It's a bit lengthy, but an article I wrote was just published in Missio Apostolica, the journal put out by the Lutheran Society for Missiology. Here's the new May 2013 edition. The whole issue is on reaching the Millennial generation.
A single word has been haunting my pastoral work for a few years. I've devoted considerable time and attention to it, but I think I'll be chewing on this one for years to come, if not the rest of my life. It's a simple word and I believe that it holds tremendous importance for the future of the church. It's an old word, and we're trying to reclaim in in my congregation. The word is sent.
Last month, I received a call to be University Pastor at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN. In the usual order of our church body, a call requires prayerful deliberation. About a week ago I declined the call to Concordia after much prayerful deliberation. I remain in my current call at Christ Memorial and Reliant in St. Louis.
It was a challenging period of prayer, conversation, and self-reflection. The call to Concordia was a compelling one. President Tom Ries brings a strong, missional leadership to CSP. After getting to know him a bit, he is exactly the right man to lead a small, private university into the muddied future of higher education. It would have been invigorating to work with him as well as a phenomenal faculty and staff. With a remarkably diverse student body (The Twin Cities are a gateway city for immigration), this urban university is an exciting place to do ministry.
There were a few factors that kept me in St. Louis. The most compelling was the people that I'm called to. My congregation is not the largest or the flashiest, the hippest or the trendiest. But we have a people who love Jesus and desire to be on his mission. I really believe we have a unique Christian community poised for more and more dynamic work in the world. We are aligned to do some significant ministry in a challenging post-Christian context. I thank God for this.
More and more, I'm understanding what it means to be devoted to a people and a place. I used to admire the resumes of pastors who had served in numerous congregations all over the country. Now I've come to realize that may not be healthy. I felt like I began to hit my stride at five years. So what will another five do? Or ten? I can't predict how long I will pastor in this place, but for now God has told me. It is this and no other.
"Manage by walking around."
This is an old business adage on the importance of relational presence in leadership. An employer can't lead his business without walking amongst his people. In a broader sense, it's a reminder that we can't fulfill our God-given responsibilities and be distant from the people we are responsible for. A father can't father when he's at work 80 hours a week. A teacher can't be effective if he or she lectures but never listens. A mentor can't influence a protege from a laptop. A pastor can't lead a congregation from behind the desk. And as we know, God did not rescue the world from the press box of heaven, distant from all the strife below. Jesus, in a sense, managed by walking around.
I was like a 5-year-old as I watched worms inch across wet pavement in the wake of a spring shower. I had never payed attention to worms this closely. I saw something phenomenal. The worm has three distinct portions to its body: the head, the middle, and the tail. Disclaimer: these are not textbook biology terms! As it scoots along, the head and the tail move forward together while the middle remains stationary. Then the middle catches up to the head. And it happens all over again. The head and the tail, then the middle, head and tail, middle . . .
In leadership, we recognize that there are early adopters to change. There are leaders to movements. It sometimes takes others a while to follow. Call them "the middle." And then there are those far behind at the caboose. They may bring up the rear, but at some point they follow. Regardless of how far they lag behind, the tail eventually moves only because the head continues to push forward.
Consider this metaphor however you'd like, but I reflect in two ways:
1.) If you're leading something (or someone), don't be discouraged by slow or resistant change. A leadership book I once read stated, "It always looks like failure in the middle." If you're out front, it takes a while for those behind you to catch up. Sometimes they are completely stalled. Sometimes the wiggle forward is imperceptible. But the head must keep moving. Eventually the middle slides up and likewise the tail.
2.) Jesus is often referred to as the "head of the body." I think of how frustratingly slow we are to follow. The Bible reveals a follower-ship incapable of being "early adopters," maybe not adopters in any sense. These disciples were fearfully reluctant and shamefully dejected. But post-Easter, we see the Head of the Church high and lifted up. And by the Spirit's instigation, a body is raised up to follow its Head. We may lag at times, but we keep marching because the Head keeps leading.
When did people start "going to church?" I mean, going as opposed to being the church. When did church become something you do instead of something you are? When did people start "attending" church as if it were a baseball game. Whenever that started happening, I think the church got really boring.
After Easter, I typically read through the book of Acts, the account of the earliest Christians. It was anything but boring. Fire comes on their heads and they become bi-lingual, tri-lingual, quad-lingual . . . (Acts 2). The apostles get arrested for preaching the risen Jesus and an angel does a jailbreak (Acts 5:19). Like Star Trek, a Christian named Philip is transported from a desert road with an African eunuch to a town called Azotus (8:40). A religious zealot named Paul is blinded by an encounter with Jesus (9:9). Peter has a trip of a dream - not induced by any substance - and he’s told to take Jesus to outsiders (Acts 10). And on and on.
If you wanted a comfortable, stable, traditional church experience, this is not for you. There is an edginess to the early Christians. For them the church was not a place they attended. It was who they were. It was a dynamic community gathered in and through Jesus, animated by the Holy Spirit. The early church was always in flux; often appearing chaotic; persecuted yet thriving; moving and never static; anything but boring.
There still are really cool, dynamic, "not boring" Christians. Some of them go to my church . . . I mean, they are my church. I hope more people get to meet them.
In deliberating a call, a few thoughts that guide me:
1.) Jesus is the Senior Pastor of the church, the Presiding Bishop. He holds the day. The church does not live or die by any man except the man Jesus Christ. (What a relief.)
2.) We believe in the Holy Spirit. We wet our finger and hold it up to the wind, discerning the Spirit's direction. I am laying my heart bare before the Spirit of God.
3.) After God himself, the relationship of next priority in my life is Bobbi Jo Cloeter. She's my bride, my queen. I married her before I was a pastor, and I will ensure than any decision has her care in mind.
4.) Regardless of where I serve, I'm convinced the next epoch of the church's mission must center on an old word reclaimed: SENT. Apostle means "sent one"; one sent with the authority of the Sender. I will agitate God's people with this word. You all may regret the nice things you've said about me.
5.) I'm convinced I will have a personal peace begotten from God-given clarity. It will be a stake in the ground. And I will labor with redoubled joy, tenacity, and focus.
Everywhere where man's possibilities are at an end and the free and sovereign creative possibilities of God begin, we find the presence and working of the Spirit of God.
Ends are often beginnings. At wit's end? It just may be the opportune place for divine creativity and sovereign possibility. Pay careful attention when a dead-end sign appears. There's new infrastructure around the corner.
In an insightful article, Leo Sanchez of Concordia Seminary observes the election of a new Pope. He notes some of the obvious. For one, Pope Francis (Horge Mario Bergoglio) represents a geographic shift to the global South. Sanchez draws out the implications for the the church in the West. Historically, Europe was the "colonizer" and the "evangelizer." Today, Sanchez notes, "the evangelized are now the evangelists." Might an Argentinian Pope from a Latin American context bring a resurgence of the gospel back to Rome and Europe?
In terms of Lutherans, Sanchez writes, "An old church in decline will most likely only survive through the witness of the new diaspora Lutherans in other parts of the world and even within the U.S." The concept of Diaspora Missiology is an intriguing one to me. The Western Church is in desperate need of what the Global South has to give. Our theology and culture are so intertwined that it is hard for us to recognize when they get tangled. For instance, what does it really mean to be a Lutheran Christian, apart from being Germanic or Scandanavian? Can we separate our convictions from Lutheran potlucks, institutions, and entrenched formalities.
There is the benefit of an enriched perspective when you travel to a foreign land and culture. But what if the cross-cultural experience came to you, in your context and culuture? We are blessed by the immigrant and refugee Christians who settle among us. They may well be used by the Spirit as instigation for a church in need of renewal. We pray for their presence and leadership among us.
I have a call to be University Pastor at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN. Within the usual order of our tradition, divine calls may be extended by a congregation or institution to a pastor or professional church worker. At that time, a candidate deliberates two calls - his current call and the one just received. And so I enter a period of 3-4 weeks in which I search out where God desires me to be used. I know I have a national (and international) readership, so I want you all to be informed.
I will be transparent in saying that I am deeply burdened by this call. Bobbi and I have come to make St. Louis home for our family and ministry. We have raised our kids here, and our family has become imbedded in this community. I have labored extensively in this field, and I feel there is much to do. And now there is a call to go elsewhere, and I must consider its many merits.
There are certainly practical issues to consider (salary, housing, benefits, family, job descriptions, etc.). But what gives me fear is that I must lay myself bare before the Holy Spirit. I am put to the test by God, forced to wrestle with him. What scares me is that wrestling with God may cause injury. Ask Jacob, whose hip was put out of socket. I will enter a time of serious prayer, and I'm afraid the answer will hurt.
I am fearful of praying "Thy will be done." But I cannot avoid it. It must be prayed by my lips.
I will move at your impulse.
I am under your spell, compelled by your call.
I strain my ears to hear your voice.
Show me the way, and I will walk in it.
I'm at your service . . .
Your fervent prayers for this pastor and his family are appreciated. I know I do not consider this alone.