Thursday, April 30, 2009

Workplace Stress and Mangroves

I hear of many people who are highly stressed in today's workplaces There's a lot of pain flowing among employees and managers. I am reminded of some work I did a few years ago on the mangroves that surround our Northland coasts.
The mangroves stand between the sea and the land, providing a zone of separation. They also accept all the debris and pollution that flows from the land and absorb some of it so that it doesn't reach the sea.
The thesis for the book I didn't write was that the church has those kinds of roles: separating two different ways of being, and cleansing and absorbing some of the pain and evil in society, without passing it on.
That's perhaps also the role of middle management. Someone has to take the pain and anger and stress and absorb it, so the poison isn't passed on through the organisation.

I am posting one or two excerpts of Mangrove Theology on my web pages.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Prayers on Parade

Watching the military parading with their medals and ribbons on Anzac Day reminded me again that my service as Territorial Force Chaplain was involuntarily stopped just a few months short of earning the Efficiency Decoration for seven years of meeting the requirements. I could have had a medal!
We had moved to Dunedin where a much larger workload suggested that I could not take out three or four weeks in at least the first year for chaplaincy work. So I applied to go onto the Reserve of Officers.
However, I found that my application duly appeared in the NZ Gazette as a resignation, thus closing the door to any opportunity of further chaplaincy service.

I didn't make an issue of the administrative bungle because I wasn't into medals and - more importantly - was always very uncomfortable taking prayers at formal parades. Indeed, over most of my chaplaincy career I sought opportunities to visit the smaller, remote units rather than ponce around with a clutch of other dressed-up clergy all vying for the opportunity to stand in front of the thousand-strong Battalion Parade for a few moments of fame.
Instead I had many a Padre’s Hour with small groups of people who often asked questions that got to the heart of what life is about. This was, for me, meaningful ministry at the flaxroots. Sometimes we got into quite “religious” issues but mostly I think my willingness to face up to any and all questions said more about me and the faith I stood for than any amount of formal prayers on parade.

Those experiences coloured my convictions about public prayer of all kinds – and even words used at weddings and funerals - and I have tried to ensure that people were invited to participate in public ceremonial with sincerity and integrity.

Small groups and the small church

I see that our friend Julia Wallace of the United (States) Methodist Church is asking if anyone knows of a small church that has grown through the use of small groups.

That’s a fascinating question and I will be interested to hear what turns up. My hypothesis (and perhaps it is Julia’s, too) would be that the small church of less than, say, 40 or 50 participants is a single-cell social organism and is not likely to be nurtured by small groups. Indeed, the vigorous presence of distinct groups in the small church – whether they be committees or prayer groups – can tend to divide rather than to consolidate.

Of course, the USA “small church” is, by definition, not usually what I would call “small” so the issues are not exactly the same. But I hope that people who reply to Julia are specific about the exact size and nature of the church concerned: there could be some really interesting findings.
Ecclesion is name I have given to the small church gathering that does everything needful - worship, education, business and fellowship - without subdividing into any kind of ongoing small groups. I think that small churches that try to act like medium-sized churches create problems for themselves.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anzac Ceremonial - Let's do better!

With the terrible weather and a bad knee I didn’t get to Anzac commemorations today. But several televison broadcasts have moved me during the day. It’s great to see the younger generations creating something new out of this significant tradition. It’s inspiring to hear stories of great courage and patient bravery. It’s especially good to hear people acknowledge learnings from the disasters of war.

However, each time some religious professional is called to the rostrum to “give” the “prayer” or the people are asked to make Christian affirmations in a hymn, I become uncomfortable. I can sympathise with Helen Clark’s decision to eliminate the ritual grace from the Parliamentary Dinner in honour of the Queen.

Among the personal archives I am sorting through these days I find a newspaper clipping about an Anzac service in Mt Wellington over four decades ago. It reported a ceremony in which prayer to the Christian God was not thrust upon everyone; in which different ethnic groups were drawn together rather than separated by religious affirmation; in which the integrity of commemorating sacrifice did not require a veneer of Christian comment.
I deeply believe we need special occasions to celebrate, remember and be thankful. Helen Clark could have used some words in which all present could reflect on the benefits we enjoy. And we need to create imaginative and creative “liturgies” for public occasions which are not based on the assumption that our country is populated entirely by earnest churchpeople of British descent. We could make a start with a credible national anthem.
But first, perhaps, a cuppa and an Anzac bikkie... It's a special Day.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Restoring our Wetlands

On our trip through Southland we turned off the main road to visit the much-touted Rakatu Wetland. It had been created by an electricity generating company in exchange for permission to modify large chunks of the environment for a new project.
At the viewing platform we found a young Scottish tourist who was admiring the vast flock of geese that had just flown in. I explained that the geese were actually invaders. We had created this wonderful wetland to preserve our tiny native fish and shy, rare birds but the place was becoming polluted with Canada Geese.“Well,” she said, “at least the geese will migrate for the winter.” But, no, I had to explain; they don’t migrate in this country. They know when they’re onto a good thing. They just stay in NZ, competing with our own vulnerable wildlife for air and water and food.
So what is touted as a brilliant contribution to preserving our national environment seems to have fallen short and Creation has to continue adjusting as best it can to our inadequate understanding.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wind and tide in the small church

The Cruising Club’s weekly yacht race was proceeding slowly down the inner bay in extremely light winds. The far marker is about opposite our place and we watched them approach the turn.
The first of the smaller yachts arrived, turned gracefully at the buoy and took the wind on the beam… And continued on down the Bay – stern first. The tide was going out faster than they could make way against it. For some time they sailed steadily but lost ground in the tide. For them the race was over. Later the bigger yachts managed to make progress but the race was soon called off and everyone motored home.

The very small church has great strengths but it is often vulnerable to external pressures that are not of its own making. Nobody in the small church should feel a personal sense of failure when the locals are agreed that closure is clearly the only strategy left.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Polluters and Mangroves

At Queenstown last month I was disappointed at the signs of “progress” - more and larger buildings superimposed all over the gorgeous scenery. Then I looked closely again at the picture-postcard lake and mountains and trees and realised the attractive forests were almost entirely exotic pines, themselves a sort of environmental weed, really. From our chalet there was only one tiny patch of indigenous bush high up behind Bob’s Peak.

In an earlier generation we polluted this pristine environment by planting American pine trees all over the hillsides, and European willows around the lakes and rivers. These have all been turned into a tourist asset. But now we’re polluting the whole area with buildings and people and noise. Something has been lost in our frenzy to use our environment.

Part of the role of the church should be to challenge these kinds of processes in our world and to deal with their effects. I’ve been doing some theology on the role of mangroves that might provide a clue…
Have a look at Mangrove Theology on my web pages.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Viability and the Small Church

A Church Consultant in the USA has asked me what I think about "viability" in small churches – how do you decide when a church is no longer able to continue?
I try to avoid the term as too often it is associated with finance which assumes a paid person is needed to babysit the small church. That approach is anathema to my thinking. If the congregation believe they have a mission and have the will to give it a go then the wider church should be facilitating them - not asking questions about viability... Theologically, limiting viability to finance doesn't seem to me to be a Gospel approach... I hope someone will do some real work on that some day.
Viability should be tested in terms of the members in the setting - can they do the basics: look after the property, the services, manage the offerings, prepare for communion - I had a specific list once but you could make up your own. Or they could. The problem is not with the congregation if it wishes to continue; the only problem is re-defining "viability" and developing a ministry strategy that works.
Viability might also be related to other members in an adjoining church which might be willing to offer some support. Our Russell congregation continues on a regular base attendance of only four for at least two reasons:
  1. It is a seasonal church and for several months of the year there are visitors.
  2. Members of our Paihia congregation see Russell as a challenge of mission so the worship leader hardly ever goes over on the ferry alone.

I don't think that sense of being a “mission situation” is a bad thing for an isolated congregation as long as the local people can prepare the church building for worship and Communion and handle their own banking and the other basics. And, I suppose, as long as their generous offerings meet the normal maintenance on their property.
But by most conventional criteria of “viability” I guess Russell doesn't qualify to continue past next Sunday.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Getting it done in the small church

Pastoral Coordinator Helen found out that Bev and George had sold their home and would be leaving in three weeks. She talked it over with Bev M at the seminar they were both attending last Tuesday. Today almost all the parish membership met at Barke’s place for a terrific get-together that nobody knew anything about six days earlier.

The point is that there was no sub-committee meeting; nothing planned by Parish Council, no minutes of a decision to organise a social event. It just happened.

That’s how it is in the small church.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Patrol Night

Last night Bev and I went out in the Community Patrol Car, a flash Primera wagon with fire-engine red paint and luminous white signage proclaiming our special role in the Paihia community.

At 8.30pm we dialled up Police Communications, logged on and then drove around town for three hours or so. This shift is not terribly exciting as the serious stuff happens after 3am when the last bars close. That's when, a few days ago, a young chef, father of three was walking home after going off duty and was beaten up with a rock, stripped and left for dead - for the sake of his wallet.

So volunteers of our CP group try to have the car out there, visible, in the earlier part of the evening a couple of nights a week. Our presence on the streets enables the Police to reserve their resources for the hours after midnight. Last night, we logged a few cars in strange places, noted a lot of cyclists without lights, made a couple of calls and generally toured the car all round the car parks and other shady spots in the region.

Usually we see a Police patrol or call into the station office and say Hullo. They appreciate our contribution and we move on feeling useful and important. But last night, we saw only one Police car and there was no one in the station office any time we went by. However, on the way home we saw an officer standing in the street so we pulled up to say Hullo and have a bit of a chat.

He wasn’t at all surprised we stopped. Didn’t read our snazzy signage. Didn’t notice who we were. Breathalysed me and waved us on.

Oh, well, we all need to be kept humble, don't we?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Finding Enablers for LSM

While for decades the church has spoken of the minister as being a facilitator or enabler of ministry, the time is fast coming when this kind of qualification will need to be formally laid down as a requirement of all who would serve in full-time work. My prediction is that more and more clergy in regular parish appointments may have to provide a small proportion of their working time for enabling LSM congregations.

Having this year accepted again the challenge of working as enabler with our Bay of Islands Parish Ministry Support Team I recently looked over the profile of categories that I prepared for candidates for the ministry some years ago. I can identify some scales on which the church might now expect rather higher standards of candidates for full-time ministry who are likely to be required to act as enablers.

The profile would provide a good starting point for selection of enablers from lay people, too. However, recently I have drafted a much more detailed - if somewhat tentative - analysis of the Knowledge, Skills and Personal Characteristics that I suggest might be desirable in ministry enablers. This may be a more appropriate place to begin. I have placed both on my website together with another posted earlier.
  • Assessing Motivation for the Ministry
  • An Enabler Matrix
  • Can we really train Enablers?

The "Pastoral" List

At “Church Possible” this week we had an interesting moment on pastoral lists. One minister told us that three people in their church have responsibility for the pastoral list and they have got into difficulties with one of them adding names and another crossing them off. We were told they’ve now agreed on a procedure for adding and removing names. But perhaps what they have missed is that there should be two quite different categories of association with a congregation.

There’s one group of people who are, one way or another, own some “connection” to the congregation. They attend or contribute in some way or are clearly interested in it. That’s what I would call the pastoral list. They are people who are happy to be drawn together into the church and its mission and the church takes special care to nurture them and keep them together.

But I would have a separate list that includes other family units who are known to have had some connection but choose not to be active in any way. Perhaps their parents used to attend; perhaps they attended a Sunday School of our denomination; perhaps someone a couple of generations ago gave money for the building of our church. But, for whatever reason, they now decline to engage themselves in any way in our mission. However, they may feel that they have the right to seek my assistance in a crisis such as a funeral. As pastor, I need to know who and where they are.

I call this the church’s “responsibility list”. It may even include people who are known to be under the pastoral care of another denomination. Mostly it consists of people who are, simply, not interested. And the record needs to contain basic information. For nobody knows when such a family, in time of crisis, may seek my congregation’s support. I need to know that this enquiry does not come “out of the blue” and does not necessarily involve infringement on the pastoral rights of another pastor.

Families on this “responsibility list” would not normally receive the newsletters and other information that would be distributed regularly through the pastoral list. But they might be regarded as an “opportunity” group for invitations to special events or for newsletters that highlighted the church offerings in community service as distinct from its promotion of its “church” life.

An interesting feature of Local Shared Ministry congregations - or perhaps most small congregations these days - is that pastoral care seems to revolve more and more around the people who are "connected". It seems too demanding to maintain a meaningful "opportunity" list.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Church Possible"

Bev and I are just finishing a really great three days of challenge and inspiration. Our Paihia Church Centre has been the venue for a gathering of up to 35 enthusiastic people.
Several of the Methodist LSM workgroup attended, together with other contributors and participants from Northland parishes. We had really good sessions on different ways of being church, how churches change, creative worship, working as teams and dealing with conflict. In a session on how Local Shared Ministry actually works, our parish, with some 16 years’ experience, had an opportunity to tell its story.
Our modest facilities, not to mention some stunning weather, made a good impression. Rosalie served up excellent meals right on the spot, and most people were able to sleep on the premises in our two cottages or just over the road at the Youth Hostel.
Sadly, Beverley Deverell, who did a lot of enthusing for the event, was homebound with a very painful condition as a result of a probably broken ankle. We thought of you many times, Beverley!
The event could have come at a better time for Bev and me. We’d been on the road for two weeks and then very busy with a special video commission deadline and Sunday services. We plunged into this event without so much as a couple of hours to catch our breath. But it’s been great and, well, perhaps we will sleep in for a while tomorrow morning...With some things in life you just have to grab the moment and run with them and make the most of them. Perhaps the whole of life is like that. Maybe the very next thing I am going to do is the only thing that matters for the rest of my life. Carpe diem!