Category Archives: Blog Posts

Top Ten Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned (Ken Schenck)

By now most in the Seminary have heard that I am stepping down as Dean and going back to full-time teaching. I viewed becoming a Dean a calling and a ministry. It was also a great learning experience in leadership, gaining insights from the likes of Keith Drury, Wayne Schmidt, Russ Gunsalus, and colleagues like Bob Whitesel.

As I was recently reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned, I boiled them down to 10. All these leadership lessons are transferable to pastoring.

10. There isn’t just one type of leader.
Different situations call for different kinds of leaders, and individuals with different strengths can lead in different ways.

9. An effective leader leads from his or her strengths and manages weaknesses.
We tend to get preoccupied with our weaknesses and waste a lot of time trying to improve them. But our time would be much more effectively used developing our strengths and finding ways to manage our weaknesses (e.g., by delegating and surrounding ourselves with support systems whose strengths complement our weaknesses).

8. Without an adequate infrastructure, an organization won’t last, even if it starts on good ideas.
There is a certain glamour in American culture for the dreamer who has big ideas and the great speaker/entertainer. But like Whitefield and Wesley, it was the organizer Wesley whose followers are still with us today.

7. Over time, organizations gravitate toward the bureaucratic. Policies then tend to replace the common sense and competence of people.
I think IWU was coming dangerously close to this trajectory a few years ago. Thankfully, the situation has solidly changed directions, in my opinion. It’s important for an organization to remain flexible and open to new ideas.

6. Good leaders are attentive to people but don’t let what others think get them down.
Anyone in leadership is going to get criticism. You have to care about what people think, but there is also a need not to worry too much about what people think.

5. It’s best for an organization to have a variety of personalities and styles around.
If everyone thinks the same and has the same gifts, an organization will be very heavy in one set of weaknesses or blind spots.

4. It’s important for leaders to be transparent and genuine and yet to have wisdom on when to speak.
No one likes a sneaky leader. But a leader with a big mouth will inevitably turn off all sides and sabotage the strategic progress of an organization.

3.  Conflict isn’t bad if everyone wants the greater good and submits to the final decision.
I don’t like conflict and those who do are no fun to be around. But there is something to be said for conflicting perspectives being expressed with a genuine desire for the best outcome. But once a decision is made by the appropriate individual or group, it’s time to move on.

2. An organization needs something new to shake things up every couple years.
I can already see that my shift is bringing good reflection and I think the Seminary is going to be better than ever next year. It’s so easy to get into a rut.

1. A person’s greatest contribution to the kingdom may not be in the area they thought it would be.
I always thought my greatest contribution to the kingdom might be in biblical studies, but it will probably turn out to be my part in the starting of Wesley.

Break the Silence (Kwasi Kena)

I once lived in a condo community, which included the obligatory fees and membership in a home owners association (HOA). One day officers in the HOA sent a notice to all residents notifying us about a matter that required our vote. The first part of the notice contained the typical details one would expect to help owners vote intelligently on the matter. The last portion of the notice, however, contained an unexpected twist. It stated that “Any non-votes will be counted as ‘yes votes’ on this matter”. I couldn’t be believe it! If I did not vote, the HOA officers would consider that an affirmation of the proposed plan. Said differently, my silence was treated as if it were an action.

How Would You Fill in the Blank?
For several years I taught an oral communication course. In that class, we examined a communication phenomenon called “filtering and completing”. Here is a brief explanation of these two concepts. When we are bombarded by too much information, we make conscious and subconscious choices to filter out what appears to be extraneous information in order to make sense out of what we hear or see. Conversely, when some of the message is missing, we complete or fill in the blank to create what we think is the intended message. We complete the message based on our own perceptions, life experiences, biases and worldviews.

For example, if you heard “Mary had a little _____, its ___________________________”, you would be able to compete the sentence based on your previous knowledge of nursery rhymes. If, however, you heard the following phrase “When elephants fight ________________”, you may not have enough previous knowledge or experience to fill in the blank correctly. While a person living in West Africa would recognize the proverb “When elephants fight the grass suffers”. Without context, shared memory, or the intention of the speaker, we are clueless.

Silence in Multicultural Ministry: Friend or Foe?
When engaging in multicultural ministry, when should you speak and when should you keep silent? The answer perplexes many people. It is not unlike the feeling one gets when reading the book of Proverbs where one verse urges you not to answer a fool, while the next verse contradicts the previous advice and states that you should answer a fool (Proverbs 25:4-5). If you find yourself struggling with such a decision, remember in cross-cultural ministry, silence sends multiple messages.

I sometimes use the following scenario to illustrate the effect of silence when attempting to reach people from a different ethnic group. We are all familiar with churches whose neighborhoods have shifted from one dominant ethnic group to another. Members of “drive-in churches” who often want to open the church to everyone usually don’t understand why community members do not come and join their congregations. Perhaps this issue of silence holds a clue to the answer.

In the midst of your congregation attempting to become more multi-ethnic, suppose a major disturbance occurs in the ethnic community you want to reach. Perhaps the local news airs a special report noting that an absentee landlord failed to maintain his apartments causing the ethnic residents to suffer unnecessary illnesses due to poor heating and insulation. Or, what if you learned that community members live in a food desert and their children’s cognitive development is stunted due to malnutrition? Or, what about the recent 911 caller who reported that a twelve-year-old boy was playing with a gun that was “probably fake” resulting in Tamir Rice being shot and killed by a policeman four seconds after the squad car arrived? If some tragedy like this occurred in which members of the community were angry, hurt, distraught, and outraged—how would your congregation respond?

If your church responded to any of these incidents with silence, how might the ethnic community you wish to reach “fill in the blank”? How would your congregation’s reputation in the community inform the way outsiders complete the void left by your silence? If visitors came to church the Sunday following a tragic event, would they hear anything in the sermon or pastoral prayer or any portion of the service that addressed the sorrow experienced by the parties involved? Can your church afford the cultural baggage of a silent response?

Concluding with a Cherry on Top (Dr. Luchetti)

I recently enjoyed the four-course Festa Italiana at the Olive Garden with my wife and some friends. The meal included an appetizer, unlimited soup and breadsticks, an entrée (Smoked Mozzarella Chicken for me), and a dessert. All of this was only $14.99! A steal of a deal if you ask me. I tried to convince Amy, my wife, to get the same deal but she resisted. Oh well, her loss.

The Crispy Risotto Bites started the meal off with a bang. After an appetizer like that, my expectations for the entrée were high. I was not disappointed. The dining experience, up to this point, was delightful. Although my belly button was now flopping over the waste line of my jeans, I couldn’t wait to conclude with a delectable dessert. There’s always room for dessert, even when there’s not. The Festa Italiana included dessert and I didn’t want to be a bad steward of God’s money. I ordered the chocolate mousse which, in my estimation, is the ideal way to conclude an excellent dining experience.

Then it happened. The waiter brought to the table our desserts of choice. I thought it was a joke. My chocolate mousse came in this tiny, I don’t know, glass thing. That’s the best I can come up with since the “tiny glass thing” was too small to be called a bowl, dish, or cup. I finished the chocolate letdown in two bites. My wife, who resisted the Festa Italiana four-course “deal,” sat there gloating with her super-sized piece of Amaretto Tiramisu. My tip for the waiter was going to be “make the dessert better and bigger,” but I resisted and gave him money instead.

The joy of the first three courses was diminished by the disappointment of the final course, the dessert. I left the restaurant fairly full but with a taste of disappointment in my mouth. The conclusion soured me a bit toward the entire experience.

Preachers are sometimes guilty of doing to listeners what Olive Garden did to me. We leave a bad taste in the mouths of listeners during the conclusion of the sermonic meal. The introduction might be appetizing and the body a theologically substantive and contextually relevant entrée. But if we fail to finish of the meal with a delicious dessert, the entire meal will be diminished.

Let’s learn from Olive Garden’s mistake. Here are some things to keep in mind as you seek to finish the sermonic meal with a cherry on top:

-Avoid Summarizing: The goal of preaching is not merely to provide people with memorable information but transformational inspiration. If we preachers have done our job during the sermon, people will know more information about the Bible, to be sure. But when it comes to the dessert, the sermon’s conclusion, end with the sweetness of inspiration not merely the spinach of information. The American Church, as far as I can tell, seems well-informed but uninspired to apply what they already know. Try to overcome the advice given to the past few generations of preachers to, in the conclusion, “tell em what you told em.” No, tell em something that will inspire them to embody the Gospel. Summaries never inspire.

-Don’t Manipulate: Most of us have experienced the painfully extended altar call, the one that forces people out of their seats in hopes that the preacher will shut up and conclude the sermon. The long drawn out altar call is one form of manipulation that occurs during the conclusion. Here’ another. I call it the bait and switch. The preacher will say, “With heads bowed and eyes closed, just between you and God, raise your hand if this sermon applies to you.” The listener raises her hand thinking she made a private acknowledgement. The preacher led her to believe that. Here comes the switch. The preacher says, “Now, if you raised your hand, please come forward to the altar.” Listeners want to be challenged, not manipulated. Sometimes the line between the two is rather thin. If the preacher crosses it, the meal will be spoiled.

-Land the Plane: The conclusion will determine, to an extent, how the listener perceives the entire sermon. Think through the finish. Make it concise and compelling. Don’t wing it or you’ll end up hovering over the landing strip. I remember a bad experience flying into Chicago. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the plane hovered over the landing strip for about 20 minutes. Perhaps there were some issues on the ground. I was frustrated, angry even. When the preacher hovers, refusing to land the plane, listeners become frustrating and angry. The listener will be finished with the sermon, even as the preacher keeps flying. This puts a bad taste in the mouths of listeners. Unless your conclusion is crucial to driving home your focus and extremely engaging, land the plane quickly when the strip is in sight.

I will keep going to Olive Garden and hungry listeners will keep showing up on Sunday mornings to feast on a word from the Lord. When they do, we must carefully and creatively develop a powerful conclusion. A disappointing dessert can diminish a good meal. But a delicious dessert can improve a mediocre sermon.

Does Your Church Have a Sabbatical Leave Policy? (Charles Arn)

The role of pastor is extremely stressful. In effect he/she is never off duty. This long-term stress takes a toll emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Churches that want to keep their pastor for many years must provide him/her with a season of rest. I recommend that all full-time pastors and staff receive a three-month paid sabbatical every six or seven years.

The Battle Wounded …

Consider the following statistics[i]:

  • 23% of pastors have been fired or pressured to resign at least once in their careers.
  • 25% of pastors don’t know where to turn when they have a family or personal issue.
  • 45% of pastors say that they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence.
  • 56% of pastors’ spouses say that they have no close friends.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
  • 80% say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  • 80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
  • 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

Time for Some R & R …

Universities and colleges have given professors sabbaticals for many years. Originally modeled on the biblical cycle of work and rest, professors receive a sabbatical for research, writing, travel, and rest every seven years.

Many churches today find that by providing a regular sabbatical for their pastors, they are able to keep them for a longer period of time. And, as I mentioned in an earlier article here, there is a direct relationship between pastoral longevity and church growth.

Two Examples …

A number of books, articles, and examples are available to help you avoid re-inventing the wheel in developing a policy. Google: “pastoral sabbatical policy” and you will find over 3,700 hits. Here are two examples of churches’ sabbatical policies:

Example #1

Personal development leave is for professional growth that will benefit our church.

  • Leave accrues at 1.5 weeks per year of service.
  • A pastor must serve a minimum of 2 years before scheduling a study leave.
  • All personal development leave must be scheduled and approved by the church Council. The Administrative Committee will make a recommendation based upon a review of all the pastor’s schedules and the purpose of the leave with the assurance that all ministries will be properly carried on.
  • A pastor will serve a minimum of 6 months following the use of any personal development leave.
  • Accrued personal development leave is forfeited when a pastor resigns. The church Council may waive this in the case of a tendered resignation.

Example #2

Sabbatical leave may be granted to full-time pastoral staff members for the pursuit of activities as approved by the Council of Elders. The following stipulations and requirements will apply:

  • Sabbaticals may be approved for six months at the culmination of each seven years of full-time ministry at the Church. Each staff member may apply vacation time earned to extend his/her leave to a maximum of one month.
  • Full salary and benefits will be paid during the leave.
  • A detailed proposal for use of a sabbatical leave will be presented to the Council of Elders at the time of application for leave. Applications should be presented six months prior to expected leave. The council has the right to deny leave for sabbaticals it feels does not meet its approval.
  • The intent of sabbatical leave is to further the ministry of our church.
  • Upon returning, the staff member taking a sabbatical leave will give a report to the Council of Elders on what was achieved during the leave.

 Conclusion

Each year your church should put aside an amount equivalent to one-twelfth of the pastor’s annual salary to cover the salary during the sabbatical leave. The seventh year of a pastor’s tenure is often one of mental and spiritual fatigue. By allowing the pastor to take a three-month sabbatical at this time the pastor’s life will be re-energized which will have a positive impact on the church’s ministry, as well.

 

[i] http://pastoralcareinc.com/WhyPastoralCare/Statistics.php; http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/2049.htm.

Confessions of a Church-Hopping Pastor (Brannon Hancock)

My family’s transition to Marion, Indiana last summer afforded me an unprecedented opportunity. You see, I’m a Nazarene pastor’s kid who’s married to a Wesleyan pastor’s kid, and because God apparently has a sense of humor, my three kids are all pastor’s kids too. But all of this means that I’ve never been able to participate in one of American Christianity’s favorite pastimes: church-hopping.

I love the church. I am both a teacher and a student of the church and her worship. Every time I visit a new church I learn something. So I relish every opportunity to experience the inside of a new church building, participate in a new worship service, sit under the preaching of a new pastor, and hopefully make some new friends. I’ve visited lots of churches throughout my life, but only occasionally – a Sunday here and a Sunday there – and I always had a home church to return to. So it was strange and exciting to wake up each Sunday morning this fall and say to my wife, “well…where should we go to church today?”

Some might call it “church-shopping.” I’d rather think of it as “visiting,” since we decided early on to settle in at the local Nazarene church (a predictable choice, I’m told) after we made the rounds. Besides, that’s what we usually call folks who show up at our churches for the first time: visitors. (Although “guests” seems to be trending now.) But I knew that once we got involved at a local church, our chances to visit other churches in the area would be limited, so we decided to just “visit around” for awhile.

From August to December, we worshipped in more than a dozen different churches ranging in size from 50 to 1200, representing several denominations (Wesleyan, Methodist and Nazarene), most of which we only visited the one time. In the process, here’s what I discovered:

1. First Impressions matter – Unless we vigilantly guard against it, it is easy for churches to begin to operate as if regular attenders are their only focus. Evidence of a church’s internal or external focus appears in everything from greeters to information centers to signage to building maintenance. For a visitor, it’s easy to sense when a church is clearly not prepared to receive guests. This can make an already-anxious and uncomfortable person feel even more out-of-place.

We have three young children, so kids check-in procedures were a big part of our visitor experiences. It was obvious that some of these had not been designed with first-time visitors in mind. In some cases, the greeters at the front doors didn’t know where to direct us, or the signage was poor or misleading. In all but a few cases, the whole process took entirely too long – in one case, we arrived 10 minutes early, but by the time we were seated in the sanctuary, we were 12 minutes late. And some of the largest churches we visited had the most glaring issues! (Some smaller churches didn’t have a check-in or security process whatsoever, which is another problem – whatever your size, please create some type of security procedure for dropping off and picking up kids.)

Think through your “hospitality process” (that’s what it should be) from the perspective of a first-time guest. Train your greeters with a laser focus on visitors. Make your kids check-in process as streamlined as possible. Your need to get a family’s information is not more important than their need to have a smooth and easy journey between their car and the sanctuary. Everything they experience prior to the worship service sends a message (Andy Stanley calls it “the message before the message”), and sometimes those messages can make it harder or even impossible to hear the Good News they came to hear.

2. Congregations matter – this one has to do with the whole culture of the church, so it can’t be easily addressed in a committee meeting; but in all our church-hopping, it was undeniable that the “vibe” we got from the congregation made a huge difference in our experience. Some congregations were enthusiastic in worship, while others seemed disengaged and half-hearted. Some congregations were friendly and welcoming (without being weird or “pouncing” on us) while others seemed oblivious to our presence. Some you could just tell were really authentic and passionate about their faith (and their church), while others kind of left you to wonder why they bothered showing up. Which would you guess made us think, these are people I want to be around?

One other thing: for us, overly homogenous churches were a turn-off. Yes, it’s important to be able to connect with people at church who are at a similar place in life, or share common interests, but I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of people who are just like me (what a terrifying thought!). We were blessed to visit a few generationally and/or racially diverse churches, although they were the exception. I understand that having a specific focus or “target” audience can be part of an outreach or church growth strategy, but diverse churches better reflect what I believe Heaven will be like. It’s neat to get a glimpse of that in the here-and-now.

3. Pastors matter – this one hurts, but I have to say it: in a few cases our experience was absolutely made or broken by the pastor. And not just by the quality of the preaching, although that was certainly in the mix. At one church, the lead pastor was standing at the door alongside the greeter; he welcomed us, led us back to the children’s area to check our kids in, and then back to the sanctuary. At another church, an associate pastor did the same thing. This speaks volumes to a first time guest about the values and priorities of the church. On the other hand, at one church, the senior pastor noticed us in the lobby after the service, but just walked right past us without so much as a smile. I understand how drained pastors can be after preaching multiple services, but Sunday morning is game time until you drive off the property. You may not be up for a lengthy conversation, but a brief introduction and “thanks for coming today” may be more than enough to make someone feel welcome.

Granted, we’re pretty “churchy” folks. Try as I might, it’s unrealistic to think I can truly experience church through the eyes of an unchurched person, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve shared three things I think really matter, let me mention two elements that struck me as being far less significant than I might have expected.

1. Buildings – we visited some fantastic, slick, shiny new buildings, and some little, cruddy, poorly maintained buildings. But I don’t think there was a single one that we wouldn’t have gone back to because of anything to do with the building, nor one that we would have returned to solely because the building was so cool. Spaces do matter; maintain your buildings; be clean, safe, and intentional in your environments. But it turns out the cliché is true: the church really isn’t the building, it’s the people!

2. Music / “Style” – we experienced congregational worship that ran the gamut from ancient hymns to the latest modern worship songs, accompanied by everything from large, professional-quality worship teams, to churches that sang along to CD tracks. My wife and I are musicians and worship leaders, so you’d think this would be a big deal to us. But it just wasn’t. Much more important was the energy of the congregation as they engaged in worship. Show me a congregation doing what they can do with all the excellence they can muster – who is “owning” their worship with authenticity and passion – and THAT’S something attractive to anyone, churched or unchurched.

Those involved in full-time ministry – like many of our Wesley Seminary students – aren’t given many chances to be a first-time visitor. I hope you can learn vicariously through my church-hopping experience. While it was enriching, I’m glad it’s over. My family and I are ready for the community, the relationships, the support and the opportunities to serve that accompany commitment to the local church.

In closing, let me encourage not just pastors but all Christians to take every opportunity you might have to experience church as a visitor. Maybe it’s venturing out when you’re away on vacation, or just making an intentional decision once or twice a year (any more than that and your pastor might get mad at me!) to visit another church in your city. If more pastors in the pulpits and parishioners in the pews knew what it feels like to be a visitor, and would be mindful of those who may darken our doors for the first time, I believe it would radically transform and revitalize our churches.

More Than Toys, by Luigi Peñaranda

I love Christmas music. I realize a lot of the popular songs that fall under the category of “Christmas music” have nothing to do with the nativity of Jesus, but I still like them. I like listening to “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” “Santa Claus is coming to town,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Mi burrito Sabanero.” I particularly enjoy listening to the Christmas albums by Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Josh Groban. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining Dr. Graciela Boruszko and her husband Samuel for a night of Villancicos (Latin-American Christmas Carols) at an event organized by the Division of Modern Languages at Indiana Wesleyan University. I must admit, I did not know most of the songs and, similar to what I mentioned about the genre of Christmas music, many of them were bad examples of what Christmas really means. But I had a good time surrounded by colleagues and Spanish students.

There is nothing wrong with caroling, gift exchanges, and Christmas parties and holiday music. Jesus loved parties, gave gifts, sang songs, and celebrated the holidays of his day. However, it is important as ministers and church people to be reminded and to remind others that the story of Christmas in the Gospels is about something else.

I love the way the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy. The story interweaves narrative and poetry to paint a beautiful and perplexing picture of the event. Through canticles, the characters of the story communicate the significance of Jesus’ life as the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. One of these canticles is the song of Simeon, commonly known as Nunc Dimittis from the Latin translation of Luke 2:29.

The text tells us that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the meeting between Simeon, a righteous and devout man, and the parents of Jesus, who came to the temple to fulfill their covenantal obligations. Simeon awaited the “consolation of Israel,” perhaps referring to the deliverance of Israel from its oppressors. Upon holding the baby, Simeon erupts in praise:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32).

The old man can now rest in peace. He has seen salvation. He has seen light. He has seen glory. It sounds like a joyful Christmas song. The only problem is that, suddenly, the story turns somber. It’s as if the song modulated to a minor tonality (let the musicians understand). The proclamation of salvation, light, and glory cannot be divorced from the fact that Jesus will face opposition and those who love him most will encounter suffering.

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).

Jesus is announced as a sign that will be opposed, a child who makes some fall and others rise, a man who exposes the hidden, and a son who breaks his mother’s heart. This Christmas carol is not the typical feel-good kind of song. This canticle is unsettling.

Jesus is not an innocent baby perpetually stuck in a manger. His mission is not to give us the spirit of Christmas. He is not a dove that flies amidst battlegrounds so that enemy armies can cease fire for a day to eat ham and rolls. Jesus doesn’t drive a Coca Cola Christmas truck. He does not hand out free toys. His blessings are not discounted during the holiday season. Jesus is a king and his agenda is to introduce a new world order…the kingdom of God.

We must celebrate, not only the birth of the king, but the fullness of his life and his work. He was at work before the manger and he is certainly at work today. It is interesting that two of the Gospel writers did not include stories about the birth of Christ. In a sense, they too remind us to fix our eyes on Jesus himself, and not just on the events surrounding his birth.

Advent Reflections, by Safiyah Fosua

These familiar words signal the beginning of the Advent season. What started as a season of fasting and prayer and preparation has degenerated into a combination of a buying season and block party!  Originally it was not so. Advent’s history begins somewhere between 460 and 490 AD. It was one of two penitential seasons of the Church and lasted six weeks. The original date for the beginning of Advent was November 11. Over time, members of the church became weary of two seasons of fasting that were so close together and the season was shortened from six weeks to four. During the Medieval period, those four Sundays were used to remind the faithful of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. How would you like to have hell as the preaching theme the Sunday before Christmas? The four last things of the medieval period have been replaced with different themes in the cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

An Advent Lectionary Journey

The first Sunday of Advent traditionally deals with a sobering reminder that Christ will come again.  If you followed the lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent 2014, you reminded your congregation of a day coming when the sun will be darkened and the moon will refuse to give light (Mark 13:24-37).  Last year was the disturbing passage where two are grinding and one is taken (Matthew 24:36-44).  Next year, it will be another apocalyptic text. The idea is to startle us out of our complacency to remember that what we are doing now is not God’s ultimate plan. Jesus is coming again in power and authority.

The Second Sundays of Advent are a bit more familiar. John the Baptist appears as one of the familiar biblical characters that we have come to associate with Advent. Though John’s ministry was colorful the texts draw our attention to the ties between John and Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness.

By the Third Sunday of Advent, the biblical narratives draw us into the speculations and longing of those times. Could Jesus be the Messiah? The text used this year comes from John’s prologue and reminds us of John’s testimony of the One greater than John.

It is not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that the texts even begin to speak of the birth of Christ. In our haste to finally get to the comforting memories of shepherds in bathrobes and cardboard angel wings, we often overshadow the dilemma of Mary and Joseph. Mary, probably a teenager, and Joseph, an honorable man, both had their lives interrupted by an untimely pregnancy from on high.

 

A Youth Group Revolutionary

If Mary had been a member of your church (excuse me, synagogue), she would likely have been a member of the youth group. Many critics place her in her teen years. It would not have seemed odd to Mary or those around her for her to be given in marriage in her mid-teens, after all, life expectancies were much shorter then. When I read Mary’s story, with not-so-distant memories of my last youth group, I continue to marvel at her maturity. Most of the youth I remember would have been overwhelmed by the sight of an angel and unable to hear the rest of what God had to say. To be able to hear and respond was a sign of great maturity. But I am more taken by her song of praise:

(Luke 1:46-55) And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (NRSV)

Mary’s prophetic song of praise speaks of how God will

  • Scatter the proud (verse 51)
  • Bring down the powerful, while lifting up the lowly (verse 52) – a clear allusion to Romans and Jews
  • Not only fill the hungry with good things, but also send the rich away empty (verse 53)!

 

Her words preview and forecast the words of her son about the topsy-turvy nature of the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first (Luke 13:30).

What a bold song for someone of Mary’s background and status. Mary was a youth, living in a country under Roman occupation. From all appearances, she was from a working-class or poor family. Added to this, Mary was born female in a time when women were not taken seriously or often offered an education.

 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

All of us mourn in lonely exile here* waiting for the Second Coming of the Son of God. This Advent, I am called to cry myself to sleep singing Mary’s song in response to the evening news. I see far too many similarities with Mary’s sitz im leben (setting in life) to ignore her song as a theological source for the Integration Paper of my life. When I look at poor and marginalized peoples of our community, I see that this Advent, in reality, is a crying season, not a buying season. The specters of poverty, race, immigration, politics, and hatred loom larger than life over our all our heads. They are old, moss-backed demons who will not evaporate with a simplistic “try Jesus,” they are the hard things of which Jesus spoke that only respond to fasting and prayer. We see the spirit of Mary’s song embodied in the peaceful demonstrations of youth and young adults of every hue who are gathered in the streets to remind us that life matters and no life should be thoughtlessly taken away.

This Advent, more than ever, we are called to ready ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, who has left us here to be a force for good while we are waiting. Mary sang her song, and then she rolled up her sleeves and yielded what God needed of her. She did not indulge in the luxury of empty, idealistic prattle, she suffered as a result of this yielding. She suffered, and her Son, whom we celebrate this season, also suffered. Had the Romans heard (and understood) Mary’s song, she and her family could have been jailed or executed, yet she sang a song in present tense that spoke of what God would do in the future. May God give each of us the grace to see things present through the eyes of the Second Coming as we work and sing together.

 

*Mourn in lonely exile here, is an echo of Thomas Helmore’s (1854) English translation of the 12th Century Latin hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The Church – Hospice or Health? (Wayne Schmidt)

Over the past several months Wesley Seminary has been in the “pilot phase” of a new certificate in Church Revitalization.  Helping existing churches achieve greater health and missional vitality has been ranked as a high-priority means of “signature service” to the Church.

It’s been a privilege during this developmental phase to talk with pastors, lay leaders, district and denominational officials as well as researchers.  Most of these individuals recognize that permeating North America with the good news of Jesus Christ will involve both the multiplication of new churches and sites as well as the revitalization of existing churches.

Some denominations have initiated ways for churches to assess their vitality and create pathways of greater health.  One example is The Evangelical Covenant Church, which has a “Congregational Vitality” department devoted to this endeavor (www.covchurch.org/vitality/pulse).  They recognize that churches come in all sizes, ethnicities, locations and styles, but have identified four types of established churches:

  • The Healthy Missional Church
  • The Stable Church
  • The Critical Moment Church
  • The At Risk Church

The level of vitality in a church deeply impacts what you see, feel and hear as you experience the life of that congregation.

In developing a four-course certificate, Wesley Seminary sought to connect key learning outcomes with necessary skills and resources.   Dr. Charles Arn has given a lifetime of energy to helping churches more fully serve and reach their communities, and has taken the lead in the certificate’s development.

  1. How might a church diagnose its level of health?
    The course “Diagnosis & Prescription for a Healthy Church” provides an overview of the research behind and varieties of health assessments available to local church leaders.
  1. How does a church resolve conflict?
    Unresolved conflicts and unhealthy power dynamics in a Church can create dysfunction and disease within it. The course “Power, Change & Conflict Management” helps church leaders understand the processes of change and harness them to create strength in the Church.
  1. How can a church more fully connect with its community?
    Unhealthy churches are often “closed systems” – they may perceive themselves as friendly, but have patterns of interaction that exclude rather than include new people, whether they are first-time guests or potential leaders.  The course “Newcomer Integration” explores barriers to openness and ways to increase connectivity.
  1. How might an “outside perspective” benefit a church?
    The course most recently developed in the certificate is designed as a “field study” – a student participates in a church consultation process that moves through steps which include assessment, prescription, commitment and coaching.  They learn as the consultation team interacts with local church ministry leaders to gain a sense of the congregation’s self-perception.

During the pilot phase our students were privileged to interact with multiple consultants – although all have similarities in terms of the steps of the process, their style can vary greatly in terms of directness, urgency and follow up.  Some styles are more similar to an “intervention” and that may be exactly what is needed if the denial is deep and the window of opportunity to act is closing.  Other styles are more “incremental” – where greater health and fuller self-awareness provide strengths that can be built upon over many months.

As 2015 begins we go from “pilot to public” with the Certificate in Church Revitalization.  We’re grateful that it is not only offered to Wesley Seminary students as a specialization within their degree program, but to those who are not students of Wesley Seminary seeking an accredited certificate to strengthen their capacity to invest in the future of the existing church.

The Integration Paper

Although improvements to our Seminary curriculum have inevitably resulted in some shuffling, Week 14 of each semester has often been the week where MDIV students take all the research they have done throughout the semester and written a position paper on a pastoral issue, bringing Bible, theology, and church history to bear on the topic.

The task of speaking to the issues of our contexts is both amazingly simple and immensely complex. For the prophet, it is amazingly simple. God gives you a word and you share it. Amos had no theological education. He was a businessman doing some business when he got the word from God. Oh that it was always that simple!

Many more of us are not prophets. We just think we are. We stand up in the pulpit or on Facebook and present our words from the Lord. But all we need to is bring in a sociologist or historian to show that many of us are just riding the waves of our subcultures. What we say can be almost predictable, like we were a lab rat in the experiment of history.

The skill of the Integration Paper is to develop the ability to listen to God even when it doesn’t fit with my preconceived notions about what the Bible means or about what common sense is. Here, the Bible does not always give us a straight line to the answers. Often the books of the Bible weren’t even asking the same questions to which we want answers. If the Holy Spirit does not zap us with a word, listening to the Bible often means that we are getting an indirect word, rather than a straightforward one.

Theology and Christian history are full of help, as Christians both smarter and more spiritual than me have already wrestled with similar problems to mine. When the questions are almost entirely new because of scientific developments–stem cell research, keeping alive individuals with a flat EEG, sex changes–we dare not simply ask these questions alone. The community of faith–the bigger the better–is the surest way to hear God in uncharted waters.

While the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does not come from Wesley, and while Wesley clearly gave Scripture the upper hand in all respects, God speaks to us through all of these avenues. Scripture is the starting point–how did God reveal himself to the people of God in its founding moments, especially through Christ, the pure Word of God, God become flesh? God has unfolded both the significance of Christ and the seminal revelations of the word throughout Christian history. We can learn much about how to apply Scripture through Christian tradition.

We all inevitably filter the Bible–and everything–through reason and experience. We have to think to interpret the Bible. We filter our reading through our experiences. We may as well own up to this fact. The experience that counts the most is the experience of the community of faith, experiences of the Holy Spirit. There are rules to reason, truths that God has implanted in the universe. The heavens declare the glory of God.

You don’t have to know how the car works to drive it. The rule of faith and the law of love give us stars to steer by. Is my choice loving? A pastor should be the local expert on how the car runs, but the Spirit is a good driver whether we have it all right or not. Most of all, we don’t want to be a back seat driver when the Spirit is doing just fine.

How to Improve Your Welcome (Charles Arn)

Some time ago my family and I moved to a new house and neighborhood, and in the process visited a number of churches in search of a new place to worship. The experience reminded me of how other newcomers must feel in visiting a church for the first time. New faces…new places …new spaces. The truth is, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience!

Here are a few simple ways you can increase the warmth of your church’s welcome; and, as a result, increase the number of first-time visitors who return…and stay.

For Starters…

  • Don’t call them “visitors.” According to Webster, a visitor is “…a person who resides temporarily; one who goes or comes to inspect; one who makes a short stay at a place for a particular purpose.” May I suggest you instead use the word guest, defined as: “a person welcomed into one’s house; a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.”
  • Stop using the word “greeter” defined as “one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting.”  Start using the word host—“one who receives or entertains socially; one who opens his or her home for a special event; one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” And discuss with your “hosts” the new implications of their new title.

First Impressions…

  • Parking Lot Hosts. Deploy a team of your members to greet and welcome folks the moment they step out of their cars. Or, if it’s raining, parking lot hosts should have umbrellas ready before guests step out of their cars! These hosts can greet everyone coming to church, but should pay particular attention to the guest parking area or to newcomers. A warm welcome should be extended and an inquiry made as to special needs or questions guests may have. Parking lot hosts may accompany guests into the building and introduce them to the host at the welcome center. (You do have a welcome center, don’t you?)
  • Celebration Balloons. It’s common to see strings of helium-filled balloons attracting your attention to RV sales and used car lots around town. Does your church have something to celebrate? Why not get folks into the mood with columns of colorful balloons reaching heavenward? How about a great arch of balloons leading into the building? “…it is appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” (Lk 15:32) Sunday should be celebration time!
  • Piped-out Music. Install a number of strategically placed outdoor speakers welcoming people to God’s house with the music of heaven. If you have a recording of your own worship band or musical group, use it. Otherwise, there’s lots of great Christian music available.

Second Impressions…

  • Direction signs. You can’t have too many signs on the church property. If your campus has more than one building, the name of each should be clearly visible. Direction signs should be at every major “intersection,” in and outside the church. Identification signs should be on every inside door (including closets and storage). Children’s classrooms should be marked with age/grade level. Adult classrooms should note the topic, age group, and time of meeting. (BTW, class names exclude, class topics include.) Restrooms, nursery, chapel, fellowship hall, library, and worship center should all be identified with conforming and attractive signs.
  • Welcome Center Support Hosts. Many churches have a person or two working inside a welcome center kiosk or at a welcome table. That’s good. But move from a good welcome to a great welcome by also stationing hosts in front of the kiosk/table where guests will be standing. Those hosts answering questions at the Welcome Center may call on support hosts to escort guests to a particular location in the church (i.e. nursery, classroom, sanctuary, etc.), or simply make a “social hand off” of the newcomer for a more casual conversation with a church member. Such hosts engage the guests in friendly conversation and may introduce them to others in the fellowship area.
  • Guest Information Packet. Every church should have an attractive packet prepared specifically for newcomers. The basic questions your guests are asking should be answered in this kit. They are: “What kind of things are going on in this church?” [The more the better.] “Is there a place for my kids?” [If not, nothing else matters.] “How can I learn more about this church?” [See “Church Tour” below.] One of the best ways to answer all these questions is with a video brochure. This is a well-produced 8-10 minute introduction to the church with words from the pastor, staff, and some new members. Put the video on a DVD in the packet, and include it on your website.  A gift for guests is also a nice touch. I’ve seen coffee mugs, fresh baked bread, complimentary Bibles and CDs, donuts and cappuccino at the snack bar, even free $30 polo shirts with a Christian symbol on the front. All are nice touches.
  • Class Hosts. Every adult, youth, and children’s class should have at least one host. Their task is to look for newcomers, welcome them, introduce them to others, sit with them, and generally be sensitive to their comfort and needs. Hosts may be the same throughout the year or vary from week to week.

In the Service…

  • Worship Center Hosts. Don’t stop being a good host at the Welcome Center. If your sanctuary/worship center is a bustle of activity before the service begins, why not ask some of your members to host a pre-determined area of seats? When newcomers sit in their area, a good worship center host will go over and welcome them to the church, and engage them in conversation. If there will be any special activities in the service which might need explanation, it’s a good chance to give a “heads up.”  Hosts should introduce the guests to the person(s) next to them. Perhaps even sit with them.
  • Pastor’s Welcome. During the service I like to hear someone from the platform tell me they’re glad I’m here. Not personally, of course. No newcomer likes to be singled out in public. But when the pastor spends valuable time in the service telling me that I’m valued by the church, it makes a big difference. And it’s more than just, “If you’re visiting today, welcome.” It means explaining a little about the church, what a wonderful place it is, how great the people are, and why the benefit of getting involved is worth the price of my anticipated anxiety.
  • A Time of Greeting. Many churches include a moment during the service to shake hands and greet those around them. This is either a good idea or a bad idea…and it depends on what happens after the service. It’s good if folks continue their initial conversation with the guest. It’s bad if they pretend nothing ever happened a half-hour earlier and beat a hasty path to the exit. If your people are naturally congenial with newcomers, then a greeting time in the service is great. If not, try the following idea…

After the Service…

  • After-service Hosts. Our research reveals three insights about church visitors:
  1. “Friendliness of the people” is the most important thing newcomers are looking for in their visit.
  2. “Friendliness” is assessed on the simple basis of how many people talk to them.
  3. The most important time for such “friendly talk” is immediately following the service.

After-service hosts are responsible for making a beeline to newcomers after the service to welcome them, walk with them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back. A variation of this strategy, in one church we visited, was when the pastor reminded the congregation of their “three minute rule”—no one could talk to anyone they knew during the first three minutes following the service! It worked for us. We met a wonderful woman named “Rose” who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes! As you might guess, we looked for Rose the following Sunday when we returned.

  • Church Tour. Newcomers are hesitant to wander around a new church uninvited, even though they’d like to. So, why not offer a short tour of the facilities after each service? Such a tour is a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event for anyone interested in learning more about your church. The tour leader guides the guests through various halls and rooms, explaining what activities take place there. It’s natural for guests to ask questions about various ministries or upcoming events. And it’s a much easier “next step” for newcomers who are interested in learning more, but not ready to sign up for a membership class.
  • Follow-up Contact. It’s standard procedure for pastors to send a “Thank you for visiting” letter. We received nice ones from every church we visited. But following our second visit to several of those churches …nothing. In the typical (non-growing) church, 9% of all first time visitors join the following year. But among second-time visitors (those who visit twice within a six-week period), 17% join. And third-time guests unite at a rate of 36% in the ensuing year. In growing churches, the pattern is similar: 21% of first-timers stay…38% of second-timers …57% of third-timers join the church they visited. Whether your church is growing or not, the insight is clear: the more often people visit, the more likely they will stay. Have a unique follow-up strategy for second time guests and another for third-timers.

Conclusion…

Your church probably can’t implement all of these ideas. Nor should you try. But circulate this list among your leaders and see if they resonate to any of them. Get a group together and brainstorm how some of the ideas might work in your church. Set a target date to have the plan in place. Then begin.

After you’ve successfully implemented one idea, find another and consider how it might work. While more than just an outside music speaker or an inside classroom host is needed to see newcomers become active members, such new ideas will raise the awareness level of your members to the importance of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable in your church home. The newcomers who enter your front doors are the ones Christ wants you to welcome in the same way He would do so, Himself. After all, we are the caretakers of His house…at least until that day when He invites us to His eternal home.  And then we’ll find out what a good first-time welcome is really like!   :)