Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Playoff Time Again!

This year’s playoff salaries, according to this site

Philadelphia Phillies - $ 172,976,379
St. Louis Cardinals - $ 105,433,572
Milwaukee Brewers - $ 85,497,333
Arizona Diamondbacks - $ 53,639,833

New York Yankees - $ 202,689,028
Detroit Tigers - $ 105,700,231
Texas Rangers - $ 92,299,264
Tampa Bay Rays - $ 41,053,571

So for me, this means I will root for St. Louis and Arizona in the NL and Detroit and Tampa from the AL.

Then Arizona and Tampa in the series, with Tampa winning it all. Go Rays!

The New York Yankees’ payroll is almost five times Tampa Bay’s.

Your average salary if you’re a Tampa Bay Ray is $ 1,578,983. If you are a Yankee, it’s $ 6,756,300.

Tampa’s is the second lowest in all of baseball. The lowest? Kansas City, at $ 36,126,000.

The highest paid divisional losers this year were the Minnesota Twins (snicker), who paid out a whopping $ 112,737,000 for the pleasure of losing 99 games, second worst in baseball, and finishing dead last in the pathetic AL Central. The worst team in baseball this year was Houston, who only paid $ 70,694,000, quite a bargain by comparison.

Even the lowest playoff payroll is an obscene amount, of course. A whole lot of good could be done for a whole lot of people with just Tampa Bay’s meager 41 million. The world definitely has its priorities screwed up, no doubt about it.

Nevertheless, it is baseball, and it is the playoffs, and since my team is not in it this year (but just wait till next year!) I am participating in my annual ritual of deciding whom to root for by how big the payrolls are.

Go Rays! (Again.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fruitful Questions - Hoping for Answers!

There is a contradiction at work in the church that needs to be addressed. Simply put, the passionate call for change contradicts the use of old methods of assessment.

To be sure, there has been a shift of emphasis in our assessment, from counting “members” to counting people who are active in their discipleship. We count worshipers, people in hands-on mission, and those who participate in small groups. That’s good, and it is definitely better than counting people in the nearly meaningless category of “member.”

But we are still often times just counting heads in order to determine effectiveness (or fruitfulness), and then making decisions based on those counts. We are calling for our congregations to focus outwardly, meanwhile making all of our assessments inwardly.

It is very encouraging to hear Missouri’s Bishop Schnase and members of the cabinet here in my conference talk about making decisions that are motivated by mission, not numbers. I hope that perspective continues to filter outward throughout the conference, the United Methodist denomination, and beyond. And more importantly, I hope that I can fully embrace it.

I freely admit that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to this issue. The contradiction between a fresh approach to church and a stale assessment method is nowhere more evident than in my own heart and mind. When the room is filled to capacity on a Sunday morning for worship, I always feel better than on Sundays when it is sparse, no matter what actually happens in the service itself. Lives might be changed; insights may be gained; hearts could be strangely warmed all over the place - but if attendance was 10% less this week than last, I’m not happy.

So I suppose I may be preaching this sermon to myself most of all. So here’s what I want to change about myself:

+ I want to concentrate the vast majority of my energy on the amazing patterns of Christian discipleship that are being lived all the time through so many who call this congregation home.
- In order to do this, I will need to free up a large quantity of my energy that I currently expend obsessing over numbers that have essentially plateaued over the past year.

+ I want to self-assess my ministry by determining how the people of the congregation I serve are allowing their pattern of discipleship to shape their day to day lives.
- In order to do this, I will need to be more intentional about asking and listening, providing opportunities for people of the church to provide testimony of their faith.

+ I want to figure out how to assess the fruitfulness of this congregation by determining our impact on the community of Springfield.
- I have no idea how to do this.

Those are my own goals, and what I will be sharing with my District Superintendent in a few weeks when we meet for my annual review.

And so here are the questions...

How do my goals sound to you? I’m curious to know, do other pastors also struggle with this contradiction in your own minds?

I’m also curious to know how laity assess the effectiveness/fruitfulness of the congregations they belong to. How much of a part do the numbers play in how you feel about the congregation you're a part of?

And a related question: Noting the declining commitment to attend worship and other regular church programming on a weekly basis, how does an individual Christian disciple reflect on their own fruitfulness in the stressful mix of so many competing societal influences?
- And the follow up: And how can/should the church respond to that?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Great Spin-off Question about Serving

In response to my last post, Megan wrote:

Andy, I have a spin-off question. You mentioned not worrying about "making a mistake"- alluding to the mistake being if you gave someone the wrong kind of assistance. But what if the mistake is putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation? I have heard folks- mostly grown men- give the answer to questions like Marti's "Instead of giving cash, take them to lunch." Or as you say, give people the gift of time and attention. But if I am walking to my office in an area of town with a bad reputation, with no one around to help me, as is the case most days, and a stranger asks me for money or something else, which is also not unusual- what am I to do? Am I being un-Christlike to consider my safety and not stop by myself to "give attention" to the stranger, let alone lunch? I have no problem helping people in "safe" environments like my office- but is that enough? Is there a line somewhere between being Christ-like and helpful and placing myself at risk of a violent crime? Or do I find that line after I make the mistake? How does a young woman respond to the call to be a "Good Samaritan?"

I love spin-offs!

Your point is well-taken, Megan. I would say that it is not un-Christlike to consider your own safety. Jesus himself did so as he prayed in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. It seems to me that his personal well-being was weighing pretty heavily on his mind as he asked if it might be possible for God’s cup to be removed from his lips.

But going deeper, and a bit more “theologically speaking,” you and I are trying to be Christlike in a broken world. The world in which we live is imperfect and there are people here who will intentionally hurt others and commit violent crimes and prey on those perceived as vulnerable. In fact, it is because we live in a broken world that followers of Jesus are commanded to “be Christlike.” If the world was already as God intended it to be, well then our job would be done, and the party could really get started.

I wish there was a line like you describe; a risk-marking boundary that showed us “this far but no further.” That line would be in different places for different people, I suspect. And it would be in different places in different contexts, as well. One would tend to draw that line much closer when walking alone in a part of town with a bad reputation, for example.

But what happens if I draw that line and instead of a boundary protecting me it turns out to be a barrier that keeps another from receiving life-giving help? Of course, this is the heart of the question you raise.

I’m not intending to “proof text” here, but maybe this passage has something to say: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19b-20)

I believe that when I say that I am a disciple of Jesus, I am saying that my life is no longer my own. My life. My physical life does not belong to me any more. I have in my wallet a copy of John Wesley’s covenant prayer that says, in part, “I am no longer my own, but thine…. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing.” The idea of the prayer is that we belong to God, whether that means we will prosper or suffer as a result of our actions.

So, I don’t believe that you always have to be risking your life in order to be considered Christlike. And neither do I believe that a situation being life-threatening excludes it from Christian discipleship.

I believe that, because we live in a broken world, there may very well be times when following Jesus means risking our lives. And that bothers me, because I don't know if I am really willing to do that.

PS - I have a-whole-nother response that has to do with your use of the phrase “Good Samaritan” but I believe I’ll save it for a-whole-nother day. :)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Great Question about Serving

I got this email the other day:

I enjoyed your sermon yesterday, as usual, but was curious about the [scripture] starting with [Matthew 25] verse 41 where it also says that if you do not give to the hungry and naked and do not give anything to drink, you have not done it for me. There are several more references but this has always bothered me since there are so many asking over the phone, through the mail, and even when you get out of the car in parking lots. There are those with signs saying they need food and work, all over the place.

My question I guess is are we turning away Jesus when we say no, which especially bothers me when they ask you in person. Should you give every time and do you consider your own finances and the needs of your family in these situations? I think probably there is no easy answer and also think my first responsibility is to my church and then make sure my family has their needs met, but with my family and myself needs are always met, it is just wants - so that is why this bothers me when I think about Jesus's words.

Just curious about your ideas on this and I am sure, as a pastor, you have people hitting on you for money all the time.Thanks for the help.

Much love

I replied:

Great question, Marti.

I applaud you for being bothered when you think about the words of Jesus. I think the church would be better off if more people were bothered by what Jesus has to say.

I am reading a book called "Radical" by David Platt and it is really "bothering" me - a lot! He says that "we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with." His point is that North American Christianity has minimized the radical call of Jesus. It is a symptom of what I call our "impoverished Christology."

Here's a question that I puzzle over in situations like you describe. Which is easier, to give the person 5 bucks or invite them to lunch with you? Obviously, to give them the five and then be done with them is easier, and gives us the added benefit of believing we have helped someone in need. It soothes our guilty conscience and allows us to check another act of discipleship off our to-do list for the week.

But I don't think Jesus wants his disciples to stop there. Rather than asking, "Should I give him $5 or not?" I think Jesus wants his disciples to go deeper, and struggle at a deeper level. "Should I just give him $5 or should I take him out to lunch?" And further, "What can I do in the community that will help eliminate the conditions that cause him to be begging for help in the first place?"

Okay, so back to the question at hand. "Should you give every time?" I answer, "Yes." But should you give cash every time? I don't. I always give time and attention. I listen to their story and try to understand what is happening. I try to give myself to them in some way, and many times that ends up with my giving them some cash. But not always. Sometimes it means giving them a phone number or two where more resources are available to them. Sometimes it means giving them just conversation and prayer, and a friendly smile.

How do I figure out what to give? Well, I wish I could say there was a clearly defined set of criteria I use, but there's not. It is intuitive, mostly. It is me staying open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is being face-to-face with someone and picking up a "vibe," which I hope is the "vibe" of Christ. It is much more an art and much less a science.

And I know there are times I have made mistakes, both giving someone money that was then wasted AND not giving someone money when they really truly needed it. But I do not let the fear of making mistakes influence me. If I did, I would never give anyone anything, and I am confident that is not faithful Christian discipleship.

That's a long answer, and a complicated one. But I think you knew that your question was not going to have an easy answer before you asked, didn't you? :)

Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church