Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"They" smell like sheep...

Lynn Anderson wrote a book called They Smell Like Sheep about effective leadership strategies in the contemporary church. The title is provocative, and brings to mind an attitude that I get concerned about among seminarians and others.

It seems like everyone who labors within the church for more than a little while-- and by labors I mean above and beyond the average volunteer level-- gets to the point where they think everything the church does is off-track, ingrown, distracted by stupid debates, or simply ineffective. And frankly, these are often fair critiques of churches, locally and denominationally.

What bothers me about this is two-fold: first, it is problematic in its "all-or-nothing" categorization. R.C. Sproul drew a helpful distinction between "total depravity"-- where everything is touched and affected by our sin-- and "utter depravity"-- where everything is completely sinful. Orthodoxy has always rejected utter depravity while upholding total depravity. I would challenge these who are down on the church to similarly reject a view of the "utter fallenness" of the church: no church does everything wrong.

The other thing that bothers me is the distinctive "they" language about the problems in the church. Hey, aren't you a Christian too? Aren't you a member of one of those churches you're running down? Talking with a pastor friend one day, I was commiserating with him about some difficulties he was having with some in his congregation. I borrowed Anderson's title, saying, "Yeah, they smell like sheep, don't they?" His response was humbling: "yep, and I can't tell who stinks worse-- them or me!"

Friends, wait for the Bride. If Christ loved HIs church enough to die for us, we can love her enough to be patient as she struggles with sanctification. Wait for the Bride.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gaining Leadership Skills

I was visiting with Bob Burns, Director of the Center for Ministry Leadership, a few days ago, and he mentioned a major hole in seminary training: leadership skills.

Bob works with pastors who have been in ministry for 5-15 years with the stated goal of "sustaining pastoral excellence."  As a result, Bob is a huge resource for the research and ideas that I'm working through.

At Covenant Seminary, M.Div. students take a class called "Ministry Leadership" which addresses many difficult leadership decisions with regard to philosophy of ministry, the practice of strategic change, dealing with conflict of preferences, etc.  It also exposes students to decisive factors like different types of churches (as in the evangelism-focuses church or the mercy ministry-minded church) and how to identify which church is right for you as a pastor.  I don't know what other seminaries offer along these lines, but this is a great start.

What Bob means, though, is not just leadership in terms of knowing yourself and your strengths or understanding the dynamics of church ministry.  Seminary students could stand to get more exposure to things like strategic planning, leading effective meetings, decision-making processes, conflict resolution, and how to mentor others (and how to be mentored).

I've been working on financial information at Wildwood Christian School, where I teach and work, and I would count things like budgeting and financial management into this mix.  Would the average seminary graduate understand how to compile a budget or develop a reliable forecast?  Maybe-- but I sure didn't.  Yet, the pastor(s) in a church are the ones who are finally responsible to determine what the expenses should be, and they are also the ones who will be keeping expenses in check.  (They are also a lot more responsible for the money a church takes in than most people realize.)  In a church there is usually someone-- probably a Deacon-- who has some expertise in accounting and can keep the church from venturing into areas of questionable legality, but that doesn't absolve a pastor from the need to understand how to read a financial report.

If seminary falls on the side of "how well are they equipped for ministry" with regard to theological and biblical knowledge, where does the other half-- the "readiness for ministry" part-- come from?  Field Education and Internships.  After that, guys, you're on your own.  How will you get the readiness you need?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Don't take yourself too seriously...

One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn is not to take myself too seriously.  I don’t like to be teased, and when I mess up I would prefer for others not to notice— let alone point it out and have a laugh.

But I’ve learned that I need to laugh at myself more frequently.  As I realize my own brokenness more thoroughly, I must admit that I am both unworthy and unable to accomplish the things I set out to do, without the work and strength of my Savior.  Rather than hiding my failures, by acknowledging them I can give glory to God that He is able when I am not.

When it comes to ministry, this is essential.  Pastors and ministry leaders are already set apart and viewed differently from their constituents.  It is easy for someone like me to play into this, allowing others to believe that I am able to do so much— when honesty would reveal that I am afraid of failure and of being found out as a failure. 

A conversation with a search committee member brought up the possibility of someone being “over-qualified” for a particular position.  I don’t think it is possible for anyone to be over-qualified for pastoral ministry.  There is a big difference between being trained and experienced and “qualified” in the common sense of that term— and anyone who thinks they are over-qualified is probably someone to be wary of. 

[Of course, the real qualifications for ministry are weakness, humility, and vulnerability.  Unfortunately, I’m too prideful to even have those down— but I hope I’m much closer to that than to the other.]

One of the lessons for ministry that I have learned from a hero of mine, Joe Novenson— who I am proud to also call a friend— is that being broken, weak, and unfit is not an obstacle for God to use us for great things in ministry.  Instead, it is something that, when owned and faced, can allow God to bring glory to Himself all the more.

Monday, February 19, 2007

If I were starting seminary all over again...

...There are three technology tools that I would want to have from the start:
  • An Apple Macintosh laptop.  I know, this sounds cultish— and frankly, I’m an unabashed Apple supporter and evangelist— but you can’t beat the quality of the hardware, and it doesn’t hurt that I don’t have to worry about viruses or other malware anymore.  Plus, the next key tool is platform-dependent, and is only for Apple’s Mac OS X 10.3 or higher.
  • Devon Technologies’ DevonThink Pro Office.  DevonThink is an amazing “free-form database” which means that it isn’t confined to the structured data collection that other databases have.  Instead, you can import a hoard of file types into DevonThink, and they are indexed and stored according to your organizational method.  The search technology within it is based on a sort of artificial intelligence, so it “learns” by association what words and phrases are related to what.  Thus, it becomes a powerful tool for research and writing, as it can house lots of documents and cross-reference them on the fly.  There are three versions of DevonThink: Personal, Pro, and Pro Office.  You should get Pro Office, because you will also want…
  • The Fujitsu ScanSnap S500m document scanner.  This is the Mac version of Fujitsu’s great scanner.  This scanner can hold up to 50 pages at once, and it sheet-feeds them through a document scanner that can handle duplex (two-sided) scanning.  It is bundled with a lot of great software, including Adobe Acrobat, and therefore can scan lots of pages then convert them immediately into searchable PDFs or RTFs.  This is important, because you can use DevonThink Pro Office to import these directly into the database, where they are indexed and added to your archives.
  • If I had been in possession of these tools when I began seminary, it would have saved me hours— even days— of research work, and my papers would have been better.  I would have gotten as many full-text online versions of articles as the ATLA database offered (relevant to my current topics) and imported them directly, rather than printing them out.  And the ones I printed would have gone straight into the ScanSnap to be added to the rest.  I would have scanned the indices of all of my textbooks (and a bunch of other books) to make it easy to find references within books. And I would have all of the syllabi, class handouts, and reading packets scanned into my DevonThink database.
The end result of this would have been a research database that was incrementally constructed (so it wouldn’t consume days to put together, as it is doing now!), but that would have returned more accurate results for relevant sources, and made extracting those results into papers more approachable.  And I would have had a tool that would last my whole ministry, only improving with age.

If you haven’t guessed, I have all of these now.  We began switching back to Macs (my first computer was a Mac, so it was a switch back) in early 2004, and I got my first iBook that fall; I now have a MacBook that I love.  I’ve been using DevonThink for almost two years, and it is one of those things that stays open on my computer 90% of the time.  And my ScanSnap came via FedEx today— I’m reviewing it for a magazine— and it has already scanned about 600 pages of documents.  I’m hopeful to eliminate an entire filing cabinet before we move.

If you are serious about writing good research papers during seminary— and continuing with good research after— then these tools will pay for themselves 10 times over in the hours they will save you.