“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.

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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”

Slow Sheep, Slow Shepherd

When a new pastor comes to a church, there are always things she thinks need to change. Some of these are truly important. Some of them are pet peeves. (Often it’s not easy to tell the difference between those two, pastors being humans with flaws and blind spots and ego-warped agendas.) Some changes are also simply ways in which the church needs to stay on the move, to continue progressing into faithfulness to Christ’s call on that particular part of His Body.

So how does change happen, and how does a pastor lead that change? For several years now, when faced with particular changes, I’ve relied on a particular Biblical narrative.

In Genesis 33, Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, meet one another for the first time in decades. Their last time together ended with Jacob fleeing for his life after repeatedly swindling his brother and even the twin brothers’ blind father, Isaac. Now, Jacob is convinced that his brother is going to retaliate, that Esau will kill him and perhaps his servants and family too.

Instead, we read, “Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4, cf. this other story). The adult brothers introduce their families and show off their significant possessions, and then Esau suggests the two groups travel together, to which Jacob replies the key verses to my understanding of leading change (vv. 13-14):

My master knows that the children aren’t strong and that I am responsible for the nursing flocks and cattle. If I push them hard for even one day, all of the flocks will die. My master, go on ahead of your servant, but I’ve got to take it easy, going only as fast as the animals in front of me and the children are able to go, until I meet you in Seir.

The takeaway is this: whether the pastor is the shepherd leading the flock, or in some ways a parent leading the family, the pastor must lead at the congregation’s pace. If change is too fast, it will damage the church and harm its people. The lesson of the story is that introducing change too fast is unwise, impatient, and ultimately unloving. See?

Jesus Leads the Flock

Except that’s not what the story is about. At all.

Instead, what we are being shown is that after all Isaac’s years of practicing trickery and deceit, then receiving trickery and deceit; even after this particular day’s experience of deserving retaliation, but being gifted forgiveness instead, Isaac still resorts to his old standby: deceit. We know this because Esau heads down the road, with Jacob having agreed that he will follow . Then Esau travels south, and Jacob heads west, with no intention of traveling with Esau anywhere.

The story I told myself about the story was that it was about parenting and shepherding; the story the story was telling me was about the character of this patriarch, Jacob. It was confirmation bias.

I still have my bias. I still believe in slow, deliberate, thoughtful change rather than rapid change. I still believe that well-conceived processes and systems work better for creating healthy churches and healthy people. I just don’t think it because faithful and holy and loving and skilled shepherd Jacob told me so. And this is freeing.

By being freed of that misinterpretation, I can add to my own picture that sometimes, for some changes, change has to be drastic or quick, perhaps even painful. At times I need to take action and lead others to take action in ways that feel too fast for me. And my sense of discomfort can just as easily be evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit along a particular path as the comfortable feelings that I obviously would prefer.

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

Evernote for Pastoral Care

A couple years ago Thom Rainer wrote, “What Effective Pastors Do With Their Time.” Add enough grains of salt to match your particular taste in the definitions Rainer uses for effectiveness, the sample size, whatever, but the article is worth reading. I’ll only mention in passing my call to 6-hours-of-sleep pastors to practice better self-care, and briefly say “Stop it! Now!” to pastors spending 8 hours a week performing custodial duties at their churches.

What I really want to talk about is pastoral care. “Effective” pastors spent a great amount of time (22 hours) in sermon prep, while “ineffective” pastors spent a truly massive amount in pastoral visitation (33 hours!). As for me, I don’t spend that amount of time in sermon prep (and I assume that those pastors who can are the teaching pastors on large staffs). But I would die if I spent that much time in pastoral visitation. Actually, the church and I would probably be in a race to see which could die first. Literally speaking, there are full-time chaplains who do not spend that much time in pastoral visitation.

While I’ll never spend 33 hours in one week (not even that time last year when I had four funerals in 10 days), I need to do pastoral care better and with more of my time. I know some local Lutheran pastors who bring Communion to their folks once a month. Most older United Methodists are not sacramentally-oriented, but they do appreciate visits from their pastor regularly.

In the twenty-two months I’ve served my two parishes I’ve gone through several ways of trying to visit regularly. I’ve assigned X number of hours each week, but when the needs of the week shift, pastoral care time is lost first. I’ve assigned X number of people per week, but that practice never was repeated long enough to become a habit. I’ve created charts to keep track of how often I see a person and what we talk about, but I fail to make time to regularly input information or to regularly use that information to schedule future visits.

Enter Evernote. I now have a notebook titled, “Pastoral Care,” with a unique note for each person I visit. The body of each note can include all sorts of information: the person’s address, phone number, date of visit, names of family members or pets, phone number for the hospice chaplain, etc. If you’re a pen and paper person, you can scan in that Moleskine page of yours too.

Most useful is that you can then set a reminder. (I do this in Evernote, because then all the information is in the same place, and my calendar is not all gunked up with things that are not actually set appointments.) Want to visit a person once a month? Perfect. They’re in the hospital and you need to check in more regularly? Easy. Some other time-frame, including options for when you share pastoral caregiving with other pastors and laity? Done. Personally, my default when I visit someone is that when I get the visit time on my calendar, I look a month ahead, then set it for Monday of that week at 8am, so it pops up as I’m scheduling the week. My folks who need visits tend not to keep very detailed calendars, so I don’t go further out than that at this point. Your context might be different.

As with all Evernote things, the sky is the limit in suiting this to your context. For instance, I have my church phone directory in an Excel spreadsheet. I could hyperlink from people’s names to their Evernote notes if I wanted to. I don’t.

A final point: Evernote is not currently HIPAA-compliant, and while parish-based pastoral care doesn’t need to meet HIPAA standards either, pastors must and can do confidentiality well. Thankfully, the following article exists to tell you how to think and act on protecting parishioners’ privacy. (Okay it wasn’t created for that.) Don’t let the title scare you: “Evernote for Lawyers: Client Confidentiality and the ‘Reasonable Care’ Standard.”

Let me know in the comments if this works for you, as well as any other technology/productivity helps that you bring to bear on pastoral care.

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done, Part III

I don’t know if you read popular productivity authors, but sometimes when I read Michael Hyatt, for instance, I get the impression that he is some sort of god living on an unattainable plain that I will never reach and perhaps should not waste the energy trying to reach. The truth is that Hyatt has great administrative leadership gifts and communication gifts, and he has invested those gifts well and over a long period of time. The truth is that I can write an ideal schedule to help maximize a healthy type of productivity and output, and I also live a normal life, that I wanted to share with you.

Monday, March 7, 2016
Home
5:15am  Wake up to learn I did not turn on my alarm (for 4:45am) last night
5:20-5:35am Walk one mile (instead of the planned two)
5:40am Coffee and finish episode of Love I started on the treadmill
5:55am Bible, Devotional, Pray
6:25am Shower and get ready for work
6:40am Breakfast
6:55am Milo wakes up
7:18am Leave for work

Work
7:26am  Morning Prayer
8:15am Planning Pomodoro (including sermon prep, bulletin, edit and post sermon podcast, update church website, plan a meeting)
8:45am Make coffee and help set up for Moms’ (and one Dad) Group and their kids
9:30-10:45am Receive emergency call to visit a parishioner who is actively dying at local nursing home; go spend time with her, staff, family
11-12:30pm Early lunch with a rep with a quote for a new church sanctuary sound system
1pm Visit parishioner’s father
2:15pm Arrive back at office–Noon Prayer
2:45pm Plan Church Council meeting and make necessary copies
3:45pm Head home
5:40pm Head to meeting
7:15pm Head home for the night

Reflections
My day started with a misstep (no alarm), a strong recovery (not two miles, but still some movement), a stronger slip (finish a TV episode), and a happy fault (still home when Milo awoke). I got to work, though, and I got right into Morning Prayer and then my Planning Pomodoro. Then forty-five minutes later came an emergency call that decimated my day.

It’s worth saying that it didn’t have to be that way. Part of what drove me to drop everything and jump in the car was genuinely that it is my job. Part of it was ego: the desire to put on my pastor cape and rush off to the rescue. And a good chunk was anxiety: not even professionals can really tell you someone is going to die in a half hour (as the person on the phone call insisted to me), but I didn’t want to think about myself as the one whom others thought of as failing to be there in an emergency. [That’s too many thinks.] I did not take five or ten minutes to assess: I went, and I’m glad I went, but it was with anxiety filling my sails.

I drove the 10-15 minutes to the nursing home, knowing that I would need a similar amount of time on the other end of the visit in order to make the lunch meeting. I had three minutes to spare, and then I had five minutes to spare between the lunch meeting and the time at another nursing care facility with another parishioner and his dying father. I drove there, set my phone timer for 4 minutes, and I had some “that crazy guy in the parking lot” silence.

For me, the important thing was to find the places of traction as things were slipping: not enough time for ideal exercise but enough for some exercise; late to work but still practicing Morning Prayer; only a couple minutes between appointments but enough time to be still.

Aside from the hours, it was an exhausting day. I did a CPE residency the year following seminary, but I have still never really learned how to care well for others without picking up too much of their emotions. The church council meeting to replace the sound system was the biggest financial decision the church has made in my time there, and I likened it to Mel afterwards to our conversations last year about buying a new car, but with six extra people at the table. And I got a call on the way home for the night to tell me that the woman I had visited in the morning had died.

That’s not a typical day or an atypical day, just a particular day. Without some pieces of structure that remained, particularly intentional prayer, time in Scripture, time set aside just for planning instead of doing, some good food and even a bit of exercise, I am convinced I would’ve been a lot worse off.