Friday, February 29, 2008

Riding the Time Off

Since becoming a pastor, the lifestyle choice I have struggled with the most has been the whole phenomenon of "time off." I've said before that pastoring is the quintessential "lifestyle occupation" that results in one never really being "off the clock." Even when driving, it remains easy to be at work (taking calls, concentrating on ministry meetings, eating on the way to church, etc.). In addition, days off are a matter of personal discipline since work hours are not fixed. Taking days off are difficult because there's always something to do. Sermon prep, pastoral mentoring, ministry education and execution know no limits either. If you wait until the work is done to take time away for personal recreation and refreshment, burn out is the inevitable outcome.

To combat this tendency, I've had to be more purposeful about recreation and setting aside work for short periods. The need is greater now than I've ever felt before. Seeing this coming when I first became a pastor, I began preparing last fall. In October I took the basic motorcycle safety course at the Honda Rider Education Center in Irving, Texas. Shortly after completing the course, I followed through and received my motorcycle endorsement for my driver's license. Having already assembled some of my basic safety gear, only the purchase of a motorcycle remained. This did not have to happen immediately though. I sought to patiently await just the right deal on a good first bike.

This week that desire was realized. The patience in saving the necessary money paid off and I was able to purchase a Honda Shadow Spirit 750. What a blessing! So far, I've only logged 80 miles on the various roads of Rockwall County (I'm not comfortable just yet commuting on Interstate 30). Nevertheless, those 80 miles are "time off." When riding, all attention must be paid to the ride, the environment, the traffic and the climate. There's no answering the cell phone, no fiddling with the radio, no drinking my coffee, no talking to passengers, no reading a memo, no eating lunch on the way to a meeting, and certainly no doing all this at the same time when writing in my Franklin planner (which is not an infrequently occurrence when driving the car). All other distractions must be shut out because of the heightened awareness demanded by the ride. All would acknowledge the greater vulnerability of the motorcycle rider on the road. The result is greater demand on the rider to watch everyone else like a hawk.

Riding is not all nail-biting danger though. On some of the lesser traveled roads around here, riding becomes a refreshing joy by allowing a feeling of interacting with the environment more. The beautiful scenery is closer that being "outside the window." As I rode Lake Terrace Road behind the church, I felt myself smile under the face shield. Even if whole days off are difficult to take considering the demands of seminary work and pastoral duties, I now have an opportunity to take "time off" whenever I need to ride somewhere. Amazing how the concept of "Sabbath" can translate into such simple solutions. I still need to discipline myself to take days off, date my wife and mentor my kids, but at least now little portions of "time off" can be accumulated with each mile riding.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Unlock Code

There are times when you purchase new software for your computer that the program comes on a data CD in the mail or in a box. After you load the disc on the computer a prompt requests the unlock code in order to extract the CD contents and install it on your computer. Typically its 16 digit code is located somewhere on the package. You must find the sticker showing "xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxx" in order to get the program unlocked and working. Until it is unlocked, the program remains dormant on the disc. It's there, available and potentially very helpful, but until it's unlocked it remains unused and unappreciated.

I have a Mac. I enjoy it. It does well for me. The newest operating system is available for me to purchase now ("Leopard"). I haven't bought it yet (saving the money), but when I do I won't hesitate to install it right away. Imagine if I bought Leopard, had the box and CD in my possession, but didn't unlock and install it on my Mac. I boasted that I now have "Leopard," but when someone asked me, "Do you like how it runs?" all I could say was, "I don't know. I haven't installed it." How ridiculous is that? Should I really go about boasting that I have Leopard in my possession unless I've unlocked, installed and started using it?

People are similar. There is a great deal that God has invested in them (in all of us) that remains dormant until it is "unlocked" and "installed" into the community. As a pastor, I see a large part of my job is to "read the disc" to discover its contents, then see it unlocked so that a person's gifts and abilities are "installed" in the community or church for the benefit of all. This is not an easy task. Sufficient time must be spent getting to know people to know what they carry on their "disc, and then trusting God to supply the unlock code that will see them made beneficial to the Church and the mission of God.

As I meet with people at various Starbucks in our area, at different days and times of the week, I often feel as though such moments are the most exciting times of all. Sure preaching is fun too; so is directing church movement through strategic planning and administration. But time spent in close contact with people over coffee or dinner is when I really feel like God allows me to catch a greater glimpse of what he has invested in them, and the unlock code to bring it out. Nothing else comes close. Leadership, it seems to me, is, in large part, unlocking the potential of people so that they are free to become that which they are intended to be. It's entering the unlock "code" for people so that they fully develop and are empowered to serve, worship, grow and reproduce the way they were intended to. By God's grace, may he continue allowing me to participate in his unlocking of people. It's so fun to watch them open up and "install" their unique contribution in the Body of Christ.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Working in the Rain

This last Saturday was a blast. It's not merely because of the necessary work that got done cleaning up a trash pile on the church property, but the manner in which it was done. Weather conditions were not optimal. In fact, some could consider the conditions rather miserable. Rain was intermittent, but when it did come down, it made its presence known. Four of us men from the church worked to get trash thrown into the rented dumpster. While others might question the wisdom of working in the rain like that, I got a charge out of it. It's a peculiar side of my personality that's attracted to the difficult. It's hard to describe, but I enjoy work more when there's resistance.

I think it's linked to my inner sense of adventure. I've grown up so much exposed to the epic stories of high adventure, close escapes, heroic exploits and slim odds that an "excitement" gene has woven its way into my makeup. A little dose of A.D.D. doesn't hurt either. The end result is that I'm attracted to scenarios that seem to weed out most. In California, when I served with Shasta County Mountain Rescue, I was attracted to the training times that occurred at night, or in the rain or anytime you could be certain to be uncomfortable, sore and few. This also played out when I operated my father's hydroelectric power plant. I seemed to enjoy the job more when it was touch and go whether I'd get to the plant, or home safely. When the screens needed to be cleaned, requiring that I don the wet suit and dive into the murky waters late at night to clean them, I was having the time of my life. Others may have questioned my sanity (particularly my friend Howard Zeller, who had to once hold the rope tied to me as I swam to ensure I wasn't washed over the dam), but the excitement was thrilling. It was high adventure.

When I was much younger, I saw a movie entitled "Never Cry Wolf." In one particularly tense moment in the story, the main character is being flown out into the Alaskan wilderness in a small plane. The pilot has been yammering on about how people back in the big city are dying of boredom. "I'm serious Tyler, bored to death!" he exclaims. Just then the engine quits and Tyler is alarmed by the pilots solution. "Well, how do you beat it, Tyler?" the pilot demands rhetorically. "How do you beat boredom?" Tyler's eye widen in horror as the pilot holds up a nearby wrench, shoots Tyler a glance and sums up with the answer "Adventure." Then the pilot opens his door to reach out and beat on the engine, jarring it back to life. The dead engine symbolized a stalled life that must be beaten back to life with the nearest wrench. "How do you beat boredom?" he asks. "Adventure," is the answer. The wrench symbolized the nearest object one can use to "beat" the stalled engine. For me, any mundane task can serve as the wrench. Anything can be the "adventure" that beats boredom.

It doesn't matter. Whether defying death with perilous maintenance of my father's dam, traveling across the country to attend seminary or cleaning up a trash pile in the rain, it's any difficulty in the task at all that contributes to that sense of adventure, beating boredom and keeping life active. Many will find this disconcerting, in that they prefer not to seek out difficulty. I don't begrudge them their attraction to stability, but as for me, give me adventure or give me death.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mission Statements

Over the years, I've attended multiple seminars on being "purpose-driven," mission-minded and visionary. Having read many books on the topic as well, I can say that the whole discipline of developing mission and vision statements is still undervalued by most people. This is understandable since the mission statements have become the stuff of legendary mockery. Everyone has encountered the cantankerous worker at the business whose mission statement is "to provide friendly and attractive service for every customer." Or perhaps we've worked at the business with slippery ethics that has an enormous banner in the break room that reads, "Our mission: to exemplify integrity and excellence through our commitment to unshakable ethics and performance." These jokes make their way on Saturday Night Live skits. They also tend to empty the process of forming mission statements of a great deal of meaning.

Having said this, I think the process of developing a mission statement for one's self, for a family and for an organization is extremely helpful. In addition, the product of that process (the statement itself) serves to help all participants remember what their main task is. I've gone through the process on a number of occasions, developing statements for the activities I engage. For example, in Redding, CA for North Valley Kung Fu our mission was "to train and equip the finest protectors in the world." This was an ambitious mission, but it truly captured what it was we focused on whenever we entered the studio.

We have an Ott family mission statement: to pursue a loving and biblical marriage that produces godly children able to build their own Christ-centered homes. This statement was developed by Naomi and I not long after Jessica was born, and it has informed our decisions about family practice and culture ever since. We have not always adhered to this principle, but at least we have something with which to gauge our activities and determine whether our not we have gotten off track.

Now my church approaches a season in its life when it is necessary to revisit this process anew. The purpose, values and culture of the church are experiencing change, presumably instigated by the Holy Spirit who directs his people according to his own wisdom. The result is that a new mission statement is necessary to capture, in simplified form, that which we believe God is having us specifically perform in the missio Dei. Along with such a statement, it is necessary for us to clarify what we truly value as a church body (not just generically, but specifically), imagine a picture of what the future looks like if we faithfully execute that mission (this typically is a vision statement) and strategize a process for executing that mission. All of this is exciting, but quite involved. It is best when broadly participatory, but this slows the process - requiring patience. Whatever the final product of this process may be for my church, it is my hope that the statement will closely resemble:

To Recruit, Train and Send Out the most loving and contagious Disciples of Jesus Christ in the World.

It's my desired mission for the church. We'll see what the product of a more participatory process looks like.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Workdays at church

This last Saturday was an incredibly productive workday at our church. The dynamics of it (the relating, the working, the service, etc.) left we wondering if what happened Saturday is really all that dissimilar from what happens on Sunday. We often call the Sunday morning service our "worship" service," but is not the communal care of the gathering place also an act of worship? Old Testament Levites would say so. In addition, we often call Sunday school a "learning time," but I would wager that the dynamics of Christian living learned on the work site could rival anything formalize into a education curriculum.

The distinctly communal aspects of Christianity are well expressed when people are working side by side. One's work spills over onto another's, and then grace is necessary to keep shalom healthy. I find that it's very refreshing to see Christianity "worked" out in this manner. Such work is the stuff of a healthy church, and it encourages even greater health and fitness in the collective body of Christ.

Appearances of false piety are more difficult to maintain during physical work as well. A person may wear a reverent mask on Sunday morning that Saturday work leaves them no extra energy to maintain. On Sunday morning, one person may sing praises to God, secretly harboring resentment for someone two rows over. On Saturday though, the resentment can be much less secret, alerting leaders to strive toward reconciliation. It's nearly backward that Sunday comes after Saturday, for Saturday's work reveals whether Sunday's services have any affect on one's character. Or perhaps they are not backward. Perhaps the grace that was necessary to work well on Saturday is meant to have an affect on Sunday. I've said before that on Sunday mornings, the preaching began when the first note was struck. Maybe I should amend that phrase to say instead, the service began on Sunday when the first hammer was swung on Saturday. Ah, that sounds better.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Juggling Chainsaws

My dog, Nyute, was so frightened by my anger that he peed on the floor in front of me. That's an effective method of keeping your temper under control, so that the carpet stays clean. Why was I so bent out of shape? I'm taking a class at DTS that has assigned a group project. Group projects are in vogue now among professors who want to demonstrate that they're keeping up with educational theory. Well, what if you're part of a group who all are quite persnickety about producing an "A" project, but you're content with a "B" in the course? How do you meet the group's demands? How do you perform so as not to let them down? The guys in my group are nice guys who all want to do well. I don't blame them at all. But the advent of a project like this, heaped upon the rest of the "busy-work" of the course, makes for a great deal of pressure brought to bear in life. 

The two courses I'm taking at Dallas Theological Seminary, added to the rigors of pastoral ministry and a family all feel as though I'm juggling chainsaws in the air. You don't want to drop any of them, for they might be damaged in a way that would require repair. You want to catch them just right, for catching them by anything but the handle could have painful consequences. So the resulting effect is an anxious existence whereby you'd like to drop a chainsaw, but fear to do so since innocents are standing nearby. You'd like life to be simpler, but you're not sure how that could happen. Such is the stuff of depression, for those who are susceptible to it.

I am numbered among those who are susceptible to depression. Naomi has testified to me that she has come to expect a season of this from me at least once a semester. I'd rather not be so affected by circumstances like this. It makes me feel so immature, since mood swings are a sign of either depression or immaturity. Nevertheless, I pray that God helps me cope well with the pressures mounting up during this time. I hate juggling chainsaws, but God's grace is sufficient such times as this too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On Why Pastors Often Make Lousy Fathers

My oldest son's birthday is coming up this Thursday. He's going to be 11. That's no longer "10." Somehow, in the mystery of things, 11 is just way older than 10. Yes, I know, it's also double digits. But it just seems older, like he's entered the next set of 10 years. "10" is the completion of the first set of 10 years. "11" is the beginning of the next set of 10 years. It's also a little freaky that he's 11, when I so recently remember him as a lot smaller. Nevertheless, Joshua's having a significant birthday this Thursday, and I'm excited for him.

The sobering frustration to me is the fact that I've not spent five minutes planning for it. I've absolutely thrown myself into planning and preparation for all of those activities for which I receive recognition. Sermon prep, church planning, personal meetings and phone calls all top the priority list. Academic performance cannot be neglected either, for a decent GPA from a prestigious seminary is what I live for. Sick! The roles that I fulfill, from which ego stroking feedback is more probable, all have seemed to get their appropriate attention. My vanity knows no bounds ("I wanna be a rockstar" - Nickelback), and my familial priorities suffer because of it.

Sure my daughter and I have a pretty good connection, and we practice our secret handshake daily. But when I look at my boys, I know that I'm dropping the ball. I've not developed the same unique rituals with them that I should by now. I've set New Year's resolutions to have some personal events with them, but haven't followed through. I know that the old concern over whether quality or quantity of time is more vital totally misses the point. It's quality and quantity of time that makes the difference in a relationship. I've known that for a very long time, but haven't followed that principle consistently. Like any other success obsessed American male, I naturally gravitate to the tasks that can brand me a "peak performer," and have to be reminded of those areas of life than truly affect substance of life.

I've heard this scenario play out in many a pastor's story; but most tragically, in the sad stories of PK's who, as adults, now resent the church for having been "the other woman" that took dad away from home so much. I don't want that. The temptation to focus on work is so strong though. It's especially difficult in a job that, by it's very nature, is a sacred enterprise. How many pastors, who, upon thinking that perhaps they will devote more time at home and less overtime doing church work, heard a well meaning church member call his job "the highest calling." Oh God, save me from becoming so driven for success in work that I lose effectiveness at home. Protect my children from the negative PK paradigm of losing their father to the "mistress called ministry." Please, Lord, grant Joshua and me a great time hiking off in the woods for his birthday, with the habit of spending good time together more in the future.