God's Word for today

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Are we trying to do too much as a Church?

As a lay person I was involved in quite a few meetings. Church Council, Society Stewards, Circuit Quarterly Meetings, and a whole variety of ad-hoc meetings that were called from time to time.

Then there was the actual work. As Circuit Treasurer, it is my job to ensure that the assessments come in and the ministers’ stipends and allowances are paid (hell hath no fury like a minister whose ATM slip says “insufficient funds”). Each quarter I need to present a set of accounts to the Circuit Quarterly Meeting, while at the year-end there are the 4S and 4C Schedules that need to be submitted to District.

Then I candidated for the ministry, and one of the requirements is to become a Local Preacher. This involves preparation for services, conducting such services, providing (limited) pastoral assistance, and of course – another battery of meetings to attend.

But as those insipid ads on TV say, “that’s not all”. I was always aware of the myriad other activities that take place in the life of a local Church. Soup kitchens. Handing out food and clothing. Fellowship meetings. Bible studies. Seniors’ gathering. Sunday School. Youth. Craft clubs. Stuff that I knew was happening, but was never really involved in.

But nothing prepared me for the plethora of activities that take place in a local church when you are the minister. Suddenly you need to attend all the meetings. It’s pastoral visits. Funerals. Weddings. Services. Admin that goes with all of this.

Now I shouldn’t be complaining, you might say. Have I been called by God to ministry or not? What did I expect? Two hours on a Sunday, a cup of tea, and “see you next week, Ma’am”?

Of course not. And no – I am not complaining. This is what God has indeed called me to do, and I need to get used to the things that are happening, manage my time better, and just get on with the job.

But my concern is for the laity. We ministers tend to cook up all sorts of grandiose schemes, then turn them over to the laity and tell them to get on with it. We need to be the Church. Being Christ in our community, and all that good stuff. And then berate them if they dare “steal” a bit of “God’s time” to go and take their wife shopping, or watch their kid play cricket.

I read this interesting piece about “Church Burnout”, the link to which was posted on PamBG’s blog. The introduction is as follows:

There's a phenomenon that I've noticed in recent years and am wondering if others are experiencing it too, and if so what can be done about it?

Churches used to do a lot and provide a lot, mostly organised by armies of old ladies with lots of time on their hands. They have all got old and tired now and want to give up, so are looking to pass all the extra work on to younger church members. 360 jobs shared between 360 old ladies was easy. Now there are seemingly still 360 jobs but only 30 younger people to do them. Do we each take on 10 jobs each, or do the old ladies have to accept that the church activities will have to downsize? And, if so, which things have to go?

In addition, churches are grouping together more amongst Deaneries. Another source of potential overload is that groups such as the choir (in our case), perhaps other groups as well, are being asked not only to cover the church's own services but also cover the churches in the Deanery without their own choir (either 'got rid of' years ago, or lost to natural decline).

I'm therefore beginning to feel I could spend all Sunday at church and half the rest of the week on church-related activities. I might as well become a priest and get paid for it!

Anyone else wondering if there might actually be a life beyond church?

One can feel for (and identify with) the lay person who wrote this response:

I'm beginning to feel like if I'm going to spend 30 hours a week on church stuff and attend multiple services Sunday mornings because they want the choir at two churches, why am I not paid staff? I'm working more than the part time paid staff!

Meanwhile, choir director is burned out doing maintenance in addition to music because there's no maintenance person, and church secretary used paid time to learn crochet so she can be in the group making baby blankets for the women's shelter, and the nursing home visit team is desperate for more people to help.

I think there are multiple causes.
1) I think many churches are trying to do too much. I wish nearby churches would get together, cooperate, share efforts, instead of each thinking they have to offer everything internally as stand alone communities divorced from all other churches.
2) I think many people confuse social activities with mission activities. When the ladies who like to crochet get together to crochet baby blankets, yes that's a useful result but - hey gals, you can BUY baby blankets at Walmart for HALF or less of the cost of making them! So it's really a women's party. How about gathering community women and teaching basic sewing and clothing repair? But then the gathering wouldn't be about enjoying the company of people like them. (They told me the reason they won't open the couples supper club to singles is because the two retarded men might come.) Social events get labeled "service" to justify use of church funds and facilities.
3) I think churches are often amazingly wasteful of volunteer time. The one I'm in did a congregational survey five years ago, including gathering people into groups of 8 and discussing ideas - think of the manpower! - and they did nothing with the information. I suppose it was "too much" information to go through, so they didn't even try. Some of the waste comes from wanting to "get people involved" so they plop twelve on a committee that might function as well with six.
4) I've never been at high levels but lots of people are complaining about "politics" preventing things getting done.
5) I think some pastors and church staff don't have a good handle on the difference between paid work as an employee and voluntary participation as a church member. I've met secretaries who use paid time for social chat, I've met clergy who count all their personal prayer time as part of their 40 hours per week when reporting use of time at the yearly meeting. Yes I got annoyed at discovering we're supposed to work 40-60 hours elsewhere plus 20 hours at church and personal spiritual development, while pastors (SOME pastors) think they are working hard at a mere 40 hours per week including personal spiritual development. I have also met church staff paid for 40, working 60, and pressured to do more, I'm not saying ALL church staff confuse personal and work.

Solutions should include: 1) clearer job descriptions, 2) better sense of what are the priorities of THIS church not in an exclusive sense but in an awareness that no church (other that perhaps a megachurch) can do all the good things for members and community anyone can think of. 3) more willingness to tread on toes of members. This includes political toes and confusion of social with mission activities toes.

Whoops, there was more but my mind has wandered. But part of it I think is too much thinking of an idea and then trying to convince people to do it, including unwillingness to let a group stop existing, instead of finding out what people want to participate in. Find out what people WANT to do, and the church's work may look different but the work will be spread over more people.

Me, I'm going to make a list of all the things I'm doing and ask pastor which three he wants me to drop - he chooses or I do.

I think that one of the problems is our desire as local churches to be everything to everyone. We get into such a “silo mentality” that we don’t take into account what other churches are doing. So you end up with the Presbyterian, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and five Pentecostal / Charismatic churches, all within a 5km radius of each other, all with soup kitchens. Now we Methodists can’t be the only ones left out, so what do we do? You guessed it – we start a soup kitchen!

One of my very close friends is a pastor of a newly-started (and thus still quite small) Pentecostal / Charismatic church out in Edenvale. Now we make the most disparaging comments about each other, all in jest, of course! He delights in telling me that as a Methodist I’ll be the first to get to heaven, because Scripture tells us that “the dead in Christ shall rise first”, while I retort by saying that if he misses the turning and ends up in hell, the first thing that he will do is install is an air-conditioner and open a bookshop!

But despite our doctrinal differences, there is a great deal we can learn from each other, and one thing that his church realised is that they are too small to effectively manage a feeding scheme for the poor. However, the local Methodist church (seriously … I’m not kidding) has a slick, well managed feeding project, complete with storage facilities, places to serve, etc. So what do the other little churches in Edenvale do? Whatever food the congregants bring gets shipped off to the Methodists. If they need food parcels for their own people, they either get them from the Methodists, or send the person in need down to their feeding facility.

Now just imagine if one of the other churches in the area had to (for example) develop a vibrant and strong HIV / AIDS ministry. Wouldn’t it make sense for the rest to join forces and support this church, rather than to try and go it alone?

One of the things that we are starting to find in our own Circuit is that there is just so much going on, that people are getting tired. As a result, you see the same faces at every meeting, gathering, and activity.

But cowboys don’t cry, especially in front their horses, so those who are involved (usually about 15 – 20%) stoically beaver away at thirteen dozen different activities, while the rest (about 80 – 85%) simply let them.

The result? 27 activities done in half-measures, rather than 4 done well.

And the meetings! Surely, as God is my witness, we can cut down on a lot of the meetings that we have? We spend so much time in strategy meetings, planning meetings, feedback meetings, governance meetings, staff meetings, stewards' meetings, and meetings to schedule other meetings, that we have no time to actually do the work.

As pastoral assistant, if I have to look at my time allocation at the moment, I probably spend about 55% of my total waking hours with church work, 40% with my secular work (which I am gradually whittling down in preparation for my entry to full-time ministry next year), and 5% for everything else (including spending precious little time with my long-suffering family).

Breaking down the church time, I can split between approximately 15% preaching, 30% pastoral work, and a whopping 55% spent in some or other meeting!

This surely cannot be what God has called us to do?

Performance reviews for ministers?

I've just been engaged in an interesting Web discussion over at Methodist Preacher's blog, in which he raised the somewhat controversial topic of evaluating the performance of ministers.

It's an issue that comes up in our Circuit each year, usually at Budget time, when at least one member of the Circuit Finance Committee questions whether increases granted in respect of stipends and allowances are related in any way to merit. From a laity perspective, it's a fair question to ask, especially since virtually all persons in secular employment are subjected to some form of performance review.

I am of course aware that the Superintendent Minister carries out regular "Reviews of Ministry" with each minister, but being still a candidate I have not been part of such a review. Laity have never been privy to the outcome of these reviews.

Methodist Preacher has raised the ire of a number of clergy by questioning the effectiveness of clergy deployment, performance of ministers, "job descriptions", etc. within the British Methodist Church. I have no doubt that many in South Africa are asking the same questions.

As one who is in the process of "crossing over" from laity to clergy, I am in a very scary place right now.

When I was 20 years old I started my training as an accountant - and a pretty useless specimen I was in my first year, I'll confess. Gradually I started to learn the ropes, picking up skills and gaining valuable experience. Upon completion of my training, I embarked on a corporate career spanning 8 years, after which I launched out into my own accounting and tax consultancy practice. In addition, I write on tax topics for MoneywebTax. 18 years and 3 degrees later, I am approaching a point where I would be considered (by some) as an expert in my field.

Then came "that" day at Synod, when God turned my entire world upside-down.

When I started out on my "first" career, I would never have thought that I would be starting all over again - from scratch - at the age of 39. In many ways, Phase One of probation will be just like first year of articles all over again - and I fear that I will be just as useless a specimen as a minister in 2009 as I was as an accountant in 1990.

But one of the things that really helped me grow in my career was the regular feedback in the form of performance appraisals. Now I was considered to be quite a strange animal, at least in the eyes of my bosses. For I wasn't too interested in the areas where I had done well (although these were the things that result in promotions and the fabulously large salary that I was earning at the time) - I wanted to know where my weaknesses were.

In my own business, while there is no "boss" who tells you how well you have done, there is no harsher critic than one's clients. If you do well, they give you more business and recommend you to their friends and colleagues. If you don't, well then, they, er, don't!

Writing for a website also provides opportunities for feedback, especially when it comes to something like tax. For not only do the readers want you to tell them what they don't know about tax - they also want you to reinforce what they do know. And if you get it wrong, the comments come in thick and fast! Get it wrong too many times, and they push off to another site.

So how does this have relevance to ministry? Firstly, I have found in my short time as a pastoral assistant that the congregation doesn't actually expect too much from their minister. You just need to do the following:
  • If someone needs you in a crisis (e.g. a death in the family), be there. Listen to them. Cry with them. Hold their hands. Keep the coffee coming. And if you really have to, say something to them.

  • When taking a service on Sunday, honour the congregation by preparing properly. Believe me, if you stand up in the pulpit and sprout a whole lot of gobbledygook because you were too busy / tired / lazy to prepare a proper message, the congregation knows.

  • Walk your talk. Remember, as a minister, you are telling people how they should live. Such messages should start with you in fromt of the mirror. Jesus never instructed His disciples to do one single thing that He had not first done Himself, and nor should we. It starts with the little things, like keeping appointments and being on time for meetings.

  • Remember that the congregation lives in the same economy that you do, and if you are feeling the pinch, believe me - so are they. So go easy on things like telephones, electricity, stationery, etc. You normally don't have to pay for these things - your congregants do. It's a privilege for you to be accommodated and paid a stipend through the generosity of people who themselves are battling to make ends meet. Never abuse this privilege.

  • Finally, keep your ears open and your gob shut. Members of congregations will entrust you with all sorts of private stuff, which is on a "need to know" basis. In 99.99% of cases, no-one else needs to know.

Now I don't know about any other minister out there, but believe me, I would want to know how I am doing in each of these areas. And with the greatest respect to whoever my future Superintendent is likely to be, he/she is one of the last people who is likely to find out, unless the Society Stewards report me. The District Bishop is even less likely to find out what kind of minister I am, unless I blow it so badly that charges are laid against me!

However, the congregants will know. And the Society Stewards, especially so!

So I want to do something that may seem radical to some. I've never seen this happen in a church context before. And some may believe I am potentially setting myself up for a fall.

What I want to do is to devise a performance review document for a minister, which I intend to hand to Society Stewards for the purposes of evaluating me. Because this is still an idea at this stage, my thinking is that it will be in the form of a questionnaire, with either "yes / no" answers or ratings on a scale of 1 - 5. Each question will have space underneath to provide comments.

Some examples of such questions could be as follows:

  • When Rev Jones conducts a worship service, do you believe that the content of his message brings the congregation closer to God? (Y / N, elaborate)

  • How do you rate Rev Jones' relationship with (a) the church leadership, (b) the congregation, (c) visitors, (d) outsiders? (scale of 1 - 5, elaborate)

  • Do you believe that Rev Jones exercises prudence when it comes to the use of church resources (Y / N, elaborate)

The intention is to group the questions into appropriate categories - these can include the ones listed above (my views on what congregations expect from their minister), and/or other frameworks (e.g. the Four Mission Imperatives).

I am therefore calling on experienced ministers to provide me with feedback as to appropriate criteria on which a minister can be evaluated. Comments can be posted on this blog.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Does it really matter what we drink at Communion?

One of the wonderful things about my son being at an Anglican Church school is the Christian ethos that the school has. It is this aspect that has attracted many parents to the school - including Christians (of many different denominations), Muslims, Hindus, as well as those who do not profess any particular faith.

An important part of the life of the school is the regular chapel services that they have. While attendance is voluntary given the diverse faiths present, I have always encouraged my son to take part. Not that he needs too much encouragement - he has, after all, grown up in the church, and with me going into full-time ministry, he is going to see a lot more of it! He has known Jesus as his Lord and Saviour for as long as he can remember, and takes great delight in serving God.

About once a month the chapel service includes Communion, and once again my son takes part in the full knowledge and understanding of the significance of this sacrament. But I was somewhat taken aback when he came home from school one day, and said: "Dad! We had Communion today, and guess what - there was WINE in the cup!"

My first reaction was one of concern. After all, I am accuatomed to the Methodist practice of abstaining from alcohol. Our Laws and Disciplines prohibit bringing alcoholic beverages onto church premises, while Communion is celebrated using grape juice - not wine. This stems from early Methodism, where as a result of the problems with alcohol abuse that was so present among the working-class people to whom the Wesleys were ministering, total abstension from alcohol became a way of life and a matter of discipline for the fledgeling Methodist movement.

The Anglicans, on the other hand, have no such qualms concerning partaking of alcoholic beverages, provided that this is done responsibly and in moderation. It is probably for this reason that I am often pressed into service as barman whenever our school has a function. Maybe it has something to do with being a candidate for the Methodist ministry (I won't drink the stock), coupled with my background as an accountant (I'll be able to accurately count what's left)?

I also had a problem getting my mind around my 9 year-old son drinking wine. But then I realised that I was being silly, for the quantity of wine that a typical Communion cup holds contains far less alcohol than a teaspoon of cough medicine. However, I still had this nagging feeling inside me...

So the other week at our Parents / Staff Association committee meeting, I discussed the matter with the school principal. He responded by saying that the church services were under the control of the Bishop of the Diocese, and the matter would need to be taken up with him. However, the principal indicated that I should not have any expectations of the procedure being changed on theological grounds, citing Jesus' turning the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana as one example.

Now I don't actually want to get into a theological debate on this matter - largely because I don't believe I have any theological grounds on which to base such a debate. After all, the Bible does not prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages - in fact, the moderate consumption of wine is even sanctioned in certain parts of Scripture. This has been supported by modern medicine, which indicates that the occasional glass of red wine is actually beneficial to one's health.

The Bible does however warn against overindulgence, and I can't for one minute see the Bishop sanctioning such overindulgence either. Besides, the minute quantity of wine in a Communion cup could never be seen as "overindulgence", even for the smallest child.

So am I just being silly? While I may have made a personal choice not to partake in alcoholic beverages, I am not so anti-alcohol as to disassociate myself from those who do partake. In fact, during my time as a member of The Welsh Male Voice Choir of South Africa, I enjoyed many a "sing-song" in the pub after a concert, Coke in hand, singing with gusto. Besides, having a beer or a glass of wine at a party is in a completely different context to drinking of the cup at Communion.

I have heard from some friends that some Anglican churches have implemented the "two-queue" system for Communion services, where one line is for grape juice while the other is for wine. However, this practice is by no means universal.

When it comes down to brass tacks, does it really matter what beverage is in the Communion cup? Contrary to the stiff, formal image portrayed in the painting of the Last Supper, I believe that the atmosphere among Jesus and His disciples was far more relaxed. The Gospels speak of Jesus taking "the cup", which may or may not have contained wine. Certainly the references to His blood indicate that it is highly likely that it was wine. I'm not sure that it really matters.

At the risk of souding totally irreverent, suppose that the Last Supper had been around a braai, and the fellowship meal consisted of a boerewors roll and a Coke. Would it have made any difference? I don;t think so. What's of vital importance, however, is that when we gather around the table in Jesus' name, we remember His sacrifice on the cross - the breaking of His body, and the shedding of His blood.

Perhaps I'm just being an over-protective parent, then? What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill, or am I within my rights to be concerned, even though logic tells me that the whole wine issue is perhaps rather silly? What do you think?

Being politically correct

This cartoon, which I found on the website "The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus", reminded me of when I first met Michael and Kym Bishop, when they were brand-new Phase One probationers stationed in Atamelang, which is part of the Onalerona Circuit in the North West province.

Given that there are so many ladies as ministers in the Methodist Church nowadays, I asked the oh-so politically correct question: "Which one of you is the minister?"

Once the laughter died down, I was introduced to Rev Michael Bishop, and his good lady, Rev Kym Bishop. I wonder how many husband-and-wife ministry teams we have in our church?

Trial Service time again

This past Sunday (6 April 2008) was the second of the two Trial Services required to be completed by me to be able to appear as a ministry candidate before the District Synod in May this year. My excitement (and apprehension) is mounting, since it is only Synod screening and the final decision by the Connexional Executive that remains between where I am now and becoming a probationer minister in The Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

But it seems that our Circuit Superintendent, Itumeleng Tlhakanye, is getting even more excited than I am - he has two candidates in our Circuit who made it through the February screening, and since both of us are making satisfactory progress with our studies and trial services, he is looking forward to conducting our "collaring service" later on this year.

Whether I'll be able to get a clerical collar around the lump in my throat on the day, remains to be seen...

But back to my second Trial Service, which took place at the Zola Methodist Church in Soweto. This service is the one that takes place outside of one's home Circuit, and in Central District this service always takes place in a cross-cultural setting. However, the concept of "cross-cultural" is starting to become less defined in my case - especially since I am a white pastoral assistant to a black minister serving a coloured congregation. I am thankful for having been given the opportunity of conducting services in three different contexts, and am rapidly coming to the conclusion that we can draw SO much from the rich diversity that is within our church - if only we will allow ourselves to.

Although certain readers of this blog have expressed varied opinions concerning the style that a particular preacher should adopt when conducting services in cross-cultural contexts, I decided to stick with my "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" approach. This meant my "Model T" suit (any colour you want, as long as it is black), white shirt, black tie. My son buffed my shoes up to an appropriately gleaming shine. I sat with Itumeleng to go over the order of service, and enlisted his assistance in choosing appropriate hymns from the Sesotho and Xhosa hymnbooks. And I brushed up on my pronunciation of the liturgy in these two languages.

It turned out to be the correct approach, since I was immediately able to make a connection with the congregation - never have I seen so many people look at me so attentively! It makes a change from when my son attends one of my services. His record is about 6 minutes into the sermon before he curls up into a ball and falls fast asleep - talk about encouragement!

The message was about the experiences of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, with my text taken from Luke 24: 34 - "It is true! The Lord has risen...". I spoke about how these two men journeyed from a heart-breaking experience, through a heart-searching experience as they shared with the stranger along the way, to a heart-warming experience as they realised that the stranger who they had been talking to was the risen Christ.

But the thing I enjoy most about worshiping with black congregations - these guys can sing! The church was packed to the gills, and while I cannot possibly describe the sound through mere words, it was though it was literally "O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise". It's true - compared to that, us whiteys really DON'T know how to worship!

I was quite shocked at the end of the service when I had a look at my watch. Talk about a case of "time flies while you're having fun" - what seemed like about 20 minutes was in fact two hours. But the congregation were not concerned about the time - they were there to worship God, and I found this most encouraging.

And then - the moment of truth - time for the evaluation.

Lesson number 1: A sermon that would normally take 15-20 minutes in my own context can easily stretch to three times this length when being interpreted into another language. So for my next cross-cultural service, which takes place this coming Sunday at Freedom Park, I need to prepare as though for a Toastmasters speech - 5-7 minutes, which will take me to 15-20 with interpretation.

Thankfully that was my only major error on the day, and the panel was particularly pleased that I made an attempt to follow the Sesotho and Xhosa liturgies. However, the one thing that I MUST do is to learn how to speak one of these languages, and Phase One is probably the best opportunity that I will ever have to be able to do so, given that the first year of probation is in a cross-cultural context.

The mark for my first service, which was conducted entirely in English, was in fact a "B" (73%) and not the "A" that I reported previously. There was a misprint on the form used, and I would have actually had to score over 80 to get an "A". So I was quite apprehensive about the second one, given the different form of worship, the use of vernacular liturgy, etc. but I am grateful to have done sufficiently well to be given another "B" (72%).

So now my next stop along the journey is Synod. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Rantings of an infant Blogger

I was busy putting the finishing touches to a piece entitled "Communion cup contents - am I just being silly?", dealing with the issue of the use of wine in Communion, and when I tried to highlight the entire piece to copy into a Word document, it just vanished. Poof! Gone.

"Autosave" is also a little quick on the draw, as it proceeded to save my now blank page! Thanks a lot, guys!

So when I have calmed down long enough to stop swinging my computer around the office by its power cord, and assuming that Eishkom has restored power by then (I thought I could complete my post on batteries), I'll share my thoughts on the whole "wine bit" that is bugging me a little at the moment.