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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

Interview Questions for the Searching Pastor

Spring is in the air and change seems to be sprouting in every which direction. Colleagues are quietly talking about their discernment. Questions are being asked about how to leave a ministry well and I admit I don’t have solid answers. I have left two churches and I’m still not sure I have done it well. I only know that I miss them both. And now, I’m preparing to leave another.

My last Sunday isn’t until October but with only four months of our shared work ahead, I’m starting to think about what’s next. I’m looking at listings. I’m beginning to network as I wonder if there might be an interim opportunity in the next year. At the same time, my colleagues seem to be hungry for questions to ask of search committees. It is a question that keeps appearing and it’s one that I think I can answer. I have, after all, interviewed a lot. I haven’t always gotten the gig but I have been told I ask good questions.

Last year, I wrote another post with interview tips for pastors which includes some techie pointers and a few questions to inspire your conversation with the search committee. This is all about the questions. These questions are all geared toward pastors who are trying to learn as much as they can about the congregations with whom they’re interviewing.

Let’s start with mood. Every congregation has a particular mood. Some are hopeful. Some are despairing. Some think the sky is falling. Some think that there is endless possibility. Still others are just confused. They want it all, but then again, so do I. It should be possible to read the mood of the church in the paperwork they provide about themselves. But, even if it is not apparent, these mood questions are my favorite for the simple fact that they reveal the church’s heart.

  • What gives you joy?
  • What do you most want to learn as a congregation?
  • As Barbara Brown Taylor asks, what is saving your life right now?
  • How is your church living in Easter/Pentecost/Christmas/Epiphany right now? (This will only work with the liturgically minded.)
  • How do you experience the peace that surpasses all understanding together?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • As I just heard Krista Tippet ask: As you look around at the world now, what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?

The temptation in answering these questions is to answer for yourself rather than for the congregation. Try to nudge toward the congregation’s perspective rather than the personal. When I ask these questions, I request hearing an answer from everyone on the committee. I don’t want to hear their rote answers or even from the one guy that is most comfortable speaking. I want to hear them talk to each other. I want to hear their deepest truth. Bizarrely, this works best on the phone. When I interviewed for my current interim, I asked the joy question while on the phone. I couldn’t see their faces but they concluded by saying, “I wish you were here to see what just happened. I don’t think we just got closer.” Alleluia!

The next set of questions are adapted from the United Church of Christ’s A Pilgrimage Through Transitions and New Beginnings. The questions in the packet of materials (it was actually once a binder) provided by my denomination are all geared toward churches. I’ve tweaked them for pastors to ask of churches. You can find the original list found in both Resource 11B and Resource 11C here.

  • What is most exciting about your church’s mission? (This assumes that the church actually has a clearly stated mission. If not, it’s worth asking what they think their mission might be. I’d let everyone answer that too.)
  • What does worship do for your community? What should it do?
  • How do you take care of each other? Who is responsible and how is this labor of love  shared by your community?
  • What is your understanding of “good news”?
  • What motivates you to invite your friends to church? Why do you think they should want to join your fellowship? What are you doing to help with that outreach?
  • The role of the pastor is changing fast. How would you define that role?
  • What experiences have contributed most to your growth as a church in the past five years? Have you read books together? Do you go on retreats? Is your adult Sunday School picking some awesome topics?
  • How would you describe God? What is your favorite image of God in scripture?
  • What is your church’s weakness? What is the most difficult thing for you to do together?

Each church interviews a little bit differently in my tradition. The norm was once two phone interviews and then an in-person interview. That seems to be changing. Still, I tend to save all of my big questions for the in-person interview. To me, that’s when it’s really serious. In the phone interview, I typically only ask two or three questions but after I hang up the phone, I write down all of the questions I still have.lauras-logo

If you are interviewing right now, or attend a church that is going through a search process, I really hope that you’ll complete this survey compiled by my friend Laura Stephens-Reed. Laura has wisely identified that there are some huge challenges that have arisen in churches that have all started with a bad search. (I am serving one of those churches as an interim right now.) Laura also happens to be the one that convinced me that I could do interim ministry. I am eternally grateful as I love it so I hope that you’ll add your thought to this survey. You can read more about the project here.

Before you go, please share your best questions. What are your favorite interview questions?

 

More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.