Monday, May 8, 2017

My Ten Favourite Things about Hanover Missionary Church

As I prepare to wrap up my ministry at Hanover Missionary Church I've been reflecting on moments, relationships, and things that make me smile.

Here's a small list of my favourite things about HMC:

10. My parking spot.  Not the one I use on Sunday mornings.  That's the one at the very back corner.  No, the one I use during the week.  It's across the street and a couple spaces past the hydro pole.  I'm not sure why I landed there but it's been one I've used with consistency for over 10 years.

9. The tree outside my office window.  Since my window looks out onto the street and parking lot, there's not much of nature (unlike my fellow co-workers that have office windows that look out toward the back yard with trees and grass).  That small tree provides a small glimpse of nature just outside my window.

8. The deep freezer.  I remember when a former staff member told me about muffins that were in that freezer.  Since then, every once in a while, I check to see what else might be in there.

7. The bike route from my house to my office.  Especially the ride there.  Going down the Allan Park hill is good.  On the other hand, biking up is not so good.

6. HMC's proximity to Tim Horton's.  While I rarely head over by myself, I love arranging meetings and visits over yummy coffee that's steps from the front doors of the church.

5. The super fun gym.  Blitzball, basketball, hockey, paper airplane competitions or anything else that could be used for team building and/or stress relieving purposes.  What a great space.

4. The people that serve without recognition.  There are so many on this list: from the fine team of people that make and serve lunches or meals to the folks that visit, phone, write anonymous encouragement notes, and intercede in prayer.  These are some of HMC's finest.

3. Former small group groupies.  In the days before I became the lead pastor there was a small group of youngish families that met in our home weekly.  I'm grateful for the love, care and support they offered and continue to offer to me and my family.  

2. Unexpected visitors.  While it doesn't always work with my schedule, I love people that drop by to say hi and have a brief chat.  Some have only done this once or twice while others are regulars.  Thanks for brightening my days.

1.  The staff team.  Throughout my years at HMC staff members have come and gone.  I will carry warm memories of times with each of them but especially those that stood alongside me as we weathered the storms together.  They are by far my favourite 'thing' about this great church.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Higher Education and the Holy Spirit

As I prepare to enter the world of Christian higher education I'm faced with various responses from people.  Some are affirming.  Some are confused.  And some, prefer not to ask or talk about it.

13 years ago I informed the church that I was pastoring that I was heading back to seminary.  There were many reactions but I remember one in particular.  It was a conversation with a volunteer leader.  She couldn't understand why I was going back to school and in a nutshell here's what she said:

You don't need more schooling, you just need the Holy Spirit.

I think most people believe Christian higher education is a good thing.  But not all people.  Some think too much learning 'quenches' the Holy Spirit.  As though learning theology is helpful as long as it stops at some point.  That point is usually when it starts to interfere with "what the Bible says".

Here's an important note: those that devalue Christian higher education are usually the same ones that suggest their way of interpreting the Bible is not actually interpreting at all, they're just saying and doing "what the Bible says".  Devaluing education leads to a simple, rigid, theology.  Higher education is designed to help interpret what the Bible says.  It gives context and meaning to ancient texts and cultures so the Holy Spirit can open up and apply even the most obscure texts to lives today.  But that learning doesn't always fit nicely into the land of rigid theology.  In that place, people fear theological change.  Because 'new' theological positions are something to be feared and condemned rather than poked and questioned.

Here's what I think: The Holy Spirit works in and through Christian higher education.  Just like the Spirit works through people, nature, etc.  He uses education to form and shape learners into the image of Christ.  Education changes the way people think.  And when thinking changes so does living.  That's a good thing.  Romans 12:2 calls follows of Jesus to have their minds renewed.  To be trained to think differently.  To learn and practice the ways of Jesus.

I've been blessed to serve at HMC.  For an evangelical church it's quite a theologically diverse community and I'm privileged to have been shaped by so many from such different backgrounds and perspectives.  I'm looking forward to my continued journey from church leadership to the classroom and being shaped by the Holy Spirit at every step of the way.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Finding Freedom and Closure in Ritual

I'm taking responsibility for my actions.  And I'm finding freedom.  As I wind up my time as pastor of Hanover Missionary Church I'm learning to let go of things I wish I could change, but can't.  Easier said than done.

It's happening through ritual.  It may sound strange but I've started planning moments that link an action with reflection.  Here's an example: on Monday I set fire to some papers in our fire pit.  This may sound like a normal burning procedure but it wasn't.  Monday's fire was special.  It was a ritual.  The paper represented something.  And before I lit the match I listened to a reading about 'letting go'.  Then, I sat. And I reflected.  Quietly.  And as I lit the match and held the burning matchstick next to the paper until it caught.  I felt sad.  But I also felt loosened.  Looser.  Not a loser.  Freer.  And since that moment, the heart-attachment that those papers represented was severed.  I was set free from the burden of expectation that those papers held over me.

Ritual is why funerals are important.  Funerals are rituals that allow people to have one last moment with friends and family to celebrate the life and grieve the loss of their significant someone.  It's a way of taking control of our response to death--something we have no control over.  To participate in a ritual, such as a funeral or memorial, is to deliberately enter into a moment to reflect, grieve, and, ultimately, let go.  It's one of the first steps in the 'new county' of life without the one who has died.  And after the funeral is over, grief doesn't necessarily subside, but closure begins.

So, as I bring closure to my time at HMC I'm embracing ritual and finding freedom to move forward into the great unknown.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Tips for a church in transition - #3 Prepare for Change

In my last post I talked about conflict.  Conflict's best friend is change.  And change should be posted on the sign outside every church in transition.  Unfortunately, most churches bury conflict, avoid change and try to move through transition hastily, assuming the current trajectory is the 'best' one or the 'right' one.

The reason can be summed up in one word: identity.  We get attached to our identity and we don't want it to change.  The problem is that the church is a living organism and all living things change.  While the 'stuff' of what we're made of remains the same, our identity shifts with time.  

Let my show you what I mean.  When I was young I was part of a family where my identity was that of a younger brother and a son.  As I grew older and my siblings left home then my identity changed.  I was still a son that lived with my parents but my younger brotherliness faded into the background without sibling presence.

Later, I left home and met my wife.  We married and had kids; I became a husband and father.  I remained a son and a younger brother but those parts of my identity became less relevant as my ID as a hubby and dad increased.  

Imagine what might happen if I failed to live into my identity as a husband and dad and still wanted to live only or primarily as son and younger brother.  How would that affect my ability to be a good husband to my wife?  What might my children think?  

Churches have identities too.  And those identities change.  I've seen some churches celebrate their past without clinging to it.  Like the son that grows up and becomes a husband.  Those churches are able to embrace their history and let it go at the same time--in order to become something brand new.  However, I've also seen churches hold onto their past and get stuck.  Like a little brother who waits for his siblings to return and misses the opportunity to grow up and become something else.  Those churches become rigid, oppressive, and eventually close their doors.

An essential part of embracing a new identity is being able to find ways to celebrate the past without holding to it.  When that happens, the church is getting ready for change.  And, as stated earlier, when that change comes get ready for conflict!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tips for a Church in Transition - #2 Be Ready for Conflict to Surface

Church conflict.  It's something every pastor and congregational leader experiences and should know how to handle.  Unfortunately, most church authorities avoid or ignore it.

During leadership transitions conflict surfaces.  Sometimes it's subtle; other times it's explosive.  It can happen in an all-of-a-sudden explosion; or it can ooze out slowly after years of bubbling beneath the surface.  Regardless of how it surfaces, it's important to know some of issues that can lead to congregational conflict.  Here are some hot-button transitional tensions that Terry Foland addresses in his chapter entitled, 'Understanding Conflict and Power' in the book Temporary Shepherds.
  • Church Identity
    • Defining church values and identity impassion people.  Who are we as a church? What's our place in the world?  When there's disagreement in this area, expect people to push back.  Fear of the church losing status in the community or concerns about the future identity and philosophy of ministry all add to rising tensions when there's disagreement.
  • Who Is In Charge?
    • This may be a struggle between clergy and laity or between formal and informal leaders in the church.  Individuals may feel they have a 'right' to know inside information and have a voice in church governance issues.  When things are healthy this could mean increased involvement and investment, but if trust is low then congregants could run interference in appropriate, orderly processes. 
  • What Do We Believe?
    • The fight may be about how the Bible is interpreted, questionable doctrines, or the curriculum used with the children and youth.  What one individual or group wants or needs may be at odds with what other individuals or groups feel they want or need in the church.  When one person or group pushes their theological agenda beyond the norm then the church will experience conflict.
  • How Do We Worship?
    • Adopting new musical preferences in the congregation creates tension.  That tension has a name: worship wars.  The issue may be the type of instruments used or the kinds of songs the church sings--preferring either traditional or contemporary forms of worship.  Any way this is sliced, it creates conflict.
  • Role Expectation of Leaders
    • How do clergy and staff spend their time in ministry?  Should the pastor act as leader or manager?  Where staff spend their time and resources and who determines their priorities are both possible areas where fights could emerge.
  • Limited Resources
    • When there is a reduction in resources (a reality in a church in transition) then conflict can arise about where the limited resources should be allocated.  Expect people to fight to fund their priorities when resources are limited.
  • Focus Inward or Focus Outward?
    • Should the church focus primarily on nurturing and caring for their own members primarily or focus on serving and reaching out to their community?  Any attempt to change this focus from what the church has been doing will result in tension.
  • Malfeasance or Misconduct by Clergy
    • If a pastor is accused of immoral, unethical, or illegal behaviour, some people will believe the accusations while others will deny them and defend the pastor.  This can create significant tension and conflict in the congregation.
So, if your church is in a season of pastoral transition, you will likely be facing some or all of these tensions.  The best way through the conflict is by hiring a trained transitional pastor.  He or she will help your church address these issues without blowing it up.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Tips for a Church in Transition - #1 Increase Communication

A pastoral transition, no matter how smooth, leaves a huge communication gap.  That gap needs a bridge.  Increased communication functions as a bridge for a church in transition.  So, make sure your church is building bridges across the gap with regular updates during the transition.

Roger Nicholson paints a clear picture of the need for open communication in his book, Temporary Shepherds.  He writes:

Efficient and effective communication is a major concern of every congregation, and never more so when a vacancy occurs in the pastoral office.  Interim congregations often discover that their communication system is very inadequate, resulting in poor decision-making processes and in misunderstandings.  A strong congregation is one in which all information is freely shared and all members are fully informed and aware of church matters.  Power struggles result when information is withheld as a means of controlling the organization.  The interim time is a crucial opportunity for a congregation to examine its practices and ensure that an open system of communication and decision making is in place at the start of a new pastorate. (p. 22)

So, if you want to avoid power struggles and misunderstandings, here are a few suggestions:
  1. If you're a transition pastor, give a few brief updates before preaching.  Keep it punchy and concise.  "I have some important things to tell you about this time of transition and I also want to hear from you.  I'd like to invite you to a town hall meeting in the blue room on such and such date and time", or "The search committee has been formed and here's who they are... let's pray for them".  That sort of messaging gives everyone a chance to hear what's going on in the congregation.  If you're church doesn't have a transition pastor, appoint someone to do this on a consistent basis until a consistent pastor (transitional or permanent) is hired.  
  2. Update the church website, social media, and weekly printed bulletin with the same information being presented during the Sunday morning update.  Make sure the messaging is consistent.  Where there's a discrepancy, over communicate to correct the faulty message.
  3. Call a town hall meeting and invite the whole congregation to attend.  Have a potluck.  Or not.  Arrange tables and ask good questions that allow people to engage in conversation about the church with those around their tables.  Share plenty of information.  Then, open the floor for questions and remember to take time to pray.
Remember, transitions are typically times when communication decreases.  Decreased communication raises congregational anxiety, so make sure you take steps to increase dialogue.  It's far better to over communicate than under communicate, especially during times of change.  Augment the messaging and I'll guarantee one thing: your congregation will thank you!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Learning to be well-differentiated

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Christ-centred differentiation in a sermon.  It's a hard but crucial concept to understand.  In fact, it's one of the most important concepts I've ever learned.  And no one does a better job of describing it than Edwin Friedman.  Here's how he defines it:

Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life's goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say "I" when others are demanding "you" and "we".  It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one's own destiny and emotional being.  It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one's repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis.  The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism, however.  Differentiation means the capacity to be an "I" while remaining connected.
(E. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, p. 27)

When a family member/staff member/board member/church member loses the capacity to be differentiated they (consciously or unconsciously) operate to force the whole family closer.  Individual ideas, opinions, and perspectives that do not align with their way of seeing the world will result in sabotage.

Friedman succinctly spells out they way well-differentiated and not-so-differentiated people may respond in the church to define themselves or subvert the leader.  He writes:

All we have to do is give a talk in which we carefully differentiate ourselves--define clearly what we believe and where we stand on issues, in a way that is totally devoid of "should" and "musts."  The response from the congregational family, no matter what the faith, will always range along the following spectrum.  Those who function emotionally toward the "better differentiated" end will respond by defining themselves: "Father, I agree"; "I disagree"; "I believe"; etc.; or, "Ms. Jones, I like what you said, though I am not sure I can agree with you on..."  Those at the "less well-differentiated" end will respond not by defining themselves but by continuing to define their clergyman or clergywoman: "Father, how can you say that when..."; "Ms. Smith, how do you reconcile this with what you said the other day when you..."; "Rabbi, sometimes I wonder if you are even Jewish."  (E. Friedman, Generation to Generation, p. 30)    

It's tough to maintain an "I" posture when you're confronted with "we" language.  I've sat through many meetings: board, staff, or otherwise and watched how difficult it is for an "I" to stand against the "we".  However, this is exactly what is needed.  This defining action is precisely what separates the best leaders from ones that maintain the status quo.

Be warned!  An attack (sometimes overt, sometimes covert) is lurking at the door of every leader that decides to be an "I" in a family or group that is bent on being "we".  Poorly differentiated leaders act to sabotage well-differentiated leaders:
"We" think "you" should (or must)...
It's the ultimate power play and it's often the moment when the "I" crumbles.

I've crumbled quite a bit in the past few years as a church leader.  I'm not proud of it but I also know God is working my weakness into His strength.  My "I" is stronger now that it has been in a long time.  I give huge credit to three people: my amazing and brilliantly well-differentiated wife, my wise and caring spiritual director, and a cussing prophet who's best friend is a horse.

To all those seeking to live well-differentiated lives, here's some biblical encouragement:

"In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matt. 5:48)  
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