Tuesday 31 March 2020

The Poison of Productivity

Hello dear colleagues.  So, we moved through Sunday number 2 in this strange new world. How did it go? I’m not asking if the production values of your online worship were as slick as some TV megachurch. I’m asking, did you feel faithful? Did you feel like you led worship? Tough to do without the immediate feedback isn’t it?  Most semesters I record lectures for students in online courses and I find that tough enough to do when the only one watching me is my faithful laptop camera. Worship? Whew.  That’s in an entirely different league. If you didn’t take worship on-line, if you feel that there are other ways of being faithful that call to you, if that’s just not your skill set, how are you doing?  Does that still feel okay? Remember, it’s a new place for all of us.  Kind of reminds me of the earliest days of the church, when everyone was trying to figure out just what this Christianity-thing was going to look like. They had a sense of what they were after but since no one had written the best-selling Ten Sure-fire Steps to a Thriving Church they were all exploring.
            Speaking of exploring, I had a thought for you today – if you don’t feel too overwhelmed.  Maybe it will help your “overwhelmedness”.  Yes, I guess I made that up. As the shock and surreality of the pandemic sinks in, what messages are you taking in about how you are supposed to be in this time?  Maybe it’s not as blunt as Daddy Stephen McNeil telling us bluntly (and appropriately) how fed up he is with those of us not practicing physical distancing.  But you may be getting the message. One of my students in another Region told me that a mover and shaker in the congregation is talking about how she doesn’t feel they should be paying the minister since they aren’t getting anything – which being translated means Sunday worship. I know many clergy sometimes struggle with a question of worth: “what did I accomplish this week?”  With so many of your regular options for ministering closed to you, are you feeling that?
            Have you seen the Face Books memes celebrating what Newton and Shakespeare accomplished while quarantining during the plague? So, what’s the matter with you!?  Have you tried baking as a form of Covid therapy?  Turned your living room into a home gym with cans of beans for weights? Completed the redecorating?
            It’s a symptom of the culture which tells us that our value is as producers and consumers. The message is: that which is good can be commodified – including our labour and our time. So, as we try and exercise home isolation and staying in place and many of our workplaces are shut by government order, how do we find the value which truly is ours as beloved children of God? Maybe it’s time to face the truth that many of us have been proclaiming salvation by grace through faith but living in ways that look a lot like works righteousness.
            In a lot of places in the secular world, managers are pushing employees to undertake business as usual, even while working from home. I saw one memo that instructed employees to answer work chat messages within a few minutes and leave cameras on during video chats – how your boss profits from seeing the lousy furniture in the spare corner you set up for a home office I don’t really know.  Always be available is the message.  Are you – or perhaps some of your parishioners – struggling with that? The underlying message is that it’s still possible to prove your underlying worth through work. 
There are things to do, necessary things to do. Be in touch with friends and loved ones.  Go for – an appropriately distanced- - walk or run. Help out an older or immunocompromised neighbour. But this is not a time to optomize work or stoically pretend that nothing is different. We tend, in our society, not to prioritize care and repetition.  But isn’t that a chunk of the Christian message? The regular repetition of acts of faithfulness.
A friend of mine, a solo entrepreneur, gave me some good advice when AST shut down and I started to work from home.  “Just accept that you’ll be only 50-60% as productive, because lots of things will be a first and nothing you’re used to using will be where you expect it to be.” Add to that worries over your family; do you have enough food; which stores are price-gouging on items; what will Premier McNeil say this afternoon (no, I don’t obsess about the latter!)?
Ponder this thought: we have the privilege and luxury to work from home (which a chunk of our parishioners don’t), so please remember to use the extra time for things that are generally commodified: care for our loved ones, our families, ourselves.  If you can afford it, try and support a local business each day.  Maybe reach out to someone you haven’t contacted in a while just to say: “How you doing? I’m thinking of you.” Take the time to not produce anything without feeling guilty about it. 
Please don’t look for other work to justify your salary. It will not address your fear and stress, only supress it so that it can appear elsewhere. You have the privilege of a kind of time that may feel new to you.  There will be plenty to do when we hit the new normal. 

©2020 I Ross Bartlett

Choosing Isolation – St. Clare

In a time when physical distancing is our temporary new norm, it might be helpful to consider some folks from our history who chose separation as a means of greater connection with the Holy.  One of those is St. Clare of Assisi.
According to tradition, Clare was born into a wealthy and traditionally powerful family in 1194.  Like many girls and young women of her time, her future was largely controlled by others, and would normally have involved marriage and motherhood. Rejecting that, after hearing Francis of Assisi preach during the season of Lent, she approached him for help to live in the Gospel way.  On Palm Sunday, 1212, she and two companions met Francis, her hair was cut, and she donned a simple gown.  Needless to say, her father was not pleased with this show of will and tried to drag her back home to be married. Through the years, she requested to be moved from one monastery to another in search of greater poverty and solitude.  Other women joined her and the company was first known as the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano” and later as the “Poor Clares.” After her death it become known as the “Order of St. Clare.” The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence.

Here, for your consideration and use, are a couple of her prayers. 

I Come, O Lord

I come, O Lord, unto Your sanctuary to see the life and food of my soul. As I hope in You, O Lord, inspire me with that confidence which brings me to Your holy mountain. Permit me, Divine Jesus, to come closer to You, that my whole soul may do homage to the greatness of Your majesty; that my heart, with its tenderest affections, may acknowledge Thine infinite love; that my memory may dwell on the admirable mysteries here renewed every day, and that the sacrifice of my whole being may accompany Thine.


What you hold may you always hold.
What you do, may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step and unswerving feet,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,
Go forward, the spirit of our God has called you.

Behold, Hold and Enfold

I behold the Lord.
I see His outstretched hands.
I see the blood from His wounds.
I see the love in the eyes of Jesus.
I see His gracious acceptance of me.

Jesus has come out of the tomb –
He still has the scars, but now they are glorious, with the glory of heaven.
Still looking at the Lord, I reach out and touch Him.
I hold the Lord – and I am held in His love.
Love enfolds.
It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me.
I am secure in the Lord.
I can look out, now, through the Lord’s eyes.
I can see the world as He created it, in His mercy,
I can see my sisters and brothers with His love,
and I can worship the Father through the eyes of the Son
in the Love of the Holy Spirit.
(Prayers of St Clare of Assisi)

©2020 I Ross Bartlett


Monday 9 March 2020

Asking the Right Questions

Perhaps it depends on how we're psychologically wired, but I really like questions.  I especially like the questions that push me out of the familiar ways of thinking and acting and into new territory. The longer I'm around the more I realize how crucial the right questions are. For instance, as I observe well-meaning and decent people in the political realm strive for solutions to issues that plague our society, so often they appear to be hamstrung from the start by the assumptions that lead to certain questions.  But if the assumptions leading to the questions are off, then the questions that result will not be helpful and the answers to the questions will not get us where we want to go.

Leadership is about asking the tough questions. Ronald Heifitz (who has written a number of books about leadership that are terribly relevant to the church and not-for-profit sector), highlights one of the problems though: when we look for leaders, more often than not we're really looking for saviours.  How many times have I heard church committees say, in so many words, if we had the right minister everything would be fine?  The definition and appearance of "Right" can vary -- but the sentiment remains: we want someone to show us the way, hopefully in a painless and easy fashion.  Heifitz insists that, instead, we should be looking for leaders who ask the challenge us to answer the questions for which there are no easy answers; the ones that challenge us to face new ways.

So here's a question for your congregation or not-for -profit: would you describe yourself as predominantly attractional or missional?  "Attractional" means that you are working to get those who are outside (your circle, your church, your organization) inside. "Missional" means getting your organization to go into the places people normally inhabit. For most of my time in congregational ministry my primary focus was "attractional": getting people in to equip them to do something we called "outreach." It is certainly the question I hear from congregational committees: "How do we get more people in?"  The outreach component may be there but it's not often articulated. Mostly its about our own survival.

Again with Heifitz: leaders need to know how to focus attention internally or externally (beyond the circle). For him, this would not be just about sermons or the regular newsletter. Heifitz repeatedly insists that one of the powers of the leader is to focus the conversation of the organizational and hold it in uncomfortable places.

Genuine leadership is not about protecting and preserving the institution but using the institution to achieve its ends. However, institutions are not just inert lumps. Institutions have expectations as well. These are enforced in a variety of ways (vows, reviews, positions of authority, etc.). In times of change, we can sometimes see more clearly how those internal mechanisms (rules, polity, structures and so on) can redirect energy and attention from the mission. I'm not someone who believes that structure and administration are all bad! Someone has to create and maintain a set of resources to move the mission forward. If you're going t hold an event to benefit the entire community, someone needs to do the planning. Questions leaders need to ask include: does this part of the structure reinforce the mission or the system; we can do this particular thing, but why do we need to; what's the worst thing that will happen if we don't do that? Increasingly, leaders need a double competency: they need to understand and experience the hairballs of their institution and discern the edges where they can engage purpose, culture, and change.  Not easy work, but a holy calling.

©2020 I Ross Bartlett

Monday 2 March 2020

Things Non-Participants Think They Know About Your Church – And Don’t Like

Things Non-Participants Think They Know About Your Church – And Don’t Like

Everywhere I go I find church leaders working very hard – or at least dreaming fervently – about having more people in church. The most insightful realize that clever marketing programs won’t seal the deal. They also recognize that a lot of “those people” really have no clue about the church. You can’t bring people back to someplace they’ve never been. However, there are a number of things we need to recognize about powerful attitudes. Most people outside the church can give you a list of complaints about Christians; it doesn’t help that those of us on the inside could probably double the list. Apocryphally or not, Gandhi is famously supposed to have said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” If only he were a lone voice, the exception that proves the rule.

We certainly have an image problem, especially when certain, self-proclaimed, Christian leaders are vociferous in their advocacy of policies and politicians that many find abhorrent. Marrying a particular political or social stance to faith as the only “Christian” response seems very far from the pattern of the Teacher from Nazareth.  The greater the distance our personal convictions are from those celebrated as “Christian” in the media, the larger the challenge of identifying ourselves. Even if we can establish that difference, self-identification that begins “but we’re not like those folks” isn’t terribly positive. Some folk would argue that we’re being unfairly targeted, we’re not understood. That may be true, but I think it’s deeper.  Sure, we get misunderstood and misrepresented on some issues but that’s not really in our control.  There are some things that are in our control.

Often, we are not different enough.  After all, what’s to choose if our approach to people, our response to our neighbours and co-workers, our gossip and so on are indistinguishable from those who make no claim to faith? For instance, most of the self-identified Christian presence on social media reveals condemnation of any number of differences, gender identities, even political views. Is this what Jesus intended when he told us not to judge? Have you ever met anyone judged into a genuine change? The next one I meet will be the first!  Judgments and criticisms, tossed off so casually, can be devastating to others. Where judgement is operating is love present? Can we love someone and simultaneously constantly judge them? Without giving up on the faithful calling to distinguish right from wrong and good from evil, we can relinquish judgmentalism – the pernicious habit of always needing to build ourselves up by putting others down. If we really do believe in a God of love, shouldn’t that show?

There is an ancient complaint about followers of Christ who behave one way on Sunday and another the rest of the week. The term is hypocrite and labelling someone else is far easier than looking inside and admitting. But the truth is I rarely live up to my own best standards and intentions, much less anything demanded by my Christian discipleship. Like Paul I can say: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15). It’s a life work to become the people we dare to dream we could be. Deciding to be different is not enough. Attending to our deeds and our words, remembering that we are constant advertisements for what we claim to believe, being humble and acknowledging when we fall short – all are important signs of our openness.

What about our friendships? Here I think folk in the formerly mainline denominations may actually have an advantage. In much of the literature I read, there seems to be an assumption that “Christians” only hang with other believers, not “non-Christians.” Your friends come from the religiously and spiritually like-minded.  Jesus followers are often urged to make friendships and connections with non-churchgoers, largely for evangelistic purposes.

That’s not my experience. What I’ve seen suggests that mainline/oldline churchgoers have lots of connections outside of church. Their clergy may be an exception! For a variety of reasons, our congregations are not the closed environment that I often read of in other parts of the tradition. Generally, we don’t proclaim fear of or despair for, the world. However, there are other commonalities. Because folk in my tribe tend to be quite shy in expressing their faith, the experience of them as Jesus followers is situational and observational rather than relational (see a previous paragraph about how that often works out!) You might do this or invite folk in your leadership group to consider: who do you hang out with? When was the last time you had a meal with someone of a different economic, social, cultural or political persuasion? What did you talk about? Did you mention faith in any way, shape or form? Presumably if it’s a real friendship then it gets at real issues and, for you, that ought to touch on (if not focus on) faith. Can you talk about that naturally?  Can your congregation members? 

A bit of shameless self-promotion: On Holy Ground: You and Your Faith Story,  https://ucrdstore.ca/products/on-holy-ground-you-and-your-faith-story?_pos=1&_sid=5624ce7ca&_ss=r

©2020 I Ross Bartlett