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Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us [Book Review]

holy communion book

I am not interested in any church renewal that is not sacramental – which is to say – is not Christian in any kind of historically or liturgically identifiable sense.  Anyone can draw a crowd, but happily God loves us too much to leave us with only marketing tricks and technocratic delights.  Instead, God has called His Church to glorify him through prayer, service, song, witness, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments.  Chief among the sacraments, the most potent of the means of grace, is the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  United Methodist pastor and professor Kenneth Loyer has just written a book on this sacred meal that explains not just its importance as a rite of the church, but the critical role it can play in the vitality of the local congregation.

Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us is part of the new Belief Matters series by Abingdon, edited by retired UM Bishop and Duke Divinity School professor Will Willimon.  Willimon wrote the first volume on the Incarnation, and my Western NC Conference colleague Jason Byassee has written the next entry on the Trinity (which I am told is excellent).  This series “takes as its task the joyful celebration of the wonder of Christian believing.” (xi)  It seeks to make doctrine accessible and interesting to both laity and clergy alike, a much needed task today.

Loyer organizes his book in terms of the Communion’s own structure and ethos.  Thus, he begins with a discussion of thanksgiving, which is what what most of the Eucharistic liturgy actually is – an epic prayer normally called The Great Thanksgiving in Western practice.  Much of this chapter is a kind of commentary on the whole of the liturgy itself, which is a highlight of the book.  The next chapter focuses on the practice of active remembering; the liturgy re-members us (literally, puts us back together) as the Body of Christ remembers all that God has done in Jesus Christ to effect our salvation.  Drawing on John Wesley’s own Eucharistic piety, Loyer reflects, “we neglect this gift of God’s grace at our own peril.” (44)

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After thanksgiving and remembering, the author turns to celebration.  Communion does not merely invite us to recall what God has done, but to celebrate the risen Christ’s continued, transforming presence with us now.  The story in this chapter of Mandela receiving communion with one of his prison guards is worth the price of admission.  In the final chapter, we explore the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist.  At the Lord’s Supper, we not only remember what Jesus has done and celebrate his continued grace through the Holy Spirit now, we also look forward.  Communion is thus a Kingdom meal that gives us a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet that Isaiah foretold so well. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,” a feast which we anticipate every time we gather around Christ’s table today. (Is. 25:6)

Interspersed throughout is Loyer’s own pastoral experience.  Specifically, he connects the initiation of a mid-week Communion service to a revitalization in ministry for his congregation, Otterbein UMC in Pennsylvania.  “God has used this feast of our faith,” Rev. Dr. Loyer notes, “to nourish us in Christ and to generate an increased desire for God that has spread throughout the life of the congregation.” (63)  While the author does not emphasize this and I do not find it the most interesting claim he makes, it’s worth noting that under Loyer’s leadership his church has grown from 90 in attendance to 170.  At a time when many of our small churches are stagnant or are in decline, this a feat worth attending. Of course, it should be no surprise that spiritual and missional renewal and the Eucharist are heavily linked.  The Walk to Emmaus and similar communities have attested to this reality for decades.

To sum up: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Holy Communion, spiritual renewal, or church vitality.  Loyer’s offering is highly readable yet still substantive.  Indeed, there is plenty of meat on the bones here even for those well-read in liturgical theology and worship or church growth more broadly.  Moreover, each chapter contains a series of reflection questions and a prayer, making it ideal for small groups and Sunday School classes. I highly recommend this new resource for both, as well as church-wide study.

There is no renewal in the church worth having unless the sacramental life is at its center.  Ken Loyer’s book both makes this case and helps us imagine what it might look like in practice.

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Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.

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Breaking Free in the UMC: The Guaranteed Appointment as Relic

noer breaking freeDespite our Protestant leanings, United Methodists do indeed revere relics. Not sure what a relic is? Let Webster‘s help:

rel·ic: noun ˈre-lik
1 a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr
b: souvenir, memento
2: plural: remains, corpse
3: a survivor or remnant left after decay, disintegration, or disappearance
4: a trace of some past or outmoded practice, custom, or belief

In our case, the relic in question is not the pinkie of some obscure saint. Rather, it is what David Noer calls an “old reality” system of relating the organization to the employee. I am, of course, referring to the ecclesially infamous so-called “Guaranteed Appointment.” The gist: once made an Elder in Full Connection (read: ordained and granted tenure), under our present system it is nearly impossible for the United Methodist Church to exit its clergy. While there are a whole host of offenses possible that could, de jure, lead to de-frocking (basically a clerical defenestration), in practice an Elder has to be grossly incompetent, caught embezzling, or found to be committing sexual misconduct to be ousted (and even with these, it sometimes seems to require multiple or especially egregious offenses).

As presently arranged, our current system baptizes dependency, and is a classic example of what consultant David Noer warns against in his Breaking Free:

“Engaging in a strategy that sets up long-term dependency relationships with employees is expensive and limits organizational flexibility. Dependent employees are motivated by pleasing, fitting in, and, most of all by staying employed. They are not the independent, customer-focused risk takers you need to thrive and compete in the new reality.” (215)

This clearly implies that the GA is straight out of a previous reality, which Noer unpacks later:

“The old reality, the old psychological contract, or the old paradigm are labels for a pattern of beliefs that held that a person who maintained proper performance and compliance with the organizational culture could count on remaining employed with one organization until voluntary departure or retirement. The reciprocal organizational belief was that loyalty required the individual’s total commitment. The organizational response to this commitment and dependence was an acceptance of the obligation to provide a life-time career.” (237, emphasis added)

My jaw fell when I read these descriptions, written by a lay business consultant, that so aptly narrate our own situation.  Of course, General Conference 2012 attempted to get rid of the GA but was rebuffed by the (not nearly activist enough) Judicial Council. Systems love homeostasis, after all, whether a country, an ecosystem, or a denomination.  But what if homeostasis isn’t healthy?

The Guaranteed Appointment fits into every possible definition of a relic. In our system, it is revered; the GA is a souvenir or memento of an old and non-functioning reality, a corpse (albeit a lively, zombie-ish corpse, because it doesn’t seem to know it’s dead). I have no clue if it will be challenged in 2016. I hope it will.

Healthy organizations do not function this way anymore. In reality, they have not in some time. Noer wrote these words in 1996 – almost 20 years ago.

The Guaranteed Appointment is a relic, and should be discarded with all possible haste. To paraphrase Jesus, the church does not exist to serve pastors, but pastors to serve the church.

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Relevance As Temptation in Ministry

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Acting like Jesus is often highly irrelevant, and yet beautiful, like Pope Francis washing feet.

When Henri Nouwen found himself among the mentally disabled of the L’Arche Community, he learned something about himself: the skills, knowledge, and “value” that he thought he had were all meaningless to that particular community. This caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Christian leadership, which is spelled out in his marvelous little treatise In the Name of Jesus:

“I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love…Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.” (17)

Of course, this is almost the exact opposite advice many Christian leaders are given today. We go to workshops, drown ourselves in piles of books, and rack up CEU’s as if they are lottery tickets (one of them will be the key to a life and ministry of ease!) all in search of new skills, techniques, and methods. Most of all, we want to matter. Such is a tragic, if not pathetic, position for pastors in the twilight of Christendom, when many in the West view the church at best as little more than a vendor of religious services (marriages and burials, crisis intervention, a baptism to keep grandmother happy, etc.). Pastors are faced with the temptation to be something more, something objectively useful: a “real” counselor, a life coach, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, a master of conflict resolution. We want something to show that says, “I promise I really DO matter!”

But all of this may be deeply misguided:

“The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” (24)

For Nouwen, the cure for this temptation is a discipline both ancient and (to the astonished ears of hipster pastors everywhere) relevant: contemplative prayer. Such prayer takes us back to the heart of God, the place of our true identity, meaning, and value:

“To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love…contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite.” (28-29)

To put it another way: church leaders would do best to begin any task, goal, discussion, study, or discernment not by asking “what works?” or “what must we do?” but rather by seeking the face of God.  Amazing things happen when we refuse the temptation to relevance, and instead act, not out of calculated strategies and therapeutic utilitarianism, but out of an encounter with the living God of Scripture and the Church.

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Getting Real About Clergy Support Systems

by Drew 2 Comments

There are some terrifying stories in Lloyd Rediger’s Clergy Killers. Laity and clergy alike would benefit from reading this, as he describes and gives coping strategies for the different kinds of conflict that one finds in church.  Part of Rediger’s argument, based on service as a counselor to clergy for decades, is that clergy support systems are embarrassingly inadequate:

“The breakdown and malfeasance statistics for clergy are high (upward of 25 percent) and rising. Because the health of the clergy is crucial to the health of the denomination, realistic clergy support is mandatory. This does not imply pampering incompetent and lazy clergy; it means encouraging al clergy toward excellence. It is obvious that traditional assumptions and strategies regrading clergy sport are inadequate. Perhaps clergy, out of self-interest and pastoral concern for their families, and the church, can lead the way.”

(Clergy Killers [Louisville: WJK Press 1997], 144.)

To my clergy colleagues: do you have an adequate support system?

To those in the church who care for their pastoral leaders: are you doing all you can to encourage and resource your pastors for their own spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being?

Never forget: the most dangerous pastor in the world is the lone ranger. We can’t do this alone: we need God, we need each other, we need friends and loved ones. An isolated ministry is a dangerous ministry, for everyone involved.

As go the leaders, so go the church. Healthy institutions require healthy leadership at all levels.  Rediger’s wisdom is a good reminder of this.

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The Spirit of Freedom and Order

My Pentecost reading was Bishop Mack Stokes’ classic little treatise The Holy Spirit in the Wesleyan Heritage.  While far from a dense theological tome, this introduction to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Methodism is a useful and enjoyable work.  Much of it is simple overviews of the person and work of the Spirit in the Biblical revelation; his most interesting observations – obviously animated by the charismatic movement that was sweeping even Mainline Protestantism at the time of his writing (1985) – have to do with the nature of Christian renewal and the Spirit’s role and bringing new life to God’s people:

“Soon after the days of the apostles the need for some kind of guidelines regarding the special gifts of the Spirit which arose.  The church at its best has always been a Spirit-filled and hence a Spirit-motivated movement.  But it has had to deal with the recurring tension between orderliness and vitality, structure and dynamics.” (56)

Of course, the malaise of the Mainline is that we can do structure to death.  We rarely know how to do anything without six committee meetings (a system which is, of course, designed to discourage anything from happening).

But the complete opposite is also not a solution.  Institutions matter because things that are successful, things that last, must be systematized.  Even the most Spirit-led church cannot reinvent the wheel every Sunday.

The Spirit leads us, or rather wishes to lead us, to a kind of ordered liberty: a freedom that is not chaos, because it is structured but not ossified.  The early Methodist movement was a perfect illustration of this careful balance: vital Christian living was not separate from, but tethered to, disciplined holiness.  Participating in the personal and corporate means of grace – including works of piety and mercy – was encouraged and required so that the free grace of the Spirit might be all the more present in the lives of Jesus-followers.

As St. Paul told us, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)

There is also order.

Come, Holy Spirit! We need it all.

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Spiritual Kaizen with Bishop Grant Hagiya

I just finished Bishop Grant Hagiya’s newly-minted Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader and I happy to commend it to your own shelves.  As I’ve written already, there is much food for thought within.  Hagiya’s brief volume, which draws heavily on his doctoral work, combines decades of church leadership experience, lifelong study of the martial arts (I like the idea of a Bishop that can break boards!), and the latest in organizational development studies.  His central thesis is that great leaders practice kaizen, a Japanese term that basically means “constant growth.”  One illustration of this concept comes from a story he tells about a retreat center (not institutions that are usually known for their entrepreneurship) that his annual conference frequented:

“Every time I returned to that retreat center some small new addition was noticeable. One time it was the addition of card holders on the sleeping room doors so people could put their business cards on the door to identify where they were located. Another time they had a seasonal prayer card placed on the desk in each room. Still another time there was the addition of a dessert cart. Each time I returned, there was a small but noticeable improvement present. This is kaizen at its best!” (104)

Giving this excerpt and describing his basic thesis, while accurate, do not due justice to the depth and breadth what lies within.  Compared to most of the paint-by-numbers church leadership books (you’ve read one, you’ve read them all), Bishop Hagiya’s work feels like a crash course in advanced leadership theory.  He sums up a massive amount of current literature in concise manner, and is well worth the read in that regard.  Combined with his insights from martial arts training and personal experience as a church leader at all levels, Spiritual Kaizen will make an enjoyable addition to your summer reading plans, whether laity or clergy.

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Cumbersome By Design? Thoughts on ‘The Process’

“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing.”

-Sirach 2:1

Taking on UMC ordination practices is all the rage.  I appreciated my pal John Meunier’s thoughts about the ordination process, and I’ve been following Jeremy Smith’s investigative blogging about young clergy falling out of the ordination track with interest.

All this has me wondering: Jim Collins has argued that great organizations are Great By Choice.  I wonder if our ordination system is Cumbersome By Design?

There was much discussion last General Conference about simplifying the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in the UMC.  Not long ago, the Book of Discipline was changed so that Annual Conferences could choose to ordain after a two-year full-time ministry “residency” rather than the previously required three years.  My own AC is one of the few that stuck with three years (though, to be fair, neighboring conferences seem to have found other ways to gum up the process that more than make up for the change).

But the infamy of ‘The Process’ (as many of us affectionately refer to the ordination gauntlet) is not only due to the time involved. Yes, a minimum 9 years of training (undergrad, seminary, ministry “residency”) before one is fully accredited is daunting.  But in the meantime, there are a plethora of smaller steps: mental health evaluations, local church and district gatekeeping, required coursework (sometimes seminary curricula and conference requirements clash), reams of paperwork, vetting, District Superintendent and SPRC evaluations, culminating in a two-stage paper-writing & (usually) interview process where one is judged on criteria that are anything but objective. Think about it: How do you define effective preaching? Which forms of Wesleyan theology are acceptable?

Needless to say, I’m glad to be (almost) done.

But does that mean all of this should be made easier streamlined to encourage more young people to enter ordained ministry?  I’m not so sure.  Pastors’ work is often ambiguous and difficult, the relational and organizational systems of our churches and communities are highly complex, and being agents for change and growth means fighting rudeness, apathy, and roadblocks at every turn.  Welcome to leadership.

In that sense, then, ‘The Process’ just might perfectly prepare ordinands for the world of the church: a world where good deeds are punished, where everything is not simple, fast, or fair, and which requires a surprising level of personal fortitude.

Does that mean everything is perfect? No.

‘The Process’ too often becomes a forum for personal vendettas and agendas.  Many people are dangerous with a little bit of power and unfortunately they know how to gain it.  Too often, as I have experienced, upper-echelon clergy in these settings are unwilling to police their own and put a stop to borderline-abuse of ordination candidates.  Stories abound; if you don’t believe me, ask around.  Ordination should not be an easy thing, but it should not be hazing either. There must be systems in place that guard against such maltreatment.

Does an extensive and laborious process guarantee the quality of those who get through it? No.

Like any other method of vetting, there are people who get through who are quite gifted and talented, and some who aren’t.  There are brilliant young clergy who are held up needlessly (and some drop out), and people who get through who should never be in any kind of leadership position.  I know PHDs in theology who have been held up by theology committees, and theological n00bs who have sailed through.  Systems are made of people, and as such no system will be perfect.  I have friends who absolutely should be on stage with me this year, and their absence makes my presence a near-farce.  That probably happens every year in every conference.

I have no illusions that everything is right in the world of ‘The Process’.  But just maybe the difficulty does us a favor.  Perhaps we are not well-prepared for church leadership by administrative pats on the back.  Perhaps the proper response to a “crisis” or “exodus” of young clergy is not to make ordination as simple as starting a Pinterest account.  ‘The Process’ as currently arranged in many parts of the denomination will prepare us well for a future that is difficult but promising, ministry settings that are often unfair but sometimes grace-filled, and systems that are complex and flawed but also full of people doing their best for God.

“Systems are designed to give you the results you are getting right now,” we are often told.  Maybe ‘The Process’, cumbersome though it is, is an excellent preparation for the church we are seeking to lead.

ImageP.S. I understand that, at its best, the ordination process is designed to be a holistic formation for effective ministry, and not merely a series of “hoops” through which to jump.  In that sense, it is not entirely satisfying to speak of the transition to set-apart ministry merely as a “process” or something to get “through.”  While I appreciate that sentiment and welcome efforts to change those tendencies, I have described it as I experienced it, and not as it exists ideally.  Please share with me places where your own experience is either similar to or divergent from my own.  May God bless his church, whom “the gates of hell will not overcome.” (Matthew 16:18)

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The Entitlement Plague in the Church

From Bishop Grant Hagiya’s brand-spankin’-new book:

“This leads to another deep-seated systematic constraint of The United Methodist Church, and perhaps other denominations: namely, the culture of entitlement over service in ministry.  With the professionalization of ministry in North America and the setting aside of full-time vocationally compensated clergy members, a culture of entitlement over service has crept into our clergy orders.  It works in two ways, one for the clergy and one for the laity of local churches.  As it plays out for clergy, there is a built-in expectation of a livable salary and accompanying benefits for full-time ministry.  Because The United Methodist Church currently has a guarantee of full-time ministry employment for life in its polity, there is the expectation of that entitlement by the clergy.  As it applies to the laity, there is the built-in expectation that they will receive a full-time minister, even if they cannot sustain the cost of that minister.” (pp. 64-65)

It would not be difficult to twist this into a screed about a culture of entitlement writ large over 21st century Western life, but that is not my purpose here.  Rather, it is to name what is a great part of our problem in the church: entitlement.  While the above quote hints at the entitlement mentality of churches (and he does develop it somewhat), as a pastor I want to focus on the clergy.

General Conference 2012 was disappointing in many respects.  I remain hopeful that some lessons will be learned and that meaningful changes can grow from the seeds planted last year.  What we know is that the one meaningful thing that passed – ending the (yes, admittedly, “so-called”) guarantee of appointment – was later rejected by the Judicial Council.

As Bishop Hagiya concludes, “entitlement has become embedded in the fabric of the church culture itself.”  Culture doesn’t change overnight, and evidence suggests it may not change from the top down.  It starts with me and with you, it starts with a focus on the responsibilities of the gospel and not just the benefits of the church.  Changing the culture of entitlement means focusing more on my duties and my God-given call as a pastoral leader than my rights as a member of the clergy; it means thinking more about what I owe (and to Whom I owe it) than what I am owed.

One person, one church, one conference at a time.  That is how the entitlement plague ends.  As the old hymn goes, “Let it begin with me.”

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Prayer For Leaders With Ole Hallesby

I found the following in the classic work Prayer by Ole Hallesby, a Norwegian theologian from years gone by.  This seems especially pertinent in this day and age, when we are quick to critique, quick to blog (yes, this is the pot calling the kettle black), and yet slow to actually pray for our leadership.  It’s true in politics, in the workplace, and of course in the church.  The aftermath of General Conference has shown this to a great extent, as everyone who is anyone (and even some, like me, who are nobodies) offer their post-mortems on the event.  Perhaps all of our thoughts and energy would be better directed to God on behalf of our leaders.

It is easy to criticize leaders.  After the thing is done, everybody is wise.  Then we all see how it should have been done.  Beforehand nobody sees what ought to be done, but that is just when leaders must act.  Let us pray for our leaders at all times instead of constantly criticizing them.

By this I do not mean that we should accept uncritically everything decided by the leaders.  If you think they are making a mistake, tell it to them in humility and in love.  Above all, pray for them.  Pray for them until the themselves are convinced that they have made a mistake.  Thereby you will have succeeded in having your viewpoint adopted and, in addition, the spirit of comradeship and love of the community will have won a great victory. (Minneapolis: Augsburg 1994, 74)

Humility and love.  Somebody want to write that petition for 2016?

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