Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Last Things First

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Those of us who are not strict liturgical purists can begin singing carols and putting up our Christmas decorations. It is time to let the season carry us away.
We will, however, arrive at worship on Sunday and get an unsettling passage of scripture.  We will be treated to Jesus talking about nations in anguish, people fainting from terror, and disturbances in the heavens.  The text ends with an ominous warning to always be on watch so as to escape what is coming (Luke 21:25-36).  Jeremiah does soften the blow a bit with: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’’ (Jer. 33:16).

But really!  Where is the nativity scene with the donkey, mother and cooing child, and moonlit angels?  What happened to peace on earth and good will toward one another?

The wisdom of our forbearers in the faith is that in order to understand the first coming of Jesus, we must see it through the lens of his second coming.  Thus we begin Advent with passages like Luke 21.

We are prone to domesticate this baby in the manger and make him into the bearer of our desires.  He is going to make our lives and our world the way we want them to be.  He is going to give us what we want.  At his nativity, Jesus cannot speak for himself.  In the silence we are prone to fill his mouth with words we want to hear.

By Luke 21 this Jesus has found his voice.  The cooing baby has grown into the Son of Man, who cautions:  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Luke 21:33).  In other words, he will turn all that we have built for our own comfort and security and pleasure to compost.

This is good image to hold in our minds as we move into the celebration of excess and materialism that Christmas has become.   I don’t mean to be the Grinch; I love a warm pair of LL Bean slippers as much as the next person, and I can already sense the heartburn that will follow too much rich food and sugar.  I am not making the mistake of the unreformed Scrooge.  I will wring all the holiday I can out of the coming four weeks.

I will, however, try to let the voice of the Son of Man roll around in the back of my mind as the Christmas carols play.  It all will come to compost in the end he warns.  This is why we begin the story of Jesus by telling the end of the story first.  In this way, we don’t lose sight of where it is all going and who this baby will grow up to be.

Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-America Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Trust is Primary

Three weeks into my time at the church, she sat in my office and said: “Dr. Kelsey, you are my pastor; and I will never oppose you in public.  I will follow where you lead this church, but I will never trust you.”  She had found that pastors are not trustworthy.

Several years later she called me on the phone and said “I need you. Can you come over here?”  There had been a terrible tragedy in her family, one she never shared in honesty with anyone but me and her closest friend.  She trusted me with this.  It was a great honor to be trusted in that way by a woman who had been betrayed before.  We worked well together over the years.  She could be a bit assertive at times, but we were often allies as the church plotted its future.

The church leader said to me as he handed me my last paycheck on my last Sunday at the church:  “I’ve not gotten along with a minister in this place for 45 years, and I think they were glad to be finished with me when they left.”  He went on to say that he and I had disagreed about many things church-wise but that he and I had gotten along well.  He observed that we had been honest with each other, no surprises or games.  I replied that I often had not agreed with him but that I had trusted him. In an inexplicable way I felt him a friend; I did not put it to him quite that way.  We had been able to weather regular disagreement because we trusted each other, admittedly in a sometimes wary way on my part.  As Ronald Reagan once said:  Trust but verify.

I asked a pastor a fairly straightforward question in a leadership meeting; I had been invited in to help them manage a conflict.  Before the pastor could answer, a lay leader blurted out “now don’t you lie pastor.”  In that moment I knew nothing could be accomplished among these folks until we dealt with mistrust.
Trust is the most useful asset shared among a congregation and its leaders, both lay and clergy leaders.  If trusts exists, a ministry partnership can survive the stress of tough finances, deteriorating buildings, and declining membership.  Conflicts over vision, theology, and worship style can be weathered if trust undergirds the relationship. 

Anxiety is the enemy of trust.  When we feel anxious, we look for someone to blame, someone to whom we can transfer our anxiety.  When we are anxious we live with a sense of threat, thus we do not give others the benefit of the doubt.  We attribute to them the worst of motives.  Trust comes harder in challenging times.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains-Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, writes that if a leader is not competent and reliable in working through familiar charted territory, people will not follow that leader into unfamiliar uncharted territory (pp. 50-55).  He goes on to say that if trust is lost, the shared journey between the leader and congregation is over.  “The irreducible minimum in leadership is trust [p. 66].” Trust is an essential asset when we try to lead people to new places and to do fresh things.
How does Bolsinger think a church leader, lay or ordained, builds trust?  Consistent and congruent behavior is necessary.  Consistent behavior means we are the same person with the same values in every relationship and circumstance.  This demonstrates a core to our character that makes us a reliable partner.

Good leaders also demonstrate congruent behavior.  The way they treat people and live their lives is congruent with what they say.  They put their money where their mouth is.  They speak about generosity and forgiveness and then live generously among others, forgiving them with regularity.  They do not only analyze the causes of homelessness, they ladle out soup in a food kitchen.

Good leaders spend time searching for solutions, assessing options, and building competencies in their organizations.  There is, however, something prior to all of that. The building of trust among leaders and between leaders and those whom they lead is primary.

Jesus spent three years preparing his followers to carry on after his departure.  He was always the same person in every situation, living out of a consistent set of values.  His behavior was congruent with what he said; he walked the walk.  We would do well to take his example to heart, and set establishing trust as our first task as leaders.  With trust, we can weather any storm and face any challenge.  Without it, we will stumble and fall.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State