Beau Underwood formerly served as senior director of advocacy for Sojourners. A graduate of Eureka College and the University of Chicago, Beau is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) currently serving a church in Jefferson City, Mo.
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A Complex Vocation
THE ROLE AND identity of the minister has always been complex: Preacher and teacher, pastor and prophet, counselor and social worker. Despite this inherent dynamism, church structures—seminaries, congregations, denominations—often focus on transforming diverse candidates for ministry into a uniform class of spiritual professionals equipped to serve Christ in a bygone era. Responding to the challenges facing congregations today involves hearing and sharing the gospel in fresh ways, which requires a revolution in how ministers understand themselves and the training they receive.
Cynthia G. Lindner’s Varieties of Gifts does not read like a revolutionary text, but it is iconoclastic. While Lindner does not argue directly with the many books on pastoral leadership encouraging conformity to a specific mold, she gently brushes them away with a thoroughly postmodern conception of the “well-lived pastoral life.” Drawing on insights from dialogical psychology, which highlights the “multiplicity” of the human self, Lindner brings attention to the diverse talents and perspectives of aspiring and seasoned pastors. Too often this plurality is perceived as vocational ambivalence or personal confusion—an obstacle to be overcome in the modern quest to create a unified, coherent sense of self. Yet this pursuit of a single identity deprives ministers of important resources, limiting both their professional effectiveness and satisfaction.
Varieties of Gifts seeks to end this repression and embrace the minister’s natural multiplicity. Lindner believes this path leads to the realization of untapped potential at a moment when religious institutions are desperate to discover new and different ways of being faithful. She writes, “effective ministers have always inhabited plural roles and multiple selves which have funded the flexibility and inventiveness that religious leadership demands over the long haul.” Thus, the internal tensions of the minister’s life (How do I serve this community as both prophet and priest? How do I remain authentic while embodying a role defined by perception?) become a resource in the pursuit of excellence rather than a distraction that promises to lead one astray.
Living on Almost Nothing in America
TWENTY YEARS AGO, President Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as “welfare reform.”
Controversial at the time, the law placed a five-year time limit on government financial assistance to those in need and instituted work requirements for welfare recipients. With two decades of hindsight, there is now sufficient evidence to evaluate its effectiveness, the holes it created in our nation’s social safety net, and what needs to be done to address them.
One of the best examinations of this law’s effects is the insightful book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Scholars Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer note that welfare reform has succeeded in important ways. “Poor single mothers,” they write, “left welfare and went to work in numbers that virtually no one expected. In 1993, 58 percent of low-income single mothers were employed. By 2000, nearly 75 percent were working, an unprecedented increase.” While the Great Recession reversed some of this progress, the employment rates remain “above pre-reform levels.” Child poverty rates also fell after welfare reform’s passage and remain down, though the authors note that additional measures, such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and increased government spending on child-care programs, also factor into this decline.
But the outcomes are not universally positive. In the first 15 years after passing welfare reform, the number of people living in “$2-a-day poverty” had more than doubled.
In Sickness and Health
Paid sick leave helps not only the workers but businesses as well.
Does Christianity have a future in Iraq?
The Self-Destruction of Mark Driscoll
Churches—like everybody else—needs accountability.
Singing Our Theology
The deep, dark secret of the church is that the beliefs and convictions of Christians are often shaped far more by the hymns we sing than the theological tomes gathering dust on our bookshelves. Songs are avenues for praising God, but they are also tools for imparting knowledge. Singing is a theological exercise, so the words printed in hymnbooks or flashed on screens deserve attention and reflection.
“How Great Thou Art” has been sung in churches, automobiles, and probably the occasional shower since the late 19th century. Long used in traditional worship services, many contemporary artists are offering their own renditions of this classic and adapting it for more contemporary settings. Even Carrie Underwood (no relation) is getting into the act.
This is an ode to God’s majesty and power. It testifies to the beauty created by God’s hand and witnesses to the connection between the love behind God’s creative acts and the love poured out by Christ on the cross.
The famous opening line, “O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made” sets the stage. They also easily get stuck in your head playing on endless loop.
Creation – stars, thunder, forest, birds, majestic mountains, gentle breezes, and everything else – indicates the greatness of God. It provokes wonder among us humans, forcing us to acknowledge the subordinate relationship between creature and Creator. We cannot do what God has done; our accomplishments will always pale in comparison.
The Dangers of Bi-Vocational Ministry
I eat, sleep, and breathe faith and politics; it is my passion and calling. From 9-5 each weekday, I direct communications and advocacy for Sojourners, moving around Washington, D.C. for various meetings, engaging with reporters and the media, and planning advocacy strategies around pressing justice issues. Then I turn off my computer and walk out the door. But instead of going home, I’m usually off to another meeting that has little to do with politics and everything to do with faith.
I’m a bi-vocational pastor, and I spend 15-20 additional hours working in a local congregation alongside several clergy colleagues, who themselves are a mix of full-time and part-time ministers. Serving in a church keeps me rooted. It provides perspective when the dysfunctions of Washington threaten to consume me. Helping people discover faith and integrate it into their lives renews and enlivens my soul.
Part of me pretends that I’d be spending this much time worshiping on Sunday morning and hanging out with my fellow young adults anyway, so I might as well be polishing my ministerial skills. But when I’m honest, I know it isn’t close to the same thing. I am way more invested in people’s lives – their joys and concerns – and the life of a particular community than I otherwise would be as “just a member of the congregation.” It is a demanding role that can be emotional, mentally and spiritually draining at times, but I love every minute of it. This is what I was made to do. Being a pastor is my identity. This calling is fundamental to who I am and how I understand myself in the world.
The number of bi-vocational ministers is increasing rapidly. Many pastors who work full-time jobs and serve in congregations part-time receive little or no pay for their church service. This trend has been described as “the future of the church” and extolled because the model is a return to “the original church” that will “enliven congregations.”
To the Dying Church: Use Your Words
To the dying church,
The ongoing decline of American Christianity is well documented. A quick Google search of “mainline decline” provides statistics, commentary, and variously tried and discarded solutions related to the struggles of liberal protestantism in the United States. More recently, these trends are showing up in conservative Christian circles as well. The attention of the media, religious scholars, and cultural warriors has been captured by the rise of the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” humanists, and evangelistic atheists.
It is clear who’s ascending and who’s falling. Organized religion is doomed. You, dying church, are in trouble.
I have seen your sickness up close. The congregation where I was baptized — once full on Sunday mornings — now barely hangs on. The church where I preached in college has long since closed its doors. My pastor friends spend their days worrying about shrinking worship attendance and a lack of financial resources for carrying out their ministry. Denominations pause from fighting and splitting just long enough to make budget cuts and lay off staff.
What can be done? What should be done? Is this a new reality that we simply must accept?
Debt Ceiling 101: Boundaries and Original Sin
The world as we know it may end on Oct. 17.
This statement seems hyperbolic. It sounds like another absurd prediction of the end times that garners far too much attention from the media. But this isn’t about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Unless the Congress raises the debt ceiling, Oct.17 is the date that the United States government runs out of money to pay its bills.
The consequences could be catastrophic.
Defaulting on our financial obligations would shatter the global confidence in the U.S. dollar that has made it the worldwide reserve currency. U.S. Treasury bonds would no longer be perceived as safe investments, which means creditors would demand higher interest rates to purchase the bonds because of the increased investment risk. The rise in interest rates would make U.S. debt more expensive to finance, leading to more government spending and slower economic growth. The U.S. Treasury believes a default could cause another recession far worse than what we experienced in 2008.
Of course, this pending crisis is completely manufactured and entirely avoidable.
Why the Debt Ceiling Matters
These manufactured crises show how much our politics could use a dose of moral sanity.
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