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Associate Pastor

The untraditional associate pastor

February 24, 2017

It’s been a little over four years since I wrote, The Work of the Associate Pastor (Judson Press) and a lot has changed. As church budgets get smaller and the pews reveal increasingly empty space, many church leaders cannot fathom having an associate pastor on a church staff.  A Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that from 2010 to 2015, part-time clergy jumped from 29% to 38%. If it’s hard enough to staff one pastoral position, how could a church even think about two?

The answer is: it’s time to consider another model of associate pastor. Continue Reading…

Christianity

What the Bible says about refugees

January 31, 2017

Donald Trump’s executive order denying refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries entry into the United States has led to widespread outcry across the political spectrum. Despite promises, even Christian refugees have been turned away from the United States. Being a nation of immigrants, this policy is antithetical to the notion that America is the land of liberty and freedom.  Politically and morally, policies and provisions that exclude a religious group is ethically wrong.

For Christians, such rejection of refugees and those seeking safety runs counter to what we read in the Bible. Here’s what we discover in the Bible on refugees, strangers and political aliens:   Continue Reading…

blog, Christmas

Why the “inn” is a Christmas myth

December 16, 2016

Christmas

If you have been to church in some point in your lifetime during Advent or Christmas, you’ve most likely seen an adorable Christmas play or pageant.  Poor Joseph and Mary, often in bathrobes, are portrayed by children who  are turned away by an “innkeeper” who lacks compassion. “No room!” is the line. The problem is, when you read the Gospel of Luke or Matthew, there’s no innkeeper or an inn. Such things are a Christmas myth.

Putting aside the adorable nature of children’s Christmas plays, the account of Jesus’ birth must be placed into context of where the birth of Christ took place: Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, thought to contain around 1,000 people at the time, was David’s hometown. Since it was David’s hometown, there was sure to be family present because Joseph, along with other family, had to return to be counted for the census. We read from the King James Version of Luke 2:

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

From the passage, we learn two things. First, Mary gave birth while in Bethlehem. Apparently, Mary and Joseph were there for some length of time. Second, Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the “inn”. The trouble here is that the King James Version translates the Greek word katalumati as “inn”, but the translation of “guest room” is more accurate – as the New International Version renders the word.  The interpretation of katalumati is more of a product of 16th and 17th century European understandings of a guest room when the KJV was first published. Generally, “inns” in the time of Jesus were found in larger cities, not small towns, and inns were no place for a woman in childbirth.

We read later in Luke when Jesus eats his last supper the disciples gather in a katalumati – guest room, also translated, “upper room”:

As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you.  Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the katalumati where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11)

In all reality, Jesus was most likely born in a house.  Many assume that Jesus was born in some sort of stable, where animals were kept. However, in the time of Jesus, humble folks lived with their animals. According to ancient Near East culture expert, E. F .F. Bishop notes the the arrangement of people and animals:

“One of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with manger ‘hollowed in stone,’ the dais [or raised area] being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle. An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business” (“Jesus of Palestine“, p. 42)

When I visited Israel in 2012, I went to Bethlehem to a site that recreated, based on historical evidence and archeology, a house that included a lower section for animals and an upper section for living quarters. At the lower portion of the house was a manager, or feeding trough for the animals. After seeing such a home, the birth story of Jesus made sense – sans the inn and innkeeper.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the myth of an “inn” in the Christmas story is that Luke uses another word for a rental inn. Luke used the Greek word, pandocheion, to describe a place one could stay for a price.  In the story of the Good Samaritan we read in Luke 10:34:  “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an pandocheion (inn) and took care of him.” If there was truly no room in the “inn”, Luke would have used pandocheion in the Christmas story.

Imagine for a minute, everyone of Joseph’s family is in town for the census, the house is full with guests and relatives, and Mary has to go through the very painful and messy delivery of a baby. With the guest room and main living areas full, Jesus was placed in a manager to sleep – as Luke describes.  Ancient Jewish customs and cultural behaviors were not have allowed Mary to stay in an ancient version of a Motel 8. Mary was most likely cared for and surrounded by people in a time of great expectation of Jesus’ birth.

With this perspective, your Christmas nativity scene in your home or church is still accurate, but imagine it as a home – not a stable. It should give us comfort and relief knowing that after everything Mary and Joseph had been through, they were among family, and well cared for with all the extended family around to hold the newborn Christ child.

blog, Christmas

The Bethlehem you don’t know

December 12, 2016

 

The wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. In the background right, you can see the Mount of Olives , which overlooks the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem.

As millions of Christians around the world sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this Advent and Christmas. If you visit Bethlehem today, you would see that it is indeed still, but not in that Christmas-y way. The hopes and fears of all the years are real and have been made worse by a years of conflict and a massive concrete wall.

Four years ago this week, I journeyed with a group of fellow American Baptists and a group from the Church of the Brethren on a goodwill-peace and perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, which was organized by The Telos Group.  It was a trip that went beyond visiting holy sites but sought to understand the conflict in Israel firsthand. If you enter into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, you are greeted by a Cold War like military wall complete with lookout towers, rusted fortifications, armed soldiers, and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was about 12 feet high, but the wall that separates Bethlehem is 25 feet high. To the Israeli government, it’s not a wall, but a barrier to protect against suicide bombers and attacks. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the terrorist organizations that operate in the West Bank are equal to the average Palestinian. However, not all Palestinians are Muslim. They are Christian as well – and of other faiths.

If you travel along the wall in Bethlehem you’ll read stories and see art work of how the wall has impacted people in Bethlehem…

The stories are stories of death, oppression, injustice, rape, injury, and violence, that accompanies the wall, checkpoints, and military security. There are messages of hope as well.

At one of these checkpoints, our small bus was boarded by four Israel Defense Force soldiers. We were asked by soldiers the nature of our visit from the West Bank into Jerusalem. They asked for our passports. Our bus driver and guides explained that we were Americans on a Christian pilgrimage and visit.   As the soldiers pointed their loaded M-16s in our faces, one announced that all the men would have to come with them to be questioned. Our guides were stunned. In all their years of traveling with American groups, such a thing never happened. As the bus driver and soldiers discussed our entry, we sat waiting to hear what was going to happen next. It was extremely tense situation. Thankfully, the lead soldier discovered that our driver had family in the soldier’s hometown and the two continued to talk. This enabled the out-ranking soldier to release us on our way. As we talked to Israelis, Palestinians, and other non-nations on our trip, we found that this checkpoint interaction is common.

The Israeli government is understandably concerned with security. Between rocket attacks, shootings, bus bombings, and other mass casualty attacks, the country has a duty to protect. Certainly, there are enough instances of Palestinian aggression and violence. The unfortunate reality is that some Israeli protection policies fall within a gray area. Due to the vast restrictions on Palestinians, even those Christians from Bethlehem, it has led to border crossings that have included shootings and “harsh conditions of overcrowding, long lines, and cases of humiliation during inspection.” Due to years of persecution, most Christians have left Palestinian towns like Bethlehem for better economic opportunities and basic freedoms.

For some, to object to the treatment of displaced peoples in Bethlehem is to object to Israel. To question any policy of the Israeli government can be seen as anti-Israel or even anti-Christian.  We know that Americans question American government policies everyday, but that does not make someone automatically anti-American.  It is easy to treat this Middle East challenge as a binary issue, but it is not.  For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there can be a third way. There can be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace solutions. However, it is hard work to find a third way. It is easier to draw lines and pick between two options. The more we draw lines the more we separate ourselves from our neighbor. At the basic human level, all three major world religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all have some form of teaching or instruction for respect and love for neighbor. This must be considered as a way forward.

For people living in Bethlehem this will be another Christmas that sees continued divide among neighbors. If you sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem… How still we see thee lie…” remember that modern-day Bethlehem is far from peaceful or still from the imaginary Hallmark Christmas card version. The Bethlehem you do not know and the complex conflict around it requires our prayers, attention, action, and support.

Advent, blog

Advent outrage: Would Jesus curse?

December 1, 2016
advent

The PG version. For the real Advent devotional, scroll down.

(WARNING: If you are offended by coarse language. Don’t read this.) Advent is here! Advent is a time for Christmas trees, lighting candles, waiting for the coming of the celebration of Christ’s birth and… dropping F-bombs?

A new Advent devotional is pushing the edges of decorum with such words and hashtags as…

Continue Reading…

blog

Join me tonight on Twitter #chsocm

November 15, 2016

smlistening

I’m moderating #chsocm on Twitter tonight @ 9:00 p.m. If you are a church-ie social media type, just join in on Twitter with the search and hashtag #chsocm. It’s pretty easy to join in. Just keep #chsocm in your search on Twitter and follow the conversation.

My topic tonight will be centered around social media listening and responding post-election:  Continue Reading…

blog, election

Post-election prayer

November 9, 2016

prayer

The post-election reality is here: Donald Trump won the election for President over Hillary Clinton. I have friends who voted for both candidates.  Looking at my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it is clear that many are troubled by the divided nature of this political season and the results of the election. What shall we do?

This is a time for prayer. What shall we pray for?

Four years ago, I posted this to Facebook after the last presidential election:

No matter if your candidate won or lost last night, remember that what makes this nation great should not be about the loudest political rancor. What makes our nation great is our history of shared resolve to advance the common good.

May you pray this post-election prayer:  Continue Reading…

blog, Christianity

Starbucks green cups ruins everything

November 3, 2016

jesusstbucks

Last year, it was Christians protesting Starbucks red cups. This year it’s Starbucks green cups and people are protesting again. What’s going on?

In the midst of this crazy election season, Starbucks released a green cup that was, according to the CEO, designed to “represent the connections Starbucks has as a community with its partners (employees) and customers. During a divisive time in our country, Starbucks wanted to create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,”

It seems people assumed this was some sort of holiday cup and the reaction was swift:

And it’s not just a few people complaining on social media, but opinion pieces reflect a supposed subversive agenda on behalf of Starbucks against Christians and Republicans. The truth is, those green Starbucks cups are not the holiday cups. And if Starbucks rolled out a green cup for the holidays, so what. If you need a for-profit company to promote Christianity through marketing a $5 cup of coffee, you’d better rethink what makes Christianity… well, Christianity.

As I have said before, Starbucks or secular culture are not the holders of our sacred traditions and beliefs. Secular institutions are not the keepers of Christianity.  We Christians are keepers of Christianity. We are the ones charged to be the messengers of the Christmas story. At the end of the day, companies are here to make money off Christmas.  Stores are decorated with Christmas displays to get you to buy stuff.  If Jesus were walking past a store during the Christmas shopping season, I’m pretty sure he would roll his eyes and place his palm squarely in his face… Or, Jesus would buy a Starbucks green cup, take a sip, and say, “And…?”

Freud supposedly once said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” I think we can safely say here, “Sometimes, a green cup is just a green cup.”

Let’s take a breath here folks and not insert our religious insecurities, political fears, and cultural anxieties into a little green cup.

Leadership

Christian Member berries

October 26, 2016

member berries

South Park’s 20th season featured the appearance of a cluster of unusual characters: Member berries. These little edible high-pitched grape-like fruits reclaim such nostalgic remembrances as “Member Chewbacca again?” “Aw yeah I love to member Chewbacca!”, “Member Ghostbusters?”, “Oh yeah, Ghostbusters!”, “Member Bionic Man?”, “Oh, I love Bionic Man!”, and so on. When one consumes a Member berry euphoric vibes and pleasant nostalgia are enjoyed.

The pleasurable memories of days of yore come to an end when Randy Marsh notices the Member berries begin to remember things with a racial context. The storyline runs its course and people become addicted to Member berries and Randy forms a support group. The citizens of South Park become drunk with nostalgia and long for the past. The allusion to Donald Trump’s campaign promises are clear, which is summarized by his call to “Make America Great Again.”

According to South Park’s wiki page, Member berries are, “the physical manifestation of the idiom “sour grapes”, used to refer to a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.” A true irony.

Not long after the episode, Carol Howard Merritt wrote a Christian Century piece, “The great power of nostalgia”. As I read it, the only thing I could think about was Member berries. So on Facebook I left a comment on her post referring to the South Park episode: “Member Chewbacca”. A humorous thread ensued.

In many ways, Christianity suffers from Member berries. Carol sums up the Member berry nicely:

In our churches, people long for the time when going to church was the center of a town’s social life. Mothers got to dress up after a week of housecleaning, fathers made professional connections, and teens met the people they would soon marry. The sanctuary was full, and everyone understood the importance of Sunday school.

In my 10 years of full-time ordained ministry, I’ve seen and heard a lot of Member berries in the church. “Remember when Pastor _________ was here, we were full.”, “More people used to come to this church meeting.”, “Years ago, we didn’t have problems filling volunteer spots.”, and “If just get back to the good old days, we’d be okay.” The sad thing is that there were challenges then, as we have new challenges now, but that’s what nostalgia does to us.

While churches are picking their Member berries and remembering a once full church the folks in their neighborhood are yearning for spirituality, connection, community, and real relationships. Churches often lament their problems through a lens that sees the past as the only way to a better future. This cannot be more wrong. The past was great for a lot of churches. People showed up to church, volunteered, tithed, things were closed on Sundays, and “everyone” was a Christian. However, as Robert Schnase reminds us in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations :

No church that is vibrant, fruitful, and growing performs its ministry exactly as it did in the 1950’s, and no pastor leading such a congregation is practicing ministry as she or he did in the 1970’s or 1980’s. Effective congregations change, improve, learn, and adapt to fulfill their mission…

Any renewal movement, congregational or otherwise, that is worth its salt does not find success in repeating the technical successes of the past, but finds renewal in envisioning their adaptive future. (There’s a reason Macintosh stop making the Apple II and starting making other stuff to became one of the most successful companies, ever.)

I’ve found that when a new vision takes shape and changes take place in church, Christians feel that the old was bad and the new is good. This is also wrong. When we begin to make changes in churches it is not because the past is bad, but what is being done is not effective. It does not connect with people today. It does not meant what was done in the past loses value. We celebrate honor the past by building on it as we move into a new future. As I used to tell a congregation in the middle of a vision process, “We are not changing the Gospel. We are changing how we share the Gospel.” Unfortunately, long term church people often get hung up on the “how”.

Member berries are great for a passing moment, but when Christians gorge themselves on Member berries they rob themselves of the ability to envision a new future. We cannot go back in time (if you can time travel, I want a ride in your Delorean). We can only create a new future in which God will do a new thing. Don’t we believe in a faith of resurrection and new life?

Do not let nostalgic Christianity think that the past was better and the future can never be as bright – those are the Member berries talking.

Church Leadership

Webinar: 4 Keys to a healthy church staff dynamic

October 5, 2016

healthy-church

Watch and listen to my Judson Press webinar “4 Keys to a Healthy Church Staff Dynamic”. If you are a youth, children’s, music, or associate pastor check out my book, The Work of the Associate Pastor. Judson Press is running a 35% off deal via their website with code CAENW till October 31.

No matter if you have a small church or a large one, maintaining a healthy church staff can be a challenge. In this webinar, learn 4 key elements to building a healthy staff dynamic. Rev. Alan Rudnick, author of “Work of the Associate Pastor” and Executive Minister at DeWitt Community Church shares practical strategies and effective steps to creating a positive church working environment. Church leaders will also discover: Continue Reading…

Church Leadership

Pastoral confession: I’m not okay

September 28, 2016

depression2

Pastor Appreciation Month” is October and there is something you need to know about your pastoral leader.

There is a clearly defined point in every pastor’s ministry that they find themselves in a deep hole. It is a deep hole that is created in the soul which comes from emptying yourself. You serve, preach, visit, do the hard work of transformation, night meetings, early breakfasts with church members, care for others, care for your family, and you usually have nothing left for yourself.

Enter the void.

Megachurch Pastor Pete Wilson of Crosspoint Church in Nashville, TN announced that he was leaving the church he founded.  After 14 years and 7,000 people attending each weekend, Wilson shocked his congregation with his departure.  As many pastors struggle to attendance and attraction, what would lead a successful pastor to step aside? He said:

Continue Reading…

9/11, September 11

15 years ago SNL helped heal after September 11

September 11, 2016

snl-911-3-final

With the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001 here, many Americans are sorting through their minds and hearts.  How have I changed from 15 years ago? What do I feel when I think of September 11, 2001?  Where was I on that fateful day? Why am I still sad? Where can our country go from here?

Fifteen years ago on September 11, I was in college. I was getting out of a Tuesday morning class when I heard people talking about an airplane crash. As I walked back to my apartment, I heard more and more information. I walked by a truck and heard words on the radio, “World Trade Center… airplane… Pentagon… crash.”  I thought to myself, this is serious.  Minutes later I watched the towers come down. I felt utter loss and grief.

As many of us were anxious, worried, upset, and downtrodden, Saturday Night Live kicked off its 27th season. “Oh no” – I thought, how can we laugh at a time like this? Thousands dead, lives changed, and the future looks dark, how could we have any sense of joy? We Americans felt damaged. We were afraid.

Continue Reading…