Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review: Pursuing Pastoral Excellence

Once in a while I come across a book and I go "wow, where has this author been all these years when I needed him (or her)???? I found Pursuing Pastoral Excellence: Pathways to Fruitful Leadership (Alban, 2011) while browsing books on the Alban Institute website, and am I glad I found it. Pursuing Pastoral Excellence is a treasure trove for pastors. This is definitely a book that I will read at least once a year!

The author, Dr. Paul Hopkins, is an ordained minister in the DCC (Disciples of Christ) and for the past eighteen years has served as the CEO of the Samaritan Counseling Center in Albuquerque, NM. Hopkins has spent his entire life in ministry, as the son of two Christian ministers and then himself as a minister and as a pastoral counselor. Pursuing Pastoral Excellence is a result of his many years helping pastors find their way through the difficulties and tragedies of parish life.

Ministry is toxic. If pastors are not careful we will find ourselves afflicted with other peoples' problems, taking on their baggage as our own. Parishioners often project their cares, wants, needs, ideas, emotions, anger, on their pastor. Likewise, the very nature of ministry comes with its own challenges as well: time management, lack of routine, maintaining proper boundaries, not including the challenges and burdens that parishes often put on the family. Of course note all pastors have major problems, but may do and Dr. Hopkins certainly knows the ins and outs of ministry.

Pursuing Pastoral Excellence is organized around 7 primary ways in which pastor's strive for excellence in ministry:


Hopkins weaves his narrative with stories from real life pastors (whose names have been changed) as models of ministry. We meet Richard, Russell, Trey, Carole, Sue, Paul, and Christine; each pastor highlights one or more aspects of fruitful leadership. We hear about real-life joys and sorrows, challenges and possibilities in the local Church. We read about the problems and issues of small family and pastoral sized Churches as well as pastor's serving in larger corporate size Churches. Hopkins has a fine writing style, never does he preach to the choir, but highlights and calls to the reader's attention the matter at hand.

I read Pursuing Pastoral Excellence with a pen, underlining sentences and making comments in the margins for later reflection. Hopkins also includes several questions for small group discussion or for further reflection or journaling. Pursuing Pastoral Excellence could easily be used as a piece for discussion and reflection.

I am not sure if Hopkins plans to write another book, but as one new fan, I hope he does. Pastors need more honest, truthful, and what I call "real" books for ministry. So many new resources focus on Church growth or building bigger and better buildings. Yet pastors need to be fed with food that keeps us going. Hopkins is Biblical, focusing on the ministry of Jesus without being dogmatic as well as practical. He shows us how these real-life modern day pastors have dealt with real-life issues in the local Church. I congratulate Paul Hopkins for his work and look forward to more from him in the near future.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

House Churches

Recent news reports say that the current financial recession is ending. Well, at least some reports say that. Other reports say that we are in a multi-year slump. I don't know about you but in my part of the country real estate is at an all year low and unemployment numbers keep rising. I call it stagnation rather than recession. Our failing economy effects the Church too. Giving is down. People are worried about their financial futures. Church building is also down too, banks are fearful to lend money, especially to a local parish which may not have enough funds to make their monthly mortgage payments.

What to do?

Rather than sit on our hands and worry ourselves to death I was wondering if there is another way to "be Church" as in re-invent what our conception of Church really is.

Most certainly the newer parishes in the 21st century must learn to live within their means. Large, multi-million building projects seem way out of proportion nowadays. Smaller, more intimate communities seem not only more effective as far as ministry and communication are concerned, but also they reflect peoples most dire need: connection. Large congregations with hundreds of families are more like small (and sometimes mid-size) corporations. Newcomers can easily be lost within a sea of parishioners. How can the pastor know all of his flock if he or she has 300, 400, or 500 families?

I was recently reading an excellent post on Duke Divinity School Faith and Leadership blog about newer "house Churches" where the pastor works a full time or three-quarter time job and ministers to a small community of less than fifty people. They meet on Sunday morning but also mid-week as well. Not only do they meet for worship, but also for prayer, fellowship, and study. Smaller, leaner, and without large financial obligations, these "house Churches" create Christian community without having to worry about salary and benefits for staff, building upkeep, cleaning, lawn maintenance, rising utility costs such as heating and cooling, and large mortgage payments; costs which cannot be sustained in the long run. A colleague of mine who runs a large inner city parish with a large physical plant told me that his building is an albatross; the heating and cooling costs alone are enormous.

If you ask me I think that these new created house Churches, focusing on the basics of the Christian gospel message, might help us out of our current mess in which we find ourselves. Of course house Churches are not a panacea for all of our problems, but at least it is a way to think outside the box and help us be more creative in the way that we engage in ministry in the 21st century.

What do you think?

Do you belong to one of these smaller parish communities? Do they work? What are the drawbacks?

Thanks for sharing!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

There is a season........

Ah, middle of winter. Dark. Cold. Snow. Sleet. Time for being indoors and enjoying a good book by the fireplace or maybe taking a long afternoon nap. Every season in the year brings with it a different rhythm of life. Summer is for parks, pools, and playgrounds. Fall means raking leaves, planting bulbs for the Spring, and large bowls of chili and soup. Springtime means getting the garden ready and planting those vegetables. I enjoy the change of the seasons and look forward to what each season may bring.

The season metaphor is exactly how Bruce and Katherine Epperly envision ministry: every season of ministry brings with it new challenges, trials, tribulations, as well as joys. The Epperly's are co-pastors and are active in ministerial formation at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. I came across their book by accident while browsing through the new and recent book selections at the Alban Institute. I am glad I found them.

Four Seasons of Ministry (Alban, 2008) is a book that should be on every pastor's shelf. They go through the various stages of ministry, the immediate post seminary years, the early years, mid-career, and then those pastors heading towards retirement. Each of the six chapters includes not only solid academic and theological reflection on ministry, but this information is far from dry theological jargon. Bruce and Katherine have a lovely way of weaving personal vignettes from their own ministry experience as well as from numerous narratives from former students or from their colleagues. This narrative approach is very appealing. As a pastor who has served a parish for ten years now I identified very much with many of the "seasons" which the Epperly's discuss: those early years of excitement after graduating from seminary which then turn into the hum-drum of the daily routines of parish life. While not exactly mid-career yet, I can certainly see the challenges and issues which I might encounter as I grow older. Ministry is not for the faint of heart and as we increasingly are challenged by continuing economic pressures due to the recession as well as decreasing parish membership the wider Church must reflect on what it means to "be Church" in 21st century North America, but also, what it means to minister in this new world in which we live.

I could easily go on and on about this book, yet I would be doing readers a disservice.

After reading this blog post. Go over to Alban Institute or and order yourself a copy (or more!!) of Four Seasons of Ministry. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: A Time to Plant

Besides serving a parish, raising two wonderful daughters, and cooking our family meals I also love gardening. During these long cold winter nights all I can think about is planting my Spring garden with garlic, onions, lettuce, spinach, oh, Spring seems so far away! There is nothing better than eating a salad which was grown right out in the backyard or biting into a fresh tomato sandwich on homemade bread slathered with a thick layer of mayo, well, maybe not that thick, we all have to watch our cholesterol! My garden is much smaller than Kramer's but you can still grow quite a lot of vegetables in a small garden.

Last week I was reminded about the joys of gardening when reading Kyle Kramer's new book published by Ave Maria Press (2010) called A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt. First of all I love the cover art, it is both mysterious and inviting at the same time; a man looking out across a vast flat field. Kramer is a farmer, writer, and the Director of the Lay Ministry program at St. Meinrad Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery and seminary in Indiana.

When reading Kramer's book we learn that this field wont' remain barren for long. No. At a ripe young age of 27 Kramer set out to purchase some rough terrain in Indianna and not only build a barn with also served as his apartment, but also to plant a small family farm. We learn about the ins and outs and the trials, troubles, and tribulations of farming told from the angle of a neophyte. We read about Kramer's apartments sans bathroom and running water let alone electricity! We also learn about soil amendments, building problems, and soil erosion. Kramer doesn't hold back either. One of the most memorable moments comes about mid-way through the book revealing his near nervous breakdown as he must finish his house while at the same time work the land.

This book is more than a gardening journal, but a thoughtful and prayerful look at what it means to be a steward of God's creation. Kramer wants to sustain himself by living an ascetic life eating from the produce from his garden and leaving as little of a carbon footprint as possible. He even installed a composting toilet, now that is roughing it if you ask me!

Through his journey Kramer also has a love interest who later becomes his parter in this new life that they have created. I don't want to give too much of the plot away, needless to say Kramer is a good storyteller. A few times I caught myself reading and re-reading some of the funny ones, like the time when he was getting his apartment, "girl friendly."

While reading A Time to Plant I kept wanting more. I wanted Kramer to reveal more of his personal side as far as the details of his own upbringing. Through the course of the narrative he glossed over his life without delving deeper. I wanted to know more about his own domestic life before farming, perhaps some of the reasons why he wanted to live such a radical life-style and at a young age too.

A Time to Plant is a great read if you are remotely interested in gardening/farming, spirituality, and stewardship. When I finished the books I started counting the days to the last frost date in our growing zone, the time when I can start planting our Spring garden.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow--reminder of sabbath rest

Right now most of the East coast is covered with either snow or ice or a combination of both! My friend in NY just told me that they are expecting ANOTHER 8-14 inches of snow on top of the snow and ice that they already have. Snow and ice storms are cause for concern especially for the elderly and emergency workers who have to work (doctors, firemen, policemen, pharmacists, etc..). The rest of us have the luxury of staying home and enjoying some much needed rest or if you have kids, well, enjoying the cold outdoors: snowmen, snowball fights, sledding, cross country skiing, or making snow angels. Yesterday we went sledding on a steep hill and it was fun, fun, fun, the adults liked it more than the kids!

Snowstorms cause us to slow down a bit. Maybe we can stay at home and take a much needed nap or write an email or note to a friend whom we lost contact with. Perhaps we can play a board game with our children, watch a movie that we always wanted to see but never had time to do it.

Snowstorms are times for much needed Sabbath. Taking time for ourselves without feeling guilty.

We are so burdened by work, projects, timelines, and deadlines we forget how much fun life can be.

When I was sledding with my children yesterday I felt like 5 years old again frolicking and falling in the snow. Surely by day number 2 at home most of us will get cabin fever, but for now, stop and enjoy the white puffy stuff falling from heaven!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Review Discovering Our Spiritual Identify

Well folks its already 2011, wow another year come and gone. I wish everyone a peaceful, healthy, and joyful new year full of God's blessings. I also hope everyone keeps following the Lord each and every day. It's not easy, but if we encourage and support one another it might be a little easier.

Over the course of the Christmas holidays I read some great books on spirituality. More reviews will follow in the coming days but today I have a new book by Trevor Hundson called Discovering our Spiritual Identity: Practices for God's Beloved (InterVarsityPress, 2010). Hudson is a pastor in the Methodist Church in South Africa and is the author of numerous books, most recently Listening to the Groans. He also works closely with the Renovare Spiritual Formation Institute as well. I look forward to reading Hudson's other books.

Discovering Our Spiritual Identity is not only a collection of spiritual tid-bits and insights but a full fledged book that you will want to read, take notes, and read again. The book is constructed as a workbook. After every chapter, which are not very long, Hudson offers some very insightful questions for the reader to answer. I must say that I read the book without answering the questions, however, I will certainly go back and re-read parts of the book and answer those questions! Hudson created a book that can be used for spiritual journaling and will foster group discussions. I envision this book being used for small groups and personal devotion.

The book is divided into 16 chapters each of varying length and each chapter has the same format: signpost, reading, holy experiments, following the signpost together, and reflection questions. This book is not a quick read, you savor it like a fine meal, enjoying Hudson's many stories from his long pastorate. Hudson is a master story teller sharing stories from his many years in ministry and travel. This book is not a dry at all but full of the Spirit.

The chapters deal with all sorts of topics such as God's call to discipleship, dealing with our memories, becoming who we are, as well as mission and formation. I could see how pastors would use this book in their parishes, each chapter would encourage conversation and reflection on the Word of God as we all strive and struggle as disciples of Christ.

I commend Mr. Hudson for writing this book and quite frankly was a bit jealous too-----I wish I had written it!

Don't delay, pick up a copy of Discovering Our Spiritual Identity and take this long spiritual walk with Trevor Hudson as he leads you to the still small quiet place in your heart where God dwells.