Dying Discernment

This coming Monday marks an anniversary of sorts for MC USA.  For some it marks a milestone and a step forward, for others it marks a death knell and destruction.  It is the one year anniversary of the Mountain States Conference’s (a conference of Mennonite Church USA) decision to license Theda Good as a pastor.

What is so notable about that?  Women have been licensed as Mennonite pastors before.  What makes the licensing of this particular woman so momentous?  The answer is that she is in a committed same-sex relationship.   What this historic licensing has done is spark a year of turmoil.

It has started dialogues on whether we need to rethink the provision in the Confession of Faith that defines marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.  It has also started conversations on what does the Bible really say about same-sex relationships.  It has us searching for answers to questions about whether homosexual relationships are always wrong, or could they be right if it is a committed relationship between two people.

It has been my experience that we as a denomination strive to include all of God’s children in our folds.  We all come with baggage, our own particular brands of sin and shame.   We are all humans living in a broken world.  However we don’t allow all to serve as leaders in our congregations, as leaders are held to a higher standard according to 1 Timothy 3:1-13:

The saying is sure:  whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.  Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way — for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.  And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons.  Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.  Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

So we have standards in place for the people who are leading our congregations.  We chose pastors to shepherd our flocks based on credentials and their moral character and worship and various other types of leaders based on their values and whether they have a heart for worship and/or leadership.  Those standards have been developed over the years by our denomination through conversations, prayers, and community discernment.

One of the good things that has come out of this is that the conversations are no longer being delayed and hidden.  The church body at large is going to have to address how we as a denomination move forward with multiple issues that arise when the topic of homosexuality comes up, not just in terms of leadership roles.

Do we begin the process that will change our Confession of Faith or do we reaffirm that Confession of Faith?  How can we address polity issues with grace and in love?  What measures can we utilize for accountability among conferences when we feel a conference is acting in violation of our shared beliefs?

In the days ahead the Mennonite denomination needs to have some challenging discussions on very personal topics.  We are being called at this moment in time to discern some very hard questions.

However there are also bad things coming out of this. Church dissention is running rampant.  Conferences have different views on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Congregations are withdrawing from conferences. Many are feeling let down by MC USA’s perceived lack of response to the Mountain States decision,  whether they were waiting for the church at the national level to levy support for the decision or administer discipline.  New networks are forming, which could possibly be a good thing, but are they forming prematurely?

In addition to churches withdrawing outright from their conferences, others are choosing to remain part of an MC USA congregation but to boycott the scheduled national convention this summer in Kansas City, MS.  They are choosing to stay away, and therefore are excluding themselves from the conversations.

And that is my biggest cause for concern.  We as a denomination have always valued community discernment on matters of theology and beliefs.  How does leading by the Holy Spirit occur in community discernment if we aren’t all showing up for the community conversations?

At the end of the day, no matter how this plays out, some will be happy and others will be angry or hurt. Inevitably there will most likely be some church divisions and splits, but we all need to be present and take part in the conversations going on now.  We need to prepare our hearts and minds and use prayer and scriptures for guidance as we relate with one another on our differing views.

Most of all, we need to proceed with love.  Show up and be present.  Pray for grace and mercy.   Discern together with the Holy Spirit and be open to where he leads us.  And no matter what, bring glory to God in all that we do.

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another.  The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name.  They shall be mine, says the Lord of host, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.  Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3: 16-18, NRSV)

 

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Congregational Impasse

It is no secret that our congregations are struggling to stay alive.  Sanctuaries that once had standing room only available because the pews were filled are now barely half full.  We are hanging on by threads as it gets harder and harder to keep our lights turned on and shining in our communities.

The church is literally dying off!  For each elderly member that we lose there isn’t a younger person joining us to fill the spot left vacant.  This means we are missing fellowship and community opportunities and mentorship.

Not to mention only a handful of the able-bodied members remaining are available to help with the work needed to provide worship and other things to our church families.  The demands of jobs and families leaves little spare time for those who might otherwise volunteer their time.  As a result the same few people can consistently be seen doing the organizing and facilitating of congregational events.

We lament over these losses and have come up with a variety of reasons as to why this is happening:

  • Economics – there are no longer sustainable, good paying jobs in our areas so our children are not staying here
  • Post Christendom – society is no longer centered around the church
  • Millennials – the younger generation doesn’t seem to have time for God, if they even know who he is
  • Sociological – the breaking down of the traditional family unit

Revitalization and outreach have become our buzz words and mantras.  We are determined that our particular congregation won’t become just a faded memory or another statistic.  Our solutions for fighting our declining numbers is to revitalize our efforts of outreach to the poor souls of our community just waiting to be saved.

For myself, when I joined our current church, I was busy caring for an elderly family member during services and was content to sit back and just take in the Sunday morning service.  Eventually our situation changed when the beloved gentleman passed away.  Couple the excitement of a new pastor who had fresh, great visions for where our congregation needed to go with a congregation that was supportive of me embracing my gifts from God and I was hooked.  Before long being part of something bigger than myself had me rushing to become involved in all that was happening at our church.

Once I was able to catch the vision for the ministries I was given to participate in, there was no stopping me from jumping in head first and giving these ministries everything I had in me, my heart and soul.  Growing a new ministry or two to help the church to hopefully grow was exciting, intense, and filled with some awesome fellowship and personal growth moments.  There is something intoxicating about knowing that you are fulfilling one of God’s purposes for your life and an eagerness to continue to give him the glory for all that is happening.  I was more than happy to do my part to help with outreach and congregational revitalization because I want to ensure our church will still be here for my son to worship in and be a part of down the road.

And for a moment it seems as if maybe, just maybe all the hard work is paying off.

Until you start to see those ministries rise and then slowly die and we as a congregation are no closer to sustainability than when we started.  Once the excitement of the new endeavor, be it a vacation bible school program, a more contemporary music blend for worship services, or any other number of ministries that can be introduced, it seems we as congregations lose our excitement over them and no longer volunteer or support those ministries.  We are looking for the next great ministry that will be our saving grace.

That is what I have been observing on my ministry walk.  I have been part of some very exciting movements of ministry in our congregation.  I have soared on the successes of them, and mourned over the failures.  Eventually people begin to shift to other roles or decide to not be part of something anymore because they want to give others a chance to be involved.  The biggest problem with this logic is that there isn’t anyone standing in line to become a part of these ministries to replace those that are no longer able to serve or those who need a break.  We are trying to produce the same quality of services week after week with fewer and fewer people to call on to help fill these roles.

The result of this, for me at least, is that often times I feel as if I have failed in my ministry endeavors.  Then I begin to question if I, as a former catholic girl, was too presumptuous in assuming that God had called me to be part of any ministry.  What business did I have trying to help minister to the children of God?  Rather than feeling joy and fulfillment from my various roles I am feeling increasingly more frustrated and defeated.

Then I was hit with a blinding flash of insight!

We, as congregations, are our own worst enemies.  We can blame all of our declining numbers on the factors above and lament over dwindling number of people in our pews each Sunday while feeling sorry for ourselves.  In reality what we need to start looking at is what is actually stalling our growth from the inside. Is it stubbornness or a fear of change by some or all of the members?  Are we working at cross purposes among ourselves because we don’t have a clear understanding of what our mission as a church body is? Have we identified weaknesses in our communication structures but are slow to find ways to correct the breakdowns?

There are many more internal issues that can also be holding us back.  Only after addressing our internal struggles can we start to look at how we can combat the external factors.

I have been learning another really hard lesson on my journey these past several months.  I cannot single-handedly fix what is breaking.  Nor is it up to me to make sure that things don’t fall apart.  Perhaps they are falling apart for a reason and what God helps us find in the ashes of these failed ministry efforts will be greater than anything we can currently envision.

According to the online Merriam Webster Dictionary the definition of the word impasse is:

impasse: a situation in which no progress seems possible

1 a: a PREDICAMENT AFFORDING no obvious escape

b: deadlock

Perhaps it is time for me to step back from the impasse that seems to be occurring in my congregation.  In my steadfast belief that we need to make permanent changes in the way we as a congregation see and do church, I don’t want to become the lone dissenting voice of negativity.  Maybe the time for my call to change has passed for the moment.  It is time to wait until we as a congregation are more coordinated with each other on what our directions for the future should be.

Eventually we are going to need to step out of our comfort zones.  Until then I will continue to pray for God’s guidance and strength to move forward and serve as he would have me serve.  Or move on if that is what he has in store for me.

Perhaps the congregation isn’t the only one that needs to step out of a comfort zone.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.            (Psalm 25:5, NRSV)

Answering the Call to Worship

Today I had the extreme pleasure of having lunch with three ladies that are MYF youth sponsors with me.  This group of wonderful women have taken me under their collective wing and are mentoring me in the fine arts of leading an MYF group.

Each one is energetic and incredibly talented.  They spread their time and talents between families, jobs, and church service roles.  All to  often they have found themselves wearing several hats in church roles simultaneously.

Yet this group has tread successfully through the waters I am currently treading in.  Each one reached a point where it felt as if they were being pulled into to many directions at the same time and were able to recognize they weren’t being filled with joy as a result of being overwhelmed.  Although sometimes it was painful, they have gracefully found ways to step back to reclaim the joy that comes from doing the work of the church to bring glory to God.

Today much of our conversations were focused on the current state of the Mennonite church and how the very concept of what it is to do church is changing.  It amazed me how very similar the challenges that each person mentioned were to what we are currently experiencing at our church.  Our collective group represents three separate small Mennonite congregations which are located relatively close to each other in Northeast Ohio.

It isn’t hard to find articles these days that are related to the current state of affairs of the Mennonite Church and MC USA.  It has become a battle field of liberals verses conservatives.  The conservatives think the liberals are moving too fast and taking the church in the wrong direction while the liberals think the conservatives are dragging their feet and hampering the mission of the new emerging church culture.

There is also a struggle going on between the older members of the church and the younger members.  As the new millennial generation is growing up and going out on their own, we are finding that church is not a societal standard anymore.  We as churches are trying to react to draw in this millennial generation to keep our churches from dying out.

However in doing so, the older generation isn’t always very willing to give up the traditions that are tried and true for them.  They are hesitant and a little afraid to leave their comfort zones.  As a result, we are missing out on reaching a new generation whose ideas of what it is to be church are changing.

Changing how we do church doesn’t change what we believe.  The core values of our Confession of Faith remain intact.  What looks different is how we express that faith and want to worship in a corporal sense as a body of believers.

We can see that all facets of life have changed drastically over the past 100 years.  Some of the changes we see as good, others not so much.  The times we are now living in are very fast paced and visual.  Instant gratification abounds and it is hard to find a quiet space to tune out all of the noises of our lives.

Perhaps that is why we are finding it so hard to change the cultures in our churches.  These buildings have become spaces of sanctuary where time is standing still and everything is familiar.  We come to these places each week to seek refuge and to have a chance to hear those little whisperings that come to us in the silences.

But that is exactly why we NEED to change.

What was once safe and comfortable doesn’t look the same for the millennial generation.  They are all working full-time jobs and starting families.  Their support needs look vastly different from the needs of even just one generation ago.  They need fellowship, both for themselves and their children.  This new generation of church goers also need mentorship and support from the church family.

Most of all, I believe this group needs a safe place were they are allowed to ask questions.  Questions about faith.  Questions about life.  Questions about the very nature of God.  Questions about who they are as followers of God.

God is worthy of our thanksgiving and praise, and we as his children gather faithfully to worship him.  He is a loving God who doesn’t stipulate how we worship him.  All worship and praise is pleasing to him.  Maybe it is okay after all to shake things up a little bit and find new ways to show our love and adoration to God most high.

We must pray for guidance.  If we trust in the Holy Spirit, he will guide us into this new age.  Let us rely on him, instead of our human instincts, to show us the way forward.

This new age of believers will find a way to do church and to be church.  The great unknown in all of this is will our churches survive to continue to be church with this new age of believers?  Or will they choose to sit down and not venture out of their safety zones to allow the emerging church to find homes in our sanctuaries?

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24, NRSV)

 

 

 

 

 

A Servant’s Heart

Heart and soul.  That is what I have poured into the different ministries I have been involved with over the past four years.  The results of this has been successful vacation bible schools, a well-organized praise team (for the most part), hours of small group fellowship with the worship committee and praise team planners, and the development of dear friendships that I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.

There have been long hours spent painting scenery, copying music, and planning worship.  Countless more hours have been spent reading books and articles to help me learn more about the art and skill of leading others, and finding a place of true worship for myself.  Yet all of the hours are worth it, because the reward is seeing the kingdom seeds that are being sown in the people who pass through our doors.

At times, more often than not, it is a thankless job.  No one really knows or sees all of the details that need to be taken care of as you work quietly behind the scenes.  I have been so successful at working in the shadows,  in fact, that sometimes the general congregation has no idea I was even involved with a program or project, and I actually kind of prefer it to be that way.  I am uncomfortable when people come up to me to compliment me or thank me for doing a specific part of the service, handling a task, or on something that I have written.  I don’t know how to respond to their praise.

It can be filled with stress and strife.  Being the face of change in a worship service makes you the target of all of the well-meaning souls that are on a quest to save you from leading the congregation down a road they feel is inappropriate in the realms of worship.  People will tell you not to take these comments personally, but it is hard to separate yourself from the ministry that is being criticized because it has become a part of your identity.

Before long you will discover that you are one of the first people to arrive at church on Sunday morning and one of the last to leave the sanctuary at the conclusion of the service.  While the congregation is engaging in exchanging greetings and news of the week, you are busily making sure the music is in order and praying for peace and calm to make it through your part of the service. Then as people are filing out and complimenting the pastor on a well given sermon you are putting away music stands and equipment.  It goes without saying that you are the last person to get to the pot luck line every time.

Fortunately when you have a servant’s heart you aren’t looking for credit or accolades.  You are working as a child of the King of Heaven and Earth, seeking to bring glory and honor to his name.  The joy you feel isn’t from public acknowledgement.  It comes from within your heart as you feel God smiling down on you.  This is one of the purposes that he created you for, and he loves to see you thriving in your ministry roles.

However, it is easy for a person with a servant heart to become overwhelmed and mired down in a lot of tasks that do not bring them any joy.  When you are a person with a servant’s heart you find it incredibly difficult to say no.  People flock to you when they need help with just about anything.  Before you even realize what is happening you find yourself on multiple committees heading up a myriad of tasks.  You are driven by a desire to serve both God as well as all of humanity.

A servant’s heart can be easily wounded.  The tender heart that is serving does so to bring glory to God, but also to be a light to others and help give them a little bit of joy along the way.  The ministries that the servant heart is a part of become as precious to them as children.   It is very hard to watch these ministries go through changes or die out completely.  It is also hard to explain why you can’t just let go if you are becoming overwhelmed.  If your child were about to stumble you would do all you could to catch them and prevent them from falling.  It is the same thing when it comes to a ministry.  You can’t let it fall if there is anything in your power that you can do to help it not stumble or trip up along the way.

It can be a very lonely place.  You are so busy taking care of others that no one realizes that perhaps you might need cared for as well.  Natalie Grant sings a song called “Back At My Heart”, and I think she has captured the essence of a person with a servant heart:

Strong on the outside
But coming apart at the seams
That’s me

Tragically always together
But bruised underneath
Well, that’s me

I stand just to stumble
Tripping on my pride
Why do I always try to hide?

Read more: Natalie Grant – Back At My Heart Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Right, wrong, or indifferent, the person with a servant heart is still only human.  We have passions, quirks, and short comings.  We lean very heavily on our God above for strength  in our weaknesses and to help us in our brokeness.  We also love with all that is in us and have a fierce loyalty and sense of responsibility.

Perhaps there are different kinds of servant hearts out there, but this is what mine looks like.  And that is okay because according to Psalm 139:14, I am fearfully and wonderfully made (NRSV).

What I’ve Learned as a Worship Leader

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6, NRSV)

Recently our congregation had a small group meeting with the title Re-imaging Worship.  The purpose of this short Bible study was to find out more about what worship is.  Out of the discussions came the following conclusions from the gathered group of believers:

  • we worship God because he is awesome
  • God is worthy of praise
  • No matter what is going on in us or around us we are always capable of worship
  • we are made to worship – if we aren’t worshiping God, we are worshiping something else

What is this worship I speak of?  Webster’s Dictionary defines worship as the act of showing respect and love for a god especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshiping God or a god.  So anytime, anyplace you show love or respect for God or his creations I would say you are engaging in worship.  It doesn’t have to take place in a sanctuary, but most of the time when we think of worshipping we think of it in the corporal sense that takes place in our congregations on Sunday mornings.

For the past four years I have served as a worship leader in our small congregation.  I vividly remember the first Sunday that I filled this role.  It was a Sunday that did not have a piano player, so I had to lead songs from the front step, by myself, with no musical accompaniment.    This is fairly normal for a Mennonite church, a denomination with a rich history of a capella singing, but for a former catholic girl brought up singing hymns with an organ, let’s just say that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with this prospect.  Since I had accepted the request to lead that Sunday, I decided to make the best of the situation, determined to do a nice job my first time out.  I consulted with the pastor about what songs would be good choices to pick for that Sunday, and he offered me suggestions of songs that he felt would be fairly familiar to our congregation.  Easy peasy right?  Not so much.  Turns out that the songs that our pastor felt would be old, familiar favorites weren’t all that familiar.  I learned the very powerful lesson that day as I stood up there on that step trying to lead songs I didn’t know to people who didn’t know them either that each and every congregation, regardless of denomination, had their own set of favorites.  So what was familiar to our pastor, who was new to our congregation, turned out to be an epic fail for me.  By the grace of God I hung in there until the last lines of the songs had been stumbled over.  Fortunately the congregation was incredibly supportive and good sports about the whole thing.

Thus started my walk as a worship and praise leader.   It was a humbling experience, but probably one of the best ways to begin.  It made me fearless when trying new things, because I couldn’t possibly fail any worse than I did the first Sunday.  Since then I have had some really great worship experiences as well as some that were just ok.  During this journey the twists and bends in the road have helped me to draw some conclusions about the nature of worship in congregations.  Conversations with worship leaders in other congregations seem to point in the same direction.  These conclusions may not apply to everyone, but I would say in general the overall congregation population struggles with one or all of these.   It is the humanity in us.  Fortunately for us with lots of prayer and trust, our father in heaven can help us through if we are dealing with any of these.

People have worship preferences.  Let me say that again.  People have worship preferences.  Fear of redundancy is the only reason why I am not making that statement a third time.  In fact, saying that people have strong worship preferences would be an understatement!  We all have ideas of what is acceptable forms of worship and what is not.  We criticise those who have practices that differ from ours.  At times we might even feel smug and superior to those whose worship we feel just doesn’t measure up.

People don’t like change.  Whether the piece of the service that is changing is something major, like changing from a traditional service to a contemporary service, or something minor, such as moving the place in the service where the offering is taken, changes are not welcomed in general.  Maybe this is because the thought of the awesomeness of a God above who was willing to sacrifice his son to redeem humanity can be over powering, possibly uncomfortable depending upon our guilt levels.  So doing what we have always done is more comfortable.  We cling to the familiar when showing our thanks and praising our gracious heavenly father.

People take the music used in worship very seriously, and it is totally personal.  It has been my experience that the method and music styles that were learned as children at church tends to be our preferred style of music for worshiping today.  Music comes in all shapes, sizes, and varieties.  Some incredibly rich in melodic accompaniment, others the simple harmonies found in a capella.  We hesitate to incorporate new types of music into our worship services for fear of using music that is not christian or is displeasing to God.  Psalm 98: 4-6 tells us Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.  Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.  With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord (NRSV).  Could it be possible that all musical endeavors that are used to bring praise and worship to God are pleasing to his ear?  After all, he gave us the gifts to create all of the endless musical options out there.

Regardless of the format or order of service, it is a great privilege and honor to be called by God and your congregation to serve as a worship leader.  You can actually feel the current of the Spirit moving through the sanctuary when true worship clicks on within the congregation.  Feeling that presence is incredible and awesome!

Surprisingly, being a worship leader has brought me more blessings than I ever would have imagined.  In leading others into worship, it has helped me worship deeper and more fully in ways I had never been able to worship before.  At times the task of leading can be overwhelming.  Some Sundays you feel overwhelmed by life and just don’t even know where to begin to even start to worship because you just don’t feel like it.  However, when I step into my place on the step in the sanctuary, all of my troubles disappear and I am transported to that place where true worship can occur.

For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” (Romans 14:11, NRSV)