’ve now passed the 7 month mark in this position, and I continue to learn. Some random reflections:

  • Nebraska is a BIG state. I’ll drive about 40,000 miles this year. I don’t mind the travel, but distance is a reality to deal with. I suspect at least one and probably two of the Assistants will drive even more. Videoconferencing and similar technology will help shrink the distances somewhat, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.
  • Blogging takes time. I had sincere hopes (and renewed goals) of weekly posting. But while there’s plenty of “windshield time” for thinking about posts, “screen time” gets taken up with myriad tasks.
  • Facebook has its uses. Posting–especially with photos (even lousy ones) is a way of reminding people how diverse yet connected we are. All of us on staff are trying to make more and better use of social media, which is a quick and efficient way of communicating.
  • “Hospitality” trumps “friendliness” every day of the week; and twice on Sunday. Every congregation is friendly–which usually means we talk to our friends. Scripture is filled with expectations of hospitality, which means ALL are welcome and treated as God’s guests–or as Jesus himself. This is a subtle but enormous shift for a congregation to undertake, but it’s not optional.
  • I’m not an optimist. Or a pessimist. A colleague of mine said it took him a full year to realize that it wasn’t his job just to be a “cheerleader” for the church. I understand that pull. But I’m more interested in telling the story of the Nebraska Synod than in simply cheering its ministries and members. I’m not optimistic, nor am I pessimistic. The former says the glass is half full, the latter that it’s half empty. I’m hopeful. I think it’s simply time to go to the tap again for more Living Water.
  • The road between Antioch and Jerusalem isn’t very crowded. Most of us in the Church (in Jerusalem) are comfortable where we are, and have (often unacknowledged, but clear) expectations of others becoming like us. Many in the surrounding culture (in Antioch) view the Church as exclusive, judgmental, or simply irrelevant, and have expectations (often unacknowledged, but clear) of the Church becoming like them. I don’t know how we do it better, but all of us–Jerusalemites and Antiochians–need to realize we’re most likely to meet Jesus on the road, where we’ll also meet each other, and those who are wandering, hoping to find the Way.
  • Christ is the head of the Church. Synod staff get to be the connective tissue. We have hierarchical titles, like “bishop,” but we have a flat, flexible, relational structure; the only hierarch is Christ. Bishops and staffers get to travel from one part of this Body to another, connecting the feet with the hands with the mouth with the ears–congregations to ministries to congregations and more.
  • This is just about the best gig in the world. Dave deFreese said quite accurately “the highs are higher and the lows are lower” for a bishop than for a parish pastor. But even the lows are interesting! It’s a privilege to be invited into congregations for celebration (and for crisis); to speak and vote for the church on boards of agencies and institutions; to hold (and be held) accountable to the expectations, rules and roles we’ve set for one another; to serve among gifted colleagues and leaders; to say both “please” and “thank you” for the gifts and support that touch thousands of lives daily through the church’s ministries; and to witness and give witness to the deep faith that permeates this synod. Thank you for that privilege.
  • The challenges ahead are formidable–and I’m not speaking of this office (though that would be true as well). We are all in the midst of change that can only be described as tumultuous. No one knows what adaptations and transformations we need to make to engage that change. Only repeated attempts (and frequent failures) will help us bear witness faithfully and effectively. And only continual communication among us will help us learn, grow and be transformed into the Church Christ calls us to be.

I look forward to seeing you on the road, learning from your mistakes and your successes, and communicating with you frequently.