Friday, December 21, 2012

No Longer A Rookie

Fresh out of Youth Ministry, I took my first preaching ministry position.
I actually knew a few things by now. During my nine-year run with a church in Los Angeles, I’d gotten my masters degree in marriage and family counseling, while I toiled away leading missionary teams into sweltering, third-world barrios of Mexico’s border towns, facilitating parenting seminars, and overseeing teen-led Vacation Bible Schools.  There had been opportunities to supply-preach for smaller congregations in the area, which meant I was no longer completely useless behind the pulpit. In fact, while the rest of my associates were on vacation, and a fill-in was needed, I could actually provoke a roundelay of ‘amen’s’ from the home crowd. Some even requested that I be put in the preaching rotation, which I secretly wanted, as I was eager for God to expand my ministry.
On the strength of my resume – and my willingness to work for the smallest of congregations – I landed a job almost right away in the suburb of a midsized city in the southeast. It was my first experience as a Senior Minister. I was willing to do whatever it took to prove myself, and when I got up to preach that first Sunday, it felt like I was blasting off to the moon. It was what I had been waiting for - my own thing - and my heart was filled with hope and the promise of an enviable future.
The head elder of this congregation, my putative master, was a textbook example of People Who Should Never Be An Elder. On the ‘very first Sunday’ he visited the church, I am told, he and his wife began campaigning for eldership by alerting every one to his experience and sound doctrine – ‘should space on the board become available.’ His principle business had something to do with the government and high-level security clearances in a neighborhood which was forty-five minutes away by metro. As this, apparently, wasn’t prestigious enough, he had chosen the church as a way to bolster his social standing more quickly and assuredly.
From the get-go, Max seemed intimidated. At every suggestion I offered, he’d snort with contempt, roll his eyes with world-weary derision and shoot down whatever outrage – be it a contemporary worship style, improving the condition of the rat-infested building, or simply changing the look of the bulletin – I’d come up with. He was merciless in his naked contempt for every idea I came in with, and tried to bully me at every turn.  
As the principal change-agent to this dying institution and already a veteran of church politics, I established formal lines of written communication – faithful re-creations of the church I had just left: proposals, memos, accompanied constantly by handshakes and smiles. I began the work, facilitating a congregational meeting which surveyed the group’s self-perceptions, copiously recording each stated strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat as it was expressed. Compiling the list of responses, including the opinions of every individual in attendance, building consensus and ownership, I then presented the felt-needs to Max, requesting him to join me in building strategies to best meet the challenges at hand – it felt like an act of congress, but it was effective. If my apathetic, imperative head-elder was not already thoroughly spooked by my ability to inspire change, he certainly was by this action.
We squabbled all the time, Max and I. He was indignant that I repositioned the desk in my office to facilitate a more open, counseling-friendly environment and wanted to argue over the ‘correct’ way for a minister’s office to be configured. He frequently and passive-aggressively would forget to attend regularly scheduled Elder’s meetings – knowing full-well any decisions made in his absence were academic. He poked, prodded, sulked, conspired and competed. When the water well collapsed, I suggested that we improve our situation by connecting to the city waterline. Predictably, he assured me there was no money to meet the exorbitant $12,000 expense. I yearned for this tiny congregation to bring glory to God, and in that vein, I came up with the most ambitious idea my super-heated, endorphin-overloaded blend of faith and ambition could muster, a sort of Elijah-Calls Down-Fire-From-Heaven challenge. I asked the congregation ‘to pray and honor the Lord with contributions to offset the financial need in one, single, solitary special-offering’ . . . and they did. Just one month from the day the request was made, this thirty-member, suburban outpost of middle-class Christian soldiers glorified God with their giving to the tune of $15,642.40. Yet, rather than rejoicing in what great faith had been displayed, rather than being happy, truly happy, like Gideon’s lucky few - a band of outnumbered warriors who achieved total victory over the circumstances – Max viewed it as a personal defeat. “Chalk one up for the preacher,” he sarcastically grumbled at me . . . then waddled away.
I was thirty-two years old and the minister of a dying church. As would become something of a recurring theme in my career, I was following close on the heels of the departed burnt-out minister who, it had been said, was a great people person but an ungifted leader. I, it was hoped, was the solution to all their problems: a fresh-faced, eager minister just out of a master’s program, who would respond to my aged constituents’ wishes, and was willing and capable of turning an already bad situation around.
This place was an old-school operation. Located in an unincorporated area named after a Scottish tobacco plantation and slave owner, the building was a long, narrow, brick-and-mortar gymnasium of a place with a basement and adjoining entryway. The members, principally, were retired and semi-retired government employees and ex-military personnel. They were genuinely lovely, intelligent, warm-hearted and funny older people who could be counted on every Sunday, had remarkable resiliency and were considered (rightly) to be wonderful, charming and welcoming hosts, especially under the cloud of the devastating attrition they’d encountered during the last decade.
Entirely Caucasian, it was the only Independent Christian Church on the overwhelmingly African American eastside of town, and in spite of the fact that the community was experiencing historic population increases and a booming housing market – the church remained in decline. Being the minister, and nominally in charge of my own ministry – I was not happy about continuing with the same anachronistic style of programming that was well past its heyday. But I was patient, changing very little during the first year.
A support staffer, far younger and healthier, uncharitably referred to the auditorium as a ‘wrinkle room’ and made fun of the somewhat sad, even funeral-like atmosphere of a typical organ-only worship service.  They may have owned the building outright and had a nice nest-egg in the bank, but the future was decidedly not bright – every Sunday staking out the welcome table, peering at the front door in search of first-time-visitors that would never come.  I did my best to punch up the worship service, assembling a black-gospel choir accompanied by a partial band appealing to the preferences of the community. I administered over the work responsibly, spent the church’s money wisely, and generally behaved in such a way as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the old guard.
Despite some inroads into the community, things were not going as planned. Long-time members were uncomfortable with the changing demographics and migrated to churches outside the county. I don’t think they were prepared for the required cultural changes and modernization. Some in the congregation had given their life to the building, having, years ago, taken out second-mortgages to build the thing. So it pained me to see their dream of rekindling the past die in increments.
‘But we all love that hymn’ Max would protest when I suggested removing a particular moribund song from the repertoire. He’d keep certain things on, favorites which brought back memories of the glory days, week in and week out, waiting for those folks to return. But they were not coming this Sunday, I could have pointed out – in fact, they weren’t ever coming back. The place was dying. The smell of desperation was in the air. You could detect it halfway down the block, as we were surrounded by larger but equally visitor-hungry congregations. You could see it on member’s faces when a few straggling visitors would on occasion happen through the door, they would pounce on them like starved remoras.
But I soldiered on. I didn’t know what else to do. Restrained from putting much of an imprint on the place – and unprepared to offer a viable alternative – I became distracted and depressed and settled down into the role of an overpaid Bible study leader rather than a minister.  What I learned on this assignment was a sad lesson that has served me well since: I learned to recognize failure.
 The trajectory of many ministers after an experience like this - should they survive it - is to move on to the next establishment, usually already hemorrhaging when they arrive. They become hooked on a Senior Minister-size paycheck and end up chasing money rather than effective ministry. In fact, some are condemned to being a travelling Mr. Fixit, always arriving after a former minister messes things up. More often than not they end up functioning as more of an undertaker than a minister.
Having only recently achieved my dream of becoming a minister, I began looking for something more. And rather than feeding off the expiring dreams of a succession of misguided souls, I moved back to Southern California and started a new venture.   

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Saint

I first met The Saint when I relocated to Los Angeles in 1991. He was then, and remains, a west coast fixture, loved by generations of Angelinos, ministers, Bible college professors, missionaries, young adults, parents, grandparents and the homeless. I won’t give his name, though every minister living in southern California who reads this will know who I’m talking about. He’ll certainly know. He’ll call me.
‘Hey, whass-goin-on?,’ he’ll say. He says ‘whass-goin-on’ like it’s still in vogue. It’s his homage to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit single.
 ‘Hey, I read your blog . . .’
‘Yess . . . ‘ I’ll respond waiting for the shoe to drop.
‘You didn’t tell me you were going to write all that,’ he’ll say. ‘Did you have to include that in your webpage . . . blog . . . inter-web thing?’
Now, the first thing I heard about The Saint when I worked with him back in the ‘90s was that ‘he would pick up homeless people from a Santa Monica graveyard every Tuesday, take them home, feed them, give them a shower, provide them unlimited access to the family refrigerator, bathroom, washer and dryer, and then hand them a weekly allowance.’ At first I figured this to be some kind of urban legend – then I witnessed it with my own eyes. But the point is that this was the first thing I heard about him. That he turned his home into a weekly sanctuary for the homeless. And The Saint, as you might imagine, isn’t at all comfortable drawing attention to himself. Others like to describe him as ‘a godly, selfless, meek, and humble man of God – the real deal’ which is typically a fair description. He is not an unattractive guy – he looks like an older, bald Terrance Howard – he is just under 6 foot, an avid racquet-ball player, with strong shoulders and deceptively quizzical eyes. He likes to play the good guy – an aggressive defender of the weak – and like a protective golden retriever, fiercely loyal.
Pensive, even-keeled, peace-making, tolerant, adaptable – an aide, a psychotherapist, a mediator, a confidant, a guide: The Saint is all those things. He’s also the most stand-up guy I ever worked with. He inspires a strange and consuming allegiance. I try, in my service to others, to be just like him.
During my first month working with The Saint – a man I knew nothing of other than the rumor, and the fact that everyone appeared to revere him – I struggled through a few Bible studies with the youth of the church on the second floor of the education wing. I was their new Youth Minister. These were smug upper-class teenagers who had determined long before I arrived that anyone from the Midwest couldn’t possibly relate to their way of life. As a result, youth group discussions ended up being long, drawn-out, uncomfortable sessions punctuated by frequent periods of uncomfortable silence. So I finished my first month feeling discouraged, exhausted and resigned to the fact that these teens would never accept me. But one evening as I walked back to my office preparing to slink away into the night, a parent gave me a curious look and told me, ‘The Saint wants you meet with you in his office.’ Down the hall in The Saint’s inner-sanctum, my nurturing colleague looked up at me, complimented me on a fine job, and invited me to dinner. ‘You are doing a good job with the teens,’ he began. ‘I know the kids aren’t very receptive, but they need you.’ I can’t begin to describe the gratification I felt at having gained his approval, especially considering it was his shoes I was desperately trying to fill.
I frankly wasn’t that respectful of him in the beginning. I was thrilled by the opportunity to minister in Los Angeles, and I headed to the west coast that October filled with hope and confidence, certain I’d outshine my predecessor. I pulled into town, I remember, wearing – Lord help me – a pastel yellow oxford-cloth shirt and mint-green, pleated Dockers. The shoes too, were green. The only thing missing was a fanny-pack. Here I was, pulling into a neighborhood that for all intents and purposes was a mecca for upper-class black families, many of whom were nationally known entertainers and sports heroes, a part of town where people dressed in the latest Neiman Marcus fashions – Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace – and in some deranged, mid ‘80s bout of mid-western hubris, I chose to make my entrance in 100% cotton Bob Saget-wear, just itching to show the big city folks how we do it back home.
I alone was too dumb to see how over my head I was in this new environment. But unintimidated as only the ignorant can be, I discounted every existing program that had been established before I arrived, regaling my new associates with exaggerated versions of my cross-cultural ministry experience in the southwestern corner of Ohio. Overcompensating for my youthful insecurity, I tried to portray myself as some street-smart, experienced, professional urban-missionary.
They were, to be charitable to myself, not impressed. The Saint, in particular, smiled and kept focused on his new duties as Associate Minister, all the while indulgently enduring without comment my endless self-aggrandizing line of witless chatter. I should have understood his silence and pregnant pauses for what they were, the sufferings of a fool. I should have understood. But I didn’t.
So the unmerited grace he extended to me that fateful evening at the end of my first month on the job changed me. I felt going home that night, humbled but renewed. The Saint, you see, after withstanding my obnoxious behavior, redeemed me when I didn’t deserve it.
I worked alongside The Saint for years – almost a decade – and since then, for almost a quarter of a century, I have hardly gone three days in a row without talking to him either over the phone or in person. He was there during the lowest point of my career. I was burnt out from a five-year run serving a severely dysfunctional church in Washington D.C. as a not very good minister. I was determined to get out of the ministry, sickened by an ego-maniacal, imperious Elder/Treasurer, being solely responsible for every program the church conducted and then having to beg for my paycheck (perpetually past due) so I could pay my mortgage . . . I was spent, desperate, unhappy, with a negligible-to-bad reputation for not respecting “the way we have always done things.”
Always in my corner, never giving up on me, he offered to give me money, encouragement, resources, anything he felt I needed and without hesitation. He was always willing to take tremendous leaps of faith on his part to help me continue, even if he hadn’t laid eyes on me in years. Looking at me, hearing the edited-for-television version of things I had been through, he must have had every reason to believe I’d give up and disappear. But as so often happens with The Saint, his trust was rewarded. I was so shaken by his baseless faith in me, that such a blameless individual as The Saint would make such gestures – that I determined I’d sooner cut off my hands, poke out an eye, shave my head and run barefoot over burning coals than to betray that trust.
He taught me how to profoundly change a person’s life. It’s about Chesed - a Hebrew vision of the ideal life characterized by mercy and compassion. If you were struggling to manage the responsibilities that come with living, working, taking care of your family because of self-destructive choices? Be honest about it. It’s okay to walk into The Saint’s office and say, ‘Hey, I was up all night smoking crack, sticking up liquor stores, and drinking the blood of animals sacrificed to pagan gods’ . . .  if that’s the truth. That’s acceptable. But if you show up denying there is a problem and then try saying, ‘Uh . . . I was on the way to work and the ambassador to China crashed his limo right next to me . . . and I had to get out and give him mouth-to-mouth . . . and like I saved the country from an international foreign relations debacle, man!’ You, my friend, will be out of luck. No one can help you.  
The Saint understood – as I came to understand – that character is far more important than skills or personal history. He understood, and taught me, that a morally-flawed individual who tells you the truth, even if it’s embarrassing, is less likely to take advantage of your forgiveness than a person who lies to save face from the smallest indiscretion.  He’d lift ex-junkie degenerates out of the gutter and turn them into trusted deacons, guys who’d lose an arm rather than take for granted the trust and respect bestowed upon them by The Saint. He’d get homeless guys right off the street, give them duties within a graduated system of responsibility, new clothes, and full participation in the administrative committees of the church. Nothing made him happier than seeing one of his recruits turn their life around.
The most important and lasting lessons I learned from The Saint were about spiritual maturity and interpersonal relationships – how do you respond to a person who has blown it? Your response to that situation reveals just as much –if not more - about your maturity as it does about theirs. Spiritually mature leaders understand that the objective, when faced with a person who has been caught in a sin, is restoration. When a brother has stumbled, but he hopes to do right, wants to do right, is willing to do right; your goal is to help him get back on the straight and narrow – not to hurt him further. Good intentions aren’t enough. And I always, always want to be ready to help. Just like The Saint.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Church Planting Syndrome And Other Medical Anomalies

Back in the day, ‘I want to be a church planter’ used to be a strange and terrible affliction. Why so many otherwise sensible ministers would give in to such a destructive urge is hard to say, considering the menacing statistic that 80% of church-plants fail within the first year. Today, however, things have changed as church-planting is a much more promising endeavor. According to the North American Mission Board and thanks to the advancements in church-planting systems, the current rate of survivability is something like 68% after the first four years - even though the typical church-plant fails to surpass 100 in attendance during that same initial phase.
Yet despite the recent leaps forward there are still significant risks. The venture is an enterprise with enormous fixed expenses (rent, advertisement, audio/visual equipment, storage, towable trailer, branding, website development, insurance, etc.), an unmistakably young and untested staff, and – if you are in an urban environment – a notoriously transient and unstable population. The chances of ever reaching self-sustainability are about two in three –not bad I guess. But keep in mind that until that threshold of autonomy is achieved there are times when you are standing on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, wondering if you will be the one in three that gets run over.   
What motivates a minister to take such a risk? Hopefully it’s because God has called him to meet a need, and in response, he has carefully evaluated the risk, consulted with other experienced professionals, soberly assessed his own giftedness, and has an overriding desire to glorify God through great sacrifice and humility.
There are, unfortunately, instances that don’t measure up to this standard. Consider, for instance, the classic cautionary tale of the ego-driven minister who was always told that the church’s elders were holding him back. ‘You should start your own church,’ his friends would tell him. And our minister believed them. He wants to strike out on his own – not to make money, not really, but to enjoy the freedom of making decisions without anyone second-guessing him or clogging up the works. And he’ll have plenty of chances to make those decisions – when his free-loading, Christian friends who told him what a success he’d be starting his own church never show up to help. All these short-sighted geniuses will be more than happy to show up for a Sunday service, drinking the free Starbucks, eating the pastries, taking credit for this bold venture – until the place starts running into trouble, at which point they dematerialize, shaking their heads at their foolish minister who just didn’t seem to live up to the calling.
Maybe the minister is having a mid-life crisis. He figures this is his last shot at the greatness he so desires. He is convinced that his time will never come as long as he is underappreciated at the current dysfunctional church where he is employed.  This isn’t as uncommon as you think – perfectly reasonable, even learned ministers, hitting their thirties suddenly start writing checks with their egos.
Unsurprisingly, a minister who starts a church to be told he’s wonderful is totally unprepared for the realities of the calling. He’s completely blindsided when the start-up doesn’t explode with converts immediately. Under-capitalized, uneducated about the arcane requirements of public school bureaucracies and their rental agreements, frequent signage repairs, unforeseen equipment replacement, first-time-visitor numbers drop, or fail to improve, he panics, and starts looking for the quick fix. He thrashes around in an escalating state of agitation, tinkering with branding, starting-time and order of worship service, various outreach schemes. As the end draws near, these ideas are replaced by more immediately practical ones: get a second job . . . cut back on advertisement . . . find a less expensive venue. Naturally, as the congregation becomes more schizophrenic – one week meeting here at one time, one week meeting there at another – as the poor minister tries one thing after another like a rat trying to escape a burning building, the already elusive church-going public begins to detect the unmistakable odor of uncertainty, fear, and approaching death. What is amazing is how long some of these neophytes hang on after the clouds of doom gather around the place - as if God is going to miraculously save them from the chaos they themselves have created.   
Of course there are many, many ministers who do well in the world of church-planting, who know what they’re doing. They know from the get-go what they want, what they are capable of doing well, and exactly how much it’s going to cost them at the outset. Most important, they have a fixed idea of how long they’re able to suffer financially before they pull the plug. Like a true professional, a confident church planter doesn’t bother with magic bullets, changing the style of worship, or compromising core principles. With steely resolve, a minister with a true calling, in the face of adversity, will suck it up and redouble his efforts to make this church the Christ-centered congregation he had envisioned all along praying that the secularized population will eventually discover it, trust it, learn to love it. These guys know that when you hit the panic button and call in the consultants (read: unemployable ministers, or failed church planters who still want to make a living), or start taking austerity measures like retreating to someone’s living room – or worst of all, combining with another struggling congregation – that they may as well close the doors for good. It’s just not good stewardship. A smart church-planter will, when he realizes things haven’t worked out, fold up his tent and move on – before he’s knocked out of the ministry for good. One disastrous ministry can put an end to your entire career.
Some ministers are even less easy to explain than the novice who over-estimates his own ability. Proven church-planters, guys with congregations of over 1,000 thriving members, ministers who’ve already beaten the odds, who have had and still have a successful God-ordained ministry, what makes these guys over-reach? Often, the original flagship operation is a simple, straightforward concept: a new church in a new community, or a re-launched church in an existing community, or simply a well-established church that never stopped growing. But success makes these guys feel invulnerable. They must be geniuses, right? They have drawn thousands of people into their own auditoriums! So rather than planting other autonomous congregations, why not franchise and open a 500 seat satellite-campus with simulcast sermons and a merchandising outlet in another community? The answer is so simple. Because it’s not Biblical!
Changing lives, bringing hundreds or thousands of people together in a single Bible-based congregation? What’s wrong with that? You’re blessed man! Keep up the good work! Why this sudden urge to expand an empire into a theologically-questionable, mini-denominational operation? One of the big questions that keeps coming back but is never answered is: Are multi-site churches the modern-day precursors to denominations, enabled by new technology? Unfortunately this sort of high-level question is never addressed.
So, given all these perils . . . why? Why would anyone want to do it?
Inarguably, a successful church-plant demands that you live on a stipend-of-a-salary for the first few years – if you get paid at all, working seven-day weeks, with total involvement in every aspect of a complicated, demanding, and high-pressure vocation. If you work in an urban area you must not only be fluent in Spanish but in the Torah-like intricacies of tax law, unified school districting codes, insurance, and fire department regulations. And with every dime you’ve got tied up in the venue, suddenly the school sends you a notice informing you that the lease – which expires next week – can’t be renewed because of a clerical error; your in-home Bible study host just called to say they will be out of town for the next three weeks requiring you to secure an alternate location; Media Shout, the projection software, keeps crashing, shutting down your multimedia presentation in middle of the worship service; the air-conditioning hasn’t worked in three weeks and it’s the middle of July; there is a new family in the church whose stated mission is to teach everyone in the church to speak in tongues, which ensures your presence at every small group meeting for the next six months; you just spent 30,000 dollars on mass-marketing post cards, but the information table is out of welcome-packets and you have nothing in the coffers to cover the expense before the first visitors arrive; the head of the Infants and Babies ministry suddenly got a job out of the country and will be leaving at the end of the month;  the indoor display girl wants a certified check or she’s not shipping your delivery; you didn’t get enough thermal coffee-cup sleeves for the weekend; and is that young, female visitor waiting for one of your roadie guys to stop flirting with her so she can go home?
By the grace of God we have developed a team with the ability to meet all the requirements of surviving these tedious and unforgiving challenges, a group of servants who live, breathe and actually enjoy solving little problems like the ones above. Our church staff loves the challenge, the minutiae, the puzzling mysteries of how God’s grace can be used to conquer, outwit, and endure. They are good. They are so good that I still wake up every Sunday morning at five minutes to six, always before the alarm. Why? Because to disappoint them or the God we serve – not to live up to their shining example of total commitment would be, even now, treason to my calling.  I have become a real minister capable of organizing, operating and most important, leading a church – because of these great men and women of faith.
Why do I do it? I do it because every other alternative seems as dull as dishwater. I do it because there is no greater feeling than knowing that the presence of God is more dynamic in the life of a believer because of the work He has allowed me to do.  For me that, more than any other thing, brings significance and meaning to my life.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

From Our Neighborhood To Yours

I saw a banner the other day outside a church building located along the freeway as I made my way to the other side of town, advertising ‘Everyone Welcome’. A brightly colored collage of multi-generational, all-white, American middle-class faces filled the conspicuous advertisement. I can’t imagine a better example of Things To Be Wary Of in light of the fact that this, primarily Caucasian, church was located in a leafy green, upscale bedroom community consisting, almost entirely, of African Americans.  Yet there it was. I wonder had the sign said ‘Whites Welcome’, if it would still be standing?  
Finding a place to grow spiritually is a risk. Every once in a while a badly behaving church official, for instance, will be caught embezzling money from the church coffers, a pedophile will be discovered within the ranks of the Christian education program surreptitiously molesting little boys in the men’s bathroom, or a much-beloved church leader will be forced to come out of the shadows to admit a lifetime of addiction. Does this mean you should leave the church? No – not necessarily. Every church is susceptible to this type of painful contradiction. The bigger the church, the broader the range of moral failings, the higher the likelihood of scandal.  I’m not going to deny myself an opportunity to be blessed, to be comforted, to be encouraged or even to be witness to some glorious manifestation of God’s provision all because of a single, albeit horrible, fall from grace.
But there are some general rules I adhere to, things I have seen over the years that remain in mind and have altered my perception of ministry. I may be perfectly willing to attend Christmas mass at a Catholic church in Mexico, where the annoying practices of praying to Mary and confessing to a priest are dubiously practiced and I can see with my own eyes prayers being offered to graven images (I mean, where else am I going to go? I’m in Mexico!), but on home turf, with the daily objective of connecting people to Christ, there are some definite dos and don’ts I’ve chosen to live by.
I never go to a church that does not reflect the racial makeup of its community unless I’m worshipping at a place like La Iglesia de Hechos 2:42 - an El Salvadorian, first-generation, Spanish-speaking-only church in the middle of South Central Los Angeles where I know the reason for the disparity is a language barrier. I am confident the complexion of the church is not a result of some deliberate marketing campaign.
You walk into Big City Christian Church in an ethnically diverse suburb on any tranquil Sunday morning and you find a warmly worded welcome printed just inside the branded, professionally designed collateral. The greeting is accompanied by various directives for participation, location of child care, and a smiling picture of the pastor. What’s not to like? Here is something that should leap out as you navigate the bulletin: no cultural diversity among the staff. And as you get comfortable in your seat, you notice little diversity among the members.
Here’s how it works: the pastor of this fine fellowship sends out marketing post-cards every few months to generate first-time visitors. He targets ‘desirable’ neighborhoods through the careful selection of zip codes, determining who will, or will not, walk through the front door on any given Sunday. All right, some churches do not use mailings, but they do collect follow-up information from visitors – email addresses, phone numbers, physical addresses – which is then kept or discarded to fit with a predetermined result. It has the same effect! The pastor is hoping to reach middle to upper-class prospects, which, he rationalizes, is in the best interest of the church. He’s assuming also that most minorities will not be comfortable with the church’s style of worship and would be better-off left out of the equation.  Outreach? It’s a sophisticated, consumer-based approach to church growth. Terrible, you say? Why doesn’t he simply saturate a ten-mile radius around the church with advertisement? The church shouldn’t discriminate according to race or class. Right? Sure, he can . . . but what is preventing the board of elders from thinking exactly the same way? The elder board evaluates the pastor according to two primary metrics – numerical growth and financial support. Don’t forget to factor in the reality that many of the elders are parents and have strong prejudices against interracial dating. But elders oversee the church by establishing biblically-based administrative policies, you say! They can eliminate prejudice! Friends, I have been in monthly, elder board meetings for over two decades, and believe me, it does not inspire confidence. Chances are good that the policies being voted upon and approved in your congregation have more to do with a General Electric employee handbook – mission statements, human resource guidelines, by-law revisions - than they do with scripture. These are not optimum Kingdom-expanding conditions.
This is why you don’t see a lot of church mailers in the mailboxes, for instance, of lower-class neighborhoods – not enough return on investment. The pastor knows. He also anticipates the likelihood of losing major financial contributors if internal demographics begin to shift in an inconvenient direction.
Church outreach is a tricky business in the urbanized, multi-cultural areas of America’s population centers. If the pastor encourages a high-energy, celebration style of worship with a heavy ethnic flair, reflecting the preferences of the surrounding community, but the primary supporters of the ministry do not like the changes, the pastor will generally fall back to what he knows, what is familiar, and what is safe. If that means Indie style, acoustic guitar-based worship music and even-keeled, not-overly-emotional sermon deliveries – that is what you are getting.
Most heroes in the evangelical world lead homogenous mega-churches. Rather than accommodating ethnic/cultural/socio-economic diversity by creating pathways for expression in the life of the church, people are asked to assimilate and leave their cultural differences in the church parking lot. On one occasion while attending a church planting conference, I listened as the instructor lamented about how much money his organization had wasted in the minority-filled inner-cities. After much prayer and countless attempts to establish a successful plant, he and his organization had decided ‘to focus energy and resources outside the city limits’. Following his presentation, it came time for a break from the serious matters of the day, where we were treated to a little comic relief – a cartoon video of a bumbling Chinese chef singing in broken, heavily accented English, ‘Welcome to Wong Way Chicken, I take-a you oda please, would you like a little bit begitable and flied lice?’ The room – filled with white, middle-class males and just minutes away from the country’s largest Chinese-American population - roared with laughter. After the break we all went back to hearing passionate dissertations on how best to reach the over 80% of non-church-going Americans by being ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘relevant to culture’ - it was surreal.
Another thing I don’t accept is prejudices against interracial marriages. In my experience, most churches don’t address this issue directly with scripture. It’s a matter of practicality. More often than not, you hear people say ‘I don’t want my son or daughter marrying’ this group or that group ‘because I am worried about the kids’ or whatever. Don’t misunderstand me, everyone has a right to that preference.  But let’s be clear, that is a preference, not a biblical demand. Moses, a jew, married a woman of African descent, the Ethiopian, Kushite woman named Zipporah. Afterward, Moses’ sister, Miriam, protested the interracial marriage so relentlessly that God rewarded her with leprosy. In other words, He turned her, presumably, olive colored skin white. It was poetic justice. Conversely, the bible does have a lot to say about religious intermarriage, but you don’t hear a lot of protests among Christians when it comes to the ladies of the church dating non-Christian men – particularly if he lives in Hollywood Hills, drives a BMW, and has a large bank account.
How about a congregation that sponsors a Spanish-only service? Well . . . sometimes but never as an obvious attempt to avoid diversity. Spanish-only services are an open invitation for the culturally challenged pastor, an easy compromise between a result-oriented board of elders and an ever-changing community. But if authentic ministry is about relationships, how, exactly, will those relationships be nurtured? Also keep in mind that segregation of this nature can backfire when, for example, first-generation Filipinos seek exclusivity as a means to preserve their ethnic identity. It’s one thing to provide a worship experience for first-generation, Asian American adults in their primary language; it’s quite another for that same group to resist the inevitable cultural changes that are necessary as subsequent Americanized generations assimilate.
A few years back, while on staff of an ethnically transitioning congregation, I had the misfortune of working with a sensitive young man serving as the worship leader who, in addition to a wide and varied social life, was something of a racist. During one meeting, I suggested we incorporate a few Mass Choir selections into our praise and worship time. This, I reasoned, would be an important gesture as we faced the need to accommodate, rather than assimilate, our neighbors in the community. Ordinarily, requests of this nature were politely and thoughtfully entertained – not, however, on this occasion. ‘But Terry,’ my associate responded, ‘do you really want all those black people in our church?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. In that peculiar slow motion one experiences in car wrecks, I sat there speechless – like a hypnotized chicken. The only memorable detail I recall about my response was the expression on my face, significant in that it was frozen into a rictus of a grin. Such are the strange and terrible powers of racism. Years later, after being fired for having an unrepentant and immoral lifestyle, he threatened to sue the church for – you guessed it - discrimination.
While we are on the subject of church staffs, simply hiring someone on the basis of their skin color is equally disturbing. A wise pastor will do more than hire ethnically diverse staff members, he will deploy them so as to influence the cultural fabric of the congregation. My long time associate and lifetime best friend served for nearly thirty years as the sole African American on his church staff. Never once was he invited to share his unique perspective or to provide practical ideas aimed at cultural accommodation. As a result, he often wondered if he was simply a token of race – a cynical, symbol-over-substance, public relations ploy. No one, after all, wants to be known as ‘the brown guy’ who was hired to prove the church’s openess to racial diversity.
What leaders must understand is that before we can build multiethnic churches, we must be willing to live multiethnic lives.
Multiculturalism is complex and not always about race, but also age, class, and church experience. Seeing any one person as solely one of these things reduces the church to a shallow institution of consumerism and clouds our understanding of God’s beautiful and complex creation.
Consider this passage from the book of Revelation chapter 7 (NIV) which embodies God’s intent:
‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”’
What a beautiful picture of the church.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Who Ministers

Who ministers to you anyway? What warm and congenial saints toil tirelessly just beyond the tables of the reception center? You see the pastor: he’s the guy with spiky hair, cool glasses, maybe a soul patch under his lip. But who is actually ministering to you? Are they young, ambitious seminary grads, putting in their time behind the scenes until they get their shot at the Big Job? Perhaps, but increasingly that is not the case. If the pastor is anything like me, the church staff is a typical working class, grown-up-in-the-church lot, motivated by God’s Word, the peculiar lifestyle of being in ministry and a mixture of all things good and local. Unless your church is very large, they probably aren’t even full-time employees – assuming they are paid at all.
Ministry done well is a beautiful thing to experience. The church staff is a caring collaboration resembling, at its best, a M.A.S.H. unit or well coordinated team of first responders. They are more - much more - than a skilled crew or formal partnership of hired guns. Effective church staffs care for one another, have been to one another’s homes, eat together, celebrate holidays together, and if asked what an associate’s dad does for a living - they’ll know. They serve one another and contribute to an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations. A properly organized, fully committed staffer, one who works selflessly, and has a ‘calling’ – meaning a God ordained, customized life purpose, which, most important, brings God the greatest glory – can perform his duties with influential grace.
What most people don’t get about professional-level ministry is that it is not at all about the latest praise songs, the most innovative children’s program, the most creative use of worship technology; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you walked in the door of the auditorium. Ministry – the real business of spiritual growth – is about relationship. The fact is, the greatness of any church is not measured by how modern the building, the acreage of the campus, or the number of people in attendance. Those things have their place. Authentic ministry is measured by the capacity not just to serve, but to relate to those whom you serve.
You want staff members to possess an affinity for people. Someone who shows up on Sunday morning, discharges their duties, and is the first to drive out of the parking lot is not what I’m looking for. While it’s necessary for staffers to establish personal boundaries – it’s a good idea to let the staff breath a little by not requiring their attendance at every church event – this is still a family. Ultimately, I want life to be shared and bonds to be created. If I want entertainment by an isolated cast of characters, I’ll send people to Disneyland. People come to church expecting to find connection; they don’t want some budding musical talent treating the worship service like a temporary gig just paying the bills until that big break comes along in the music industry. Nor do they want a pastor who is so involved in ‘vision casting’ that he can’t be bothered to lead a small group or make a hospital call.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you each individual member of the staff has to have a relationship with everyone in the church. That’s not possible. I’m saying that being a member of a church staff goes beyond fulfilling a job description. There’s a gulf the size of an ocean between adequate ministry and a caring community. And it all begins with the staff. There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits and the kind of discipline required to touch someone’s life. There’s no faking it in ministry.  Authenticity is measured by your willingness to be inconvenienced. Yes, some relationships, inevitably, will happen by chance. But chance is not a model for ministry.
 The relationship between Pastor and Associate Pastor can be a particularly intimate one, for instance, and it’s nice to have someone with a similar background and world-view when you’re going to spend almost every waking hour together. Women staff members, however rare they might be in the testosterone heavy, male-dominated world of church staffs, are a particular delight. To have a sensitive, intuitive, knows-just-what-to-say female staff member can be invaluable – and a civilizing factor in a unit where an informal conversation about baseball can easily turn into a heated debate over the utilities of the sacrifice bunt.
I have been fortunate enough to work with some really Godly women – no weak reeds these. One single woman, Elaine, managed to voluntarily cook and deliver mercy-meals to church members befallen by tragedy, while she, herself, was dying of cancer. This was not, keep in mind, part of a church program. A long-time assistant, Janet, who refers to herself as ‘not very adventurous’, managed to hold down a busy campground kitchen situated in a makeshift trailer in the middle of the slums of Tijuana – and still find time to provide advice and comfort to romantically unhappy teenagers. She was compulsive about cleanliness and neatness, and as vocal about it, as Martha Stewart, but gladly suffered for the cause of Christ.
Ministry is also about reliability. It is about week-in-week-out, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a pastor wants in a staff member is an innovator, an associate with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the church’s vision and strategy. Pastors require loyalty, a thick skin and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions. The job requires character – and endurance. When Sunday comes, a good staffer never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and difficulty.
Event calendars are the central nervous system for all effective church staffs. Do not touch a staff member’s personal organizer – meaning their laptop, digital tablet, or smart phone. These manage carefully recorded dates, times, details, contact information for teen pregnancy centers, worship software’s tech support, the home phone number of the local chief-of-police, pizza delivery services, inflatable waterslide vendors and so on. As a staffer, your personal information device, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your brain and it is profoundly upsetting if anyone - up to and including, heaven forbid, an immediate family member – disturbs your precisely personalized and carefully organized system. The universe is in order when your personal organizer is arranged the way you like it; you know where to find everything within two keystrokes and with your eyes closed. Everything you need to delegate tasks and coordinate activity is ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. Fail to update and integrate incoming information, allow it to become disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and annoying everyone else around you.   
Being theologically sound, properly trained, and adequately coordinated is not nearly enough. An effective staff member has to be able to remain level-headed and even-keeled during hectic and stressful situations. When you have fifteen or twenty parents of teenagers all demanding to know why two boys in the youth group were caught mooning the girl’s dorm on the last night of a spiritual retreat - two of the girls being daughters of church Elders; you can’t launch into a defensive tirade critiquing parenting styles and complaining about how you aren’t appreciated. You have to be gracious! Your hero staffer doesn’t let the anger of others, the frantic cries of ‘Incompetence!’, and the long and potentially confusing list of complaints throw him. He’s got to be grounded and understand how to deal with conflict and manage a crisis.  
The ability to ‘work well with others’ is a must. If you are the sound engineer, the worship leader is your dance partner, and chances are, you’re spending the majority of your worship time exchanging hand signals from a cramped sub-marine-like space, adjusting levels, mixing feeds and constantly surveying the room to make sure that voices can be heard above instruments so that the whole listening experience is pleasant and balanced. The both of you are trying to hit time-sensitive and synchronized cues, gratify a wide variety of personal preferences, all the while exemplifying the love of God and unity of Christ’s body. So you had better get along. It will not do to have two overly sensitive facilitators of worship arguing over some perceived insult when there are impressionable people around who are new to the faith. 
So who, exactly, are these guys, the men and women in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my experience that all church staffers are salt-of-the-earth, selfless servants, do-gooders, an unusual assortment of sober, gentle, patient, kindly saints and friendly neighbors. You wouldn’t be too far off base.  A church’s staff, as one pastor friend explains it, attracts a caring element, people for whom something in their lives clicked – their faith. They enjoyed high school, they are not running away from anything – be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law. And maybe, like me, they just like it here. They are comfortable with the rather disciplined and caring code of conduct within the church hallways, the elevated level of tolerance for the needy, the hurting, the lonely, the rejected. In most churches, one’s position in the world matters little if at all. Do you love Jesus? Are you willing to serve Him? Can I count on you to show up and do your part?
That’s what counts.
There are exceptions. I can break down dysfunctional church staffers into three subgroups.
You’ve got the Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. This group includes specialists like worship leaders, musicians, and the occasional vocalists whose voices are so ethereal and mesmerizing that delusions of grandeur are often tolerated. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word ‘artist’, I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up for work on time. More often than not their efforts, convinced as they are of their own delicate genius, are geared more to narcissism than providing a satisfying worship experience in which the great majority of church-goers can participate. Personally, I’d prefer praising God with music that sounds good and is an honest reflection of the leader’s heart, than with the latest hit from the Christian music scene which showcases the artist’s vocal range, or has a really cool guitar solo.  
Then there are the Exiles: people who just couldn’t make it in another business and, mid-career, decided they would give ministry a try. They say things like ‘I want to pursue ministry as a career’ or ‘I’m just so unhappy where I am now.’ It’s not clear if they are pursuing Jesus or going on a job search.
Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. They are particularly proficient in some area of ministry, though they have little love or natural proclivity for engaging others in conversation. They do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it – they are professionals, purveyors of religion.  Forced to choose, I’d take a stand up mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When a job applicant starts telling me how they have the anointing, I see trouble coming. Send me another moderately gifted guitar player. I can teach him to lead worship. I can’t teach character. Show up on time to lead your ministry six months in a row and we’ll talk about letting you start a Saturday night service with computer generated lighting, stage props, and liturgical rope dancers. Until then . . . let’s pray about it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Church Is Pain

My first full-time ministry came with great anticipation. Newly invigorated with cutting-edge strategies, Standard Publishing’s Youth Ministry and the New International Version under my arm, and my head filled with half-baked ideas and a few techniques I’d seen and maybe even tried a few times, I joined the ministerial staff of a church of Christ located in a very small town in the Midwest. I could handle teaching adult Bible studies without embarrassing myself, and I was enthusiastic about my new, if modest, skills. I was determined to work hard, and in every way possible impress my immediate supervisor and the church elders.
Ralph, the Senior Minister, was years older than I was. Then in his early thirties, insecure about his weight, chunky-framed glasses and a well-tended moustache, he was markedly different from the ministers of my youth. A mercurial, competitive, decision maker, Ralph was a man of middling ability and skills. On any given day he could be spotted around town on his racing bike trying to shed excess pounds. He drove a flashy, blue, late-model Chevy Camero, loved sports, dry sarcasm, and bass fishing – to which he was hopelessly addicted. Brainy, paranoid, and infamously prone to yelling matches with his wife in the church parking lot, he was both amusing and appalling.
Ralph lived on the outskirts of Nowhereville, ministering to a medium-sized congregation with an average weekly attendance of two hundred and fifty, but fancied himself as the next great mega-church pastor. We’d have Sunday morning staff meetings in a detached, out-house of an office where he would plan that morning’s worship service with Deidre, the worship leader, and then try to impress us with arcane bits of ministry knowledge and the latest church-growth trends. Treated as an onlooker, he never once asked for my input or showed any interest in my endeavors. I was there to babysit the kids while he did the important work - the less interaction I required of him the better.
I, however, had a greater vision. I was there to establish a well-organized and growing ministry to youth. And my efforts were, in the warm light of day, pretty successful. But, then again, no other church in town was organizing hayrides, running a van ministry, or providing exciting summer Vacation Bible School programs. I had been tasked with the ambitious mission of reaching every young person in the area, and I was determined not to let the church down. I threw myself into the effort with near-fanatical once-in-a-lifetime zeal and it was paying off.
Capitalizing on my affable disposition, I made myself available to parents as well as to the youth. I demonstrated an interest in the personal lives of families taking note of little league games, summer vacation plans, and medical emergencies. I would spend hours in beauty shops, porch swings, restaurants, and hardware stores mingling and building bridges between the church and the community. I would drive to the poorest of neighborhoods, introduce myself and the church, and offer to provide transportation to any child willing to participate in our program. Using a team approach, I recruited sponsors heavily and was willing to do jobs that were less desirable and required more finesse – which is to say, lead the junior high youth group.
The teen ministry, a high-energy, high-profile program of events, involved weekly Bible studies, monthly service opportunities, and regular socials facilitated by a cadre of empathetic and caring, young adults. In the foreground were annual pilgrimages to King’s Island theme park – Hannah-Barbera’s version of Coney Island, all-night gatherings at the local YMCA, and lots and lots of pizza. Small, weekly care-groups in the background helped teens cope with tumultuous emotions and the difficulty of experiencing adolescence. It was typical fare for any medium-sized congregation trying to arrest the attention of the youth culture of America’s middle class – it was simple but effective.
Within a year attendances soared, baptisms were a regular occurrence, and high school graduates were considering full-time Christian service. God’s kingdom was expanding through our work. The ministry was exceeding expectations, and many verbalized satisfaction for the return of investment the church was receiving for my salary. We built up a strong momentum in a short amount of time, and we made the most of it, even dreaming about building a multi-purpose youth center on the church property.
One Sunday in mid-December after the morning worship service, I loaded up my wife and daughter into our gray Toyota mini-van. I was weighted down with a briefcase full of curriculum, several Christmas cards, and an early Christmas gift given to me in a flutter of activity just as I was exiting the building.  Handing the colorfully wrapped box to my wife, I blithely asked her to open it mentioning how thoughtful Marsha, a young mother, had been to remember us. Keeping one eye on the road, I watched as Patty lifted open the package revealing a thin layer of embroidered fabric displaying the festive image of Rudolph and eight tiny reindeer pulling Santa on his sleigh. ‘How cute,’ remarked Patty, ‘Christmas doilies!’ However, a more thorough inspection revealed that these were no holiday linens. To my shock – and Patty’s amusement - I had actually received a pair of men’s bikini briefs with jolly ole Saint Nick ho-ho-hoing his way across the front of the garment compliments of a not-so-secret admirer. With a faraway look on my face, all I could think to say was ‘I’m pretty sure God does not want me to wear these.’
Wanting to avoid any potential embarrassment, and giving Marsha the benefit of the doubt, we decided not to mention the unmentionables to anyone.
Typically the grind of ministry can be remedied by the rewards of growth, but as things progressed I sensed something was off. Ralph no longer made eye contact with me during staff meetings. Even daily greetings seemed awkward.  Something was under the surface but I had no idea what.
We were still living in the city at the time, so my drive to the church involved navigating badly maintained, twisted, and poorly graded country roads. Not exactly welcome terrain for racing cyclists. And yet, during one such commute I blew by Ralph going in the opposite direction furiously pedaling his ten-speed Huffy away from town towards Marsha’s home. I gave it little consideration and continued about my business. Hours later while running errands, I happened to notice Ralph’s bike parked on the porch outside Marsha’s front door – it was common knowledge that Marsha’s husband was out of town on business. Recalling my somewhat unorthodox Christmas present, my suspicions were naturally aroused but I remained silent. Two weeks later I received an unanticipated – though not surprising – early morning phone call. It was Ralph. And in two short sentences he terminated me over the phone for what he characterized as ‘personality differences.’ I was devastated. I had never been written-up, we had never had an argument, nor had he cited any precipitating event. But none of that mattered . . . with the caprice of a despotic king, I had been fired - discharged without recourse.  
I hung up the phone and slunk back to bed in my oxford-cloth shirt and khakis as if they were sackcloth and ashes. And at that precise moment I began to, simultaneously, laugh and cry at the absurdity of it all. I had served in earnest and given God the glory but failed to escape the devastating effects of, what seemed to me, an aimless, reckless, and very dark agenda.
Had Ralph spotted me from Marsha’s house that fateful day provoking him to preemptively fire me? Had Marsha revealed to him her secret admiration of me leading him to terminate me in a fit of jealousy? Was all of this simply a figment of my imagination? I would never know. But it all kind of begged the question: why?
It’s a question I have wrestled with more than once in my career. In self-pity and immature anger, I wondered what might have compelled this man to be so callous. Why would the elders, during administrative meetings, cower to his criticism in the dreary confines of the church basement – or remain so doggedly loyal, devotedly filling his pews Sunday after Sunday to hear decidedly mediocre and tremendously uninspired sermons? Why would the elders tolerate the absurd pretense of this man’s spiritual maturity when he was so obviously flawed? Why would God allow me - and this church - to be abused by such a derelict? Why, for that matter, did no one come to my defense? Did anyone care?
What my unfortunate sacking had taught me was that church can be painful. It is an institution of extreme contrasts – a mix of holy and not-so-holy influences.
Later that night, as I lay beleaguered on my papasan loveseat, still grieving in the dark, jaundiced flashes of light emanating from a muted television, I remembered the passage that says ‘all those who want to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer.’ And for some reason I was comforted.
After a few days, I began to recover.
Discouragement at its essence is about unmet expectations. I had begun my career with confidence, certain I’d find success, and just itching to build an effective ministry. But my hope for this initial attempt was dashed - stillborn. Worse yet, God, despite my requests, was not going to fix it. I foolishly expected ministry to operate according to the predictable principles of a meritocracy.  What I came to discover was that ministry operates according to His good will, is far from predictable, and can only be understood through the prism of relationship. I had been working for Jesus – not the church. And only through a personal experience with Jesus can you make sense of the senseless. Eventually I would understand that my torment was not about Ralph’s suspected misbehavior, his nefarious self-interest, nor was it about evil triumphing over good. This was about God getting my attention, expanding my capacity to serve, increasing my faith to endure, and providing me with an opportunity to experience him at a deeper level.
If I had been paying attention (interesting how much bible I knew and yet how little I was able to apply) I would have realized that God always requires brokenness before He allows glory.  Why would my career be any different? This was no reason to give up. I, like so many, wanted to skip over the biblical passages that talk about the trials, the pain, and the pressure. I was much more attuned to the passages about blessing and all that God can do for me. But such is not the whole counsel of God. My selective use of Scripture had produced in me false expectations and bitterness rather than hope.
I knew a lot about Jesus, we had been introduced, but I had yet to experience Him intimately. This was a chance at personal interaction. I was being asked to adopt the attitude of Joseph from the Old Testament, who, while confronting his treacherous and backstabbing brothers, forgave them with these words: ‘What you meant for evil, God meant for good.’
What happened next would depend on me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary

Burning with a desire for God to use me in a significant way, I gained entrance into the Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary. Several of my youth group friends – on the same path I had chosen – shared a similar desire as we matriculated onto the well-tended, hilltop campus overlooking the city.
Going against the conventional wisdom that ‘it’s better not to choose someone you know as your first college roommate,’ I arranged to dorm with fellow backward masking enthusiast, and long time best friend, Dimitri Johnson. In high school, Dimitri scored 155 on his I. Q. test and once hotly debated Mr. Smith, our literature teacher, over the existence of warm water ports in Russia. Dimitri won the debate, but lost the war as he was summarily excused from class – grounds for dismissal unclear. Our idols of that time had been, perhaps unpredictably, James Dean, Lee Iacocca, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Jesus Christ – though not in that order; we had had, for some time, a romantic if inaccurate view of ourselves as teenage rebels, cruising our hometown in Ford Mustangs, wearing denim Levis jackets over button-down collared shirts with the tails untucked, and blasting the Authority Song from crackling stock speakers – that should tell you all you need to know. In any event, he was a good guy to have around.  
I’d love to tell you it was tough getting accepted into CBC. I did have to write an essay, submit ACT scores, and provide personal “moral character” references, but only four weeks after submission I received my letter of acceptance. I was an enrolled student at an institution where alcoholic beverages were prohibited, dancing of any kind was not allowed (on or off campus) and a nightly curfew of 11 p.m. was strictly enforced – a holy place, presumably, of all things pure and moral.
CBC is located on twenty-seven acres along Glenway Avenue atop Price Hill, a short bus ride from downtown Cincinnati. With unbridled enthusiasm, a clock radio, and my Thompson Chain Reference Bible, I arrived determined to make a good impression.
My outgoing, gregarious nature set me apart right away. I had by now learned how to quickly befriend strangers from my days at Wonder Valley Camp and I was, indeed, making friends fast. It was as if I had been preparing for this my whole life. Throughout freshman orientation, always in my element, I would move from one cafeteria table to the next making conversation, giving and receiving personal updates, provoking a laugh, and then moving on. Always in motion, I would engage with one group while simultaneously looking for the next . . . then another . . . and then another. No matter how unusual or different, I treated everyone with respect and admiration. Most of us were typical farm boys, hicks, and hillbillies, I grant you, but willing to look longer, fuller and harder I found that everyone, no matter what their background, had talent and virtue. By the end of orientation my fellow newcomers would repay that sentiment by electing me president of the freshman class.
While my social life surged, my academic life stuttered. My first semester at CBC was spent studying stuff like Old Testament Survey, English, and Earth Science. The Earth Science instructor, Dr. Bullard (a.k.a. ‘Doc Rock’), was an old crusty archeologist who wore a white lab coat, walked with a limp and regaled us with stories of Alexander the Great, the gruesome realities of hoplite warfare, and man-crushing war elephants used by the iconic military commander, Hannibal of Carthage.
I took classes in New Testament Survey, Youth Ministry, Journalism, Prophecy, and Psychology. But after spending way too many hours socializing and not enough time studying, I ended up on academic probation by the end of my first term.
Of course, as with any establishment of higher learning, there were alternatives to earning a desired grade. Impending semester deadlines brought with them rumors of term papers composed by ghostwriting capitalists, black market copies of final exams, and favor-exchanging T. A.s –  it was an institution of extreme contrasts. At the end of my second semester, a Prophecy student distributed multiple copies of the final to nearly fifty percent of the class in advance of the exam. Afterwards, the furious course instructor, Dr. Hooks, offered clemency to any student implicated in the affair and willing to cop a plea. The deal being proffered was an exchange of information for a solid mark of “C” in the class. As it turned out, I had gotten a glimpse of one of the exam copies, but still managed to flunk the test. Naturally, I needed little convincing to come forward. I made a full confession. Had the instructor given my paltry performance a quick review, he might have withdrawn the offer. But in an interesting turn of events, I ended up passing the class.
The CBC of the past is very different from the institution it is today. Back then, the school was on a threshold of a new wave of influence as it trained faithful graduates to anchor and augment the work of many congregations. Like many Bible colleges of that era, CBC was finding its place within the higher education community winning full recognition and participation in postsecondary accreditation. Yet it had failed to impress a key demographic – prospective students. Even its alumni perceived the college as academically weak, spiritually irrelevant, and vocationally impracticable. Needless to say enrollment suffered. If there is one unfortunate trait that is distinctly found in church and parachurch organizations, it is being satisfied to merely exist rather than take initiatives to address the current state of affairs. Today more and more Bible colleges are calling it quits in the face of globalization and secularization.  While it is true that cultural changes have, in many ways, brought the world to our doorstep, it is also true that Christian institutions across the board are fighting to compete for space on the shelf with a growing number of religions, beliefs, and philosophies in the marketplace of ideas.
But I learned a lot and, for the most part, enjoyed the experience. Applying the principles of hermeneutics to prophecy, harmonizing the gospels, exegeting the book of Romans verse by verse.  You don’t see a lot of that by pastors today, and there were some really learned, very experienced, old-school theologians at CBC who passed on to their adoring students the last of a dying discipline. The Life of Christ class was informative and this old style was well suited to learning about the idiosyncrasies of the synoptic gospels. Homiletics was pretty funny; learning the fundamentals of preaching. Our preaching instructor, a popular campus personality, would stutter and spit as he lectured pelting students on the front row with little balls of saliva. It was an amusing irony. But what he lacked in elocution, he made up for in heart.
We got to practice our sermon delivery in class, my novice preaching classmates and I absolutely devoid of eloquence. An endless parade of monotone, note-reading, automatons; we were the evangelical version of C-SPAN without the charm or charisma.
Introduction to Greek was a much-feared class. The mild-mannered Professor Friskney led the class at eight in the morning in the dank, dimly lit recesses of the women’s dormitory basement. It felt like something from The Shining. Dr. Friskney seemed to find the hour entertaining. Sensing, with remarkable accuracy, the fear of those who had come to class unprepared, he would call upon students to indicate the proper tense, voice, and mood of a particular verb and then wait in interminable silence for an answer.
“Why did the apostle John choose to use the present, active, indicative ending of the verb ginosco in this passage?”
Dr. Friskney would then helpfully provide misleading and incorrect clues, ‘Was John trying to indicate an ongoing action here?’ He would then wait for his flustered victim to fall into his trap, and then assert, ‘No. The only ongoing action here involves those who do not pay attention in class.’ He had a sense of humor and was a bit of a sadist. But the man knew his Greek. Anyone who couldn’t take Dr. Friskney’s chiding was not going to make it in a Masters of Divinity program, much less earn a Ph.D.
If there was an Ultimate Icon, a man who fit all of our ideas of a True Man of God, a renowned, distinguished, and celebrated faculty member who inspired and challenged his students like Classical Greek philosopher Plato, it was Dr. Lewis Foster. Having been on the translation teams of the NIV and NKJV, he was a well recognized authority in all things New Testament and Greek.  The mighty septuagenarian had traveled throughout the world lecturing, preaching, and training leaders, and you considered yourself lucky to have been enrolled in one of his courses. His name was mentioned only in whispers; students were aware of his unseen presence long before taking their seats in his large open classroom, appropriately named Foster Hall.
The years spent pursuing my undergraduate degree caused my faith to grow. Patty and I married after my freshman year, I landed a weekend youth ministry position three hours away from campus, we moved into a small one-bedroom apartment, and started a family - all the while maintaining a full academic load and working two night jobs. Looking back, I don’t know how we made it. The weekend ministry position did not even cover our traveling expenses, curriculum resources were paid for out of our own pockets, Patty was not yet an American citizen and, therefore, could not contribute to the family income, both night jobs paid only a minimum wage, and we were hours away from either set of grandparents. I remember our greatest desire in life was ‘if we could just afford a two-bedroom apartment.’ Yet we weathered through three years of seminary making all our financial obligations. There were times we had no idea how we would pay rent, but no matter how tough it got we never once considered quitting the weekend ministry or cutting back on God in order to guarantee our own bread. And time and time again God provided. I have never forgotten that.
Now I see things more clearly. God was preparing me. He was teaching me how to walk humbly and depend on Him. And the only way for me to know that I was, in fact, being dependant was by allowing me to experience circumstances beyond my control, situations where only He could provide.
My final course at CBC culminated in 1989 and I had my diploma. I was now a fully ordained minister and graduate of one of the best Bible colleges in the country – a valuable commodity among independent Christian churches – I had field experience, sound doctrinal beliefs, and my faith had been tested.
I was willing to go wherever God was willing to take me.