Category: Religion

The End of a Chapter

This is my last evening in St. Louis. This is a really great town. I’ve sampled (okay engulfed) some of the best food. I’ve also enjoyed some great company. The people I have met over the last three years in the Doctor of Ministry Cohorts at Covenant Theological Seminary are some of the finest folks – and I’m not just saying that.

But alas – the end of a chapter is upon me.

I can honestly say that the three residencies at Covenant have were some of the most important investments in my life as a pastor. There is something pretty special about this school. I am deeply grateful for all the work and time and prayer that the staff of this seminary has poured into this program. I’m thankful beyond words for the Rev. Dr. Bob Burns.

But now – the “real” work of the DMin begins – the dissertation. But honestly, I’m excited about it. I’m excited about my topic (how pastors lead significant change). I’m thrilled to be able to pour some of my time into studying and writing something which I hope will benefit the church – the kingdom. That’s a pretty great thing to be allowed to do.

That topic may seem strange for folks. It generally does when folks ask me what my dissertation. That gives me an opportunity to talk about something I mentioned in an earlier blog – change.

Over dinner this evening someone asked the me question and I got the usual, “Oh.” I smiled and then I threw something out. I brought up the notion of shalom and God’s mission in the world. I talked about the notion of Christians doing good in the world – about being a blessing to their community and the push back that some folks get for wanting to do that. In a moment it generated some good conversation. I sat back and listened and enjoyed.

What brought me to this topic?

Well, a few years ago I was introduced to a book by Nicholas Wolterstorff called Until Justice and Peace Embrace. In that book, Dr. Wolterstorff brought up the subject of shalom. He defines Biblical shalom in relational terms. Basically, shalom is when we as human beings are in a right relationship with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors and with creation. When those relationships are right – that’s shalom. There is truly an absence of war and strife, there is justice, everyone has what they need.

Our relationship with God can only be made right because of Christ – and that extends then beyond ourselves into our relationships with our neighbors and into all of creation. It is in that relationship that we are fully human and we flourish. A friend of mine explained it in this way. He said, “If I want my kids to be safe, clean, get a good education, to be free from harm and disease – then as part of loving my neighbor – as part of shalom – I should want that for your kids too.”

Wolterstorff, in that same book, goes on to say that God’s mission in the world is the mission of restoring shalom. If that’s God’s mission then it ought to be the mission of God’s people as well (I’m not doing the book justice – you ought to read it). He suggests that we are not to sit around with our arms folded waiting on shalom to arrive but to take part in the work of the kingdom – the work and mission of shalom.

I think he’s right. What’s more I think a lot of Christians really want their faith to matter – to be relevant and significant – not just to them and their family but to their communities. I think a lot of Christians feel this way – and I think they are right. Don’t get me wrong. We need to know and study the Bible. We need to pray and worship. The Christian life isn’t less of those things – it is actually more. It isn’t less of what we’ve done in the past to make strong believers – it is more – building on our solid foundations.

All of that got me thinking about the church and pastors and change and the mission of shalom. I don’t fully understand all of what it means to live out the mission of shalom – but I understand some things – and Sherry and I are training our boys to think and live in those terms. But I know something. I know that in some places to begin talking about moving a church in that direction brings a certain degree of resistance.

But resistance isn’t bad. It is important – in that it helps to give shape and it helps to maintain the proper perspectives. But resistance, tension and conflict are often the very things that Christians want to avoid. But it is often the very thing that leads to significant change – and significant change is the kind of change some churches would have to make (a significant change (or adaptive) means a change in long-established behavior, beliefs, practice, tradition).

I wondered how have pastors in established churches led significant change – I wondered how they did it given the nature of conflict. One day the notion of strategic planning and conflict sort of feel in my lap. I had never thought about pastors and ministry leaders strategically using the resistance, tension and conflict to lead signficant change before. In fact, Bob Burns was the first to sort of open that world up to me. I wondered if there were any pastors – or seminaries that even taught that idea.

But it isn’t really that novel of an idea – not really. I mean most pastors that I talk to about this think I’m crazy. But counselors and therapists do this all the time. In fact this morning I heard a lecture on pastoral counseling and our lecturer told us how in her practice of over 30 years she often uses tension, or a clients resistance in the hopes of leading them to significant change.

I like that – really. Of course – I’m a pastor. Which means I’m a shepherd. It means that I have the best interest of the person and the church at heart. That’s true. But as a pastor – shepherd – I am charged with leading those whom God has called me to serve. That doesn’t mean I just tell them they are okay and everything is alright. It is not true. The scriptures tell us who we are as human beings – and our hearts tend to verify what the Bible says – often with tension, resistance and conflict.

So, over the course of the last three years I have been preparing for this moment – for all the class work to be finished – for all the projects and papers to have been written. Now, the real work of research and reading and putting things together begins in earnest. This chapter has ended – but it looks like I’ve just opened a new book and I’ve got five more chapters to go. All right then – let’s crank it out!

 

Change

Today, as part of an assignment for a DMin, I worshipped at a church here in St. Louis, The Kirk of the Hills. This is my third time to worship at The Kirk. The first time was three years ago – at the beginning of my studies at Covenant. It was also a beginning for The Kirk; Mark Kuiper had just become their Senior Pastor. I was in the congregation only a few Sundays after he began his pastorate. I have since been back twice. What I have noticed is a steady but not overwhelming sense of change with each visit. It, from my perspective, is good. But I have no idea how they got to the place where they are – and if I know anything about the pastorate I’m pretty sure it was not without some difficulty.

For the past five years I have studied the subject of leadership and change – especially as it relates to the church. It is not a stretch to say that the church is one of the most change resistance institutions on the planet. There are lots of reasons for that and not all of them bad.

For the last week, each evening, and this entire weekend, I have spent hours and hours pouring through books on leading change. I have read books written from the church’s perspective and those written for the world of business and politics. What I have seen again and again is that conflict is an ever-present element of leadership – especially when it comes with change. That did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how all the authors kept pointing out how important, vital, it is for institutions to have a very clear mission and vision.

That is something that most of us know – instinctively – I think. Yet we may not realize how much conflict is related to not really having a firm grasp on the mission of our church, our work places, our families, and our lives. I wonder if you were to be asked what the mission of your church is and how you fit into the vision of that church – I wonder if you could answer. I wonder how many Christians have ever given much thought to how their vocations, their families, their very lives are tied into God’s mission in the world – God’s mission for His people.

That may be the sort of change that is worth considering. Perhaps considering what it would mean to give our lives to the greater purpose of God’s mission in the world might be the “answer” that so many Christians are looking for. The reason is it takes us out of ourselves and connects us to being a part of something greater and very, very good. That’s the sort of change that is worth doing the hard work for.

In the Perpetual Ruins

This morning I came across Psalm 74:3 and the words that spoke to me in some strange way. The Psalmist cries out in prayer – asking for God to, “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins…”

For some reason I wanted to cling to that part of this passage – not so much for some fatalistic, black cloud, hopeless reason. Rather, I think it is right and fitting that these words would give shape to the way that people cry out to God.There is something about seeing the world from the perspective of a perpetual ruin that draws me to hope in the gospel all the more. In fact, the whole notion of working for the renewal of all things and the promise of Jesus that He has come to restore us God and to bring about the fullness of God’s Kingdom is the only counter to the notion of ruin.

That’s what is so astounding to me. There are some things – some words – some ideas – which will not exist in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Ruin is one of those things. When Christ comes – and fully and finally directs His steps to this perpetual ruin – all ruin will be gone – forever and ever.

But there is more to the notion of perpetual ruin – because it speaks to me about me. I find, the older I get, the more ruined I become – physically. Now, I’m not old, really. I’m middle-aged – hopefully. I’m young by a lot of standards. But I’m feeling the change in my body. I can’t run or lift or hike or swim or eat like I used to. In fact I’m in the shape I’m in because of the way I did run, lift, etc. But I’m trying to get in shape – but I’m fitting a loosing battle to some extent. I’m fighting against the perpetual ruin of my physical body.

But When Christ comes in His fullness – when He steps toward this perpetual ruin – I will be made new, whole, not for a while – but forever. There will be no more ruined knees, or back, or shoulder, or neck (thank you contact sports). There will be wholeness.

So, I can pray as the Psalmist prayed – asking God to “step toward these and this perpetual ruin” and know that in many ways I am really praying as John prayed in Revelation “Amen – Come Lord Jesus!” Direct your steps to our perpetual ruin!