Friday, August 24, 2018


As of 8/23, I'm now 64. Cue the Paul McCartney tune...

How does it feel to be 64? A year older than did 63, I guess. My 87-year-old mother freaks out at the thought of me being 64, but really, it's no big deal. I do a better job of remembering the even years, so it should be easier to recall, when asked, "How old are you?" I feel bad that my Dad didn't get to see my 64th year. I feel worse, realizing that my next youngest brother will be 60 in October. Next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Why, then, can't I remember my cell phone number and stare like a blinded trout when asked? McCartney said that turning 64 and hearing his own song about it being played was kind of a depressing moment. While I had nothing to do with his song, I can say that turning 64 really didn't bother me in the least. Turning 40 did...

I was on the pastoral staff at St. Paul's when I turned 40. For whatever reason, it really freaked me out. Maybe it was the echos of Jack Weinberg whispering in my ear, "Don't trust anyone over 30" or just the idea that I was 40, but whatever it was, the degree to which it bothered me really snuck up on me unawares. Thanks to that sudden and unexpected trauma, I went to the ancient, pre-Google font of knowledge, the Shaler Public Library. By using a prehistoric search engine called a card catalog, I found a book called Seasons of Man's Life by Daniel Levinson. Through interviews with men over 40, Levinson exposed five developmental stages in our lives. (I should note that some of this work has been updated to include women as well, whose own "mid-life crisis" has been spurred on by mainstreaming into all areas of adult careers and leadership.) Turning 40 apparently triggered a kind of mid-life crisis in me. It provoked a sermon, which, in turn, brought several others into my counseling office--other men who knew something weird was going on with themselves, but didn't have the foggiest as to what. My angst because a good thing, as it were.

Honestly, my mid-life crisis was kind of a tempest in a teapot. Once I got beyond the initial shock of being 40, and Levinson's insights, things settled down. I never cheated on my wife or got a wandering eye, but had an opposite reaction, which as Levinson pointed out some men do, meaning that I about went nuts "re-pursuing" my dear wife, trying to convince her afresh that she didn't make a huge mistake. I think it scared the daylights out of her. I'm still doing it, by the way. Oh, and I didn't buy my red sports car for years (maybe I'm stuck in mid-life crisis mode?). Levinson's book was a great help. One day my wife informed me that she had returned it to the Shaler Library, and I gasped: "Oh no, I had made a lot of pencil notes in the margins and didn't get to erase them!" I hate when that happens in a book I pick up to read.

A funny story: A few years later, and in another church I was serving, a man came to me for counseling with fears he was losing his mind. Deducing rather quickly it was probably a job for Levinson, I prescribed that he read Seasons of a Man's Life and come back in to talk about it as soon as he had. Two weeks later, the fellow came in all aglow that the book had been a watershed for him, too. Furthermore, he said that the copy he acquired had some "very helpful notes" someone had written in the margins." I asked to see his book--he had gotten it through the inter-library lending service, and sure enough, it was from the Shaler Library! I love it when a good plan comes together...

64, huh? I'm not worried. You know that "time thing" whereby the older you get, time seems to slip by much faster? That's happening, so I expect that before I get this blog out of my mind, it will be time for 65. That one may get me--Medicare...MEDICARE! (Unless You-Know-Who finds a way to kill it.) When I turned 50, I immediately joined the AARP--after all, I've never had someone lobbying for me until then! And I really like their magazine. Medicare is different. That's like saying, "Happy Birthday! Here's your ticket to geezer healthcare!" We'll see how that goes. Oh, and by the way, my lovely wife, Dara, has had none of these age-related "crises" happen to her. None. The forty-thing bothered her brother more than it did her ("My little sister is forty!") I guess she has her hands full with me.

You may be thinking, "This guy's a pastor--where is the spirituality in this blog?" Well, my short answer would be that life is a gift, and that we are thankful for whatever days we have here. I'm blessed to be starting my 65th year. I have had family members, friends, and many parishioners who never got this far. However, most of these people lived thankful, blessed lives, even though their earthly days were shorter than all of us had hoped. I am exceedingly thankful for the days I have, and I pray you are, too. I know that Christ walks with me in this journey, and that, as trite as that little Footprints poem is, it is as true as the rain--there have been times in my life when I know that God is carrying me, and I'll bet that is true for you, too. None of us knows what we face as we live out our days here, but in this, I have to say that the song Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote about Jesus and us holds true:

Because he lives, I can face tomorrow;
Because he lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know he holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because he lives.

Now go out and kick it. Shalom, Yinz...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Can clergy be trusted?

God is love. That's what the scriptures say in I John 4. If we begin with this, maybe we can walk back the horrific clergy and priest sexual abuse scandals that are currently dominating the news. Can we agree that the nature of God begins with love and ends with love? God has chosen to redeem, forgive, and accept us all--ALL--whether we are ready to receive these acts of grace or not. Let us agree, then, that God would certainly not want God's children to be subjected to the kind of clergy abuse recently revealed through the investigations in Pennsylvania (and we can assume were replicated in venues across the globe). Let us also assume that "abuse" is not limited to sexual abuse, and is not just perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests. We also know the stories of the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Jim Bakkers, Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, and numerous Protestant and independent-church clergy across the country.

In light of these scandals, can clergy be trusted? That's a really good question. My answer will not be a satisfying one for many of you, and it's not a short one, and certainly not an exhaustive one. And I am writing as an ordained clergy person, so keep that in mind.

If I were an engineer, a doctor, or a teacher--or a member of virtually any other career that requires professional knowledge and credentials--I would be expected to 1. legitimately have the necessary credentials for my job; 2. maintain a standard of accountable and documented excellence in my job; and 3. keep current with the required continuing education in my field. And "good" doctors, teachers, or engineers actually crave growing her or his knowledge of their field. It is my belief that clergy should be held to at least these professional standards. Problem is, the requirements vary greatly from faith tradition to faith tradition. There are clergy whose religious affiliations only require a sincere "call to ministry" to be ordained and considered clergy. (Of course there are those who get their own "ordination" at some online diploma mill, but we'll not address these here.) Other traditions require a Bible college certificate or some combination of undergraduate and seminary training, but these vary from what is considered "accredited" or not.

And to be ordained? Connectional systems such as the United Methodist Church, which is my denomination, tend to have higher systems of accountability for clergy. We must attend fully-accredited colleges, seminaries approved by a denominational University Senate, and satisfy District Committees on Ministry and Boards of Ordained Ministry to even be cued up for ordination. We also have to receive the affirming vote of a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee from a church in which we have been a member for at least a full year. Are all of these steps to create a professional clergy a guarantee against abusive practices by the ordained? Obviously not, if one observes the revealed debacle in the Roman Catholic Church, which has similar standards. Oh, and in my United Methodist Church, we also have local licensed clergy, which have different standards, and while I'll not directly address this category of ministry in this blog, I will say that these licensed clergy are generally more closely supervised by mentors and superintendents, and they may have their license revoked on a whim for a variety of reasons, so their "power" as clergy is often quite precariously held. And, as anyone who cares for abuse victims will tell you, power is an element setting up the potential for abuse.

I am saying that requiring and maintaining professional standards for clergy should be a factor in clergy trust. To me, that makes sense. Now, here is one that will be controversial. I generally don't believe that "trusting in God" or being "close to God" are factors that help stem abuse. In fact, I believe they could--in certain circumstances--provide fodder for it. In countless articles about clergy abuse, we read suggestions that if the accused clergy were "just closer to God" or had a "genuine faith," the incidents in question would not have happened. Let's go back to the engineer/doctor/teacher illustration: Would you trust one of these professionals more just because they loved their profession? Which bridge would you want to drive across more, one designed by a competent, credentialed engineer? Or one designed by someone who just loved bridges with all his or her heart? Would you prefer a surgeon who "just loved doing surgery"? "Loving God" is not near as important as having a healthy understanding of the nature of God for clergy. Just "praying more" or spending increased time "reading the Bible" will not address the roots of what eventually sprouts clergy abuse. This is a pathology, not just "a sin."

In twelve years on our Conference's Board of Ordained Ministry, I grew less interested in a candidate's "call" to ministry than in her or his answer as to why they felt called. This question often revealed more about the individual's understanding of the nature of God. Was their God judgmental? Was their God an angry God? Was their God more random than functioning within history? How did they understand the biblical assertion that "God is love"? As I was leaving our board, I had just come to appreciate and advocate for the inclusion of a new factor in screening potential clergy: emotional intelligence. An emerging field of psychology, emotional intelligence--which can be explored through testing--may be one of the best predictors of clergy performance, integrity, and stability.

I know it sounds I'm saying that piling on myriad ways to screen, approve, and credential clergy may help guard against not just lousy clergy leadership, but abusive clergy as well, and I guess I am. Thirty-three-plus years in ministry has shown me just how complicated and serious my work is. People tend to trust their pastors much and spot them much power. What I say from the pulpit or in the counseling office may cause persons to adjust their life plans! At the very least, it may stir their thinking in a way that could have consequences in how they behave. That's a lot of power and trust! This investment my parishioners have made in me has caused me to always question what I "know," and to voraciously pursue further education and insights into my work and in having a healthy view of it, emotionally and psychologically. I thank God that I am part of a denomination that is growing in its systems of clergy excellence and accountability (even as I grieve its continued discrimination toward LGBTQIA+ persons). This is one place where the Roman Church let down its guard--giving priests much power in their parishes and providing little supervision and accountability. And when abuse surfaced, they chose to cover it up instead of bringing it to light. (I'm sure that all of our denominations have done some of this somewhere along the line, but currently it is the Roman Catholic Church making all of the headlines.)

Abuse is not just sexual or emotional. It may also be professional. Bad counseling, hurtful or judgmental preaching, poor practices of visitation, and dictatorial or punitive supervision of church staff are abuses, too. Seminary requirements should include more classes in counseling and administration than they do. Clergy today need to be far more professional than just "spiritual," if we are to be trusted by our people, let alone the society. I return to my initial assertions that proper credentialing, a passion for continuing education (especially where we have deficiencies), and denominational and local systems of accountability are essential for having and maintaining healthy clergy behavior and trust. While these aren't guarantees that there will be no abuse, they are what we have. The more we can assess and address our human and psychological wellness as clergy, the better we will serve a loving God and effectively serve God's people.

What's Next?

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