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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Preventing Ministry Burnout

OK, clerks, this one’s for your pastor. (One little hint, though... if you do pass it on to him or her, accompany it with this disclaimer: “Don’t assume, because I’ve giving this to you, that I think you’re showing signs of burnout.” It’s a preventative thing.)

Anne Dilenschneider wrote an article in the August 12 Huffington Post, “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” that’s well worth reading. She recalls a couple of articles that recently appeared in, of all places, the New York Times, one on the importance of ministerial vacations and the other on surviving through church conflict over the nature of the pastoral role. What I like best is her recalling H. Richard Niebuhr’s observation (in his landmark 1956 book, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry) of how ministry in the 20th century increasingly became modeled after secular business-management practices. Niebuhr wrote at mid-century, but the trends he identified back then only grew stronger in the years that followed. As churches (particularly mainline Protestant churches) moved into the new suburbs, most people came to define those spanking-new buildings as places where programs happen. Along with that, the role of the pastor gradually morphed into that of coordinator and manager of those programs. Other ministry tasks became secondary.

After decades of steadily-declining church membership, lots of pastors have given in to a kind of quiet despair, wondering if perhaps they’re personally responsible for the losses (I know I have, at times, but I got over it – especially once I realized it was happening everywhere, even across denominations). Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow, in After the Baby Boomers, have identified certain demographic trends – especially the shrinking birth rate, the postponement of the average age of marriage, and the growth of two-paycheck households – that, on their own, easily account for these numerical losses.

Way back in the 1950s, Niebuhr picked up on the trend of transforming ministry into management, and was critical of it. Calling ministry "the perplexed profession," he warned of a particular abuse of the ministerial office, based on an extreme form of this thinking: the image of the pastor as “Big Operator.” The name says it all.

Many of us who were in seminary in the 1970s and 80s were well aware of the rapid growth of clinical counseling training as a central feature of theological education. The Clinical Pastoral Education movement – valuable in itself, although some people overdid it – presented a whole, new model for pastoral ministry: that of ordained psychotherapist. Again, the introduction of clinical counseling techniques into pastoral counseling brought about some helpful improvements, but if you take it too far, you highjack the minister’s role and claim it for the world of psychology.

Then, along came spiritual direction. That emphasis was just starting to appear when I was in seminary, and has grown steadily stronger since then. Because the Roman Catholics, with their centuries-old traditions of spiritual formation, have been at it a lot longer than we have, most Protestants leading that particular charge have unabashedly borrowed ideas and practices from Rome, tweaking them here and there, when needed, to fit our theology.

Writing as a spiritual director, Dilenschneider naturally believes the solution to ministerial malaise lies in learning how to pray better. For her, this likely means signing on with a trained spiritual director like herself. There’s something to that, of course – for, who wants to go to the Big Operator or the Ordained Psychotherapist to learn how to pray?

I think she’s got something there, but – because she’s a spiritual director herself – I have to confess just a little skepticism about spiritual direction being the cure-all. She kind of reminds me of some chiropractors who are venturing out, these days, way beyond traditional spine adjustments. Some chiropractors are getting into everything from weight loss to treating kids with ADHD. (I’ve never visited a chiropractor, myself, and have no intention of ever going, but that’s what I see in some of the ads.)

While I disagree with Dilenschneider’s easy assumption that pre-1920s Protestant ministers saw themselves as “curates,” engaged in “the cure of souls” above all else (I suspect that’s a more recent import from Roman Catholicism or high-church Anglicanism), I think she’s right on with this statement:

“The witness of spiritual directors over the centuries is that the leader’s need to ‘make a difference’ – the need to find personal significance through effectiveness -- must be set aside in order to be ‘made different’ – the deeper need to discover one’s renewed identity through relationship with God.”

Whether that personal renewal happens through sitting down every couple weeks with a spiritual director, or simply by marveling at the consistent, gentle touch of the Holy Spirit through the weekly discipline of moving from text to sermon (which is more my cup of tea), she’s absolutely right – we pastors have got to allow God to continually nudge us in the direction of personal growth, if we’re going to remain in this joyous, frustrating, inspiring, draining, life-giving occupation for the long haul.

We are indeed grateful to you elders when you help us make space in our lives for the Lord to do that.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Making the Baby Suffer?

A long entry today, but I’ve been asked a complex question that will take a little while to address. It just so happens to be one of the toughest of all questions pastors and sessions must answer: What to do when non-members ask to have their child baptized?

It's an emotion-laden question that must be approached not only with understanding of polity and theology, but also with sensitivity to people.

The Directory for Worship (W-2.3014) has this to say about “parental responsibility”:

“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation. Those presenting children for Baptism shall promise to provide nurture and guidance within the community of faith until the child is ready to make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of active church membership.”

The phone rings in the church office. At the other end of the line is an active member of the church, asking if her new granddaughter may be baptized in the church. Her son and daughter-in-law live halfway across the country. Although the son grew up in the church and was confirmed here, the session voted to remove his name from the membership roll a year or two after he graduated from college, when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be returning, and hadn’t made any move to join a church in his new community. Neither he nor his wife has since become a member of any church.

The parents are planning to bring the new baby back for a visit in several months’ time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Grandma asks with a proud smile, if her new grandchild could be baptized here - in this church, that has played such a large role in her family’s history?

What’s a session to do, in a situation like this? It’s their responsibility to authorize baptisms. Yet, in addressing parental responsibility, the Directory for Worship stipulates that at least one parent shall ordinarily be an active member of the church.

“Ordinarily” – that blessed Presbyterian word! It’s like sticking a push-pin into a paragraph of the Book of Order, with a little red flag flying from it that screams “LOOPHOLE!”

The book’s saying that, while at least one parent ought to be an active church member, every once in a while the session may waive this requirement if there's a good reason to do so.

Please note well the words I’ve used: “every once in a while.”

From time to time... for some very good reason... on a case-by-case basis, the session may make an exception. It does NOT say it may issue exceptions willy-nilly, to all comers.

“Ordinarily” means it’s your normal practice to do something. If you never do that thing, that means it’s not your normal practice - so, you’re not being faithful to the Constitution.

So, why is it so important that at least one parent of a child being baptized must be an active member?

Think back to the words we’ve just been discussing. The parent(s) “SHALL promise.” There’s no “ordinarily” in sight, here. And what do they promise? “ To provide nurture and guidance WITHIN THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH,” with the eventual goal that their child will “make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of ACTIVE CHURCH MEMBERSHIP.”

It doesn’t mean telling your kid about Jesus in the car, on the way to the grocery store. It means joining a church, so your kid will see, over time, how important Jesus really is to you.

Baptism isn’t just about believing in Jesus (although, of course, that’s a big part of it). It’s about being and becoming a church member. Babies are baptized on the strength of their parents’ membership vows: their solemn promise to do their very best, over the coming years, to lead their children to confess Christ as Lord and Savior and become church members themselves.

Furthermore, there are promises made as part of the baptismal liturgy. Parents pledge to live the Christian faith and to teach the faith to their children. It's hard to take them seriously if they spurn the single, greatest source of help available to them in performing that task, which is the church.

There is also a promise the congregation makes, to partner with the parents in nurturing children in the faith. If the parents are strangers to the congregation and don't even live in the area, and if there's no church elsewhere on whose behalf our folks can make that promise, it's really just a lot of empty air.

A session that routinely grants requests for baptism to all comers, regardless of membership status, probably hasn't thought through the theological reasons behind this provision of the Constitution.

No doubt, it’s a tough decision to make – saying no (or, at least, “not now”) to such a request. Grandparents have a way of getting irritated at that sort of thing. They look on a grandchild’s baptism as a family milestone (which, on one level, it is). If the session says no, then “They’ve quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!"

And what is it the session’s meddling in? Family business.

Well, guess what? Baptism doesn’t belong to the family. It belongs to the church. The Book of Order is crystal-clear on that account.

Let’s say you carefully explain it that way, and you’re so successful, the grandparents concede the point. But then, they’re likely to come back with a plaintive cry that’s so common, it ought to be given a name: “The Grandparents’ Psalm of Lament.”

Are you ready for it? Here it comes: “Yes, I know my son hasn’t been diligent about pursuing church membership, but that’s no reason to make the baby suffer!”

Let’s unpack that. How, pray tell, is the baby going to suffer, if the baptism is postponed for a while?

The unspoken thought, of course, is that - God forbid - the child could get sick and die, without having been baptized.

We Presbyterians don’t believe baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation – that it's a ticket that must be punched, in order to cross over into the promised land. We believe God loves all children, even (and maybe especially) those who tragically die before anybody brings them to the font.

What’s more, we Presbyterians have NEVER believed baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation. Why, not even the Roman Catholics believe it anymore! (Back in the days before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, you’d find plenty of Catholics who believed it, but no longer.)

"Well, OK," say the grandparents, "we’ll concede that point, too. Yet, won’t our granddaughter suffer from knowing she’s unbaptized?"

Not likely. If church membership means so little to the girl’s parents, it’s not likely she’ll have an inkling she’s missing out on anything.

Here’s what the session could say to the grandmother: “Don’t you want your son and his wife to become active in a church? We’ve got an excellent opportunity, right here and now, to hold their feet to the fire, so they finally do something about joining a church. We can be in touch with their new congregation and arrange to celebrate the baptism here, on their behalf. Let’s work together to apply some gentle, loving pressure so they’ll do the right thing!"

The baby’s not going to suffer from not having been baptized. She’s more likely to suffer, in the long term, from never having learned from her parents' example that Christian faith demands commitment.

Just remember: baptism’s not primarily about the family. It’s about the church.

Want to read more on this subject? Check out this detailed paper, Indiscriminate Baptism and Baptismal Integrity, by Ronald P. Byars, on the PC(USA) website.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Finding Stewardship Resources

One of the biggest challenges for church leadership is finding good Stewardship resources for worship and education – and, yes, for that annual campaign that most of us start to get really concerned about this time of year, as we move ahead with planning for the fall.

Maybe you already know, in your church, what your Stewardship campaign is going to be about, this year. If so, blessings be upon you!

Or, maybe your Stewardship thinking right now sounds more like this: “Hmmmm... What to do with Stewardship, this year? Haven’t our people – especially our longtime members – heard it all before?”

There’s a wonderful website called Stewardship Kaleidoscope. It’s an outgrowth of a national Presbyterian Stewardship conference that took place last spring. It doesn’t look like much, at first. It appears to be little more than a place to hang an announcement about next year’s conference (which will take place from February 28 through March 2 in Phoenix).

Click on the link, though, that says “Resources from 2010 Stewardship Kaleidoscope.” You’ll open the door to a wealth of resources to stimulate your thinking about how to present the joy of Christian Stewardship to your congregation.

The extensive outline of Bob Sheldon’s workshop, “Annual Campaigns That Really Work,” is especially thought-provoking.

Check out, too, the notes from M. Thomas Norwood Jr.’s workshop, “Rethinking Stewardship: New Strategies for a Changing World.” His simple pie chart, “The Stewardship Process,” contains an incredibly valuable visual lesson for church leaders: how small a piece of the stewardship pie the infamous “Asking” really is. A lot of us burn up all our energy obsessing over how to do that one thing. It’s important – but not the whole story, by any means!

Good stuff, here. Check it out!

What's your church planning this year, by way of a Stewardship campaign? How about writing a comment, below, to share your ideas?