Monday, October 27, 2008

Mr. Dan's Farewell

A year ago I tried to capture, through a blog post, a moment in worship that involved Mr. Dan. You can read it here. Mr. Dan died this past weekend and we will celebrate his life this morning in the Service of Death and Resurrection. I will miss him.

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Love 3: The Board’s Process of Evaluation

As I said in the last post in this series, there are so many variables in the process that it is impractical for a person to compare their experience with the Board to another’s. Of course, that’s done all the time with questions like, “How did she get through and I didn’t? She had me read her work and it was hardly different from mine!”

Here’s what happens. The candidates come to an orientation session in July where they are given instructions for their written work. The candidates report there is heavy emphasis on no plagiarism, so much so that they are afraid not to attribute every idea they write down. Secondly, a gap in good communication can occur when sometimes the persons doing the orientation are not the persons who chair the evaluation committees.

The written work is divided into four categories for four corresponding committees: Proclamation, Bible Study, Theology and Doctrine, and Call and Disciplined Life. All work has to be postmarked by a stated deadline. Then it is distributed to the committees.

The committees divide themselves into “reader teams” of two persons each, and each team then reads/evaluates the work of usually four to five candidates. The readers evaluate the work, then get together to discuss a shared assessment. After that one of the readers writes a response. In the past we would allow sub-standard parts of the work to be re-written, but that changed this year. Now we identify the parts that need improvement, and we specify issues that will probably need to be addressed in the interview with the committee. The overall written work is then graded acceptable or not acceptable.

Here’s an issue the Board will have to deal address with this “no-rewrite” policy. Do the written and interview parts of the evaluation stand alone, or are they complimentary? In other words, does a candidate have to be graded “acceptable” on both parts to get approved, or can excellent work done in one section compensate for sub-standard work in the other?

In the Theology and Doctrine committee we have always seen them as complimentary. A person may show us in the interview a good grasp of theological issues and how to handle them, a skill that did not reveal itself in the written work. And honestly, since the committee votes on approval or non-approval right after the interview section, a good showing in the interview carries more weight.

Other committees, such as Bible Study and Proclamation, might see the written and verbal portions as independent. Once the Bible Study and Sermon are written, they are done. I’m not sure how you would defend or explain your work to a degree that would move it up the acceptable scale.

Each committee divides into interview teams of four to five persons each. After interviewing the candidate, the interview team votes “approval” or “continuance” (which means they recommend the person be continued to the next time). Then representatives of the four committees meet with the Board leadership to assess an overall picture of the candidate’s work.

On our Board, if all four committees report approval, the Board votes, but it’s pretty automatically an “approved for ordination” outcome. If only one committee reports a “continuance,” then the Board usually allows the person to come back to that committee at its next meeting for a second chance. If two committees report continuance, then the Board’s practice has been to vote continuance of the person until the next year. The candidates are informed in person that day, and in writing within a couple of weeks.

If a specific problem in a candidate’s work is identified, the Board will ask one of its members to serve as a mentor to that candidate. When the candidates take advantage of having an assigned mentor, the results at the next Board meeting are usually very good.

So, an individual candidate will have eight to ten people reading their work. He or she will have four interviews before sixteen to twenty people. The assessments will be discussed by an additional four people and the whole Board of 40 persons will take a final vote. Simple enough? Next time I’ll write about some Standards that guide this work.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Master Storyteller

The Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett is presently conducting a series of services at our church. Rev. Mallett is a physician and a British Methodist minister who has made many trips to the US on preaching tours. This is his tenth visit to Trinity in the past twenty-two years. And he has said this is his last tour. Next August he will be back at Lake Junaluska for three weeks, and after that no more.

Listening to him preach in the Sunday services I was quickly reminded of his brilliant mind and his honed method of leading a congregation into the heart of his message. He regularly employs one preaching technique I have rarely seen elsewhere. It has to do with how he uses illustrations.

Like a great storyteller with just the right amount of details, Reg takes you down a path with a story, and then turns onto another path, which actually is the path he intended to take you on. What happens to the listener is that with the first story you think you know where it’s headed, but then with the change, you don’t know what to expect. Will there be another shift? Will you return to the original path/story? The technique hooks the listener into careful listening.

Most preachers just add in a story that they feel helps illustrate the point. Some fail to even make decent transitions or applications of the illustration. Mallett gets you there with a personal connection.

Last night’s sermon was based on Hebrews 1:3 “when Christ had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The gist of his message was the confidence we have that Christ has finished the work that was necessary for our salvation and what our response to that can be. He used an illustration about William Wilberforce, the British House of Lords member who became a great abolitionist. Wilberforce was dying when the Slave Abolition Act finally passed in 1833. A messenger dashed to his bedside to announce the good news and Wilberforce said, “It is finished, thanks be to God.”

That’s where we ended with that illustration, but it sure isn’t where we started. We began with a minister’s collection of books, various types for different studies, and Mallett’s collection of 23 volumes of Wesley’s letters. Then the path led for a short while on the subject of John Wesley’s prolific letter writing. The last letter Wesley wrote was to William Wilberforce. And there we turned onto the path of Wilberforce’s finished work.

Mallett didn’t include that Welsey died in 1791, only four years after Wilberforce became involved in the abolitionist movement. The actual relationship of Wesley and Wilberforce was not important. One simply took us to the other.

Well, like my father has said many times: when he listens to another preacher it makes him want to preach. He either wants to get up and do justice to the Word, or he’s inspired to want to try and do as well. Mallett, with his homiletic proficiency, inspires.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Love 2: The Candidates

Those submitting work for ordination have been on a long journey in their call to ministry. By this time they have been through the Board for commissioning, been in relation with a District Committee on Ordained Ministry for several years, completed a Masters of Divinity degree (for Elder) or equivalent/professional certification (for Deacons), and have been in a continuing formation program while serving in an appointment. In our Conference the three year program (changing to two years beginning Jan 1, 2009) of continuing formation is called Residency.

Because of my work the Residency program I know each of these candidates personally. I have worshipped and prayed with them and shared with them in reflection sessions. I know some who are excellent pastors, and some who are still struggling to find their voice in ministry. I honestly want each one of them to succeed in responding to God’s call on their lives.

I have sensed the stress the candidates feel toward both the written evaluation and the oral examination coming up next month. They know that if they do not get approved, it means going through the whole process again next year. And usually, they are very self-conscious about how they measure up among their peer group. Further complicating the picture is the difficulty of explaining to local church members and family members the pressures and complexity of the process they are dealing with.

I have expressed over and over that there is no way for one person to compare their experience with the Board to another’s. There are simply too many variables. Their fate is affected by which readers their work is assigned to, who makes up the various sub-committees that interview them, and a host of other arbitrary decisions. Still, they are under the gun. Their “effectiveness” in ministry is being evaluated one last time before the Church sends them forth with its seal of approval.

One colleague suggests viewing the process as a dialogue for professional assessment. Learn through the evaluations what you need to address to become the best pastor you can be. Draw from the experience of those who do the evaluations. Don’t view it as a pass/fail trial, but as part of the ongoing journey of professional development.

My colleague’s perspective leads to a final comment. All of this work must be grounded in prayer, for you cannot be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit without prayer. I pray before assessing a paper that I may have insight into meaning of the words, and the abilities of the writer. Surely those who are writing have bathed their efforts in prayer as well. Perhaps what’s missing are the intentional prayer support groups that will uphold the candidates, and the Board of Ministry, during this important time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Love 1: The Evaluation

One of the toughest jobs I have is serving on the Theology and Doctrine Committee of our Annual Conference’s Board of Ministry. It is our task to evaluate the theological readiness of the candidates seeking commissioning for ministry, or ordination. Right now my co-reader and I have evaluated five papers, twenty plus pages each, and are writing responses to their work. This post is the first of five. I will also write about the candidates, the process, the standards and some observations. Maybe these posts will help others seeking ordination, or help those not involved have a better understanding of what the process requires.

The theological questions the candidates have to respond to are the historic ones from our Book of Discipline and address for example, the nature of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature and mission of the church, the sacraments, the nature of grace, the way of salvation and the Wesleyan quadrilateral for determining doctrinal authority. There’s an allowance for a lot of personal variety in the responses, but there are also some core concepts that must be addressed. Overall we want to see if the candidate can handle the theological issues with understanding and integrity, and if she or he can demonstrate an ability to teach them and apply them to daily ministry.

We understand we have a responsibility to the Church, and to the churches these persons may serve, to gauge their readiness by high standards. We want some assurance that their teaching and preaching about the things of God will do good, and do no harm. We who must do the evaluation are not of one theological mind and neither should we be. We are not looking for uniformity of thought, but ability in theological reflection. We also know that a person’s submitted work is only one indication of a person’s abilities as a pastor. Here’s where Ephesians 4:15 gets tough. How do you speak the truth in love?

Some of the submitted papers are clearly excellent work. Some are immediately identified as being hastily thrown together with the content being unacceptable. But most are in that gray middle ground – some excellent answers along with some responses that totally miss the question. From our perspective, we feel the need to address the good of their work, as well as the inadequate parts of it. As difficult, and in this case, as subjective, as the truth may be, it still must be spoken.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Show Some Respect, How 'Bout It

So, this is not a sports blog obviously, but the news yesterday of Coach Tommy Bowden “stepping down” as the head coach of our Clemson Tigers was welcomed by me. Aside from the discussions of Bowden’s strengths and weaknesses as a head coach, it has looked all this season as though his heart was no longer in what he was doing. His pre-game statements set the stage for under-achievement, and post-game, win or lose, he seemed passive.

Apparently when confronted by Athletic Dir. Terry Don Phillips, he offered to resign (with his buyout in tack of course) and left with a positive, grateful statement about Clemson. I applaud his class act in his departure.

Now on to the public statement by quarterback, Cullen Harper, who stated, “He got what he deserved.” This should have been written off as an immature statement by a player who had just been benched, instead of being included in most of the sports columns. But glancing through some of the column comments, a lot of us have the same immaturity in making snap judgments about others.
Who knows what Coach Bowden deserves or doesn’t deserve? And who knows what QB Harper deserves or doesn’t deserve? Yea, head coaches (and professional athletes) are way-overpaid, so that sets them up for comments about whether they “deserve” their rewards or not. But when it comes to measuring up what happens to people, there’s a lot we don’t know and the best we can do is show respect to one another. In leaving, Coach Bowden showed respect to Clemson. We should to him, and move on.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tailgate Sunday 2008


Had a great day for our annual Tailgate Sunday. Maybe a little windy, but otherwise excellent weather. There's always a few of our older members who just don't care for the outside casual worship, but on the other hand, we always have several visitors. And as usual, there was plenty of food at all the tents.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Toxic Assets

I heard on the radio today that the Treasury Secretary, with his $700 billion dollar billfold, will now begin the job of buying off the toxic assets of the banks. What was that? “Toxic assets?” Is this just some more mumbo-jumbo? I guess it is easier for the President to look us in the camera and tell us the government is spending our children’s tax money to buy toxic assets, rather than telling us we’re actually getting “bad debts.”

Then it struck me. This economic crisis, like most crises, is causing more people to turn to their spiritual roots. You know how that is. No one wants the Church to be present in the public section - until everyone suddenly realizes they need God after all. But anyway, maybe Secretary Paulson and his minions see the spiritual significance of this time and plan to lead the way with an old fashioned spiritual soul-cleansing!

The Church has known for centuries the importance of fasting, self-denial, simple living, and contemplative prayer in order to make room for faith to grow. We even have prescribed seasons for such (Lent obviously, and Advent, surprisingly to most people) so that we are spiritually trimmed and ready for the big celebrations of Easter and Christmas. Those spiritual practices and seasons have been put in place to help us remove the toxic assets from our lives.

Maybe our toxic assets aren’t the exact same as those the banks have out for the yard sale right now, but we’ve got them. We have added behaviors, attitudes, guilts and “things” to our lives that are acting as poisons (toxins) to our soul survival.

We have picked up too many toxic thoughts. We bought the idea that being beautiful was an asset. But then Madison Avenue and Hollywood defined beauty as a starved and stark 18-year-old model with flawless skin, thus poisoning the self-image of girls and women all over the country. We added the concept that “more is better,” from “Biggie Burgers” to “Mega-whatever.” So now, even with “more than enough” of entertainment, food, techno-gadgets, and connections, most people don’t feel they are living a happy or satisfied life.

Yep, time for some soul-cleansing. Time to get rid of those toxic assets that are slowly killing us. But we'll really have to work our Congressional members to get them to pass another bail-out bill, cause the price of this one is going to dwarf the $700 billion current one. Oh, that's right, I forgot. The price has already been paid.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Kids Take You at Your Word

Early this week I did the chapel for our Day School. I printed a "Lost Dog" poster and took it as my prop. I talked about how we go looking for a lost pet because we love it. I talked about Jesus' story of the shepherd looking for the lost sheep and how God loves us and goes looking for us.

Last night a mom of one of the three-year olds told me she was pleased to report that the children really listen in chapel (something I honestly wasn't sure actually was happening.) She took her kids to the fair and told them they had to stay close to her so they wouldn't get lost. The three-year old said, "It's OK mommy, Rev. Taylor said that if I get lost, God will come looking for me."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It's Your Problem to Fix

Lunch with a friend brought me this story and the OK to share it. When the pastor arrived at the small church, the long, long time (controlling) treasurer immediately got upset with him and declared she was resigning. He said fine. He spoke to another lady in the church who agreed to take the job, then ran it through the Nominating Committee and she was elected.

The new treasurer became the target of the old treasurer. Nothing she could do was right. So finally, in frustration, she took the church books back to the old treasurer and quit. When the pastor heard, he was livid. He called the new treasurer and told her to retrieve the books and bring them to the church, the old treasurer had no authority to have them.

Sunday morning the new treasurer arrived with the books. The pastor called several leaders of the church into the office, took the books and locked them in the desk drawer. "Two treasurers have resigned," he said. "That means there won't be any checks written for bills or salaries, until you find a treasurer that all of you can support."

Within three days they had a treasurer.

Here's the beauty of that story. The pastor didn't "own" their dysfuntional structure. He was firm and clear in letting the leaders know it was their problem to fix. What he did was creative. There was some risk involved, but that risk was nothing compared to the quagmire he'd been in if he had tried to "keep everyone happy." May we all learn from his example.