Friday, July 29, 2011

Sun Tzu should be required reading for Conservatives.

Warning: This is mildly political.  If you get angry about anything of that sort - and angry enough to sling words at me about it, you should probably skip this post.  I'm not going to fight with you, not over the Internet, so if you're spoiling for someone to engage in fisticuffs with, I'm just going to disappoint.

Just listening to what's buzzing around politically lately makes my head spin.  It's no secret, I am conservative, federalist, and generally follow a political trajectory that thinks less government is a good thing and that individual responsibility is not only a moral necessity for a healthy society, but a functional requirement for a healthy civilization.  In our current situation, math demands change.  The sheer force of reality requires a dramatic shift from the business-as-usual accumulation of tremendous amounts of debt.  Those principles, generally speaking, put me in general agreement with the "Tea Party."  Not on everything, to be sure, but a lot.  But then we see an all-too-familiar character enter the scene: Human nature and shortsightedness.

So along comes the 2010 elections and the House is swept away. Fair enough.  It could very likely be positive for us long-term.  But maybe we should have issued Sun Tzu's Art of War along with that required recitation of the US Constitution.

Why?  Because it seems in the elation of one victory a good amount of strategy and perspective have been lost.  To Wit:

  • Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
  • If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.
  • Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.
  • He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.
  • In battle use a direct attack to engage and an indirect attack to win.
  • The expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men.
  • A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates.
  • Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
Just a few, but one could go on and on.  My dear fellow conservatives, as well intentioned as you may be, you could do with a little perspective.  Threatening and vilifying those on your side of the issue because they don't agree with your timetable is self defeating and, frankly, stupid.  Charging your men into a gun line on principle with no design on how you actually secure a victory long term is short-sighted and naive.  Refusing an opportunity because it is not ideal is the surest way to deny yourself further opportunities for progress. 

Having sound principle does not excuse you from being intelligent and finding a way to progress.  But an odd assumption if often revealed in the mind of the average conservative: that principle is mutually exclusive from progress.  The same model of "progress" that has brought Western Civilization to its present state can be employed in effort to secure principles that are not only sound, but necessary for our survival as a civilization in a recognizable form.  You don't have to impale yourself on the spear of conviction in the vain hope that all will be won with that single act.  You can, movement by movement, secure victory.  It takes vigilance.  It takes patience. It takes being able to win "moral influence" with people (Sun Tzu, again). It also happens to be the only way, minus revolution, to effect long-term change. 

Pointing out your opponents' lack of that "moral influence" does not mean that you have it, either.  It does not give you leave to charge blindly into ready bayonets.  In your elation over one victory, remember yourself and the position you sit in.  You occupy one-half of one-branch of government.  You possess neither the power nor the numbers to win it all in one advance.  You will kill yourself (and take a good many of your allies with you) if you try.  If you are so obliged as to win one bright battle at the cost of losing the war, Sun Tzu would say you were never fit to rule.

Now, there might be some of you who are rather negatively predisposed to anything conservative leaning.  The mention of "tea party" in any context conjures in your mind a faceless mass of malcontents who are stupid, angry, and have a serving of blood with their people flakes for breakfast because they hate people.  Addressing you isn't my ultimate goal here, but perhaps you're reading this and you're feeling pretty special about yourself right now...  I'm sorry to disappoint you, but you have issues that far, far, exceed lack of strategic thinking in the flurry to secure principle. 

There I go, offending both sides.  If you're angry at me, I do apologize for having negatively influenced your day. It wasn't my purpose.  See my (not so) introductory post.

I'm just sayin'.

Monday, July 25, 2011

What's the point here?

Well this isn't the first post on this new blog of mine, that much is obvious.  The motion of present circumstance has seen fit to rob me of the usual blogging conventions - like a well-and-proper introductory post.

Not to be totally undone, I think I will take a few minutes today and share with you readers (real or theoretical as you may be) what the point is with this blog, what I hope to talk about, and what I hope to accomplish.

What's in a Name?
Everything, at least in my opinion.  I called this little space "I'm just saying that."  Ok, it's a little awkward.  I'm reasonably sure "I'm just sayin'" was taken, but the general idea is for this to be a space for thoughts of all colors on many areas of my life, and in particular, this season of my life.  I used to blog a few years ago, but found that the format I had created was too limited in its subject, to narrow in focus, and all that I might have thought about saying was being covered by people with more money, more time, and more readers than I could ever hope (or would attempt) to have.

Let me tell you a secret about me, and if you know me perhaps it will explain a lot of my reactions to things along with setting the stage for this blog.  Cloaked beneath the smoky veil of shifting cynicism and speculation is the bright, beating heart of an idealist.  Even in the most negative comment I can make - and trust me, I am capable of making them - lies some kind of unshakable hope. 

This everlasting tension often puts me between two worlds of opinion, and between two kinds of people.  On one hand, I am bothersome to the unbridled optimist, who despite all evidence to the contrary often doesn't want to hear opinions bathed in a heavy demur.  On the other, I find that I am also often quite displeasing to those who always assume the worst, trust the least, or comfort themselves is a fully matured cynicism.

Unable to ever fully please these two worlds, I have found that whenever I issue an opinion in a forum where people can disagree, they do.  By the negative I am called naive and by the optimists I am called critical.  I've found myself on many an occasion on the defensive, simply calling both parties to a fairer, clearer view.  I've found myself inserting the over-used phrase, "I'm just saying that..."

So consider this yet another forum where I will, eventually say things that seem totally uncontroversial to me - obvious, even.  And with that, I fully anticipate there will be those who stumble across this space or land here because they've crossed paths with me in the past and will want to object.  That's fine, but you should know I'm not the fan of arguing over the Internet that I used to be.  I've learned that convincing people in the comfort of their living rooms armed only with the written word in a format where instantaneous response is possible is a difficult road indeed.  So, I'm just saying that this is my space, my thoughts, and not particularly binding to you if you disagree.  I'm not going to get entrenched into debates here, and will only respond to a certain point. If and when it ever gets to the point that you aren't responding to the issue anymore, aren't listening, or are five new questions for every one answered (and not acknowledging the one that was answered), I'll be done.  You're entitled to think you've "won" if you so desire, but I've no desire to spend hours doing research for you and crafting carefully worded responses to keep you on that high.  For what it's worth, I'll add that if you fit into that pattern of behaviour, it probably bears some examination.  I know it did for me a few years ago.

What's in a Subtitle?
Life, art, call, gaming, and all things post seminary.  If you ask me at any given moment, that's what's usually on my mind.  Some of those are more obscure than others, so let me give a little primer for them.

Life.  80% of what I am thinking is the result of observation.  Usually, it's the things people say, do, and the like.  Sometimes it will be something that happened to me or a friend. Sometimes it's just something I found amusing. Sometimes it's something a politician said.  Sometimes it's a serious point.  Sometimes not.  The result of the my deep-dark-secret, that I am always caught between the competing worlds  I mentioned earlier, is that much of the world doesn't make a lot of sense for me.  I've lived long enough to discover it, and to learn to reflect upon it rather than just getting irritated by it as I might have in my early twenties.  I used to be given to rants in those days.  Now, I am more given to reflection.

Call.  At the time of this posting, I'm a 30 year old seminary grad.  I've pursued theological education and training for ministry since I was 20.  I'm presently in a season of searching for "the next step," like the rest of my fellow late gen-x, early gen-y'ers (millennials).  I'll most-definitely recall my journey in pursuit of my call into ministry here.

Gaming?  Ah, this one will need a post of its own.  Short version: my social hobby, for an ever expanding number of reasons, is not golf, not fishing, not boating, not gun-collecting, not ultimate frisbee, but gaming.  It's different, and maybe it doesn't "fit the mold" given what you may already know about me, but I'm a gamer.

All things post-seminary.  The life of a seminarian (or bible-college student, for that matter) is a bubble.  Many don't that.  Many won't admit it.  Many get offended when I say it - but it is true none-the-less.  It would be true of any specialized field, and it is especially true of a specialized field which resides inside the already idiosyncratic world of American Christianity.  It's a bubble, inside a sub-culture, which often prides itself on separating itself entirely from elements of the culture at large - even in areas where there's no moral reason for such separation.  It has its own verbiage, nomenclature, trends and internal mores.  Some of that experience inside the bubble is great and something to be thankful for.  Some of it isn't, and when continued to long (IMO) becomes distracting and destructive. When you begin to leave it (which, by the way, you're supposed to do eventually when you go off to do what you went to seminary to prepare for) you find out just how much of a bubble you were in - even if you were keenly aware of it to begin with. Being from the deep heart of Texas for half of that journey, now residing in the Midwest, it has been doubly so for me.  You can expect a post or twenty on that subject too.

So, in short, what's the point here?  It's to give some space to myself just to occasionally share some things with you - my hypothetical reader and dear friends.  That's all I'm saying for now.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What Happened with Ohio

This isn't your typical introductory post, but it seems the demand of present circumstance trump tried and true blog-conventions.  I'm writing this to inform the many people who have shared my journey into ministry this far of what's happened recently.  I'm not here to debate on the Internet, berate, or to be berated for anything that follows.  If you want to go down that road despite my telling you that explicitly, do not be surprised if you find your comment removed and my thanks for not turning a very personal experience for my family into a stage for you to air your own well-aired grievances.  I'm just sayin'.

For those who know me, or know me well, you'll recall that the season I (and my wife) are in has been a long season of searching, waiting, working, waiting, searching, and more waiting.  Waiting for what? Waiting for a place to serve as a next step after seminary.  Waiting to get our hands dirty, full time, doing what I have been studying, training, and working towards for the better part of the decade.  It has taken on a bit over a year and a half, and (if we're honest) it often hasn't been pretty.

Along came "Ohio."  Not the state, but a church in it - a church which I'll leave nameless simply because it's the appropriate thing to do at this point.  We had many good signs here.  Interviews went very well.  The questions on the questionnaire were serious, focused, and promising.  The situation seemed ideal: Small church, changing community, close proximity to an unreached or under-reached population center.  The committee seemed open (eager, even) to having a young pastor, with a mind full of ideas, the energy to pursue them, and a heart for churches in decline who need both care and challenge.

Everything went well.  The process seemed to be coming to a close.  Plans were made for a trip to this community for face-time, touring the community, etc. The date was set.  We would be the exclusive candidate, so we were asked to cease candidate processes with other churches, which we did.  This is often the sign that things are very serious, and also a sign that our season of searching could very probably be coming to a close.

My wife and I went on vacation, our yearly trip to Texas to see family.  We'd come back, and within a week, be heading to Ohio for the next step.  We were encouraged.  We were excited.  We were well past ready.

Dear friends, we will not be going to Ohio.  As many of you know we were scheduled to go on the weekend of the 24th of July, but on the night of the 10th I received a very abrupt email informing me that the chairman of the search committee, the person I had corresponded with all of this time, was stepping down and that I should direct all further communication to a new chairman of a different and new committee.  A woman I had never talked to, not interviewed with, and had no experience with thus far.  Trying not to jump to too many conclusions with too little information, I went to bed wondering what was going on.  But I had a feeling I just couldn't shake.  Something has happened.

I was contacted two days later by the aforementioned woman, the new chairman.  She emailed me and said that she would like to discuss some "developments" over the last few days and wanted to know what time was convenient.  I was driving through rural Arkansas.  Thankfully, I had cel-reception and would have some time later, so I emailed her back once we arrived just outside of hot-springs and one of our many familial destinations.

I received a phone call from her that evening.  She was very nice, and easy to talk to, but it didn't take very long to discover that, indeed, something had changed.  Apparently, the members (or some of them) of the search committee had trended in a direction that a majority of the congregation had become unsettled with in their deliberations.  In particular, the issues that were cited to me were Reformed theology and the role of women in the church with regard to leadership and teaching.  The level of discomfort apparently grew to such a point that the majority felt a meeting was in order.  From what I was told, the search committee (or its leaders, it was unclear) was brought before the church, questioned, and grievances were aired.  I don't know any more specifics, but the result was that the individuals in question are now looking for a new church.  Make of that what you will.  A new committee would be taking over the role of the old committee, and I was speaking to the chairman of that new committee.  The local association had  approached them, and recommended they cease any kind of pastoral search until the dust settles and they figure out who they are and what they want in a pastor.

Beyond that information, I gained some more information of the church.  Candid stuff.  Finances are not good long-term (which I expected), and the church was indeed in decline.  If something doesn't change, they won't have open doors in a few years.  The average age of the congregation is in the sunset of their years (her words) while participation is low, and very much so when it comes to the male contingent of the church.  It's a heartbreakingly common story in a culture that teaches that when you retire, nothing more can be asked of you.

The short of it was that the older elements within the church were able to collect a majority, and had become uncomfortable with the direction the search committee was going.  I said that before, but what does that mean?  Well, the search committee was looking for someone a good deal more on the conservative (theologically and ecclesiologically) than they were.  They were very intent on pursuing a strictly egalitarian vision for their church with regard to women in leadership, while the search committee was more complementarian.  The majority felt strongly positive about women serving as positions of authority in the church, teaching with authority over men, and making executive decisions regarding the vision, doctrine, and overall direction of the church.  The search committee had different convictions.  When she used the words, "complementarian/egalitarian debate," not me,  I knew I was dealing with people more entrenched theologically than most church people tend to be.

With regard to Reformed theology, there were questions too.  The "Calvinism" debate in Baptist churches has a long list of victims and broken churches in its wake, and I can tell you it's as much the fault of reactionary congregations as it is overzealous Calvinists.  In every instance I have seen this, ignorance on both sides is generally the root-cause.  Reformed theology is poorly understood and/or poorly articulated and people are usually reacting against the words/acts/responses of other people and not in response to a understanding of the respected theologies, history, or text.  This church, from my conversation, appears to conform to this experience.

A note: It's easy to blame overzealous "Calvinists," but my church experience has thought me (this season of searching alone could demonstrate) that church-folk in the Baptist world often operate with a large deficit of knowledge on the issue and an incredulity (hostility, even) towards any sort of nuance.  I'm a Reformed guy and most of you know that, so you can call that bias if you like, but I have to say that being given a fair hearing with considerate ears on this issue (when it comes up) is the rarity, not the rule.  Thankfully, the woman I spoke to on the phone was the rarity, even if her position or preference required her to disagree.  I don't honestly know, which is a tribute to her fairness, at least in my short experience with her.

It was a very gracious, fair, conversation.  Ms. Chairman (I'm avoiding her name, obviously) was very deferential, neutral, and honest.  I have every sympathy for her, the position she has been placed in, and for the situation in which the church finds itself.  I understand their concerns theologically, culturally, and practically. One of the most telling remarks for me personally was when I asked her "what is ________ church looking for now, then?"  The answer will stick with me for some time: "I think they are looking for comfort as they go into their later years, not for challenge."

With those words things were beyond clear (they were clear before, but now exceptionally so): this church and I are incompatible.  Had I gone there, I would have burst my heart open to be faithful to serve them, faithful to the call as a pastor, to the Word and with every stitch of strength love them while leading them Godward and toward truth.  It's not my way (anymore! Thank God!) to ride roughshod over people, but doctrinal and ecclesiological convictions are worthless unless you hold them.  Time and exposure to grace has taught me not to wear my doctrine on my sleeve as I might have as a 22 year-old recent-comer to the reformed world, but that does not mean or suggest that it would be appropriate to hide those convictions either.

So Now What?
These recent events have been a shock and a trial.  This whole season has been.  The process with this church in particular has taken months, only to result in this.  I agreed to cease candidate processes with other churches, which should have signified we were near the end... but here we are.  Scratch, and as if none of it had ever happened.  And I've missed many an opportunity in the meantime.

So if you're wondering what's going on in the mind of Bob, here are my thoughts at the end of the day.

  • I am thankful for the protection my family received in finding this out now, not three months from now right after they had hired me.  Church members (like the ones who were in the minority in this case) get to go to new churches in their area, keep their livelihoods, and still call somewhere "home."  Me?  I get to see a church destroy itself just as I show up, after I have uprooted my family, moved away from support, colleagues, and friends, and entered into a church family already in turmoil.  Better yet, I get to put my name on the debacle, even if any fair mind could see it wouldn't have been my doing.  Make no mistake, seminary friends: The pastor always gets the blame.  In this case, my first church might have been my last or the one that found me the most bloodied.  I am thankful for being spared that.
  • I am more convinced at the inherent problems of "democratic religion" and the use of committees as sources of leadership for churches long term.  Baptists are horrible at this.  Where do we get the idea that the right criteria to determine who leads our churches is with a "cross section" or who is "representative" and not biblical faithfulness, spiritual maturity, soundness of mind, humility, patience, and all of those other requirements we see in Scripture? 9Marks has already made a far better argument than I have.
  • The question of the role of women in leadership (in churches) is more about what we believe the Scriptures are and who God is than anything relating to sex.  When I was asked about this issue I had to be honest: I am a complementarian, I believe that men and women are equal in essence but different in role.  I believe it is a grace, a beauty, and not a burden. It is a fair debate in and of itself, but that is where I land.  But beyond that, with respect to leadership, we have much more clear direction from Scripture.  We are given a picture of what the Church should look like, and it's pretty clear on that point.  The issue, then, isn't what the text says but what the text is.  Is it authoritative?  Is it mere suggestion?  Is it fully inspired; a true account of God's revelation to us, or is it just a culturally locked collection of general wisdom which can lead us to God?  You can land wherever you like, but you cannot have both.  On this issue, the text doesn't leave you much room. I believe that women can be immensely gifted in ministry and my goal as a pastor will be to equip them to serve and help them find places to serve that most accurately reflect the picture that I believe our good God has given for us for our good.
  • I now have a new set of questions to ask churches as we interview one another.
  • If you are a search committee, or going to be on one, please don't play games.  Pastors are not just service providers.  We're people.  We have families.  We have bills and hopes and dreams and everything else that you do.  We need to know if the house could fall on us on any moment.  It may not stop us from coming.  If you hide that, however, I can assure you of one thing:  You will hurt us and you will hurt yourselves.  Please be honest in the candidate process.
  • A Church that asks only for comfort and not for challenge is asking its pastor to be unfaithful to his call and is ensuring the church will die.  Taking that off the table from the get-go is like sheep mandating that a shepherd be in the fields without a crook.  Pastors are not mere administrators and public speakers:  Their charge is both comfort and correction.  A pastor that cannot (or will not) pursue both when appropriate imperils what it means to be a shepherd.
So, that is what happened in Ohio.  We covet your prayers and appreciate your friendship. With that, we're back at it.