The value of boundaries

[Note: this post originally appeared on Searching for the Called.]

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and their fellow humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

May we thus be aware of boundaries, sometimes using and other times obliterating them to promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.

Effective preachers

Recently Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University published its list of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. This roster was compiled from a national survey that garnered 179 respondents and based on criteria suggested by homiletics professors.

There are a number of issues with the list, as perceptive people in my social media feeds have pointed out. Some of the preachers do not serve a local church. (Powerful preaching – as judged by the criteria for this list – is easier when study and writing don’t have to be worked around the demands of full-time congregational ministry and the need for a fresh sermon every week.) Diversity in every measure is severely lacking. One guy on the list has been dead for nine months. And that’s just for starters.

I’ve seen some conversations about coming up with alternative criteria for making a list that more fully plumbs the depth and breadth of sermonizing. I really like this open-ended list I like from Nevertheless, She Preached, which recognizes that competitive preaching is not a sport that aligns with the gospel. I’d also like to tell you whom I think is an effective preacher:

You.

Why?

Because I know you work hard on your preaching craft, studying scripture and honing your delivery.

Because I know you minister faithfully to and alongside the people in your care, allowing their questions and concerns to provide the scaffolding for your sermons.

Because I know you make yourself vulnerable through your proclamation while taking care not to bleed all over the chancel.

Because I know you love your church enough to comfort and gently challenge from the pulpit.

Because I know you pray for the Spirit to work through your presence and your words, bridging the distance between what you have prepared and what each hearer needs to grow in faith.

Because I know you take to heart every word of feedback about your sermons – maybe too much so – earnestly wanting to improve as a homiletician.

Because I know that God is using you to bring the reign of God ever closer.

I don’t need a list to know all these things. In fact, I don’t believe the most effective preachers will show up on any wide-swath list. They are too busy doing the work of ministry in their own contexts. They don’t have time or use for being celebrities whose names will be well-known enough to be included on a nationwide survey.

I see you, your efforts, and their fruits. More importantly, your congregation and community see you. Carry on, effective preacher.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Being church to abuse survivors

With #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and the Alabama special election taking up much of my newsfeed lately, the abuse prevention programs I once presented in schools and the work I did on several safe church policies have been at the front of my brain. Here is a post I wrote for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Patheos blog about ways the church can prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors of all ages. One commenter rightly notes that these are measures that help those who still attend church, and we have a responsibility to care for survivors both in the church and beyond. This post might be better titled, then, “Preaching abuse prevention and caring for parishioners affected by abuse.”

 

Advent arcs

The special season of waiting for the birth of the Christ child has come around again, bringing a new liturgical year with it. I don’t know about you, but for me the undercurrent of danger in the Advent scriptures is more relatable than ever before, and I need to hold on more tightly to the peace, connection, and equality that Christ’s incarnation portends. If you’re feeling the same, here are some possible themes to explore in preaching, teaching, and writing this month:

Listening to women’s voices. The lectionary gives us the Magnificat (with an option to use it on Advent 3 or 4) and Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel. Mary is not a wilting flower in either passage. What do these interactions tell us about how God sees women? How do we better attune ourselves to and/or amplify the voices of women?

Naming the ills of the world. In addition to the Magnificat, the texts from Isaiah and Mark invite us to pinpoint the injustices we see around us and to repent for our roles in them. How – specifically – have we fallen short in loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to what changes do we commit? Who else do we need to call to repentance, and for what?

Claiming our role in the redemption of the world. God uses mere mortals to bring about God’s purposes: Mary and Joseph; Elizabeth, Zechariah (thought merely mentioned in this year’s texts), and John; shepherds; even – dare I say – the emperor whose decree forced a very pregnant woman to make a hard journey and give birth in a barn. What is our part in ushering in God’s reign?

Staying vigilant. “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) As our political scene, cultural dynamics, and military engagement status quickly evolve, we are living in times that call for wakefulness. How will you stay alert?

Preferring the outcast. Mary’s Magnificat makes no bones about it. God favors those who show awe and fells the proud. He fills the hungry and gives nothing to the powerful, for they have already grabbed more than their fair share. God has done these things, and there is no reason to believe that God will do otherwise in the future. Who are the “lowly” to whom we should be paying heed?

Embracing hope and joy in the midst of uncertainty. Gabriel’s visit blew to bits Mary’s (and Joseph’s) expectations of the future. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit put her in dire straits. And yet, scripture points us to the long arc of God’s work in the world. How will we open our hearts, minds, and spirits to the work of God so that we might choose joy over fear?

Renewing the promises. We are starting the church year over and journeying again to Bethlehem. In doing so, we note the reliability of God’s promises and presence, still firm even as circumstances around us change. How does this trustworthiness encourage us to live? What in our lives needs renewal or redemption with the turning of the liturgical calendar?

 

A celebration of my preaching box upon its retirement

I have yet to find a pulpit or lectern designed for someone who is 4’10.”

This wasn’t really an issue until my senior year of high school. As a condition of graduation, all seniors had to give a talk to the entire student body. It was likely that my audience would only be able to see my teased hair over the big wooden podium. I thought, Hey, now I won’t have to see any bored or disgruntled faces!  On the other hand, I’d be putting in a whole lot of work for nothing. No one’s gonna listen to a floating coiffure.

My dad came up with a solution. He asked someone at the family business to build a box for me. This person found some wood scraps and carpet leftovers and whipped them up into a platform.

 

I used the box for my senior talk, then put it in storage for a long time. When I received my first call to a church, though, I dusted it off and carted it to Winston-Salem. It has traveled with me ever since. I often leave the box in the car when I supply preach for the first time at a church, until I see if I need it. (I can dream, right?) My host usually greets me, sizes me up, and says, “We have a platform we can get from the choir room…” I listen politely and then inform my host that I have my own box, a faithful companion for lo, these 23 years.

The box is not much to look at. The carpet is that industrial kind you find in offices. It’s been fraying at the edges for a while. It kinda stinks after having my feet on it so often.

But.

The box is practically indestructible. I have never doubted its ability to hold me those six inches off the ground. It is the perfect size – not too big to carry, but wide and deep enough so that I have only almost fallen off of it once. The carpet pieces protect against any distracting shoe noises. At some point along the way I inscribed a couple of Bible verses on the inside of it that give me some extra juice when it’s time to preach.

Not only that, but I imagine Robby, a long-ago employee in a now-defunct business, searching through the warehouse for just the right materials, lining up the wood, driving a million nails into it to make the box as sturdy as it is, and cutting the carpet scraps just so. A lot of care went into giving me a good foundation. The box represents all the encouragement and guidance I’ve been given through the years, which bear me up when the ministry gets rough.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a collapsible stool on the random row at Aldi – the one that has the short-term specials on any number of home/personal care/school items. The stool is much lighter than my box. It has rubber on the top and the bottom to keep it – and me – from skidding. It won’t trap foot stench. It folds up flat. It can live in my trunk for, you know, any random preach-ins or height-boosting needs. I realized then it was time to retire my preaching box.

The box still lives under my desk, so anytime I’m coaching or writing, it’s holding my feet up so they don’t go to sleep. It’s living into its purpose in a new way. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it. (I’ve had it for over half my life, for goodness’ sake.) It will still be a trusty companion. It just won’t travel anymore.

And so, for all the miles it has gone, for all the ways it has held me up, and for its continued support, I give thanks to my preaching box. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Sorrynotsorry

Happy stewardship season!

[Collective groan.]

I get it. It’s incredibly awkward to preach about money, especially when the biggest chunk of most churches’ budgets goes to personnel – namely, your salary.

But please, for the love, do not approach stewardship messages with a “let’s just get through this” mentality. Do not make jokes about visitors choosing the wrong Sunday to try out your worship service for the first time. Do not blame your finance committee for making you talk about a significant spiritual issue. Preach that sermon as proudly as if you were riffing on Jesus’ two greatest commandments, because giving is one expression of loving God, loving others, and loving self.

Creative Commons "Money" by Pictures of Money is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Money” by Pictures of Money is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Stretching to give more toward God’s work in the world is a spiritual discipline, an opportunity to grow closer to God and God’s children. In other words, you are not asking for charity in your stewardship messages. You are helping your people grow as disciples of Christ. (The flip side of asking people to stretch in their giving is making sure their money truly is being used to further God’s work in the world.)

Ok, rant over. Here are some tips to make sermons about money less antacid-requiring:

Explain how stewardship is a spiritual matter as well as a practical one. Many people don’t understand that a stewardship campaign is not just about keeping the lights on in the church.

Be honest about your own struggles/aspirations to give. Let your parishioners know that you’re preaching to yourself as much as to them.

Talk about your church budget as a ministry action plan. Make clear how every aspect of that plan helps the congregation fulfill its mission. (So it’s also important to have a current, carefully-discerned mission statement!)

Preach about stewardship throughout the year. This brings home its importance, and no one has to dread a drawn-out campaign in the fall.

May your stewardship season be inspiring and fruitful, and may your Tums supply remain untouched.

 

 

A preacher’s work is never done…or is it?

I suffer from the terrible scourge that is perfectionism. Until recently, this affliction meant that I’d still be editing my sermons until I stepped onto the chancel, no matter how long I’d been working on them.

Something has changed over the last couple of years, though. I’ve been able to stick a fork in my manuscripts and enjoy playing or even (gasp) just kicking back in the recliner on Saturdays. Maybe I’ve gained a smidge of insight about my process through experience and the passage of time. Maybe I have a different sense of priorities now that I sit across the breakfast table from 28 pounds of pure curiosity, cuteness, and mischief. Maybe I simply trust the Spirit more than I once did.

I don’t think the quality of my sermons has declined, but even if it has, God can hit the override and still speak through me. So if you are a long-suffering perfectionist preacher, here’s what I recommend:

  • Get an editor. I’m lucky to have one required by the marriage laws of our state (or something like that) to give feedback on my sermons, but in-town friends and online communities are great resources too.
  • Make plans for Saturday. This is counter-intuitive for many ministers, but it may provide the inspiration needed to finish writing early and set the manuscript aside.
  • Learn when to call it. Not every sermon will draw Barbara Brown Taylor comparisons. Know when to say, “I’ve worked hard, I’ve tried to be faithful to the text, and it’s up to the Spirit to do the rest.”
  • Ask for post-sermon feedback. Approach a cross-section of parishioners for their honest, constructive reactions. Knowing what they heard and where they engaged will help with the next week’s preparation.

Thankfully, while it is essential to approach homiletical work with all due reverence, the Word is proclaimed in so many ways – through music, communion, prayer, the passing of the peace, and so many other experiences of the divine. So preaching is not all about us as ministers, and it is certainly not all done by us!