Skip to content

Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Sabbatical

Mennonite Church USA suggests giving pastors a paid three-month sabbatical every four years for the sake of re-tooling and renewing for ministry. In a few days my three-month sabbatical (supplemented by a couple weeks of vacation) will begin. In the past I have usually used my sabbatical for tackling a big writing project. For instance, fourteen years ago, while on sabbatical, I wrote the first draft of what would become a book about my quest for a faith that is intellectually honest, spiritually and socially healing, and persuasive (Sick Religion or Healthy Faith?, Wipf & Stock, 2016).

For this sabbatical I have another writing project in mind, but I also want to expand my experiences and learnings. So I am trying to line up a week with Mennonite Disaster Service, several days in a police ride-along program, some scheduled retreats at a local spiritual retreat center, and a pile of books to read. I had wanted to take a summer seminary course, but the dates never quite worked out. One of my pastor friends asked me what the focus of my sabbatical is. I told him, “It’s a mish-mash of a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” He said, “That’s the best kind of sabbatical.”

But in the past week, I think I have stumbled on a new focus: discerning what may be my future path in pastoral ministry and retirement. For how long do I want to be a pastor? Should I retire at 70 and spend the rest of my life doing hobbies and volunteer work? Should I consider the “Pope Francis option”: begin my biggest and most important job in my seventies? What would be my “dream job” at this point in my life? What role is best suited for my talents and passions? What is the need “out there” for which I could make a difference? At this point, I see many potential avenues. Some would give me an income, and some would not. Some would allow me to relax in a few years, and some would push me in new ways.

One of the new projects I’ve decided to launch in this sabbatical is a series of interviews with two different groups of pastors: those that are nearing retirement, and those who have been in ministry for less than five years. What excites and motivates the new pastors? What is their vision and hope? What is most challenging them? For those nearing retirement, what is their advice for those beginning ministry? How would they like to see pastoral ministry changed? How has their faith shifted, and how are they facing their own mortality and time left? I think there is much to learn from both those ending their ministries and those beginning. Perhaps in these conversations I will gain a new vision and see my own role more clearly.

This will be my last blog post till I return to the office on August 15th, 2022. I’ll let you know what I learned.

Re-Thinking Faith

Not long ago I was talking with a man who has recently gone through life-altering experiences. He told me, “I am now having to re-think everything in my life–everything I thought I believed and everything I do.” Particularly during these last two years of the Covid pandemic, I have encountered growing numbers of people who are re-thinking their faith and how they want to express it and live it out. In broad terms, here are some of the diverse directions I’ve seen people moving in their faith:

Atheism toward God and rejection of religion. Many people are finding it harder to believe in God, and we are currently in a culture of religious criticism. It is common to hear the claim that religion–all religions–do more harm than good, and that believing in God is unscientific and a sign of emotional immaturity.

Love Jesus but hate the church. A lot of people, who are otherwise committed Christians, have been disillusioned with the church lately and want nothing more to do with it. This reaction is perhaps more prevalent among those who attended more conservative churches. The possible reasons for their disillusionment might be: clergy sexual abuse, authoritarianism, condemnation of LGBTQ persons, or support for Donald Trump.

Spiritual but not religious. Our culture as a whole is moving in a direction that has less trust and interest in established institutions and organizations. Leadership is viewed with suspicion, long-term commitment as stultifying, and membership as unnecessary. Many people prefer episodic experiences, and they embrace building their own eclectic spirituality from various religious traditions which they can express individually without the need for an organized congregation or set of beliefs.

A church of love. Some people are looking for, or are seeking to strengthen, a church that focuses on love above all else. These people perceive that at the heart of the Christian faith (and in many other faiths) is embracing God’s love and living out God’s love with others. Doctrines and “believing the right things” are of secondary importance (or perhaps not important at all).

A church of clear and confident beliefs. Some people are looking for, or are seeking to strengthen, a church that focuses on believing historic Christian doctrines–teaching them, robustly defending them, and effectively passing them on to the next generation. The Bible has authority over all other knowledge sources, thus assuring a faith that is unwavering.

Each of these directions is a response to particular experiences and individual needs. We may be tempted to think that one direction is better or more right than another, but I think it is more likely that mature faith takes many forms. I know individuals who are moving in each of these directions, and I respect them all. Each of them is in touch with some profound truths, and I try to understand them and learn from them.

Like all of us, I am on my own spiritual journey. I keep re-thinking my own faith, attempting to incorporate the truths I have encountered along the way. I have my own way of putting together what I think is the most healthy and healing (and true) Christian faith, but I am fooling myself if I think that my way of putting it together is going to work for everyone.

My faith is that God is bigger than my faith. I will share what I have found to be true and healing, hoping it is helpful and life-giving to others. I will nurture a congregation of faith and love that follows Jesus and helps one another along the way. But God is richer than I know, and each of us needs something (and knows something) a little different. Rather than being alarmed that some people are re-thinking their faith, this is a sign that faith is maturing. And if it is maturing, it is a process that does not end but is always growing.

The Resurrection of Facts

When Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, they left behind mass graves and the streets strewn with the bodies of Ukrainian civilians. Many of the corpses had their hands tied behind their backs, revealing death by execution. The Russian government claimed the video footage was fake–that the bodies were actors pretending to be dead. But satellite images taken weeks before the Russian withdrawal show the bodies lying in the streets while the Russians controlled the town.

Despite all the propaganda and spin and conspiracy theories and alternative views of reality that are proliferating in our world, there is still such a thing as facts, and we are beginning to wake up to the reality that facts can be established and facts matter.

It is now illegal in Russia for journalists to call the conflict in Ukraine a “war” or an “invasion.” Journalists may be punished with fifteen years in prison for violating this law. President Putin has successfully closed down independent Russian media. Any news that contradicts the government’s official statements–such as the fact that a Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital–is labeled “fake news,” and thus dismissed. The Russian public, as much as possible, is sealed off from information not controlled by the Kremlin. But no law or punishment can erase the common definition of words or the facts that lead to certain words being used. When one nation sends a massive army into another nation to subdue it, that is an invasion. When thousands of people die in battle at the hands of opposing armies, that is a war. And when civilians are executed, that is an atrocity.

The term “fake news” was first coined by researches who used it to describe purposeful misinformation. When former president Donald Trump insisted that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than the one for Obama, and when his press secretary called this claim “alternative facts,” despite being contradicted by aerial photographs, this was rightly labeled “fake news.” This was just the beginning of a consistent pattern of former president Trump insisting on his own version of reality, despite any physical facts that disproved his claims. Stung by the criticism that he was indulging in “fake news,” and unwilling to yield to facts, he coopted the term “fake news” and used it to describe any news accounts that were not consistent with the message he wanted his followers to believe. Hence, the most respected and carefully vetted news sources in the country were suddenly accused by him of being “fake news.” He used the phrase so frequently that, for his supporters, the label stuck to anything he wanted it to stick to. Trump was so successful at consistently creating alternative fake “facts”–simply by claiming they were true–that a large proportion of the American population still believes his lie that the 2020 election was stolen through massive voter fraud, despite no court or recount or government investigation finding any such evidence.

President Putin has evidently learned from Trump how successful this strategy can be, because he now employs it himself, even using the same phrase: “fake news.”

But the invasion of Ukraine is so big, so visible, and so horrible, that even Putin cannot control the facts. And regardless of differences in political ideology in the United States, the American public is now embracing the same facts about this immoral war. We now see how important facts are, and how verifiable they can be. And we can also see more clearly the ways in which an authoritarian leader may try to blind the public to facts.

Facts will always be subject to a difficult process of verification. Today it is easy to falsify photos and videos and other recordings. (And it has always been easy to make claims and start rumors without evidence.) But fakery cannot stand for long the scrutiny of scientists, historians, and other researchers. Facts can be obscured and sometimes deleted. But not all of them. And as hazy as reality may seem to be at times, there are still real facts behind it all, and it is our moral and intellectual duty to find the facts and support the facts, regardless of whether or not they undermine our favorite candidates, political parties, or ideologies. Facts will inevitably offend all of us. So be it.

Facts are also subject to interpretation. We need to put facts in a context, and we cannot help but see facts through our own prior knowledge and experience. Depending on which facts we’re looking at, or what frame of reference we’re coming from, we can arrive at very different conclusions about how the facts ought to be interpreted or acted upon. This is legitimate. (For instance, who is to blame for the current lack of senate bipartisan cooperation in approving Supreme Court justices–the Republicans or the Democrats? The facts can be interpreted either way.) But our various opinions and interpretations do not erase the underlying facts. The facts are still there for all of us to look at and analyze together. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

For decades our society has been splitting more widely along ideological lines, relying increasingly on opinion-makers for our beliefs and actions. If the war in Ukraine has any positive outcomes, one of them may be to turn us a little bit away from just opinions and more toward the search for and embrace of facts. Facts matter. Without them we are morally blind and easily misled. If we believe in truth, and live for truth, then facts must be in our foundations. It is time for the resurrection of facts.

A Good Death

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Partly it’s because I am increasingly aware of my body slowly deteriorating (more aches, less memory), partly because I’ve been doing research for an online study (“Facing Mortality”), and partly because we are getting close to the commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the paradoxes of death is that it can be met with terror or welcome, or both at the same time.

Since we’re all going to die, it’s worth giving thought to how we might die a good death. Is there even such a thing? Can death ever be considered good? Let’s think about it.

First of all, as a strictly practical matter, I am very glad that we all eventually die. If we didn’t die, the earth would soon fill up with too many people and we would deplete all resources and we would have to stop having babies. Now that, to me, is a true horror. Death is part of the natural cycle that makes possible new generations and innovations. It is natural that we fear death and do not want to die (it’s built into our biology as an emotional response), but it is irrational and incredibly selfish and short-sighted to try to achieve personal immortality on this earth. So part of a good death is accepting, indeed embracing, the fact that each of us is given a limited timespan. That enhances life’s value, urgency and meaningfulness, and gives our choices added importance. How long should we try to extend the human lifespan? That’s a perplexing question to answer. Personally, I hope we could all feel fulfilled if we make it to seventy or eighty, and any years beyond that are bonus, not to be purchased at a price that deprives life-giving resources for others who are younger.

A good death should also entail finishing needed tasks. This could include: having a will (including medical directives), funeral plans, assembling important records (and passwords!), and sorting personal belongings (such as photos and memorabilia) that you want to pass on. In the years before my mother and father died, they made a point of giving away nearly all of their possessions, making it fairly simple to divvy up and dispose of their estate afterwards.

Finishing up needed tasks also includes resolving personal relationships. Who do you want to thank? Who do you want to apologize to or make amends to? Who do you want to see or talk to before it is too late? Do you want to write letters or make videos with important messages for certain people so that they may be uplifted or guided after your death?

A good death entails filling one’s remaining months (or years) with as much gratitude as possible. Do the things, see the things, remember the things that most fill you with thankfulness. This probably includes spending as much time as possible with those whom you love and enjoy the most. This is a gift not only for you, but also for them.

A good death also means living out your deepest convictions with courage. Don’t worry about what others may think or say, and the consequences don’t matter because you’re going to be dead anyway. Now is the time to risk all for what is most important to you. Give yourself and all that you have for what you most want to see enhanced in the world, reflecting your highest ideals and hopes for humanity. This is why we live, and so this is how we should die.

All of us naturally hope that our deaths will be with a minimum of suffering. We cannot control this. If we are able to receive hospice care, this may make our passing as comfortable as possible. But whether our passing is comfortable or difficult, let us prepare by always placing our lives in the hands of grace. We did not make ourselves. Our lives are a pure gift. Be grateful to the ground of all being and that which is beyond and greater than us. Trust God.

A good death does not necessitate a long life. A long life is often a delight, but it is not the length that matters most. What matters most is how we are living our lives now. Indeed, everything listed above can be–and should be–started now.

Best Book of the Year

The Academy Awards are over, so we now know who won Best Movie of 2021. I haven’t seen CODA, and some of my favorites from 2021 weren’t nominated for anything (The Dig, The Green Knight, Wrath of Man). But instead of offering my opinion about the best movie of 2021, I would prefer to highlight the best book I read that came out in 2021: Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs.

Ever since the War on Terror began twenty years ago, the Navy SEALs have become American cultural heroes. They are considered the most elite commandos, the ones who are called upon to perform the most difficult on-the-ground surgical operations for the military. The high point of their success was the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the recovery of a trove of information from his secret compound.

But the Navy SEALs also have a troubled history of periodically going off the rails and committing war crimes. Perhaps no one epitomizes this darkness more than Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL chief who is considered a hero by many and an unpunished criminal by the Navy.

David Philipps, the author, begins the book by portraying Gallagher in the best, most heroic light. We are told of his many deployments, combat experiences, achievements, and medals, as well as some of the psychological toll this may have had on him. We begin by admiring him, sympathizing with him, and being on his side. But then the book begins to dig below the surface, and a different portrait emerges of a man who simply loves to kill, and does so recklessly and indiscriminately. Rather than being a person of honor and integrity, he is a liar who needlessly puts the lives of his men at grave risk so that he can enjoy the sport of shooting at civilians, including children, and claim the most kills of any sniper. The snipers in his unit are so appalled at what he is doing, they fire warning shots at civilians to scare them away to save their lives. Gallagher is eventually accused of shooting and killing defenseless civilians and knifing to death a teenager who had been captured as a prisoner of war.

But the book becomes even more disturbing when it describes the extreme difficulties and resistance the Navy faced in trying to bring Gallagher to justice. The roadblocks included lies and coverups by Gallagher’s commanding officers, atrocious tactics by his legal defense team, and the intervention of Fox News and President Trump. And then, during the trial, there was an unexpected and shocking revelation. In the end, justice fails.

Right now Russia is invading Ukraine. This invasion is being condemned by the rest of the world as unprovoked and unjustified. Further, the Russian military is being accused of indiscriminate bombing and the targeting of buildings, such as hospitals, that have resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths. Russia is being investigated for war crimes. If the United States and other countries are to successfully hold Russia responsible for these acts, then we must be willing to punish our own military members, and allies, when they do similar illegal acts. War is not an excuse for indiscriminate killing and the targeting of civilians and unarmed prisoners. These are crimes that must be punished. Many people regard war as a necessary evil in some circumstances. Personally, I believe that nonviolent resistance has shown itself to be equally or more effective in the long run. But even if war is a necessary evil in some circumstances for preventing even worse atrocities, the rules of war must then be vigorously enforced, or war simply becomes an excuse for needless murder, revenge, mayhem, and trauma.

This is an essential book for helping us grapple with the reality of war, how we fight war, and how we must keep politics out of the processes of justice.

Be a Peacemaker

It’s easy to feel powerless. We are in the midst of huge world events and social dynamics over which we have little to no control. From the invasion of Ukraine to the culture wars raging in our society, we may feel overwhelming anger and hopelessness. When I drive to work each morning, and home each afternoon, I notice that the level of aggressive driving around me has risen substantially from what it was just two years ago. I can’t help but wonder whether this is a symptom of all our pent-up frustrations with a world increasingly gone crazy.

But rather than becoming part of the craziness, we can instead become peacemakers. We probably cannot stop the war in Ukraine, but we can plant seeds of peace all around us–seeds that will have small but real effects. We must not underestimate the importance and impact of as many of us as possible making this commitment.

You can be a peacemaker. You don’t need a position of power to make a difference. Here are four simple things all of us can do to help set the world on a more healing course:

  1. Change the tone. In all of your family and workplace conversations, and in all of your social media posts and interactions, change the tone. No unregulated venting. No sarcasm or name-calling. No attacking. No gloating. Instead, make every comment a constructive comment that makes possible a positive and constructive response by others. Affirm the other person or the other person’s perspective in some way. Find your common ground and your common values. Then offer your perspective in a calm and kind way. It is amazing how the tone of a conversation can be quickly transformed through simple gentleness and respectfulness. If you cannot make a constructive and respectful comment, then say nothing at all. If you are feeling victimized by injustice in the world, share your pain and share the truth of your experience, but avoid making final judgments and assigning blame. Until we plant the seeds of open dialogue and helpful and healing conversation, we will solve none of the craziness in our world.
  2. Get and share facts, not propaganda. Get your information from the most unbiased, fact-checked, and varied sources you can find. Do not rely on political spokespersons (they spin everything for their own party’s benefit) or commentators who have an ax to grind. Stay away from all “news” sources that use sensationalism, exaggeration, and expressions of outrage to boost their ratings. (It may not be a bad idea to stay away from all cable news networks. Read newspapers and news magazines instead.) Be aware that social media is filled with misinformation and disinformation purposely designed to divide Americans and make us more angry. Find news sources that are calm in presentation and offer fair perspectives. Be aware that science is a process of accumulated and tested evidence and peer-reviewed studies; thus, rely on the scientific consensus, not on mavericks dispensing their own theories. Be aware that facts, when taken out of context, are just as harmful as lies; so know the context of all your facts.
  3. Volunteer for positive good. Perhaps nothing will change your mood in a positive direction and assure you that the world can be made better than doing some concrete good through a volunteer program. Help tutor a struggling student. Work on a Habitat for Humanity project. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. The possible volunteer projects in your community are probably endless. Not only will you be doing some good and perhaps nurturing your own sense of hope, but you will become more aware of others and aspects of life that you may have been totally ignorant about.
  4. Meditate daily. Being an effective peacemaker on an ongoing basis necessitates resilience and the ability to let go of anxiety and stress. So learn to set aside time each day to be by yourself for the purpose of practicing calm breathing and healing thoughts. Put yourself in the hands of that which is greater than yourself and that which is the source of hope and love. As one biblical writer put it, even as he sat in prison: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).

Regret

Every once in a while I hear someone say, “I have no regrets.” I don’t believe them.

Life is a series of millions of choices, actions, reactions, and consequences. Inevitably, we second-guess or regret some of those choices. If we didn’t, we would either lack imagination or conscience.

“I wish I hadn’t been so mean to my sister in childhood.” “I wish I had intervened in that situation.” “I wish I hadn’t gotten drunk that night.” “I wish I had gone to a different school.” “I wish I had picked a different profession.” “I wish I had helped that guy out.” “I wish I hadn’t punished my son for that.” “I wish I had taken a firmer stand.” “I wish I had gotten there sooner.” “I wish I hadn’t lied to her.” “I wish I had told him how I feel.” “I wish I hadn’t wasted my money on that.” “I wish I hadn’t married him.”

For the most part, I think I have made good choices in my life. The vast majority have led to delightful experiences, wonderful learnings, and deeply meaningful relationships. Even the painful experiences have often had unforeseen benefits and valuable lessons. And yet, not a day goes by that I don’t wince inside from an uncomfortable memory or a questionable choice from the past.

What should I do with my regrets? Try to forget them? Replay them over and over? Or is there another alternative?

If the regret keeps coming back, is that some part of my psyche telling me I have unfinished business with that regret? Perhaps I have not fully acknowledged my responsibility, or fully recognized my own character flaw. Perhaps there is some apology or making amends that is due. Perhaps there is something for me to learn from this regret that will make me wiser in the future. Sometimes I have followed up on these possibilities, journaling my thoughts and explorations, taking a specific action, or telling myself, “I have learned what I need to learn from this; I can now let it go.”

And yet, even after squeezing all I can out of the regret and letting it go, I find that it just keeps popping up again in my mind. So maybe it’s not some part of my psyche telling me I have unfinished business with that regret. Maybe regrets are a constantly dripping faucet of conscience and imagination that cannot be turned off. Maybe I just have to say to myself, “Ok, this is just part of being human.”

Rationally I can tell myself that the choices of the past are in the past; unchangeable. That’s true. Rationally I can tell myself that some of my regrets aren’t my fault at all–I just feel badly about what happened. That’s true too. Rationally I can stop trying to take responsibility for the choices and happiness of all the people I care about. That’s also true. That’s all helpful. It all gives some relief. But the regrets still float by in my mind and wave.

But now maybe I can wave back. Now maybe I can say “thank you” for everything in life, even the regrets–because that means I am alive and I keep having the opportunity for making choices, whether they lead to satisfaction or regret. That’s the source of all creativity and the ground of all love. That’s the precious stuff of being human.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

I first saw this prayer on a card in a card shop when I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I was unimpressed. I wasn’t interested in serenity and accepting what I couldn’t change. I wanted to change everything that needed changing, and I believed that with enough talent and determination (and God’s help) I along with other like-minded people could do it!

I feel differently now. I still believe that we too easily accept the status quo as unchangeable, but I now realize there are many things outside our control. Just one obvious example: we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves and our own attitude and behavior toward others. This has been a long and difficult lesson.

In my late twenties, when I began volunteering at a chemical dependency center, I discovered that the Serenity Prayer is the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. The prayer makes a lot of sense within that context. The first step in the AA program is to come to terms with the fact that one is addicted: powerless over alcohol and that one’s life has become unmanageable. Even if one, through the support of the AA program, is able to maintain sobriety, the addiction doesn’t disappear. It’s always there, forever in one’s brain and biology. You can’t change that. You have to find a way to live with it.

These days there are many other things that we quite obviously don’t control. We don’t control the price of gas (even the President has very little control over gas prices in the short term). We don’t control the pandemic (though we can respond to it with various protective measures). We don’t control disrupted supply chains that cause scarcity and inflation (though we can plan to make changes for the future). We don’t control global warming which will likely go on for centuries or more (though we can try to minimize its rise and worst effects). We don’t control Putin (though we can try to pressure him and appeal to the Russian people). And we don’t control history. We cannot accurately predict where it is all going fifty or even twenty years from now.

The wise life recognizes what cannot be controlled and does not try to control it; instead, it accepts the world and works with it the way it is.

And this brings us to the courage to change what must be changed. The wise life is not indifferent or despairing. The wise life recognizes the power of creativity and love; indeed, nothing is more powerful in bringing about social change and greater justice and joy. We have not yet unleashed our spiritual potential to be agents of healing the fractures in our world.

The Serenity Prayer was originally composed by Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous American theologian of the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, he wrote or spoke many versions of this prayer, including a second part that has largely been forgotten. I find this second part of the prayer to be the most powerful:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

This, I believe, is truly a prayer for our time.

My Attitude Toward War

The right–even necessity–to defend oneself against an attack is deeply seated in our emotions, social assumptions, and laws. Even churches committed to following Jesus (who said, “Love your enemies”) usually support wars of self-defense. So it is with little hesitation that people and nations all over the world are cheering for Ukrainians as they fight back against the Russian invasion. We are delighted to see that, at least for the moment, their fierce resistance has slowed down what was assumed was going to be a quick and easy victory for Russia. Germany has promised to send in lots more weapons as the world chants, “Go, Ukraine! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

But as a person committed to nonviolence and committed to valuing every human life equally, I cannot join in all this cheering. I cannot pray that Ukrainians be more successful at killing Russians than Russians are at killing Ukrainians.

Last night on the news I watched a young Ukrainian woman smiling as she was making and stockpiling Molotov cocktails (crude bombs) in her apartment–an apartment she shares with her children. What does she think will happen when she begins flinging these flaming bombs down on Russian soldiers and tanks? She and her entire apartment building, along with her children and everyone else living in her building, will be destroyed. The more violence Ukrainian civilians use against the Russians, the more Russians will target civilians and obliterate entire cities–as they have done in Syria.

Of course, it’s possible that even the Russian people will be so horrified by such actions and the deaths of its own soldiers that Putin will be forced to stop the invasion and leave. Maybe. But as a rule of thumb, when violence is used against violence, it escalates violence and becomes unpredictable and ruinous to all involved.

A better way, perhaps, is to pray for the strength and courage to resist with nonviolence, to value even the lives of our enemies even while also refusing to cooperate in any way with injustice. Bring to bear the total arsenal of moral weapons: boycotts, divestment, protest, direct action, civil disobedience, creating alternative structures that bypass the oppressor. Through nonviolence create a mass movement that is so large and broad within Ukraine–and so supported around the world–that Putin finds it impossible to govern and control Ukraine.

The evidence of the past seventy-five years supports the effectiveness of such nonviolent campaigns. It doesn’t always work, but neither does violent resistance, which more likely descends into moral chaos.

But choosing nonviolence cannot simply be a matter of making a pragmatic calculation. Pragmatism has no vision, and therefore pragmatism gives up too easily. Choosing nonviolence depends on faith: faith that, in the long run, nonviolence and love are more powerful than violence and hate; faith that we are all made in the image of God and therefore have equal worth; faith that nonviolence and love are simply right.

Redesign Pastoral Ministry?

When I see so many pastors leaving the ministry, and (worse) so many potentially great pastors choosing not to become pastors, I wonder if there’s something fundamentally flawed about how we have designed this job. Over the years I have tried to figure out what’s wrong and how it might be corrected. Below are some of my musings, intuitions, observations, and ideas. They may all be wrong, ignorant, and misguided. Or maybe not so much.

First observation: pastoral ministry is not as fun and easy and effective as it used to be, and that’s mostly the fault of letting in the lawyers. When I was in seminary (a zillion years ago), there was not a single lecture about knowing the law or being legally protected. (One exception: there was one presentation on how to do clergy taxes.) Now a church and its pastor can’t do the simplest aspects of ministry without figuring out all the legalities and covering the congregation’s butt in case of a lawsuit. I hate it. Not only does it make many aspects of ministry more difficult and complicated–and sometimes logistically impossible–but it has altered the emotional tenor of the congregation and the focus of its ministry. Now ministry is often conducted with an attitude of fear and danger instead of with an attitude of trust and joy. In some congregations accusation takes precedence over dialogue, retribution over reconciliation, a narrow version of justice over forgiveness. The church, in its response to a litigious, paranoid, blaming, self-righteous, and greedy culture, has muffed its mission; indeed, it has failed to even recognize that the gospel is counter to most of the assumptions and pursuits of society–whether from the right or the left.

Of course, much of the proliferation of legal policies has been due to significant wrongdoing by some churches and pastors! We certainly need to have policies and procedures that can effectively stop wrongdoing. Abusive criminal activity must be reported to authorities immediately. Nevertheless, policies and procedures (in whatever area of ministry) should be as limited, simple, practical, and flexible as possible. Don’t ask a lawyer to review them. A lawyer is obligated to point out every possible way a congregation or its leadership may be liable, but that is not our primary concern. Our primary concern is to do our ministry in the most natural, trusting, loving, sensible, direct, and effective way possible. I decide what to do as a pastor, not based on my legal exposure, but on whether I think it’s the right thing to do. Have we forgotten Jesus’ advice to avoid the adversarial system of the lawcourts whenever possible and instead strive for reconciliation? Just live the gospel and take responsibility. Leave the lawyers out of it.

Second observation: The number of congregations that can afford a fulltime pastor is shrinking, and will likely continue to shrink. Most churches in the U.S. have fewer than 100 attendees; the median size church is about 75. With the cost of health insurance always rising, fulltime pastors are becoming less feasible. This means more and more churches will need to be led by a part-time pastor or by a group of lay leaders. The danger is that more and more churches will have to rely on less educated and less well prepared pastors, resulting in theological and missional drift over time. But I think this can be avoided if we change the mission of seminaries. Seminaries, which exist for training church leaders, need to shift their main focus from training a small number of fulltime pastoral specialists to training every adult in every congregation. Now that online classes have become almost normative, this is finally feasible. Congregations should contract with seminaries to provide online (and sometimes in-person) non-credit training for lay leaders and regular members in such areas as: pastoral care, Christian education, preaching, spirituality, church history, theology, and biblical studies. The result would be congregations far more deeply informed and engaged in reflecting on their faith and mission. It would also result in a style of pastoral leadership that is more equipping, egalitarian, shared, and–perhaps–less stressful.

A number of years ago I was shocked by the results of a massive study done in the United Methodist Church. The study was trying to determine which factors were most essential for fostering vital congregations. According to my memory, the results showed no correlation between the level of theological training by the pastor and congregational vitality. How could that possibly be? My own theory is that the better educated the pastor is, the more prone the congregation is to rely on the pastor instead of on its own giftedness. But one of the factors that did correlate with congregational vitality was leadership that fostered, trained, and empowered lay leadership. So it seems to me, the more congregations and seminaries see theological education as something to be pursued by everyone, the better off congregations and pastors will be.

Third observation: medium-size and large churches are still going to need well-trained fulltime pastors. Congregations are complicated and they need pastoral leadership that is gifted in multiple disciplines. So I have come to the conclusion that the fulltime pastorate cannot be made markedly easier (at least in terms of skills required). Being a pastor is hard. So rather than lamenting it, we need to embrace it. We should demand excellence from those training for and practicing ministry, just as we demand excellence from those training for and practicing medicine. Fulltime pastoral ministry is for the few, the unusually gifted, the passionately called.

I used to chair a committee that determined whether to grant credentials to pastors. In our interviews we were focused and rigorous in making sure the candidates had proficiency in six key areas. Sometimes we recommended another year of preparation, outlining the steps we wanted fulfilled. A few times we simply refused to grant the credential. Some of the interviewees were offended by our probing questions and lack of immediate recommendation of their credentials. They thought we should be more accommodating and give them a break. But how would that have served them or their congregations? Being a pastor is hard, so stop whining. If you can’t get through a simple interview, you can’t get through the dynamics of an entire congregation. We should not try to make pastoral ministry easier. We should do a better job of preparing pastors for the greatest and most rewarding challenge of their lives.