Have We Fruit? Reflections on Colossians 1:1-14

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This is the second in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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 Our second guest post is by Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, reflecting on Colossians 1:1-14.

“Have they fruit?” John Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service? Was there at least one person who had found faith through the word they proclaimed? A single person whose spiritual practices had been enlivened by what they taught? A hungry person who found bread? A homeless person who found shelter? Was there any sign that the ministry exercised by this person was waking the world to the dream of God?

Grapes on grapevine, close-up.

Have they fruit? It’s not a bad question for would-be preachers, and as a denomination, we’ve been asking it for more than two hundred years.

It’s also not a bad question for congregations to ask themselves.  Imagine the discussion that would ensue at the next administrative board or church council meeting if the question were asked, “Have we fruit?”  Imagine the conversation if the topic at the meeting became, “What evidence is there? What can we point to that demonstrates that the community in which we live is better, healthier, and more faithful because of the presence of our church? Are our ministries making any kind of difference to our neighbors? Is the Spirit, through us, actually changing lives, deepening faith, seeding hope in this neighborhood? Or are we just taking up space on a corner in town, an antiquated placeholder on this block?” I imagine a lively scene as a congregation deliberates and discusses its missional role in its own context, all the while answering the question, “Have we fruit?”

432463317_52f8853cfbCautionary tales of churches that can point to no fruit, churches that have lost their way and whose ministries have grown stagnant, are legion. One that has stayed with me since I first read it is in Mark Nepo’s book Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. He tells of a town in New England in which one church’s bells had rung to mark every hour of every day for generations. After decades of decline, that church was closed and eventually taken down. Years later, the farmers of that community were talking, and they all agreed – they missed the bells, not the church. While asking, “Have we fruit?” might not have prevented that church’s decline, it could have revealed that the church served no other role in their community than that of clock. You know similar stories…

But if the cautionary tales linger in our imagination, so, too, should the exemplary communities of faith – the churches that are bearing much fruit and are themselves signs of hope in and for the world. In the beginning of the letter to First Church Colossae, the writers praise the church for its fidelity; the Church there had earned a reputation as the kind of place that bore good fruit: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.” A few verses later, they go on: “just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it.” The writers are explicit – if the question was asked of the Colossians, “Have they fruit?” the answer would be a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

Which makes it all the more profound that, even as they praise, the writers of Colossians also pray for the community in powerful and passionate ways: “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks.” This intercession is a subtle – and not so subtle – reminder of the fact that faith communities that today are bearing much fruit can quickly wither. We can abandon our best practices of compassionate ministry, forsake our disciplines of outreach, and turn inward again.

Here, an analogy to health and wellness seems somehow fitting. The health we enjoy today, the wellness we have worked hard to achieve, can be lost to us if our discipline falters. Our weight can creep back up if we ignore what we know about proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. It is the daily discipline of good choices and the long-term practices of self-care that bear the good fruit of wellness.

So it is in our faith journeys. If our congregations are to emulate the faithfulness of the Colossians, if we corporately and individually are to keep bearing fruit that is salutary for the communities and contexts of our ministries, then we must attend both to the daily disciplines and the long-term practices of the faith. In so doing, we are readying soil, planting seeds, pruning vines, and bearing much fruit.

And the promise of the Scriptures?  That as we do so, saints here and saints above will be praying for us, celebrating our faithfulness, and rejoicing in the light of the love of God.

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Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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  • On October 2, 2006, Carl Roberts shot five young Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., before taking his own life. The world watched in disbelief as the Amish brought the shooter’s family food, offered forgiveness, and – after attending their daughters’ funerals – joined the mourners as Roberts was laid to rest. Hell fears nothing so much as a proliferation of the Amish. Would it even notice if United Methodists were to double in number? What and where is our fruit?  

  • Much church growth literature is derivative of secular culture in its measures of success. Fruit equals more and younger folk in the pews, more programs, and more money for mission. This model sometimes overlooks the purpose of fruit, which is to serve as a vehicle for the seed. Where is the evidence in American culture that the real seed of the Gospel is taking root? Would some clarity about genuine fruit be conducive to the health of our souls?

These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Good Rhythm

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Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s blog post!  Thanks to everyone who participated in making this month-long celebration of our “blog-iversary” so much fun!

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My new medical term for the month is “A-fib.” It’s short for atrial fibrillation, a type of cardiac arrhythmia. I’ve learned the term because Steve, a friend of mine at church, has the condition.

Doctors treat A-fib with electrical impulses to “tune” the heart back into its proper wave pattern. Steve has to ease carefully back into work and exercise. But he is confident he’ll master a new routine, with God’s help and support from friends and family. He is back at church now and feeling good.

My pastor offered a simple prayer for Steve that could apply for all of us:

“Give us good rhythm.”

The beating of a heart, the rhythms of breath, of laughter and crying, show us how vibration is at the core of our being. We hear and feel rhythm in nature: birds singing, crickets chirping. The philosopher Alan Watts has a lovely meditation on the delights of rhythm. Most forms of play and entertainment depend on rhythm — variety and complexity within a regular pattern. Watts concludes, “[A]n essential component of my heaven… would be absorption in rhythm.”

I am reminded that dance can be incorporated into Christian liturgy. Indeed, the origin of dance in human history may be rooted in spirituality and worship. Liturgical dance is not a recent innovation; it is a way of recovering an ancient tradition of communing with God through rhythm and body movement. Music and dance can be employed as therapy for mood disorders, neurological disorders, even in cases of stroke and heart disease.

Pastor/writer Jeffrey Cootsona shares his thoughts about the rhythms of leadership. Echoing Alan Watts, Cootsona reminds us that rhythm exists through a relationship between work and rest, sound and silence, yes and no, presence and absence.

We sometimes use balance as a metaphor for wellness and right living; Cootsona proposes rhythm as an alternative metaphor. Balance, after all, suggests something static, something delicate. If we lose our balance, there is often a painful fall. Rhythm is dynamic, it is robust. If we lose the beat, we often can recover it quickly. Indeed, there are often other people, partners in rhythm-making, to coach us back into the groove.

"Sabar Ring" - Théâtre de St Quentin en Yvelines 17/03/07 (répé)

Cootsona cites neuroscience research, as well as advice from his father about carpentry, to make this point: Gritting our teeth to power our way through a creative block is counterproductive. It may even be unhealthy. Better to take a strategic break: Go for a walk. Listen to music. Fold a load of laundry. A well-timed break allows our stress to leach away, and our creativity to emerge.

How will you build constructive breaks into your routine?

A bigger question: Is there a “groove” in ministry where your best work happens, where your best self shines through, where a divine rhythm propels you or carries you along? Are there tricks or tactics to help you find the rhythm when you need it?

–John James

(Top image, “Endless Rhythm,” by Robert Delaunay, 1934, Tate Modern. Lower photo by Christophe Alary, both used with permission via Creative Commons.)

Aging and the Church

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5075432774_6aab1bc1de_bMay is Older Americans Month, a distinction that “shows [the nation’s] commitment to honoring the value that elders contribute to our community.”  Elders contribute significant value to our churches — membership, service and volunteer work, tithes and bequests are just a few areas of elders’ contributions — but to what extent do we openly address aging in the church?

In her United Methodist Reporter column, Missy Buchanan suggests that the church should “make it a priority to get people across the life span to start talking about aging in spiritual terms.”  This conversation would not only help congregants feel more comfortable with the aging process (it becomes viewed as “part of God’s plan,”) but also increase people’s awareness and respect for members of the older generation. The conversation would also encourage older members to explore their “spiritual legacy,”  helping them see ways of remaining a vital part of the church even as their physical abilities change.

Buchanan offers three main ways to introduce this conversation at your church:

  1. Develop a sermon series on aging
  2. Host health and wellness events at your church
  3. Invite Sunday School classes to have discussions and speakers on topics related to aging.

A fourth idea might be to create a Bible study and invite people spanning a range of ages to participate.

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For insights on how the Bible addresses aging, check out these articles:

Do you have a unique way of talking about aging or valuing the contributions of older adults in your church?  We would love to hear about it in the comments section below!

-Katie Huffman

(Top photo by Flickr user FirstBaptistNashville, lower by viewminder, both via Creative Commons)

Hope Amid Disaster: Sermons After the Boston Bombings

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As I type, it is Monday afternoon, and I am keenly aware that almost exactly one week ago, moments of celebration for Boston Marathon runners and spectators quickly shifted from a time of unity and celebration to terror, death, and horror. During times of national tragedy such as occurred over the past week, pastors and religious leaders are tasked with the monumental role of comforting their communities.

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TIME magazine asked seven pastors from across the country, from Copley Square to rural Ohio to Los Angeles, to share the reflections and sermons they would offer their communities after the tragedy in Boston.

Katie Crowe is the pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham and works with Spirited Life in providing training for pastors on the practice of Centering Prayer. She is one of the pastors who offered words of hope as an antidote to violence, reflecting on the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus shows the disciples the scars from the wounds of the crucifixion.

Katie shares that Christians have a Savior who shows his scars as a sign of solidarity; he knows the trials we endure and the pain that comes along with them. The scars are also the place where God’s work of healing can flourish.

“When Jesus bore the world’s brokenness on the cross, God’s grace filled in the gap between human sin and God’s righteousness, building a stronger body by uniting us with God through Christ as one. Today, the scars on Christ’s body represent the brokenness and sin of the world that can break us down, create gaps in our faith, and tear us apart as a human family. In this painful and anxious place, God’s grace fills in the gaps by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, building us all into a stronger body of believers, and making the moment of crisis a means of transformation within disciples, communities, and the world.”

As we pray for our healing in our country and peace within our world, we also pray for pastors and religious leaders who are sharing messages of hope, peace, and comfort, messages that allow us all be reminded of where we gather endurance for the races set before us. Thanks be to God for your work and ministry.

Catherine Wilson

Image from flickr user txfc of a vigil for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing Monday, April 22, in Davis Square, Sommerville, Mass., used with permission via Creative Commons.

Being yourself in ministry

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After The Christian Century ran a story on the state of clergy health late last year, the magazine published several thoughtful letters it received in response to the article.  These responses appeared only in the print version and not online, so I’m reprinting one below for us all to consider.

What questions does it raise for you?

Amy Frykholm’s article “Fit for Ministry” (Oct. 31) reminded me of the conversations I sometimes have during pastoral visits, when the person I’m visiting mentions in an offhand way an issue of real importance just as I’m getting up to leave.  Frykholm spends most of her article talking about Spirited Life, a program that helps United Methodist clergy in North Carolina take steps toward healthy eating and wellness.  In the article’s last paragraph, researcher Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell is quoted as saying that what is really needed for congregations to change the way they think about their clergy: “I would want them to think about the pastor as a whole person.”

This comment is more than a suggestion for future study.  Proeschold-Bell has discovered the real challenge to clergy health — the inability of many clergy to feel like they can be themselves in the context of their role as pastor.

I read the article after leading a week-long session for young clergy.  We talked about the gifts and the costs of “showing up” as ourselves in the context of ministry.  Among the costs that these young pastors identified: “Spiteful people will take what they learn about me and use it against me”; “People will judge me and lose respect for me”; and “I will no longer be able to protect myself from people who want to undermine me.”  In short, these pastors do not feel safe in their congregations.  No amount of weight loss or exercise or talks with a wellness advocate will address this issue.  What is needed is honest support for clergy from their denominations and from their congregations.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff
Columbia, Md.

— Kate Rugani

Image courtesy of torbakhopper via Flicker/Creative Commons

 

Isolation in ordination

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In my work with clergy, pastors often lament over how difficult it is to build friendships and social support.  For many, the clerical call carries with it a sense of isolation.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, calls it a “crowded loneliness”–a challenge that he reflects over in a recent article with the Christian Century.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships.

Vocational ministry leaves little time for relationships of mutuality, so it’s only human that pastors would desire reciprocation and friendship from congregants. But this is only half the problem. Even when pastors use discipline in their relationships within the church, making these relationships ones of service, they still face pressure from congregants to be one among them, as a neighbor, partner, and friend.  Barnes continues,

When I knelt to receive the laying on of hands before I was ordained, the elders of the congregation were being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, “We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.” It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.

Barnes doesn’t shy away from naming this unavoidable burden for what it is.

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

He goes on to describe how he’s learned to maintain friendships outside the church, mostly with other clergy members. He speaks to them on the phone weekly and is intentional about gathering with them for retreats (many pastors use Duke’s Study Leave program for just this sort of gathering). It sustains him, but it doesn’t remove the awkwardness and longing he experiences in the “crowded loneliness” of ministry. Whether congregants know it or not, this sacrifice is for their sake and good, a service of devotion and love. Israel’s priests were set apart from the people to make intercession and mediate before God for them.

Does this reflect your experience?  What ways have you found to maintain honest, supportive relationships of mutuality amidst the work of ministry?

–Tommy Grimm

(Photo by Flickr user dMad-photo/via Creative Commons)

Seeing Church Problems, Looking for Church Solutions

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“…you have an inner-city church with inner-city problems; might I suggest you quickly wise up and find an inner-city solution…”
(Archdeacon Robert, from the BBC TV Sitcom ‘Rev.’)

The BBC show “Rev.” is familiar to some, but may be new to many on this side of the pond. The show centers on the life of Rev. Adam Smallbone, the Anglican vicar (pastor) of a church located in downtown London. In the clip below, Rev. Adam is providing ideas to Archdeacon Robert (Rev. Adam’s District Superintendent-equivalent) about ways to pay for a window in the church that has been broken.

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Like Rev. Adam, many pastors are faced with very real financial challenges, and it can be easy to assign them a label.  You may have a ‘rural’ church with ‘rural’ church problems or a ‘dying’ church with ‘dying’ church problems or an ‘apathetic’ church with ‘apathetic’ church problems. While these labels provide helpful context for what a pastor faces, they  typically serve as a reference point, not as an absolute descriptor of the challenges faced.

Regardless of how the issues are named, the solutions tend to require creativity, because pastors are finding it increasingly difficult to secure streams of revenue to sustain the churches they serve.  In addition to church yard sales, food sales or car washes, some churches now rent out their facilities to other churches or nonprofit organizations. Other churches have joined with neighboring congregations to sell popcorn, fruit baskets or Christmas wreaths. Still other churches pool resources to offer financial education programs such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University or Crown Financial. The rationale for focusing on family finances?  As the cash flow of members begins to stabilize and improve, so should the finances of the church.

How has your church creatively raised funds? Please share your ideas in the comments section!

May God bless our Church Universal and our pastors who continue to navigate their way through the stressors of church stewardship. May God provide them with the wisdom, strength and vision to keep serving our [insert label here] churches with their [insert label here] problems, while looking for [insert label here] solutions.

– Angela M. MacDonald

(Video clip courtesy of BBC TV, Episode 1; Season 2 ‘Inner City Church, Inner City Problems’)

Spotlight on Unity UMC Walking Ministry

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Spirited Life participant Rev. Tim Whittington started the Walking Ministry at Unity United Methodist Church in Kannapolis, N.C, in response to the benefits he has experienced from his participation in Spirited Life and more specifically, the healthy eating program Naturally Slim.

Church members meet at Food Lion in Mooresville each Saturday morning at eight and take a two-mile walk through town, exercising their bodies and spreading the word about their church.  The group always opens with a prayer, and walkers are encouraged to go at their own pace.

Pastor Tim attributes the success of the Walking Ministry to the fact that it provides motivation and fellowship for participants, and it’s a unique way for people to get out and exercise.  They hope to eventually expand their walking to other days of the week as well.

Pastor Tim says, “We walk to keep our bodies (God’s temple) healthy for Him.  The healthier we are, the stronger our discipleship will be.”

To Pastor Tim and the Unity UMC Walkers, keep up the great work, and thanks for being an inspiration to us all!

-Compiled by Katie Huffman

Photo by Tim Whittington