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Category Archives: ministry

Week Of Accompanied Prayer #1

English: Isaiah; illustration from a Bible car...

English: Isaiah; illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.

We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:

As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.

I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.

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The Revenge Of The Church Organist

Window depicting the church organist and child...

Window depicting the church organist and children’s choir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems like the old ‘organist and terrorist’ joke had a ring of truth.

Bullying And The Church

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children who use self-deprecating humour are more likely to be bullied, according to research reported today. Perhaps it was no surprise when the teenagers at Knaphill Methodist recently led some prayers in worship on the theme of justice that the word which kept recurring was ‘bullying’.

I read the article I’ve linked to above out of interest for my children. But as I read it, I thought about church experience. Preachers are told to identify with congregations and not to make themselves sound too superior. So – especially in a British cultural experience – it isn’t surprising if we use self-deprecating humour in sermons. I certainly have. However, one minister told me that it was the church where he most used that kind of humour as an attempt to make a bridge to the congregation that he was most despised. I have heard and read too many stories to believe this was an isolated case. Congregations bully leaders; leaders bully congregations.

So – is the advice wrong? Why does bullying exist in the church? And what should we do about it? We have our ‘safeguarding’ policies for the sake of children and vulnerable adults, but some people who do not fall into either of those categories can be targetted in some churches. When a minister is bullied, I have seen it ‘solved’ by moving the minister away. Nothing happens to the perpetrator. When congregations are bullied, there can also be a failure to acknowledge the issue. It’s like asking a school what it’s anti-bullying policy is, only to be told, ‘We don’t have a bullying problem.’

Sorry, but it’s not true. Houston, we have a problem.

Depression In The Church

Depression Please Cut To The Chase by darcyadelaide on Flickr

Depression Please Cut To The Chase by darcyadelaide on Flickr

The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.

I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.

It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.

I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:

God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.

God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.

‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?

Can Ministers Say ‘No’ To A Need?

For some readers, there is an obvious ‘yes’ in reply to that question. But for others, there is a default assumption that ministers, like a broadband connection, are meant to be ‘always on’, and when the connection drops there is something wrong.

I raise this, because two separate web articles have caught my eye over the last couple of days. BBC News published a piece called ‘Clergy hide from constant callers‘, which was taken up in inimitable style by Archdruid Eileen of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley under the title ‘The vicar can’t speak to you now‘. The BBC piece details the strategies some ministry families have to deploy in order to get some peace and rest on a day off, even hiding in a back room with curtains drawn, watching TV. Others imply it’s part of the calling to the ordained life that you always respond. Hmm. I suppose that’s why Jesus took himself off alone at times? The article sadly only speaks about ‘days off’ rather than the more powerful but tricky concept of ‘sabbath’.

Then I found this piece by Charles Stone: ‘Are you a sleep deprived pastor? Take this test and find out.‘ Er, yes I am. Sometimes I accept it’s bad personal management. Other times it’s health issues. But on too many occasions it is work items that aren’t optional. Two days after Easter I was up until the early hours, completing my submissions for the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review. It’s an important piece of work, and I support it: our denomination is reviewing all child protection cases since 1950. The problem is, it is being phased across the country and I am in a region that was expected to do this work in a period running from two weeks before Easter to two weeks after Easter. Yes – our busiest time of the year, even more frantic than Christmas, and just the time when many ministers need a rest.

I have read articles about overworked ministers that tell us to take time off and get exercise. Yes, of course, but it’s not enough to tell us to do these good things. We need strategies. One involves having the mental toughness to say ‘no’. As I write this, there is a discussion on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about baptism requests, where families with no church connection approach a minister, expecting a specific date, sometimes even already having booked the location for the party.

But for some people, it’s bad form for a minister to say ‘no’. It’s also hard for us. We follow a calling into this work because we care, and care for others sometimes involves lack of self-care. We justify that as some kind of sacrifice. It can also be a cover for our desire to please other people rather than God, or perhaps even our fear that if we don’t please people they’ll have us moved on quicker than we wanted at great cost to our family. I suppose that’s a lack of faith – as also is the feeling that if we don’t respond, someone will not be helped when they are in need.

At other times, it just isn’t possible to say ‘no’, because all the things on our agenda are non-negotiables, and they can’t all be managed by forward planning.

So – if you are a minister, how do you cope with the demands? If you are a member of a congregation, how would you like your minister to handle this?

Church Killers

Following the post on signs of a dying church last week, here is a similar one: 20 Hidden Ministry Killers. I read this one especially when I realised it was written by George Bullard, someone whose work on the life cycle of a congregation I discovered on my last sabbatical. While in this new post Bullard sometimes has in mind churches that are even younger than many of the ones people like me minister in, nevertheless several of his twenty danger signs resonated with me.

Which ones connect with you? What other signs would you add?

The Second Coming Of Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He’s back. Plastered all over the God TV home page, with pictures, blog posts and a live feed. It’s just that he’s had to move a few miles away from Lakeland – to Durban, South Africa, for his latest ‘revival’, humbly called ‘The Great Awakening’. Yes, folks, the ever-modest Todd Bentley, whose trophy healing cases end up dead, is implicitly comparing himself with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards.

Of course, the publicity machine has had to be dragged out of the garage for this. There is a powder-puff interview with him this evening, and the God TV founders, Rory and Wendy Alec, have had some explaining to do. You see, apparently, they’re going to be persecuted for putting Bentley on screen again. That’s right, the secret police are going to turn up in the middle of the night and cart the Alecs off for interrogation under torture.

No, actually. They will not be persecuted. Other Christians will disagree and criticise. That’s not the same thing. Please stop using the word ‘persecution’ in this way. It’s utterly disrespectful of the suffering church throughout the world and throughout the ages.

However, we’re all right, because the ground has been prepared. The Alecs interviewed Bentley in January, and the controversial matter of his marriage separation, his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Jessa, whom he went on to marry, is all subsumed under a ‘David and Bathsheba’ motif. Jesus forgave Peter for his three denials, and told him to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. Is Bentley simply a case of someone with a besetting sin who keeps needing the grace of a loving God, in the manner I spoke of Brennan Manning? If I argue that Bentley remains in the relationship that arguably broke up his first marriage and could therefore biblically be said to be adulterous (even though in the eyes of the law he is duly married), then David and Bathsheba are invoked. However, in that case, Bathsheba’s first husband was dead (albeit bumped off at David’s behest). Shonnah Bentley is alive, although in the interview apparently her pastor gave a statement on her behalf, saying she has forgiven Todd and she endorses his on-going ministry. Does that make it right?

There is still the uncomfortable question of verification around Bentley’s ministry. I’ve linked to evidence above that many claimed healings were nothing of the sort. In the current ‘revival’ in Durban, there are alleged manifestations of gold. But no, that’s not enough: there are diamonds as well. So how about some independent testimony? They could pay the expenses of the outreach if they truly are diamonds. There is also a Wendy Alec prophecy, that names specific places which will be affected in the claimed forthcoming revival. You might think that would make things potentially verifiable: will these cities and nations be strongly impacted with the gospel or not? However, it’s a little too vague, even for that, because there is no time frame, apart from a general ‘It is time’ statement. If someone says, ‘Johannesburg has not been transformed, Bulgaria has not been touched’, it will still be easy to say, ‘It isn’t that it hasn’t happened; it just hasn’t happened yet.’

My gut instinct, then, is still to draw a clear line between a Todd Bentley and a Brennan Manning. Both of them, like all of us, are or were sinners in need of restoration, but I am more at ease with one than the other. I think you can guess which.

For those who want to see the whole interview, this seems to be it:

iPad Worship And Visual Impairment

The Daily Mail reports on a Derbyshire church that is sending its prayers, hymn words and readings over the wifi in the church café to worshippers equipped with tablet computers. Apparently it’s a hit with some of the visually impaired worshippers. The Leadership Team at one of my churches has engaged in a lot of research to see what we can do for people who are registered partially sighted, and iPads have been suggested to us. Here is a church actually doing it.

What do you think? Will it meet resistance or fear from some older worshippers who are nervous of the technology? Or is this a genuine way forward?

What Does A Dying Church Look Like?

5 Signs of a Dying Church by Tim Spivey: some of these need cultural translation to my situation, but what do you think? What are the indications to you that a church needs the Last Rites?

How To Worship

With thanks to Andy Louisiana Swampbeast Richardson on the UK Methodists Facebook page – watch out for that kidney stone: