Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Altar Rail that Divided the World

Why is there, in vast swaths of North American Christianity, mutual disenfranchisement of the clergy and the laity? Why do so many clergy feel overly set apart by their congregations, and burdened with more than their fair share of the ministry? Why do so many of the laity feel frustrated by heavy-handed clericalism, a sense that they can't ever really break in to leadership in the congregation because the pastor does all of it?

I've been talking about this topic for a while now with a good friend and theologian, Gregory Walter at St. Olaf College, who studied at seminary with me but who has remained among the "laity" while serving as a professor of religion and studying and teaching theology as his lifelong vocation.

As a lay person, he experiences church differently than I do. As a friend, he alerts me to the ways clergy regularly disenfranchise parishioners. In a recent text exchange, he wrote this:

I'm going to come back around to the points he raises in a bit, but first a disclaimer. I would like to think that in my own ministry, I don't disenfranchise folks. My ideal is to, as my letter of call states, equip the saints for the work of ministry. I desire to be a facilitator of the ministry of others, not a block to it.

However, in the congregations I have served, I have had parishioners, over time, report to me feelings on both ends of the spectrum. Some folks report that I really have equipped them for ministry, and they feel I lead in a way that creates space for the ministry of everyone. I have had others report that they felt like I said in an unspoken (or perhaps even spoken) manner, "You don't need to do this, I've got it."

I imagine there are two reasons for this phenomenon. First, it probably happens because I treat different people differently. I don't mean to, but it might happen. So, it might be that I encourage the ministry of some while discouraging the ministry of others. In those instances, mea culpa. I'm really sorry, and I repent. I want to do better.

Second, it probably happens that different types of parishioners perceive my actions differently. The complaint of disenfranchisement might be a self-imposed one, created by the emotional reactions of people. They might expect to be disenfranchised, or simply perceive actions not intended as such as tending that way. Sometimes it might arise out of the past experience of the parishioner, or their response to a new leadership style (mine) than what they were used to.

Basically, there's just something about that altar rail. The old joke goes: Do you know why there are altar rails in Episcopalian churches? Answer: To divide the Republicans from the Democrats. But the real joke, which isn't a joke, is that ordination and clericalism hoards too much of the ministry on one side of the rail, and the laity, oddly but really, let this happen or even passively encourage it, even while being discouraged by it.

What's more awkward, however, is that this cycle is mutually reinforcing, and most of us, clergy and laity, are unaware of how deeply this system is embedded in our congregational practices. It's probably why clergy have a hard time retiring. They simply don't know what to do in a congregation if they aren't the pastor. Frankly, it will mean being on the receiving end of the hoarding they have done for so many years.

It's also why strong leaders in congregations who aren't pastors frequently leave or get frustrated--there's very little room for strong leadership than isn't the pastor taking the lead.

Returning to Greg's note above, I'd like to focus from here on out on worship. Although we might talk about the ministry of the people of God in all its forms, and how the clergy/laity divide influences things like social ministry, mission, etc., by focusing on worship and how we prepare for it, we can offer a really good test case for the thesis that clergy and laity mutually disenfranchise each other (and themselves), in different ways.

Take my own worship leadership, for example. I offer it here not as model practice, but as actual practice. Ideally I will modify some of what I analyze here because I realize it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But I need to describe for you what I actually do, here, at Good Shepherd in Fayetteville, AR. I'd love for my own parishioners, and other readers, to weigh in and modify my description according to their own perceptions.

Here's what we do. The pastor is primarily responsible for preaching, and for presiding at the sacraments. The laity take many of the other roles. We have an assisting minister who chants, prays, and assists at the meal. Other lay people serve as lectors, ushers, greeters, and on the altar guild. A professional lay person plays the organ and directs the choir. A lay worship band leads music for the contemporary service. Two other lay leaders do sound and video. Other lay leaders offer healing prayer (our parish nurse). There is a worship committee that focuses on paraments and other worship supplies and seasonal decor. We have a fairly large choir who also offers an anthem most Sundays, plus some other music ensembles like chimes and a band.

During the actual worship service, the leadership of worship is divided up by these roles. We maintain lists of folks who have volunteered for these roles, and our office manager assigns them to specific services and Sundays. Only a rather limited subset of the entire congregation volunteers in these roles. By my estimate, about 20% of the congregational membership volunteers for some kind of worship leadership role. That's not bad, but it's still only 1 out of 5.

Greg's point is that lay people are left out of the planning of worship. I think this is true. Although I sometimes think about the sermon mid-week by posting status updates on Facebook or talking about the text with folks, etc. I do not have a regular group that meets to evaluate my sermons after the fact, or study the text with me to prepare the sermon in advance. We do not have a committee that selects the lessons or studies the lectionary texts to make decisions about the liturgy for various seasons. I write or adapt the prayers of the people (I once tried to organize a group to write these, but it kind of fizzled out).

I don't think I've thought of worship planning as a form of Christian faith formation, although I should and could. We do not rotate people in and out of the worship committee and other worship leadership roles so that a majority of the congregation, over time, connects to and plans worship.

And we don't share the leadership of the sacraments. If I'm not here, there can't be communion, unless we find another pastor to preside. Interestingly, I disagree with this practice theologically, but I imagine most of the lay leaders actually agree with it. They want a pastor to preside.

I don't think it occurs to most people to baptize others. They leave that to the pastor. Similarly, the office of the keys, offering confession and absolution, is left to the clergy, and I do not think we have any solid practices in place to offer or exercise this office with joint lay and clergy planning and leadership.

I could go on. But you see the point, I think. You could analyze your own context, and tell us what you do. It would be informative.

I like the ideas presented by Greg. I think they would be worth implementing. I do believe some congregations probably already have structures in place that accomplish this. I remember reading stuff from Doug Pagitt in Minneapolis, and perhaps others, about sermon-planning together with a group. Some traditions (like the Quakers) even allow the sermons to arise, inspired by the Spirit, by whoever is in the gathering.

In order to break the negative cycle currently in place, of clergy and laity mutually disenfranchising each other, both sides of the rail would need to own their contribution to the problem. Clergy would need to recognize the extent to which they have happily hoarded the ministry. As much as clergy complain about having so many parts of ministry placed on their shoulders, clergy are also, as a group, quite enamored of that Cheap Trick song, "I want you to want me, I need you to need me."

On the other hand, laity need to stop caving so quickly and readily to a system that disenfranchises them. As much as many laity complain about disenfranchisement, they are also, on the other hand, quite happy to let the pastors do quite a bit of the ministry (especially talking in front of groups of people and praying in public). It wouldn't take much for the laity to take back the ministry. #Occupychurch anyone?

In a sense what I am saying here is laity should become pastors, and pastors should become laity. Clergy should return to the priesthood of all the baptized. The priesthood of all the baptized should claim its priesthood.

On the one hand, this is an unfulfilled aspect of the Reformation. In our practice, even if not in our theology, we have set clergy and laity apart from each other to the detriment of both.

Clergy feel alone and burdened, while they enjoy their power.

Laity feel powerless and passive, but enjoy their seats and the freedom to critique without being responsible.

There are also probably great cross-sections of the laity who have no such feelings, or practice nothing of the sort, and many clergy who share their ministries and equip their people.

Even in these instances, however, the divide still holds, because in order to equip, you already have to be, in a certain sense, the patron. Or to be so unconcerned for the organization of the church, as many laity are, you already have to be as free as the laity are not to feel responsible.

I am aware this argument will meet resistance. I am also aware that a good portion of the phenomenon is energized by who is salaried in a church, and who is not. On that matter, we should all go back and read Kierkegaard's Judge for Yourselves again.

The organic church movement wants to get rid of clergy altogether (Neil Cole). The Orthodox movement wants to maintain the role of bishop/pastor as essential to the church (Zizioulas), with the laity having as their proper role simply saying the "Amen."

The ministry writ large is the most contested field in ecumenical conversations. Just look at the lengthy portion of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) that is devoted to it (link to this here).

So I'll leave the topic lifted but not settled here, as it needs to be. What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Busy is the new works righteousness

Before you read any further, go read this long essay by Alan Jacobs first. Please?

Okay, welcome back.

Sometimes I think a blog post should just link to another post, then end there. Jacobs' essay is so worth reading, so helpful, I am tempted to do that.

But I'm inspired by this line in Jacobs' essay:
I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.
So I'll go a little further, attempting the impossible, because it is worth it.

Here's the artificial obvious: We're all so proud to be so busy. As much as we complain, a considerable part of our identity and self-worth arises from being so busy.

Periodically, we doubt whether we ought to be so busy. Then we spend time feeling guilty about being so busy. This only lasts until we are busy again (you can only feel guilt about being busy when you have enough time to regret), or until the gap in busy-ness is sufficiently lengthy that we desire a return to the very thing that ails us.

This is our obduracy. We like being busy.

We like being busy because we enjoy our slavishness to the dominant culture, to late market capitalism and the like.

No wonder that the average Christian, when surveyed, although participating in a community that confesses justification by faith apart from the works of the law, still actually believes in salvation by works.

We prefer to save ourselves. We prefer to be busy. Busy is who we are.

Now, I like to be efficient as much as the next person. I like to get things done. I like to read stuff like this, that helps me get even more efficient. Productivity isn't a bad thing.

That being said, it is wise to doubt our work. We might get really efficient doing the wrong things. Some soldiers operating machine guns during World War I were highly efficient, mowing down thousands of enemy soldiers. They were very effective at what they did. Does this mean it was worth doing?

Hats spinning on fans
A man covered in George Washington stamps
On the other hand, many of those who appear to do little or nothing, may in fact be "spending" their time better. Two groups of people who spend their time in a way others rarely understand: monks and panhandlers.

If you think panhandling is easy, and panhandlers don't earn what they receive, then you haven't ever pan-handled. It's hard work. But even if it weren't, panhandling is also intriguing because it is a type of transaction outside the capitalist system. It is actually the regular reception of gifts. Interesting that so many of us are angered when something we give as a gift isn't used in the way we wish. Yet isn't that the nature of gift.

Monks, on the other hand, give their time to prayer. They are transacting their time not for cash but in prayer, to God. More than once, I've heard someone say, "It's such a waste, talented people spending their whole lives in prayer." I guess it matters quite a lot what you think prayer does or accomplishes. And who is to say, even if it does nothing at all, whether time spent in prayer has more or less value than time spent trading shares, or creating a product, or playing a game.

Other strangelings: Do we vacation because we rest, because we are abiding with no need to do, or do we vacation because we have to recover from all our work, or to take payment for how much we have worked.

"Take a break, you deserve it!"

The truth: Although we wake up most days assuming how we plan to shape our time is worth the time, it's not actually clear this is so. It may be, but our first step in doing the impossible, extricating ourselves from the artificial obvious, means complexifying the valuation of our time.

Last week I spent an evening at the State of Art exhibit at Crystal Bridges. Some of the most incredible art required exorbitant amounts of time. Cutting out thousands if not millions of letters from books to create new prints. Covering the human body in George Washington stamps. An efficiency consultant, asked whether this would be a good use of time, might doubt. But the artists, entangled in creativity, don't.

Who is right?

And in the meantime, might we wonder, what can post-busy-ness look like?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What is the catechumenate? Is it Lutheran?

Our congregation is hosting its third catechumenate this year (to learn more about the catechumenate as a faith formation practice, visit God is up to some amazingness through it. The last two years, we have seen dozens of adults affirm their baptism, multiple adults be baptized for the first time, not to mention dozens of children and infants. Those who participate in Our Lives This Text (OLTT) come away from it with a deeper understanding of their faith and commitment to the life of the church. We anticipate many being received into our congregation at the Easter Vigil again this year. It is a beautiful service to which all are invited. It rivals Christmas Eve, with candles, readings, fire, water and meal.

The New Fire at the Easter Vigil

You can join us for the next gathering of Our Lives, This Text this Sunday evening, October 12th, at 6 p.m. We begin with a shared meal. Then Pastor Clint will offer an introduction to the history of the Lutheran church and a presentation on the ELCA and its ecumenical relationships. After this, we break out into small groups for bible study discussing the gospel lesson from Sunday morning. Nursery care will be provided, and since there are so many children participating this time around, we'll offer them a mini-camp experience while the adults gather for bible study.

Many of our participants are coming to Christian faith after long absence, or perhaps for the first time. Some have past experiences having been hurt in the church, and are wary. Because of this, we try to offer during the fall a very open process, space for questions and exploration. Later, after Christmas, we intentionally go deeper, begin meeting weekly, and include welcome rites in worship that begin to connect the group more and more intentionally to the sacramental life of the congregation.

Other participants come to us because they have moved to Northwest Arkansas. They are transferring from other Lutheran churches. For them, OLTT becomes a space to meet new people, get to know the congregation, and deepen their faith.

Over the course of the year, participants in OLTT engage the core Lutheran and Christian practices of our church. We study Scripture together. We build community together around a shared meal. We match newcomers with sponsors, current members of the congregation. We center our time in the sacraments, preparing for affirmation of baptism or baptism at the Easter Vigil. We give our participants a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible ( and the hymnal, so that they are formed in the rich resources of our faith. In some ways, the process is like confirmation or catechism for adults.

The "curriculum," if you want to call it that, is liturgy and life. The whole process is focused on our worship and on Scripture. Sometimes we call this ministry of Word & Sacrament. It's the way Lutherans practice faith. And then, centered in that faith, our lives are poured out in service and love in the world.

Everything is structured to make space for the new in our midst to have a place, and for our congregation to attend to them.  It keeps our attention focused, like a laser, watching for opportunities to invite new people into the process. Making the welcome of newcomers central to our faith practice as a congregation has the double benefit of being a positive experience for newcomers, and also changes the existing congregation, reforming us continually to stay focused on the most essential aspects of faith.

If all of this intrigues you, consider volunteering this year as a sponsor. Or if you are reading this invitation for the first time, wondering whether life at Good Shepherd is a good match for you, join us Sunday evening to just check things out. We really mean it when we say ALL are welcome.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Simple Way to Bless Pets (on the weekend of St. Francis)


P: The Lord be with you.
C: And also with you.

The Lesson
Psalm 8

Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven![b]
From the mouths of nursing babies
    you have laid a strong foundation
    because of your foes,
    in order to stop vengeful enemies.
When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
        what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
    crowning them with glory and grandeur.
You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
        all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
        the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!
The Blessing (spoken over each pet, or each household of pets; each pet may be sprinkled with water... not all pets will like this)

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this/these pet(s). By the power of your love, enable it/them to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”


The Lord's Prayer

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.


The Doxology (sung)

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise God, all creatures here below. Praise God above you, heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

[note there may be many different kinds of pets present. Keep this very short and manageable for the diversity of pet owners and pets. A brief word of welcome, one reading from Scripture, a prayer, and a sending song. Invite pet owners to bring proxies (photos, for example), if their pet doesn't do well in a crowd of animals]