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Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Off Task

I had another one of those disappointing conversations with someone who used to go to church. I have had many of them over 25 years of leading churches.  However, in the last few years, my conversations like this have become more frequent.  I have also found that I have run out of answers or excuses for these very personal, heart-wrenching stories.

The experiences are as widely varied as the reasons for giving up on church as organized religion. Sometimes there was true spiritual abuse that scarred the individual.  Other times there was gross mismanagement of funds or responsibilities from the leadership.  Of course, the stories of petty in-fighting and ugly behavior come up too.  All of these things have not led the individuals to give up on God or their belief in the salvific work of Christ.  No.  They just cannot bring themselves to try church again.

Granted, there are those individuals who have caused their own problems. They brought trouble to the house of worship and left in a cloud of trouble.  They reaped what they sowed and left an unfortunate mess of weeds behind for others to clean up in God’s vineyard.  I am not addressing those individuals.  I am with the Apostle Paul when it comes to these individuals: “Let them go.”  I like the Apostle John‘s attitude, “They were from among us but were really not one of us so they went out from us.”  That is as it should be, I think.

No.  I am addressing those poor souls who really gave “church” a try; even multiple times. Perhaps they had just a run of bad luck in picking churches or they had anomalous experiences in otherwise great churches.  Not every church can bat 1.000 or even .333 for that matter.  No organization of people can.  We are all prone to make mistakes and miss opportunities.

Still, my conversation with this young man left me wondering.  Are most churches just “off task”? You know what I mean.  It is the same term a teacher uses for the student who is present but not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  They are “off task” and therefore are not getting their work done and turned in on time.  This usually results in a lot of extra homework and heartache for the parent.

In one blog article I wrote last year, I addressed the issue of the church needing to be “On Mission” – or “on task.” If we are not “on task” – fulfilling our mission as the body of Christ on earth – then we must be “off task” – present but not doing what we are supposed to be doing.  Like a poor performing student, this not only invites potential failure but a lot of heartache as well.  Thus the stories I run into time and again.

A young family in our apartment complex had been struggling financially with this economic downturn. The husband had lost his job and could not find another.  The wife had a part-time job with very few hours that barely kept food on the table.  Soon, the bills started piling up.  Then their car was repossessed, making it that much harder to get and keep a job.  Finally, they were getting eviction notices from the apartment managers.

This young family attended the largest church in our community; a church of a couple thousand. This growing congregation had recently finished building a new multi-million dollar facility and had just launched another campaign to build a 1.5 million dollar gymnasium.  It has all the marks of outward success.

Humbly, the young man approached the church for some kind of help. He figured they had been attending a number of years, had given financially to the church to support its ministries and had been actively involved in a few of them.  When he finally was able to talk to someone about his family’s needs, he was informed that the church had no resources to help them.  He was informed that one of the reasons was because the financial rough times had also hit the church and they were doing all they could just to keep the gymnasium construction going.

He went home desperate and broken. The one place he expected to be able to receive some kind of help and encouragement was gone.  There was no follow-up visit or phone call to offer helping the family connect with community resources.  They were on their own.  Well, not exactly.

The people of the apartment complex heard about this family’s needs. Some of them, complete strangers who did not know even their apartment number, chipped in to help catch up on rent.  One of the apartment complex repairmen, the young man I alluded to at the beginning of the blog, donated one of his cars to the family.  The family at this time is not interested in going to any church.  And it may be some time before they do.  I cannot blame them.

There is also an apartment with two women living in it. It has an elderly daughter taking care of her elderly mother.  Her mother has numerous health issues and suffers from the onset of Alzheimer’s.  They both looked forward to visiting church on Sundays because it was the one place they thought they could go, get out of their apartment and the about the only place the mother felt safe in a growing unfamiliar environment.  However, one Sunday they were pulled aside by the pastor who asked the daughter not to bring her mother to church anymore because her hearing-aides kept squeaking and disturbing the other parishioners around them.  Now they sit at home.  The daughter tending wounds from a church she and her mother had attended most of her life.

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010

Bleeding Heart Flowers in the Mist, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As a former church leader, I understand that church experiences can be a mixed bag of good and bad experiences. I get that it is full of faulty humans who do not always behave in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.  I know all too well my own missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes that hurt others.  I also recognize those as times when I – when we – have lost sight of why we exist at all as the body of Christ: do his work and speak his words to reconcile the world to the Heavenly Father.

When the church gets off task, it becomes the worst of civil organizations. It would be better to become an Elks Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club or some other club members.  We are the worst because we so violate the high ideals to which we profess and call one another.  In the world of business, companies that get off task and away from the main product that made them successful in the first place go bankrupt.

When church becomes more about our buildings, positions of leadership, preferences and comfort, then we have gotten off task. When so much is expended to keep so few at ease and comfortable, then we are off task.  When our message is made irrelevant because of the life we model, we are off task.  When the life we model for others no longer reflects the mission of our founder, we are off task.

How do we know when we are “on task”? When our life and words express sacrificial love for God and for neighbor.  This is, after all, “the first and greatest commandment.”  It is the mark by which we will be identified by the rest of the world (“they will know you by your love for one another“).  It is the test everyone must pass to show they truly love (“greater love has no one than this, that s/he lay down his life for a friend“).

The exercises and lessons of this life’s classroom all have to do with teaching us how to love God and others sacrificially. It is the example and standard that Jesus set for us.  It is the command that we are given.  It is the test we must all pass, especially as the body of Christ.

Too many things can take us off task. They are too numerous to count.  It is perhaps one of the main weapons the enemy of our souls uses to distract us from our original task as a follower of Jesus.  However, at the end of the day, whether we were “on task” or “off task” will not be determined by sizable budgets, comfortable buildings or the number of butts in the seat on a Sunday morning.  No.  I think we will be asked only one question on our final test:  “How well did you love me and others?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Juan Williams

Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

It has become politically incorrect to voice one’s fears and anxieties publicly. Any insecurities one might have around a group of people are a social weakness and must be left unvoiced.  At least this is my take on recent events in the news.  The most glaring example is the firing of Juan Williams from NPR over expressing momentary personal anxieties he experiences when he gets on a plane with others overtly dressed as Muslims.

Keeping our fears and insecurities silent is precisely part of our problem. Where is the public forum to express openly and talk honestly about the experiences that frighten us?  When is there an opportunity to have a civil discussion about what are or are not rational fears public fears?  Dismissing and glossing over them only causes greater paranoia, I believe.

As a parent, when my children express a fear – rational or not – I want to talk with them about it. A healthy discussion with them helps me to address the difference between reality and perception.  Some fears are healthy and some are not, but telling my child they are “phobic” or dismissing them as immature will not help them.  Yet, it seems to me this is precisely the way those in government and media are attempting to treat the American people.

Anyone who expresses an anxiety or fear is labeled “phobic” – islamaphobe, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. This is intended to silence us and make us bury those fears deep within our psyche.  There is no public place to express them.  So, we do not talk about them.  We do not acknowledge our insecurities over those differences.  Instead, like the good stoic Northern Europeans we are, we are expected to get over them, move on and embrace everyone in every place regardless of how we really feel.  Don’t talk about “it.”  Don’t deal with “it.”  Hide “it.”

I do not think this is a long-term workable solution for peace and unity among humankind. Sooner or later, these unspoken fears will come out.  Precisely because they were not dealt with in a suitable manner today, their dormancy will give way to hatred towards those we fear in some tomorrow; especially in times of greater turmoil.  Consider past human actions against one another: Rwanda, European-Jewish history, American treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Sunnis and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan-India, South African Apartheid, and the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America.  The list is as endless as human history.

Our silent fears will not lie unspoken for very long. Human history has taught us that when it comes to conflict of any kind, we will bunch into “tribes” that will attack one another.  These “tribes” might not necessarily have their identity around ethnic or social affinities.  Today they are just as likely to form around ideological affinities: conservatives, liberals, socialists, capitalists, religionist, non-religionists and on the list goes into “pro-this” and “pro-that” or “anti-this” and “anti-that.”

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The greatest idea of founding American democracy was, I believe, the creation of a society where an open market place of ideas can be shared by everyone. This means that we must give voice to our differences and fears as well as our commonalities and passions.  Sure, we may even have to listen to people we disagree with on the most visceral level.  However, allowing their voices to be heard is much better for society overall than demanding it be silenced and relegated to the underground.

Giving air time in a public place for all ideas allows the larger public to determine the cogency and vitality of ideas and arguments. We need not censure the American public from them.  They will do so by themselves with thought and action.  If our ideas and ideals – political or religious – cannot stand on their own two feet in a public debate then perhaps it is time to reconsider our own position.

Vivian Schilling, the CEO of National Public Radio, and the other leaders of PRI (Public Radio International) should be ashamed of the way they handled the firing of Juan Williams. However, even more so, they need to reconsider how they treat sincere expressions of fear, anxieties and social concerns.  It is not enough to dismiss them as Vivian Schilling did with a suggestion that Juan Williams take his issues up with his psychiatrist.  There is a whole nation of people who know that twinge of fear, even if it is only momentary, when they get on a plane with people dressed as Muslims.  It is simply our current reality.

Would Juan Williams, who is himself of African-American descent, have received the similar discipline if he expressed the same fear about going into a poor African-American neighborhood with a history of drug and gang violence? Would he have been expected to not voice any fear if he had gone into a Ku Klux Klan meeting to do a reporting job?  The fact is that reporters, even NPR reporters, have a history of relaying personal impressions and expressions.  So, what makes this any different?  Oh, yeah.  It was on Fox News.  Well, that is another story.

Even in our current negative financial climate, the American people are chided for their fears. We are daily reminded that the problem is “the consumer confidence index.”  It indicates that we are fearful for the future and its uncertainty.  The expectation seems to be to overlook our fears and keep on buying and going into debt.  Until our own fears are conquered and we gain a positive consumer financial index, the economy is our fault.  Right.

Let us take the mute off of our fears and openly express them. We must not give in to our silent fears.  Instead, we are more apt to find solutions, overcome our fears and move confidently into our future side-by-side if we work together to address them.  Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to the American people after the dark days of the beginning of The Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  By going on to acknowledging America’s fears he dis-empowered those fears.  Maybe he was only partially correct.  Maybe what we have to fear is our silent fears.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 2

When is a problem too big for God to handle? When the problem is bigger than you can deal with on your own.  At least, this is how most of us work in our faith.  Or, I should say, this is how my faith seems to work.  As long as it is a problem that I can imagine to be solvable or at the least manageable, then I envision that God can also take it on.

Yes, this is a rather anemic faith. It makes God – the Creator of all the universe – only as large as myself or my imagination.  In short, it makes God – the One who possesses all the power – small.  It reminds me of the line in the Walt Disney movie Aladdin when the genie is described as “all the powers of the universe in a teeny-weeny little bottle.”

This might sound strange coming from one who for 25 years was attempting to lead other people in faith. It is a lot easier to lead others in doctrinal statement and propositional truths than it is in living reality; that is for certain.  Nevertheless, life presents challenges that require us to either put greater faith in God or give up faith in him at all.  Ministry seems to only put an individual under greater pressure to reach either end.

Shortly after finishing seminary at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, my family and I found ourselves back in Washington State. I was called to pastor a church in West Richland, Washington.  It was not too long after relocating that we found ourselves in financial trouble.

One of the disadvantages of many pastors of small congregational churches is a lack of health insurance. Their salaries do not provide enough to buy individual family coverage.  So, many go without.  This is what my family was doing.  Later, my wife would get a teaching job in the local school district, which would help solve this problem.  But until that opportunity came along, we were on our own.  And with four kids at home, betting against doctor visits, emergency room visits, dentist visits and optometrists visits is a losing venture.

We came to a situation where a combination of events almost undid us financially. Our son needed braces for teeth that made it almost impossible to eat.  A couple of visits from accidents by our children led to emergency room visits and doctor visit follow-ups.  To top it all off, our car quit and was of no trade-in value.

One day, I sat down to figure it out how much we were underwater financially. Adding up all the extra bills we accrued as well as a couple of thousand dollars for a down payment on a used car, I choked at the figure that stared at me on the page.  It seems we would need $10,000.  It might as well have been 10 million.

The next day, in my devotion time when I took time to write in my journal, I put in writing my need. It seemed laughable that I would even write the figure in my journal.  Like that kind of money would just drop into our laps, right?  Sure.  I was skeptical of any immediate answer.  Instead, I prepared for a long road of slowly paying off bills, doing without some things, and getting used to having only one broken down used car for my family instead of two.

I always close my journal entries writing out a prayer. It helps me to put in writing and in a tangible form the desires of my heart, the needs of my family, church and community, the worries I may have as well as the hopes that I carry.  I have found it refreshing in the way it unburdens my soul.  Like writing a “To Do” list, it prevents my heart and mind from attempting to holding on to these things so I won’t forget them.  By committing them to writing it gives my soul permission to breathe and let go of all those things committed to paper.

I wrote my request for my family’s needs.Lord, we are really hurting financially.  Along with regular bills and school bills, the bills of hospital, doctors and orthodontists are burying us.  It is not my problem.  It is your problem.  Help us be a good steward of what we do possess.  Please take care of all that we have no control over.”  I know.  Not a profound prayer.  It almost seems as filled with doubt as it does faith.  But it’s all I had at the time.

Life continued on and we did the best we could for a few weeks. Several weeks later, I found myself at my regular haunt at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  I regularly went there to plan, write and read leadership books.  It was a good place to get out of the office and focus my week.  My “To Do” lists were generated there.

As I wandered among the stacks, I ran into a member of a family who had recently joined our church. They were there wandering among the bookshelves looking for good books to read.  I greeted the mother of the family I ran into.

Me:  “Hi!  Surprise seeing you here.  How are you doing?”

Her:  “Good!  Yes, it’s a surprise seeing you too!  I was just thinking about you.  Our family has been praying for you.”

Me:  “Well, thank you.  We really need it.  What are you all up to today?”

Her:  “We’re just out to browse books.  Hey, listen, are you going to be at the church office at all later today?”

Me:  “Yes.   I’ll be in there after lunch until about 5:30.”

Her:  “Good.  Can we all come by to see you…say about 3:00?”

Me:  “Sure!  I’ll be looking for you!”

Her:  “Great.  We’ll see you then.  We have something very important to talk to you about.”

We parted ways and I head home to get some lunch.  Her last words hung over me with a dread. I never liked being left with, “Pastor, I have something very important to talk to you about.  Can we talk later this week?”  And them I’m left wondering what it is what it is so important to talk to me about.  It is often not good.  So, I’ve been left gun-shy from such announcement.  Being a new family to our church, I imagined that they had run into some problem they needed me to solve or address.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I went home and ate lunch. Later, I made myself busy at the church office catching up on mail, email, phone call-backs, and getting things on my “To Do” list done.  Soon, I was busy enough to forget about the family’s visit at 3:00.  It was the doors opening and closing at the front of the church that reminded me of their appointment.

Me:  “Hey!  Great to see you all again.  I’m glad you can make it.”

We shook hands and chatted for a bit.  Then the mother of the family picked up where we left off at Barnes & Noble.

Her:  “Pastor, we have something very serious we want to talk to you about.”

My stomach sunk with a lead ball of dread and foreboding.  This was not going to be good.

Me:  “Well…what can I help you all out with?

Her:  “To get right to it.  My grandmother passed away last month…”

Me:  “I’m so sorry to hear that…it must be a very hard time for you all.”

She smiled and said, “No.  She was a Christian and was ready to go to heaven.  We know that she is with Jesus and happy.  We’ll see her again one day.”

Me:  “Well, that is great to hear.  What a testimony to her faith and to Jesus.”

Her:  “Yes.  Well, the reason why we are here is that she left a rather substantial inheritance to me.  Our family has been praying about what to do with it.  We’ve decided there are several things that the Lord want us to do.  First, we want to give some to the Lord’s ministries we support which includes this church.”

She handed out a check to me.

Me:  “Well, bless you!  However, I can’t take the check.  It’s against our church’s policy.  Is there a way I could have you give it to our church treasurer?  That would be much safer and more appropriate.”

Her:  “Of course.  I understand.  That is perfectly acceptable.  Should I just give it to him this next Sunday?

Me:  “Yes.  That would be great.”  And I gave her the name of our treasurer.  “If he happens not to be here, you can give it to one of our ushers too.  If it is a large check, then they can put it in the safe right away.”

They all looked at each other.  She replied, “Yes.  It’s a rather large check.  I’ll give it to one of them first thing Sunday morning.”

Me:  “Wonderful.  Again, thanks so much. I know it will be a huge help at this time for our church body.”

Her:  “Well…there is one more thing.”  She turned and smiled at the rest of her family.  “We really felt that the Lord wanted us to give you something too just for you and your family at this time.  We know that it has been a hard time for all of you and want to help.”

Surprised, I offered, “You know that is not necessary.  I’m sure your support of the church is sufficient.”

Her:  “Well, we want to be obedient to the Lord and so must insist.  We prayed about it and feel this is the amount the Lord would have us give to you.”

She handed out an envelope to me.

This is where it can get really sticky in ministry. How do you judge whether a “gift” is coming with no strings attached?  How do you account for it?  Most gifts are small.  How much was this one?  Do you dare ask?  How do you accept it humbly and gracefully?  How does it affect relationships and those you show favor to over others?

As I looked at her and at her family, I had a deep sense that they honestly meant this as an act of obedience to something they felt the Lord calling them to do. They hardly knew me as a pastor.  Yet, I felt that there were no ulterior motives.  There was a peace surrounding this gift that gave me a sense that this was a God-moment for them and for me.  So, I reached out and took the envelope.

We said our goodbyes and I profusely thanked them for their obedience to the Lord and their generosity to the church and to my family. I put the envelope into my shirt pocket and returned to the immediate duties that called me attention.  I had a long list to complete before I could get home.

We I did arrive home, it was as usually – just as dinner was ready to be served. We sat around the dinner table as a family and shared our day.  Our family’s dinner time is rarely quiet.  At the same time, we are all fast eaters so it also tends to be rather short.

After dinner was cleaned up, I remembered the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Me:  “Hey, you know that new family that started attending our church just a short while ago?

My wife:  “Yeah.”

Me:  “Well, they wanted to meet with me today.  Apparently, a relative passed away and left them with an inheritance.  They gave some to the church.”

My wife:  “Wow.  That’s great!  How much?

Me:  “I don’t know.  I asked them to give it to our church treasurer or an usher Sunday.”

My wife:  “Oh.”

Me:  “They also wanted to give us a small gift.  So they gave me this…”

I handed the unopened envelope to my wife.  I thought I’d let her open it.  I was expecting a small gift that would help with groceries or maybe the next hospital or orthodontist bill.

She ripped open the top and looked over the check.  Then her hand flew to her chest.  “Ron!”

She said this in a surprised and started voice.  I turned toward her and took the check from her hand.  As I looked at the amount on the check, I had to sit down.  It was made out for $10,000.

That evening, I went to the journal entry of several weeks back where I had written that absurd amount down as a need for the Lord to take care of for my family. Now I was able to write in that same journal the date upon which the Lord through an unassuming family answered that very request.  My little faith was answered greatly and resulted in a great amount of thanks and praise to God.

I wish I could say that I have never since then struggled with doubt. It would be great to be able to announce to everyone my never-ending faith in God’s faithfulness.  It wouldn’t be true.  Yet, God continues to surprise me in the way that he shows how much bigger he is than my belief.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Let’s All Grow Up

As an observer and listener of world events across a spectrum of news channels, I am wondering what it is going to take for the more moderate voices in our world to be heard.  It seems that only the radical voices, extremists if you want, get all the air time.  And now, a small time pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, of a congregation of barely 50 persons and shrinking in Florida has captured the world stage with a threat to burn the Quran.

Almost a year ago (October 1, 2009 to be precise), I posted a blog article entitled, “Let’s All Calm Down.”  In it I called for people to settle down and realize that the issues we face today, when placed in historical context, should not be all that alarming to us.  Running around scream in a high-pitched Chicken Little-like voice that our world is ending is non-productive.  In historical context, politically and religiously, this is hardly the worst of times for the United States of America.

Whether it is debating health care, taxes or government programs, it seems that the discussion always devolves into a tit-for-tat battle.  In juvenile-like behavior patters, instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, we seem to be concerned with who started it and placing the blame.  It is time we all grew up and got over “it” – whatever the particular “it” of the blame game we are playing.

This should go with Americans attitudes towards radical and extremists of the Muslim religion and vice-versa. Instead of trying to figure out who “drew first blood” so that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be extracted, the mature adult thing to do would be to stand above the offense.  I often teach my kids when they are being picked on by their siblings or kids at school that one of the most potent weapons to disarm a potential enemy is to first not respond to their behaviors and actions.  If that does not work, then proceed to draw attention to their actions by drawing in the attention of others – authority figures and peers.  If your behavior is above reproach, they will support you and fight for you.  In the end, you will have to do very little.

Granted, this is a difficult approach to take when our emotions running high and our pride and feelings have been hurt. However, acting like a bunch of juvenile gang members or kids on a play ground seeking revenge for every slight will not get us anywhere either.  Someone needs to become the adult in a very volatile situation.  Reverting to our childhood antics and behaviors will not solve our world problems or bring peace.

So, the Reverend – with such a title used very loosely – Terry Jones seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of Jesus when it comes to how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, serve them and love them.  Of course, this requires a very mature approach toward our perceived enemies; many of whom turn out not to be our enemies at all but people only acting out of their own hurt and woundedness, albeit in an immature way.  Unfortunately, Terry Jones is not alone in America.  I have heard many people through our media respond in justifying the action of burning the Quran or vandalizing Islamic worship and community centers with:

  • “Well, they burn our flag in their land!”
  • “If they burn our Bibles, we should be able to burn their Holy Book.”
  • “Islam promotes hatred and persecution of Christians all over the world.”
  • “They were shouting Quranic verses when they flew those jets into the Twin Towers.”
  • “They preach against America as “the great Satan” and want to attack us again, so we have the right to practice our right to freedom of speech by letting them know how we feel about it.”
  • “We have the right to protest and practice our freedom of speech.  Who cares what they think about it.”

Notice that in some way all of these statements hold a kernel of truth.  The real question, however, is whether they are the mature, adult way to respond.  It may be true that my son was hit first by another kid at school.  That does not give him a right to retaliate in like manner and expect to not bear the consequences of those actions: trouble at school with possible expulsion and trouble at home.  It may be correct that another kid called my girl a nasty name, but that does not permit her to respond in a similar way.

We should expect no less of a response for our adult situations in a troubled world.  When will we start to grow up and act like the adults in this cosmic play ground?  When will we stop responding to force with force?  Or, reverting to name calling with name calling and demeaning labels?  Who will be the first to take the moral high road of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One would hope that Christians, in keeping with their message and mission, would be among those.  Where are the adult voices among all religions that call for tolerance, forgiveness, longsuffering, patience, kindness, grace, mercy and justice?  Who in the Christian community is calling for larger Christian community to reflect the teachings of Jesus on the world stage?  I believe they are out there.  They are just not being heard.  Bad news seems to sell better than any good news.  So, a crazy, fundamentalist pastor of an insignificant congregation in Florida gets world-wide air time while the deeds of countless Christians around the world to, for and among Muslims goes unrecorded.  Go figure.

I cannot speak for other world religions, but having been a Christian leader in congregations for 25 years and having studied the Bible with three degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, I do believe that I have some understanding of where Jesus would steer us:

  • “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.”  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?  But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5:43 – 48)
  • “Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 11:25, 26)
  • “Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, “I am sorry,” you should still forgive that person.”  (Luke 17:4)
  • “But love your enemies and be good to them…Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.  Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”  (Luke 6:35 – 37)

Or, where the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the churches would take us:

  • “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, “I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.  The Scriptures also say, “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat.  And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads.  Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:19 – 21)
  • “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude.  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:31, 32)
  • “…forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  (Col. 3:13)

The easy road to take?  No!  But being the mature adult in a room full of children is never an easy task.  It is tiring and trying.  Ask any middle school teacher.  However, it is the road that a majority must willingly and intentionally take to make our world a better place.

Will it come with a price?  Yes!  It will mean being willing to take the brunt of abuses given by those who choose to act out.  The role of the parent in the home is not to reflect the behaviors of the children in the home.  This may mean not taking the ravings of their teenager to seriously.  It may mean overlooking the slight of an angry child who screams, “I hate you!”  Shouting, “I hate you too!” back will only escalate the problem not solve it.  So, assuming the posture of the adult on the world stage may mean absorbing abuses and even the shedding of our own blood.

I do not know a parent of any child who at some time has not wished that the responsibility for being the adult in the home was not theirs.  That is only natural because it can be an exhausting and frustrating endeavor to constantly provide for and police those given into our charge.  However, surrendering our position is not an option.  Neither is reverting back to our own child-like behaviors of our past.  Fortunately, there are many all across the spectrum of religions and politics who act responsibly.  They take care of the poor, stand against injustice, suffer with the disenfranchised, come alongside the marginalized and actively contribute to making our world a better place.  We just need more of them and need to hear their voices.

So, it is time we all grew up.  Stop acting and responding like children.  Begin to behave out of our higher ideals and values – political and religious.  Be willing to bear the cost of improving our world for our children.  Become the voices of reason against the squall or school-yard language and rhetoric.  Refuse to play the “who done it to who first game.”  Then, perhaps in time, the whole world will grow up to become what we all hope it will become.  A place where we can all get along.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Individualism Versus Collectivism

The pioneers of the United States of America were marked by a rugged individualism. While communities were formed for mutual protection and financial prosperity, it was most often the pioneer, settler or trader who explored and paved the way for them.  As such, much of America’s psyche is marked with an individualistic attitude.  As a society we value the stories of individuals who came to our shores and made a way for themselves.

Since the “wild West” has been settled and cultural values are now shaped more by the urban and suburban than the farm or ranch, the social psyche seems to be changing from an individualism mind-set to a collectivism one. As the population of America has shifted from agricultural settings to urban ones, the value of the individualism is not as prominent as that of the collective or community.  Is this good or bad?  I do not know.

The trouble arises, however, in attempting to define what are the rights of the individual versus what are the rights of the community. For those still attendant to the ethos of individualism, any discussion of social or community responsibilities is interpreted as an attempt to impose the  “evils” of socialism or communism.  On the other side of the spectrum, for those committed to the values of community and perceived social obligations, any objections from those committed to individual responsibilities and rewards is interpreted as irresponsible and uncaring.

Thus, in today’s political milieu, is the responsibility for health care an individual one or a collective one? Or, is the duty to provide for one’s self and family solely an individual one with no social support or is their a collective interest and invest on the part of the larger community?  At what point are issues to be determined on the federal, state or local collective community level or purely based upon individual response and responsibility?

To add to the mix, the definition of what are the “rights of all” versus what are the “rights of individuals” becomes complicated. When determined by the individual, there are almost as many answers as there are individuals in the U.S.  When determined by the community, there are as many answers as there are collective groups (political, social, religious, etc).  Thus, collective groups fight for and lobby for their collective interests.  This seems to result in an ever increasing broadening of collective “rights” available for the community.

Early in American history, the collective “rights” were very limited; though not always fairly practiced. The Bill of Rights was the beginning of the effort to define those social or collective rights.  The idea of fairness developed early on in the American consciousness so that over the years the idea of what is fair has broadened greatly: fairness in housing, fairness to Americans with disabilities, fairness to people of different religions, fairness to people of different sexual orientations, fairness in employment opportunities, fairness in the minimum wage – and the list continues to grow.

This is not all bad. It reveals that our democracy is a living, breathing organization and not one written in stone and codified to a particular era of human history or experience.  However, it carries with it its interesting challenges as well.  The contemporary struggle, apart from the struggle over gay marriage rights, is the idea of fair and equal access to technology, most particularly the internet.

Just as it became a perceived right in America for everyone to have electricity and a telephone after it had been available for a number of years to particular individuals, so now it is becoming a perceived right that everyone has a “right” to have access to the internet and computer technology. Those in the collective camp point out that individuals without such access are at a high disadvantage at school, in the labor market and the global market.  Those in the individualism camp howl at the idea that everyone has that “right” to technological access, especially since they as an individual had to pay a high personal price to attain that right, let alone that they should share in the cost of providing equal and fair access.

Classic Car, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Classic Car, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Two consciences seem to be at war in America. There is the conscience of the individuals who value the person over community; who “pulled themselves up by their own boot straps” and accomplished something with their life.  They value personal effort and ownership.

Then there is the conscience of the individuals who value the community over individuals; who realize that no one got where they are alone. This is often called collectivism.  The group rather than the individual is the primary political and social unit.  They value community effort towards equality and fairness.

The former group has determined that the moral bearing of the community is dependent upon the individual’s actions and responsibilities. They fear the subjugation of the individual to the group.  Instead, they believe that every individual is a sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his or her own life.  Thus, all individuals have an obligation to them selves so that they are not a burden to anyone or any group.

While the latter group has determined that the moral bearing of the community is determined by how it cares for one another. They emphasize the interdependence any individual has with some social group.  Thus, all individuals have an obligation to the larger group who hopes to guarantee the security of its individual members.

The conscience of one has been shaped by rugged individualism and self-determination. The conscience of the other has been shaped by belonging to strong communities who support the individuals within them.  It is no wonder then that immigration has played a large part in shaping and moving the American conscience towards a collective ideal.  Most of the rest of the world has lived and survived in strong, tight-knit communities.  Even in settling in American, they have done so in immigrant communities who take care of one another.

The African, Asian and Latin American communities exhibit a strong family and communal based ethos. It is these new immigrant communities that will shape the future of the U.S.  The days of the lone ranger, rancher, cowboy, farmer, settler or pioneer are gone for the most part.  The migration of the majority of the American population since 1900 away from agricultural setting to urban and suburban settings is advancing this change as well.  So, what is the harm?

The harm may be in our own undoing. As noted by some of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., the danger of any democracy is when the constituents of that democracy realize that they can vote themselves into perceived financial and personal security.  Like our senators and representatives who vote themselves a pay raise, the American public is now able to vote for them selves a larger and larger portion of a piece of the American pie; or pressure their senators and representatives to vote for it.  The problem is that there is only so much pie.

It is a delicate balance between the rights and responsibilities of the individual versus the community. The margins and definitions of this are always changing and shifting.  As with many similar issues, the answer to finding that balance will never lie in an “either/or” approach.  It will be contained in a “both/and” approach.  Where it will not be determined is in the mass media market or among special interest groups fighting against one another.  Where it will be determined is perhaps in the very place that America seems to be lacking the most right now; in the halls of leadership and scholarship.  Strangely, this will require strong individuals who have an eye for the collective whole.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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