The Solo Pastor & the Christian Imagination

A fruitful solo pastor engages the world through a Christian Imagination.

That’s a bit ambiguous, so let’s see if we can flesh it out – put some humanness, some real-world into it.  Engaging the world through a Christian Imagination is to say that there is a particular way to live in the world – a Christian way.  This is not exclusive to solo pastors, but to all who follow the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

A couple months ago, a local farming couple welcomed farmers from across the globe into their home.  Some were from Canada and the rest were scattered across the European landscapes.  The Canadian farmers were the most interesting for our local couple because of the ways in which they used solar power and compost to run their farms.  Their creativity and imaginations completely transformed their farming practices in ways that shrunk their ecological footprints.  Around the same time this couple was telling me about their foreign visitors, I stumbled upon this article about an Amish farm that is ‘leading the way to local food security in Indiana.’

When I hear and read stories like these, I cannot help but wonder if this is what a Christian Imagination looks like.  Countless examples can be found of individuals, organizations, and businesses who are engaging their worlds in ways that are directly informed by their Christian faith.  Whether it be creating sustainable farming practices, infusing a small town with the arts, reinventing downtown Detroit, or digging fresh water wells in Africa, a Christian Imagination engages the world in Jesus-shaped ways.

Greg Jones and Kavin Rowe talk about this in their articles on Traditioned Innovation, how Scripture invites us to live out of the tension between Tradition and Innovation.  Rowe states:

“Those who live in the pattern of life made possible by [Jesus’] death and resurrection participate most fully in the newness of the world. Whoever is in Christ, says Paul, is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, that is, the innovation of God is at its peak. In Christ, [God] remakes the foundations of human life in the very midst of the ongoing, long-running and everyday traditions of the world.”

In the everyday, ordinary, mundanity of life, a Christian Imagination infuses New Life and possibility precisely because that is the work God is doing in this world – the work of making Christ’s Kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

This makes me wonder, how might a Christian Imagination engage your context?  What does a Christian Teacher look like?  How does parenting with a Christian Imagination shape and inform the rearing of your children?  How does one weld, change tires, and build new houses “Christianly”?  

I wonder if these are the sorts of questions Fruitful Solo Pastors are asking.  I wonder if their Christian Imaginations drive them out of their offices and into conversations with people in their congregations and communities in order that God’s Spirit might cast a vision of what is possible in the lives of the individuals and community.  I wonder if the Fruitful Solo Pastor engages her/his context with a Christian Imagination in such ways that are continually open to new possibilities.

Last week, our weekly bible study met.  We gather regularly in community to engage with the upcoming week’s sermon scripture passage, and our text was on Ezekiel 34.  In it, God declares that God will come to be the people’s Shepherd.  God will search for the scattered, bring back the lost, bind the injured, strengthen the weak, and will shepherd the flock with justice.

With one eye on the text and the other on our context, a member of our group challenged us: We must find new ways to tell the old story.  In our neighborhood, that may mean have a midweek, family-style dinner followed by games, tutoring, crafts, and basketball.  Many of our neighborhood children are hungry.  Most are growing up in difficult and challenging environments.  Almost all of them are statistically destined to do drugs, drop out of school, and/or end up in prison.  Nearly none of them – statistically – will go one to live “successful” lives.

What’s the church going to do about that?  This woman’s Christian Imagination led to to imagine a new future for these young people – one where the Church is telling the old, old story in a new way: the old story that God loves them, unconditionally, exactly the way they are, but way too much to let them stay that way.

I don’t know what will come of this new ministry endeavor, but I look forward to sitting round plastic tables on folding, rusty metal chairs passing round plates of mac-n-cheese, sharing stories of our days, hopes, and dreams.  I look forward to working on homework, swapping craft projects, playing basketball, and learning new games.

Who knows what will happen?  But I have a feeling that it will look an awful lot like Jesus.


The Solo Pastor: A Spirit-Led Playground Builder

Last week I listed several qualities, traits, and skill-sets Solo Pastors might possess in order to be fruitful shepherds.  While those qualities and skills might also apply to staff and senior pastors, I am looking at them primarily in regard to solo pastors.  “Intrinsically motivated by the Holy Spirit” happened to be listed first, so I’ll start there but with a little twist (because that sounds too boring and flat to me right now): Fruitful Solo Pastors Need to Be Spirit-Led Playground Builders.  

Last year I took a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education – a program I would highly recommend every pastor take) at St. Vincent’s Hopsital in Indianapolis.  Sister Barbara, a nun herself, was my supervisor, and we met weekly to discuss what I was learning.  During one such conversation, Sister Barbara reminisced how her career had taken her to various and random occupations throughout the country.  One question she found herself asking during each transition was whether the next opportunity would be a large enough playground to keep her engaged and having fun.  What she said resonated with me.  I liked the idea of seeing professions as playgrounds – places to explore, have fun, and keep your imagination engaged.  

Part of our United Methodist polity is the itinerant system of appointing pastors to local churches.  Local churches and pastors have their respective voices in who goes where, but ultimately they do not have final say – the Bishop does.  The merits of this system are both fruitful and fruitless, but it’s not this post’s purpose to reflect on those merits.  Rather, it is a reality our denomination’s pastors have agreed to live into.  So what happens if the local church we are appointed to is a small, broken down, dilapidated playground?  What does a solo pastor do then?

I think a distinguishing mark of the fruitful solo pastor is to be a Spirit-Led Playground Builder – to fix what is broken, to restore the colorful sheen of the once-well-used playground, to remove unsafe and unused structures, to add new pieces of equipment, and to invite the surrounding community to be part of its rebirth.

This takes a Christian Imagination (next week’s quality of a fruitful solo pastor – click here for an awesome, out-of-the-box playground that certainly required an untamed imagination!), but it also necessitates a motivation intrinsically led by God the Holy Spirit.  To see ourselves as playground-builders, and to see the immense potential our respective playgrounds have with their as-is equipment and people (or lack thereof) of all ages, personalities, and abilities is possible only through the Holy Spirit.  The logical response to many of our playgrounds (be they pastors, churches, denominations, pasts, presents, or futures) is hopelessness, discouragement, and despair.  Fortunately for us, however, our God is the God of the resurrection!  Our God sees the heart, where we see only rust and shortcomings.  Our God is the Creator.  Our God is the Redeemer.  Our God breathes life into dry bones.  And our God is on a mission.

The Playground-Building Solo Pastor is keenly aware of this God revealed in scripture and places his or her hope in that particular God.

The Playground-Building Solo Pastor is also probably at a smaller-membership church and, therefore, might not have the biggest playground.  The difference between Solo Pastors who simply play with the playground they’ve been entrusted with and Playground-Building Solo Pastors is that the Builders don’t get bored.  The Builders are not limited nor confined.  Because they are in regular communication with and are under direct supervision by the Spirit, there is always possibility: possibility to use old equipment in new ways, possibility to add on to existing structures, and the possibility to tear the whole thing down in order to build something new.  That’s how fruitful Solo Pastors think, live, and play in ministry.  

One of my “quotes to live by” comes from Walt Disney:

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long.  We keep moving forward, keep opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Spirit-led curiosity opens the door to possibility.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift fruitful Solo Pastors can give to themselves and to the congregations entrusted to their care: the possibility of living into God’s glorious future – a playground where all are invited to come and play.  God is on a mission.  Are we working with God to build God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven?

Solo Pastor, may God’s curiosity stir afresh in your heart, and may you become a Playground-Builder wherever you find yourself this day.

The Solo Pastor: A Series on Needed Qualities and Skill-Sets

Two and a half years ago, I began serving my first pastoral appointment.  United Methodists are one of the few denominations that still operate under an itinerant system – where pastors are appointed to local churches by their bishop.  If you want to read more about itinerancy and its history you can click here, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.  Instead, I am going to begin a series reflecting on qualities and skill-sets I believe solo pastors need to have in order that they be “fruitful” leaders.

“Fruitful” itself is an idea I am just now leaning into, so let’s begin the series there.  I was challenged first by my District Superintendent and later by an “e-pistle” my bishop wrote to reflect on Aleze Fulbright’s questions, “What kinds of leadership do we want to develop? What word or words best describes a fully-devoted, mature, Christian leader?”  I’m not sure what word(s) I would use.  I used to strive to be “faithful,” but am now wondering if there aren’t other qualities I should add to it – such as “fruitful.”

I like that word.  It reminds me of Jesus.  It reminds me of the Genesis creation stories.  I find it challenging, inspiring, missional, and a way of life I can live into.  I also find it to be uniquely “Christian.” “Fruitful” isn’t a word too many would find on their jobs’ performance reviews.

So what does a “fruitful” solo pastor look like? What qualities, traits, and skill-sets might a fruitful solo pastor possess?  Here are a few I’ll be writing about, with probably others that will be added along the way:

  • Intrinsically motivated by the Holy Spirit
  • A Christian imagination
  • An ability and desire to create systems of support
  • The “coaching gene” (or is at least a tenacious equipment manager)
  • A holy discontent

There you have it.  Let’s see where this conversation will take us in the weeks ahead!  If you have any others you would add, please let me know in the comments section!

“Because Jesus loves you”

What makes people sit outside and distribute hand-made blankets to parents on a blistery Saturday morning?  What makes a group of people dress up in silly costumes, buy countless bags of candy, and decorate a church basement for kids from the community to come and trick-or-treat in a safe, warm environment?  What makes people, especially those who have so little themselves, go to the store and purchase diapers and formula to give to Boone County parents?  What makes others bake treats, pay for massages, and faithfully give “Pay Day Treats” to encourage local elementary school staff every single pay day?  What makes some people go to the local food ministry on a Saturday to eat, fellowship, and be part of a community “different” than themselves?  What makes people give?  For heaven’s sake, what makes people start a food ministry themselves, purchase and renovate an abandoned home, and serve people respectfully and with dignity “restaurant-style”?!  What makes people “get outside” of themselves with and for the sake of others?

For the people at Otterbein UMC and fellow United Methodist churches throughout Boone County, I think the answer is pretty straight-forward: “Because Jesus loves you.”

Because: Jesus. loves. you.

Its beauty is found in its simplicity.  By and large, we are simple churches filled with simple people doing simple acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Like a simple seed that grows into a fruitful, sheltering tree.  Like yeast that spreads its way slowly, but surely through a loaf of bread.  Like tiny granules of salt that provide mouthfuls of flavor.  It’s the simple stuff that can be the tastiest and most beautiful.

Jesus loves you.  Jesus loves me.  And that love is simultaneously a blessing and a call to action.

So much I hear in the world is negative.  So much of what I hear in the church is negative.  But when I see simple acts of God’s love invading individuals’ lives and spreading throughout communities, I am reminded of the Good News of the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ:

“Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”  1 Corinthians 13:7-8.

And here’s what’s so beautiful: “God is love,” 1 John 4:8 tells us.  God, therefore, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Perhaps God is placing God’s trust and hope in you, in me, in us to be God’s Good News messengers.  In the simple acts of love, justice, mercy, and hope, there is love.  There is God: the God who always protects, always perseveres against injustice, mercilessness, hopelessness, and places of misconstrued love.  In this good work, God never fails.

May we be captivated by this God’s love and respond to its call to action.

May we live in such ways that proclaim to those we come in contact with in the simplest ways and at the simplest places: Jesus loves you.