Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What the Church Can Learn from the University

I’ve spent a lot of time on university campuses. A lot of time and a bunch of campuses. The University of California, Riverside. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Johns Hopkins University. North Carolina Central University. Duke University. Shaw University. And now, I am in my third year as the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Now before I go any further, I have to mention that Guilford College, which I also serve, is conspicuously absent from this list. So is Virginia Theological Seminary, from which I actually got a degree! Never fear all you Quakers and seminarians. Your time is coming. This column is specifically about universities, which you are not. That column is coming.

I’ve been a student, faculty, staff, and chaplain at these institutions, occasionally serving in more than one capacity, even at the same time. I know universities. Let me just say for all the church people one thing I know you want to hear: Universities are incredibly screwed up places to work. The faculty intrigue about tenure and promotion, the jockeying for control of a department, the utter lack of concern about meeting student needs, the bizarre and failed attempts to come up with a coherent and consistent alcohol policy, the borderline personalities, the extreme political correctness, the panic over publishing, the funding shortages coupled with wasteful spending, I’ve seen it all.

But now that I’ve castigated universities for their wackiness, I have to say that they get a lot of things right that we in the church cannot. Universities, for all their failures to protect the rights of minority groups, are so far ahead of us in the hiring process that it is a tragedy. For one thing, universities tend to be a lot more honest in stating who they want to hire and why. For example, a department that is all male will openly state it is looking strongly for women to apply for an open position because it believes a woman teaching in the department will be good for students, and will balance the type of research being done, and maybe even that the lack of female hires is an indication of a problem. When a gay person is hired, there is often as much attention paid to finding his or her partner a position as there would be for a heterosexual spouse.

In the Episcopal Church, we’ve made great strides in much of the country when it comes to the calling of women to lead churches. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are still areas of the country in which women cannot get ordained, much less called to lead churches. And it is still probably true that a black priest has a better chance of getting elected bishop than of being rector of even a medium sized predominantly white church. African Americans advance their careers by becoming diocesan staff or appointed deans of cathedrals. We clamor for Spanish speaking clergy but fund the positions we have for them at the absolute minimum. And for gay clergy: good luck. There are places that will take you, but….

People in universities will be happy to tell me about their poor track record on the road to equality. Don’t bother. The Promised Land may be a vague blur on the distant landscape for you, but we’re still back at home loading up the truck. For all the times your car breaks down, at least it is on the road. We’re still arguing over whether or not the trip is a good idea. You have some pretty good road maps. We’re trying to decide if the world is flat or round.

A second example: Universities have built it a system of evaluation and accreditation that involves outside visitors, a standardized evaluation plan, and a schedule that everyone knows years in advance. It is a great deal of work and everyone hates going through it. But every academic department goes through it.

Churches are individualized enclaves (even those that are part of a denomination). In some cases, clergy get moved at the whim of a denominational leader whose information may or may not be accurate. In other cases clergy outstay their welcome for years because no one knows how to challenge their authority. Evaluations are done sporadically at best, with criteria that are developed on the spot—and the congregation’s responsibilities for getting the ministry done are rarely acknowledged. It’s all the clergy’s fault if things do not go well.

I seem to vaguely recall that one time there was a connection between the church and the university. Oh, wait, now I remember. We started most of them. Given our current state of confusion, it is no surprise that the good universities have largely disassociated themselves from the churches. Maybe they noticed who was getting things done.

It would be great to get screaming angry letters from university folk about how wrong I am about this. Unfortunately, hardly anyone is reading me yet.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the next post will be "What the University Can Learn from the Church." But that is another day.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Obligatory Election Post

Trust me to set up all these grand ideas of what I will be blogging about and then ignore them with my second post.

Has anyone out there with a blog not written about the candidates? Is there anything else you need one of us to say?

Okay, I’ll answer both questions for you. NO and HELL NO.

Sorry. I just needed to get that out of my system. Now, let me say two things. First, there is not excuse for not voting this time people. Second, protest voting for one of the minor party candidates is a stupid waste of time. No one cares and your protest goes unnoticed. The truth is, the major party candidates are different from each other, and both of them are more likely to be able to get their agendas through Congress than Bob Barr, Ralph Nader or the other third party people out there. The next president’s primary job will be cleaning up the mess from the last eight years—you can forget just about anything else in their platform—so they better have the backing of at least some people in Washington.

If you need to feel good about yourself, don’t vote for the people who are going to lose. Stop going to Starbucks and give the money to your favorite charity. Dance naked in your living room (draw the curtains, please). Go work for Habitat. Volunteer at your church for one of those jobs no one wants. Quit drinking. Tell your pastor how you really felt about that awful sermon he or she preached last week. Start that diet or exercise program.

If you do any of these, you’ll feel better a lot longer than the half a second it takes to push that button. Protests only work if someone notices them. In this case, none of the minor parties have made enough of a case for why we should choose them, so it’s not going to matter.

Oh, and one last thing. No matter how many people want to say it, let me just go on record: Sarah Palin is not, I repeat, not a hottie. And if they were going to spend all that money on clothes, they should have done a better job.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Revolt Now

Okay, everyone who knows me knows I have resisted a blog for the longest time. So the question begging for an answer is 'why now?'

Too bad I don't really have a good answer. Maybe I just gave in to the fashion. Or maybe I realized how many people I might meet -- I like meeting people.

I do know why I should not have a blog. 'Cause I hate deadlines. I already have one. Some people call it a sermon, but from my point of view, its a deadline. There is no option but that I have something to say at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. The idea of having a blog means that you write something. And even if there is no set deadline, we've all read blogs that we STOPPED reading because the blogger didn't post often enough to make it worthwhile.

Which leads to the second reason why not; I have the basic insecurity that maybe I don't have enough to say to sustain this. As above, we've also dropped blogs that had little to say or kept repeating the same tired themes. I refuse to be one of those.

Finally, I see no reason to have a blog simply to point out stuff out there that other people have written, no matter how witty, intelligent, thoughtful, ironic, dry, or creative it might be. If I want you to see it, I'll email you. If I am going to blog, it will be mostly my own stuff, or, at the very least, my comments about someone else's works.

So who am I? Well. I am many things in this world:

- Owned by a Siberian Husky named Andy
- Home Brewer (recently reaching into wine too!)
- Former fat kid and successful dieter
- Home owner
- Episcopal Priest and Campus Minister
- Single Guy
- Person who has actually visited Kazachstan
- Surrogate Parent to Several high school and college students over the years
- Person who does not easily align with the right or the left
- General Convention Delegate (the Episcopalians out there understand what that means)
- American of African, Native, German, and Irish descent (and still looking)
- Person who is fed up with the way Christianity allows itself to be sold in the culture
- Watcher of Dr. Who from the beginning (currently on the second doctor) - Wow, what kind of a geek does that make me!?
- Survivor of an aortic aneurysm

And, I will certainly add to that list. But the title of this blog is not "Dr. Who Watcher", but "A Revolting Christian." Since no one has ever called me that to my face, you can assume that I mostly mean rebelling, rather than disgusting, though I suppose to some people that's the same thing.

What am I revolting against? How about these for starters?
- People who talk to the media as if their understanding of Christianity is the only one out there
- Media people who are too stupid to know the truth about that or fail to point it out
- Liturgical Nazis (Q: What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? A: You can negotiate with a terrorist)
- Christians who threaten to leave (or actually do) when they don't get their way
- Christian litmus tests for politicians
- Biblical literalism (I've never met a literalist who was consistent about it)
- Hymns sung too slowly
- Sacristy rats (you know who you are! Only clergy with weak egos want you around.)
- Complaints about overhead projecting in church (It can be done well.)
- Middle aged women (and one guy) in black leotards prancing around the altar with streamers and calling it liturgical dance
- The use of the words 'just' and 'really' in prayers ("We just really want to thank you Jesus....")
- Interfaith services that reduce God to a warm fuzzy
- Any services that reduce God to a warm fuzzy
- Ordination processes that take five or more years
- People who retire from the military and get a call to be ordained after they begin receiving a full pension
- Complaints about acolytes in sneakers, female clergy in open toed shoes, and ushers not wearing ties
- The notion that I cannot bless two people's relationship, but I can bless your battle cruiser
- The belief that Jesus turned water into grape juice

Okay, this could go on for awhile, so I had best quit while I'm not too far behind. What I am seeking here is ways to strip the church of its silliness and to present ourselves to the world as a transformative presence like Jesus did. To do that, we need to toss a few things away and start adding a few new ones. Like not fighting all the time. Or really accepting people the way they come to us. Like doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

In other words, this blog will not be aboutcreating a list of the things I dislike (see above), but about suggesting alternatives, reviewing new ideas that others are trying, and posing questions about things we might want to reconsider.

And maybe I'll talk about a few things that have little or nothing to do with the Church (remember that home brewing item?)

I bet you can add a few areas to reconsider to my list. Hopefully, I've ticked off one or two of you out there. Or maybe no one will ever read this. Does anyone ever read the first post of a new blog?