Pastorful: Don’t Just Fill Seats

I once served a church that was very interesting – they had somehow partitioned themselves, unconsciously, so that some of the lowest-functioning people were serving on the governing board (for the PCUSA, the Session). I came to see it as a kind of quarantine, and the church functioned in such a way that the Session was called upon to do as little as possible so that the rest of the congregation could get on with things.

This led to a couple of disasters, as one might expect.

One vivid one involved a member of the board climbing onto the table to scream threats at another board member, saying they would strangle them. In the wake of that disastrous meeting, four of the twelve board members resigned. They had seen how the sausage was made, and wanted no part of it. I couldn’t blame them, and realized we had a lot of work to do.

What fueled this recipe for disaster, in part, was the idea that they had to find people to fill the seats on the board. There were twelve seats and so they had to find twelve people, and what resulted in this particular church was that there were a number of people who were serving on the board not because they felt called to do so, but because they were pursued and even guilt-tripped until they capitulated and served their time.

So you had a room full of leaders who didn’t want to lead, who didn’t want to make difficult decisions, who didn’t want to learn how to lead, and who wanted to find the easiest way to relieve any problems that came up.

The principle that I drew from this experience was to always remind churches that their job is not to fill seats on the board. Let’s say we have twelve seats on the church board – I would rather have seven or eight people who want to be there and feel called to be there. I tell nominating committees again and again, until they tell it back to me, that their job is not to fill seats. Their job is to discern who is called to leadership at this time, period. If zero people are called, then we add zero people to the board. If one or two, then one or two are added, even if each year we are ‘supposed’ to find four.

I really can’t stress this enough. Never just fill seats. You never want more people there than have been called to be there.

Pastorful: The Karl Shadley Method

I had an idea for a series of posts I’m calling “pastorful”, which lay out some things I’ve learned in the last 10 years of being a pastor. I’m not sure this is actually of any value, but maybe I have helpful ideas to add, not only to pastors but to similar folks – nonprofit directors and so on. So here we go…

As an intern in my last two years of Seminary, my mentor and the pastor of the church where I served was named Karl Shadley. I learned a lot from him, and I think I did a decent job as intern, making the usual number of dumb mistakes in a gracious, forgiving multicultural and multi-lingual context.

One way that Karl and I were (and likely still are) opposites is the degree to which we experience anxiety. I experience it a lot – Karl not nearly so much. Being a “non-anxious presence” for me is often a professional performance, like being polite and gracious to a rude customer in retail, but for Karl I think it came more naturally. He was often entertained by how upset I got about things before they happened, or after, or during.

Without going into detail, there is one situation that stuck with me at the church. The Session, or governing board, felt that something needed to happen, and they believed that it was Karl’s job to make it happen. Karl disagreed. So what he did, for months (I remember maybe six), was just sit calmly in Session meetings while people expressed their anxiety and frustration. Most people would have caved and just done the thing – but not Karl.

Here was the theory – if people truly cared about what they wanted to happen, they would come together and find a way to make it happen themselves. In the meantime, if Karl took it up, it would just become another thing he had to do that he didn’t want to and that he didn’t see as part of his job as pastor. Over time, it’s likely that bitterness might creep in, and having someone grudgingly do the work would lead to the work not being done as well as it could.

Finally, people came together and did whatever it is they were demanding themselves. I remember Karl’s calm smile. The Session moved on to the next issues.

I took this to heart, and have tried to build myself up to where I can reflect this kind of patience. I’ve definitely been tested, but in situations where I am being pushed to do something to alleviate other people’s anxiety, which I don’t think is part of my job as pastor, I remember this story and try to be patient.

What I took away from this experience, and have seen reinforced since then many times, is this idea that it doesn’t do anyone favors to take on their anxiety and do their work for them. If members of the community truly want something to happen, they’ll find a way – but sometimes they are just anxious and want to relieve that anxiety by seeing something happen, but they don’t want it enough to put any effort into it.

And it’s OK if people don’t get what they’re not willing to work for.

Shut Up About the Need for the Church to Change…

…unless you are also bringing resources, actionable suggestions, and a willingness to work.

We Already Know

To all the think-piece writers and church strategists and consultants out there, please shut up about the need for the church to change unless you are here to help do the work. I feel like if I read one more self-absorbed armchair leader opining about the need for transformation while they themselves don’t even attend a church, much less have any helpful suggestions, I’m going to scream. If I had the time and energy to scream, which I don’t, because I work in the church in 2020.

Your blog post about the need for change was old and worn out 40 years ago when everyone was talking about the need for churches to change. We know. Most of us went to school for this stuff. We’ve read book after book, gone to classes, sought continuing education, listened to lectures and keynotes, on and on and on. We read about financing nonprofits and fundraising and transformational leadership and spiders and starfish and every other kind of nonsense. Shut up or step up.

Calling for Change without Working for Change is Cheap

You know what’s worse than nothing? Calling for change without being willing to work toward that change. Silence is literally preferable in every case. ‘Someone should do something about that’ is aggravating, passive-aggressive, and lazy. If you aren’t willing to help with the work, then you don’t have anything invested in it, and therefore your voice counts for nothing. You’re not even throwing peanuts from the cheap seats, you’re standing outside commenting on the show based on the title on the marquee.

Thoughts are cheap, and the thought that the church needs to radically adapt to a changing society and context is an old, third-hand thought.

We’re All Struggling

Part of this is that it’s just exhausting. Sometimes it hits me how much thought and effort and time and work I’ve put into working for change in the church, and if I look at my actual progress, I weep. To have someone standing on the sidelines pointing at the lack of progress like they’re Nostradamus just adds insult to injury.

Am I venting? Yes. Am I passive-aggressively commenting on articles I’ve read and thinkers I’m growing to kind of detest? Absolutely. But am I wrong?

Nope.

Baptism in the Age of COVID-19

I just had someone run a question past me, as a pastor, and it got me thinking. At a time when an increasing number of us are quarantined or sheltering in place, and all of us are being told to stay at home by healthcare professionals, how should we handle a baptism? I can think of some immediate options:

  1. Don’t. There isn’t a hurry to baptize, unless the person is imminently dying and requests it, in which case, consult with a chaplain to learn the usual procedure, or check with your own tradition.
  2. Perform a baptism with minimal people present and strict contact protocols – masks, gloves, washing before and after, using a throw-away gown instead of a robe if possible, on and on. And in doing so, basically, risk everyone involved, but risk them as little as possible.
  3. The one I’m thinking through now: baptism at a distance.

Baptism at a Distance

What are the key elements of baptism, generally speaking? I would say they are the following:

  • Consent
  • Water
  • Some form of the Matthew 28:19, trinitarian formula
  • And ideally, the person is being baptized into a community of practice

Now, this differs somewhat from the “official” stance of the PCUSA, and if I were baptizing someone in our church building, certainly as part of a worship service, I would studiously adhere to our denominational standards. I’m talking about someone asking about a baptism at a distance because, in part, they are reasonably afraid of someone in their immediate family dying in the next year or so and don’t want to feel that regret.

There’s an advantage that we don’t have to have holy water, since if I had to bless water and then send it to the family, there’s a danger of contamination there from me to them. They can handle the water on their end and I can handle the words on my end.

Whatever a person’s tradition thinks of baptism at a distance, we are all going to have to give it some thought. It will be 14 months until there is a vaccine, and months after that until enough people have recovered from COVID-19 or gotten the vaccine for us to approach “herd immunity” and be able to be close to each other again. 18 months is a common estimate I am reading consistently. For those 18 months, all of us, churches included, will have to rethink the way we remain in community. This is an especially challenging time for the church, because church is unable to do what we do best – build in-person community and connection. Practice shared rituals that orient us in time and space and punctuate the meaning we make of our lives. Instead we have to pretend we are YouTubers and Zoom conference organizers and limp along.

But during those 18 months, will we not baptize at all? Will we risk close contact to baptize in the traditional way? Or will we have to come up with something else? What do you think?

An Early Decline? Or A Fetish For Novelty

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/

The above article from The Atlantic made the rounds on my social media recently, and I found it to be worth the read. It is about how professional decline comes earlier than one might expect, and the author reflects on what he sees as his own professional decline.

Here, “decline” is how he describes the transition, observed in many cultures, from being someone who solves problems in novel ways (having what the author calls ‘fluid intelligence’) to someone who is primarily a teacher or mentor for others, who has more ‘crystallized intelligence’, or intelligence that is based on what one has already learned. In other cultures, they would call intelligence that comes from accumulated knowledge and experience, which is used to teach and to mentor – wisdom.

After some reflection, it occurred to me how absurd it is to view this process as decline. Absurd, and a little bit horrific (as my culture often is when I think about it carefully). It highlights how maladaptive our culture is, and one of the many ways we value the wrong things.

Fetishizing Novelty

In many areas of life, even in the United States, we acknowledge that something has greater value because it is old. We feel this way about furniture, and architecture, and documents. This is why we have museums and special collections and archives. There is some survivor bias here – the things that have lasted seem like they must be of greater value. They have, in a way, proven themselves over the test of time.

As a materialistic, consumer culture, however, we crave novelty. For human beings, especially women, we view one’s youth as what gives them value, and see that value as diminishing over time. We are driven, by the fruits of billions of dollars of psychological marketing research each year, to crave more things and new things. Our whole society conspires to make us unwell, dissatisfied, and unhappy, because we would otherwise stop consuming. We are taught to fetishize novelty – the new product is valuable because it is new. The new idea is valuable because it is new. New art is valuable because it is new. This is strange because we are one of the only cultures in the history of humankind that thinks this way.

Oh Yeah We Hate Teachers Too

Many Americans treat teachers with contempt. Maybe not face to face, but the way we treat them, pay them, the way we fund schools, the thankless demands we place on them, all reek of contempt. Even lower than teachers are caregivers – people who care for children and the elderly are almost universally treated poorly and poorly paid. Don’t believe me? Go get a job at a nursing home right now, I dare you. It’ll be the hardest, most thankless job you’ve ever had, and you will not be able to live on what you are paid. We assume that people who would lower themselves to care for other human beings must be doing it out of a sense of martyrdom.

You can see it in the above article, and the mindset that it reflects (which is common and widespread) that one has to lower one’s self, to enter into decline, in order to teach and to mentor others. That is a demotion – we experience it as such, trained and acculturated as we are. A humane, rational society would see teaching and caring for other human beings as one of the most noble and important things one could possibly do. American society is neither humane nor rational.

Ubiquity of Elders

Every single culture on planet Earth developed such that elders were honored. Until very recently (the last few seconds on an evolutionary time-scale) that is a generalization that could be made about any culture, sight unseen. Even in the modern world, many cultures continue to value and honor elders. They are seen as wise, worthwhile, and as key contributors to a community. There is no surviving traditional society we know of that does not honor elders, and there are plenty of societies that have survived into the modern world that continue to do the same.

Now, why would every human culture in known history come to the conclusion that elders were to be valued? Let’s say fetishizing novelty was a good idea – if it was, then cultures that fetishized novelty would have flourished, displacing the ones that did not. Those cultures that honored stodgy elders who have faded away and lost out.

What we see is the exact opposite – cultures that fetishize novelty are committing collective suicide at a rate unseen in Earth’s geological history. We are dying in a conflagration of our own making. The cultures that honor the people that the above article sees as experiencing “decline” persisted for hundreds of thousands of years, and the cultures that ceased to do this are killing themselves and spreading poison and misery to a degree never before seen.

What If Age Is Not Decline?

It is very difficult to change a culture, and much of what changes a culture is surprising and out of anyone’s conscious control. The couple dozen people who read this blog post are not going to be able to get together and change our society so that age is not seen as necessary decline, but rather as a time where there is the potential for wisdom and for being able to share that wisdom.

We don’t value wisdom, as a society. We don’t know how to recognize it or seek it out. We don’t reward it or encourage it or honor it. We value novel solutions to ‘problems’ like “How do we produce more crap more cheaply?” and “How can we get more people to want to buy our crap?” We don’t realize that our solutions merely create more problems until it is basically too late, if ever. The billionaires are shipping consumer goods to our doors and building asinine hyper-loops while the people who are trying to teach and mentor have to take second and third jobs to pay their student loans.

Fetishizing novelty, among other things, is killing us. Predictably so, since every society to come before decided not to do that. But here we are. If we valued wisdom, we probably would be wise enough to see this happening and change.

A Place For Church

Yes, church. That place where we brainwash our kids (OK some of us do) and conspire to strip away basic rights (yes some of us do that too and it’s shitty). Church is also one of the only places in American society, in our novelty-fetishizing society, where old people are valued. Not in every church, but in most churches, and the idea of honoring elders is built into Christianity, and is something we might do well to highlight and feature.

Churches are full of old folks – why? Maybe because churches are a place, in contrast to families and professions and hobbies, where elders are honored. In my own tradition, to be an “elder” is to be an elected leader of the church who runs things and makes decisions. An “elder” does not have to be literally old, but almost all of them are over 55, and it is a position of leadership and worth and work that someone could easily maintain into their 80s.

In every other area of life I can think of, we partition off our elderly and place them in social ghettoes. Elders literally die from feeling useless, and commit suicide because they feel like they are a burden on their loved ones. When we talk about them, it is as a burden on society – how will we pay for all of these Baby Boomers collecting Social Security and living longer? Where will we warehouse them? How can we get them to stop watching Fox News?

Churches obviously have huge problems, but I do think that one way churches can and should be counter-cultural and adaptive is to be places where elders are not only valued, but also integrated with people of other ages and generations. It’s rare to have a group of people who meet every week in the same room, doing the same things, ranging in age from 6 months to 96 years – for my own context, we call that Sunday morning at church.