Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Minister's Paycheck is the Problem

It was time. Having concluded on Mother's Day 2009 that I was released from the church I had served for the precious 13 years I made my plans to resign. And I wasn't resigning because I had another church job to go to. In fact, the truth be known, I had been sending out resumes all over the country and did not get even one nibble. This, after being in professional ministry for 25 years and serving in a variety of positions, denominations, and locations. I was being set free not only of the current position but of professional ministry completely.

And I had no job waiting for me. It was a position that is clearly unadvisable and one I had never previously assumed. I never left a job without already having another in my pocket.

Yet, strangely, I had incredible peace. My wife was in agreement with the decision and we were comfortable to accept whatever may happen even if it meant living in the proverbial "poor house".

I should add that I had arrived at this point after several years of gracious, if not miraculous activity in my life by none other than the God to whom I was completely devoted. Like the blind man in John 9 whose eyes were blind not due to anyone's particular fault and  Jesus opened so that God's glory could be known, I felt like I had been "blinded" so that that the vision Jesus would bring would be both miraculous as well as uncomfortable to those who knew me all my life in a certain way.

My eyes were wide open and I was seeing things I hadn't previously seen or been allowed to see. My experience with the God I had served personally for 40 years and professionally for 25 was "reforming". I had crossed thresholds that had I chosen to avoid would've been like the person Jesus said had put his hand to a plow and turned back. I'd have been unworthy of the kingdom I was truly called to represent.

What started as a calling to full-time "ministry" as I sat in the pew of my home church when I was 18 evolved into what is culturally and religiously expected when that happens: it inevitably became a choice for a career path. Naturally, I would get the right kind of education including bachelor and masters degrees in a field that could make me marketable. I would land a starting position as a youth minister (along with several other church-related hats needed to justify a full time salary) with the career plan to one day achieve the pinnacle of all professionally "called" people, being a senior pastor with a church of your own. Somehow in our culturally saturated way of thinking, this was all evidence of a true calling. I struggled thoughout my "career" trying to justify to others why I wasn't driven to be a senior minister, or why I chose Christian Education (what is now a completely
irrelevant degree, I might add) instead of following the expected Master of Divinity track.

My experience of growing up in the home and church of a Bible "believing" charismatic Baptist minister was unique and honestly provided God with a foundation on which he could perform the miracle of granting sight to a blinded boy to no fault of the parents who raised him. My experience as a professional provided places and people where and with whom I could challenge conventional and cultural Christian practices. This was the miraculous and gracious activity of God Since my background and training should not have provided the fertile ground on which the seeds of God's life could've grown.

And the fruit that these seeds produced pushed me in directions that left behind not only my professional career, but my participation in conventional and cultural church life. I've learned that the life Jesus represented and taught lacked the professionalism that is part and parcel to today's so-called Christianity. Few people in our culture honestly question not just church attendance as a standard feature of true discipleship, but the current definition and practice of  the church they attend. Sadly, what happens each Sunday and the way it happens is perfectly fine for those who attend as it somehow communicates that the practice of their faith, while not perfect by any means, is good enough for God and for the church who loves to have them in attendance.

Since walking away (not fired, surprisingly) after years of "subversive, passionate and outspoken"
efforts to represent Jesus as a called but professional minister, I have concluded (for now) that were I ever to find myself in the "pastor/leader" mode again, I would refuse to be paid. It changes everything for me and the people. I'm convinced I'd preach better sermons with greater relevance to the people that might share their time and their stories in a healthy and non-judgemental dialogical environment.

I can now honestly say that while I hoped my weekly  sermons changed the lives of my listening congregation, what I really hoped for was that they would not only return to my church the following Sunday, but that they would become "full participants" in the life of our church (read: tithe, serve a
committee, teach a class, be an usher, etc.). And until this is exposed as a cultural evolution, it will continue to provide young men-and contrary to literal biblicism- women with a career path.

Professionalism in church work thus provides an income to people who believe they are following a "call" as well as a means by which the "Christian" in attendance can feel secure in paying for some to be the Christian they say they'd like to be but don't have the time like the professional has to read the Bible, pray and serve the world.

It seems to me that Jesus' message was that life in the kingdom was to be lived by all people and not reserved for those who have been "called", prepared, and paid to do so. That's why I'd welcome another reformation that would overhaul current church practices and cultivate a true community where people function according to their gifts and not heir resumes. That's why I couldn't in good conscience accept a paycheck to be a "pastor" as that would continue to support practices that prevent both the professional and the layperson from realizing full participation in the life of Christ.

As a professional I preached that those in the pew should live a fully devoted life. I believe I am expected to live in the same manner with the same obligations to life that those who listen to me might have. I should manage  the same stress and celebrate the same blessings that all do yet with the understanding that Christ's life empowers me to live and share my life in the community of those whose trajectory is like mine.

This is a matter of heart and not paycheck.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

On July 4 I'm more than an American; I'm an Estherian

Citing the Old Testament these days for cultural and spiritual relevance is tricky business so I carefully and thoughtfully approach referencing an Old Testament personality in order to highlight a few of my personal perspectives. And not only is using the Old Testament a currently questionable practice, the book of Esther can take the discussion to another level still. The canonization of this book has always been a matter of controversy since God is never mentioned, even though God's providence seems undeniable.

But enough about God, the Old Testament, providence....lets talk about me- or perhaps more accurately, us. We had no say when or where we were born. Like it or not, randomness and luck appeared to be determining factors for where we are in time and space.

Randomly and luckily I find myself living at what appears to be a time and place that may be unique if not special. I'm lucky to be living in a postmodern world which affords me the undeniable opportunity to challenge things and theologies that I might've otherwise accepted unwittingly resulting in spiritual stagnation- a sad description still of many people today struggling to fight off inevitability.

I'm also randomly and perhaps lucky to be living in America. As a follower of Jesus, I'm finding it uniquely challenging to transcend nationalism and separate that which is true of me as a citizen of Gods kingdom from that which I've grown to believe as an Americanized Christian. I'm hopeful that by living in a country that is currently having a severe identity crisis, I can live Jesus' life and not that which is currently represented politically and religiously.

Which makes me want to coin a new moniker: Estherianism (since we need more labels!). If we peer into the book of Esther and prayerfully reflect on what we read there about her, it's possible that the time and spaceless Spirit of Jesus through whom our faith filter is calibrated, can make her situation comparable to ours and we can find rivers of living water flowing from within us.

Esther found herself randomly living in a context she didn't choose. I doubt that as a Jew she wanted to be one among many young girls whose life would be defined by the pleasure she provided a powerful man. Her cousin Mordicai saw a bigger picture and challenged her with vision and opportunity. He baited her with possibilities that could be hers because of randomness and luck- and perhaps a bit of providence. Esther was asked by Mordicai if she could grasp that she was living in a unique time and found herself in a unique place. How could she know if she might not have been born for just such a time?

Like those of us who want to please God yet find ourselves confused if not angry in the context we live in, Esther must've struggled with the grandeur of Mordicai's invitation. We read that she accepted the randomness of her position and the opportunity that came with it. And like many of us who by accepting the perilously blessed challenges of randomly finding ourselves alive in our time and place, she resigned to whatever the future might hold by such a decision. With no promises or assurances that all things would work together for her good because she was yielding to her best understanding of a God that's not even mentioned, she soberly and resolutely declares that if she is to perish, so be it.

I'm grateful that I live at such a time as 2015 and in such a place as troubled America. At whatever cost, I hope to be what Jesus says I am and live incarnationally within my frame of reference hoping that my light attracts the people with whom I come into contact to the One I'm still figuring out. And if I perish, I perish.