Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils
 

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!

   
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Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.

 

Buying Status

We think of status normally as Ascribed or worship_facilityEarned, but it can be bought as well. Of course in the broadest sense, buying status is Earned status, but it is not the type of earned status that most of us would find particularly praiseworthy. Consider the following story. It is completely fictitious, but describes what is happening over and over again in many countries.

Ben is a young missionary sent out by a small denomination. He is well-supported but has no real connections in this place. He is the first of his denomination to work in this new region of ministry. His denomination also doesn’t have the tradition of working cooperatively with most other denominations. Further, his mission agency presumes that a “real missionary” must have no familial, ethnic or cultural connections to the place. <Seriously, why did so many missiologists buy into this silly idea?> Because of this, Ben also has no relatives there either.

But Ben does have some money. Not far from where he lives is a small but growing church. The church building is pretty meager, in fact only a rental, but the people there are friendly, and the pastor, although young, seems to be doing a good job.

Ben sets up an appointment with Pastor Emil. At a coffee shop the two talk about ministry, and particularly how things are going at Ptr. Emil’s church. Even though Ben was new to the area, he had been there long enough to know that most churches there cannot afford a full-time pastor. Some pastors are bi-vocational, while others struggle to get by with help “in kind” from the church members. Ptr. Emil worked as a store clerk on weekdays.

Ben had a solution. He would help the church out financially. That way, they can have a real church building rather than a rental, and Ptr. Emil can quit his day job and commit himself to full-time ministry. What an exciting opportunity!

Of course there is a cost. Ptr. Emil and his church are part of a different denomination. They would have to switch to Ben’s denomination. Additionally, the church would have to change its name to show its change of status.

It’s a win-win. Ptr. Emil and his church are on good financial footing, and have a new building. Ben now has a church that he can take pictures of and send to his supporters as the fruits of his labor for the Lord.

But is it really win-win?

  • Ptr. Emil is being paid, but now the ministry is no longer his, but is someone else’s. Theologically speaking, the work is neither Ptr. Emil’s nor Ben’s. It is the Lord’s. However true that may be, it disguises the issue of power. Ben now controls the church since he controls the money. The church no longer owns itself.
  • The church is now dependent on an outsider. They were poor before, but God had provided. But that is over now. Sadly, dependency often leads to a form of “learned helplessness,’ where neediness becomes the goal rather than being self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sufficient.
  • The supporters of Ben are being hurt since they most likely were giving financial support to grow the kingdom of God, not “sheep stealing.” There are some people and some groups that are so prone to denominatio-centric thinking that anytime one pulls people to one’s own denomination, it is a success. I have met such people and such groups. But a missionary should help one’s supporters at home to think bigger– kingdom big– not in terms of simply denomination. In this case Ben perpetuates that attitude.
  • Ben is hurt since he learned a bad lesson. Money Is Not Missions.

 

 

Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Motivation for Missions

Reading through “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent. In Chapter 7 they list 13 motivations for doing why_go_graphicmission work. They divide them into two categories: Questionable Motivations and Appropriate Motivations. For me, I would like to play with the list a little bit. For me, some of the questionable motivations are poor motivations, while some are simply inadequate. Of the appropriate motivations listed, one seems to me to be Inadequate, and one Poor. Two I thought should be combined into one. I decided to move the list of 13 into three groups:    Poor, Inadequate, Appropriate. 

Of course, one could argue that even the ones described as Appropriate may still be Inadequate if other motivations are completely absent. Still the list feels good to me, and am in no way suggesting my organization is superior… it just works better for me. I don’t plan to add a lot of  commentary at this time. Perhaps later, I will look into some more thought and text.

Poor Motivations

Civilization, Colonialism, and Cultural Superiority — Cultural or Governmental Imperialism is clearly poor since each culture has strengths and weaknesses. Those that seek to transform a culture or place under the subjection of another typically are blind to their own weaknesses. It is an act of power, not love.

Ecclesial Power and Denominationalism — Similar to the previous one, it is a misguided use of power and of personal kingdom building rather than building God’s kingdom.

Condescending Pity — Both of the previous ones assume that the missionary or the missionary’s culture, or the missionary’s denomination or agency is superior to alternatives. This is tied to that but also more personal— much like Jesus’ story of the pharisee in the temple praying and thanking God at how awesome he (the pharisee) was compared to that sinful tax collector near him. It is a mixture of power and pride.

Asceticism — Some have traditionally (and perhaps still do) go on missions as a form of self-denial. Some may do it in the form of penance (Green Martyrdom) or more focus on service (White Martyrdom). This (and the other items in the Poor section are probably not as bad as the first three, but it still is essentially self-serving (yes self-denial can be a form of self-service).

Adventure and Romantic Ideals– One could list this as inadequate… but it is VERY inadequate. If one wants adventure and the “romance” of doing really cool and awesome things, there are better choices out there.

Eschatological Motivation— In the book, this motivation was listed as acceptable. For me, it is no better than inadequate, and probably more in the poor category. So much bad missions has sprung from reaction to the belief (right or wrong) of the imminence of Christ’s return or even (shockingly) the belief that doing certain things will speed up Christ’s return. Perhaps if what was meant was support of Christ’s kingdom, in terms of its connect to Eschatological (or Salvation) History, maybe I could accept it as an acceptable motivation. But even then, it seems more like a useful understanding of missions, rather than a motivation for missions.

Inadequate

All of the three that I put as inadequate are related to the passion that God has placed in us to grow and fulfill some sense of purpose. Perhaps I could have put the desire for adventure heref, or even asceticism… but these three seem superior to those two.

Self-realization and Edification —   This is clearly inadequate since missions is other-centered or God-centered, not self-centered. However, it is fine and appropriate to want to find a sense of purpose in the work.

Gender-related  — Historically especially, although of course still present, women would join missions seeking to serve God when other formal roles of ministry were denied to them. This is a very understandable motivation… but inadequate by itself.

Divine Calling or Inner Compulsion — This was listed in the book as Appropriate. But I can see it no better than inadequate. And considering the fact that no mission board that I know of sees a sense of calling as enough to approve commissioning, I don’t think I am alone in this. Also, the theology of divine calling often pushes people into redefining desire for self-realization, overcoming gender barriers, or even romantic adventure, as a divine calling. Anyway, since it is a self-centered motivation, unlike the ones that follow, the best that could be said is that it is inadequate.

Appropriate

Compassion and Human Need — The most common emotion ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels is Compassion. Compassion implies action as well. Missions can be seen as an appropriate response to the second part of the Great Commandment— to love one’s neighbor (one in need) as one loves oneself.

The Love of Christ… and Obedience to Christ’s Command — These were listed separately in the book, but I see them as going hand-in-hand. If one loves Christ one keeps His commands. The Great Commission, additionally can be seen as an application of the Great Commandment… loving God with one’s entire being. I can see one choosing to separate these, but for me at least, the two go hand-in-hand.

Doxology… the Glory of God — Missions can be seen as an act of worship. Additionally, one can be motivated by the desire that all creation (all tribes, nations, tongues, peoples) worship God… in spirit and in truth. The image of Revelation 9 can be a great motivation.

Even with these “Appropriate motives” a missionary should probably have all three, not just one. He or she may also have some inadequate, but not necessarily bad, motives. They may even have some poor motives…. such as desire for adventure, or advancing one’s denomination.

Any missionary or missionary candidate should, thoughtfully and honestly, consider their motivations.

Problems with Spiritual Gifts

o-GIFT-IN-HAND-facebook

Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed. Even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible;  and even when they are talked about, there are more questions than answers. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

  • First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. These programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts there are? How many gifts each Christian has? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  • Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift. 
  • Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  • Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes someone with a gift of prophecy. For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A.  Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES:   Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B.  Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency.

 

 

 

Life Stories

This is a presentation that we use for Clinical Pastoral Education class. However, I it is quite relevant to missionaries. as well. It draws a bit from Narrative Counseling. “Bible Heroes,” as well as missionaries throughout history have complicated and painful lives. Part of their success was in embracing God’s perspective rather than their own. Some of that is also in my book “Theo-storying,” which is described in MY BOOKS.