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Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Journey Past Racism: Multi-Ethnic Community

I grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love.” Of course, “brotherly love” in the South Philly of my youth was rather exclusive, reserved only for people who looked like me. All others were considered enemies, not brothers. People stuck to their own kind in their own neighborhoods. I stayed within the bounds of my Italian neighborhood. The Irish, Polish, Vietnamese, Hispanics, and African Americans all stayed within their boundary lines also, at least they were supposed to.

On a warm summer night, an African American male about 25 years old walked onto my Italian turf. I had consumed enough alcohol that night to intoxicate a horse. Smoking pot on top of it exacerbated my warped perception of reality and my typical hell-raising behaviors. My friends dared me to take on this offender of South Philly turf rules. Without much thought, I accepted their “triple dog” dare. So, for no other reason but the color of this man’s skin, I walked across the street and punched him in the head. He rolled over a parked car and ran up the middle of the street, in fear for his life. My pals stayed behind laughing, while I chased after the perpetrator. To my surprise, and delight, he stopped in the middle of the road and put up his hands for a fight. In a dead run I threw the hardest right hook I could throw. I missed. But he didn’t. I was so drunk I failed to see the knife in his left hand that he drove deep into my right side while ducking my punch. He ran again, but this time I didn’t chase. Blood filled my shirt as my lung deflated fast. I was going to die before my 18th birthday. My racism, coupled with alcohol, was going to kill me.
Thankfully, one of my drunk but level-headed friends quickly secured a ride for me to the hospital. We got there in minutes and my life was spared. I would live to see my next birthday. But this near-death experience, as you may have guessed, proved to be a much needed wake-up call for me. I was ready to seek help to overcome my alcohol addiction. I needed God, and I knew it.
Off I went to Teen Challenge in Syracuse, NY. Teen Challenge is a Christ-centered drug and alcohol program. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, but I saw how Teen Challenge was helping my parents overcome their addiction to drugs. So, I gave it a go.
When I walked into Teen Challenge I discovered that I would be living in a house with 25 other guys, all of them different from me in so many ways. Most of the guys were African American or Hispanic. I was the minority. What! You mean I have to share life with people I have been taught to despise for most of my life! I have to share a house, meals, a toilet, a shower, and a bedroom with people who always have an angle, with people who will stab me in the back (or side), with people who are not nearly as civil as me (self-awareness was not my strong suit)?
Needless to say, I had my guard up. You can only trust your own, right? But it didn’t take long for my defensive posture to soften. African American and Hispanic men took me under their wings. I was rough around the edges and, frankly, racist but their love was equal to my anger. They forgave my offenses, prayed with me and for me, and modeled the grace of God in tangible ways that I could see and appreciate. In time, I had experienced a rare depth of friendship I didn’t know existed. And I experienced it with the sorts of people I had judged and disregarded for most of my life. 
My first taste of Christian community occurred in this multi-ethnic context of Teen Challenge. If I had a choice I would never choose a community of people who were different from me in most ways, including ethnically. But that “church” did more for my soul than most churches within which I have participated. As a began to read the bible for the first time I discovered that one of the best tools God used in the first century to reveal Christ was the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the context of Christian community. God was doing the same thing with me. I experienced the presence and power of Christ most profoundly in a community of diverse people with whom I shared the ups and downs, the joys and challenges of life.
In the context of a multi-ethnic Christian community, God tore down the walls of racism that were erected and reinforced from my childhood. One of the signs of God’s limitless power, if you ask me, is his ability to reconcile racists with the object of their former scorn. I am completely convinced that multi-ethnic community was a key to the vitality of the Early Church and to my early Christian development. So I pastored with the same conviction. The local church I most recently served as lead pastor existed in a homogenous town that, post 9/11, was becoming ethnically diverse. Most churches did not reflect the increasing diversity of our town. The church I served was convinced God was calling us to reflect the diversity of our community. We were convinced that if racial reconciliation was going to happen in our segregated community, the Church was going to have to take the lead. A Political agenda can impose anti-discrimination laws but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can empower reconciliatory love. Our church went after it- not because we were compelled by political correctness but because we were compelled by Christian convictions.
In time, our church became one of the few multi-ethnic churches in an increasingly multi-ethnic community. What is perhaps most fascinating and ironic is that the church was once known as “racist” in our community. Back in 1991, a white pastor of the church refused to marry a couple because they were mixed races. The story made national news and was addressed on popular TV shows like Good Morning America, Phil Donahue, and Sally Jessy Rapheal, to name a few. Fifteen years later, this church once known as racist became one of the only and most vibrant multi-ethnic churches in her community. Only God could pull off something like this! In a community of growing racial tensions, it was a local church that took the lead in racial reconciliation. Jesus Christ was revealed and God-stuff happened.
I realize that nowadays multi-ethnic ministry is explored as a potential church growth strategy. However, there are easier, less-painful ways to grow the church. Multi-ethnic ministry cannot be pursued merely as a strategy for church growth or it will be abandoned when resistance comes- and it will! The pursuit of becoming a multi-ethnic church must, instead, flow out of core convictions concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. When the Church begins to grasp the implications of worshiping a Triune God who exists within a diverse community of love (Father, Son, and Spirit), we will seek to also become a diverse community of love. When the Church wrestles with the reality of an incarnational God who participates as a human to be reconciled with the humanity he created, we will seek to build bridges of racial reconciliation too.

This is the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. And we say, thanks be to God!                  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Confessions and Lessons from a Pastor's Spouse

The only person in the church who might be lonelier than the pastor is the pastor’s spouse. I asked the best pastor’s spouse I know to share some wisdom regarding this high calling. For three years now I have been asking my wife, Amy, to offer some encouragement for the spouses of pastors. In her humility, she felt she had little to offer. But I persisted and she relented. So, here are some confessions and lessons offered by Amy concerning our 15 years in the pastorate. Lenny  

1.Tame the Tongue: This one seems almost too obvious to mention, but it is a challenge for so many of us.  I have found myself going back and apologizing on more than one occasion when I felt I have said too much.  Gossip is a slippery slope that can start out innocently enough and then before you know it you’ve slid all the way down. Damage done.  How can I expect the congregation to trust and respect me if I can’t tame the tongue?    A friend of mine who needed fellowship and growth once went to an informal ladies gathering at the home of a pastor’s wife.  My friend confided to me later that she left the get together early because it was one huge gossip fest led by the pastor’s spouse about key leaders in the church.  Sadly, that pastor’s wife lost the respect and trust of one of her congregants that night.  When the pastor’s spouse gossips, it also hurts the pastor. Not a good idea. Be trustworthy. 

2.  Have Thick (Not Calloused) Skin: I am a sensitive person.  If someone even so much as looks at me funny I wonder what I’ve done wrong.  Before becoming a pastor’s spouse I was told I needed to develop thick skin.  It wasn’t long before I found out what that meant for me exactly.  Thick skin is learning how to love and not hold grudges toward people in the congregation who don’t like you, may even hate you, gossip about you, and disagree with you or your spouse. I had a friend on the board one year who did not see eye to eye with my husband on just about every issue. She would tell me this the day after the board meeting. Eventually my slow, not-so-brilliant brain decided to politely suggest that she should talk to Lenny directly and not to me about board room decisions. Thick skin means not allowing the pain of disappointment with people to fester in your heart. Thick skin is accepting that the church will hurt you.  It will hurt because it is made up of people and people do stupid things.  And you will hurt others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, because you do stupid things too.  To this day, Lenny and I still don’t know what we did to this one particular woman who left our church, though we asked.  I bumped into her at Walmart about a year later and attempted to start a conversation. She back-pedaled away from me so fast that I thought I had leprosy or something. That one hurt. I was also 9 months pregnant and extra emotional J.

Calloused skin, on the other hand, is dangerous. You stop caring about, loving, and praying for those who hurt you.  You stop getting involved, going the extra mile, and feeling for the people of your church.  I saw this in a pastor’s spouse and it scared me.  I prayed against it during a period when I was becoming calloused. A callous, as you know, is painfully hard to remove.

3.  Protect Your Personal Time: Our busiest season surfaced when Lenny was a lead pastor in a growing church. He was a young, ambitious, and very busy pastor, logging lots of hours. I was a busy young mom caring for three children ages 3 and under.  I missed my husband.  Even when he was home, it was sometimes hard for him to emotionally disengage from things going on at church and we all felt it.  I don’t know how long it took for me to get to this point, but for a few weeks I entertained thoughts of packing up the kids and heading to my mom’s house two hours away.  I was not really wanting separation; it was more a cry of desperation. I began to doubt myself.  Was I being selfish in feeling neglected and being all, “Woe is me” and “Here is your wake-up call, buddy”!?  Or was there seriously something wrong?  I didn’t know what to do but I knew I couldn’t go on doing what we were doing.  I curled up in bed and bawled.  That’s where I was when Lenny came home from leading an evening board meeting. Something had to change.

And it did. These are the steps we took to protect and fight for our family (after all, who else is going to fight for it?). Lenny would take his day off. Living behind the church made it too easy to run in for something on a day off and come back four hours later.  Friday, Len’s day off, became an invaluable Sabbath for us, especially when the church started a Saturday night service and weekends became even busier.  Also, all vacation days would be used and there would be no more than three evening church meetings per week (unless there was an emergency). Finally, we committed to go on a date every two weeks.

4.  Have Friends with Some Boundaries: Ah, the friend debate.  Being a pastoral couple can be very lonely sometimes. We came to the conclusion that we, like Christ himself, needed friends. But friends in church must be chosen carefully.  Some friends do like to broadcast the friendship.  One female friend boasted to a group at church to be Lenny’s best friend. I remember squirming in my seat wondering, “And when did I step out of that role?”  I had another friend who kept our relationship so quiet that no one in the church even knew about it. Those friends are gems.  They don’t expect you to talk to them after church or at church functions.  They know and understand it is better for you to talk to those you don’t know or those who look like they could use someone to talk to.  They are the type of friend who will be good prayer partners.  When a prayer partner friend of mine joined our church we continued praying together, but I no longer shared requests about marital or church issues. Boundaries. 

5.  Vent Up or Out: This is a mantra I learned from Lenny.  If there is something painful or disappointing going on at church, vent up (to your District Superintendant or another leader in the denomination) or vent out to ministry colleagues and friends outside of your church. Avoid venting to staff or others in the church.

6.  Don’t Critique the Church in the Presence of your Kids: I don’t remember where I read or heard this, but it was something Lenny and I practiced from the beginning.  A good friend of mine who is a PK had a dad who was overly committed to the church. She knew way too much about the church’s problems. She had determined she would never, ever marry a pastor. And she didn’t. Lenny and I don’t have any family members who are pastors, so we had no idea of what a ministry family is supposed to look like. We did know that we wanted our kids to love not resent the Church. So, we tried our best to commend and not critique the Church in the presence of our kids. We saved our critique for the bedroom. Romantic!

7.  Support your Board and Staff: Maybe you are in a church where there aren’t any staff or board issues, but we had some—with both groups.  The staff and board are the people we became most intimately connected to over time because we worked most closely with them. These are some ways we invested in our leadership team: 

-We had the staff and board over together in our home annually for a Christmas party. We didn’t allow them to bring anything but an appetite as a way of expressing our thanks.

-At one point Lenny felt the need to relax and have fun with the staff, so we organized game nights and special outings like an afternoon of snow-tubing.

-I started sending baked goods with Lenny to board meetings.  I couldn’t do a whole lot outside of my home with three little ones, so that was a doable way to show my support. During one particularly challenging season of ministry, Lenny would come home from board meetings very discouraged.  As I continued preparing snacks for the board meeting, it occurred to me to pray for the board members, Lenny, and the meeting.  To this day, I believe that simple act of prayer kept me from holding grudges or lashing out.

8.  Support your Spouse: I had to learn how to share Lenny. Often. I had to learn how to graciously accept interruptions.  Sometimes there were emergency phone calls that came at dinner or odd hours.  Sometimes we were headed out of town on Lenny’s day off and he would get a phone call that would cause us to turn around and head back. I had to learn not to grumble and complain when these things happened and support him by being gracious (an art not perfected). I also supported him by being there when he needed a shoulder to cry on, a brain to pick, or a hand to hold. He was so strong for so many and he needed a safe place to crumble and cry, hope and hurt. 

9.  Seek Spiritual Nourishment: As I sought to find my niche in the church, I experimented with different ministries.  I found I had a tendency to start ministries, get them afloat and then move on.  Sometimes they stayed afloat and sometimes they didn’t. I started a ladies Bible study that met in my home for a couple years, a young adult ministry (when I was still a young adultJ), and a couple’s ministry with Lenny. When I was pregnant with our third, I felt like I needed something to nourish my soul as a young mom. Our church did not have a MOPs ministry and someone suggested that I start one. Starting ministries required a lot of energy and I felt like I just didn’t have it at that time. I was in need of some refreshment and nourishment. So I started attending a MOPs at another church. It was a spiritually refreshing season for me.  Following that year, I was inspired to start a ministry for mothers at our church.

The church we most recently served allowed Lenny to take a yearlong sabbatical to work on his doctoral degree. There was a spouse ministries component to the program that took spouses on two spiritual retreats.  Both of them impacted me greatly and brought significant emotional healing that enabled me to more effectively minister to others. The spiritual nourishment I experienced during that sabbatical taught me how important it is to carve out a chunk of time a couple times a year for renewal. Sabbath is not only necessary for the pastor, but the pastor’s spouse. A weekend retreat may not be possible, but a full or half-day retreat is (I am actually writing this article while on a church retreat at a beautiful convent while Lenny is home with the kidsJ). Reading and discussing soul-nourishing books with a trusted friend was also a huge spiritual lift.

10.  Enjoy your Ministry: There were days when I didn’t want to be a pastor’s spouse.  I just wanted to be a “normal” person in the church. Now, I am one.  I’ll never forget our first Sunday after Lenny transitioned from being a pastor to a seminary professor and we moved far away. We looked at each other and asked, “Where should we go to church?” At first, the freedom was fun. But in time I realized in retrospect that being a pastor’s spouse forced me into places that grew me. As a pastor’s spouse I had experiences I would not have had if I were just a “normal” person in the church. I would have never spoke with Len at a couples retreat or help him preach a series on marriage at church. Being a pastor’s spouse forced me to minister in crisis situations I would have run from if I could. I was stretched far out of my comfort zone, mostly by my “gently” pushing hubby and the Spirit’s soft nudge.  Being a “normal” church go-er is different. I find it too easy to become stagnant or stay on the fringe, in safe places.

If you are pastor’s spouse, you will be challenged more than “normal” churchgoers. But, you are also in a unique position to make a significant positive difference in peoples’ lives. That, my friend, is your joy.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Healthy Pastors Cultivate Healthy Churches that Transform the World

Here is an article I wrote for Christianity Today's Leadership Journal that reflects my vocational quest to invest in those investing in the local church. This article reflects some pastoral lessons I learned the hard way and is dedicated to pastors in churches that need turnaround.