Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Lynne's Blog

Consensus Versus Discernment

Friday September 5 2014

Consensus Versus Discernment

Spiritual practices—various forms of prayer and Bible study, and other practices as well—can play a significant role in congregational discernment. In a time when congregations are dealing with unprecedented challenges—ethnic shifts in neighborhoods, dwindling financial resources, changes in family patterns, less time available for volunteering, and an increasingly secular society—discernment has become a central issue. What is God calling us to do? What unique contribution can we, in this specific congregation, make in our community? In the wider world?

If we want to be missional congregations, engaging with God’s mission in the world, modeling ourselves after the incarnational ministry of Jesus, these questions are vital. We need to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance about exactly what we are called to do in our community and in the wider world. We need to grow in our ability to discern the difference between a good idea and the right idea, the direction where God is calling us to walk.

The question of discernment has come into view because of another issue as well. Many congregational leaders are tired of church organization being conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. They quite rightly rebel against a kind of dualism that views worship and small groups as spiritual, while leadership of the church is treated like business. Either God is present in everything we do, and we expect God’s guidance in all our activities, or we are engaging in hypocrisy.

Some leadership boards in congregations have moved beyond Robert’s Rules of Order to embrace a process of consensus building, and consensus has many advantages over voting. Consensus involves discussion leading to general agreement about a conclusion or decision. This process is often slower than voting on a decision after only brief discussion, but it usually results in a greater degree of ownership by participants, and it provides the opportunity to deal with resistance earlier than when decisions are made by voting.

Often consensus building among congregational leaders centers on meeting the greatest number of needs or desires. The focus is on what we need and want. In contrast, discernment is radically different because it focuses on listening for God’s voice and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Discernment is grounded in the presupposition that our lives and our ministry belong to God, and that God’s Spirit will guide us into decisions that reflect God’s will and values. Our needs and desires need to be considered, but they are neither the starting point nor the primary motivator.

Both consensus and discernment require carefully listening to everyone involved, so the process is similar. In fact, consensus plays a role in the discernment process, as a group tries to come to a conclusion about what they are together hearing from God. The kind of consensus that plays a role in discernment involves the following:

  • Being willing to speak what we think we might be hearing from God
  • Listening carefully to others
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing what we think we hear others saying
  • Making sure quiet people have the opportunity to speak, and
  • Pausing from time to time to pray or reflect.

How do we arrive at consensus through discernment? Spiritual practices help us remember who God is and who we are, an essential first step. They give a foundation for peace and resting in God. They help us keep our roots in Christ. Engaging in centering prayer or the prayer of examen together, practicing lectio divina as a leadership group, or spending a long time in thankfulness prayers can get a process of discernment off to a good start because they remind us who we are and Whose we are. They remove the dualism of viewing worship as spiritual while dismissing planning as business as usual. They set the stage for a listening process.

In addition, spiritual practices can play a role in the middle or later stages of a process of discernment. In different ways, spiritual practices help groups of Christians discern what God is up to, the key component of all stages of discernment. One church member remarked that spiritual practices are “like cleaning my glasses,” restoring fresh and clear vision. Having clean glasses makes a valuable contribution to discernment at any stage.

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog.)

The spiritual journey at midlife

Saturday August 30 2014

I wrote two books on midlife, 15 and 13 years ago. In the books I defined midlife as the years between 35 and 55. I interviewed a lot of people between those ages, and I also read the dozen or so books on midlife that were available at that time.

The books written in the 1990s about spirituality at midlife were focused on the experiences of the Baby Boom generation and people slightly older. Almost all of my interviewees for my books were Baby Boomers. When I wrote my two books, the leading edge of Generation X was just entering midlife, so maybe I interviewed a few Gen Xers, but not many.

Now that the leading edge of Gen X has reached 50, I’m curious about the ways Gen Xer experience midlife. Oddly enough, very little has been written about midlife in the past dozen years. In what ways is the Gen X midlife journey similar to and different from the Baby Boomers? It looks like I’ll get my answers. I’m going to be supervising a Ph.D. student who will be writing her thesis on midlife. She’s going to interview ministers and spiritual directors about what they observe about the spiritual needs and pathways of people at midlife today. And she’s going to interview people at midlife about their experiences.

One of the amusing moments in the process of her acceptance as a Ph.D. student came when the post-graduate admissions committee in my department was considering her application. All of my colleagues on the admissions committee with me are between 35 and 55, and one of them said after reading her proposal, “Really? People have unique spiritual needs at midlife? I didn’t know that.”

So I spent a few moments of the meeting summarizing the main points of my books. I said that churches have age-related ministries for children, youth, young adults, and seniors. We treat midlife folks as the work horses of our congregations, without particular age-related needs. Yet many writers assert that midlife is a time of rich spiritual growth, as we realize we won’t live forever and as we begin the process of evaluating the first half of our lives and looking ahead to the second half.

After the admissions meeting, one of my colleagues asked me if he could read one of my books on midlife. He said that the ideas in the proposal and the words I said about midlife at the meeting resonated with him and he wanted to learn more. I lent him A Renewed Spirituality and he read it and found it quite helpful. He will turn 40 in December, so he is in the last years of Gen X. The fact that he found my book helpful is my first clue that Gen Xers are indeed experiencing at least some of the same issues at midlife as the Baby Boom. I can’t wait to learn more from my student researcher.

If you’d like to read a summary of the main ideas in my books on midlife, I recently wrote an article called “Faith at Midlife.” My two books on midlife are A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife and Embracing Midlife: Congregations as Support Systems.

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Psalm for 2014

Thursday August 21 2014

The church in Seattle where I served as associate pastor from 1997 to 2004, Bethany Presbyterian, has asked members of the church community to write psalms, so I decided to write one. I’m posting it here, along with some reflection/journaling questions.

Psalm for 2014 by Lynne Baab

Loving God, we’re tired:

worn out from multitasking,

frustrated by new software and apps,

and overloaded with stimulation.

We wonder how to nurture friendships

in a Facebook age

and how to love

new Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim neighbors.

God, our Creator and Redeemer,

be the still point in the turning world.

Guide us into your paths

and help us embrace the challenges

set before us,

relying on your grace and power

and looking to our brothers and sisters in Christ

for companionship and support.

God our help and our joy,

put your song on our lips

and your love in our hearts.

 

Reflection/Journaling Questions:

Are you tired these days? What contributes to your fatigue? What helps you find energy?

What helps you experience God as the still point in the turning world?

What helps you rely on God’s grace and power?

In what settings are you likely to have God’s song on your lips and God’s love in your heart?

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Friday August 15 2014

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Two years ago I was in the middle of writing my book on listening and I was stuck. I had written a good chapter on listening for the sake of mission. I had written three chapters on listening to God in communal discernment, in communal spiritual practices and through communal engagement with the Bible. I had written basic chapters on listening skills, why and how we listen, and obstacles to listening. I had one chapter left to write, focused on listening to each other within a congregation.

I had quite a few good stories to use in that one remaining chapter, but I didn’t have a central idea for the chapter. My stories and ideas felt scattered.

I set the book aside to go to an academic conference that I was not particularly excited about. The only thing I was anticipating was two keynote talks by Nancy Tatom Ammerman. She described her most recent research on spiritual patterns among people in various religions, and to my great delight she gave me the unifying idea for my troublesome chapter. In addition to helping with that chapter, her research helped me gain an entirely new perspective on the significance of listening in all forms of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Ammerman and her team of researchers interviewed dozens people in Boston and Atlanta about their spiritual convictions and practices. They sought out people with diverse religious commitments: Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, New Age practitioners, etc. They found that the people who had the deepest spiritual commitment also had friends with whom they talked about the overlap between their spiritual commitment and their everyday lives, between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary. Ammerman called these friends “spiritual compatriots.”

The research showed that people most often found these spiritual compatriots in three settings: congregations, the home and the workplace. The congregation has special significance, because congregations provide places for people to learn to talk about this overlap between God and daily life. People then brought that ability to talk about God’s role in everyday life into their homes, and they often found people at work with whom they could talk about it.

Ammerman said that the people who were the most comfortable talking about this overlap of the holy and the ordinary were the people who were the most involved in mission of various forms.

After listening to Ammerman, I spent a lot of time thinking about the places in congregations where people talk about the overlap between their faith and their daily life: small groups, men’s and women’s events, retreats, coffee hour, etc. Good sermons model ways to talk about this overlap. The key is to make space for people not just to chat and get to know each other, but to go deeper to the place where they are able to talk about where God is in their daily lives, how they feel called to follow Jesus in everyday life, where they feel the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowering.

I began to think about pastoral care, which has often been viewed as a good and necessary thing, but somewhat separate from discipleship or mission. Often the major crises of life are the places where we see God at work most profoundly. Maybe God seems clearly present guiding the cancer patient to the right doctor or helping feuding siblings to get along at a funeral. Maybe God seems particularly absent in a crisis. Making room for people to talk about God’s presence and absence in big challenges, a major task of pastoral care, now seems to me to be integrally connected to Christian discipleship and mission.

Conversations where we can talk about the overlap between the Christian faith and daily life require good listening, drawing people out, and asking perceptive questions. We need to allow conversations to go on long enough for people to work their way around to the issue of where and how they experienced God in a particular situation. Because of Nancy Ammerman’s research (recounted in her book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) I saw the significance of listening in congregational life in a whole new light.

(If you'd like to receive an email alert when I add a new post to this blog, sign up over in the right hand column where it says "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Listening Past the Noise

Saturday August 9 2014

Listening Past the Noise

I have a new colleague in my department, and we're having our first one-on-one conversation. I ask him the normal questions: Where are you from? Where did you study? Tell me about your family. What are your interests?

I'm carefully watching my inner thoughts and feelings as he talks. I'm watching for a moment of tension or discomfort.

Maybe he'll tell me he's a bit of a political activist and I'll find out his political convictions are quite different from mine. Maybe he'll tell me he practices a religion other than mine.

And if either of these happen, I'll wonder if I'm conveying that I approve of his beliefs and convictions because I'm trying to listen well. That would make me tense. And I'll probably feel uneasy wondering how to respond to his expression of values different from my own.

Watching for that inner tension as I listen is a new practice for me. It comes out of research I conducted a couple of years ago. I interviewed 63 people about the role of listening in congregations, and I tacked on a question about obstacles to listening at the end of the interviews.

To my surprise, most of my interviewees were the most passionate as they described obstacles when listening.

Some of those obstacles come from outside us, such as noisy rooms, a soft-spoken conversation partner or someone who talks really fast. But many more obstacles come from within.

Quite a few of my interviewees used the term ''inner noise'' to describe the emotions and thoughts that make us want to stop listening, perhaps by changing the subject or getting up to do something.

I've already described two kinds of inner noise: wondering if by listening to someone I disagree with, I'm giving tacit approval to their point of view, and worrying I won't know how to respond appropriately.

My interviewees also talked about other forms of inner noise, including the tyranny of the ''to-do'' list floating around in our mind and a feeling of time pressure that makes it hard to be present with people we're talking to.

(To find out what I learned about dealing with inner noise, read the entire article here. Originally published in the Otago Daily Times, 9 August, 2014.)

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