Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Author: Randy (Page 2 of 135)

Sabbatical Funding

My sabbatical is being funded by drug money.

That’s only kind of true. The question is rightly raised, though, as to how a church can afford to give a pastor three months away while continuing to pay him. Some churches see sabbatical as so essential for the pastor’s and the church’s health that they budget a yearly amount to build a fund into which they can dip every 7-8 years.

For churches which have lacked such foresight, there are other ways.

In January of 2017 I sat down with my eager and gracious sabbatical committee, one ruling elder and two members of the congregation. We began to brainstorm what a sabbatical might look like. We began to dream. As well, we got down to the business of positioning ourselves to apply for the very generous Clergy Renewal Grant of the Lilly Endowment.

That sentence raises three questions.

What is the Lilly Endowment?

In 1876 Eli Lilly founded a pharmaceutical company which he named after himself. In 1937, three members of the Eli Lilly family with significant shares in the now very profitable company determined to do good with their wealth and started the Lilly Endowment, funded entirely with stock in the company. The endowment shares nothing with the pharmaceutical company other than the stock that funds it.

The founders of the endowment had a deep commitment to the importance of religion in people’s lives, and so the endowment has had a long history of funding religious initiatives, among them those which “nurture the excellent ministers who practice their faith every day.”

What is the Clergy Renewal Grant?

It’s this commitment to nurturing ministers that drives Lilly to offer yearly grants up to $50,000 to churches wishing to give their pastor a sabbatical. Up to $15,000 of the grant can be earmarked to pay the costs of his absence and to underwrite initiatives to enrich the congregation in the pastor’s absence. Our understanding is that Lilly distributes 45-60 of these grants each year.

What did we do to apply for the grant?

The grant application is a lengthy and detailed creature.We had to map out exactly how the time would be spent and the objectives we hoped to accomplish. We had to document details of my standing and of the church’s. We had to prepare detailed budgetary information, and we had to put it all in the right order.

More importantly, we had to think big. Lilly encourages pastors and churches to dream big, to consider the kinds of things that would bless us which would ordinarily not only be out of reach but beyond our imagination. And so we did dream big, and worked hard, and kept the congregation informed. The congregation approved the plan overwhelmingly in early April and we submitted the application at the deadline of April 21, 2017.

On Sunday, August 13, after my church’s worship service, I walked into my study accompanied by one of my elders. I glanced at the week’s mail which the church’s financial director prunes and puts on my desk each week. On top was a letter from the Lilly Foundation. With hesitation I opened it. The letter began, ‘It is a pleasure to inform you….’

I was dazed. My elder disappeared to find people to tell. People told people. I was afraid that word would get to my wife before I could tell her. I told her. I cried. The things we dreamed would become real.

Because of drug money? No. Because of Lilly’s generosity, because of God’s good favor, and because of a congregation’s love.

Sabbatical: A History

On August 1, 2006 I ordered Eugene Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor. Reading it was a balm to this pastor’s soul. Peterson rails against the idea that a pastor is called to ‘run’ a church. He believes that the adjective ‘busy’ modifying ‘pastor’ should grate against our ears with the dissonance of ‘adulterous’ attached to ‘husband.’ He invites pastors, who have been culturally set up to rise and fall with the numerical success of their congregations, to return to their calling to shepherd, to pray, and to preach.

In this book he told the story of his sabbatical. For a year, he and his wife disappeared to a cabin in the woods and emerged refreshed and energized.

“I returned with more energy than I can remember having since I was fifteen years old…. The experience of my maturity was now coupled with the energy of my youth…. The sabbatical had done its work.” (page 150)

At the point I read this book I had been in ministry and at the same church for a month shy of 21 years. Vacations had come and gone. The church had graciously given me study leave and the opportunity to attend occasional conferences. But I had never experienced the kind of rest and renewal Peterson spoke of.

And I was ready.

When I broached the subject with my elders, they were supportive. We began to develop a sabbatical policy that would apply not only to the pastor but in a modified but meaningful sense to ruling elders as well.

And then, sadly, dynamics in the church began to unravel. Stress points to which I was blind, or which I did not want to see, became fissures and the fissures became chasms. Sabbatical was put on hold and then in 2010 it became necessary for me to leave that church for another.

The church to which I came longed for stability and a building to call it’s own, hopes which God over the next few years granted. In June of 2016, I raised the subject with these elders that I had had to abandon in 2010. They were receptive and eventually adopted a policy governing sabbatical leave for pastors and elders. In October of that year I spoke of this for the first time to the congregation and recruited a committee to help in the planning of a pastoral sabbatical. The fruit of their work has already been felt and will be experienced in earnest on April 9 when my sabbatical begins.

And it was all set in motion by a book purchased nearly 12 years ago.

Why Sabbatical?

[These thoughts explaining the rationale for a sabbatical first appeared on Covenant Presbyterian Church’s sabbatical oriented blog, Covenant Pastoral Sabbatical. There are other good articles on that site related to this theme.]

Talk of my taking a sabbatical spawns the question (thought, though rarely spoken), “Why are we giving Randy a 13 week vacation?”

It’s a great question. ‘Sabbatical’ can easily look like ‘vacation.’ After all, I will stop coming to church. I will stop preaching, stop planning and moderating meetings, stop visiting the sick, stop mentoring or discipling others. I will stop doing my job, and that looks like a vacation.

But sabbatical is more than stopping. It is a period of intentional rest, renewal, and re-imagining.

As a time of rest the sabbatical most resembles a vacation. Rest for people in ministry is essential but hard to find. Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘come away and rest’ (Mark 6:31) because ministry depletes the minister. Ministry demands an intentional period of disengagement so that strength for the work can be renewed. The minister’s body needs rest and renewal, but so does his soul. Over time, though the pastor fights to retain his passion for Christ, the demands of ministry can deplete it. This leaves some ministering weakly on the fumes of their prior devotion. Churches end up with pastors merely going through the motions of ministry.

A sabbatical, as a part of a pastor’s regular routine of spiritual health, can renew the depth and vitality of his walk with Christ, restoring his ability to give needed spiritual care to his congregation.

Such intentional rest and renewal can also refresh a pastor’s vision. Men and women from all professions report that disengagement from their regular responsibilities allows them to imagine a future they might have been unable to see before. A properly planned sabbatical (and much planning is being given) can give a renewed enthusiasm for the vision God has for the church.

The sabbath year in the Old Testament law required that farmers let a field lie fallow for a season. Obedience to this was an act of faith by the farmer and an act of renewal for the field. During that year nutrients drained by prior use would be restored to the soil. Similarly, a pastoral sabbatical is a congregation’s act of faith, hoping for the restoration of their pastor’s depleted spiritual resources.

What Is a Sabbatical?

The story is told of a pastor who bought himself a nice, but modest houseboat and docked it on a small lake near his town. He named his boat ‘Sabbatical.’ This way when the urge to fish overwhelmed his sense of responsibility, his secretary could answer all calls by saying, “He can’t come to the phone. He’s on Sabbatical.”

And if that seems shady, to many so does the pastor who persuades his congregation to give him thirteen weeks away from his duties and responsibilities. But that is what I have done.

Sabbaticals are a common feature of academia. It is understood that professors are occasionally given time away from their teaching responsibilities to do research, to study, or to polish off their latest books. What is less well known that some of the most successful and innovative companies (as diverse as McDonalds and Apple according to a report published online by the University of Illinois, a report that no longer seems to be posted) have policies of giving members of their teams sabbaticals. These times have no particular goal or purpose beyond allowing their people to rest, to refresh, and to renew. Sabbaticals like this have been shown to be hedges against burnout and long range stimulation to engagement and creativity.

The idea of sabbatical is very much rooted in the biblical idea of sabbath.

Sabbatical for a pastor is a time for him (or her) to disengage from the regular duties of  ministry. For a time, preaching, visiting, planning, and putting out fires are laid aside that he might find rest and renewal. He is to let go of the control he once owned and to entrust the care of the church to God and to the leaders whom God has raised up. It is a time for him to rest physically and emotionally and to embrace the revelation that the church does not need him to prosper.

The length of time away varies from church to church. Three months is often recommended, but I’ve heard of durations as short as a few weeks to as long as a year. Depending on their stage in life, some pastors leave their towns and live elsewhere for a time. Some travel. Some garden, paint, read, learn an instrument, or rebuild engines. Some, I’m sure, buy houseboats and fish. All detach from the 24/7 nature of their calling so that when they return to that calling they can do so from a position of renewed vigor.

If the sabbatical is done well they return to churches who have learned something of themselves. Pastors are by no means superfluous to the prosperity of churches. But neither are they essential. And churches who learn that they have gifts sufficient to carry on genuine ministry on their own are churches ready to form a healthier bond with their pastor when he returns. In the end, this benefits all.

Being Particularly Mortal

Let me introduce you to Atul Gawande, the author of the insightful and life affirming book about dying Being Mortal.

Not Randy

He is, in addition to being a National Book Award finalist and a staff writer for the New Yorker, a surgeon in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He is the director of a company promoting innovation in health systems and chairman of a NGO seeking to make surgery safer worldwide. He also is married with three children.

Typing that paragraph exhausts me.

Unlike Dr. Gawande, or so I must assume, I have only 24 hours in a day. I tend to sleep away six or seven of those. That only leaves me about seventeen, some of which I like to spend eating and taking care of personal hygiene. With what is left I do what I can do. I find I am more like Woody Allen in his comparison with Spielberg and Scorsese:

“‘I’m lazy and an imperfectionist,’ he explained in a 2015 NPR interview. ‘Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence.’”

[from “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen”, Atlantic Monthly, 8/10/2017, page 35]

All of which explains, if not excuses, why this space has been bewilderingly empty these past months. Though there are things I want to say, I’ve not had the time or space in my schedule to say it. I’ve not been teaching at Harvard or improving global healthcare, but I have been pastoring a church, caring for a family, doing some other writing, and watching Netflix.

I’ve also been preparing to take a sabbatical.This is a curious and misunderstood thing, so I want to spend some time explaining, if not defending it. This will hijack this site for a few months, I fear. However, there are those for whom this will matter. And I’m hoping that some will pass this on to their pastors to encourage them to consider a similar path.

But I move too fast here. Some of you are wondering what a sabbatical is, why it is necessary, and what it means in my own life. To that we will  turn.

But not until I eat breakfast, something Dr. Gawande must squeeze in between his latest surgery and editing his next book.

Martin’s Slippery Slope

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther took one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, onto the slippery slope.

The slippery slope is, to many, a place no one committed to orthodoxy and historic Christian doctrine should ever be found. But Brother Martin never got that memo. So with a few quick strokes of the hammer, he ventured onto it. And yet we honor him five-hundred years later while we excoriate others who follow in his footsteps today.

Defenders of slippery slope alarmism will take issue with my suggestion. It is frequently suggested that this slope leads only to ruin. Therefore, Luther’s act was one of courage, not slippery-slopism. I don’t deny his courage. It is always courageous to take a step that puts one at odds with one’s peers. But to advocate for change when change is needed always puts one on a slippery slope, and that, as it was with Luther, is a good and necessary thing.

One concerned writer, in a lament over the descent into liberalism of a previously orthodox minister and as a caution to any who would venture onto the slippery slope that led him there, defines the slippery slope as “the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation.” He then maps the route to that slope: “In the late-20th century and early 21st century, the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women’s ordination.” At this point of cultural accommodation, he suggests, the slippery slope begins. The slope, being slippery, inevitably sends one careening to the pit of ultimate unbelief. He jokingly (I think) presents his case as example number 4,742.

Would I win if I could produce 4,743 examples of those who took that step and did NOT descend into unbelief? Taking this issue of the ordination of women alone, often those who have embraced a change on this (I am not one of them, if that helps) have done so as a result of listening to the voices revealing skewed treatment of women in the church. They have revisited Scripture to see if somehow their previous reading had been wrong. One may not agree with their conclusions. But we must accept that there is a time when we need to be awakened to our mistaken views and have them corrected by scripture even if it means taking a stand against the ecclesiastical powers that surround us. I think Martin would agree.

We who celebrate the Reformation have a motto supporting this idea: Semper Reformanda. This motto calls us to be sufficiently humble regarding our convictions that we are willing to constantly submit them to the scrutiny of scripture. Yes, to face the possibility of error and to suggest possible correction is to step onto a slippery slope. That does not always lead to unbelief. It sometimes leads to necessary change.

The slippery slope is a dangerous place to be, for sure. But it is not always the wrong place to be. Far more dangerous is to refuse ‘being reformed according to the Word of God.

Let’s engage those on the slippery slope, let’s hear them, let’s learn from them, let’s examine the Scriptures with them. But let’s not dismiss them.

One of them might be named Martin.

I Am Woman, Hear Me

Some months ago, the controversy du jour involved Vice President Pence’s policy of not meeting women alone. Some found his policy appalling, some found it quaint, and some found it proper. I weighed in on it here because it touched a bit of my own history and struggle as a teacher and particularly as a pastor.

In response to my post I received a kind and insightful email from a young woman whom I had had the pleasure of coming to know ten years ago. She is an intelligent and sensitive follower of Jesus who, as a woman, has had a difficult time finding a home in the church. In her email she shared her experience as a woman in churches similar to the ones I have pastored. I think we need to hear her, and others like her. (She has given me permission to post her comments, though I have edited them for brevity and anonymity.)

Neither she nor I bring these thoughts with any kind of agenda. But understanding the experience of others can implicitly suggest necessary agenda. If it does, I’m glad.
I am grateful for her honesty.

When I first started to engage in Christianity, it was really clear to me that I would always be limited in some way as a woman. When [my male friends] had questions, they’d just go meet with the pastor. When I had questions, it was just not the same, even if that’s not an explicit rule. All the pastors were men and I’m a woman. So the natural supposition was to find a woman, but for many reasons that can be difficult.

To just know that’s not really an option when you have a male pastor, to engage as an individual and share your questions and concerns, subtly tells us “this is for men” and that women aren’t priorities here….

To be taught from a young age that my very biology is evil in some way, not because we’re all evil (total depravity!) but because I am a threat to men in some unknown way that I do not control, that I can be responsible for leading men astray, or that there’s a risk I’ll harm their reputation simply by being a woman, the internalizing of those messages is confusing and hard and leads to lots of feelings of self-hatred and questioning of yourself….

I had an experience of sexual abuse from a church leader as a child and so the argument that women are a risk to men is minimized when I know the opposite (that is, statistically more probable).

Going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. Every time I went to church with a male, whenever people would come over to say hi, he would be greeted first. He would be engaged in conversation. My presence there was in relation to the man next to me. There were a couple of times that I would try churches for weeks by myself and really wouldn’t make connections and then a guy would come with me and all of the sudden we’re welcomed. You can definitely make the case that the guys were just more outgoing and friendly, but it was definitely not every time.

Yes, these aren’t huge things. I’m not being stoned when I walk through the door or anything, but it is obviously discouraging to feel, even subtly, as if I don’t have a place because of my gender.

I invite others to reflect on this and to share similar, or contrasting, experiences.

Between the World and Me

An Education

How should a white Christian like me read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book written by a black atheist? With ears open and a heart willing to learn. That is, we should come first as students.

When first exposed to a subject, whether chemistry or theology or, in this case, the experience of being black in America, initial forays into that subject feel foreign to the student. It feels as if she has landed among an exotic people speaking a foreign tongue. The words are all new, and the questions being asked and explored are ones she has never before considered. A good student’s response will be to listen, to be quiet, to learn the language, and to hear how the questions are being answered.

In Between the World and Me Coates speaks to his son but aims his words to we who listen in. As he traces his own awakening self-awareness as a black man from the streets of Baltimore, to a student at Howard University, to a writer in New York City, he provides an engagingly written assessment of life as he has seen it and the world as he has struggled to understand it. His assessment seems at times harsh, at times unfair, at times insightful, and at all times challenging.

Those new to this literature and to this world need to listen. His observations seem foreign, but such is the nature of learning. Some will be tempted to condemn, to judge, or to say he’s overstated his case. Maybe he has. Or maybe he has to. But we must labor to understand before we condemn. And sometimes, too often, if something threatens us, we don’t take the time to understand. He wants to unsettle the comfort and challenge the assumptions of “those who see themselves as white.”

And this does unsettle me. Is the world in fact arrayed in a way of violence toward the black body as he contends? It seems a plausible position, as cursory familiarity with history and the news suggests. As he writes to his son,

“The price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.” (96)

It was Trayvon Martin’s ‘error’ of walking through a white neighborhood in a hoodie, for example, that got him shot. The price of error is higher for the black man. That sounds right.

I have read and thought too little about the subjects he raises to be able to offer an informed critique of the book. I leave that to others. But we who live lives in an aura of safety and comfort are in need of this education, foreign though it may seem and feel. Our job may be in this case to be quiet and to listen. We need to allow new questions to form in our minds and be considered. This could be the beginning of our education.

[Note: I would not draw attention to Coates’ religious convictions except for the fact that he himself makes a point of his atheism. He laments that he cannot find the sort of perspective that faith has brought to many like him. This explains to some degree his emphasis upon the black ‘body’ and not ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. I respect his honesty.]

Chutzpah in Nashville

I learned the meaning of ‘chutzpah’ the hard way.

As a young seminary student I witnessed an ordination exam which I and a few others felt was inadequately conducted. Somehow the fact that I was a young seminarian and the exam had been carried out by experienced ministers was lost on me. I went to one of my professors who had been involved in the exam and pointed out the deficiencies we had observed.

His response was predictable. “It takes a whole lot of chutzpah for you to walk in here and say that.”

I had never heard the word, but the tone with which that sentence was delivered communicated its meaning perfectly. “Who do you think you are to criticize those who have been doing this for the number of years we’ve been at it?”

Indeed. Who did I think I was?

I’m grateful for that professor. He was angry, rightfully, at my cheek. The impudence involved in stepping out of my role and placing myself in a position to assess my elders and find them wanting was massive.

Perhaps I am engaging in another display of chutzpah in raising a tiny voice of protest against the various scholars and genuinely godly men and women who have attached their names to the “Nashville Statement,” recently issued by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Perhaps they need to stand up as one and stare me down saying, “Who do you think you are?”

But perhaps the shoe this time is on the other foot. I find myself asking, “Who do they think they are?” The CBMW is an agenda-driven independently formed parachurch organization. It is not the church and yet it presumes to raise its voice to scold and instruct the church. The very fact that it demands to be heard with authority and to speak to and for the church suggests that there has been a massive realignment in Evangelical Christianity’s definition of and respect for the church. That which was born to assist the church, the parachurch, has grown in its youthful impatience to swallow its parent and to act with independence and swagger.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement should be re-written in terms that require us to ask questions even more fundamental than those of marriage and sexuality:

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be THE CHURCH.”

For that is the hidden revolution in statements like this. Whether the content is helpful or not is beside the point. The very existence of the document and the impetus of those behind it reveal that its authors have not only lost patience with the church, they have seen her as no longer bearing any power or weight.

Speaking as I am attempting to do into the independent, consumer mind-set of Evangelical Christianity, I know that many who read this will be mystified by my concern. So far has our respect for the church and her messiness and process fallen. But having not arisen from the church, a statement like this bears no ecclesiastical authority. There is no labor of any church court or body behind it. It lacks the carefully weighed, though painfully slow, nuanced pastoral concern of ecclesiastical process. It was not generated at the request of the church, and it has not been adopted as the stated judgment of the church. Hence it has no authority beyond the respect given to the names attached to it. And though I have respect for many of these, it is an Evangelical Celebrity Document and nothing more.

For a group such as this (complete with a ‘donate now’ button placed dramatically at the end) to speak to and for the church is chutzpah. But it is chutzpah barely noted because before there was loss of respect for marriage in Evangelical Christianity there was a greater loss in respect for the church.

Note: An earlier post taking issue with the statement’s doomsday tone can be read here.

Breathless in Nashville

Call me weary.

A few days ago I was finally able to read the recently issued “Nashville Statement” of which some, but not all, readers will be aware. I have some thoughts about its content, but I need to say that whatever merits it contains or lacks, I can’t get beyond its sky-is-falling tone. A friend calls it breathless, which strikes me as accurate. In my life there’s been a whole lotta breathlessness going on.

I grew up in a mainline church whose doom was pronounced by conservative voices in her midst. I began to flourish in my Christian understanding when the twin terrors of “charismania” and biblical errancy were staked as boding threats to be opposed. Soon we were being told that if we did not stand foursquare against women being ordained, the end would come. As well, all we held dear would perish if we did not take a life or death stand against the theory of evolution. And if we did not make immediate changes to the way we “do” church there would soon be no one to fill our pews as the youth, we were warned, were leaving and never coming back.

I have been hearing of the end of the church and her witness for so long that I can, or will, no longer hear such messages. When we are told that the only path of faithfulness is to Jump! Respond! Take a stand! all I want to do is to take a nap.

The Nashville Statement, addressing the shifting and rapidly evolving Western cultural position on sexuality, strikes the same rhetorical drumbeat:

“Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?”

Catastrophe is imminent unless, of course, we fall in line with those behind this statement. But I’ve heard this song before. I change the station and move on.

Perhaps I lack the necessary cultural awareness and cannot see how weak the pillars are which hold the sky that will soon collapse upon us. A number of people I greatly respect have signed on to this and perhaps they are right. Perhaps I should awaken from my slumber. Perhaps this is the one issue, the one that rules them all and that will, in the darkness, bind us.

But I’m prejudiced against ultimata whatever its source.

It is not just prejudice, though. I have a great confidence in Christ’s church. In spite of the challenges she has shown herself quite resilient, hasn’t she? I see no reason for that resilience to pass. I believe her people will continue to trust Jesus, to love and serve one another and their neighbors. I believe the church will continue to worship, and struggle, as she waits and longs for the kingdom that will come.

For help along the way, a true consensus statement articulating and defending the traditional view of sexuality offering a humble and compassionate restatement of the historic Christian view of marriage with irenic engagement with some of the emerging counter proposals would be welcome. But that is not what we have been given.

It is the teacher who speaks with a calm and reasoned voice who gets heard in a noisy classroom. That is the voice we need.

While we wait for it, let us continue to serve Jesus through his church. In that we should not grow weary.

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