One of Restoring Hope’s (RHF) sons is graduating from seminary. When he was seeking seminary admissions, I had a candid conversation with him and named three schools in the DFW area not to apply to, and, definitely, not to attend. This may sound paternalistic, and it may indeed be. I, however, was attempting to help him understand Christian Theological Institutions are many things but fall short of being non-discriminatory, specifically as it relates to cultural and political beliefs. In addition, I told him to be wise and ensure that he fulfills the requirements to become a Methodist elder.
Well, he only considered SMU’s Perkins, Brite Divinity, and Truitt Seminary—all excellent choices. He asked me why I was encouraging him to become a Methodist, and I told him that I was not encouraging a switch to the UMC. I sincerely hoped that he would stay Baptist, and like RHF, would align with The Alliance of Baptists and CBF. Rather than dissuading him against remaining Baptist, I was attempting to explain that a progressive Baptist will likely enter into a market that is thin as it relates to positions that would afford him an opportunity to be mono-vocational and care for his family adequately. Moreover, his activistic leanings will be touted by many of his Baptist peers in many regards, but the lack of support may be disheartening. For two and a half years he somewhat disagreed with me but agreed that having options upon graduation could not hurt. I encouraged him to do his homework on leadership opportunities and to keep both his eyes and ears wide open as he decides. Well, I am excited to announce that he has received a full-time associate pastor position. I am ambivalent that this position is in the UMC. The Body of Christ has a fine minister, but at least for now, the Baptist world has lost an extremely capable minister.
Before continuing I wish to state that this blog is in no way intended to snub Baptists. Equally, it is not to point the finger at church starting groups or even theological institutions. Rather, it is to keep at the forefront something that I have harped on since I was an undergrad student at Baylor: although in local churches we are all practitioners, we do not adequately attend to the health and needs of all-types of local ministry. My hope is that we will re-examine our current tendency to 1) pour almost all of our attention into the actual minister rather than the minister’s entire family; 2) ask whether we are attending satisfactorily to the cost of bi-vocationalism, especially its cost to some styles of ministry; and 3) inquire into whether we are accidentally devaluing the unique praxis and foci of certain ministers? In this blog I will raise a few concerns. In the next blog, I will offer some solutions I have uncovered these few years of church starting.
Allow for me to nuance a few matters. Many types of churches exist. For sake of this blog, let’s have two broad, crude categories A) Traditional Congregations that emphasize Sunday worship and may even have weekday and other weekend activities like small groups, and B) Therapeutic-Transformational-Proactive Churches (TTP) which may indeed hold Sunday AM services in high esteem, but really emphasize 1) activistic events like community organizing, b) pastoral care and counseling, c) helping congregants prepare responses for social and political realities like understanding President Trump’s tax plan and a Christian response to it, and d) helping congregants be empowered to affect portions of our society and world through their vocation and hobbies. Yes, during any given week both types could engage in the same activities. My point is not to imply that a “traditional” congregation never engages in pastoral care and counseling, for every Traditional Church of which I know does indeed care and counsel. Rather, the point is to ask for prioritization. In other words, if time and money are scarce—as they generally are—which activities virtually never receive the short end of the stick, if you will?
I have noticed three trends that occur due to the scarcity of fiscal and time-resources: 1) certain activities occur less frequently or in shorter duration or are delayed for implementation; 2) the activities are deemed either less crucial and/or delegated to associates or lay leaders; and 3) the activities are performed in a manner that is clearly to the health-detriment of the carrier and/or experience a considerable low level of under-resourcing. For RHF, which is indeed a TTP Church, if the resources are limited, I simply exhaust myself to keep enough of the foci active. Why, because my calling leads more toward an emphasis on things like organizing and counseling, whereas a Traditional Church may emphasize the sermon. True, delivering a solid sermon may be practical, albeit still challenging, when you are bi-vocational, but TPP activities are considerably more involved, so the viability of bi-vocational ministry should be even more in question.
So how do we resolve this? Well intended mentors have suggested that I just outsource some of these foci, that is, make a referral. These same mentors would not dare say that I should regularly outsource preaching. Think about it: is it not frequently suggested that given the busyness of bi-vocational ministry a minister should take one to two hours a few times a week to put her or his sermon together? We even validate bi-vocational ministry itself by inferring that as long as our sermon, and, perhaps, our mid-week lesson, is/are prepared, then empower other persons to do the rest, and be faithful in what we are called to do. What if God has made it clear to a pastor that her or his focus/foci is/are more about helping persons understand their relationships, engage politics, produce vlogs about the Christian response to injustice, etc than preach, and the Sunday worship service is more of a gathering and celebration of our belief that Jesus and his team will win?
The above suggestions at resolving a real issue have, in my opinion, inadvertently suggested that activities like preaching are a primary function of the church and counseling or community organizing, although perhaps extremely vital, are secondary. If this can be said about the local church, it can also be said about many theological schools. I agree that preaching is primary, but do the other activities have to be secondary if time-resources are scarce? Given that many congregations delegate these activities to an associate minister, can a lead or senior pastor hold these other foci as just as important, if not more, as the sermon, and that these should be the primary function of this same senior/lead pastor? One pastor quite smugly told me that such a pastor should be an associate rather than a senior pastor. Interesting!
Moreover, what happens to the families of those persons who are less traditional? I am acquainted with a few local church starters. All of us are Baptist. I am somewhat differentiated from the others in that I often provide pastoral counseling for the membership. At least three evenings are dedicated to some form of service, which is terrifying since I have a wife, toddler, and preschooler at home. Fortunately, as my wife and I were planning our family we realized that the most viable way we could carve out quality time for each other consistently was for both of us to have well-paying part-time jobs, or for one of us to stay-at-home and the other to have a job that allows enough daylight hours for family time since many evenings are spent with other families. Well, UPS was an option tried, but I punched out after two years due to my job’s pace vis-à-vis my age. I have since opted to become a school bus driver. It works sufficiently well: I have four hours in the middle of the day for my family and study. Unfortunately, to perform my calling properly I would need to attend school board meetings and city council meetings as well as research current political and cultural issues and build more relationships–most of which are best done in the evenings. If I were performing all of this in South Dallas, I would likely be full-time, but God has led me to rural Collin County. Even my mentor a prominent prophetic pastor in DFW was pleasantly surprised that we were fighting this fight in such a challenging area.
In a Traditional Church these activities may fall to an associate, or a lay leader. But again, for a TTP Church, these functions are just as important, if not more, important than the sermon. Some persons may object to my inference by stating, well, ministers never have enough hours in the day, or even, just do what you can and let God do the rest. And although, when applied correctly, I would agree with these statements, I posit that these statements would be misapplied in this context. Moreover, the counselor in me would view such a remark as resistance and minimizing, and I would reply that the point is not whether there are enough hours in the day. Rather, do we make it unnecessarily burdensome on those willing to endure our path while pointing to the “success” of the few who make it through our path as evidence that the path is viable? Again, it is viable for whom? Moreover, do we sometimes “beat out”—or, even better, “neglect-out”—the activistic tendencies within persons by suggesting that when they mature and take seriously their limitations, they will be healthier and more reliant on God’s grace? Is it possible that we have pushed some pastors away from their calling simply because we 1) unintentionally do not see their God-ordained foci at all or at least as primary, and 2) accidentally value our “traditional” approach to ministry at the expense of their uniqueness?
Moreover, even if these non-traditional pastors are fewer in number, do we, progressives, defenders of the least of these, guardians of the minority, accidentally ignore their struggle, perhaps causing them to tap out due to exhaustion and/or marginalization? Do we force spouses like my wife to decry the fact that what little vacation time I received would be consumed by mandatory church events? Do we unknowingly implore of kids in extra-curricular activities to miss out on the joy of finishing an event and enjoying a celebratory family ice cream night unencumbered by the minister-parent need to multitask? Do we help make it conducive for the parent to be able to eat lunch with the high school student a time or two a week, which would work wonders both for parenting and evangelistic efforts to students, or have him miss out since the parent-minister only has a 30-minute lunch break and cannot complete the commute in time? Or is it someone’s asking the minister to be less frustrated or bitter without realizing that it is not a matter of bitterness but rather a matter of years of overlooked needs and proclivities that are taking a toll?
Marginal people often behave marginally, either to themselves or within groups in which they are marginal. Valued minorities often view themselves as central to growth and unity. As a racial/ethnic minority, I have often thought I have to work twice as hard as my non-minority counterpart to be noticed positively. Imagine my shock as I approach forty years of age to hear traditional ministers tell me that this is just the struggle of ministry to feel exhausted. Sometimes their words are well-intended. Sometimes these words suggest that I was unaware of a thought like this, which is general knowledge to anyone involved in ministry or church starting. Did persons like me mishear God, do we need to mature and be realists, or could we benefit from our communities asking if its attention and strategies are conducive to these other styles of ministry? Moreover, do our peer churches understand the impact they can and do have when they decide whether to come alongside any church, specifically a TTP Church?
Progressives have in many ways been the family to the least of these. No group is perfect. When I both recall and adhere to a belief that Jesus was all-loving and all-justice-seeking, and that all communities are interconnected, I desire to engage some specific issues. I am not surprised when I hear one of my brothers or sisters from a more consumeristic-Christian perspective argue the need to focus on the Sunday preaching moment. Theirs tends to focus on how the Gospel impacts mainly the individual. I am a justice-oriented Christian. Mine is a Gospel that impacts all areas of life intentionally. Given this fact, due to the awareness-level of “average” congregations, TTP congregations must do a lot to promote a rudimentary understanding of how the Gospel relates to specific issues. Moreover, if we have someone whose mind is actually led away from oppressive/neglecting forms of faith to a justice-oriented faith, it may take even more time and effort. Given that some ministry styles are marginal, my hope is that progressive bodies of faith can be more intentional about making sure that they are not accidentally making it harder to minister to the least of these but also empower those whose ministry styles are marginal?
In addition, I admit that this would not be the first or last call to reform. Although TPP versus Traditional Churches do not necessarily fall along gender lines or even “color”/racial lines, there are ironic parallels. I recall black theologians and womanist and feminist theologians decrying how during their studies they had to master what was valuable to non-black/womanist/feminist scholars as well as find time to stop what was central to their approach. This becomes exhausting, and hopefully, we can attend to it. And so, reform we must!