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No Date for the Prom, May Go Stag

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Last week I got an email from an East Coast synod staff person that made me smile as I read it.  “You  have been identified through our ELCA database as a possible candidate for  **** Church…”   It has been just about three years exactly since this same staff person first contacted me with an opportunity to serve a congregation and put my name in their call process.  The candidate profile I’d developed at the time had a link to this blog.  A few weeks later, she emailed to tell me the call committee decided to pass on me, in large part because they read my blog and decided I was too liberal for them.  She wrote that she too read the blog and also had some serious reservations about my fitness for ministry based on a couple of guest posts made by Wylie4Stroke.  It was Wylie’s description of hanging out with me at a bar in Denver that caused her the most problems.  But the liberal bent of the blog also caused concern.

I blew the piety test AND the political test.

What she failed to consider, however, was the way in which I was being quite honest and open about those occasions when I’d swap the clerical garb for jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to go have a few beers with some regular, blue-collar working folks—and how I’d willingly share my vocation and my Christian faith with those folks if the subject ever came up.

That’s how Wylie came to be a blog contributor.  He is a character who would NEVER set foot in a church, but is someone who is smart and curious in his own rough and homespun way.  I grew up with guys like Wylie, went through high school with them, worked on cars with them, and yes—shudder—even tapped a keg with them.  Guys like Wylie didn’t so much lose the faith of their childhood as much as they got bored with or stopped believing in the church as a viable group worth joining.

The larger church needs to learn that it’s OK to step outside the insular, pietistic bubble from time to time, and that it’s also OK to be honest about having a few beers in a bar.  In fact, it’s being dishonest about these things that can get a clergy person in trouble.   I strongly suspect you can find a very tragic Exhibit A right here.   People like Wylie are suspicious of piety, and in my experience so much of it has become the equivalent of the shields deployed by Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise.   It’s something to get you through the minefields and meteor storms of life.  So what happens to a group of pious church folks–dare I say clergy– who go away on a church-sponsored spiritual retreat or conference, where they can count on being safe in a closed group outside the fishbowl?  The cigars, beer and booze come out, as does this sort of cute, rebellious attitude.  Someone gets a deck of cards, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group of folks acting like they’re at that bar in Denver, drinking, smoking and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning.  Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising number.

Me, I always try to make the most of the spiritual opportunities presented by a spiritual retreat, especially if that retreat is at a monastery.  There’s ample time and opportunity to practice a key spiritual discipline—perhaps the most vital one—by entering meaningful, restorative SILENCE.  I was tempted to say “simply entering,”  but as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing simple about being silent, inside and out.   Try it for just 5 ninutes.  Shut off all the noise around you.  Then, shut off all the noise within you.  No inside chatter.  No music in your head.  Turn it all off.  It’s not so simple, is it?

Anyway, back to the situation of the email that  began this whole post.  I read it over, thought for a moment, then sent the East Coast staff person a reply stating that my wife and I are on the opposite coast now and don’t see ourselves making such a dramatic relocation.

Over the past year I’ve interviewed with several churches and have taken trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Texas to meet with search committees. But each time they have chosen to go another way with someone else, and as I contemplate these events, I have to say that they probably made the right choices.   It’s not that I’m not qualified or not good at the pastoral vocation.  In fact, I hold the opposite to be true, that after some 10+ years of church ministry, I’m seasoned in a way that opens the door to what I think would be the best years of my ministry. And in the first 10+ years, I was pretty good.

But there has to be a good fit between congregation and pastor, otherwise there is simply too much time and effort expended in one trying to change the other and too much emotion spent resenting the relationship.   Life is far too short for such things.  I went into each situation with a desire to receive a call at each place.  At each place I found myself excited at the prospect of being pastor at such a church.  But in retrospect, I was also coming from what I perceived to be a desperate place, a place I was eager to escape, and I saw these places as great potential escape routes.  They were—and are—good, strong congregations on the whole, and I also found I was hungry to have a chance to lead one of them.  While each proved to be a disappointment, I look back and see that in fact there was some wisdom in their decisions to look elsewhere.  At each place there were red flags I chose not to see, some big and some small, which foretold some difficulties in the relationship had they called me.

In thinking back to the Wisconsin visit, I remember my host being as hospitable as possible, and doing everything she could do to make my visit comfortable.  Yet on our way to the church for the official interview with the call committee I saw a Scott Walker yard sign in the car’s back seat.  In the interview she became a suspicious and relentless interrogator, wanting me to explain my involvement in The Colorado Confession.   That was an out-of-the-blue line of questioning, since that document was developed back in ’05 and ’06, and I just attended a couple of information meetings and then signed on to it.  I’d forgotten much of the language of the document, but I wouldn’t back away from its significance or my approval of it.  I think that was the main sticking point for them, though one of the members of the call committee later thanked me for sharing my thoughts on the relationship of the church to our polarized culture.

In Oklahoma, a telling moment came in an end-of-evening conversation with the call committee chair.  He told me he liked what I’d done in arranging a special Muslim-Christian dialogue at my previous church and then told me a story that sounded all too familiar.  One of the church matriarchs was talking politics with him before the ’08 election and warned that if Obama was elected it wouldn’t be long before women would be forced to wear veils and that he would try to place the whole country under Sharia law.  While I was touring the area I got to see all the tornado-sensing equipment arrayed for advanced warning, and also saw a few buildings, trees and fences knocked down by a twister that had touched down a week before I got there.  Despite the exciting opportunities to combine parish ministry with campus ministry, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a good fit due to the ultra-conservative climate of the culture and the ultra-dangerous climate of the area.

The Texas church offered the most initial excitement.  It wasn’t too far from Austin, a place I still think of as home.  I’d have been an associate with a guy I had gotten to know and respect while I was in seminary.  They had an active, multi-generational membership and had added a huge gym and rec center on to one end of the church, while maintaining the historic church cemetery at the other end.  Quite literally it had become a cradle-to-grave church and they seemed to be doing a good job of opening their facilities to the surrounding community.  While I was there visiting with the youth director, a community league basketball game was in progress in the gym behind us.  But that conversation stuck with me.  The youth director talked about the difficulty in getting financial support for some creative youth-0riented projects and then noted that it didn’t take any time at all to raise about 65K to add sidewalks and landscaping for the cemetery.   Not a good sign.  Nevertheless, I was stoked to have an opportunity to come in and do ministry in a place where there was such a broad cross-section of young and old, and where they had expanded their worship services to include a contemporary, albeit praise band, worship.  We enjoyed that service, held in the gym, and then went upstairs to experience the traditional liturgy with full choir.  A couple of things stuck out, though I didn’t pay much mind to them at the time.  The first was the rinky-dink and difficult-to-manage elevator they had installed for disabled people.  It was set up more like a miniature freight elevator and one had to make sure everything was buttoned up just right before the elevator would work.  Then you had to turn a key, press a button and hopefully head up or down.  I say hopefully, because getting everything closed and ready was a chore in itself.  A disabled person would have a very tough time using the elevator by themselves, and it was barely big enough to hold a couple of people if there was a wheelchair involved.  I noticed that the traditional service had its fair share of people using wheelchairs and walkers.  On the one hand, I thought this was a good thing, since my wife often needs a wheelchair to get around.  On the other hand, if this is all they could come up with to make the church accessible to disabled folks, it showed that they didn’t care all that much about them.

The handicapped parking in the parking lot was also minimal and not clearly defined.  Someone told me that members needing close-in parking just knew to take one of the parking spots marked “Reserved.”  But what about visitors?  And as big as the place was, I figure that not everyone there actually knows about the ability to take a “Reserved” space.

I think I’m sharing the most about this church because this one is the one that excited me the most and gave me the most hope that I’d get called to a place that could make the best use of my skill sets.  But it goes even further than that.  These “call processes” as we Lutherans term them, are much like dating processes.  It’s more than resumes and interviews; it’s meeting people, seeing how you like one another, envisioning how it might be if you became the pastor at a church where you’d visit people, be with them in many of the joys and sorrows that mark our lives, and guide them as best you could into the future.  In a way, I found myself falling in love with this place.  It was conservative, but also had that very forward-looking, can-do attitude that reflects all the best you can find in my home state.  I could see some challenges, but I could also see myself being happy there for the next ten to twelve years and doing some of my best work in the process.   I thought we hit it off well, and all my instincts told me that they liked me as well.

So I was really surprised to get back home, to Northern California, check my e-mail and find they’d already decided to pass.  The language was official and offered some encouragement about it not relating to the quality of my pastoral skills, they just wanted a different style of leadership.  But I was severely bummed out.     Again it’s a lot like the dating process.  In a weird sort of way it’s like trying to find a date to the prom, finding someone you really, really like, and having that someone shoot you down because they want to find someone they like better.

At this point, I’m not sure I can endure being part of another call process.  It may not matter, since one can stay on the active clergy roster for three years before being automatically removed if there isn’t a call to a church or other recognized church organization.  Here in the small mountain village of Northern California, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.   But you never know.  There may yet be a church out there somewhere that might have a place for liberal pastor who prefers a Hawaiian shirt to wearing some hollow sense of piety on his sleeve.

Hangin’ At the Portland Airport, Thinkin’ About the Lutheran Church-ELCA

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Gustav’s Pub & Grill, Portland Airport, Portland, OR– This morning wrapped up a regional campus ministry conference with colleagues–temporary though they be–serving as campus ministry pastors throughout the West and Northwest.  We heard from the national campus ministry coordinator, who flew in from Chicago to bring us a comforting word that the church still lives, despite “restructuring.”  Actually, the “restructuring” term is mine, and it’s a polite way to describe what recently happened to the ELCA church-wide organizational structure.  Here’s a cinematic moment that pretty well captures this “restructuring,” in the way the black knight was “restructured” :

OK, I’m kidding.  Sort of.

The ELCA has gone through a bit of down-sizing, which is in many ways congruent with the downsizing of its congregations (since I’m a card-carrying ELCA pastor, I should probably use the first person plural possessive pronoun, “ours.” So I will.)

I was somewhat surprised at the number of conference attendees who felt they were standing on ground shaky enough to consider pushing the “eject” button.

The experience also made me aware of my own shaky ground; especially considering the likelihood that several people in the gathering will likely interview for the position I’m currently serving as an interim pastor.   As I think on my own place and position, and how there is likely to be a sort of feeding frenzy when the position is posted on the ELCA website, I’m reminded of an experience I had trout fishing many years ago in New Mexico.

Early one crisp Fall morning, I found myself casting a line into Monastery Lake, a popular fishing hole about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe.   I’d heard the fishing there was outstanding, and so I joined about a dozen hearty souls who braved the chilly wind with hope of landing a few beauties from this lake adjacent to a Benedictine monastery.  I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I found my place on the bank of this small lake in the Northern New Mexico mountains.  Then I cast my line into the cool, still water, plopping my white and red floater about ten yards from shore and settled in to see if I might land the Mighty Moby Trout.  Amazingly, it didn’t take long for my floater to dip underwater, then dip again, as the tugs on my line told me I’d gotten my first hungry customer to take the salmon egg I’d used to disguise my hook.  I reeled in a stubborn little trout.   The tyke was maybe half a pound, at most.  I looked at the little fella, as he looked at me with those wide little trout eyes, then I unhooked him and tossed him back into the lake.  Shoot, I’d caught and released perch bigger than this down in Texas when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.  I put another red egg on the hook and cast it back out into the water.  Moby Trout was bound to be out there.  Soon I got another bite, then hooked what turned out to be the little trout’s smaller brother.  Again, I removed the hook and tossed him back.  I’d just cast my newly-baited hook into the water again when a nearby fisherman walked over to me.  “Hey, man,” he said, “if you don’t like to eat trout, the next time you catch one, just give him to me, OK?”

“Ummm, OK.”  I looked at the guy and at the frayed and worn flannel coat he wore, and then it hit me.  These little fellas were prime catch in these parts.  I was in a beautiful location, by golly, but it was a hardscrabble location as well.  And there were hardscrabble folks just chomping at the bit to catch a mess of these little trout to bring home to their families.

These are hardscrabble times for pastors and staff in the ELCA.  Some will likely chafe at such language.  But the truth of the matter is, the ELCA has been rocked by the same seismic tremors that have shaken up the rest of our culture, and the quaking is not over by a long shot.

I’ve been keeping my powder dry, as it were, while pondering my own circumstances and options.  But now, sitting here in an airport eatery in Portland, influenced and inspired by the good group of very good campus pastors who are struggling to come to terms with the Way Things Are Becoming, and having that experience connecting with my own struggle, I’m feeling that it’s about time to add my two cents to the cacophony of those who are trying to make sense of what is happening and why.  I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while now, but maybe it’s time to really hone in on those factors, circumstances and trends that seem to be the greatest effects upon the church I continue to love, the ELCA.     It ain’t gonna be pretty, and I’m guessing that my passion might occasionally dominate my objectivity.  But these are passionate times.  Just look at Glenn Beck….or the tear-stained face of John Boehner.    OK, maybe not the best standards of comparison, but sitting here, somewhat discombobulated in an airport in foggy Portland, and with a boarding call near at hand, it’s the best I can do.  More to come, stay tuned……

Too Liberal? Well, So Be It.

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I’m one who isn’t pleased to hear those old church stories about women sitting separately from men on Sunday morning.  I also wasn’t too pleased when I found that the church mailboxes at a small-town, rural parish were labeled with the men’s names only, especially since their wives carried the load at the church (carrying the male, I suppose).

I’m not too pleased when I hear that things are done “because we’ve always done it that way,” and that is given as a justifiable reason for continuing the behavior.

When I find myself singing stuffy, old music that most folks can’t sing, but it’s picked because it’s what a small group wants to sing so that only they can be pleased, I am not a happy camper.

I can be made physically nauseous by someone who wraps the Christian faith in a particular national flag, no matter whose national flag it is.

I am aware that the Lutheran church’s greatest sin, historically speaking, has been the sin of quietism in response to critical moments in history.  Actually, there is one sin that is worse:

That’s what can happen when the church decides to shake hands with the state, and here’s the Lutheran poster boy for such bad behavior, Ludwig Mueller, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler.

Oh, dear, what a radical example!!!  My, my, my….

I do believe the church should engage in political discussions with an overall emphasis on how God’s coming rule of love (reign of God, kingdom of heaven–these are our main churchy, Biblical terms for this) does or does not factor into issues and events.

My main concern is that the church become a healthy home for people of many social viewpoints–liberal, conservative, libertarian, or other.     The church’s main task, in my estimation, is to provide a model for what it means to live together faithfully and respectfully, despite our many differences.  This is an important model to have in a society scarred by toxic hectoring from all sides.

But here’s the problem:  the church can’t be such a model if it is being so quickly abandoned by liberals and moderates who are described in one recent CNN religion article as “modernists.”   Here’s the crux of the issue:

Mainline Protestant churches, which tended to be more moderate and inclusive, have been losing membership for decades. The churches that have shown the greatest growth have been the large-scale megachurches, where eight in 10 are traditionalist.

During the same period, Catholics have become more likely to choose parishes on the basis of something other than geography, and 72 percent said that “the traditional or conservative nature of the church” was an important or very important reason for choosing their parish.

In the meantime, modernists, who are less comfortable with churches dominated by traditionalists, have become less likely to attend church at all. During the ’90s, the number of Americans reporting “no religion” doubled, and sociologists believe the shift reflected the desire of many Americans to distance themselves from the increasingly close association between organized religion and conservative politics.

Someone within the ELCA churchwide hierarchy recently suggested that I was “too liberal” to serve a church.  Given the church’s social shift as outlined above, that may be an accurate assessment.

However, based on the historical contributions made by liberals in the progression of worship and music–and I am talking about liturgical worship, for the most part–along with historic liberal concerns for human rights and for equal justice, I can’t find much to regret.

I wonder sometimes how “conservative” this guy and his actions were:

And given the following description of what it means to be liberal, I just can’t find much about my outlook that I’d be willing to set aside:

Have a blessed Memorial Day weekend.


Hey, you knew it was coming.  I’m just too liberal……….

ELCA Bishops Draft Rite That Would Bring “ELM” Clergy Onto Roster

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From the ELCA News Service:

ITASCA, Ill. (ELCA) — The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reached a consensus March 8 on a draft proposal for a rite that would bring onto the church’s official clergy roster those pastors who were ordained and are on the clergy roster of “Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM).” ELM “expands ministry opportunities for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the Lutheran church,” according to its Web site.

The draft proposal, “Reception onto the Roster of Ordained Ministers,” recognizes and affirms the ministry of ELM pastors. It is not the rite of ordination, though it uses patterns and texts adapted from the authorized ELCA rite, including the laying on of hands and prayer by synod bishops. It is intended for use with “individuals who have experienced an ordination that this church has not yet recognized,” according to the draft.

Under the draft proposal, ELM candidates would be received onto the roster of the ELCA after fulfillment of all requirements needed for approval by an official clergy candidacy committee within a synod, said the Rev. Margaret G. Payne, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Mass. Candidacy committees help guide all clergy candidates on behalf of the ELCA from the time they consider a call to the ministry through their seminary years. Pastors who were not ordained in the ELCA also work with candidacy committees, though the process may be shorter.
“After formal approval these people would be received at a service of worship, (with) the laying on of hands and prayer by a synod bishop,” Payne said on a behalf of a committee of bishops appointed to prepare the draft rite following a preliminary discussion by the conference March 6.

ELM pastors follow the same educational process and credentialing procedure that ELCA clergy follow. Many are serving congregations, anticipating the possibility of becoming ELCA pastors when the church changed its policies regarding professional service in the ELCA.

Lutheran Hands at Work

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The ELCA’s “God’s Work Our Hands” video contest is a great way to lift up the work many of our churches are doing in their communities and throughout the world.  Here’s a video submitted by Amanda Wahlig, First Trinity Lutheran Church, Washington, D.C.

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What’s So Great About the ELCA (continued)

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Bishop Allan preaching at Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, El Paso

Bishop Allan preaching at Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, El Paso, TX (photo by Dale Horkey)

You get to experience sermons like this one, preached by Bishop Allan Bjornberg during closing worship at Churchwide Assembly.   Click here to listen.

It’s all about the punctuation.  Period.

What’s So Great About The ELCA

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1.  We’re finally beginning to make those connections between brand identity and evangelism.

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2.  Pastor Bob just had a nifty article published in “The Lutheran.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Lutheranism was the flagship of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which opened the gates of exodus from the Roman Catholic Church. As millions of people left Catholicism, they embarked on a road away from what they disliked about religion. But not all were so sure where they were going. Some became as legalistic and controlling as Catholicism by prohibiting the use of statues, icons and stained-glass windows because they feared divine status would be given to these images. They proclaimed infant baptism ineffective, claiming true baptism can only occur when a person is old enough to choose Christ as Lord and Savior. Martin Luther wasn’t impressed and referred to these people as “radical reformers,” saying they had “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all!”

Today Lutheranism calls this “decision theology” — where the act of deciding for Christ is viewed as a “good work” or “works righteousness.” Decision theology puts God’s grace under the power of human decision.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.  I had forgotten (maybe missed completely!) the quote from Luther about the Holy Spirit.  It will be hard now to be in conversation with modern proponents of decision theology without imagining a few feathers sticking out of their mouths.   Of course, I might also want to check and see exactly what might be tickling under my own nose from time to time!  Thanks, Bob.