At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nothing Lasts Forever

The referendum in Crimea is in the books, and unless significant American (unlikely) and international (somewhat more likely) pressure causes Russia to bend back from Vladimir Putin's stealth land grabs (which just might continue), we might see more expansion in the works.

The reality is, though, that the borders of the world are drawn in blood, and those borders are constantly changing. We are somewhat used to the Western Hemisphere's general geographical stability (the only switcheroo I can recall in recent memory is when Canada carved the territory of Nunavut out of the Northwest Territories in 1999), but nations change in Africa like antes do in a poker game with my friends. The hotcakes flip especially in the European lands.

Nothing lasts forever. If it's stability you're wanting, don't look to geopolitics.

To wit, here's the interactive map to prove what I just mentioned:

Enjoy, and do some serious thinking while you're at it.

One of the Many, Part 3

For the final time, I look into the numbers behind Ex-Pastors and their survey of why a number of pastors leave their ministry.

The spot that leaps out at me is the one that declares "70% of pastors constantly fight depression and 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but they have no other way of making a living."

I see in this some things beyond our control and things within it. First, the depression can be overwhelming. Soon after we were forced out of our church, I reflected on how several pastors I have known about had ultimately caved into depression and committed suicide. Christy and I were talking about that one day when I said, "I've never felt like taking my own life, but for the first time, I completely understand why some pastors would take that step. None of us are far from disaster."

Circumstances can knock the crap out of you, and even an ordained shepherd can forget for stretches of time that God loves them.

But the part that I see as being within our control is the 50% item above. Would leave? But you have no other way of making a living?

I'm really not trying to be insensitive here, but are we to expect that pastors are so under skilled in other areas that they wouldn't be employment material?

First of all, that's not what I consider the biblical example. Paul was skilled in tent making. Peter was a pretty decent fisherman. Along with being an assistant evangelist around much of the Roman world, Luke was a physician.

But also, part of being a servant who can preach God's special grace should involve a backup skill within the realm of common grace. Whether it be sales, manufacturing, computer skills, or teaching, I'd expect pastors to be somewhat gifted somewhere.

80% report a negative impact of the ministry on one's family. This tells me we need to examine what the church is like, what one's family dynamics are like, or both. Some of this could come from an inability to reconcile the professional and personal spheres. It could be some workaholism. Then again, it could be what Christy and I experienced: a church situation beyond healing that we were trying to heal, which led to me internalizing so much that I didn't share with my wife. Obviously, we've moved beyond that, but it took about half a year for our marriage to recover from it.

70% say they don't have a close friend. This is especially troubling and is a recipe for disaster. You need a close friend or friends. You need to have several in the church, and you and your spouse should reserve the right to have some people in the church who are closer friends than others in the same church. There's no reason why this can't happen. The expectation to be equally close or arms-length is burdensome.

40% report serious conflict with someone in the church once a month? That could be lowballing things. I'm glad it's only at forty.

The final matter is that many ministers will not last five years. It's a sobering statistic. And I am one of those statistics. But grace that is learned through the fire is still grace.

I have a beautiful wife and three children, one of whom is with the Lord and I will see again one day. I live in a great city, work at a tremendous Christian school, teach a subject that I love (Ethics), and I get to spend a lot of my discretionary time writing what I want to write.

So even though I am "one of the many", in the end that's not a bad place to be.

Because God is God, and He is good.

And life goes on.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

One of the Many, Part 2

Last week, I looked back on my brief but painful tenure in pastoral ministry of a local church. It was a time that bore fruit in the sense that I recognized, for the first time in my life, that I could bomb out on something and still be okay. But much of the time went over me with the force of an avalanche down the Matterhorn.

I had referred earlier to the site Ex-Pastors, a resource long overdue for those of us who still have a passion for shepherding others but find it difficult to trust the local church as that vocational arena. I re-read the article on "Why Do So Many Pastors Leave the Ministry?" Of course, the road of ministry train wrecks is littered with moral failure, and of course there should be discipline for those pastors who can't keep their sexual hockey jerseys on and keep shooting their pucks into nets where they shouldn't go. But there's a parallel streak of vocational shock that is extremely unsettling. So I thought I'd take these matters one by one and reflect on them from the perspective of my time in North Carolina.

Why do so many pastors leave the ministry?

1. Most pastors are overworked. Ex-Pastors asserts that ninety percent of pastors are working between 55 to 75 hours a week and at least half feel inadequate to meet the job's demands.

My take: I try to hold back from judging "overwork" based on hours. I don't want to get into a situation like France where anything over 35 hours a week is considered overtime (pause here to shake your head in disbelief at the nation who helped up in our own American Revolution when their soldiers worked at least double that amount per week at the time). Some pastors can work long hours and much of it is stupid busy work that a good administrative assistant or group of elders could shoulder. I tried to be a very efficient worker so that when emergencies came up, I had some gas in the proverbial tank.

But regardless of how many hours, I think what many pastors suffer from is a lack of vision on the part of their church about what the role of a pastor should be. This will depend on the size, history, and identity of the church as well as the vision a church has for reaching their community. If a church has a clear understanding about the pastor's on-scene role in preaching, evangelism, discipleship, assimilation of new attenders, etc., then that frees up the pastor for directing his energies in specific areas where he is gifted, and he can negotiate with the church about where he would take a lead role and where the laity would have to shoulder a good bit of the ministry burden.

In my case, the church enjoyed being a church (one of 850 churches in a county of 100,000 people…another demographic reality that made no sense to me), but we were hampered by a disconnect of vision regarding my workload. There was no sense of shared ministry because most of the parishioners came from a background where the pastor (and his wife!) did everything. So I don't think it's a matter of hours as much as it is a failure of communication of vision and fidelity to that layout.

2. Seventy percent feel grossly underpaid. I have no idea how to parse this one. Almost everyone feels underpaid. We'd all like to have a huge chunk of discretionary income (and one that the IRS knows nothing about!). This might have something to do with cheapskate churches and their budgets, but it can also have to do with pastors and their families refusing to live within their means. Unless we have a better understanding of average salaries and how they jive with cost of living in an area, we really can't plumb the depths too much on this one.

3. Most pastors feel unprepared. Ninety percent of pastors state they're ill-quipped/inadequately trained to cope with what goes on in their ministry and also say the ministry was completely different from what they envisioned.

My take: There's a lot to be said here. It depends what sort of "training" one received in preparation for the pastorate. If there wasn't much to speak of, I hate to say it, but the pastor kind of has himself to blame for that. Now if it's at the seminary level, we're whistling a different tune. If seminaries are glutting their faculties with professors who have spent much time in research but little in church life as pastors, they do their students a disservice. I was blessed to be at Covenant Seminary where my professors averaged about ten years of experience as pastors in a church. That helped greatly in terms of training and what to expect.

By far, though, the greatest training and managing of expectations came from my father, who has been in the ordained ministry for 45 years. Not only did he teach me well, I was able to observe what he went through in very difficult church waters and how he reacted. But I realized at an early age the church was no picnic and no utopia. I figured out the parishioner lexicon of what people say to their pastor and what meaning is cloaked behind those words. My cynicism blew up years later in North Carolina when I was a pastor, but I was at least going in with my eyes open.

And finally, if the ministry is different from what you envisioned, get in line behind a lot of other people. The church is full of sinners, of hypocrites, of pigs. Get over it. This one is for the seminary students out there: If you are looking forward to your first pastoral call like rose-colored glasses-wearing German youth marching off to the Western front in World War I, I'll pray for you, but I know what's coming. Brace yourselves.

If anything should be said here, potential pastors do need deeper training in what to expect when they get "on the field". This is not to scare off future clergy, but rather to take off the veil. And there needs to be a long, hard self-scouting look made by every potential minister, asking if they have the perseverance and personality to cope with what is coming. The longer someone takes to consider this, the better off they are.

That's a lot to digest, and there's more to be said in a future post. Yes, there are things future pastor should consider more, and there are some matters which present pastors should think about in the midst of voicing their concerns. But there is a reality lurking in the perceptions voiced. Next time, I'll deal with more of them.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One of the Many, Part 1

It's good to know I'm technically not alone, but staggering to realize I'm one of many in a vocation that is so much at risk.

This August will be the ten-year anniversary of when--at a Presbyterian church in Salisbury, North Carolina--I was ordained and installed into the pastoral ministry. I was just shy of thirty-four years of age, brimming with hope that a new position can bring. I went into my new post with three clear rationales: (1) faithfully preach Scripture to the best of my ability; (2) people are genuinely excited about the adventure of being a follower of Jesus and are willing to invite others on this journey because (3) the Gospel will do its own reproducing.

Over the next fourteen months of my life, I diligently pursued rationale #1 to the best of my ability and still do. And I never lose hope in rationale #3.

What happened was that I fell into a deep depression because rationale #2--in my parish--was nowhere close to being the truth. Going to church, accessing the church, controlling the maneuvers of the church was the sum of the adventure. Being the church was so absent.

There were some successes. We took in some new members over time for our small church. I learned a great deal about how to respond to conflict and how to manage responses so that I could move people toward a consensus (even if it was hard to arrive there). I discovered the depths of perseverance previously unknown as I refused to give up no matter how bleak things got.

But that's about it. I wasn't removed for moral reasons, or for spouting heresy, or for making unilateral decisions that were disastrous.

A church that--in retrospect--didn't have a chance, that was saddled with many members used to church split-type conflicts, and tragically was riven with a spirit of merely wanting to accumulate Christians like them rather than seek the skeptical and spiritually hungry and befriend them…I wasn't ready for all that.

I wasn't ready for leaders to tell me, "I really don't think we need people who don't believe in Jesus in the church."

I wasn't ready for the greatest hostility to the movement of the Holy Spirit to come from professing Christians.

I wasn't ready for a transparent sermon on God's love for sinful people to be skewered because of the presence of a reference to Seinfeld and because we hadn't said the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed in the service.

And I wasn't ready for--after thirty of the stonewalling and gospel-threatening adherents in the congregation left and we were down to forty-five people who loved Jesus and were excited about our chances--a clandestine threesome of a subcommittee of our regional church association told me I was out due to declining attendance and dollars. And then they dared to offer me a mere two-month severance package.

I wasn't ready for Christianity in that place to be defined more by adhering to what Focus on the Family said rather than by grace.

Really? This is what Christians who risked life and limb, who met in Rome's catacombs, who prayed and bled in laying the foundation of the ancient church and defended the core teachings of God's friendly heart…this is what they died for?

The life of a pastor is grueling enough, but much about it can make a cleric desire to quit, as the website ExPastors ably lays out. Over the next couple days, I'll be sharing some thoughts about their findings, which are quite stunning. Some were not particular to me; some--such as depression and the negative impact on family--are. No, I never contemplated suicide. But I completely understood why pastors might.

Yes, I am one of the many. That is true.

However, I discovered one thing that the ExPastors report will not discuss.

You can be faithful in your calling. You can experience disaster and have 'failed' by other people's standards. And that's okay.

Because grace is stronger and God's love never fails.

More later.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Hurting Nation

The Seinfeld episode where Kramer and Newman are playing RISK on the subway? Remember that one? The one where Newman declares "I still have armies in the Ukraine!", which brought on a laugh from Kramer, who declared the Ukraine "is weak, it's feeble…I believe its time to put the hurt on the Ukraine."

Definitely not funny now.

When a nation is riven by the fighting and bloodshed of recent weeks on either side of and during the Winter Olympics, and now is facing an invasion from the largest nation in the world, it's definitely not funny.

Now Russian president Vladimir Putin has secured unanimous, rubber-stamp, yes-man, monkey-boy approval from his upper legislature in Moscow to invade the Crimean territory of the Ukraine, a brutal shot across the bow of world diplomacy. 

What does this mean? Here are my thoughts, some from my brain, but most with a huge assist from my friend Rich Smith, who lived in Moscow for awhile and formerly was an attorney for the Ukrainian Legal Group in Washington, D.C.

1. One of the big prizes has to be the natural gas and oil fields around Crimea. To say that hasn't entered Putin's mind would show the depths of ignorance.

2. According to Rich, the game plan for Putin is "pushing the envelope, and seeing how much he can get away with. So far…a lot. The plan is to destabilize the country, force the government to fall, and then complete the anschluss with minimal bloodshed."

3. Given those conditions, what should Ukraine's response be? Again, to Rich: "If Ukraine starts shooting too soon, he'll succeed…If Ukraine keeps doing what it's doing--mobilizing, getting its forces in good order, and not reacting too soon--they have a chance.

4. Geography and demographics are key here: The Crimea region appears to have generally welcomed pro-Russian military personnel taking things over so far. That's because just over 58 percent of Crimea is ethnic Russian (and Crimea has the highest Islamic concentration in the Ukraine…interesting given the religious skewering that launched the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century). Also, Rich notes there are military "bases on site…If Donetsk, Kharkov, and Dnepropetrovsk [to clarify for readers, those are in a swath of land in southeast Ukraine and are the second-, third-, and fifth-largest cities in the Ukraine] turn coat and invite Russia in, then the road to Kiev starts opening up."

5. Ukraine needs to think and act fast. Rich points out they do have 4000 tanks and a fully-mobilized army of 1 million (they had compulsory military service until 2013). However, he states "two-thirds of the tanks are in mothballs. And the standing army's only about 150,000 before mobilization." Vitaly Klitschko, a senior Ukrainian politician and a likely presidential candidate, has called for a general mobilization of the Ukrainian forces. It is a race against time.

6. President Obama has spoken about "standing with" the international community in "affirming" the "costs" of what Putin is doing. To be fair to Obama, no political leader would relish having to deal with responding to such matter. However, words mean things, and to merely yak about how we recognize this is a nasty maneuver (which is the essence of Obama's pleonasms) means little or nothing. There was a time when America led the way when it came to brokering solutions to grave international threats. Moments like these show those days to be long gone.

7. Finally, one piece of information few seem to notice is a covenant agreed to twenty years ago and signed by then-President Bill Clinton and then-British prime minister John Major. The Ukrainian parliament is now appealing to Great Britain and the United States to honor this promise to protect Ukraine's borders. As I said before, words mean things. Promises mean things. Threatening to not appear at a summit or deepen trade ties with Russia doesn't seem to be holding back the Moscow Menace. What will the next move be?

These are realities many of us can't fathom because we live in safe territory and sleep in beds that don't get crushed under the weight of a T-99 Armada tank.

That should sober us up a little bit.

Pray for Ukraine.