Here I Am, Lord
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I
said, “Here am I; send me!”
--Isaiah 6:8 NRSV
I listen each week to a podcast hosted by two actors who were on the TV show The Office (the American version). On this week’s episode they shared about two crew members who ran craft services--all the food served each day for the cast and crew during filming of the series. These stars of the show were in tears describing the care and love these two men offered each day as they served meals. Both men knew what each cast member preferred and they prepared the food with joy. One star described the experience as if “your beloved grandfather made a meal just for you.”
It caused me to think about the difference we make in each other’s lives when we live out of our joy and serve others. These caterers were not the stars of a TV show nor would they go on to star in movies and win awards. Based on the example of Jesus, such humble acts of service are actually greater in God’s eyes than the ones which result in walks down red carpets. When we touch other people’s lives with joyful service, we are celebrities in heaven.
If you grew up singing hymns in church like I did, you probably know the 1981 hymn “Here I Am, Lord”,” also known by its first line “I the Lord of Sea and Sky.”
I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save
I who made the stars of night
I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night
I will go, Lord
If You lead me
I will hold Your people in my heart
I grew up thinking that the calling of God represented in this hymn was to some major cause or quest, perhaps to being a missionary or a part of some movement. After all, the hymn is inspired by Isaiah 6:8 which tells of the call of the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps it is all that, but not only that. What if God’s call is also to do what we consider to be ordinary things, humble acts of service. What if God’s call is to live out every moment possible sharing joy with those we interact with at work, school, home and our social lives? Jesus taught us our understanding of what greatness looks like is upside down; those who are the last and least are actually the first and greatest.
If God’s calling is not just for Christian superheroes, but for “ordinary” people doing “ordinary” things, then that means God is calling people like you and me. It means God is always calling you and me every day and every night to serve others with such joy that they are moved and even transformed by it.
Our acts probably won’t result in making a celebrity cry or say our names on a podcast, rather our recognition will be even better. God knows our deeds and remembers the good that we do. Let us say with joy, “Here I am, Lord” as we go about our days sharing the joy of serving others in God’s name.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
--John 8:32 NRSV
You have probably heard the expression "the truth shall set you free" which
is spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John. For many American Christians, the
"truth" Jesus speaks of here is an individual ticket to heaven which has
nothing to do with the here and now or wider social issues. This is bad
theology and bad interpretation of scripture.
Jesus is indeed talking about a "truth" that will save people from sin, but
as John makes clear from its opening words, the salvation offered in Jesus
Christ is for the world not just individuals who say the magic words of a
prayer Americans made up centuries later. Jesus speaks of an "eternal life"
beginning in the here and now as those who understand who Jesus is have
their lives and the world around them transformed. Who is Jesus? For John,
Jesus is the message of God's love for the entire created world, a love
which is radically inclusive of all people.
The truth of God's saving love exposes the lies of sins which oppress,
exclude and destroy. We are in a truth-telling moment in our society, and
the lies are being exposed which many of us were taught as history. We White
folks were sold a sinful lie for our history, and now our reaction to God's
truth will determine whether we are free from these sins or not.
In the past few days, Tulsa, OK has commemorated the 100-year anniversary of
the massacre of African Americans at Greenwood nicknamed "Black Wall Street"
because of the wealth Black people were accumulating there. I was raised in
the Midwest, an easy drive from Tulsa, and I had never heard the story of
this massacre until a 2019 TV show about superheroes included it in its
narrative. Likewise, I never learned about Missouri being full of "sundown"
towns where African Americans found in them after sunset were arrested and
even killed. I grew up in St. Louis and Kansas City but never learned about
housing segregation and redlining which divided the cities and allowed White
people to accumulate generational wealth and denied the same to Black
people. I wasn't taught these things. Were you?
Similarly, I learned in school about "race riots" in the sixties, but I
never learned about White riots in which Black people were massacred like
Wilmington and Rosewood. I learned that the cause of the Civil War was
"States Rights" rather than slavery, even though slavery was explicitly
mentioned in the articles of secession of southern states. I learned that
George Washington's teeth were made of wood and never that his false teeth
came from the actual teeth of slaves. I wasn't taught these things. Were
Now that I am learning the truth about the racist history of America, I have
a choice. I can allow this truth to free me from the sins of racism and the
lies of a "Whites Only" creation of history or I can remain a captive of
sin. Even now, sections of White America react to these truths with anger
and even violence, as if they are the true victims of a new history being
written. This is a lie that holds White people captive to sin. The real
victims are the named and unnamed non-White people who were on the receiving
end of economic, social and physical violence for generations.
As a White man in America, I was taught the Civil Rights era solved all
problems of racism in our country. That lie has kept me captive to a sin I
did not create but rather was born into. It is up to me to choose whether
the truth will set me free or if I will reject this new work of God's
radical inclusive love for the entire world. If you're White like me, then
it is also up to you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Working to Live
But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
--Matthew 4:4 NRSV
The cover story on this week’s Time is “The Pandemic Revealed How Much We Hate Our Jobs. Now We Have a Chance to Reinvent Work.” It details how the dramatic changes brought on by the pandemic, such as working from home, flexible schedules, time spent with family, etc., have caused a widespread rethinking of work. Several stories in the article reveal how the pandemic is causing people to change how they work and even their occupations. One man mentioned in the story states an old adage which may have never been truer: “We aren’t supposed to live to work. We’re supposed to work to live.”
For most of human existence and even in most cases today, people didn’t have a choice regarding their profession, who they work for and the conditions they work under. For those in our culture who are fortunate enough to have choices, it is worth spending time in spiritual consideration of why one works, what one does at work and whether it makes any positive difference in our world? Considering that most of us who work spend more time in our jobs than with our families, these are important questions to consider.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, published in 1966, Frederick Buechner wrote profound words about the Christian faith and what it means for a Christian’s employment. He wrote these words 55 years ago, but the feel like they could have been written in 2021.
THE WORLD IS FULL of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and hum-drum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative. But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans. . .
There is also the moment in the Gospels where Jesus is portrayed as going into the wilderness for forty days and nights and being tempted there by the devil. And one of the ways that the devil tempts him is to wait until Jesus is very hungry from fasting and then to suggest that he simply turn the stones into bread and eat. Jesus answers, "Man shall not live by bread alone,“ and this just happens to be, among other things, true, and very close to the same truth that [a person] comes to when he realizes too late that he was not made to live on status and salary alone but that something crucially important was missing from his life . . .
There is nothing moralistic or sentimental about this truth. It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ's sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do always need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not. We have only a life, and the choice of how we are going to live it must be our own choice, not one that we let the world make for us.
I pray that during this time when we are emerging from the pandemic you will choose wisely the work you are doing during your one and only life.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Ten percent! That is how much Park Hill Christian Church gives away from its income every year. Ten percent! Out of the income PHCC receives from its members—both pledged and unpledged giving—it gives away ten percent. Ten cents of every dollar you give to this church goes to change lives around the corner and around the world. Ten percent!
This is a big deal. PHCC’s commitment to this ten percent principle is to be commended and celebrated. Giving away ten percent is not the norm these days, and it is becoming rarer every day. For many church folks, giving away ten percent of a church’s income is bad economics. Maybe it is when measured by secular economic standards, but it makes perfect sense when it comes to the economics of the Kingdom of God.
Just this morning I read about a new study of churches in 2019 which showed more churches are closing than are being started. The article surveyed 34 denominations and groups, and it revealed around 4500 churches closed in 2019 but only 3000 new churches were started. This was before the COVID pandemic. A mindset of scarcity exists in today’s churches because of these trends. Such a perspective may be understandable, but it is not the mindset of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ words about bearing the cross in Matthew 16 apply to congregations and not only individuals:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
What good does it do a church if in order to “survive” it stops exhibiting the generosity and sacrifice modelled by Christ? Is a church even a church if it stops being Christlike?
Here is how I’ve seen the scarcity mindset in action in congregations. Income goes down, so the first thing to be cut is outreach to the community and the world outside the church. This move effectively turns the church’s attention away from ministry outside the church walls and toward selfishness and survival at any cost. This turn to self-centeredness and loss of focus on the church’s mission creates less incentive for members to give, so income continues to fall. The next step is to cut staff and programs. This move causes members to become dissatisfied and give even less. Finally, the building begins to fall apart because needed maintenance is put off. Eventually, the building cannot be sustained and since there is no ministry going on inside or outside of it nobody cares.
Seen in this light, a congregation’s giving to groups and ministries outside its church walls has everything to do with a church’s vitality. In the terms of the Kingdom of God, the more a church gives away what it has then the more it will receive in return. Only by refusing to get in a scarcity mindset that focuses on survival can a church actually survive. The less a church thinks about survival and the more a church focuses on giving and mission then the more vital and alive it is.
Just this month, PHCC’s Outreach committee gave away ten percent of the money you gave last month to the following worthy groups:
$900 to the Disciples Mission Fund—ministry locally, nationally and internationally by the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”
$500 to SPEAC (Southern Platte Emergency Assistance Center)—feeding hundreds of families who suffer from food insecurity in southern Platte County
$200 to Fuller Center for Housing of Greater KC—building homes for homeless families in our area
$200 to the Regional Youth Council—the youth leaders of the Greater Kansas City Disciples of Christ (PHCC’s own Virginia Fullerton serves on it) will use these funds to buy needed supplies for youth camp this summer at Tall Oaks Conference Center
This is Kingdom economics at its best! As I said, ten percent is awesome and it is way more than most churches give to ministry outside their church walls, but there is no reason to set our standards by comparing them to others giving less. Our example of living is Jesus Christ who gave everything for us, so why stop at ten percent? Jesus promises us that the more we “lose” of our fear-based focus on survival then the more we “gain” of the joy that comes from a Christ-centered life. This truth applies to our own individual lives and our life together as a church!
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
The God We Forget About
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
--Isaiah 61:1 NRSV
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, we talked about the Holy Spirit but usually only when we were comparing ourselves to the Assemblies of God church down the street. We weren't like those Christians who spoke in tongues in their services, promoted faith healing and acted in all kinds of unruly ways. Who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does, however, were never fully clear, at least not to me. Besides, we were often using the
King James Version of the Bible which called the Holy Spirit by the name "Holy Ghost" which sounded like something Scooby Doo and his friends would unmask to discover it really was the mean old man who ran the creepy amusement park. The Holy Ghost remained problematic for me.
Then I entered the world of more open-minded mainline denominations like the Disciples of Christ. I encountered discussion of the Holy Spirit that described it as a "she" and therefore a feminine person of God, descriptions of the Holy Spirit that seemed to find common ground with eastern religions and some people who were strict rationalists and didn't believe in the Holy Spirit at all. Some of the ideas about the Holy Spirit enlarged my understanding of God in exciting ways (e.g. calling the Holy Spirit "she"), while others seem no less problematic as what I grew up with.
In churches like ours that follow the liturgical calendar with its seasons like Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, we celebrate Pentecost Sunday every May. It's a time to remember the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early church. Beyond that, however, I don't hear much talk about the Holy Spirit. I usually hear a lot of language describing God the Father/Mother/Creator and Jesus the Son/Christ but not much about the Spirit. I suspect this is mainly due to a lack of education about the Holy Spirit and the way scripture describes her, but there may be some suspicion mixed in because of the excesses of televangelists and faith healers on Christian cable TV channels. This is a shame, because the Holy Spirit has everything to do with how we experience God in our daily lives.
I recommend to you a web site called enterthebible.org <http://enterthebible.org> . It's put out by Luther Seminary in Minnesota which is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It shares what top notch scholars have to say about faith and the Bible in ways that are understandable for non-scholars. The internet is filled with scurrilous claims on Christian sites, so this is one of the few I recommend. A recent article and podcast on the site is entitled "Who is the Holy Spirit?" and it offers a concise overview of what the Bible tells us about the subject.
Two things in this article stood out to me as especially helpful for our thinking about the Holy Spirit:
It's worthwhile for us to embrace this often-neglected part of our understanding and language about God. We need not leave this essential part of our faith to those who wish to manipulate it for fame, fortune, and personal gain. Instead, we can engage with the Holy Spirit and trust this a meaningful way of understanding how the power of God and the love of Christ remain always with us.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
P.S. You can read the article from enterthebible.org <http://enterthebible.org> I mention above at:
Where is Your Safe Place?
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
--Psalm 46:1 NRSV
You may have seen “Safe Place” signs around at various businesses, schools or community centers. The yellow signs resemble a traffic sign, yellow with black writing, a square turned 45 degrees to make a diamond, and the “A” in “Place” looks like a house. It’s a national program where any child or teen can get help. Employees there know to call a designated local agency that works with children and youth which will quickly dispatch a staff member to assist a young person. The children and teenagers who use “Safe Place” often flee trouble at home including abuse and neglect, while others are runaways or suffer from mental health issues.
Those among us who are fortunate grew up in healthy families where we were cared for and we learned to care for ourselves. Many people, however, never experienced such care and have to journey in life searching for physical, emotional and mental safe places. Unlike the children and teens who make use of the “Safe Place” program, many adults spend their lives looking for safety in all the wrong places. Some people build emotional walls to keep everyone at a distance and live as if they are self-sufficient. Others seek security in unhealthy relationships thereby perpetuating cycles of abuse and neglect. Some seek to control their environment driving those around them crazy with intrusive and bossy behavior. Others live consumed by fear and numb their emotions with drugs or alcohol. As adults, we can operate as if we do not need others’ help and out of a misguided sense of pride, we forgo safe places.
For me as a child, church was my “Safe Place.” I experienced a community of adults who cared about me and were invested in my future. Church was an extended family of adoptive aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins who cared for me. I knew the people at church weren’t perfect, but from my childhood’s perspective I felt safe and loved. I grew up and experienced how dangerous churches could be and I guess always were, but I still am surprised when church people turn out to be just as broken as anyone else so strong was the imprinting upon me as a child to believe church was a safe place.
We all know how unsafe faith communities can be. We have learned that the clergy sexual abuse scandals are not just a Roman Catholic problem but a crisis for Protestant churches as well. Even our most vulnerable are not safe at church, which is why “Safe Church” policies that keep two adults with any children and other rules are necessary. Yet, anyone who has spent time in a church knows heartache from church fights, disagreements and members leaving in ways that sunder long-term relationships. Is it any wonder that megachurches which promise individual comfort and entertainment while at the same time offering anonymity and requiring little commitment seem to be flourishing? Intimacy is messy and potentially dangerous, especially when we call one another our “church family” and speak of Christian love but act in ways that make such concepts empty of their meaning.
I continue to wrap my head around the truth that there is no truly safe place in this life. Some of us are fortunate to have found safe places in our marriages, families, jobs, friendships and yes, even churches. Yet, we never know what can change in an instant. Illness, car accidents, natural disasters and, as we’ve seen, pandemics can upend our expectations of safety. The spouses, partners and friends we trust are capable of behaviors that we never imagined such is the capacity for deception hidden in every human being. Jobs can end, layoffs from recessions can happen, and industries which we thought would last forever become obsolete. Ultimately, there is no guaranteed “Safe Place,” except for God.
The only way a faith community can become more or less “safe” happens when it is made up of people who have discovered the truth that God is their “refuge and strength.” Why did we ever think we could just show up at church and everything would be hunky-dory without any real struggle on our part? It takes effort, practice, accountability, and vulnerability to grow in one’s faith in God, yet most church folks have little investment in doing this kind of soul work anymore. If we wish church to be a place where we come to experience God as “a very present help in a time of trouble” rather than just one more thing to be disappointed about in this life, it takes effort and commitment. Most of all, it takes understanding that our true “Safe Place” is God.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Being Baptized Daily
38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the
forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In this scripture, Peter is talking to the crowd gathered on the day we call Pentecost. And it is safe to say that this command to be baptized was the first ritual act of Christianity.
In the majority of our Christian denominations, baptism happens once. We have the ceremonial washing away of sins either by full immersion or the sprinkling of water as we make our confession of following Jesus Christ. There are those times when some come forward for a “recommitment”, but generally speaking, baptism happens once. Note here what Peter says, “be baptized” and “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. If, as we practice, it is a one and done deal, doesn’t that mean all Christians who are baptized are walking around in the Holy Spirit? Not quite.
To be baptized is a first step toward a meaningful and deeper relationship with our God, through Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead. But to say that every person ever baptized is practicing Christianity with the gift of the Holy Spirit working through them is not accurate. If it were so there would be no divide in our culture. We would all be pursuing the Will of God completely daily and there would be no room for division.
No, what Peter is telling the people of that day and what his words bring to us are two different things. On that day in first century Judea something very special was happening and the very fire of God was falling down upon the people so that the Word of God would spread throughout the Roman Empire. What Peter is saying to us today is that in baptism we are prepared to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
To clarify further in Galatians Paul says this:
27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
When we are baptized, we are to put on the clothing of Christ. Or we are to become more Christ like in all we do. The symbolism of the one and done dunking is not the end of it, but only the beginning. When we confess our commitment to Jesus Christ, we are announcing to the world our intent to work to become more like Him. Far from being a once in a moment attitude, we must renew ourselves daily and every morning refresh ourselves in the washing away of sin.
It begins with prayer. It begins with a relationship with God that is uninterrupted. Putting on Christ is a daily, indeed moment by moment endeavor that we must practice in order to run the race of perseverance. This life is full of attacks that leave us vulnerable to fall away from God’s Will for our lives.
Baptism is the symbolic change. The real change comes from constant connection with our Lord. It is time spent in the scripture. Time spent in prayer. Time spent truly loving one another. And time seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As the song implores,
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me,
fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
© 1938, renewal © 1963 Birdwing Music
WORDS: Daniel Iverson, 1926 (Acts 11:15)
We must be baptized daily; we must reach out to God every moment and ask that the Spirit fall fresh on us. It is in this way that we receive the Holy Spirit continuously. Without the Holy Spirit, our walk becomes one of discouragement, frustration and possibly even failure. Jesus prepared His disciples and told them:
5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
In this same way we are to wait on the Lord and trust that the Holy Spirit will descend on us and we must do so on a moment-by-moment basis in order to be fully clothed in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is so much more than a one and done deal. Living for Jesus and bringing His love to this world is a moment-by-moment endeavor that takes us from our will to the Will of God.
Alexa? Siri? God?
Let anyone with ears listen!
--Matthew 11:15 NRSV
You know Siri, right? Siri is the voice-activated supposedly artificial
intelligence on an Iphone. I’ve never had much luck with her, so I keep my
questions simple, such as:
What time is the Chiefs game on?
What was the date of the Treaty of Versailles?
What is the name of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer can’t sleep
because of a Kenny Rogers’ Roasters sign?
Siri doesn’t provide good answers to more complicated questions, at least
not to me.
Last Christmas, we gave my younger son an Amazon Echo with its artificial
intelligence named Alexa. I routinely hear him commanding Alexa to do all
sorts of stuff. Alexa seems smarter than Siri or maybe it’s just me. (I’ve
always suspected Siri didn’t want much to do with me and only begrudgingly
responded to me.)
Since I bought the Echo, each week I receive an email of new things I or
rather my son can ask Alexa--new music to listen to, new jokes and stories
for her to tell, new recipes to share and so on. Plus, both of my sons
routinely discover new and usually ridiculous things to ask Siri and Alexa
in order to get some weird response from their disembodied voices. Between
the three of us the voices of Siri and Alexa are pretty common in our house.
Today, when I received my email of new things to ask Alexa, it occurred to
me that I may be speaking to Siri and Alexa more than I’m praying to God.
Even more disturbing, I wonder if I’m bothering to listen for God at all
even though I’m always expecting an answer from Siri and Alexa.
Of course, it is easier to hear the answers of Siri and Alexa than it is to
hear the voice of God. I’ve known a number of folks who claimed to hear the
voice of God regularly. Some of them were mentally ill, others were merely
listening to the echoes of their own egos, but some of them were perfectly
sane and seemed to have a sort of hotline to God I lack. For me, listening
for God has almost always been a struggle. Perhaps God knows that I’m the
kind of person who only accepts answers to the deep questions of life after
I have gone a few rounds in the ring with them. I may wish God would provide
easy and quick answers like Alexa and Siri, but I suspect God doesn’t work
that way with me because the journey to an answer is at least as important
as the answer itself.
Frederick Buechner’s description of listening for God’s voice has always
appealed to me because it matches my own experience. In his book Now and
Then, he writes:
BECAUSE THE WORD that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word—a word
spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in
events, even in the books we read and the movies we see—the chances are we
will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear
and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard
to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our
ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and
honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however
faintly we may hear him, he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however
little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable
and precious beyond telling. In that sense autobiography becomes a way of
praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a
call to prayer.
If you are one of those folks for whom God’s voice is heard quickly and
easily, keep on listening and responding to that voice. If you are like me
and struggle to hear the Divine speech, don’t give up. If you never hear
from God at all and doubt if there is a God who speaks, give it a try. After
all, listening for the voice of God can’t make you any more silly-looking
than when you are talking with Siri and Alexa.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
I was asked this essential question by a member of PHCC”s pastoral search team, and I am thrilled to answer it. In 20 years of ordained ministry, no church member has ever asked it of me.
What exactly a pastor should be in our kind of church is something everyone thinks they know but nobody is particularly clear about. Even Disciples clergy themselves suffer from nebulous thinking about their own role. This results in churches and their pastors borrowing ideas from other sectors such as business, entertainment and medicine without reflecting on whether they are appropriate for a church. In a time when anxiety is high over dying churches and pressure is on for clergy to be superheroes who save the day, it is no wonder rates of ministers leaving the profession are skyrocketing. Taking time to think about what a Disciples pastor should be and should not be is more essential than ever.
The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ began as a movement of reform and reaction against denominational differences and structures. In the roughly 200 years since its beginning, there has been (in my opinion) shockingly little prescription of what a pastor should and should not be. Only relatively recently with issues like the clergy abuse scandals have Disciples set up boundaries regarding what a pastor should not be, but things remain vague about what a pastor should be and do.
From its beginning, the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ has been crystal clear only about two things when it comes to the role of the pastor. 1. The pastor should preach and teach the Bible. 2. All members of the church are ministers, not just the pastor. Who can be a minister, how educated should they be, what is their job description, what theology and ethics should they hold and more have shifted over time and continue to evolve. In my opinion, the only real definition of the role of the pastor that matters comes down to who holds authority and power in a Disciples church?
The average member of a Disciples church may not realize it, but all power and authority in a Disciples congregation resides in the church members. There is no pope, bishop, presbytery, diocese or authority over the local congregation. All matters regarding practice, calling of clergy, hiring of staff, owning property, programming, event planning, outreach/missions—every darn thing a local church can do is decided by that local church. Note that the nowhere did I state that any of these things get decided by the pastor. The pastor only gets a say inasmuch as the congregation decides to give her or him one. The pastor can express their point of view until they are blue in the face, but ultimately the congregation decides.
If one thinks of a typical leadership chart, it looks like a pyramid in most organizations including churches. A CEO or president is at the top. Below that position is a board of some type. Below that are committees or task forces. Below that are staff of various kinds. Below that is the larger membership or employees. In a Disciples church, this power structure is turned on its head.
A local church may have a board and committees with members elected by the congregation at large because holding a congregational meeting for every decision is unfeasible for lots of reasons, but ultimately every member is expected to be responsible for being engaged and invested in those decisions. The reality unfortunately is most members in our increasingly busy and distracted times are far from it and only weigh in when something upsets them, if they don’t just pack up and leave. This low commitment level is prevalent everywhere, not just in churches; ask a leader of any voluntary group in any sector. Nonetheless, the buck stops with individual members not with the pastor. The responsibility a Disciples church asks of its members is radical and demanding, which is why so many destructive shortcuts are attempted by churches and clergy.
In my experience, I have fallen into many traps as a minister, but the greatest of them all is acting as if I have the power to change a local church. Like most clergy, I’m a helper and a pleaser who doesn’t want to disappoint, so I have given in to congregational expectations that I would be the CEO or the change agent who would transform the church’s culture. What I’ve discovered at great cost to myself and my family is that the pastor is neither of these things. In fact, despite common perception, the local pastor may be the least powerful position in a church like ours.
A pastor can be immensely gifted, but no local congregation with our power structure will go anywhere unless the membership wants to do so. I have worked myself to the bone trying to make local churches change with two results: 1. I’m out front leading the charge with no one behind me or 2. I’m pushing the church from behind until it moves as far as feels comfortable and then snaps back with a vengeance. The only role for the pastor in a Disciples church that I can see which works is for a pastor to equip a congregation to do what it wants to do—hopefully what it wants to do resembles what God calls it to be and do.
What this comes down to is a pastor can do and be lots of things but none of them will accomplish much unless a congregation knows who it wants to be and then takes responsibility for being whatever that is. The pastor is not a CEO, a nanny, a surrogate parent, a boss, a guru or a flunky. The pastor’s role is to provide spiritual and guidance to the congregation as it actually does what it feels called to be.
No matter how talented a preacher, gifted a provider of pastoral care, brilliant an administrator or inspired a networker, a pastor can only accomplish what church members are committed to, invested in and responsible for making happen. A Disciples church is not a spectator sport or a movie to be streamed on one’s couch; it is a community to be constantly created by the believers who make it up. The pastor is present to assist the congregation in making that reality happen.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left
their nets and followed him.
--Matthew 4:19 NRSV
I’ve had two encounters with healthcare recently that seem like an apt metaphor for the spiritual life. The first has been the medical marvel of the COVID vaccination—two shots and that’s it! The second is my health coach, a part of my new health insurance plan, who provides accountability for me in order to eat better and exercise more. I so badly wish there was a vaccination to help me lose weight, lower my cholesterol and improve my cardiovascular system. Unfortunately, no quick fix exists for this stuff, only a lifestyle change will do. I’d much rather have the quick fix.
When I was a pastor in St. Joseph, MO, I served a mainline Protestant (Disciples of Christ) church whose glory days of crowds and big budgets took place 50-70 years earlier. The booming churches were of the non-denominational megachurch variety. I will admit to “church envy” over their numbers which gave the impression of vitality, but over the course of my time there I discovered those numbers were deceptive. About every year or so, a different one of those non-denominational churches became the “hot” church and a crowd would vacate what quickly became the “previously hot” church for it. A new pastor, a better band, an improved A/V spectacle or a shiny new convenience like a barista in the lobby would draw the not-so-faithful. The “hot” church was not much different than the “hot” new restaurant in town; it drew a crowd until it ceased to be hot or new anymore. St. Joseph was small enough to see this shifting of church memberships. In a larger metropolitan area like Kansas City, however, this kind of church-hopping remains hidden.
When everything in our society is consumer-oriented, people can’t be blamed from viewing their church or even their religion as consumers. We are a society that loves a quick fix in everything from our stock market returns to our weight loss plans. In a society where everything competes to be the best and the newest our attention spans are short. If something doesn’t work, ten more new products are available that promise to do the same thing only better. A church and even Christianity itself is none of these things. It is a lifestyle change not a vaccination.
I grew up viewing the Christian life as a sort of spiritual vaccination: say the right prayer, feel the right feelings and poof, I was a Christian. The type of worship I experienced and the Christianity I was taught was about chasing that initial feeling of vaccination when one gave their life to Christ. I should have known from the language that implored you “to give your life to Christ” that “life” wasn’t a one-time thing but a life-long journey.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him on a journey that lasted their entire lives and asked them to change everything. He didn’t offer a vaccination, a quick fix or a new gizmo to make one’s life easier. I’ve spent my life in the church, yet I still struggle to let go of the concept that my relationship with God is compatible with something I earn or buy. Instead, following Jesus seems more akin to a recovery group for addicts—only the addiction isn’t to drugs or alcohol but self-centered consumerism. Or perhaps following Jesus is closer to undergoing deprogramming from a cult only the cult isn’t a would-be messiah living on a compound somewhere but our cultural values that prize convenience, indulgence and instant stimulation above everything else.
Jesus calls us to a lifestyle change, a complete overhaul that we are never done working on. A Jesus-centered church and a Jesus-centered Christianity is not centered on a minister who operates a cult of personality, a congregation offering to stimulate your appetite for entertainment or a set of beliefs that make you feel like you passed a semester course on God. Instead, the lifestyle involves a commitment to community, relationships of integrity, and spiritual practices which help us to find our security in God alone.
The things that matter in life are not things you buy or one-time experiences but rather life-long commitments to relationships with family, friends and most of all, God. There is no single or even double-dose vaccination for them.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.