CPL: What have you learned in this latest transition?
I am not sure there are a lot of new lessons. Several things have been reaffirmed for me. For starters, every context is different. What served you well in one context doesn’t necessarily work in the new context. My family and I have spent time learning the history of this place which is a mostly rural, homogenous setting with parishioners coming from a middle to lower class economic life. This is certainly a change from our previous post. We have also been asking the question: What does it mean to be across the street from a university with so many highly educated persons? In sum, we are trying to take the time to learn the territory; trying to grasp the imagination that has shaped this church in the last few decades and how that has shaped its course. Then we consider questions like What do I celebrate? What needs to be re-shaped?
Without a doubt, the most important thing to do early on in any new ministry setting is to get early ‘wins’ by expressing care and concern for the people.
CPL: How have you had to re-adjust your preaching, if at all, in light of the difference in the demographics at your new church?
It has been interesting to go from a congregation that was very politically diverse to one that is less so. My parishioners now might be more used to a certain kind of ‘political’ preaching that actually supports a certain candidate or party. But, from the start, I felt I needed to help them reframe what it means for us as Christians to be a certain kind of people. The Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage had just happened when I got here. I rarely take sides when it comes to Democrats or Republicans but I did feel like I had to help my folks see that the Church is incredibly political. However, I wanted them to consider what it means to offer to the world an alternative politic.
CPL: When you were pastoring in Pasadena you were also serving as Dean of the School of Theology. These are two really big jobs. What lessons have you learned about balance in recent years?
I feel like this last decade has been a huge learning experience for me. I just turned 50 and I am not happy about it but I do feel a little bit more balanced. What the last decade has taught me is that it is not about what is good vs. bad but about what is better vs. best. And so how do you say yes to the things that are best? Certainly you don’t want to rob your children or spouse of time. And you need to guard your own healthy and physical well -being too. I have not always done this well.
I love the church and the academy and I wish they’d worked more closely together. By taking those 2 (big) jobs, I’d hoped to be a bridge between the two. But, in the process, I learned you can’t do everything. The last 10 years helped me discover what I love to do and what I am most gifted to do: preaching. I wasn’t a horrible academic administrator but it is not where my greatest passion is. Even though I’ve been deeply formed by the academy my deepest formation has happen in the church. And that is where my deepest love is too. So that is where I want to focus my energies these days – in the pulpit and in the formation of the Church.
CPL: Pastors sometimes talk about parish ministry as ‘life punctuated by the sermon.’ Preaching week in and week out is not always an easy rhythm for pastors to master. How do you find joy in it?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s been a joy for me from the get-go. I understand at some level that some struggle with it but honestly I love it. When my grandfather knew I was heading into the ministry, he’d come to visit me once a year, take me to dinner and share his wisdom with me. One of my favorite conversations with him was when he told me that 80% of the problems in the church can be solved from the pulpit. Ever since then I have felt like a pastor’s pulpit ministry, more than anything else, sets the theological vision for the church and provides the boundaries, the language and the rules for how our life together as a community is going to be formed. So I see every week as an unbelievable opportunity to do just that.
I should say that I am not a very practical preacher. I understand that some folks need that but, for me, I find the pulpit to be the one place where a pastor can shape a people’s identity, values and their deepest convictions. I delight in doing this and it is the most fun part of ministry for me.
Lastly, I understand that all the classical roles of the pastor are important – prophet, priest and king. I just happen to love the prophetic role best. It’s different for everyone. We have to realize that some roles come more naturally than others. Where God has really helped me in my own ministry is by making me a better priest. That was not the natural role for me. It is something I have had to learn. I have had to learn what it means to go into a hospital room and be with someone when they die or sit with a family when they grieve. We need to learn and grow in these areas of weakness but also bring people around us to help fill in the holes.
CPL: In your recent Sermon Studio interview you mentioned your process of storyboarding as you prepare the sermon. Can you explain that?
I try to learn to think in moves rather than points. Eugene Lowry has helped. He talks about the narrative movements in the text and how the sermon reflect those. I have a glass desk and fill it with sticky notes which include the the narrative moves, the teaching moves I want to make, random thoughts, etc. I lay those all out on my glass top desk and then start cutting. I start pulling sticky notes. I start thinning them out. I continually ask: How do I drop people into the story in such a way that it helps them respond to the story? Storyboarding has really helped me with the logic of the sermon. It has also helped me preach with few notes and communicate well in my new context.
CPL: In your Sermon Studio interview you also talked about the challenges of finding your way out of a text – that is, getting to a response. Can you talk a bit about the different ways you invite your people to respond?
Getting to the ‘so what’ question is hard. The egghead in me wants to focus on the theological questions most other people don’t care that much about. I have to resist the temptation to go down those theological rabbit holes. Also, the part of me that is liturgical wants to end the sermon at the communion table each week for this is where our brokenness receives grace and where that grace empowers us to do what God is calling us to do. But I am child of this Nazarene tradition and have an affection for an altar response as well. The problem is that when the altar becomes the only response it becomes about us; it’s about us giving up more, or committing more.
I do think there are other ways of responding. Silence for example. Often our response should be silence - to consider what the Lord might be saying to us. Sometimes the response is to get lost in worship again.
CPL: You will be the keynote speaker for the upcoming USA/Canada Theology Conference at NTS. Tell us more about this metaphor of exile that the conference will be focused on?
It is interesting the ways in which this conversation about strangeness and exile is resonating increasingly with people in the pews. I am not sure it is a new conversation. I was introduced to it when I read Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens years ago, The themes those guys were articulating there- what it meant to think about a post-Constantinian Christianity - have been resonating in academic circles for several decades. But parents trying to raise children now in our secularized, individualized culture have found it increasingly challenging and bewildering. We’ve stayed where we are but everything has become strange around us. Of course, it depends on where you live in the country too. Some are still fighting the culture wars and feel like they can gain territory back. But in other parts of the country, folks feel like the battle has been lost. I guess I would like to help faithful folks in the Church not see this new reality as a reason for despair but an opportunity to recover our uniqueness and find the Gospel at the margins. The metaphor of exile as narrated in our setting gives us a lens to move forward with joy and hope in this new reality.