A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

Jerry(We had a beautiful and moving Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of Jerry Handspicker this afternoon at the Second Congregational Church, UCC, of Bennington, Vermont. The Pastor, the Reverend Mary H. Lee-Clark, presided and delivered a fine homily. Jerry was Professor of Practical Theology at Andover Newton Theological School for 36 years, my former teacher, colleague and a family friend. I was asked to give one of the remembrances. Here are my remarks:)

I’m Rick Floyd. Jerry was my teacher, my colleague and my friend. I knew Jerry for 45 years through many ups and downs and changing experiences of life.

I met him when I arrived at Andover Newton in 1971. That very first week I applied for a field education position, running a coffee house (that dates me!), at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church. There were two token youths on the search committee, Amy Handspicker and her best-friend Martha Talis. By Amy’s telling they judged I was hip enough for the job, and convinced the skeptical grown-ups that I was their man.

Thus began a long association with that congregation, where Jerry was the associate pastor, and with the Handspicker family. Jerry and Dee embodied what today we would call “radical hospitality,” and I had many a dinner with them and Amy, Jed and Nathan. I once briefly lived in their attic! (And I wasn’t the only one.) Continue reading

I was ordained forty years ago today

I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament forty years ago today. Over the years I have ruminated on this blog about my ordination. Here are bits of two of my favorites. This first one is from 2009, but I’ve changed the dates as needed:

Martha and meI was ordained to the Christian ministry on this day in 1975 at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church (UCC) in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ. Dudne Breeze, the pastor, preached the sermon, and a good one it was. Jerry Handspicker, my teacher at Andover Newton Theological School and the associate pastor, offered the ordaining prayer, which asked God to endow me with all manner of things for my ministry, and he seemed in deadly earnest. After forty years I now understand why. Jerry, ironically, also presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry when I retired 10 years ago, so he book-ended my three decades of active ministry.

At the ordination we sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” My then girlfriend, now wife, Martha, made me a handsome set of liturgical stoles. Good food was served. There were probably grape leaves.

There were no tongues of fire or other obvious signs and wonders, although the whole event was wondrous to me, and when the clergy laid their hands on me I felt an enormous weight, a feeling about ordination that has never entirely left me.

I got to my first parish in rural Maine and realized soon enough that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that feeling has never entirely left me either. My first congregations (I had two) taught me how to be a minister every bit as much as seminary, and I will always be grateful to them. God blessed me throughout my ministry with wonderful saints of the church who encouraged and sustained me, and put up with me even when I was acting like a damn fool.

Early in my ministry I refused all honoraria, and thereby offended nearly everyone that offered me one. I was shopping for clothes the week before my wedding, and the good Roman Catholic salesman at the haberdashery rang me up with a ten percent clergy discount. I tried to explain all the high-minded reasons I couldn’t accept it and watched his face fall. I called my mentor Fred Robie, the sage of Sanford, who simply said, “My Daddy taught me that when someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’” Lesson learned. Would that everything I needed to learn was that simple.

What else did I learn?  Continue reading

“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon

On the other hand

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.

But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of  “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”

Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.

As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.

From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a  map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.

I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.

The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.

So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.

Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.

And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.

And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.

This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.

The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.

This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.

So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?

The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.

And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.

So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.

Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.

Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.

Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.

I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!

So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.

Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.

Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.

We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.

The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.

I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.

I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.

The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.

Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.

Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.

The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.

Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”

And that is what the Word of God sounds like.

And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?

When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:

“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

Laying on of hands

The Secret Sauce of Ministry
A Recipe in Two Parts

Hebrews 12:1-2
Philippians 2:1-11

As some of you know I like to cook. This time of year, when the weather gets fine, I fire up my grill and do some grilling and barbecuing. And I love to sit on my back porch near the grill with a cold beverage and read cookbooks, of which I have many, or as Martha would say, “too many.”

Many of these grilling and barbecuing books contain recipes for a “secret sauce.” I have been noticing lately that the term “secret sauce” has migrated from its culinary context and is now being employed as a metaphor for that special something that makes things work properly.

For example, I recently heard a journalist talking about “the secret sauce” that would create “a grand bargain” to overcome the Congressional budget impasse. Good luck with that.

So I started to wonder, “ What’s the secret sauce of ministry?”  If I had to come up with a simple recipe for what makes ministry faithful and effective what would it be?

So here’s my recipe, which comes in two parts, which I hope you will take away with you today for your own ministry, whether lay or ordained.

1. The first part of the secret sauce is this: You can’t do it alone. Rebecca couldn’t have come to this day alone, and she can’t do her ministry alone. No one does it alone.

How does one come to know God? And to love God? And to want to serve God?

When I look out at this congregation I see so many here today who have helped to shape and influence Rebecca. I am reminded of the scripture from Hebrews we just heard that says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The image is from the ancient stadium where the races were held, and the cloud of witnesses are the spectators who cheer the racers on.

This great crowd includes both the living and the dead, “the church militant” and “the church triumphant.”

So among the crowd present in the congregation today are many members of Rebecca’s family, let’s call them “the crowd of the proud.”

In addition to Martha and myself, are Rebecca’s brother Andrew and his wife, Jessica. Rebecca’s maternal grandparents, Art and Marianne Talis, are here. As are several assorted aunties, an uncle, and a cousin.

These family members represent a great line going back through generations of Talises and Beers, Floyds and Laffoons, and, let me tell you, there is a lot of church in these families.

We represent a great ecumenical melting pot, from the Greek Orthodox faith of Rebecca’s grandfather’s forbears, to the German Protestantism of her grandmother.

My mother’s father, Bill Laffoon, a descendant of French Huguenots, was a deacon at his Congregational Church in Wichita, Kansas. His schooling ended with the 6th grade, but saw to it that his two daughters went to college during the height of the Depression.

Granddaddy read his Bible every day, and his speech was sprinkled with scripture verses.

So when I was growing up my mother also had a scripture for every occasion, I thought she was so wise, she’d say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” When I went to seminary I discovered that they weren’t original with my mother, but came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Years later, Rebecca had the same experience at Yale when she learned where all my wise sayings came from.

On the other side of the family, I think today also of Martha’s grandmother, Marta Beer, which in our family is a family name and not a beverage. My Martha is named after her. She raised three daughters by herself in wartime Germany, and was another great churchwoman.  How proud she would be.

This rich ecclesiastical family DNA has helped to shape and form Rebecca into a minister. They are all part of this congregation today, a part of the cloud of witnesses.

But there’s more. For as grand as Rebecca’s family legacy of ministry is, and as important as family support and nurture is, family alone cannot make a minister.

And so I look around this room and I see many people from Rebecca’s past, a number of the good people of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, where Rebecca was baptized and confirmed. I see some of her Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, mentors and supporters, who have made the trip down here today from the Berkshires.

And when I look around today I also see many other friends, Pittsfield neighbors, UCC and ecumenical colleagues, and folks from the Berkshire Association, who have been part of Rebecca’s life.

I see some of her Wellesley College roommates up in the balcony. I see Yale classmates and New Haven friends, and, of course, all of you from Green’s Farms Church, members and staff, who have so warmly embraced Rebecca in your community, and are now such an important part of this most recent chapter in her life.

There are others, too, I must mention, who are neither related to Rebecca nor have ever met her, who she knows from the books she loves and the scriptures she studies. Those many other witness, men and women of the church:  prophets, apostles, martyrs, evangelists, theologians, reformers, writers and thinkers down through the ages. They are part of this great crowd, too. They were all witnesses to God, and to God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

So all of you here, and all the unseen but present, make up the great cloud of witnesses, who cheer us all on as we go about our several ministries, and especially cheer Rebecca on today. I thank God, for you and for them.

So to take nothing away from Rebecca, who as you know, is a remarkable young woman and certainly gets much of the credit for us being here today, she hasn’t done it alone. Because this ministry business is a team sport, and I have just described to you just how really big the team is.

Nobody gets to ministry alone, and nobody does ministry alone, because you can’t do it alone.

So that’s the first part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry.

2. The second part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry is this: It’s not about you. To do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ you have to get out of your own way.

What does this mean? Recall how Jesus was always confusing the disciples by saying things like “the one who would gain his life must lose it.” And “The one who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.”

And the disciples never quite understood what he was trying to teach them until after Easter. Their hopes had been dashed on Good Friday as they fled from him and his cross. But after Easter all those things he said made sense. He was showing them a way, a way of selflessness, of servant-hood, a way to be a person for others.

And recall also how our brother Paul kept writing to churches that were fighting, and saying in one form or another, “It’s not about you!”

To the Corinthians he wrote, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4,5). And a couple of lines later in that same letter he wrote them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).

What was he trying to tell them about ministry? That “it’s not about you.” To be a minister you have to get out of your own way. And the reason that you have to get out of your own way is first to make space for God to work in and through you. And you have to get out of your own way, secondly, to make space for the other, the ones you minister to.

I was with Mary Luti at a meeting the week before last and I told her how excited I was that she would be laying holy hands on Rebecca and doing the prayer of ordination today. I said to Mary, “It is so fitting because it was under your ministry that Rebecca started discerning her call.”

And Mary demurred and said, “I really didn’t do that much.” And I thought she was just being humble. But as I started pondering the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry, I realized she was quite right.

And you know why she was right? Because it wasn’t Mary who called Rebecca into the ministry. Mary was just doing her job, which is how ministry works. Rebecca was a questioning young woman in a pew in Cambridge, and Mary was doing her job, which was to share the God she knows and loves. And Rebecca was in the right time and the right place with the right person, and God’s Holy Spirit works like that, in what seems mundane, but can at the same time be quite marvelous.

Our society cultivates a cult of personality, a cult of celebrity, but ministry is not about that. There are celebrity ministers, but the good ones, the faithful ones, know it is not about them.

The word minister actually means one who represents another. The Europeans use it this way in describing their government officials: the minister for finance, or the foreign minister. These are the ones who represent the government in their particular area of expertise

Likewise, a Christian minister is one who represents Jesus Christ. And representing Jesus Christ means taking the form of a servant. Jesus once told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28.)

Not to be ministered to, but to minister. Not to be served but to serve.

This is counter-cultural in our self-obsessed society. To tell people to get out of their own way for God and for others is not a particularly popular philosophy today. When I peruse the magazines at the super-market checkout there are titles such as Self, Us, People (meaning famous self-absorbed people) but I don’t see Servant or Ministry magazine.

There was a fascinating interview with director Sofia Coppola in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new movie, The Bling Ring. The movie is based on a true story about five teenagers from the San Fernando Valley in California, who were so obsessed with the culture of personality and the trappings of celebrity that they started breaking into celebrity’s homes and stealing stuff.

They would often just walk in through an unlocked front door, or climb in an open window. They robbed people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

In the course of a nine-month spree they looted more than 3 million dollars worth of jewelry and designer clothes. I found the story shocking, but part of it got me chuckling to myself. Apparently they broke into Paris Hilton’s home six times before she even noticed. “She had so much stuff that it took awhile for her to realize someone had broken in.”

Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “The one who dies with the most stuff wins?” A better, truer one would say, “The one who dies with the most stuff dies.”

Sofia Coppola said she chose this subject for her movie because she has two small daughters, and she fears for them growing up in this glittery world of celebrity culture, a culture that sends the message that it really is all about you and your stuff. She describes hearing some of her daughter’s 6 year-old friends talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and a couple of them said, “I want to be famous.” She asks, “Where does that come from?” I don’t think we knew about that when we were six years old.”

And that is a challenge for ministry these days. I am particularly thinking of parents and youth ministers. How do we raise our children in a society that tells them it really is all about us?

When we were driving through the countryside in France we would sometimes see vast fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The sunflowers would be facing East toward the rising sun in the morning, and as the sun moved through the sky the sunflowers would turn toward it, so that at dusk they would have turned completely toward the West. In fact the French world for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means “turn to the sun.”

Sunflowers do this because they are heliotropic; they need the sun to live. By analogy, we are theotropic, we need God to live, and we are made to bend our love toward God and others. But we too often bend our love toward ourselves, and that is where we get in trouble, for instead of living for God and others we try to love ourselves and control things as if we were God.

And that is what is so beautiful about our second reading today from Philippians; it turns the equation entirely upside down. God in Christ bends toward us, and shows us what love looks like.

The late British theologian Colin Gunton said,

 Sin is for the creature to think and act as if it were the creator. But here in Philippians 2 Jesus is godlike precisely in going the other way.

Here Jesus empties himself even of his divinity to become a servant, “a man for others” as Dietrich Bonheoffer described him.

And it is this humility, this self-emptying, this relinquishing of privilege, that Paul wants the church in Philippi to emulate. He writes them to “let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The church in Philippi was having one of those squabbles that have been known to happen in congregations, even in our own time. Paul admonishes them to get out of their own way, and have the very same mindset as Jesus, the mindset that led him to empty himself, and in humility take the form of a servant, the mindset that ultimately led to his death on the cross.

But it’s not so easy to have the same mindset as Jesus. Remember those WWJD bracelets, that stood for “what would Jesus do?” Some people criticized those WWJD bracelets for being overly simplistic. Because asking, “What would Jesus do? doesn’t really solve the problem. It usually isn’t that hard to know what Jesus would do. People talk about the hard passages in the Bible, and there are some, but the parts that really challenge and convict me aren’t the parts I don’t understand, but the parts I do. “Love your enemies.” “Feed the hungry.” “Welcome the stranger.”  “Share your possessions.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Just to name a few.

So the hard part, after you figure out what Jesus would do, is doing it.

To “practice what we preach,” to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk” is where we pretty consistently fail, and why we need grace and forgiveness to keep trying. And the good news is that is exactly what we get from our God, grace and forgiveness.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and saves us from ourselves, among other things, such as sin and death.

All ministers, you and me, lay or ordained, even Rebecca, fail at being consistently Christ-like. But the wisest ministers know that our ministry is at its most faithful when we realize that it is not about us, when we get out of our own way, as Jesus did, to be a servant, as he was a servant, to serve as he served, to love as he loved, and to be a person for others.

And here’s the beautiful thing: if you follow this recipe you don’t really lose yourself at all, you will actually find yourself. Only the empty can be filled with the new life God wants for us. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)

Because this self- emptying doesn’t mean we lose our personalities or our personal identities. On the contrary, when our love bends toward God and others, as those sunflowers bend toward the sun, when we lose ourselves in service, when we live for others, we are most ourselves, our own true best selves as God intended us to be.

Just as Jesus’ exalted lordship is ultimately revealed in his humble servant-hood.

Let us listen to it again:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a servant

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the Ordination of my daughter, Rebecca Megan Floyd, on June 9, 2013, at the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, Connecticut.

Clergy evaluation committees and why they are a bad idea

multiple fingers pointing blame at man

Every relationship needs thoughtful reflection and mutual careful feedback, and the relationship between a clergy person and a congregation is no different from any other in this respect. But stand-alone committees formed only for the purpose of evaluating clergy are a bad idea. I call such a committee a posse, by analogy with those hastily gathered bands of citizens that helped the sheriff look for the fleeing miscreants in old Westerns.

Most clergy have existing structures within which mutual conversation and evaluation can take place. They may be parish councils, diaconates, elders, vestries, consistories, or whatever depending on one’s denomination and its polity. The one thing that separates these from the clergy evaluation committee is that they have other work they do, and collaborate with the clergy person in doing it. Around that work mutual trust is formed, and so the evaluative function is just one of many and not the sole focus of the committee.

I have written elsewhere about the commodification of ministry, and the poor models for ministry that come more and more out of the corporate world with little theological undergirding or even much thought.

It is true that the relationship between the ordained leader of a congregation and that congregation partakes of some of the same dynamics as a business relationship, accountability, transparency, trust, but at its best is more like a marriage than a job. As in a marriage there is an “us-ness” about the enterprise, the old word is covenant, and the relationship is characterized by mutuality, forgiveness, affection, and grace. You don’t work for each other but with each other.

So the clergy evaluation committee, the posse, invites trouble because it has no other function than to criticize the clergy person, and, as we all know, an “idle mind is the Devil’s playground.”

If there is nothing for them to do things will find them. In any congregation there are disgruntled people, and a constant stream of criticism is corrosive to clergy morale and not helpful in assessing what is really going on in the congregation. Thus begins what I call “death by a thousand cuts.” The posse is a bad model. It just is.

By way of illustration, try setting up an evaluation committee for your spouse and let me know how that works out for you.

A better model is to let the appropriate body, which shouldn’t be too big, have regular mutual conversations about what each party needs more or less of to make the congregation and its leader flourish. Then the focus is off real and imagined wrongs and shortcomings, and on the task of assessing the mission and ministry of the congregation.

The very worst model is when the posse gets formed to address “a crisis” with the clergy person. This is usually the beginning of the end of the relationship, and often signals that they want you gone, but are too ashamed of their part in the dysfunction to tell you the truth. The signs of this are demands for micro-bookkeeping, and regular “progress” reports. It is akin to getting to the marriage counselor so late that the only task left is amicable divorce.

If you see this beginning to happen to you, a new committee forming to “help” you, please protest right away and find a better model. Because (Floyd’s axiom): Once the posse gets formed, you will never outrun them.

Advice to Preachers: One Sermon at a Time Please!

pulpit

Has this ever happened to you when you are captive in a pew?

I was at a house of worship not long ago, where the preacher is a long-time friend of mine. I was looking forward to hearing him preach, and I when he started I was pleased with his voice and his manner. He said some wise things and I could feel that he was wrapping up, but then . . . he started on a new tack. He did this three times, and each time I thought he was done. It was a very long sermon; in fact it was three long sermons.

The next day I was at a seminar with a bunch of pastors and I mentioned  the experience to my friend Scott, who provided me with one of my favorite axioms: “If you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know when you have done it.”

Retired Clergy in the Pews

Retired clergyI was blessed during my several pastorates to have  a number of clergy sitting in the pews. Some were retired, some were pastoral counselors, and several were seminary professors from nearby schools. With very few exceptions these colleagues were always encouraging and supportive, and I valued their comments, conversation and friendship.

Now I am a pew sitter myself for the most part, except for the odd pulpit supply invitation. I enjoy hearing a good sermon and have been blessed to hear many in recent years.

But not everyone finds the presence of clergy in the pews a blessing (see cartoon above). I have active colleagues who tell me that some of their retired clergy colleagues can be a burden to them, that they know they will be critical of them and they make them nervous.

When this happens it is a failure of a basic kind of collegiality that should prevail among the ordained clergy, the ministry of encouragement. Our role as pew sitters is to support our pastors. We of all people know the nature of the job. And out of that knowledge should come from us a great measure of appreciation for all they have to do. We should be praying for them regularly. We were once where they are and were blessed with elder teachers, mentors, and friends.

I have learned these past few years that it is a difficult transition to go from being regularly in the pulpit for decades to finding oneself in the new role of congregant. It takes patience and humility.

But the thing we retired clergy have in common with the one who now leads our community in worship is worship itself, and the reality that pastor and people stand under the Word of God, and the grace and love that is proclaimed in it. And there is a blessing in being a worshipper without the responsibility of presiding, a chance to open oneself to God’s presence and power without having to wonder if the absent-minded reader will find the right lesson or whether the kids will be so sugared up that they will hijack your children’s message.

So sit back my friends and let the new kids on the block take their turn. As our brother Paul said to the church in Corinth, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.”

(I would give attribution to the cartoonist if I knew who they were. If you know let me know.)

(Update on the cartoon from Dave Macy:

“The cartoon appeared on a Church Pension Group (Episcopal Church) calendar. The cartoonist is The Rev. Jay Sidebotham. From this year’s calendar: “Fr. Sidebotham serves as rector of Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois. Before hearing a call to ordained ministry, he worked in New York in the fields of animation, illustration and advertising. (Some would say he is still working in advertising.) He is grateful not only for the opportunity that parish work affords to continue expressing himself through his drawing, but also for the abundant supply of cartoon material that emerges in parish life.””

Thanks, Dave.)

Grace among the bedpans

Pastors spend a lot of time in hospitals. There they meet their congregants in trying moments, ill or hurt, facing or recovering from procedures that frighten and confuse. The most formidable lay pope, the one who thwarted your every dream at the last trustee’s meeting, now looks diminished in a “johnny” gown. Even in the best of hospitals the smell of mortality is ambient.

Which is why hospitals are such fertile spaces for grace to make an appearance, and why ministers do well to be present there as often as they can. Most people get better and come back into the life and flow of the congregation, but they will not forget that in one of life’s delicate moments you were there, and through you, their congregation was there, and through you, by grace, God was there.

Once again my late friend Arnold Kenseth, a Congregational minister who died in 2003, captures the truth of this in another of his exquisite poems:

In the Hospitals

In the hospitals trussed up to blood;
Or heaving breath so that the pulse can count,
The heart re-beat; or leaving the damp food
Untouched; or stuffed into the oxygen tent:
The sick, sexless as death, are fondled by
Machines, are stroked, pummeled, impaled, and Oh!
Ecstasies in the valley of the shadow,
The morphine murmur under the lost sigh!

And I think how we may die down down down
In the needle haze, in the white mercy
Of nurses, after the seance of x-ray,
Our souls stringed, buttocked in the bleak nightgown;
How dignity, dreaming, passion, faith, all
Will need God to retrieve them as we fall.

Arnold Kenseth (Seasons and Sceneries, Windover Press, 2002)

Is clergy burnout a symptom of a crisis of identity and vocation?

One of the hottest topics in the church right now is clergy burnout. Everyone is in agreement that it is a problem, but when it comes to the solution, not so much. There are a lot of wise, commonsense admonishments about self-care and spiritual disciplines. They should be heeded, but they tend to address the symptoms without asking why burnout is so widespread. And I have yet to see much in the way of an insightful theological analysis.

While it is true that a person in any profession can experience burnout,  I am convinced that there are unique features to the current epidemic of clergy burnout.   And I have been ruminating lately whether clergy burnout is so widespread not merely because of the stresses and demands of the job, which have to some extent always accompanied ministerial vocations, but because of an identity crisis in the mainline church, and a vocational crisis among its ministers.

As I have written elsewhere, the evaluative criteria borrowed from the modern commercial sector, chiefly productivity and efficiency, are inadequate instruments for measuring the success of ministry. In the first place, they do their analysis without factoring in God. In this regard, as in so much of the modern church, they are functionally atheistic, no matter how much God-talk is sprinkled into the discourse. But ministry is largely about God, more precisely, how God uses frail and flawed humans as bearers of his Word.

To understand ministerial vocation this way requires a dialectical approach that sees at the same time the grandeur and misery of ministry, both the possibility and impossibility of the minister’s role and tasks.

I turn to Karl Barth for a model of how this might be done, for he does this with his assessment of religion. I recently reread sections of Barth’s Commentary on Romans, and I was struck (again) at how brilliant Barth’s take on religion is. To Barth, like Calvin before him, humans are great makers of idols, and one of our favorite idols to make is religion. All religion is to some extent idolatrous, the Christian religion not excepted, but for Barth, Christian religion, though idolatrous, is also where humanity hears about God, and so is indispensable in the divine economy. God uses what is foolish to shame the wise. He calls it the impossible possibility.

It seems to me, and I speak from 30 plus years in the pastoral ministry, that ministry is best understood employing a similar kind of dialectic. The minister, no matter how talented, is a flawed human being, but God can use him or her to accomplish marvelous things, not least of which is as a bearer of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Here is another “impossible possibility.”

But sadly, that understanding, and the honesty and humility it requires, finds little purchase in today’s church. For example, I have always been struck by how brazenly worldly our “search and call process” is, and how it so undermines our best theology about the church and its ministry.

To begin with, we have this instrument (now available on-line) called “the Minister’s Professional Profile.” This literary genre (a rare combination of fact and fiction) is used to display a breathtaking panorama of gifts and graces on the part of the minister. One is driven nearly to the point of prevarication in displaying one’s wares to a prospective “employer.” “Who is this grand creature?” one is tempted to ask upon reading the completed product.

Although nothing on the profile is untrue, it is not the whole truth. What is missing is an accurate assessment of one’s feet of clay, and thereby a betrayal of the biblical axiom that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7)

It is hard, of course, to imagine a process that could accurately do this, and God uses the present flawed one to match up foolish and broken ministers with foolish and broken congregations (they don’t tell the whole truth either), where graceful and gracious happenings can and do occur. That is the point. If this grand creature, the minister, could make them happen, they wouldn’t be grace, but expected, even promised.

And I think one of the outcomes of the kind of mutual deception (and self-deception) that is happening between ministers and congregations is genuine disappointment when the claims and promises explicit or implicit in this circle of self-promotion turn out not to be quite true. The result is often graceless mutual recriminations. Sometimes one is fired, or, more often, demoralized into moving on. It is epidemic, and it is not good for the church or its ministers.

So I am convinced that much of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement.  Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless.

The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center.  It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into.

The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms.

And how do they address the symptoms? In reading the literature about clergy burnout I am struck that the prevailing prescriptive model is “wellness,” a useful term borrowed from the health field. Now I am married to a public health nurse and have a great respect for the wisdom and applicability of the idea of wellness. I’m all for wellness.

And I think the argument is sound that seeking wellness, physically and mentally, is good Christian stewardship.

BUT, wellness isn’t a category that can carry all the Christian freight. If wellness is the new secularized salvation, it suffers from its inability to address fundamental human predicaments such as sin, death and the persistence of evil. A century ago P. T. Forsyth criticized the church of his day for having a religion of amelioration, and it seems to me that wellness is the personalized version of that. Our mainline churches continue in a religion of amelioration, they want to make things better (more peaceful and just and green), and I am all for that, too. But both social amelioration and personal wellness are implicates of the Gospel, and not foundations. That is, they are fruits and not roots.

The real root is God’s love for us and for all creation, acted out in the grand Christian narrative from garden to New Jerusalem, with its very center and core in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ “for us and for all men.” Where that is not preached and heard the fruits will be sparse.

So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about.

But those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead wait eagerly for new possibilities yet unimagined.

For more of my ruminations on the stresses of pastoral ministry see these posts:

The Ministry and its Discontents: Pastors in Peril

I know a lot of ministers.   That might seem like a statement of the obvious coming from one who has been a minister for over thirty years, but I know even more ministers than you might think. For one thing, I was a seminary chaplain for several years and all my former students are ministers.  And I had three sabbaticals in British universities where ministers were being trained.  And I was in a D.Min. degree program where all my classmates were ministers.  Add it up and it is a lot of ministers!

And since early in my ministry I have been asking them to put me on their church newsletter mailing list, and a number of them have.  Many of those have converted to e-letters lately, but still, I get a pretty steady stream of newsletters from congregations, and it is fun to see what my ministerial friends are up to.

Except when it isn’t fun, and that seems to be happening more and more lately.  I will grab and read a newsletter and immediately start noticing little hints of trouble.  I then typically say to my wife, “Uh oh.  So and so is having a disturbance in the Force in his or her congregation!”

Now I recognize that the ministry has always been a perilous profession.  I recently read George Marsden’s fine biography of Jonathan Edwards, and was reminded that Edwards was handed his walking papers in Northampton before he came over here to the Berkshires.  This is the same Edwards that not too many years before had been the toast of the Reformed world for his participation in and reporting of the awakenings in New England.  So it can happen to even the best and the brightest (and as in Edwards case, the wounds are often at least partly self-inflicted.)

So pastors in peril are nothing new, but I have been noticing a discouraging pattern in my newsletter reading lately.  And I must interject here that I have known lazy and incompetent ministers, and others who were just in over their heads, but that is not what I am talking about here.  Several of my friends who are smart, wise, bright, hard-working and faithful have suddenly found themselves in peril.

Typically it starts with some sort of a parish self-study or pastoral assessment.  That should be harmless enough, right?  Who can be against transparency and accountability?  But my heart sinks when I read in the newsletter about the formation of such a group, because sure enough, when the results come in there are “concerns” about the pastor, and a special committee is created to “address the concerns.”  The newsletters typically report such grave findings in a kind of code, but you don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines

So “steps are put in place” to address the concerns.  The committee may or may not be led by a sympathetic leader but it doesn’t really matter that much because the process itself has a certain trajectory.   If there is a lay “antagonist” in the congregation he or she (or they) will certainly find a way to get involved.

There soon follows what I call “leadership death by a thousand cuts.” The ministry is quantified by every measure, by hours spent, by visits made, by hours in the office.  Careful time logs are kept.  Business expenses are microscopically scrutinized.

At this point the healthy trusting covenantal relationship between pastor and people has been replaced by a suspicious contractual arrangement that will almost inevitably end in mutual blame and bitterness.  Some pastors will buckle under and keep their “job,” others will devise an exit strategy; one of my good friends just left the ministry, to the church’s loss.

Here are some observations and thoughts from my ruminations on this trend.

1. The roles and assumptions behind this scenario betray a flawed understanding of the church and its ministry. First of all, an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is not an employee of the church.  Ministers work in the church and with the church but not for the church.  Ministers are not hired, they are called, and nothing betrays the flawed ecclesiology behind pastors in peril as much as the contractual language of  the modern corporation that is frequently employed.  “We pay your salary, you work for us.”  And behind that view is the idea that the minister’s “job” is to do the work of the congregation, and the laity’s “job” is to oversee that work, which is quite the reverse of the minister providing leadership to the laity to let them be the church of Christ in their community.

2. When the congregation understands its mission as the maintenance of its own institutional life, the pastor’s role is to be the general factotum who facilitates that life.  The flawed model here is that the church is to be a chapel to the culture, which is a Constantinian model left over from a Christian society.  This is why the place where pastors are most in peril is in “tall steeple” churches that by virtue of their social and economic location have been able to pretend that the Constantinian church is still alive and well.

3. But the truth is that that model of church is not alive and well, and the current recession has hit even prosperous congregations hard enough to expose the institutional weakness of a church that needs big infusions of cash to maintain its place as the chapel to culture.  When the numbers (members and money) slump, than the lay leadership turns to corporate models to remedy decline, ie. change the CEO.  Or at least demand better numbers (“metrics”) soon if the relationship is to continue.

4. To meet the new expectation of better numbers the imperiled pastor must show vigorous signs of improvement that are quantifiable.  More visibilty in the community, more calls and visits, recruitment (not evangelism) to get more members to come and help prop up the sagging finances.  But “what profiteth a man if he gains the numbers and loses his soul?”  By ramping up an already frenetic pace to show results the pastor is depriving himself or herself of what is really needed in the situation, which is holy imagination.  I would argue that more time in the study and at prayer would be better use of the pastor’s time than more energetic involvement in what P.T. Forsyth once called “the sin of bustle.”

5. An ill-conceived pastoral evaluation will almost certainly bring out some discontents among the congregation.  These discontents may be based on the minister’s real or imagined failings or they may result from a variety of mutually exclusive understandings of the pastor’s role.  Clarity about that role, and about  the congregation’s mission, will help avoid such situations.  I once heard Roy Owald of the Alban Institute say a pastor should never be evaluated apart from an evaluation of the congregation.  That sounds wise to me.  And the dreaded congregatonal questionnaire evaluation should be avoided at all costs.  Oswald suggests that both pastor and congregation ask each other, “What do you need more of from me, and what do you need less of?”  This mitigates the adversarial tone of the evaluation processes.

6. The rigors of pastoral evaluations are the final proof that even though pastors may preach salvation by faith they are often held to a standard of salvation by works.  This is yet another triumph of law over Gospel.

7. Finally, the church of Jesus Christ is not a religious club.  Its mission and ministry is Christ’s own, which is the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another.  Christ has already accomplished that work of holy love in his atoning cross, and so, to quote Forsyth again, it doesn’t have to be “produced so much as introduced.”

Like Christ, his church does not live for itself.  A congregation that understands that will no longer focus on its own institutional life, but reach out of its walls to embody Christ in its community and the world.  The pastor’s role is to help them do that through Word and sacrament and visionary leadership.  The good pastor sows and waters, feeds and encourages.  If the congregation demands that he or she just run errands for them they will dampen the pastor’s morale and distract both the pastor and themselves from their true and glorious vocation to be the church.  And whenever that happens it is a shame, and will please no one but the devil.