Category Archives: calling

Institutions

Garth-garden-careWhen laid of from my job as a minister (about two years ago) I did a stint in landscaping.  One of the foreman would say something like, “you’re coming with me on an install” and from my confused expression he figured I’d be of little help.  An “install” refers to installing a landscape that involves new plantings, potentially creating beds, and therefore removing or altering existing aspects of the landscape.   While an install usually refers to a larger planting I think it’d be appropriate to say that I’m installing a tree in the above picture.

So plants can be installed, trees can be installed, tile floors can be installed (another experience in which I was confused) and pastors can be installed.  Again, a different industry with a different set of terms.

This Sunday I was installed as an “Assistant Pastor for Church Planting” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI.  This is somewhat of an odd occurrence in that:
-We just moved from the Providence area to Worcester
-I’m the assistant pastor starting a church at which I’ll be the lead minister
-I’ve been working at Trinity for over ten months.

The answer to all of these questions lie in the fact that Trinity, in particular, and churches in general are institutions.  We have established, codified ways of doing things.  Part of this is pragmatic because no one wants to think through a new procedures or processes for regularly repeated events (whether it is the formalization of a relationship between a pastor and a church or the installation of a landscape).  Thus practices develop and are systematized over time and institutions (of religion, business, education etc) take on certain shapes and dynamics.

Beyond the pragmatic side, institutions also exist because certain ideals have been held together by people, over time, through the commitment of a variety of resources, until they take on a life of their own.  I think of the some of the schools in this area (be it Harvard or The Bancroft School in Worcester), organizations like the MacArthur foundation, and most of all the church.   I’ve been thinking about institutions due to some recent reading and then the webs of connection that spiral outwards when something is stuck on my mind.  Here are some of the connections:

-The word “institution” generates a negative reflex of distrust and pushback in my mind.  I think this is probably generation and sees institutions as organizations looking for power and control to best serve their own ends.  On the other hand, institutions have a unique ability to serve and contribute over time.  Both of these realities are likely mixed together in most organizations and it is unfair to think of only half of the equation.  What would my life be, what would our society be like without institutions?  I think of war torn areas like Somalia, regions within Africa, parts of Syria where so many institutions have broken down and the tragedy that follows.

-The church specifically exists as an institution.  It not just an organism.  It is not merely a collection of individual believers but has a shape given by God.  There are means of entry and exit, norms of leadership, founding documents, and the major features of this institution have remained over the past two millennia.  Despite all the change of peoples, time, and culture there is remarkable similarity between then and now.  The church is thus an incredibly unique institution to which I belong as a member and now more than ever, as leader.  When I think about my participation in this institution I continue to have mixed feelings and need to grapple with the inevitability of institutions and God’s purposes through this particular institution.

-One of the unique aspects of being Presbyterian is the larger network of connections.  Beyond the local church there is a regional set of churches and leaders as well as a national body.  If institutions have a unique capacity for longevity and influence it is neat to belong to this broader network.  This is seen even more in Roman Catholicism, which despite significant diversity in theology and practice is united institutionally.  With a larger institution the temptation towards grasping for power and control probably grows, but so does the ability to serve and contribute through the years.  I need to think more about belonging to something larger than my specific church or even regional network.  How do I serve the church at these various layers, looking to it’s well being and benefitting from its institutional presence?

 

 

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Interruption – Strategic Housing

shuttersSo what are you looking for?  This is a simple, logical question for a real estate agent to ask.  But behind our answer lies our hopes and dreams for the sort of church we’d like to establish in Worcester.  As a Christian there is a sense in which different aspects of your life bleed together since faith informs and shapes it all.  This is especially true as a pastor and maybe even more so in the work of starting a new church.

To begin there will be no offices or church building.  We hope to use our home for bible studies, meetings, cook outs, and all other sorts of gatherings.  We hope that our hospitality will be attractive to those outside the church and a place where many will first connect to Jesus.  So, in looking for a place to live there is a lot lingering in the background.  So here are some of the things we’re thinking about:

1.  Is this a good fit for our family?  Is there enough room?  Two bedrooms or three?  Is there a bath tub or just a shower?  Will Hillary feel safe when I’m gone for a few days?  How about sidewalks, a place for Wesley to dig, or room to run around inside during the long winters characteristic of Worcester?  Aesthetics matter and we love the neat old homes with character that are scattered throughout the city.  Are there bonus features like room for a home office, storage for bicycles and skis, or a fire place?  All of these have varying degrees of significance.

2.  Access:  Is it easy to get there within Worcester and for people coming from outside the city?  How would people from different socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds feel coming to this home?  As we talked about one of the apartments we were looking at with our agent, she told us how the landlord implied that she only wanted to rent to white people.  This would not be a good place for us.  What about the college students in Worcester?  Would this land in their range of commute or cross paths they normally tread?  Is there parking for those who come?

3.  Hosting: How would it work if we tried to fit thirty people in the living room?  Could we make it happen if everyone was willing to squish a little bit?  What if God brings us a bunch of people with children?  Is there play room potential for any of the bedrooms or is there a basement that isn’t too scary?

When we moved to CT we may have pushed too hard to end up in a home despite trying to think strategically like I’ve outlined above.   Regardless of our motives, one of the great blessings in that home were our neighbors.  One guy who lived next door eventually told me that he had been praying a Christian with whom he could identify would move in next door.  When I heard that I was blown away.  We’re praying for the same thing this time.

Another thing we have been learning through the past two years of transition and decision making is that Hillary has a better sense of God’s leading.  When it comes to the big things like jobs, housing, and school for Wesley her “gut” has been on.  We’re still cautiously evaluating this pattern but also trying to learn about the ways God leads us.

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Don’t trust the ducks

I want to have my ducks in a row.  I’m working on a proposal document outlining our efforts to begin a church in Worcester and I want to get it “just right.”  The color scheme will flow through the document, the graphics dazzle and the language eloquently convey the need and opportunities connected with planting in Worcester.  A clear plan, compelling vision, demonstrable goals, and thoughtful strategies for ministry in Worcester all vie for my attention as I think about the next thing to write.  Why?

Here’s a preview of the proposal document that I’m developing.

Underneath my desire for excellence, enjoyment of the creative process and excitement about the work ahead of us I think there is a misplaced trust.  While in theory I know that only God can build a church.  In our own efforts and strength we can’t accomplish anything, yet this freaks me out.  I don’t want to live in the reality of my own powerlessness and by necessity entrust myself to God.  So, I try so hard to have all my ducks in a row.  While excellence, creativity and excitement are laudable virtues I can’t be driven by confidence in my own efforts, as this is actually a fundamental distrust of God.  So as I work today and going forward, I still do my best to have the ducks in a row but do not put my hope there.  Instead, there is a God who “can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.”  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Preview of “Worcester proposal”


Calling – confirmation

The short story is that we’ve been given the green light by the leadership of Trinity to plant a church together in Worcester, MA.  This was our hope in entering the church planting fellowship and we are excited.  Read below for the fuller picture.

All through the Christian life there is the tension between God’s activity and ours.  At the center of the Christian story is a God who takes the initiative to rescue people and yet this rescue always involves a human response.
In my life  a significant area in which I have felt the tension between God’s activity and the human response has been my call to be a pastor.  Through seminary there was a growing sense of confirmation that I was meant to enter the ministry.  However, after eight months of looking for a place to serve, it seemed like I was going no where.  A few years later when I was in a similar position of looking for my next pastoral role it was over a year of waiting.  In these and other instances God has continued to say to my heart, “Yes, I want you to serve me as a pastor.”  But the internal sense of calling and the external reality of being offered a position, don’t seem to run on the same track.

When I came to Providence to serve as a church planting fellow part of the position was to ascertain whether I was supposed to work with Trinity and start a church somewhere.  Through the time of fundraising leading up to our arrival in Providence and over the four months we’ve been here there has been a growing awareness that God wants us to go forward in beginning a new church.  The big question, was whether the leadership of Trinity would feel the same.  And just recently they said yes.

This endorsement is important in that God works through people to lead us.  There is a great passage in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy (a younger guy he was mentoring) that follows these lines.  Paul says, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.”  In Timothy’s life is a gift and call to ministry that comes from God but is somehow confirmed or conferred by man.  Here we see agreement between God’s supernatural working and the discernment of Christian leadership.  This mutual confirmation is meant to propel Timothy forward in service to God.

Ultimately our call to beginning a new church comes from God but it is essential that it be confirmed.  Going forward there will be great challenges so I need to know that I did not enter this path simply by my own decision.  Our movement towards church planting was not pursued in a vacuum but under the guidance of the leaders of Christ’s church.  God wants me to have great confidence in his call and so strengthen me for a more vibrant ministry.  Without such confirmation we would not go forward.

With all the benefits of the confirmation of God’s calling, I also need to guard myself against an inordinate desire for the endorsement of people.  There are important ways in which I cannot look to the  endorsement that comes from man.  In politics you look for the right groups to stand behind you so you gain power.  In sports endorsements come with incredible financial payback and a sense of personal aggrandizement.  On the back of books the positive reviews of important figures cement your reputation as a person of intelligence and sophistication.

I must not look for such endorsement.  As much as I need the confirmation of my calling to come through God’s appointed leaders, I can’t look to any person or group of people for a confirmation of my worth, for some sense of importance, or for an identity outside of what God has already given me in Jesus.  I need to have the right perspective of listening to others for confirmation of God’s direction without listening for a substitute of God’s love and validation.


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