When all else fails, you gotta support your kids

Two giants in North American Christian ministry died this week. One was well known across various Christian traditions. The other was not, but was no less a giant. Gordon Cosby of The Church of the Saviour fame died this week. He contributed so much to Christian ministry during his decades of service. Hundreds of thousands of words will be written and spoken about his life. All will be deserved.

Quentin Lockwood also died this week. He was not nearly as well known and his notoriety was primarily in one denomination. He was also a gentle giant in Christian ministry. I had the great joy to serve with him on the staff of a Baptist missions agency back in the 1980s. While a gentle soul, he was also a person of great conviction.

I knew Quentin best when he was the national leader for ministry in non-metropolitan areas of North America. It was called Rural-Urban Missions. One affinity I had with his work is that my father back in the 1940s was the first person in the 20th century selected by a state level Baptist denomination to direct rural/urban missions.

Quentin was funny, and a delightful person to be around. His wife Alene was even funnier. She always added laughter to any conversation. Both were unmistakably committed to Christian ministry in the Baptist tradition. They instilled this commitment into their children and urged them to respond to the call of God upon their lives.

At times the response of their children to God’s call created complicated situations. One was when their daughter, Susan, was called as pastor of a Baptist congregation in Chicago. In a Baptist denomination drifting increasingly conservative, a woman serving in the role of senior or solo pastor of a church did not go without notice.

Here is my recollection of how part of this story unfolded. In my circle of friends it is a story that is big enough that some urban legend factors may have crept in, yet the core meaning is present.

Pressure was placed on the Baptist missions agency and its president, Bill Tanner, to explain why the missions agency would have a staff person whose daughter served as pastor of a church. The level of staff served by myself and Quentin was about three levels away from the executive office, but we were hearing rumors and partial reports of what was going on.

At one point the rumor was that Bill Tanner had said, “If I get one more letter or phone call about Quentin’s daughter, he’s gone.” Yet, at the same time we knew that Bill Tanner was resisting the demands to take negative action. He understood Baptist polity. He understood the call of God on a person’s life. He understood how to be president of an organization. He understood what should and should not happen to respond to family situations experienced by staff persons.

Meanwhile Quentin and Alene were unmovable in their support for their daughter and her response to God’s call. I suspect, however, it made for interesting conversation among the family. It did create anxiety; not knowing what Bill Tanner might ultimately decide.

Then there was the elevator encounter between Quentin Lockwood and Bill Tanner. I was not there. Only the two of them were in the elevator. But this is how I remember the story of the encounter. It was the only time Quentin and Tanner talked directly about the situation.

Tanner turns to Quentin and says, “Quentin, I’ve heard about your daughter.” “Yeah, Doc, I understand that . . . “, began Quentin. “Shut up, Quentin, and let me tell you something”, says Tanner. “Quentin, when all else fails, you gotta support your kids.”

The elevator door opened. Tanner walked off. That is all he ever said to Quentin. Susan continues to serve as an ordained minister in local church ministry. Quentin is still in the elevator smiling. Now he has gone all the way to the top floor.

If you can say it to Jesus, you can say it to anyone

One of my mentors in the area of conflict mediation was Bill Treadwell. I loved that guy. I miss him. He had so much wisdom about how to deal with people in congregations. He was as much right-brained as I am left-brained. Because of that we sometimes made a good combination in various church situations.

Some years ago he tried to teach me how to fish, but after one visit out on Lake Wylie in South Carolina with my son, he declared that fishing was not for me. However, there was real hope for my son.

Bill came to a point in his life when he said he was not healthy enough anymore to do conflict mediation. He did triage work to figure out what was going on and what the congregation needed to do next, but the stress of being the outside third party in the midst of unhealthy conflict was no longer for him.

He would help me think through conflict situations. He recommended me from time-to-time to congregations. And, he would assist by coaching the pastor.

I remember one Wednesday evening when Bill and I were sitting in a pastor’s office about midnight trying to help the pastor figure out his next steps in leadership in an almost intractable conflict situation. The pastor’s main antagonist had a very tenuous health situation, having suffered three heart attacks. The pastor was afraid the stress of the current conflict was more than this person could handle.

He was right. This antagonist died of a heart attack four days later following an angry confrontation with the pastor in a public setting.

Bill had some very interesting exercises he would do with congregations. One occurred when he was working with a leadership group of the congregation who were trying to find ways to express their emotions about their congregation and the conflict. He would stand people in a circle, take a pillow, and ask people to do to this pillow what they would like to do to their church. Did they want to hug it? Did they want to stomp on it? Did they want to squeeze it? Do they want to hold it high above their head? What did they want to do with it? And, what did they want to say about their action towards the pillow?

Perhaps the most dramatic exercise Bill led was when he was meeting with a congregation as a whole. This was typically during a time of triage. He would insist they meet in the church sanctuary. No other room would do. They needed to be reminded of the presence of the Triune God.

Bill placed two chairs in the chancel area. He would both angle them towards the congregation and angle them towards each other. Then he would invite anyone who was willing to come up and sit in one chair, and imagine that Jesus was sitting in the other chair. They were then invited to say anything they wanted to Jesus about the church. Obviously, this was a very powerful and intimidating exercise.

The kind of nasty, half-truths and accusations that people verbalize about one another in a congregation, are very unlikely to be said to Jesus. It is a sobering kind of exercise. It is a grace giving kind of exercise. It is an illustration of need for the unconditional love of God.

If you knew Bill Treadwell, you would also know that he was a very big man physically. He played football in college. During his post-college years his size had increased. It was always a little disarming when Bill handled explosive conflict situations with a very soft and graceful style.

He and another mentor of mine, Larry McSwain, wrote a book some years ago on conflict ministry in the church. The church of the 21st century needs more Bill’s and Larry’s who can use their keen insights, skills, and spiritual eyes to help congregations as communities of faith grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Congregational conflict is one of those occasions when we all need to hear again the message of Romans 3:23, and acknowledge we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

And, if you can say it to Jesus, you can say it to anyone.

Amanda died the other day, but her singing continues

Almost four decades ago while I was serving as pastor of an inner city congregation near a Baptist seminary, I would often have seminary students visit to see if they could obtain some ministry experience as a volunteer with our congregation.

David came to visit with me one day. Physically he looked like a folk singer. Every time I looked at him I thought of Peter, Paul, and Mary. I liked him. We had a great dialogue about what he would do with our congregation.

Towards the end of the conversation he indicated that he was Methodist and not Baptist. Was that a problem? Of course not. He also indicated that his wife would not be present with him much because she was a paid soloist at another church in town. She was also an opera-style singer. Was that a problem? Of course not.

Finally, he indicated that while he was an Anglo-American his wife, Amanda, was an African-American. Was that a problem? I hesitated. I at least had to let that spin through my mind a moment or two. This was my first opportunity to experience an inter-racial ministry couple in a congregation.

“Of course not,” was my delayed response. At least for me personally it was not a problem, but an opportunity. As the thought spun through my mind, however, I began to think about the leadership of my congregation. They were not always the most open people.

How would they respond? This is not an issue we had ever discussed, so I had no idea. It was my hope that they would respond very positive to this opportunity to see ministry modeled by an inter-racial couple.

In the spirit of good process I asked David for a couple of days to check this out. He was not offended by this prospect, and understood. It turns out that I should not have hesitated. I came to be very proud of my leadership. Within a couple of days I called David to say our church would be delighted to welcome them in a volunteer ministry position in our congregation.

Periodically Amanda was able to come for worship. Every time she came we asked her to sing. From the first time she opened her mouth to sing of the glory of God, our congregation experienced not only the beauty of her personality, but the beauty of her singing. I am not sure if the congregation appreciated the ministry of Amanda or David more. Both were highly appreciated.

As with many seminary volunteers David and Amanda were with us for a while, and then David was on to the next season of his ministry preparation. None of us maintained contact with David and Amanda over the years.

One recent evening I received a Facebook message from the wife of the former music director at this church. She wanted to know if I had seen the Facebook posts on the death of Amanda. I had not.

I looked around the Internet and ultimately found some details, and a way to contact David. I sent him an e-mail. I heard back shortly. We both saw this as a true “blast from the past”. David’s sad news was that Amanda had died of pancreatic cancer with which she had been suffering for two years. Her father had died 25 years ago of pancreatic cancer.

Amanda was the music director of a large Catholic Church where she was a member. She continued her opera career as a singer and performed throughout the United States. She had also taught vocal performance in universities, and taught privately in their home. David said, “She was a wonderful wife and mother, and touched many people’s lives.”

David is in ministry serving full-time as a pastoral counselor, while also being pastor of two small United Methodist congregations. His words to me were, “It has been tough for the last two years, but the Lord has been good to us, and continues to sustain us through this struggle. I rejoice that Amanda is at home with the Lord, and is enjoying glad heavenly reunions. The words that kept coming up repeatedly during the past few days were, ‘She was an angel’. ‘She was a saint.’ That she was! She was a much better person than I could ever hope to be.”

I rejoice that I was able to experience this couple during the early days of their ministry. I am glad I did not hesitate long, but knew with spiritual intuition that this couple was for real. The fact that they are an inter-racial ministry couple was not a barrier, but an opportunity to observe God at work in and through their lives. I am glad I have had an opportunity after almost four decades to learn the rest of the story.

Oh, and I am sure that Amanda is still singing. In fact, I hear her now.

Looking forward to November 7

Election Day is a day away and living in a battleground state feels like being the lone bachelor on a reality show in which contestants fight over you. I have received more phone calls, mailings, and emails begging for my vote than I can ever remember. I do not answer surveys or political calls. I don’t want to chat about my views. I don’t want to share my thoughts. I also am tired of seeing good friends argue back and forth on Face Book and social media about the election. Some folks post dozens of status updates about the latest rumor or quote. Some of what I read is very mean spirited and makes me uncomfortable.

As a pastor I do not share my political views in the pulpit or among my church. I pastor Republicans, Democrats, and others who prefer no classification or a third party identity or even none at all. On my Facebook I once listed my political party as a member of the “Legion of Super Heroes.” I really do believe my job is not to promote earthly kingdoms but God’s kingdom. And yet I still get to hear plenty of opinions from friends and strangers alike about each candidate. It can be awkward and very uncomfortable.

I was at the YMCA when a candidate recently came to town and several folks loudly began to share their opinions. The same week I was at a book sale and the lady beside me began to complain about a candidate again as if she assumed every rational being would surely agree with her opinion.

So November 6 is coming. I’m more excited about November 7. I hope we do not have a repeat from a previous election and that on that date we can actually know the results. Some say we won’t. But I hope so. I hope November 7 will be a good day. I hope that we can celebrate that no matter who won we live in free country where we can vote again four years later. I hope we can be thankful there were no tanks or soldiers standing at the polls. I hope we can be grateful that our voices can be heard even when we might want to think about how we say what we think.

I’ve heard some say this is the most important election ever. Friends have declared that there will no longer be an America if the ‘other guy’ wins (and both sides say this). I have heard this every four years. Don’t get me wrong. I realize there are big changes when an election happens. I am aware that our nation is struggling in many ways with the economy, health care, and other major issues. I believe we should each vote and I will be there early on November 6 to do just that.

And still I will be so glad when November 7 comes.

You can’t cover up and soar with faith

My wife and I got married on an important day in American political infamy. June 17, 1972. Oh, you do not know what this celebrates? Perhaps it is because the event — the Watergate break-in — is not nearly as well-known as is the two years of cover up that led to the resignation on August 9, 1974 of US President Richard Nixon.

Having graduated from high school near Philadelphia, I moved into adulthood with one eye on Joe Paterno and Penn State football. While not an avid fan, I was always conscious of what appeared to be a great college sports program. Admittedly my other eye was on Bobby Bowden at Florida State, who I ultimately hoped would have more college football wins than Joe Paterno. But I did not want it to happen because of a cover up.

Richard Nixon did not break into the Watergate office building. Joe Paterno did not sexually abuse boys. Yet to the best of our knowledge both were involved in a cover up. Often it is the cover up of bad things — can we still use the actual word “sin”? — that gets everyone in the tar pit dirty and stuck.

Congregations are often involved in cover ups that inhibit their ability to soar with faith towards a fruitful future whereby they might be considered a FaithSoaring Church. While the cover ups within congregations can be about illegal and immoral activities, they can also be about less dramatic but equally as debilitating activities.

Here are a few things congregations tend to cover up. First, they cover up mediocrity. Increasingly younger generations want high quality programs, ministries, and activities that address their real needs in real time. Congregations, on the other hand, often say that their programs, ministries, and activities were good enough for them and should be for the next generation.

Second, they cover up a lack of spiritual maturity. Congregations equate regular participation with spiritual growth. Classes, courses, seminars, and small groups attended equate with discipleship progress.

Third, they cover up the absence of a clear, passionate vision for the future. They do so by coming up with a motto or theme for the programmatic emphases of their congregation that seeks to push the congregation into the future rather than allowing God to pull the congregation into the future.

Fourth, they cover up a lack of organizational processes and skills. It is frequently said that congregations would go bankrupt if they had to make a profit because they are run so poorly. While that is a little harsh, it may not be too far from the truth.

Fifth, they cover up a lack of expertise in leading and managing transition and change. Too few lay and clergy leaders actually know how to lead a congregation — a voluntary, member-based association — through transition and change. To cover up their lack of expertise they either “bulldoze” the process or they spiritualize it.

And yes, unfortunately as some congregations and denominations have taught us, they also cover up illegal and immoral acts, and even perpetuate the culture that breeds them.

The true measure of a pastor, staff minister, or lay leader is what happens in the congregation when they are no longer there. What was covered up during a certain period? What will we realize five years after you are gone? What are you doing to create a positive, sustainable future?

What are you covering up in your congregation? You can’t cover it up and soar with faith. FaithSoaring Churches, at www.FaithSoaringChurches.info, are real, self-disclosing, and averse to covering up their barnacles.