Archive for January, 2010

I often do my writing at the café in Barnes and Noble. “You wanna go where everybody knows your name,” as the song goes. Next to the café are the magazines. Once in a while I like to buy the magazine “Shambhala Sun.” The Buddhist idea of attachment is a great source of interest to me, and the magazine’s articles explain that idea in ways that, oftentimes, is helpful in my own Christian faith.

Last fall I picked up the September 2009 issue and leafed through it. I noticed the article by Shozan Jack Haubner, “The Shitty Monk.” I gotta read this, I thought.

Haubner reflects on the time he prepared for the role of jikijitsu, the teacher who supervises Rinzai Zen meditation. Thinking he’d prepared well for this authoritative role, his mentor told him, “You’re a train wreck of overzealousness… The primary ass you should be whipping in the zendo is …   [y]our own. Don’t bring your personal shit into it” (p. 64). As it happened, Haubner became sick with diarrhea and soiled himself immediately prior to performing his jikijitsu duties, prompting his amused self-examination.

He commented that, earlier in his Zen training, he resisted the authoritarian aspects of meditation. “What I failed to realize was that my resistance was in itself a pose, a stance–a result of my conditioning as a free-spirited, individualistic American prone to respecting all paths and choosing none. I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes–in my own bullshit–and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (p. 70).

This article prompted several ruminations on my part. To start with, I thought of the difficulties of the pastoral call in Christian ministry. We pastors do become “outfitted in attitudes” which can become a substitute for the “deepest self.” Egotism, overzealousness, inflexibility, a hypercritical spirit, the need to be loved, a hunger for success, a neglect of family, an inability to say “no”: all these can dressed in a “cleverly embroidered outfit” of corresponding scriptures and slogans. “God called me to preach,” we affirm with gratitude, but we too easily think, thereby, that God validates every aspect of our personalities, and so our admirable, ignoble, mature, immature and sinful qualities become all mixed up with our theological identity. We may not be “posers,” but we may very well be “posing” and thus stalled in our personal growth.

Pastors aren’t the only Christians who become trapped in “personal stuff,” of course. Laity also combine mature, immature, caring, hateful, and sinful qualities within ourselves, and become stalled in personal insight and growth. Unfortunately, in an analogous way as pastors, Christian faith and churchgoing can form a veneer of respectability that we place over our lives, rather than primarily a way by which we draw closer to God and open ourselves to God’s sometimes-painful work of sanctification. Pastors may experience considerable difficulty helping laity grow; although early Methodism had confrontive-but-supportive small groups where one could talk about one’s struggles and faults, we don’t have much like that today and, instead, are generally more individualistic in our approach to spiritual and emotional growth.

It’s important to remember that Christian sanctification, unlike zazen (meditation toward enlightenment), is not supposed to be primarily a matter of personal effort. Although activities like spiritual disciplines and Bible reading are very helpful, Paul understands the work of sanctification as that of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in us because we have accepted the saving work of Christ which is already accomplished on our behalf.

That being said, how do we deal with our “stuff”?


Let me quote Haubner again: “I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to ‘be true to.’ Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes–in my own bullshit–and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going” (Shambhala Sun, Sept. 2009, p. 70).

The image of the “cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes” made me think of this verse: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). What does it mean to be “clothed with Christ”?

Taking a cue from Genesis 3, you could say that “Christ clothing” covers the nakedness of sin. Just as God helped the fallen Adam and Eve make clothing for themselves, once they had sinned and experienced shame, so now God clothes us with the Christ who saves us from sin. Recall the Reformation doctrine of “imputed righteousness” where the righteousness of Christ becomes ours, since we’ve no righteousness or worthiness of our own. In other words, God gives something that we did not have before–righteousness, or the absence of guilt from sin–and now God perceives us favorably because God’s gift of righteousness “covers” our sin like clothing, and God forgets our sin.

Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” ends:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine !
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

That’s a precious gift! In fact, that gift pretty much affirms crucial things about your identity and destiny. We do not experience a “negation of self” but rather an amazing acceptance, sins and all, which in turn gives us mercy from and access to God, in this life and the next.

So the answer to the question, “How do we deal with our ‘stuff’?” is: God has already dealt with it decisively in the death and resurrection of Jesus!

But–to think again of Haubner’s dilemma–what about our false, immature, and sinful attitudes in which we get stuck because we do not perceive them clearly?

Ideally, the gift of a new identity in Christ leads to a process of honest self-assessment, like the people who were “cut to the heart” when they heard Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:37). But (as Hauber would put it), our inner BS runs very deep.

That’s where the Wesleyan doctrine of imparted righteousness comes in. The Holy Spirit begins working in our lives in order to deal with our falsehood, sin, improper attitudes, and other things (our “personal stuff,” to use the image from my previous reflections). Wesley considers the Spirit’s work in sermons like “Scriptural Christianity,” The Circumcision of the Heart,” “The Lord Our Righteousness,” “The New Birth,” and others. For Wesley, to be “clothed in Christ” is not simply to enjoy the beauty and blessing of the garment but also to become beautiful ourselves, through a process of growth.

The Spirit’s work can be difficult and painful, though. As a 50+ year old person I look back and see numerous times when, I believe, God was bringing clarity and assistance in my life, and God continues this process in all of us as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s power.

We should never imply that this process is quick and neat. I feel annoyed when I think how people (pastors and laity alike) expect a call to Christian service to suddenly cause a wondrous transformation in sanctity on the part of the called person, like Cinderella‘s rags changing into a beautiful gown in cloud of sparkles. Spiritual growth is potentially very slow and by no means linear. Sometimes, as with Haubner if not so graphically, we might have to smell pretty bad to ourselves and others as we proceed along the discipleship path. We can take comfort, though, that God’s own benevolent Spirit is doing the work, in us and for us.


I’ll finish these thoughts with one more connection from Haubner’s article. In Philippians, Paul recites his heritage: a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, a blameless observer of the Torah. But the gain that he had before, and indeed everything, is counted as loss

because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death ,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8-11).

The Greek word translated “rubbish” carries the connotation of “refuse“ or “excrement.” “Sh***y,” indeed!

To those of us who appreciate Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul’s image is very lamentable. In his historical context, Paul considers himself a Jew and upholds Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all God’s promises to the Jews. He is not “dissing” his Jewish heritage but conveying how wonderful is God’s continuation of that heritage in Christ. The broader meaning of Paul’s image is: whatever we hold most dear to us, nothing is valuable compared to having Christ and his power in our lives.

But what about Christ’s power makes it so valuable, that nothing else matters as much? Several things.

The powers of evil and death have no ultimate control of us (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
We receive mercy and grace from God (Rom. 6: 23, Heb. 4:16).
We’ve confidence in approaching God (Heb. 4:15-16).
God is gentle with us (Heb. 5:2)
We know that God will never forsake us (Rom. 8:31-39)
We’ve freedom from being “good enough to please God” (Rom. 3:21-26).
We need not erect barriers between us and other people, because God has already removed them
(Eph. 2:11-22)
God does not expect us to grow on our own, by our own effects, but gives us plenty of help (Gal. 5:22-23)
… and the Gospel has other aspects, too.

What will we have to abandon in order to gain these things? This is a difficult subject, and different for each Christian. Repentance is an important part of spiritual beginnings and journeys. We may have to abandon cherished attitudes, ideals, and ways of perceiving the world.

We may have to abandon or modify certain religious ideas! As I understand Buddhism, doctrines and dogmas may be a source of unhealthy attachment in so far as we try to possess them in order to find security and validate ourselves. I can certainly see how this would happen. Circumstances can test your religious assumptions:

You try to forgive someone and reconcile with them (Matt. 5:23-24), and the person treats you worse than before.
You believe that God cares for you, but then something terrible happens to you that makes you question God.
You look up to a certain Christian, and then he or she does something bad or hurtful, and consequently your faith in God is shattered.
You turn your troubles over to God, and sometimes God provides, but other times nothing happens, so you’re not sure how to proceed. You feel frustrated with God.
You turn to a congregation for help, and you feel like all they really want is your money and your volunteer time.
You’re a pastor who has served faithfully, but a congregation does not respond to your leadership, or the denominational system rewards someone else instead of you.
You’ve affirmed God’s power to change lives, and have done so all your life, and now after years of witnessing to God’s power, you’ve “stumbled” in your life in a manner which surprises even you.

Although one hates to think of religious faith as “personal s**t” (that is, inner struggles, personality traits, and falseness), we do carry attitudes and expectations that are mixed with and connected to our religious beliefs. The process of personal growth and sanctification may entail disappointments and betrayals that will prompt a reassessment of beliefs (and hopefully not a discouraged faith or a discouraged agnosticism).

You sometimes hear the saying, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” That’s a little simplistic but still true: Christianity contains plenty of things to do, doctrines in which to believe, and rules to follow, but it is not primarily a set of rules. (Many people go around, perhaps for years, thinking that being a Christian is a matter of being a respectable, Ten-Commandments-following person.) Christianity points us to the accomplished work of Christ for our salvation, the power that he gives us for living, and a guaranteed companionship with Christ, the living person.

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I’m an eccentric listener to music. I get into the mood of listening to genres (this week feels like 20th century English music, especially Finzi and Holst), which is normal enough, but I also like to explore big areas of a composer’s output. I enjoyed Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Sometimes I listen to them straight through over a period of weeks. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works.  So did the symphonies of the Danish composer Niels Gade.  I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them!  This habit is the reason why I still haven’t dug into Mahler’s symphonies: that‘s a bigger “landscape” into which I‘ve yet wanted to journey.

I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. I had a fantasy of owning an impressive LP library, but alas, the dream faded because my life became too peripatetic: LPs take up a lot of room and are heavy to manage when you’re moving every few years. My first opera purchase was Karl Böhm’s recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with Sherrill Milnes in the title role (and, on the LP’s cover, holding his sword in a phallic way). I recall buying the set at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was “Le Nozze di Figaro,” also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. I ordered that one from a mall store near Carbondale, Illinois, while I served my first parish job.  Eventually I acquired nearly all the Decca sets of Britten’s operas, and I had at least one set of Wagner’s operas, including the entire “Ring” and the early “Rienzi.”

I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s “Falstaff” and “Aida,” “Otello” with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also “Rigoletto” (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 “Don Carlos” (the five act version but in Italian), and the “Messa da Requiem.” I purchased “La traviata,“ donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I still had it. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned a used set of “Macbeth” at some point but don’t remember what happened to it.

I couldn’t quite appreciate Verdi. His operas lacked the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. It also (of course) lacked the English pastoral quality and folk-inspired modes of Vaughan Williams, of whose music I couldn’t get enough. Benjamin Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.” [1] I’m not an arrogant listener but–especially since I know almost no musicology–I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical taste. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.[2]

Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however. I’d been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi’s music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.

What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the “Aida” grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like “I masnadieri.” Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment of personal appreciation while listening to the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.

Famously, Verdi returned after “Otello” with one more, remarkable opera, “Falstaff,” only his second comic opera among nearly thirty. Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.

“Falstaff” ends:

Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L’uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L’un l’altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.

As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”

I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We’re silly to think we can escape life’s unfairness. Verdi suffered a terrible loss early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody (although, as Osborne writes, the subject of King Lear was apparently too painful for Verdi to tackle, in spite of his long-time plans). Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.

This week I’m listening to “Simon Boccanegra,” which my wife and I saw at Santa Fe a few years ago. Here’s one more quote from Clemons, which is a good summary for this essay. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).

1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.

2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.

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Please forgive the Napoleon Dynamite reference there. Hopefully, unlike Napoleon’s sorrowful appraisal of his desirability to girls, churches don’t want pastors with nunchuck skills and computer hacking skills.

Several years ago I was grateful and privileged to receive a Religious Leaders grant from the Louisville Seminary; I wanted to address several questions about good approaches to parish work, and especially to disseminate my discoveries in a way that could help laity and pastors. [1]

The other day, I watched a show in the series “Classic Albums” on VH1. This episode concerned Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Early in their career, the band had attempted to compose music for the movie “Zabriskie Point,” but the director was never satisfied with any of their efforts. Band members thought the director couldn’t make up his mind because he wanted to be in control. As it turns out, Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for the movie became, four years later, the moving song “Us and Them” for the “Dark Side” album.

This show made me think about issues of control, empowerment, and leadership. A book that I love is Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). They tell this story on page 189:

“We are at the time of this writing consulting in a congregation of 900 members, with five pastors. The communication between the pastors and the board could hardly be worse. Yet one pastor told us that during his seven years there as a pastor he has been invited to meet with the board only three times. The board complains that this pastor isn’t doing a good job. But how would they know? They have never observed his work firsthand, they have never talked with him about his work, they have never provided him any training in the areas of his suspected weaknesses. So if this pastor is doing a poor job, who is to blame? First, the senior pastor, who doesn’t want any other pastors to attend the board sessions, and who has provided his staff no training. Second, the governing board, who has allowed this foolish waste of human ability to go on year after year without calling the senior pastor to accountability.”

Many organizations in addition to churches have unhelpful structures of power: certain people in authority retain power while expecting others to exercise leadership, in effect setting them up for disapproval and/or failure. It’s a foolish waste of effort and ability, as Shawchuck and Heuser write, but very common. (A biblical example would be Saul and Samuel: Saul was king, but Samuel never trusted and empowered him.) Any leader does well to identify and address these kinds of dynamics—and address them before too much time passes.

Another kind of story from another book that I love, What Ministers Can’t Learn in Seminary: A Survival Manual for the Parish Ministry by R. Robert Cueni (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). Cueni writes about a married couple, Darryl and Marie, both clergy who came to the same church. They discussed their approach of a “team ministry” with the board, which approved them. “Eight months after their arrival, Darryl and Marie resigned. The congregation was told of a ‘clergy team,’ but many did not understand the significance of the term. Some said they always thought of the minister’s wife as part of the ‘team,’ but they did not understand why she should preach on Sunday morning or conduct funerals.” The congregation had no women in positions of leadership, but the couple mistook this fact as a lack of empowerment, and so Marie preached a sermon on the femininity of God. But the congregation’s women enforced the leadership roles in the congregation, not the men. Marie’s well-intentioned and caring efforts were off-putting. The couple misunderstood the power dynamics in the congregation and, unfortunately, had a painfully short pastorate.

Again: the congregation had structures of power, but the couple did not recognize how power was distributed in the congregation. Congregation members exercised power by withholding permission for Marie to lead. Ironically, the couple had sought to empower and give permission to the laity to serve—exactly the goal that church-growth pundits like William Easum espouse (for instance, in his books about permission-giving churches, Dancing with Dinosaurs and Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers). Simply to give people permission to do ministry–to “get out of their [the laity’s] way,” as one pastor I met put the matter–is not nearly enough, though.

Still another book that I love: R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Sysems Approach to Congregational Leadership (The Alban Institute, 1993). As Stevens and Collins put it, leadership is “L=(L, F, S),” or “leadership equals the function of the leader, the followers, and the situation” (p. 9). Although the pastor exhibits the kind of spiritual authority that gains people’s confidence, the pastor really derives his or her leadership from the congregation.

Not just a pastor but any leader needs to know the organization very well in order to understand where power structures lie. Organizations are complex collections of power issues, old loyalties, people with control needs, traditions, community values, and others. I just read a summary of some ideas from a new book by Marc Brown, Kathy Ashby Merry, and John Briggs, Does Your Church Have a Prayer? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2009). The authors describe different, unhelpful “tribes” that describe congregations: the Tribes of the “Good Old Days” (people are stuck in the past), “Forgetting the Past” (people neglect the church’s history), “Control” (people want to “run” the church), “Spiritual Elitism” (people judge others by their own faith-values), “Business Values” (the church’s health is judged solely or predominantly by economic/business values), and “Apathy” (people are detached and unconcerned). The authors call people to be “remembering encouragers.” Resources like this one can help leaders identify types of organizational behaviors and determine goals towards which to lead the people.

Unfortunately, even very good leaders might struggle in an organizational environment because he or she (either through naivety, inexperience, misinterpreted cues, or a lack of psychic ability) did not grasp the complexity of motivations, traditions, emotions, and values at work in that organization. That is one reason why, I’m sure, even very good leaders shine in some circumstances and not in others. There are famous examples: Winston Churchill comes to mind as one, also President and later Chief Justice William H. Taft.

On one hand, church leadership is a human effort in which skill, experience, resourcefulness, persuasion, and an avoidance of major missteps are crucial. A pastor can be an excellent preacher, leader, care-giver, and pray-er, but if s/he steps on the wrong toes, or makes an unintentional leadership mistake, s/he may have some big problems to address.

And yet… none of us would want to be Pelagian and place human efforts on at a strong level along with God’s grace; God’s grace is the most important thing of all, that which makes our service possible! As the joke goes, the Apostle Paul’s resume would be declined by most search committees: Paul wasn’t an impressive speaker, he had a repellant illness, he could alienate people, and he had done time! Many churches would not tolerate such serious liabilities in their pastors, but obviously Paul’s limitations didn’t matter because God used him mightily. Upholding God’s providence and grace for the pastoral role while acknowledging the importance of human skills and efforts can be a tricky balance.

One potential solution is the insight that pastoral leadership is based on one’s theology. I was pleased when I discovered, for instance, Kennon Callahan’s distinguishing of models of pastoral leadership: the top-down-thinking boss, the manager, the (passive) enabler, and the apocalyptic inspirer. Many of us have known (or been) pastors who are one of these types. But actually, says Callahan, these types are all based on a weak theology! You could be, or seem to be, a strong leader if you fit some of these types. But in the long run, pastor leadership which is “tough,” “demanding,” and “hierarchical” is actually ineffective! Instead, a sound theology of ministry is inclusive, dynamic, and missional, and good leadership results from this theologically-strong basis. [2]

Pastors lead best when they can help people (whether staff or laity) grow to their potential. For a time in the 1990s, the “equipper” style of pastoral leadership was popular in some of the professional leadership. Perhaps it still is. The problem with this style is that it may be mistaken for weak leadership. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Stevens and Collins, and Shawchuck and Heuser, describe a “systems approach” wherein the pastor shifts attention from specific program tasks to the strengths, peculiarities, traditions, power structures, and potentials of the congregation.

“Change agency” is also a major theme in the professional literature. Shawchuck and Heuser write that “The only congregations that will thrive in the coming decades will be those whose leaders have learned to respond to change, not resist or ignore it” (p. 167, authors’ emphasis).

But there are pitfalls to change. Those authors note that change cannot happen without a satisfactory leadership team in the pastoral staff, governing board, or groups of lay leaders, and the pastor has a responsibility to work with staff and boards to create reciprocal accountability and excellent communication. Once I chatted with a pastor (someone I knew casually) who was frustrated that he had no associate pastor at the moment. “I’m a control freak, Paul,” he said cheerfully, “I like to know what’s going on.” I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s why you don’t have an associate pastor!” The earlier quotation from Shawchuck and Heuser implied, pastors don’t always take the time to develop an excellent staff, and instead rely upon them in a very top-down, self-centered way. But change happens best when the overall leadership functions well as a group.

More broadly: change agency is difficult! I could imagine a pastor, faithful in her or his desire to serve a congregation, who treads into parish “landmines” just because—well, landmines aren’t visible till it’s too late. James O’Toole offers no fewer than 33 hypotheses to account for resistance to change. Many of them can be summed up by the group’s collective assumptions and their ability to suppress or deny information that leads to change. [3] An older leadership model, Total Quality Management, is one which is helpful for dealing with resistance to change. [4]

I become discouraged when pastors overuse a scolding style in their preaching and communication. I’ve experienced this style over the years. There is definitely a large place in parish life for challenging people; a sizable portion of Paul’s letters, after all, are gentle or forceful reminders to live the Gospel. But to me, if a pastor overuses confrontation, he or she falls into the trap of trying to force change through criticism of people’s failings–whatever those failings may be, such as not contributing sufficiently or not volunteering.

I like O’Toole’s description of the “feminine” style of leadership which “is more effective in modern organizations in which everyone’s best efforts are needed–that is, in any organization that requires employee initiative, self-motivation, innovation, and willingness to take the extra step to serve customers or to meet competitive changes” Importantly, ‘feminine’ leadership does not mean weak leadership–nor does it mean that only women can and do practice it (p. 139). As examples, he cites leadership authorities like W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters, James MacGregor Burns, as well as leaders such as Dr. King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as examples.

If a pastor too frequently challenges or scolds people, s/he risks ignoring people’s faith stories. But people’s stories are significant for both personal and congregational identity. Howard Gardner writes that “Leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories they relate,” that is, people’s perspectives and visions related to one’s identity. Stories are important because “those leaders who presume to bring about major alterations across a significant population must in some way help their audience members think through who they are” (p. 62) [5].

Thus–to pick up on my earlier points–the leadership skill of the pastor is more than just issues of power, group dynamics, and charisma but also has to do with their interactions with others and their abilities to communicate her own story in a compelling way to shape the stories and identity of the congregation.

One of the enormous problems I see in effective pastoral leadership today is the need for congregations to be in good financial shape. A recent article, “Religious Life Won’t Be the Same After Downturn” by Rachel Zoll of AP, discusses the major financial needs facing churches and denominations today. [6] Unfortunately, congregational change takes time and patience, with no guarantee of success, and the pace of change that a particular congregation requires may be slower than the congregation’s revenue needs.

All the more reason to affirm that any congregational leader, clergy or lay, must finally depend not upon skills but upon God’s grace and help!

At the moment, I’m updating some of my older research concerning parish leadership after I’ve focused on other topics for the past few years. Is the systems approach still as apropos and potential-filled as it has seemed to me? How are contemporary pastors finding the dilemmas of parish leadership now that, for instance, churches and denominations are still struggling, perhaps even more than the 1990s, with dwindling numbers and revenue? Among the books I’m currently reading is an excellent study by Dan R. Dick, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2007).

Even if pastoral efforts falter at one congregation…. Well, the late Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for “Zabriskie Point” failed to please in one context but transformed into something even greater, later on. Leadership can be like that, too! Not only that, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit that God brings us to circumstances where the leader and the people truly “sync” and amazing things start to happen.


[1] Some of this material is based on my review essay, “Leadership, Change, and the Parish,” in the now-defunct Quarterly Review, Summer 1996, pp. 203-219, which contains a long set of endnotes citing numerous books on this subject. I also wrote on parish leadership issues in chapter 5, “Church Places” in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006). These writings were based on my Louisville Institute grant work.

[2] Kennon L. Callahan, Effective Church Leadership: Building on the Twelve Keys. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

[3] James O’Toole, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom. San Francisco: Josses-Bass, Inc., 1995.

[4] Although the idea of “quality” wasn’t really new by the time of Ezra Earl Jones’ Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1993), Jones expands its implications to show how the goal of quality can bring about positive change in churches.

[5] Howard Gardner, with the collaboration of Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

[6] http://www.nj.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/business-40/1254167074113520.xml&storylist=business

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A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLin issue, “Saving Main Street” (June 11, 2000).

The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That’s not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.

A haunting building that I once encountered was an old church. The words M. E. CHURCH were set into the concrete steps in front. The paint had worn away so that the building was mostly bare wood; it leaned slightly, the glass of the windows was long gone, and an auger was backed up to one of the sanctuary windows. Not far away was a brick building that, I was told, had been a bank that closed during the Depression. It was vine-covered but structurally solid. The small village was a few miles off “the hard road” but, nevertheless, had been an economically busy community at one time. At least the church was in use, although as a storage place for corn.

The other day I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs documented disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas.

Now, if you’re like me …. you want to look through these books again and even to go exploring deteriorating landscapes yourself! What is the appeal of such places?

Familiarity is part of it. In his classic book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “Familiarity breeds attachment when it does not breed contempt. We are well aware of how a person can become deeply attached to old slippers that look rather mouldy [sic] to an outsider” (p. 99). If you’re from a particular kind of location, your emotional response to a landscape may be very positive even though the landscape may not be attractive at all. Tuan quotes another author to describe a nearly mystical response to unappealing environments: “I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road and observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy and astonishment. Even the movement of traffic had something universal and sublime about it” (p. 99).

Tuan also writes, “Intense awareness of environmental beauty … is least affected by received opinions and it also seems to be largely independent of the character of the environment. Homely and even drab scenes can reveal aspects of themselves that went unnoticed before, and this new insight into the real is sometimes experienced as beauty” (p. 95). I experienced those feelings as I leafed through Eastman’s and Brouws’ books; these aren’t attractive scenes, necessarily, but there is a lonely appeal to them, a poignancy of human habitation that has changed because, after all, economy changes and our human needs change.

I enjoy a book called Small Town America by the photographer David Plowden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) in which he chronicles locations and business districts with a melancholy appreciation for the way modern America has bypassed smaller communities. His earlier, angrier book, The Hand of Man on America (Riverside: The Chatham Press, 1971) also decried the loss of distinctive environments, but I found myself disagreeing with him on which of his pictures depicted ugliness and which depicted unexpected beauty in the homely and drab. He loved a soon-to-be-razed railroad depot that I thought dark and hideous, while he criticized a tourist landscape that I found attractive both in its ugliness and its glum evocation of its original 1950s era.

What I struggle with, and haven’t resolved, is the contradiction between the strange attractiveness that abandoned and disused landscapes can have, and the real and painful economic failures, the economic expansions, the waste, and the failures of stewardship that lead to discarded places. David B. Jenkins explores this paradox in his book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996), in which he loves the old, faded barns but sadly realizes that their quaintness and deterioration indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.

And now… let me change gears and recall an old commercial landscape not far from where I live. My daughter and I drove to the dentist office the other day. We happened to follow car that had a pink pig antenna topper.

That made me think of the few years that my folks put a bright orange Styrofoam ball on our antenna because we had such trouble finding our car at a favorite shopping place. The place was the Sav-Mart on old U.S. 40 (i.e., Collinsville Road, a bit west of its intersection with Illinois 157, which in turn had been U.S. 66).  It was your basic “big store” in the early 1970s days before K-Marts and Wal-Marts become more common. Sav-Mart’s parking lot was packed with cars on Saturday afternoons!

I think of this place with fondness because it was my primary source for LPs. Records listed for $5.98 back then but Sav-Mart’s price was $4.53. (Why do I remember this?) While Mom and Dad shopped elsewhere in the store, teenaged me checked out the selection: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cat Stevens, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull. The store had an excellent selection of records. I always hoped that hyper-thrifty Dad wouldn’t become involved in my shopping, because he’d see bargain-bin records for $2 and sternly wonder why I didn’t buy those.  “They’re just as good!” he’d say.  After we’d shopped, the three of us went outside and tried to spot the tiny orange ball on the low horizon which would identify our car in the many rows of other cars.

During that time, Sav-Mart was the grand finale of our Saturday shopping trips. We’d go to downtown St. Louis’ Stix, Baer and Fuller and Famous Barr stores to shop in the morning and early afternoon. Then, as we headed east on I-70 toward our hometown, we’d get off at Exit 6 (Illinois 111), turn east on Collinsville Road. That was the former alignment of U.S. 40. Along that road, we’d shop the Grandpa’s discount store and the Sav-Mart store, and sometimes even the Venture store. Grandpa’s was a good store, too. I remember inspecting Ray Manzarek’s 1973 LP “The Golden Scarab” and debating whether to purchase it.

One of my last memories of these shopping trips is sitting in our car at the fast food place across from Sav-Mart. (I can’t remember if it was Burger King or Burger Chef, the forerunner of Hardee’s). As I ate my cheeseburger, I looked at the Mahavishnu Orchestra LP that I’d just purchased, and wondered if it would be good. I wasn’t very experimental with my LP acquisitions (I didn‘t buy Manzarek‘s excellent album, for instance, during that earlier trip), but in this case I’d read an article about John McLaughlin’s amazing guitar playing.

At about that same time, 1974 or so, an enclosed shopping mall, St. Clair Square, opened a few miles south on IL 159, and our shopping trips shifted there. I’ve love to know how long Sav-Mart lasted, although I vaguely remember that I passed by, years later, and it had become a liquor outlet.   You might trace and reflect upon the history of commercial and economic trends, as I have here, but who’d bother recording the history of a particular box store?  (I’ve fond memories of another discount place, no longer operating, in another direction from my hometown: the Dobb’s store on U.S. 51 in Central City, Illinois, where I purchased my first Moody Blues LPs.)

Sometimes I get off at Exit 6–or, if going the other direction, at Exit 11–and drive along the Collinsville Road. The Cahokia Mounds site is also along this route. Venture, Grandpa’s, and Sav-Mart are no longer open, though the buildings are still there and used for other purposes. It occurs to me that at least two economic processes were at work in my experiences: the business districts of small towns like mine (and downtown departments stores in large cities) could not compete over the long haul with discount stores, and eventually those stores could not compete with large enclosed malls. A third process would be the “flight” of the white and black middle-classes from communities such as those near the Sav-Mart.

A lot of everyday, 1970s memories from a pig antenna topper! Actually I thought of some of these memories a few weeks ago as I sorted my old LPs in order to donate several to an area book fair. Since I don’t play them anymore, I selected a few for their special memory value and relinquished the rest. (I’ve been through this process two or three times already during the past few years in the ongoing effort of managing our belongings.) I definitely saved a few that I remember, with reasonable certainty, that I purchased on one of these grand Stroble family shopping trips of yesteryear.

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Lincoln and Vandalia

When the Association of Lincoln Presenters had their annual meeting in my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, in April 2004, I gave the following short talk about Lincoln’s time in the former capital. This speech was subsequently published as a 200th birthday commemoration in Springhouse.
Abraham Lincoln first arrived in Vandalia on November 29, 1834, after a thirty-hour stage trip from Springfield. He was a newly elected representative from Sangamon County, ready to serve in the Ninth Illinois General Assembly. The statehouse at that time was Vandalia’s second capitol building that stood along Fourth Street near Gallatin, now marked with a plaque.
I grew up in Vandalia and knew, very early in my life, of his associations with the town when it was state capital (1819-39). Around the time I entered college, I began researching early Vandalia and enjoyed discovering information about Lincoln’s time there. He served in four terms in the state legislature. During Lincoln’s first session (1834-36), the House of Representatives met in the large downstairs room of the statehouse. Colleague Jesse K. Dubois recalled, “Lincoln didn’t take much prominence in the first session of the legislature in 1834. [John T.] Stuart at that time quite overshadowed him…. But the next session Lincoln was very prominent. He had by that time become the acknowledged leader of the Whigs in the House. Stuart had gone out and left him a clear field.” Thus Lincoln took his place as a leader in the Tenth General Assembly, in the newly constructed third Vandalia statehouse during the winter of 1836-37 and also the following summer. Lincoln served two more legislative terms, the Eleventh General Assembly (1838-40), which met first at Vandalia and then in Springfield, and finally the Twelfth General Assembly in Springfield (1840-41).
Paul Simon called Vandalia “a fascinating new world” for Lincoln and noted that the state government provided for Lincoln an eye-opening cross section of humanity. John Stuart helped him learn political procedure, which Lincoln used with his well-known sense of honesty and integrity. This crucial experience for Lincoln is still overlooked. I show my students excerpts from a wonderful 4-hour PBS program on Lincoln from 2000. As the voice-over tells of Lincoln’s election to the state legislature in 1834, the photos go from a scene of New Salem to the old capitol in Springfield, bypassing the Vandalia Statehouse altogether. The narration mentions Vandalia only in connection to Lincoln’s work in moving the capital to Springfield; the town becomes the foil for the great man’s early political experience. Later, the program gives a quick, unidentified picture of early Vandalia’s Charter’s Hotel at Fourth and Gallatin, but that is all.  (Most documentaries that I’ve seen on Lincoln also bypass Vandalia and the statehouse.)
Lincoln roomed in Vandalia for a period of about 10 months altogether. Oral traditions indicate that he lodged at a small cottage on Johnson Street near Sixth, and at the Globe Hotel on Gallatin Street near the statehouse. Vandalia historian Mary Burtschi records two oral traditions about Lincoln’s local experiences. In one story, Lincoln felt cold in the newly constructed statehouse, and a friend teased him about his big feet, “It’s no wonder that you are so cold, there is so much of you on the ground.” She also relates the story that Lincoln danced with a young local woman, Matilda Flack, at the Vandalia Hotel. Unfortunately he tore her dress when he stepped on it. We know more about Lincoln’s experiences in the legislature, well treated by Senator Simon in his 1965 book: Lincoln’s growth in leadership, his handing of issues important both to the state and his home county, his confrontations with Vandalian William L. D. Ewing concerning the seat of government, his protest against slavery, and others.
Lincoln did not describe his experiences at Vandalia. In a Dec. 1836 letter to Mary S. Owen he said “I really can not endure the thought of staying [at Vandalia] ten weeks,” but he also said his spirits were low for several reasons. He was also depressed when he lived in Springfield! Later in life he also noted that he met Stephen A. Douglas at Vandalia in 1834. But Lincoln’s friend John T. Stuart did have these words:
The whole country was entirely new and there were but few accommodations to be had. I remember that one of the objections that were urged against keeping the seat of government at Vandalia was that they did not feed us on anything but prairie chickens and venison. A piece of fat pork was a luxury in those days—we had such a longing for something civilized. 
Mary Burtschi was the first Vandalia historian to challenge the notion that Vandalia was a primitive place of log cabins, and she was correct. The New Gazetteer by Bishop Davenport noted that Vandalia had “many handsome brick buildings” about 80 to 100 houses. Another book of the time, Illinois in 1837 reported that Vandalia had Methodist and Presbyterian churches, a school, two printers, four taverns, eight stores, two groceries, a clothing store, two schools, four lawyers, four doctors, two mills, and about 850 citizens. The two printers were William Walters, who published the democratic newspaper Illinois State Register, and William Hodge (buried the old state cemetery) who published the Whig Free Press. Vandalia also had a bookshop and a barbershop on Gallatin, a jewelry store and a tailor in stores across from the public square, and other interesting places. The bookstore carried stationary, sealing wax, flutes, thermometers, and money belts. Moses Phillips, the grandfather of local historian Robert W. Ross, had a furniture store. As a side note, people sometimes wonder whether Vandalia’s Main Street was not at one time the primary thoroughfare. Gallatin Street evolved into the “main” street very early in the town’s history, as early as 1821 or 1822. One notable exception, however, was Capps’ Store at Fourth and Main, renowned for its wide variety of goods. This Main Street store was frequented both by local citizens and legislators. In 1839 Capps advertised medicines that cured “dyspepsia, cholics, lowness of spirits, palpitation of the heart, and diseases resulting from a disordered condition of the stomach and liver.” There are stories of legislatures running up very high bills for liquor and party items from Capps’ store.
Vandalia did lack for certain things. People complained it was isolated. In the preface of his collection of Illinois Supreme Court cases, jurist Sidney Breese complained that the capital had no regular law library. More pressingly, although Vandalia had at least thirteen hotels and boarding houses in the mid 1830s, if we take the recollections of people like John T. Stuart seriously, Vandalia accommodations were insufficient for everyone attending the legislative sessions: not only state officials but also observers and others, a few hundred visitors piling into a town of only 850. By the mid 1830s Vandalia was no longer posed for local prosperity in the same way as communities like Springfield and others in the growing central and northern portions of Illinois. People who complained of Vandalia’s isolation and accommodations assumed the town could never offer anything better.
And yet, contemporary observers unanimously fail to mention a crucial fact about Vandalia: it was only by the initiative of Vandalians that the state of Illinois had a state capitol building! Of the three statehouses in Vandalia, only the first, which burned in 1823, was constructed by direct state authorization. Although the second capitol was hastily completed upon low ground and ultimately unsound, Vandalians stepped forward to construct the building when the first burned, and Vandalians also stepped forward to construct the third capitol, our Old State House, in 1836. (One of my ancestors participated in that 1836 building effort.) Since Vandalia was designated capital for only twenty years, the state legislature was never inclined to appropriate money for the town, even for suitable government buildings, although one should add that the government did later reimburse townspeople for materials and labor for both the second and third statehouses.
His legislative terms were not the end of Lincoln’s Vandalia associations. According to documents in the collected works of Lincoln, he stayed at Vandalia four days in July 1844 for a Whig convention, a very festive occasion with an estimated crowd of 5000 men and 1000 women on hand for a Friday barbecue “at the west end of town.” He also visited Vandalia on two occasions for political meetings during the 1856 campaign. One wonders what Lincoln remembered of the town. Perhaps he recalled how his horizons were broadened and his political skills honed as a young state representative in a town where citizens truly outdid themselves.
Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson. Knopf, 1998.

Lincoln. Produced and Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt. Warner Home Video, 2000.

Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, by Paul Simon. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, by Usher F. Linder. Chicago Legal News Co., 1879.

Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land, by Mary Burtschi. Little Brick House, 1963.

High on the Okaw’s Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839 by Paul E. Stroble. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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