Ministry = Mess

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be called into a community of faith, called into Christian ministry in the context of suburban America. My conclusion– ministry is messy.  Working with people in the area of spirituality/faith and how that intersects with the way we live our lives is messy.  As much as I’d like to say that the choices are clear and the Bible gives us the answers we need when we wonder what choice to make or what path to take, I cannot.

I realize that I am a product of an exceedingly individualistic culture. Self is king in America. I live my life, I choose my friends, my career. I decide where and how to live (most of the time). I have my house and my car and my kids, my bank account and my plan. I decide how to read the Bible and which church to join. I decide when to leave that church and move on. I decide what to believe and when to change those beliefs. I decide with whom to spend my time and how to spend it.  And I believe that the individual exists and needs the freedom to think and act and dream and choose. When individual freedom is suppressed, violence and abuse find traction… and severe damage is done.  However, I also believe in the power of community and the great need for it.  Love, community, and submission are real and concrete commands of of Jesus.

In this context of “the sovereign self,” how do we shape a Christian community? How do we learn to submit to one another and lay down our rights?  Realistically, we see each other for two hours each week. Most of our lives are spent apart from one another, and yet we are supposed to hold one another accountable for the choices that we make… we’re supposed to confess to one another, counsel one another, speak the truth to one another and bear one another’s burdens.

If I make my own choices, if my bank account is confidential and no one really knows how I spend my nights and weekends… if I keep my internet browser history to myself and never talk to anyone about the fight that my husband and I had last week, or the harsh words I used with my daughter yesterday… if I don’t let my brothers and sisters into my life, messiness and all, how can they love me?

And yet, I’ve witnessed times when Christians have forced themselves into one another’s lives, and I have come to believe that this is a kind of rape. When someone who has not walked closely with me, who only says hello on Sunday morning, presumes to “hold me accountable” for some sin in my life… not having listened to me or taken the time to understand my situation, who preaches to me the “answer” when they didn’t even hear the question… this is a violation of my personhood. It is spiritual rape.

Yes, minsitry is messy. No one can be a disciple of Jesus alone. No one has all the answers. We need each other, and the need is desperate. Yet, how can we love each other and teach each other, bear with one another, submit to one another in our individualistic society without committing such rape?  I need to start letting people into my life, take some risks to trust people with the messy details of my life. And I need to start spending some serious time with people in the hopes that they will also trust me with their lives. Oh, God, help us to respect one another but also enter into the mess with extravagant love!

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Foretaste of Heaven

This past weekend, I attended a retreat with my seminary cohort.  Four cohorts were invited, so I would estimate that there about 60 people there. Our group was designated as the “hosts” for this retreat, so we were in charge of worship/communion and a few other details. When the administration first told me that our cohort would be coordinating worship, and that the “Urban Cohort” would be joining the other cohorts for this retreat, I wondered if there would be a way to allow our worship experiences to represent the cultural/ethnic diversity of all the participants.  I believe in the strength and beauty of diversity.  I believe it is a God-given gift and should be honored and celebrated.  I also believe that when it’s ignored, the Body suffers… we miss out on the beauty, we miss out on something that is of God… and we create damage when we don’t honor it.  It’s difficult to worship God TOGETHER when some members are not welcome to bring who they are into worship.

So I approached one of the African-American pastors in our cohort and we talked about how to plan worship that would honor diversity.  There were a few things I wasn’t prepared for in this experience.  First, honoring diveristy is hard work.  It takes a lot of energy, a lot of humility, and a lot of sacrifice. There were some parts of worship and some songs that I really wanted to do, and we didn’t do them.  I had to send out a lot of emails and commit to some practices that I would rather not have done. I had to work hard at listening, and I had to release control.

On the other hand, releasing control and learning to listen opened some doors that I never realized had been closed.  I experienced a new kind of church, as I tried to create worship with people who were so different from me.  We did some of the songs I have sung most of my life, but they had more depth and different harmony than I ever knew they could.  Some of them took on a new beat.  All of that extra work, while it consumed more time and energy than throwing together a few songs, created a common ground with my African-American brothers and sisters that was not there before. 

Our worship meant so much more, because it was a work of the PEOPLE, and not just a work of Kris Anne.  Would it have been easier to do it myself? Yes. Would it have been less stressful? Yes. But what I experienced this weekend was a foretaste of heaven. I would not trade it for anything… even for a less intensive week of preparation for the retreat.  Unity within the Body does not come easily. It does not come without putting in the effort and energy. But I was changed by it. God met me in it. I think he met all of us. That would not have happened in quite the same way if I would have taken the easier route and done it alone.  I would not have grown beyond myself or tasted heaven. And heaven sure tasted SWEET!!

On being president

This year, I am serving as cohort president. Biblical Seminary has designed the LEAD MDiv program to function in cohorts. When you begin the program, you are assigned to a chohort and spend the entire three-years with the same people (usually between 15 and 25 students). Every Tuesday night and one Saturday a month for three years, we go through every class together, pretty much year-round.  The point is, I think, to encourage the formation of relationships that go beyond the polite discussion of topics, beyond the surface.  The more time you spend with people, the more likely you will be to experience conflict with them, and healthy conflict leads to growth and learning– certainly in the area of theology and praxis, but also in the area of interpersonal skills.  I have certainly found this to be the case.  Rubbing shoulders with my brothers during the last year and a half has proven exciting, uncomfortable, challening, frustrating, and a true blessing in my personal and spiritual formation.

Part of my task as President this year is to help our cohort decide on a location for our final mission/learning trip overseas. We were given three options and asked to pick one… seems simple enough, eh? Well, it has been an interesting process.  I have decided that leading a group of leaders is a tricky balance between showing strength and basically keeping your hands off.  Leaders want a voice. They have an opinion and they need the space to share those opinions. Leaders also want to see your strength in order to respect you. They don’t respect wishy-washy leadership. They want to see action and they want to get things done. In short, they are a tough crowd to please.

I have been trying to walk this tight-rope. I have been trying to allow the space for people to share their opinions, and yet I’ve tried to lay out a clear process for us to follow in order to stay on track and actually get something decided.  To be honest, I have no idea how I’m doing. And there is another factor that plays into this role for me.  In a group of fourteen leaders, I am the only woman… and I am our president… and this is an evangelical seminary…

I wonder sometimes if I’m too opinionated for a woman, in their eyes. Or perhaps I am too soft and they wish I had some balls.  I wonder if I have earned their respect.  Leadership in any setting is a difficult balance, but leadership for a woman in an evangelical seminary among a bunch of male leaders… I feel like my feet are too big for the skinny balance beam.  What a clumsy president.