Sunday, December 02, 2007

Family of Origin - Toward Healthier Ministry

It was during this time of year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that my counseling load was the greatest when I was Director of Counseling at Central College. The increase in counseling stemmed from students having to enter and re-enter the life of their family. Family of origin dynamics were powerful and impacted most individuals well beyond their capacity to recognize and understand. When students came in for counseling, thinking that school deadlines and pressures were the cause of anxiety and depression, it was often their family of origin pressures and scripts to which they were reacting.

I have observed some of the same in candidates enrolled in the MFCA. Excuses for missing deadlines, blaming church leaders for anxiety and their inability to perform, and struggling with continued medical problems are often the results of family of origin and people’s strongly embedded scripts that were formed there. The power of these scripts control individuals in both personal and professional life. In ministry the ability to understand and manage one’s family of origin can make a huge difference – sometimes to the point of making or breaking the ministry as a whole.
Understanding relational systems, whether in family of origin or church community, is a crucial aspect of ministerial formation. The new seminar, the Pastor as Person, will have this as a key objective. Dr. Hamman will be guiding participants in reading and reflecting on topics of self discovery and understanding relational systems. The understanding gained allows individuals to differentiate causing ingrained scripts to be recognized and managed. This is especially significant if the scripts have been dysfunctional and hazardous to the health of the person and their ministry.

This will be hard work. In one of the books used in the seminar, Ronald Richardson writes:

"In doing this work, you are breaking the patterns of generations of functioning in particular set ways. We are only the latest version of accumulated, unresolved emotional issues that we had little to do with creating but that, as members of that same emotional system, we have been perpetuating. Breaking the power of the generational patterns takes takes a tremendous act of courage and is truly heroic. People who do this work eventually (though not at first) become a kind of hero in their families and a resource for the following generations to create a new way of functioning emotionally in life. Working through the power of God’s creative Holy Spirit, they are helping to bring new life and health to themselves and their people, so that their ‘days may be long in the land.’" (Pg. 10; Becoming a Healthier Pastor; Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family, Fortress Press, 2005).

The increased awareness of family of origin "scripts," or "generational patterns" as Richardson would say, is important for those in ministry and I am excited we are able to offer MFCA candidates the opportunity to participate in the Pastor as Person – a process of learning that will allow individuals to interrupt harmful patterns that make both personal relationships and ministry relationships difficult. If you are interested in taking the seminar, even if you have completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I encourage you to contact our office and register. The seminar begins March 1, 2008 and will end with a week gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan at Camp Geneva Shores in May (May 27 – 31, 2008).

I wish all the readers of this newsletter a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year! May 2008 be filled with joy and God’s miracles!


Friday, October 26, 2007

RCA History,Missions and Polity (Spanish) Finishes Well

Jhonny's teaching style is dynamic.
The Sheppler - Ross family made the week a time of vacation - well, at least Kai and Keith did.
The group picture.

Carlos makes a point while Salomon listens and Mario sits in disbelief.
Thanks to the wonderful efforts of Rev. Jhonny Alicea-Baez the week was a great success. Fourteen students debated and learned together while being connected to the Reformed Church in America in new ways. The fellowship among the students was extraordinary and many new friendships were formed.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This week, the MFCA is offering its third course in Spanish - the course is RCA History, Missions and Polity as taught by Rev. Jhonny Alicea-Baez. This is the second course he is teaching for the MFCA; the first offering was also taught by him - RCA Standards. These courses have been taught annually at the Reformed Church Centre in Paramount, California.

This year's course includes
six individuals from Canada, four from Toronto and two from Montreal. There are ten different countries represented among fifteen (15) individuals. Countries include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico. An eleventh country could be counted in Venezuela - Candidate Kirsten Shepler - Ross from New Jersey is taking the course because she needs it in order to meet RCA requirements in the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry process - she is able to take the course in Spanish because she grew up in Venezuela where her parents were RCA missionaries.

Among the participants are Meire and Carlos Rosa, originally from Brazil where the language is Portuguese. As MFCA candidates the Rosas find it easier to take courses in Spanish as opposed to English. The Rosas are planting a Portuguese speaking congregation in Montreal where the dominant language is French. The Rosas are members of the Classis of Ontario - exclusively English speaking.

Pictures are of Rev. Jhonny Alicea - Baez teaching the class at the Reformed Studies Centre on the campus of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount, California. Pictured behind Jhonny are Felix Lescano, Carlos Arana, Daniel Castillo, Ana Mabel Renderos, Meire Rosa and Carlos Rosa.
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Friday, October 19, 2007

Learning from Alan Hirsch

The other day Alan Hirsch spoke to the gathering of the Classis of California. He is the author of The Forgotten Ways and appears to be the latest of a group that is impacting RCA evangelicals. Others would include Erwin McManus, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Reggie McNiel. I personally am also reading books by Robert E. Quinn… highly recommended!

Alan Hirsch had some interesting things to say to the group at the classis meeting; below are some of my scribbles:
“The church does not have a mission, the mission has a church.”
He said the church needs both missional and incarnational people if it is going to be relevant.

MISSIONARY PEOPLE – look outward
INCARNATIONAL PEPOLE – are about deepening

We need to be about “recovering the ethos of apostolic movements.”
“Church growth has not worked in USA because we have institutionalized church growth movements.”

“Movements mobilize the people of God. Movements are reproducing and reproducible.”

“Missionary Movements employ ministerial leadership according to Ephesians 4. There is a distribution of gifts so we might mature in leadership.”

“Ephesians 4 mentions: Apostles (A), Prophets (P), Evangelists (E), Shepherds (S), Teachers (S) – How can you have a movement when you remove 3 of the 5? APE’s are exiled.”

“You must broaden out the idea of leadership if you are going to grow the church.”

“APE’s are “non status quo” people.”Ephesians 4 is genetic material for the movement of church

Apostolic movements:
“Be attractive, but don’t be attractional.”“Bring Jesus to the people and the people to Jesus.”

“Being attractional in a missionary environment is also a matter of being extractional.”

“We need to extract people out of their culture and institutions.”

For the MFCA context I heard Hirsch say that we should continue to prepare the best shepherds and teachers as we have in the past, and, that we should also legitimize and prepare apostolic leaders, prophetic leaders and evangelists. The question would be: “How do we do that; what do we need to add or do differently?” The input from others is welcome!


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

MFCA Challenges

David Daniels, a columnist for Christian Week states in his September 15th article: “Visionary thinking, prophetic action, courageous decision-making – these are the ingredients most likely topping the list of desirable traits in contemporary pastoral leadership.” (Pg.11) The Ministerial Formation Certification Agency (MFCA) statement of purpose mentions as its desired traits: academic preparedness, spiritual maturity, personal wholeness, ministry competence and denominational identity. Comparing the two lists the reader very quickly notices how different they are. If Daniels’ list reflects reality better than the MFCA list, then successful preparation of individuals for ministry, as we do it, may be close to impossible. Even though we encourage visionary, prophetic, and courageous leadership for our candidates, we do not claim to know how we would go about creating and monitoring such traits as Daniels suggests are at the top of the list in 2007.
It is with this knowledge and implicit tension that the newly formed MFCA faces the future. The MFCA Board of Trustees will be broaching the difficult task of shaping a program that is aware of what contemporary pastoral leadership should look like while at the same time implementing an effective strategy that has integrity -- respecting Reformed Church in America (RCA) values. Board member Bart Strong, a specialist in strategic planning from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario will be leading the discussion at the next meetings of the board and it is anticipated that he will be asking the members to answer some difficult questions. In his article in the Educause Quarterly Strong asks, “What is happening in higher education and in the world today that may affect what we do and how we do it in the next three years…?” (Strategic Planning for Technological Change, Fall 2007, Pg. 50). It is assumed that he will ask a similar question of the MFCA Board.
Being one to anticipate matters, I would venture that Strong’s question in the context of the MFCA might read as follows: “What is happening in the life of the Church and in the world today that may affect what we do and how we do it over the next three years?” The MFCA board’s considerations in answering this question might include:
~ Traditional education, usually provided by seminaries, is less valued and churches look to people in their midst who are exercising gifts and show potential for ministry and place them in leadership positions.
~ Many individuals experience a call to ministry through parachurch organizations, camps, and campus ministry efforts, entering ministry preparation with no denominational loyalty.
~ Choosing not to be part of a denomination, many individuals design their own preparation process which tends to be reactionary to individual and present needs as well as those of the ministry in which they might be serving.
~ Younger leaders tend to be relational with a bias against institutional mindsets. This causes them to make themselves accountable to local people with whom they have a relationship and thus feel no need for accountability to authorities outside of their immediate circle.
~ The internet and technology place resources at people’s fingertips – large portions of a seminary education can be found for free online – why move oneself and family to a different location at great expense when it is possible to stay put and be making a difference in ministry here and now at no financial cost.
~ Mega churches, with high visibility tend to impact people sensing a call to ministry. These same churches tend to create their own movements and programs for developing leaders which often do not include seminary level education.
~ The Reformed Church in America (RCA), like many mainline denominations, has turned to credentialing commissioned pastors. This process fast tracks people into ministry while requiring a limited education, ministry preparation and critical assessment. According to those in favor of this movement this saves time, money and energy and allows individuals to be employed in ministry expeditiously.
~ The RCA, like many others, has intentionally decided to emphasize church multiplication and to birth new churches. There are indications that some of the people who are chosen for church start assignments are chosen on the basis of their ability to produce fruit (numbers) and are not necessarily assessed on whether or not they have a seminary education; providing the ability to think critically about scripture and reflect theologically about the practice of ministry. This could limit their ultimate potential for in depth preaching and teaching.
~ There is also a tendency to bring people in from outside of the RCA in order to staff the increasing number of ministries – many of them are gifted and proven in ministry but do not meet the educational requirements stipulated by the RCA. These same individuals are committed to the mission of the RCA (Our Call) but have no other loyalty to the denomination.
~ Theological education is becoming more expensive and there are indications that a denomination such as the RCA will have to face a new reality where assessments for programs and excessive infrastructure will no longer be tolerated and thus disappear. The MFCA is very dependent on assessment money.
~ Ethnic and racial diversity is becoming more of a reality as well as a pressure point for our next generation of church leaders. Questions we are beginning to encounter include: “How will we accommodate different language groups and traditions and yet maintain collegiality in churches and classes?”
~ Being “Reformed” is no longer a priority for a significant number of our churches and leaders. How will the RCA define being “Reformed” in this day and age with pressure to be concerned about being “evangelical” and “ecumenical” in contrast to being Reformed?

Strategic planning, when there are so many variables, will be a challenge for the MFCA Board of Trustees. The encouragement for those of us involved in this challenge is that we will do this with prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Like the sons of Issachar, we will do our best to read the signs of the times and to listen and look for the leading of the Lord. Please pray for the MFCA and its board.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Mid-Life Crisis

It has been confirmed... Cor is definitely in mid-life crisis. He has buzzed his hair and purchased a motorcycle. One would think that after a number of incidents with his bicycle he would know better than to increase his time on two wheeled vehicles.
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Thursday, July 26, 2007

More pictures from this summer's courses... The group gathered is part of the RCA Standards class in the WTS atrium... the group was preparing for the Arminian / Calvinist debate.
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Monday, July 23, 2007

Future Options for CPE Alternative

The July – August issue of Candidates' Care mentions the work I hope to do on a course proposal for the "Pastor as Person" as an alternative for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). The request for this came from the Approved Alternate Route (AAR) certification committee at the June meeting. The request came out of the recognition that the CPE sites and availability for some individuals are so limited that it will be near impossible for them to enroll in a unit. Without CPE it will become impossible for individuals to complete the requirements for the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry and subsequent ordination. The request was not meant to suggest that the "Pastor as Person" will be another choice of convenience for those who do not like the CPE option.

The committee has asked for this alternative to be looked at in order to assist those, who for compelling practical reasons, cannot complete a recognized unit of CPE. The proposal will be developed over the summer with the assistance of Rev. Dr. Jaco Hamman at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. The MFCA Board of Trustees will review the proposal at the September 21 meeting. There is no indication if the board will approve this new idea and therefore we all need to be cautious about making plans even though I have arranged with Dr. Hamman that if approved, there will be an intensive scheduled for May 27 – 31, 2008. Most likely, we will host the intensive in Holland, Michigan.

If you have questions about the proposal and how it may apply to you, please contact me at

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

General Synod and Summer Intensives

Dennis Sidfrid

Frances Nelsen and Drew Yamamoto

Drew and Bob Holtrop

The Van Wyk family, Terry O'Brien and Rick Van Ravenswaay
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Monday, July 09, 2007

RCA History at WTS in Holland, MI

Dr. John Coakley

Ina Montoya hard at work

Jeff Kelley, Ann Blakeslee and Ina share a fun moment.

The RCA History and Missions class for 2007 was taught by Dr. John Coakley of New Brunswick Theological Seminary...
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Summer Intensives Complete For 2007

RCA Worship 2007

Another summer has passed and the hours of class time, reading and studying are again over... Thanks to the instructors for this year:

RCA Polity - Dr. George Brown

RCA Standards - Dr. Paul Fries

RCA History & Missions - Dr. John Coakley

RCA Worship - Dr. Gregg Mast

The picture shows RCA Worship class - (Left to Right) Susan Sgarlat Clair Lathrop, Frances Nelson, Paul Trudeau, David Choi, Drew Yamamoto and Terry O'Brien.
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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Net Generation (Net Gens)

The challenge for preparing the future leaders of the church usually starts with understanding the generational group and its culture. In past newsletters we attempted to describe the groups we were dealing with next and thus covered the “Baby Busters,” the “Gen Xers” and the “Millennials.” Today, on the heels of the Millennials, we find ourselves preparing the Net Generation. This generation is 24 years of age or younger and they really do not think of the world as ever having been without the internet. They are a generation with a strong preference for the visual and technology. Authors Dianna and James Oblinger, in their “e-book” Educating the Net Generation, ask the question “If the Net Generation values experiential learning, working in teams, and social networking, what are the implications for classrooms and the overall learning environment?” (Pg. 1.4)

For those of us in theological education the question remains relevant as well, and we have to add the question, “What are the implications for the church and ministerial formation?” Will the church that we minister to be a “multiuser virtual environment,” or, will it continue to include pews, organs and homilies in a building with unique architecture? Education and forming the Net Generation is going to have its challenges and it will benefit us to identify what it is we are dealing with and how we may want to adjust what we do according to our findings. The following are things we may want to keep in mind:

- Technology is going to allow individuals to learn as much as they want to about virtually any topic – the information that constitutes a masters degree at MIT is now completely available on the internet; and it’s free. It is prophesied that a masters degree in theology is not far off.

- Individuals who have been raised with the computer process information differently – “they develop hypertext minds, they leap around.” (Pg. 2.4) A linear thought process is uncommon and the Net Generation will tend to piece information together from multiple sources. How that allows for the understanding of a triune God is not certain; it may help… Sermon preparation and delivery may never flow the same again. Messages will probably rely more on Powerpoint presentations.

- The Net Generation has the ability to read visual images and they are very capable at integrating the virtual and physical (Video games…). Video clips from movies may become a necessity for clear communication to this group.

- They learn best through inductive discovery as opposed to being told. The experiential is important and doing ministry is a priority for this age group.

- Net Generation students are able to shift their attention rapidly from one task to another – known as attentional deployment.

- They are able to respond quickly and expect rapid response in return. This could create impatience with people, processes and God if response times become too slow. A lengthy program such as the M.Div. is unacceptable to many Net Gens and they are quick to get into ministry rather than committing to a classroom requirement.

- While highly mobile, moving from work to classes to recreational activities, they are also very connected by having laptops, cell phones, pagers, etc. at their disposal.

- Net Generation folks “gravitate to activities that promote and reinforce social interaction – whether IMing [Instant Messaging] old friends, teaming up in an internet game, posting Web diaries (blogging), or forwarding joke e-mails.” (Pg. 2.6) “Although technology can’t change one’s personality, introverts, for example, use the Internet as a tool to reach out.” (pg. 2.6) Churches have no problem getting people to follow up on first time visitors by asking for the first contact to be made by e-mail or IM.

- They tend to prefer to learn in teams, thus making them great candidates for small group ministries and discipleship. More and more young candidates see themselves going into discipleship ministry.

- The Net Generation is very achievement oriented and much prefer structure over ambiguity. They want to know what it will take to achieve a goal and be declared successful. For many, theological reflection is difficult since it is vague and difficult to measure.

There is much more to learn about this generation and how it will affect ministry and preparation. More will be said in future blogs.

Monday, May 21, 2007

MFCA Name Change Possible

If you take a look at the MFCA report in the workbook for this year’s General Synod you will notice that a bulk of the report involves the bylaws. New bylaws are being recommended. The old bylaws have been totally “gutted” in order to create new bylaws which will result with the approval of one simple recommendation. The recommendation is to change the word “coordinating” to “certification” in the name of the agency, thus making the MFCA the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency. This change will remove some major responsibilities from the agency’s mission, including the oversight of Standards and the coordination of theological education between MFCA, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and Western Theological Seminary. It is our hope that the removal of responsibilities will also remove obstacles in the process that the denomination is attempting to employ in the identification, equipping and employment of future pastoral ordained leaders.
The General Synod Council (GSC) will be asked to create a new organization to take care of the broader responsibilities that were originally assigned to the MFCA. One of the main reasons for going in this direction has been the elimination of the tension created by having the agency responsible for coordination also being one of the components being coordinated. It provided for an awkward situation, not allowing the agency to function properly when each segment, MFCA, NBTS and WTS, had its own unique identity and mission while sharing the formation and education responsibilities for future ministers. The new structure will place each of the agents on equal footing while receiving guidance and support from the denomination around standards for preparation for ministry. The GSC will also seek to monitor and improve the relationships and mutual efforts between the agents and the classes.
The new MFCA will focus its efforts on the two programs that result in the awarding of the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry – the Reformed Candidates Supervision and Care (RCSC) and the Approved Alternate Route (AAR). The preamble of the new bylaws provides the following definition for the newly configured MFCA…
The Ministerial Formation Certification Agency of the Reformed Church in America shall serve the Reformed Church in America (“RCA”) by:
Overseeing the education of, and awarding the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry to, candidates for the ministry who are seeking the degree of Master of Divinity or its academic equivalent from a seminary not officially related to the RCA (a “Non-RCA Seminary”);

Approving means by which candidates for the ministry may meet the requirements for the receipt of a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry (as provided in the RCA Book of Church Order (“BCO”)); and

Consulting with and providing counsel to congregations and classes in the care and nurture of candidates for the ministry who are seeking the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry and who are not attending a RCA Seminary as a matriculated student.

Currently, the RCSC has approximately seventy (70) individuals enrolled, the AAR has twenty-five (25) enrolled, and there are thirty-five (35) active applicants, making for one hundred and twenty-five (125) candidates being processed at any one time. The main program of the MFCA consists of courses that are offered annually. The courses include both residential and distance offerings, covering material unique to the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Courses offered include RCA Polity, RCA Standards, RCA History & Mission, RCA Worship, and, Summary of Christian Doctrine (Credo). The assessment and interview of candidates is a continual process of the agency. Communication with each candidate’s classis takes intentional effort and the electronic data base keeping track of each candidate’s portfolio requires much attention and effort. Access to each candidate’s portfolio is available to every classis that desires to take advantage of this service.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Loyalty to a Denomination

It seems as if more and more candidates in the MFCA have not been raised in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Dr. Paul Fries once did a quick survey of his RCA Standards class a few years ago and if I remember correctly, thirteen of the fourteen students were not raised in the RCA. My personal, and also informal survey, indicates that almost 70% of the candidates in the RCSC received their call to enter RCA ordained ministry while participating in a parachurch organization, college campus ministry, or Christian camp. In other words, many of the individuals who will be pastoral leaders in the RCA of the future do not share the RCA roots and did not initially experience their call in a local RCA congregation – they are newcomers or converts to the RCA.
Knowing this, you might ask "Is this a good thing or a bad thing?" Denominational loyalists might quickly say it is bad because these individuals don’t understand the tradition and do not share allegiances they expect from their clergy leaders. My experience and observation has been the opposite. In a way it is somewhat like a former smoker who is adamant about not being near smokers or smoke, becoming extremely strong advocates for not smoking. Most individuals who pursue the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry with the RCA, and who are new to the denomination, are those that have done their homework and have become convinced that the RCA and Reformed theology are definitely the denomination and theology of choice. They have determined through careful thought and research that the RCA best represents their belief and perspective.
These newcomers bring with them not only a high appreciation for the RCA, its theology and its ministries, but, they also bring fresh ideas and unique gifts. These individuals help create a leadership mosaic that will make us stronger and better able to minister to our churches and connect to others in the world to whom we are to reach out. Already we have ethnic and racial diverse congregations in our midst because leaders from these groups decided to belong to the RCA. We are no longer a church with a predominately Dutch heritage, nor are we remaining to be a church of Anglo Caucasians. We are diverse in many ways and it is my belief that we are better able to minister because of that.
This past week the Classis of Illiana welcomed a newcomer to the RCA by the name of John Armstrong. Rev. Armstrong has been raised in
Baptist circles but now has adopted the RCA as his denomination. Every once in a while I read his daily blog ( and recently he wrote the following, a statement I believe supports my point that those who decide to become part of the RCA of their own volition tend to be more convinced and informed about their new denomination:
"I find the RCA to be a good home for me emotionally and theologically. It is the oldest continuous church body in the United States so it didn’t begin with yesterday’s newest schism. It embraces ecumenism yet remains confessional and orthodox. It has meaningful dialog with many traditions and is truly catholic. Yet it retains some of the distinctive marks of Reformed Christianity that I find precious and biblically rooted. And it is deeply committed to church revitalization and church planting.
One thing that has particularly helped me to enter the RCA is the clear, open commitment of this Church communion to the idea of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est. This Latin phrase refers to "the Church Reformed and always reforming." This slogan, sometimes misused and often attacked from the right, is unknown as to its particular origins but the spirit of it has clearly marked the tradition historically. It is a phrase that encourages us to retain the Reformed confessional marks but always with a charitable openness to pursue continuing reformation. Rigid conservatives reject this idea, insisting that a particular confession is virtually synonymous with the theology of the Bible. Liberals abuse the idea by having no anchor in historical Christianity, using various forms of piety and psychology to undermine the historical nature of true faith. Precious and important truths are always dangerous and open to abuse. This one, with so much to commend it historically and practically, is powerful but dangerous at the same time. It must be handled with care but it should be embraced with joy and freedom in the Holy Spirit.
My friend I. John Hesselink has spent his lifetime thinking about this matter. He is a first-rate Reformed scholar and served as president of Western Theological Seminary (RCA) in Holland, Michigan, after being a missionary in Japan for many years. John concludes that Reformed Christians have a heritage that they can be proud of, in the right sense. But they must never forget that the term Reformed "denotes a task more than an accomplishment." That says it very well. I believe a humble Reformed faith is one that celebrates the past with deep gratitude and pleasure while it remains humble and open to the present since what has been given to us is a great task and divine responsibility. My calling, as a Reformed minister, is to give myself humbly to the task of reforming and renewing churches, not to standing on a soap-box condemning other Christians and other good and valuable confessional traditions within the Church. This is precisely why I am ecumenical and explains why I am committed to the whole Christian Church; Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. The world Reformed community, beyond the narrow sectarian battles of conservative North American Christianity, understands this calling well. This is increasingly why I turn there to learn and observe the practice of "a humble Reformed faith.""

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Challenges of Ministry - Preparing for the Future

Ministry is a demanding vocation; it mixes our personal walk of faith with the occupation that has to provide a salary to sustain our life and that of our family. In ministry, we develop meaningful relationships with fellow Christians while always being aware of boundaries that are both personal and professional. Events in the lives of those we serve have ways of bonding us to those individuals. Ministers are asked to be present after the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at weddings, at the bedside of those who are ill, at baptisms and the life changing experience of a conversion. At times, our emotions are so entangled with our function that we are not sure whether we are the one performing the ministry or the one being ministered to. More and more I hear people say that their ministry is messy and the stress is such that they are not sure if they have the energy to go on.
Rev. Fred Harrell of City Church in San Francisco wrote some of the following regarding ministry: “… [there] are unique pressures in being a minister - the relentless nature of preachingeach week, along with the unexpected crises we deal with on a regular basis that torpedo an entire week, and thus our preparation… I spend time with ministers who work themselves to death and are on the verge of emotional exhaustion while trying to produce a life changing sermon each week and it is deadening their soul. I know the theology well of trusting a sovereign God, the power of the Scriptures clearly proclaimed, as do they, and yet, the pressure is still a reality for all of us.”
So how do we prepare future ministers to deal with the messiness and stress? Is warning an individual enough? Is it even possible to educate a person about such matters? It is my opinion that it is in supervised ministry and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) that we provide the best tools for dealing with the mess and stress of ministry. Dr. Archibald Hart offers the following advice to those encountering difficulties in dealing with the pressure of ministry:
Try to anticipate stressful events.
Resolve stressful situations quickly.
Build a strong personal support network.
Hart also suggests the following coping mechanisms:
Respond to stressors with direct action.
Learn a good relaxation exercise.
Set up internal boundaries for the work day.
Get enough sleep.
Enjoy the journey.
I have discovered personally, when the adrenaline starts to pump in my system due to emotional involvement or stressful circumstances I can feel it in my body and being. If I allow it to go on for an extended period of time without addressing it I will fall into a migraine cycle (cluster migraines). These migraines debilitate and increase the stress. This is different for each individual but I tend to think that everyone has some way in which stress negatively manifests itself. We all need to have means for dealing with the messiness in our lives. The points made by Archie Hart are practical and useful… I suggest them along with prayer and Sabbath observance as crucial survival mechanisms for those who find themselves in demanding and messy times.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Credo 2007 Class Cancelled

The class portion of the credo course, titled “Congregational Ministry in Theological Perspective,” scheduled for June 25 – 28 in Holland, Michigan, has been cancelled. This means the credo course is exclusively a distance (DL) offering during the 2006 – 2007 year. There will not be credit allotted for the course in this format. There are also plans to adjust the cost.

The course remains valuable in that it allows candidates in the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry process to complete the credo, receive feedback from the professor and peers, and meet the RCA requirement if a “B” or higher is earned. The students in the course are asked to write seven draft chapters – each chapter takes approximately two weeks. The chapter topics are: 1) Method (Introduction), 2) Doctrine of God, 3) Creation [including humanity], Fall and Sin, 4) Christology, 5) Soteriology, 6) Ecclesiology, 7) New Creation (Eschatology). With the input from the professor and other students, the participant collects the seven evaluated chapters and produces a full credo. The whole process takes approximately 18 weeks.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Listening, Learning and Leading

Leonard Sweet in his book Summoned to Lead writes “I am convinced we spend too much time making noise rather than listening to the vibrations of the very people we are called to lead.” (Pg. 61) This comment resonates within me as just this past week I found myself doing a mental check while I was visiting with a new candidate and saying to myself – “this meeting is not going well because I am talking too much and filling in the silence with unimportant chatter.” By intentionally staying quiet and truly listening to what the candidate was saying I soon discovered that our time together was going much better and I was able to get an accurate sense of what was on this candidate’s heart and mind.

Notice I did not say I liked what I heard the candidate saying. Many of the things I heard were contradictory to what was the norm for a first time meeting and I left our time together without presenting all the details of supervised ministry, RCA courses, Clinical Pastoral Education and the options for the credo. Nonetheless, I had a sense of what brought the individual to a point where ordination in the RCA was one of a number of options and there was the possibility that my listening could assist the individual in discerning whether or not a decision to move forward in the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry process was wise or not.

I have learned over time, especially as I work with new age groups and generations of leaders that the priorities, values and expectations of those called to ministry change. By listening carefully I have learned to tell myself not to present my way of doing things as the norm, but rather, I have learned it is important to allow each person their own method and style of doing ministry and that there are more areas of negotiation in how we do ministry than most of us are willing to recognize at face value. Yes, there are non-negotiables in our process, especially where it comes to faith and practice of the Christian life; but those are seldom the points where I hear people struggling. Most individuals bring a strong faith and commitment to the gospel to ministry. Many of them are already convinced about the value of the Reformed faith and its foundational merits. What often appears negotiable to them are practices and methods of communicating the gospel message.

The other day I decided to attend a new church start in. I knew the location where the church was gathering since I had lunch there a few days prior… it was a local restaurant. The church service was held before the restaurant opened on Sunday and the gathering place was the area of the restaurant that served as a bar during business hours (the only area that had moveable tables and chairs). The pastor was dressed in blue jeans, a golf shirt and sneakers. He always had his coffee cup close at hand as did most of those gathered. People who showed up late for the service found themselves sitting at the bar and the service ended with communion. The communion was not introduced by liturgy but only by an invitation to come up to the front because it was available. Everyone appeared to participate and my observation was that it was extremely meaningful to most.

The message for the morning was well preached in a casual manner. It was clear that the pastor had spent much time preparing the sermon and that he had gone out of his way to use the biblical text properly and make it relevant for those attending. Although my first reaction to communion being served without liturgical introduction was one of “this is wrong,” I quickly came to the realization that it was right for the situation and it would be wrong to confront the pastor and the leadership team on their approach to the sacrament. In other words, by listening and observing, one could very quickly conclude that it might be right to be different in this situation.

There are many things that I hear when I listen carefully, things that at first cause me to be defensive. And yet, by not reacting I often discover that there is room for negotiation and there are solutions that are acceptable to all parties. Many times I encounter individuals who see no purpose in becoming part of a denomination. Most of the candidates in our program were introduced to faith and their call through parachurch organizations and find that model of the Christian life suits them better than the “institutionalized” church model. More and more individuals are already in ministry and identify immediate needs for themselves and these needs do not always line up with how the MFCA programs are set up. Many have specialized interests such as new church development, church revitalization, youth ministry or chaplaincy and desire to prepare exclusively for such a role. Their initial posture is one that excludes all those other areas of study that are not specific to their particular area of ministry.

I have discovered that by listening to individuals it usually does not take long before flexible options are identified and there is room for adaptation and negotiation. I have also discovered that in a climate where gracious listening occurs, there are opportunities for growth and success. Therefore, if we are experiencing “noise” in our relationship together, please remind me that it is better to listen and be sensitive to the vibrations of the individual and the times we live in.