Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


When Ministry Gets Tough -- A sermon preached at a clergy retreat

When Ministry Gets Tough
Mark 9: 14-29

I don't mean when ministry is hard work. Ministry is often hard work, satisfying work, but still work, still hard. We shouldn't expect ministry not to be hard work.

I mean when ministry gets tough.

I was fortunate. My first appointments after seminary were hard work but they weren't tough. My first appointment was to a declining, aging congregation that lacked imagination about the possibilities for ministry. The great thing about this congregation, however, was that the leaders and members had only normal resistance to change.

Helping this congregation reach new people was hard work, but it wasn't all that tough. I paid my dues for a year or two by visiting hospitals and nursing homes and by showing up on Sundays prepared with something relatively interesting to say. I knocked on doors and met the people in the community. I opened the church building to the community in new ways, created new groups, began new ministries, trained others to take over leading the ministries I'd begun, and eased new people into leadership roles. I pretty much did what Lyle Schaller's books told me to do. By the time I left the church, there were some new people in the pews, children in the Sunday School once again, a new vitality in worship, and new imagination and energy for ministry.

I was fortunate that my first appointments were merely hard work and not all that tough. Eventually I was appointed to a church that was tough ... where the resistance to change was not merely normal but desperate and driven ... where issues of conflict and control dominated the church's life ... where manipulation and sabotage had become normal ... where truth-telling had become optional. There are congregations, I discovered, that are caught in compulsive, repetitive, destructive cycles of conflict, disorder, the undermining of leadership, and obsessive resistance to change and growth.
There are churches out there that are tough. If your itineration within the United Methodist Church is normal, it is highly likely that you too will eventually be invited to serve one or two of these churches.

There are congregations where ministry is unbelievable tough. During my first couple appointments, I didn't believe this. When colleagues told me horror stories I thought that they were exaggerating or that maybe they just weren't all that competent or hard working. Eventually I learned. The first time I experienced church people -- United Methodists! -- intentionally and maliciously lying to protect their control over a congregation, I was aghast and crestfallen. I couldn't believe such things could happen in church! I was naive.

Several years ago G. Lloyd Rediger wrote a book he entitled Clergy Killers. (Read an interview with Rediger from The Lutheran here.) I have some problems with his book. He focuses too much on problematic individuals. Problematic individuals you will have with you always! The real problem is destructive and unhealthy systems and cultures. When congregational systems and cultures become conflict-laden and control-centered, you can change the players but you will still have the problem. It is the system, not just the individuals, that are caught in compulsive, repetitive behaviors.

Lest we risk laity-bashing, we ought to acknowledge that tough congregations are often the way they are as a consequence of clergy who have helped make them that way -- clergy who have needed too much to be loved.

Matthew Linden, a pastor in the Greater New Jersey Conference, has written an article in the latest issue (Spring 2005) of Congregations magazine entitled "Entering The Twilight Zone: Ministry in the Wake of Sexual Misconduct." But the article is about more than sexual misconduct. Linden suggests that by the time sexual misconduct happens, clergy and congregation have become unhealthy in many other ways, and that merely getting rid of the guilty pastor will not bring health to the congregation.

Linden writes: "In congregations where sexual misconduct has occurred, nonsexual boundaries characteristic of any professional relationship have long since been breached. They fall away slowly and subtly, their erosion a mutual effort on the part of the minister and congregation. Sometimes the nonsexual boundaries fall during a pastorate prior to the one where the misconduct occurs. Simply removing the offending pastor will not restore them."

He adds: "An after-pastor [the pastor who follows a pastor involved in sexual misconduct] encounters a congregation that is extremely resistant to reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries, even in situations where the relationship between their absence and sexual misconduct is obvious. ... Reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries requires persistence and often involves crossing what have become cultural norms in the common life of a congregation. Because the congregation has grown so accustomed to clergy with poor boundaries, ministers with healthy boundaries may be perceived as distant, aloof, or uncaring. Still, it is better to err on the side of caution ..."

Linden makes three additional significant points in his article: 1) When congregations become unhealthy, mature members tend to withdraw from leadership roles leaving offices and positions to more needy, less mature members; 2) Informal networks tend to replace official structures, and decision-making processes become arbitrary, inconsistent and undependable, and 3) It takes ten years for motivated, focused congregations to recover, and much longer for congregations that are not motivated or intentional.

Forget the latest church growth theories, Linden says. The focus in churches like this must be on reestablishing appropriate professional boundaries, developing a new culture of mature church leadership and reestablishing open communication and transparent governance.

We clergy who need to be loved too much can collude with our laity to hurt churches --even without necessarily becoming involved in sexual misconduct -- and make them tough places for others to serve. We can make ourselves --instead of Christ-- the center of attention and adulation. We can make the avoidance of conflict an idol, thereby, causing conflict to fester until it dominates the congregation's life. I am amazed at the number of clergy I have known throughout the years who have requested a move but, when they were moved, lied to their congregations about it, suggesting they didn't want to go but the conference was forcing them to move against their will. This kind of deception is no small thing but indicative of the neediness of clergy who inadvertently help turn congregations into communities of distrust, conflict and extreme resistance to change and growth.

The lesson from Mark 9: 14-29 is not really, I believe, about the healing of a mute and deaf child. It is about the healing of a family caught in a cycle of compulsive, repetitive, destructive behaviors.

When Jesus returned from the mountain where he had been transfigured, he discovered an upset family whom the disciples had been unable to heal. Jesus healed the family.

In order to heal the family, Jesus does two things:

First, Jesus insists on trust. William Sloane Coffin in his book Credo helps us understand what is happening in this lesson. We usually translate the word credo as "I believe," he says. He argues that we really ought to translate it as "I trust."

Read Mark 9: 22b-24 this way: The parent says to Jesus, "If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Jesus replies "If you are able! All things can be done for the one who trusts." Immediately the parent of the child cried out, "I trust; help my mistrust."

When systems are caught in patterns of compulsive, repetitive, destructive behavior, requiring trust and the honest confession of mistrust is essential for healing. In congregations where people's trust has been violated by self-absorbed or narcissistic or untrustworthy clergy or powerful lay leaders, we need to calmly but consistently insist on trust, trustworthiness, and the honest confession of mistrust to begin to break through compulsive patterns of conflict, control and self-protection. This is tough ministry.

Secondly, in Mark 9 Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the pain the family is carrying, and he helps the entire community face the pain. Instead of trying to stifle the child and shortcut the child's expression of pain, Jesus allows the child to express it fully, even to the point that afterwards "the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, 'He is dead.'" (Mark 9:26) Jesus intentionally causes this to happen in the presence of the community: "When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit ..." and, thus, started the expression of the pain and the process of healing intentionally in the presence of the community. (Mark 9:25)

Allowing the pain to express itself, without becoming defensive or self-protective, is tough. It means choosing to be vulnerable, even when the pain and hurt is directed at you and you feel like you haven't done anything to deserve it ... even when the system is working hard to cover it up with a facade of showy friendliness and shallow caring ... even when the whole system sees you as the problem when you aren't (although after awhile it is hard not to begin to wonder).

At the end of Mark 9:14-29, the disciples privately ask Jesus why they could not heal the family but he could. Jesus answers: "This kind can come out only through prayer." When systems are caught in compulsive, repetitive, destructive cycles of pain, healing depends on the spiritual and emotional health of the pastor and core lay leadership. Reading Schaller is not enough. Technique is not enough. Being able to remain open, connected, and clear --trusting, trustworthy, and vulnerable-- in the face of convulsive pain requires great spiritual centeredness and self-understanding. "This kind can come out only through prayer."

In my translation of the Bible, there is a footnote after the word "prayer." It says: "Other ancient authorities add and fasting." If I could add my own footnote, it would say: "prayer and therapy." When I have done tough ministry, it has been critical for me to be supervised by a pastoral counselor or therapist who understands human and interpersonal dynamics and with whom I can be fully open and honest about my thoughts and feelings. Without honest self-examination and self-understanding, staying centered and nondefensive while serving congregations mired in conflict and pain is nearly impossible without supervision.

Staying vulnerable in ministry is at the very heart of ministry, but it is tough. There are experiences in ministry that make each of us want to close down and become hard. I myself find ministry with the dying very costly. I tend to be especially impacted when the one who is dying or has died is younger than I am.

Serving on conference staffs I had done little of this ministry for a number of years. Then, when I was appointed to Foundry, even before my books were unpacked, I got a call about a member, a young man, who was in the hospital dying as a result of complications from HIV-AIDS. I asked one of our lay leaders to go to the hospital with me. We sat with him. While we were holding his hands, praying together the Lord's Prayer, he prayed his last breath.

For the next several nights, I couldn't sleep through the night. I kept thinking to myself, "This, again. This, again." One night, after tossing and turning for some time, I got out of bed, went to our kitchen, made myself a cup of tea, and sat in the dark at our kitchen table sipping tea. There I experienced, well, (how to describe this?) not really a vision, but some kind of message from deep inside myself or from somewhere.

Sitting in the dark sipping tea, I found myself having a conversation with God. Actually, it began while I was thinking about an unfortunate conversation I'd had years ago with a bishop. (The mind can wonder sitting in a dark kitchen in the middle of the night.)

I'd had a really unfortunate conversation with a new bishop years ago when I was much younger and not very wise. I am embarrassed by the memory of it. I was the chair of a committee of an urban ministry that had conference approval to do a special fund-raising effort. I'd made an appointment with our new bishop to ask the bishop to send a letter to the churches on behalf of our fund-raising effort.

After some small talk, I told the bishop why I was there. I said I had brought with me the draft of a potential letter. The bishop took and read the letter. After reading the letter the bishop expressed a reluctance to sign it.

"Is there something you don't like about the letter," I asked very politely and carefully. "We could rewrite it or perhaps someone on your staff could write another letter."

"No," the bishop said, "the letter is fine."

"Well," I asked quietly, "do you have concerns about the ministry? Is there something about the ministry that causes you to be reluctant to send out a letter on our behalf?"

"No," the bishop said, "everything I've heard about the ministry is positive."

"I thought for a few seconds, then I said: "Well, could I ask then why you are reluctant to sign the letter?"

The bishop answered: "Because I don't like to ask people to do things."

After a long pause I did something inappropriate and unfortunate. "You don't like to ask people to do things?!!" I said with astonishment in my voice.

"What is it that you think bishops do?" I said. "Asking people to do things is precisely what bishops do. Asking people to do things pretty much sums up a bishop's job description."

I leaned forward in my chair and said: "If you didn't want to do the work, why did you take the job?"

Fortunately, the bishop was very gracious and even chuckled in response to my little outburst -- and even decided to sign the letter. I later wrote a note of apology. I never felt like I was punished in any way, yet my behavior was unfortunate and inappropriate. I was young.

Sitting in a dark kitchen in the middle of the night many years later, my mind wandering, I recalled that conversation, and I thought about the young man who had died just a few days earlier while we were reciting the Lord's Prayer, and I thought about all the people in my ministry throughout the years who had died too young from AIDs or cancer or car accidents or their hearts just stopping, who knows why. I did something then even more inappropriate, I suppose. In my mind, I asked God the same question: "If you didn't want to do the work of being God, why did you take the job?"

A second later an image appeared in my mind. It was the image of a crucifix -- one of those cheap-looking, pasty plaster crucifixes you see in Catholic gift shops -- the ones where Jesus looks particularly weak and pathetic, his head bent sideways hanging down, spots of red blood trickling down his side.

As the image filled my head, I heard in my mind these words: "This is the way I do my work."

With the image of the crucifix in my mind, I heard the words again more slowly: "This ... is ... the way ... I ... do ... my work."

And this is the way we do our work too, if we are ministers of Jesus Christ. This too is the way we do our work, even when ministry gets tough.

Only through prayer. Only through prayer.


Blogger the reverend mommy said...

Thank you for this. It echos some of my thoughts these last few weeks. I'm in a, um, interesting appointment. Not tough, not hard, not difficult, yet all those things. Most problems, I realize now, are of my own making.
Again, Thanks.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Our bishop has told us he normally expects not to move us until we have served at least 7 years in our appoitment -- otherwise we take our stuff with us to the next church and the congregation just does its stuff to a new pastor. Yet, it is not all our stuff. Congregations need to grow to, although I can do morte about my stuff than theirs. Thanks for your comment.

9:07 AM  

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