Tag Archives: pastoral ministry

How We Think of Old People

A review of Elderhood: Redefining Agind, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, M. D.. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

On a Friday evening in June, driving home from a week at church camp, I tuned into a random radio program where the interviewee grabbed my attention with compelling stories of her geriatric practice and her care for old people. She both critiqued how we care for old people, and offered a hopeful vision for what needs to change. At the conclusion of the interview, I pulled off the road and wrote down the name of the author and her book. The physician was Dr. Louise Aronson, and the book was Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. Reading this book as a guide for reflection on how we grow old and how we care for the aging has been for me like a still picture in grayscale develop color and spring to life. It has fundamentally changed the way I understand that last third of life that we call growing old.

As life expectancies extend, generally speaking we’re spending more time in that part of life we call old age. What used to be a few years can now easily be thirty, fully a third of our lifespan. While we treat childhood, not as a single span of time, but as a complex multiplicity of developmental stages, as a society, as a medical care community, and I would add as a church, we tend to treat old age monolithically as if it’s one uniform span of time. As a leader in the church, I have attended to the pastoral care needs of individual persons, but haven’t thought very carefully about the different needs of the specific stages of old age. This book has pushed me.

Aronson dives deep into a reflection on old age. As a practicing geriatrician, it’s not surprising that she critiques the way the medical community treats (or doesn’t treat) old people. At the heart of her assessment is that middle age adulthood is seen as the norm for what a healthy human looks like. Fair enough. Something has to be the baseline. Yet, when our bodies begin to age and we change physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, the changes are seen as pathological rather than as part of normal development. What often makes things worse is that medicine tends to treat the maladies of old age the same way it treats a healthy 40 year old, even though administering the same treatments in old age often have much different outcomes, are more dangerous, and routinely lead to a decline in health rather than an improvement. As I think back to my accompaniment of scores of people interacting with the medical community in their old age, other than the effects of chemotherapy, it simply never occurred to me that a treatment that is routine in middle age could be harmful in old age. In addition, the medical community tends to neglect the social setting of the aging person, a factor that becomes more and more important as we age, and a factor for which there is great potential for meaningful, purposeful congregational ministry.

Aronson doesn’t confine her critique to the medical community, even though much of the book is about just that. She draws on philosophy, sociology, history, and personal experience to give a comprehensive picture of how our society regards old age. The richness of her experience makes the book read almost like a memoir, offering vulnerable glimpses of her own mistakes and learnings and of the complexities and oft-time failings of the medical system. Yet she also offers both hope and guidance for how we as a society and as individual persons can reimagine this significant span of life. We can do better.

As a pastor, I have been thinking about the content of this book a lot. We lament that the church is aging, and we wonder what that means for the future viability of the church. Youth remains a dominant metaphor for American culture, and for the church as well. We collectively look to family programming, energetic youth ministry, and comprehensive children’s ministries as the salvation of congregations. Yet for many of us, that’s not our reality. We look out on our congregations on Sunday morning to a sea of gray hair. By and large, I serve an aging congregation in an aging denomination. Honestly, I have not seen the aging congregants as the focus of my ministry, even though they are the people I spend most of my time with. What if I (and we) spent as much time and effort thinking creatively about how we might use the gifts of our elders and how to serve with and to the aging population of our communities? After all, as Dr. Aronson points out, the aging years are not just a time of maladies and diminishing capacities. They are also a time of joy, meaning, and fulfillment.

I found this book provocative in the best sense of the word. It has stayed with me and pulled me back into multiple readings. It is prompting a creative reassessment of my own rapidly approaching elderhood, and my ministry to and with the elders of my community and my congregation. There’s not much more I could ask of a book.

When Being Weird Is Good

WeirdChurchA review essay of “Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century, by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2016).

A good bit of my reflecting time and my conversation time these days is taken up with trying to figure out a way into the very uncertain and ambiguous future of congregational ministry. So many cultural shifts have taken place over the past 25 years that the context in which the local congregation does its ministry is hardly recognizable compared to the context in which I entered parish ministry 29 years ago. There’s no time to waste in engaging the challenge of adapting the form, structures, and practices of parish ministry. I’m so grateful for colleagues, congregational leaders, and indeed, a whole congregation willing to enter into this uncharged territory with me.

As we embrace the conversation and try to figure things out, we are always looking for dialogue partners who can help inform our own hunches about what lies in the future. Yes, I believe they are really little more than hunches; no one has firm, well-shaped answers for what’s next.

I most recently found a worthy dialogue partner in the book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, by Beth Ann Estock, and Paul Nixon. I know that I’ve uncovered something useful when a book pushes my thoughts in multiple directions, and when I can’t wait to talk about what I’ve read with colleagues and other lay leaders.

Estock and Nixon begin their book with a brief explication of Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution. The theory suggests that throughout human history the species has followed a particular pattern of change and growth in human and cultural development. In these opening decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a transition from the rigid rules of character and morality, through the secular organization of society for the sake of the individual, and into a values system that goes beyond the needs of the individual and begins to focus on the needs of the larger community. In part, they suggest, the convulsions the church is currently experiencing is because our model for ministry is still focused on the spiritual needs of the individual, and we have not until recently paid more than lip service to the communal work of caring for all people, issues of equality, consensus, reconciliation, and care for the planet. I’m not enough acquainted with Spiral Dynamics to make any evaluation of its pertinence to congregational ministry; however, I’m also not sure that one has to buy into the theory to find value in their analysis and provocations for thinking about ways to move forward in fruitful congregational ministry.

The first half of the book offers a brief explanation of seven shifts that the authors believe are essential if Christian congregation ministry is going to be viable and sustainable in the coming decades.

  1. Let go of our fears of decline as measured in the things the church under Christendom has measured — attendance, members, budgets. Move into the freedom of a hopeful future guided by the Spirit. Clearly this is an attitudinal shift more than a behavior shift.
  2. Shift the focus from seeing the congregation and the current members as the primary constituency for ministry and  move towards seeing the neighborhoods and other people gatherings that our members are a part of as the primary constituency and location for ministry.
  3. Give up the illusion that the society in which we live is a Christian society; the society in which we live is governed by economics and politics that are in contradiction to a Christian understanding of the world and human community. Instead, adopt the mindset of the early church of going into that world as subversives for the sake of God’s rule.
  4. Give up the mindset that views people as either in the church or out of the church. Rather begin to view all people as God’s people; the witness of the church is to accompany people in trying to make vibrant and living the relationship with God that they are already seeking and yearning for.
  5. Give up the notion that the ministry of the church is to give people the right knowledge about Christianity. Rather, our ministry is to draw people into a lively relationship with God which is more a matter of the heart than the head.
  6. Shift from trying to control how things work and develop through an institutional structure (the local church) and just start stuff and let it go, giving our work the permission and the freedom to grow organically in ways that we can’t predict.
  7. Shift our understanding of leadership from skillful managing of an institution to incarnational leaders who enter into relationship with others and mentor them to do the same.

Even as I write these down for this review, it strikes me that no one of them is unrelated to what I’ve come across before. Still, I found it helpful to have them stated clearly and succinctly. (I’d encourage taking a look at the book to get the full treatment of each of the shifts.) I’m interested in having the leaders of my congregation take a look at these chapters and engage in conversation of the implications for this little corner of God’s kingdom.

The second half of the book is a collection of 18 short examples of how congregations and ministries around the US have experimented with these various shifts. I’m grateful that the authors explicitly offered these examples not as blueprints for what any other congregation should do, rather as examples of the creativity of faith communities seeking to do God’s work in the world and respond to the cultural changes going on around us. I can’t wait to lift these up with my leaders and see what creativity it might spark among us.

Here again is a hopeful treatment of the church today, a book that isn’t forecasting the complete demise of Christian congregations in the US. I also do not think that’s where we’re headed. With the authors of Weird Church, I, too, am tremendously hopeful for what will emerge and tremendously excited to be part of both conversation and action as we seek to do God’s work in the world in our very specific corner of the kingdom.

Faith and Literature — A Vocational Intersection

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. Today I offer the first section of my remarks. I’ll follow with the second installment on Thursday.

I suppose we all have a variety of ways we could frame our vocational journeys. Here’s one for me:  my vocational journey has been one of seeking the truth, seeking after The Truth, trying to understand the truth, and how we can live truly before God, with each other and in the world.

Having lobbed that opening salvo, let me step back for a minute and tell a little about myself. I grew up as the oldest child of Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) parents; my grandfather was an LCMS pastor. I came to this institution (Luther College) at age 18 intending to be a musician. I discovered that music was much more an avocation for me than a vocation. In other words, I didn’t want to work that hard or practice that much. I felt like I had to figure out quickly what I wanted to do with my life — a misplaced notion, to say the least. I determined pretty quickly to pursue a vocation as a pastor in the church. Because I had been raised to observe a sharp distinction between denominations, I transferred to an LCMS college, eventually attended an LCMS seminary and entered pastoral ministry. I was very much steeped in the notion that theology was a set of propositional truths. My job as a pastor was to make sure people knew the truths necessary for their salvation.

The first 15 years of pastoral ministry was a long journey of discovery towards authentically engaging the scriptures, the church, people, and what it means to be a pastor. I discovered through experience that story is fundamental, basic, and essential to human existence. We eat, sleep, poop, have sex — but mostly we tell stories. When we talk to each other, that’s what we do. Some of us tell stories exceptionally well. Those stories help reveal the truth — about life, about God, about being human, about how we relate to each other.

Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite novelists. For years, he was the chair of the Creative Writing program at Stanford University.  He used to tell his students, “We have no agenda but to tell the truth.  Of course, what I’m getting at is the deep truth about human life that is not always accessible through mere facts.”

Jesus told stories.  His parables are known far and wide both inside and outside the church.  When we try to understand Jesus’ parables, we have to know that they tell the truth slant, to use a phrase of Emily Dickinson. They evoke rather than prescribe. That’s true also of literature and the way it speaks to matters of faith and life.

An important discovery and a really life-changing vocational moment was when I came to see that the Christian faith is fundamentally relational; it is not propositional, it is relational. The mystery of the Trinity is a relational mystery, not a propositional truth. Throughout history, God has interacted with people relationally, not propositionally. God bids us to live with one another relationally. Relationships don’t rest very well on propositional truth. It just may be that the only way to even begin understanding anything true about God is to tell stories about how God is and what God does, which is exactly what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do.

We can treat relationships clinically; when this happens do this; when that happens, do that. There’s some value to such exercises. We learn a lot and we learn differently through story. In the Wendell Berry story, Jayber Crow, Jayber, an introverted, balding bachelor-barber, has a deep affection for Mattie Keith Chatham, an attractive neighbor-girl. Mattie grows up, marries the local all-American boy,  bears, rears, and begins burying their children. When he realizes that Mattie’s philandering husband Troy will never be faithful to her, Jayber breaks off with his own girlfriend, and vows to be the husband Mattie deserves, even though his relationship with her will always be one-sided.  As Jayber’s one-sided passion for Mattie grows, so does his compassion, and he is able share in the sufferings of all his neighbors. In this story, romantic longing becomes the seed not only of a deep and broad human love but also for salvation itself.

(In the next installment, I offer more examples from a few of my own favorite authors, and reflect briefly on my vocation as a writer.)