Tuesday, November 29, 2016

From Relating the Story to Embodying the Story

Advent is about waiting for the coming of the Christ, but what difference does this coming really make?  Before the coming of Jesus, the Hebrews knew that God loved them.  They knew that God forgave sins and that God took up the cause of the marginalized and despised.  They knew that God was to them as a nurturing mother and a guiding father and that faith could open the door to new life. The words and ministry of Jesus rung of things they already knew.

Yet the writer of John gushes that being told about it and seeing it were not at all the same thing:  "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth [John 1:14]."

Embodying something is very different than simply relating it.  Jesus embodied the story the prophets had long been telling, and the writer of John wants us to know that made an incredible difference.  The writer of Hebrews also notes the qualitative different between being told and actually experiencing:
 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
This not just a difference of degree; this is a difference of kind.  In the coming of the Christ child, it was not just that previous things were made clearer; they took on an unprecedented power when embodied in Jesus.  People noticed this.  The crowds are amazed at the teaching of Jesus; he spoke as one having authority and not as their religious leaders--who presumably had a lot to say but did not have an aura of authenticity (Matt 7:28-29).  The crowds noticed the qualitative difference between those who related the story and the one who actually embodied that story.

We call this narrative leadership.  Jesus became what he talked about; he lived the story he told.  Another word for this is incarnation.  It was a beautiful thing to experience; the writer of John wants us to know that. 

During Advent we reflect upon the moment when the story of God’s love went from being related to us to actually being embodied among us.  This comes as a challenge to us.  We too are to engage in narrative leadership among our neighbors, families, friends and churches.  We are to embody this story that has so captured us. We become what we are talking about and show people what it looks like.  We make the story of God’s love in Christ our lived story.  Advent is about our leaving behind our old stories and giving ourselves to the only story that in the end really matters.

Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, October 21, 2016

Every Moses Needs a Jethro

She said she wanted to be a missionary.  When asked how she wanted to serve, she replied:  “I just want to love the world”— an undoubtedly admirable but somewhat ill-defined sentiment.  My then- missionary wife counseled that she narrow and clarify her vision a bit.

I spend a good bit of time with pastors, many of whom began their journey into ministry with a strong sense of calling.  They started out wanting to love/save/heal/fill in the blank the world.  They were gripped by a purpose that consumed their imagination and called forth the best they had to give.  That sense of calling took form as pastoring a local congregation.

Some pastors, from time to time, lose that gripping purpose; the fire fades to an electric space heater.  How does this happen?  Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, in their book (Leadership that Fits Your Church-What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation) suggest that it is often a combination of two things: (1) stress and (2) the lack of a felt connection between what they are doing day to day and the outlines of their initial calling to ministry.  Stress alone does not “burn out” pastors.  When stress is coupled with a sense that their daily ministry tasks have little to do with why they became ministers, then pastors are vulnerable to losing heart in their work.  If churches want energetic passionate pastors who are bringing the best they have to their ministry, then churches are well advised to insure that the minister is, at least most of the time, doing things that connect with their sense of ministerial calling. 

Ministry, at times, is like any other job.  Arrangements must be made for building maintenance and the plowing of snow.  Forms must be completed, budgets formulated, and office supplies ordered.  A backup plan must be implemented when the caterer backs out at the last minute and you have 70 people arriving in 3 hours for a dinner.  And sooner or later the roof is going to leak--guaranteed; get a bucket.

If, however, a minister’s life is consumed with things that simply feel like a job and there is a dearth of things that feel like a response to a calling from God, they will grow weary.

Moses was a person with a clear calling from God—a burning bush and heavenly voice.  Yet as he moved through his ministry, he began to become overwhelmed with daily, job-like, tasks.  Administration crowded out prophecy in his life. 

Jethro, his father-in-law, saw the problem.  Moses was spending all his time adjudicating disputes between people.  "This is no good, Moses; you are going to burn yourself out if you keep this up," Jethro advised.  Your job is to be the people’s representative before God and to teach the people law of God and how they are to live; get some help with the other stuff (see Exodus 18:19-20. 

Appoint others to serve as judges Jethro advised, encouraging Moses to reclaim his original calling and give up being a civil servant in the court system.

All pastors need a Jethro, someone who will see that they are having ample opportunity to live out their life-giving call from God, a calling that set them on this vocational trajectory in the first place.  Without Jethro, it is unlikely that Moses ever would have gotten the people ready to live in the Promise Land.  Every Moses needs a Jethro.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, September 30, 2016

Telling the More Difficult Story

The Easy Story
Let us call them Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Upon arrival at the church, I heard story after story of how wonderful life was during the 25 year pastorate of Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom.  Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom schooled the young women in how to be good wives and mothers.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was a wise and gentle counselor, beloved by all.  The people telling me these stories were young couples starting their families and careers at that time, their marriages freshly minted after returning from WWII.  It all sounded too good to be true; and it was, I discovered, too good to be completely true.
One day, I went to visit a long-term member who had not been to church in decades.  He gladly agreed to have me visit, and each time I returned he would welcome me into his home.  On one visit he shared with me that he had not been back to the church since they fired Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.

I asked him “fired, you say?”  Yes, he replied, they fired him.  He went on to share that he had been driving Dr. Peaceable Kingdom to make a hospital visit and noticed that the pastor’s shirt cuffs were frayed.  He asked the pastor why he did not buy some new shirts.  Dr. Peaceable Kingdom replied that he could not afford to buy new shirts.

At the next Trustee Board meeting, of which this man was member, he suggested they give the pastor a raise.  The suggestion was met with stiff opposition.  It was the board’s opinion that the pastor was already paid more than he was worth.

There was some tension among the stories I was haring.  Where did the truth lie?

The More Difficult Story

Gil Rendle (“Narrative Leadership and Renewed Congregational Identity” in Finding Our Story—Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, ed. Larry A. Goleman, pp. 31ff.) writes about easy stories and difficult stories.  Churches are prone to tell simplified stories because these are safe stories.  These are stories that are true but incomplete; we leave out the parts that might make us feel uncomfortable.

What really happened at me church?  First, I assume that the story about the Trustee Board meeting was true.  It demonstrated that Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not universally admired.  In his day, the powers-that-were had a mixed opinion about him.  The people telling me the safe stories were not yet in positions of power; in my day they were.  They had forgotten that power had passed to them as one generation faded and a new generation took the reins of leadership.  They failed to mention that their predecessors had had some issues with Dr. Peaceable Kingdom.  It simply slipped their minds.

Dr. Peaceable Kingdom was not fired.  When opposition had become palpable among some in the congregation, a vote of confidence was taken.  The good doctor won the vote, but he did not feel it was sufficient enough to continue his ministry.  He left one year before he could have gone on pension.  When I brought this story up to some folks in the church who remembered those days of old, they did have some faint recollection of a vote but downplayed its importance.

The man who I was visiting also told a simplified version of the story in a way that undergirded his refusal to return to the church; the good doctor was not fired outright.

They all told an easy story.  They could have told a more difficult story.  They could have said that they had a good pastor, but things still were not perfect—everyone did not always get along.  They could have admitted that there was a time when they were not the ones in power and did not support everything the church leadership did.  They could have found encouragement in the memory that the reins of leadership had passed from one generation to the next a number of times in the life of the church; and each time the church had survived and adapted.

This would have been a more difficult and challenging story because it had implications for the present.  It would have complicated their simplified story:  everything was great in our glory days.  The women were all strong, the man all good looking; and the children all above average. The more complicated story, however, would have given some guidance for the present.  It would have reminded folks that all eras are fraught with challenges and change as one generation yields to the next generation, and the congregation survives  That is a strong but more complicated story.

Jesus Complicated Their Easy Stories

Jesus made people uneasy because he replaced their simplified stories with more complex stories.  In Luke 4 Jesus returns to his hometown synagogue and reads a passage of scripture.  The people adopt the most favorable reading of the text for themselves.  Jesus then recalls for them the time of Elijah and points out their history is a bit more complicated than they might like to admit.  They try to throw Jesus off a cliff.

In Luke 11:47, Jesus observes that the religious leaders love to celebrate their heritage by building tombs to the prophets.  He then reminds them that it was their ancestors who killed those very prophets.  The leaders do not like this more complicated story.  They learn nothing from this amplified story and soon will make a similar mistake themselves.

We want to tell simplified stories because they are easy; they ask nothing of us except a little nostalgia.  But growth lies in the more difficult stories.  They are more difficult to hear because they ask something of us in the present.

I am sure Dr. and Mrs. Peaceable Kingdom were fine leaders; I wish I known them.  But real stories are rarely that simple.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minster –American Baptist Churches of New York State


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Baptists as a Movement

Although the Belgian government refers to them as the United Protestant Church of Belgium, Belgian Protestants themselves prefer to call themselves a movement.  Belgium is an official Roman Catholic monarchy, although only a tiny sliver of Belgians practice any type of religious faith.  Consequently most Belgians associated the word "church" with buildings, hierarchy, vested economic and political interests, and most of all with history.  In their minds, the Christian church is a vestige from the past whose time and relevance passed long ago, and most Belgians would see this as a good thing.  They see the church as an oppressive, self-interested, and sclerotic institution from which they are glad to be free.

The Belgians are great people, but they are in no way traditionally religious.
It is in this context that the Protestants see themselves as a movement.  They are a group of people who cohere around a set of convictions about God, the nature of human beings, the salvific work of Jesus, the purpose of creation, and the basis of hope.  They can with clarity tell you what they believe because it is unadorned with a lot of tradition and and practices.  It is pretty much just Bible stuff without a lot of overlay of theology and orthodoxy, whose purpose is to clarify who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “right” and who is “wrong.”  There are so few of them, they spend little time working out schema to exclude people.  They put no energy into splitting and dividing their fellowship to reassure themselves of their own propriety.
This movement is mostly lay led.  Whenever I went to a meeting of these Protestants, I would get multiple job offers (usually with no accompanying salary).  People who had known me for 10 minutes would ask if I were free to lead their church.  Trained leaders were very rare, and many churches would go for years without a trained leader.  Subsequently, these church members had a deep sense of ownership of their congregations.  They had invested their lives in them.
These Protestants were in so many ways not what Belgians envisioned when they heard the word “church;" so to use that word misrepresented the true nature of these congregations.  Thus, they described themselves as movement of people.
I am not suggesting that we discard the word “church;” we do not live in Belgium.  It might, however, be refreshing for us to think of our American Baptist family as a movement.  Baptists have from their origins been a freer more flexible fellowship than have other brands of churches.  Everett Goodwin, in his book Down by the River-A Brief History of Baptist Faith, observes that Baptists were not troubled by the disabling controversies spawned by the revivalism of the mid-18th century, as were other churches with a more ordered structure. Baptists had a more flexible polity and way of life and were better equipped to embrace this new movement of the Spirit.  In fact, they flourished during this time of unsettling change (p. 22).  Sometimes Baptist life can seem chaotic and out of control.  I prefer to think of it as agile, flexible, and able to quickly adapt in a way that embraces new opportunities—that new thing that God is doing among us.
Early on the followers of Jesus were called “The Way” (Acts 9:2).  It was a movement of people who were on the way.  Often they were not sure where the road would lead, but they were committed to following it wherever it went.  As Baptists, our churches are well equipped to move with freedom and flexibility in a rapidly changing world, leaving behind those things that are not core to who we are and might slow us down on our journey. 

Pack light, only hang on to those things you really need, and wear comfortable shoes.  And stay together on the road.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Boutique or Department Store?

We were wondering who we were as a congregation.  We had been a large church with a cadre of local and national leaders, people of wealth and power and prominence.  That had shaped our identity through the 1950’s.  We could no longer could claim many people who regularly got their names in the newspaper. 

We had been one of the first churches in the community to integrate in the early 1960’s.  Our church sign read:  “An Integrated Church for an Integrated Community;” at that time this was noteworthy.  In the early 1990’s this went without saying among most of the churches in the community.

We knew who we had been; we were not sure who were now.  We appointed a “Committee on Church Renewal.”  We could have named it “Committee on Sorting Out Who Are We.”  During one tedious session when our conversation seemed to be going in circles, a woman said:  “We are a boutique church.  We provide things you cannot get anywhere else.”  It was a revelatory moment. 

Throughout our more than 100 years of ministry, we had been a “department store” church; we had something for everyone.  We no longer had something for everyone who walked through the door, but we had some things it was hard to find other places.

We were an overwhelmingly African American congregation with a one hour worship service.  We had a warm heartfelt faith coupled with a good dose of personal piety but could tolerate, even celebrate, a diversity of convictions and beliefs.  We were a thinking yet feeling family.  Women were full partners in ministry, but we had great appreciation for women who felt more comfortable in traditional roles.  We had a wide range of fashion on Sunday mornings, from hats to slacks, from suits to t-shirts.  We supported the education of our young people with vigor, and we had special appreciation for and gave attention to parents raising their children in a one-parent household. 

This image of a boutique church helped us to focus on those people who would find what they were looking for among us, and it helped us to realize that there were folks who would find what they were looking for at another church.  Twenty-five years later, it is likely that different image would better fit the church today.  Identities change; they must remain fresh.

The Second Baptist Church of Germantown (Philadelphia) will celebrate its 150th anniversary in October; I will be there.  Many of the people will not recognize me, and I will not recognize them; this is a sign of health.  The church has changed in the last two decades.  God is always calling congregations to become someone they did not used to be.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, August 18, 2016

I Was There When You Were Born

The birth of our first son was not easy for me.  My wife was in labor in for 14 hours, and this was rather hard on me.  I was quite anxious for this child to be born, yet he was in no hurry.  At one point we called my parents from the hospital; and when I began to tell my dad where we were, I broke down crying.  My wife, lying in the bed between contractions, took the phone from me and assured my father that I was fine—just a little emotional.  Soon after that, the baby was delivered, and so was I in a way.  Within a minute of the birth, the doctor handed my new son to me, and I held this new life.  His newborn visage is forever imprinted on my memory.

The birth of my second son was much easier for me.  He was in a bigger hurry to enter the world, and I was better prepared for the whole drama.  I think I could have delivered him myself had that been necessary.  Again, immediately after his birth, I held him and looked into his red and wrinkly face.  That image is forever etched in my memory.

My sons are older now.  One recently graduated from college, and the other is well on his way.  They are both taller than I am, their voices deeper; they have become young adults.  Yet there is still this bond between us, this unbreakable connection that transcends all time and transition and distance.  I suspect it will always be there.  They will start careers, maybe marry and have children of their own, perhaps move half way around the world; but I suspect this bond will remain unbroken.

Why is that?  I think it is because I was there when they were born.  Within moments of the initial infilling of their lungs with oxygen, I held them and took them in.  They and I have passed through many other experiences together along the way, but none of those experiences have the power of that first encounter.  This makes my love for them truly unconditional.  My devotion to them will never come into play.

This helps me grasp a bit more securely God’s great love for us.  God was there when we were born.  At that moment God took us in.  The prophet Isaiah writes:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
   Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
   See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me. (49:14-16)
There is a bond between God and each of us that transcends and endures all the circumstances of our lives, even our failures, our sins, and our mistakes.  God was there when we were born, and we are irreversibly, unconditionally God’s beloved children.  That will never change.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Children and Churches and Change

Parenthood is about letting go.  From the time a child learns to crawl, they are leaving their parents behind.  When they start walking, initially they walk toward you with open arms; soon they are walking away from you to some new experience.  I remember the first time I dropped Luke and then Ben off at school and they forget to give me a hug goodbye; their world was expanding.  Then there were their first overnight school trips in Belgium.  It seemed the next month they were driving away in a car as new drivers.  Leaving them at collage as freshmen was another letting go.  There is a sense of loss at each juncture but also a sense of satisfaction.  In letting them go, I was really letting them grow.  At each threshold they returned to me richer more fascinating people.

Our faith is grounded in the idea of letting go to make room for growth.  Warren Schutz observes (Temporary Shepherds-A Congregational Handbook for Ministry, p. 121) that the Christian faith is built upon the following pattern:
  • Change: The inevitable movement of life’s forces
  • Transition: The process by which we must deal with the inevitable changes of life
  • Transformation: The new shape that occurs after transition, toward which change is aimed.
Schultz writes that God sought to change the consequences of sin into forgiveness.  The process of transition was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Transformation is what happens in our lives as a result of that process.  The Gospel is all about leaving things behind to embrace new and deeper things. It is a mystery of our faith that in losing we find.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it [Mark 8:35].”

Our congregations are sometimes resistant to change and leaving behind familiar things.  Yet the core story of our faith is about life, then death, then new life through resurrection.  The arc of this narrative is the foundation of our faith.

To deny change and reject transition is to close the door on transformation.  Followers of the living, dying, rising Christ—of all people—are well equipped to move through this cycle with hope and anticipation about the next new thing God will do.  We believe that God is in the change.
     See, I am doing a new thing!
        Now it springs up; do you
          not perceive it?
        I am making a way in the
          and steams in the
             wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)
We are all about the new stuff God is doing.  Inevitably that means leaving some of the old stuff behind:  letting go to letting grow.

Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State