Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Geneolgies and the Timless Power of Stories

Advent is about preparing for Christmas.  I don’t mean four weeks of gift buying, cookie making, card sending, and house decorating; although all of these are great fun and well worth the effort.  Rather, Advent is a period when we internally prepare ourselves to hear anew, hopefully with a second naiveté, the good news of the birth of the Christ child.

The genealogy of Jesus is an important part of Matthew’s birth narrative.  Like Advent, it prepares us for the news of the birth itself. 

Matthew includes some scandalous entries in this litany of ancestry.  Matthew breaks tradition by introducing Tamar, a woman, into the list.  Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her.  The fruit of this encounter is one of the ancestors of Jesus.  Rahab, another prostitute, is listed as the father of Boaz, who was an ancestor of Jesus.  The mother of Solomon, an ancestor of Jesus, is identified as the former wife of Uriah rather than by her name Bathsheba.  Matthew calls attention to the scandal that led to that union.

Matthew wants us to be ready when later in the chapter we learn that Mary turns up pregnant before she and Joseph had cohabitated.  The angel gives Joseph the rest of the story, and all is well.  It is unlikely, however, that the rest of the community was as understanding.  Indeed, one of the early attacks on the church by the enemies of the faith was the assertion that Jesus was illegitimate.

Six years ago I was leading a class for African immigrant pastors living in Italy, and we were discussing Matthew’s intentionally controversial genealogy.  We moved on to discuss how Jesus associated with some controversial, even scandalous, people (Matthew 9:9-13).  This, of course, did not play well with many of Jesus’ contemporaries.

The pastors began to discuss how do they, as church leaders, handle situations where women working in prostitution participate in the life of their churches.  How do they mediate the controversy when these women don’t have appropriately modest clothing for worship?  How can they as leaders, guide their churches to be true to the values espoused in the Bible and still welcome everyone in the spirit of the ministry Jesus practiced?  This was their struggle.

I was speechless (not a frequent occurrence).  Genealogies (certainly some of the least-inspiring sections of scripture) from an ancient and foreign world were sparking among these contemporary pastors the very questions that Matthew hoped to spark among the first generation of Christians as they tried to figure out what it meant for them to be followers of Jesus.  I was impressed by the time transcending power of the Gospel, by the universal appeal of the stories we have inherited in our scriptures. 

At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We proclaim him Lord of heaven and earth.  Can these ancient stories still hold power and relevance?  Yes they can, even the genealogies.

We have incredible stories to tell, stories that transform people and reshape communities.  This is what we do in our churches; we tell these great stories.  Let the story wash over you anew this Advent and do with you what it will.

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

On Car Trips and Churches

Cars are central to the American identity.  There are actually more cars per capita in Italy than there are in America.  But the car is not a core symbol of Italian identity like it is of American identity. The “family vacation” and the “road trip” have an iconic status in America.  Many of our movies and novels and TV shows are built upon the architecture of a car trip.  Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock spent 116 episodes in a corvette along Route 66, the road itself a symbol of Americana.

As Americans, we have the sense that we are always on the way to somewhere else, even if we are remaining in the same location.  This ties into the mythical—as in organizing and meaning- giving—role that progress plays in the American mentality.

The book of Hebrews paints the life of faith as a journey (chapter 11).  The writer describes a trip that never reaches its destination in this life. People of faith are forever “longing for a better country.”  They are “aliens and strangers on earth.”  As a nation of immigrants who left other places to find a better life, this resonates with us.

George Bullard, in his book Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, compares church life to a car trip (pp. 77 ff.)  Bullard lists vision, relationships, progress, and management as the four organizing principles of church life; these four principles form the DNA of a congregation.  Bullard then defines the role that each of these four principles plays in the car trip of a church.

Vision drives the car.  It fuels the forward progress. 

Relationships navigate along the journey from the passenger side of the front seat.  They flavor the quality of the journey.  It is important to understand how Bullard defines relationships.  He does not mean how well we get along with each other or how much we like each other.  He means the relational processes by which persons are brought to faith in Jesus Christ; become connected to the local church; are assimilated into the life of that church; and have opportunities to grow, serve, and utilize their gifts.

Programs sit behind Relationships in a supporting role.  They provide the opportunities and activities through which the best possible relationship can be foster with God, one another, and the community in which the church is located.

Management sits behind Vision.   It provides Vision with the infrastructure it needs to guide the car along its journey.

What happens when Vison falls asleep at the wheel or gets left behind at the gas station?  Management takes the wheel.  Bullard observes that this is what happened when Moses (the visionary) was up on the mountain too long.  Aaron (the manager) took over and a golden calf was constructed.  (In case you are not familiar with the story, this chapter of the saga does not end well.)

When management (such as finance, building repairs, reporting, control, and hierarchies) take precedent over vision (such as asking why we are here or what does God have for us to do or who is our neighbor or how can we join in with what God is doing), then we end up with golden calves.

George Bullard will be with our Region on Friday, November 4, for our pre-biennial day of training.  He will help us learn how to keep Vision in the driver’s seat.  If Vision has fallen asleep or got left at the gas station and Management is at the wheel, Bullard will helps us get Vision back in the driver’s seat.

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Profile in Church Leadership

We hear a lot about leadership these days, particularly during a presidential campaign season.  Many thoughtful people have sifted through secular profiles of leadership and assessed their appropriateness for the church. 

Paul David Lawson, in his book Old Wine in New Wine Skins—Centering Prayer and Systems Theory, gives some guidance as to what qualities we need in our church leaders.  He writes that churches need leaders who are relational. Leaders and members mutually affect one another; they co-create one another in a way.  Therefore, relational skills are more important than great powers of speech or reservoirs of information.  Good leaders take responsibility for their influential role in the community and encourage members to do the same.  I think this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he describes the church as a body of inter-related parts (1 Cor. 12:12ff.).  

Drawing upon the work of Edwin Friedman, Lawson catalogues some characteristics of good church leaders.  (1) They stay in touch with all the members of the congregation, not just the ones they enjoy or agree with or support them.  (2) Good leaders try to be nonreactive.  They act out of principle with a clear purpose.  Their reactions to others are thought based and not emotional venting.  I think of this as keeping in mind the “long game.” Good leaders ask:
       In what direction will my response push us? 
      What is our organizing goal and how am I contributing to this in a constructive way? 
      How will my action incrementally move us along to where we want to be? 
(3) Good leaders tolerate disagreements and stay focused on the merits of people’s positions and not on the person who takes these positions.

Finally, good leaders need to be prepared for sabotage and handle it in a nonreactive manner while staying in touch with the saboteur.  Good leaders know they will meet with resistance, and they do not take this personally.  They know that resistance is evidence that they are working with a living organization where people care about things.  Good leaders are able to adapt, to negotiate, to bend without breaking.  Lawson gives the following ministry tip:
Don’t care about the results.  [The good leader] can work with a number of different outcomes in any given situation and does not need to be emotionally invested in any particular result. Success ought not to be measured by winning or losing in any particular situation, but rather by the ability [the leader] has to work with any outcome (p. 53).
So why do we find it difficult, especially for pastors, to have this type of flexibility?  It has to do with what is called self-differentiation.  A self-differentiated person is one who knows who they are and maintains their self-image based upon their own assessment of themselves.  They certainly listen to others and process feedback, but finally their self-image is not simply a reflection how others see them.  Leaders need to be self-differentiated from their congregations as well.  They listen, and they process feedback.  But their sense of who they are is not an echo of what others think or say about them.

The scripture is clear: Jesus knew who he was.  In other words, he was well self-differentiated. Therefore he acted deliberately and purposefully and  was not reactive as he made his way through the world.  This gave to him the freedom to lead in a racially different way.
Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that the had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:3-5).
Our congregations need good leaders.  A good leader is not one who has all the answers or can fix everything.  A good leader is one who moves among us in a way that we grow into the people and congregations God wants us to be.  This type of leadership has more to do with who we are than with any portfolio of competencies we might have.

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


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Recognizing Ourselves

When we start shooting one another or even vilifying one another by categories, it is time to go back to original things. The creation account in Genesis asserts that every human being is made in the image of God.  We are all kin to one another; there should be a deep resonance among us. If we don’t recognize ourselves in others—however different they might be, then we are not seeing other people as God sees them.

I arrived at a community meeting about rehabbing a block of vacant houses and found that I was an hour early.  I was walking back to my car to listen to the radio and wait.  I was preoccupied contemplating the amount of time I had wasted, how I could have enjoyed a more leisurely dinner if I had paid better attention to the phone message.

Just as I walked under the light of a street lamp, a young black man stepped out of the shadows of the building.  He startled me, and I yelped.  He too drew back a bit, not expecting me to be there.  We stood there face to face, less than two feet apart, looking into one another’s eyes.  He blurted out:  “It’s O.K., I was just lighting a cigarette out of the wind.”  I responded:  “No problem, you just startled me.”  We stood there with our eyes locked continuing to assure one another that all was good.
A whole other conversation took place through our faces.  This was not a block to be avoided at night, but there were blocks close by that were not so peaceful.  Considerations of safety and harmony were always on people’s minds. We both lived in a society that said I, as a white guy, should be a bit leery young black urban males; he was certainly aware of this.  Society often told him that I did not have his best interest at heart.  It was within this context that we stood face to face under a pool of light on a dark city street.

I wanted to communicate to him that he had simply surprised me.  I reacted without thinking or even clearly seeing who he was.  I wanted him to know that I did not see him as my enemy.  I sensed from his eyes that he wanted to communicate to me that he was not threat.  There was nothing I had that he wanted.  He was just trying to light a cigarette on a windy street.  This is what I sensed passing between us, both of us feeling awkward.  I was aware of our common humanity and vulnerability in that moment.  I felt our shared need to be understood and accepted.  Both of us were simply trying live our lives in peace.
There is so much in our society that tries to set us against one another, to say for one group to get ahead another group must be diminished.  The creation account denies this lie.  It teaches that we are all kin to one another.  For any of us to live fully into God’s plan for our life, our neighbor must have that same opportunity.  At the core of our being we are kin to one another.
White folks and black folks, protestors and police officers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, we are all in this together. If we choose sides and build walls, we are each damaging a piece of who were created by God to be; we are less than whole human beings.  Human beings are not the natural enemies of other human beings.  This is an aberration we introduce into creation because we fail to see the image of God in that other person.  Sometimes that image is, admittedly, buried pretty deeply and a bit malformed; but it is there.  The Bible says so.

Jim Kelsey

Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, July 15, 2016

Trust Must be Built

She sat in my office, clearly having something to say; I had been at the church about six months.  She said:  “Dr. Kelsey, I will support you.  I will follow you, but I will never trust.” Life had taught her that ministers were not trustworthy; too often she had felt disappointed and betrayed.  I determined that day that I would earn her trust.
A part of my job is listening to churches and pastors talk about their relationship with one another.  Sometimes it is going very well, other times—not so well.  I have come to believe that the critical element in a healthy productive partnership between pastor and people is trust.
If there is trust, then failures and disagreements, challenges and setbacks, poor sermons and belt tightening can all be endured.  If there is not trust, then even the smallest issue can escalate into a major problem.
This is why pastoral misconduct is so devastating to a congregation. It undermines that most basic foundation of a shared ministry: trust.  We see ministers as “safe” people, people who will care for us and advocate for us.  So we open ourselves up to them.  Then when they betray our trust, the wounds are deep; and we find it difficult to trust the next one.
Trust that is destroyed must be deliberately rebuilt through a candid facing of what has happened and discussion with those affected.  Burying it simply magnifies the power of the hurt.
Trust can be built through honest conversations about sometimes uncomfortable topics.  Trust is built by making sure the other person understands us.  It is often forged less by the words we speak than by the tone and what it reveals about us and our intentions.  Transparency and vulnerability and goodwill speak louder than any words we might say.
Pastors must often earn trust from congregants, and sometimes congregations must earn the trust of a pastor.  Congregants are not the only ones who have been hurt.  This process is moved along by living honestly, patiently, and transparently before one another.  Yes, that can be risky; but it is the path to wholeness.
I did earn that woman’s trust.  I finally walked with her through a devastating personal tragedy; that tipped the scales in my favor.  It was not easy, but it was deliberate.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Fear and Death in Orlando

The writer of the creation story in Genesis gives a highly-nuanced account.  The author writes:  “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness [1:3-4].”  God does not eliminate the darkness, rather God places boundaries on the darkness.

Watching the news of the slaughter in Orlando Sunday night, I again wished that God had simply eliminated the darkness, but that is not what the text says.  The wording acknowledges that there is still darkness in the world.  The image of darkness in the Bible carries a lot of baggage.  Darkness represents what is not of God, what opposes God’s will, what is contrary to God’s purpose in creation.  This careful choice of words makes clear what we already knew:  there is an element of creation that is in full scale rebellion against God.  The killings in Orlando makes clear anew that evil is alive and on the move in our world.

The Genesis writer makes clear that the darkness is contained; boundaries have been imposed upon it.  God is preeminently the ruler of creation; evil does not and will not have the last word.  The writer makes clear who has imposed limitations on whom.  But for now, evil is afoot in God’s good creation.  The Genesis account recognizes this unsettling reality.

Believers must name these killings for what they really are: evil.  There is some discussion as to whether this was an act of terrorism or a hate crime.  This is a distinction without difference.  Acts of terrorism are grounded in the hatred of those who are different, others who are not like us.  Hate crimes are designed to terrorize groups of people, to make then afraid and anxious in their own land.  This killing was born of a hatred of the LGBT folks.  The killer targeted a particular LGBT club in order to terrorize this broader community of people.  Hate and terrorism are inextricably linked.

To call these killings evil does not necessary point out a path to a safer and more loving world.  Naming this slaughter as evil could lead to a passive resignation, to saying there is nothing we can do.  It does not have to lead to this.  We can see these killings as a vivid outbreak of a broader cloth of hatred and fear in the human community.  I say fear because I think that a good bit of hatred is born of fear.  We are afraid of that which unsettles us and makes us uncomfortable, and that fear spawns hatred as a coping mechanism.

God, not evil, is the author of creation and is preeminent.  Thus there is no need for believers to fear people who make us uncomfortable, who challenge our worldview, whose experiences have been different from ours.  In other words, there is no credible excuse for hatred among God’s followers.  Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). .  God does not hate because God does not fear. 

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Right Word at the Right Time

It was the autumn of my seventh year of school, my first experience of the wider world of middle school with its changing classrooms and multiple teachers.  It was a time of blessed transition from the strictures of grade school.  The world was a place of broadened opportunities.

I was lying on the living room floor watching our 19” black and white Zenith TV.  A Pepsi commercial came on, and the voice sang “You’ve got a lot to live, and Pepsi’s got a lot to give…because Pepsi helps them come alive.”  I heard that ditty many times, but for the first time I knew what they were singing about; I understood. In that moment a door opened for me.  The world had become a place of endless opportunities. You see, I was in love—as much in love as a 7th grade boy can be. Her name was Theresa, and she had long hair and was on the cheerleading squad.

My infatuation faded as I realized Theresa was just leading me on for her own gratification. After a month, I found a new girlfriend; Shannon was her name.  She was truer of heart.  But it was not the same, Shannon was not my first love.

In my infatuation I was ready to embrace a new piece of the person I was becoming. The Pepsi commercial spoke to a new capacity in me.  It was the right message at the right time.

Seven years later I was a freshman in college, and life was opening up around me again.  I had left behind the provincialism and tedium of High School.  My professors were opening up to me new vistas of knowledge and giving to me the freedom to think my own thoughts.  I found I was a standout accounting student and already could see a comfortable career as a CPA, a job where I could make a good living and not get dirty or risk debilitating injury.  I could see myself to having everything I could ever want, yet I sensed there had to be more to life. 

I was not attending church anymore.  I come to believe in a God who only instilled guilt and fear, both of which were designed to make us behave.  It seemed to me that all this talk of God’s love for us only served as a pretext for God’s judgment of us when we rejected that love.  Nonetheless, I did believe in God and thought that God had created me.  So I began to read the Bible, thinking I might find something there to make sense of life.

My parents were away on fishing trip, and I was alone in the house; it was a Tuesday night.  I read the story of Nicodemus in my red-letter edition King James Bible that I had received in the fourth grade for memorizing the books of the Bible in order.  The story recorded there stunned me.  The beauty of the Gospel washed over me.  For the first time I got it.  The words in red took on transforming power. I handed myself over to the grace of God without reservation.

I had heard countless sermons, attended endless Vacation Bible Schools, and sat through years of Sunday School.  Yet I had never really gotten the message.  In that brief exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee, it all broke open to me.  It was like waking up from a coma to a sunlit room on a fresh morning.

I was ready in that moment to embrace a new piece of the person I was becoming. That story spoke to a newly-birthed capacity in me.  It was the right message at the right time.

God is always birthing new things in our lives, pushing us to grow, to risk, to rely.  I think this should make us patient, patient with ourselves and with those around us.  We all are on the way to becoming someone we have not yet been.  And, yes, we each are at different places on that journey.  The important thing is to walk through the next door when it opens.

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


Monday, April 25, 2016

Speaking the Truth in Love

The 2016 biennial planning committee was discussing the literary context of the theme verse for the gathering, Ephesians 4:16, seeking guidance for our planning process.  We moved to a discussion of 4:15 and the meaning of “speaking the truth in love.”  We discovered that speaking the truth in love is not always a simple and straight forward process.  We asked if there is an inherent tension sometimes between truth and love.
We associate love with supporting others, encouraging and comforting them, easing their pain and hardship.  In other words, we associate love with caregiving; but love and caregiving are not necessarily the same thing in every case.  Love makes demands, has expectations, both opens up new avenues and closes off others.  At times it is difficult to love and to be loved. God’s deep love for us can be probing and unsettling.  It can make us uncomfortable with what we have done and who we have let ourselves become.  Love is not always the same thing as caregiving.

We can speak the truth in many voices, and not all of them are loving.  We can use truth as a weapon to diminish others, to create distance, to gain power, to self-justify, and to wound.  Truth is easily misused in the service of ego and pride.  Both the Pharisee and the tax collector speak essentially the truth in Luke 18:9-14, but God heard in their words very different things.  Truth can reveal more about us than we wish to admit; but it can also liberate, clear the decks, and make room for the future.  It all depends on the voice we use.  Paul admonishes us to use the voice of love as we speak the truth. 

Speaking the truth in love is all about how and why we speak.  Do we speak the truth because it is the best thing for the other person or this community to hear?  Will it open a future to them that they cannot now envision?  Will it move them in the path of joy and wholeness?  Is it about their being built up or about our being vindicated and reassured of our own righteousness?  The truth is the truth, and love is love.  Speaking the truth in the voice of love is the challenge.

We sometimes must say difficult things because loving can mean advocating for change.  This is true in our families and in our churches. We all have had conversations that were difficult but necessary, conversations we would have preferred not to have had and for a while avoided.  Our churches sometimes need to have these conversations.  We need to talk truthfully  about who we have become, how our community has changed, and what new things God is wanting to do among us and around us.  We avoid these conversation because they will necessitate change, and change feels a lot like loss.

Maybe speaking the truth in love is about telling one another what time it is when we have lost track of ourselves and the world around us.  When my sons were young and we would be reading together or playing with Legos or lying in front of the fire telling spooky stories, I would have to say “Boys, it is time to go to bed.”  I didn’t want to say it, and they didn’t want to hear it; but it was the truth.  It was the best thing for them.  It laid the foundation for a better tomorrow for them.  Maybe that is speaking the truth in love.

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Waking Up Hearts

Ministry used to be simpler it seems.  You had your kids, your youth, your adults, and your seniors.  You could tell who was who simply by looking at them.  Then you knew what to do.  Kids? Playdough, cookies, and Bible stories would get the job done.  Youth?  Some pizza, ping pong, and discussion topics got you through it.  Adults?  Go with small groups, a Valentine’s Day banquet, and a marriage enrichment seminar.  Seniors?  A trip to an art museum with a nice lunch, pastoral visits in the home, and Sunday School did nicely.  Those were simpler times.

Ministry is not so simple anymore; you need a program to tell the players.  Boomers were not such a big complication; if someone was not a child, a youth, or a senior, they were likely a boomer.  Now we have Builders, Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z.  David Kinnaman (You Lost Me—Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church) writes about Nomads and Prodigals and Exiles (pp. 61—86).  Don’t forget about the Nones, as in “none of the above” on surveys about religious devotion.  This increasingly "none of the above" portion of our society has no tethering to any type of faith community and has little feeling for any clearly articulated religious convictions.  In the midst of all this good analytical work, we who care about congregations and faith sometimes feel overwhelmed.  With the growing numbers of Nones, we can live under a cloud of discouragement.  At those times I remind myself of Andries.

I met Andries at De Pelgrim Evangelische Baptistengemeente in Oostende, Flanders; I was interim pastor there for several years.  Flanders is a wonderful place to live. The Flemish are intelligent, caring, hardworking, and masters at baking bread and making chocolate.  The schools are great and the traffic orderly.  The Flemish care well for the elderly, the young, and the poor among them.  Flanders is, however, thoroughly secular.  Religious faith has been eschewed by all but a small minority.  They see the church, historically, as an oppressive institution and are glad it has been pushed to the margin of society.  One man said to me:  “We worked for so long to be free of the church, why would we want it back?”  They consider God, in a practical sense, dead.
Andries was a typical Flemish man:  reserved, private, sober, and thoroughly secular.  He believed God was the main character in a fairy tale that modernity and science had put the lie to.  When I met him was still a pretty sober guy but no longer secular.  He had, some years before, become a Christian convert.  He shared with me that before he became a Christian he felt nothing deeply.  He did not feel fear or hope, sorrow or joy, anxiety or peace.  He was numb in his heart, he said.  When he became a believer, he said that he “became alive in my heart for the first time. “  He began to feel things deeply—joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment, longing and contentment.

I remember Andries when I consider the present trends in our society.  He was the very personification of agnosticism in a deliberately secularized society.  Yet the spirit of God got through to him.  There was a beachhead of vulnerability within his anesthetized heart.  He had a spiritual capacity for responsiveness that he did not know he possessed.  I find that hopeful.

When I encounter people that have no interest in religious faith and no regard for communities of faith, I try not to think of them as bad or pagan or rejecters of God.  Rather, I try to think of them as numb, as people who do not fully appreciate what lies dormant within them.  I believe there is a capacity in each us capable of yielding to God and embracing the beauty of the gospel—even if we do not all yet know it.  When I remember Andries, I feel hopeful, and I try to wake up some things in people.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister--American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Humility Born of Fire

We are several weeks into Lent.  Are you feeling bad yet?  We can experience Lent as a time of sober self-reflection leading to self-recrimination leading to a guilty discouragement.  A Lenten observance driven by guilt has little power to transform us, and that is the point of Lent after all:  transformation.  On the other hand, a Lenten observance driven by a humility born of honesty opens a door to change.
I learned about humility six months into my marriage.  I came into the marriage with a 1980 Datsun 210 station wagon.  The car had no optional equipment whatsoever.  I installed a radio myself.  I made floor mats out of AstroTurf remnants and upgraded to radial tires at some point. This car was the very picture of basic transportation.  My wife came into the marriage with a recently-painted 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix with air conditioning, an automatic transmission, and quite likely the last working 8-track player in America.  It was a nice ride.
One day while she was at work, I decided to replace the fuel filter in her car.  The job turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined.  So I gave up and retightened the fuel line, planning to take it to a professional. As I retightened the fuel line, I heard a distinctive “creak.”  I thought this was the sound of a tightly connected joint.

When I started the car, I found the “creak” was not the sound of a tightly connected joint; rather it was the sound a metal fuel line makes when you crack it.  The engine began to shoot gasoline onto an increasingly hot exhaust manifold.  Within a few moments the engine was on fire.  As the engine kept pumping more gasoline onto the manifold, flames engulfed the car.  A pumper truck came and put out the fire.  What had quite likely been the last working 8-track player in America was now toast.  As I stood there looking at the charred relic, the firefighter said:  “So now we’ll see if she really loves you.”  I suggested he not become a grief counselor.
I went to pick up Debbie at work and with sobs told her I had incinerated up her car.  There were no recriminations, lectures, or icy silences.  That weekend we bought a car, one with an automatic transmission, a radio, and air conditioning.  These were accommodations I needed to make.

I learned about humility that day.  I am not perfect.  I have made other mistakes since then, and I am sure I still have a few more mistakes in me. Being forgiven for destroying something precious gave to me the freedom to live my life at ease, not always fearful of error.  I knew that when I messed up, I would still be accepted, trusted, and loved.

This is economy of Lent.  We take an honest look at ourselves, owning up to the destructive things we have done and the good things we have left undone; and we realize that we are not done messing up.  We make this candid appraisal within the larger frame of God’s mercy and continuing love for us.  God has not given up on us.  So we do not give up on ourselves, nor do we give up on those around us.  In this fertile framework newness can be birthed in us and in others.  Lent is about new and better things growing out of the failures of our living.