The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

Recipe for Discernment

I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Liebert last month in San Anselmo where I began my studies in spiritual direction. I had read her book The Way of Discernment way back when I was discerning whether or to leave my first call. I was testing the spirits and her words were amazingly helpful as she reminded me, in her own words, that

discernment … is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.

Convinced both then and now that faithfulness great or small is going to be lost on me, I also read this article from the Christian Century. The author simply says God has no secret plan but only asks any of us into the greater faithfulness of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Still, this feels lofty and overwhelming and I know it will for Central Congregational Church in Topeka tonight when I lead them through this exercise in discernment. Tonight, we’ll look at all of the data that we can find about the mission field in Topeka. There will be holes. We won’t have everything we want or need, but with what we’ve found and what I have gathered as their consultant, we’ll try to discern the greater faithfulness of this congregation.

To do so, we’ll borrow questions from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment. In other chapters, she encourages listening to the heart’s desire and paying attention to your body. She invites dreaming and prayer but in  the third chapter, it’s all about the data. We’ll repeat the questions she offers twice throughout the night but as I review my notes again I hope that these become familiar questions that recur in the months ahead when this church will need to make still more decisions. I don’t expect that we will come to a clear answer tonight, but I do hope that these questions will guide us in the ongoing process and it’s why I want to offer these questions to you.

Whether it is your church or your own self that is in the midst of discernment, here is a recipe that might helping you get cooking toward knowing what that greater faithfulness might be.

recipe-for-ministry

It didn’t fit on my cute little design but there is one final step which is to give thanks. There may not be clear answers to where God is leading, but God is still leading. God is present in every questions and soon enough we will know what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Until we’re clear, both you and I will return to this practice and ask these questions over and over again until we have a clear sense of where that greater faithfulness is.

If you are interested to learn more about my consulting practice or how I might help your church, I hope you’ll contact me. I would love to hear from you.

 

The Rise of the Consultant 

I can’t remember when I first heard the term.

I do remember how I felt about it when I heard that there was such a thing as a church consultant. It was not pleasant.

I was of the impression that it wasn’t anything that a pastor couldn’t do and I was a pastor.  I knew the people in the congregation. I knew their hopes and dreams and was doing my best to understand what ministry we might do together. I wasn’t excited about anyone Lee helping with that discernment. It seemed like a waste of time and an even bigger waste of money to hire someone to help us ask the questions we already knew we needed to answer as a church. No, when I first heard the term, I was anything but excited about the idea of a church consultant.

I didn’t like it but it seemed like they were everywhere. Church consultants were popping up all over the place. They were the hot new thing but I couldn’t quite escape the fact that these were people who had left full-time ministry. That’s how it seemed to me. These were people that couldn’t hack it as a pastor, but they still thought they had something to offer the church. So they became a consultant. At that time, they were all older than me. They’d been in ministry a long time. They had a resume that I couldn’t fathom and most of them were connected to the now extinct Alban Institute as was true for the church consultant that I first considered hiring.

I had a fabulous conversation with this gentleman over email and then on the phone about how we might lead the church I was serving to understand their vision. The church knew that this was a question that they must answer. They were anticipating the retirement of the Senior Pastor and were wondering what their ministry might look like after he left. Ever eager to help, I rose to the challenge and did what I could to help them on this quest. It didn’t work. They didn’t choose to hire him and it became clear that I had stepped into something I hadn’t intended. So it was time and time again as an Associate Pastor.

That was then, but now, there are consultants my age. They have resumes like mine and they are immersed in the wondering what the future of the church might be. I’ve learned a thing or two since the first time I heard the term church consultant for the first time. Most importantly, they don’t have all of the answers. They have ideas and questions. They’ve seen some things work in other places but they don’t know what God is doing in this place. None of us do. Church consultants are curious. They are seekers. They are looking to find God in the midst of numbers and figures. They are trying to ask questions that they can’t answer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and make herself known.

They have some skills too. They’ve studied change and tried to understand how much people hate it and what we can do to manage the inevitability of change still finding its way into our laps. And even though consultancy is an idea taken from the business world, the ones in the church are really people of prayer. They are open to transformation. It’s what they hope to find every time they sign a contract with a local church.

I never expected that I would be counted among this group of people. From the very beginning, when I first wandered into the halls of seminary, I have been called to the local church. I saw myself as a pastor. I still feel that I am a pastor but when I got married to a man in the military, my ministry changed. I got excited about interim ministry and eager to help congregations transition into a vibrant future with God. I got some training and got to use my new skills. And then, we moved… again. I interviewed with another church and they are delightful but I didn’t think I could give them my all. I’m newly married. We are only here for a short time. I just didn’t think I could do both well. So, I turned down the opportunity to be their interim pastor.

It was then that the conference minister in the region I find myself asked if I might consider being a consultant. The pastor that they hired is good and talented but she is not trained. She doesn’t have these skills yet and the church needs this work. They need to ask big holy questions about their future. They are not just looking to call a new pastor. They are looking to sell their building and they have to discern what their ministry might be in that unknown future. There was dead air on the other end of the phone when the conference minister said I could do such a thing. I could be a consultant. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to think about it. “Pray about it,” she said “and if it feels right, write up a proposal.”

Tonight will be the first time that I attempt this new thing. I’ll lead the first session in a series of workshops. I’ll meet with the pastor and share in big questions about what God is doing in this group of people. I’ll be one of those church consultants asking questions and looking for the Holy Spirit.