Augustine on the Ministry

Unless the Lord helps us carry our burdens, we shall sink beneath them, and unless he carries us, we shall fall to our death. My position at your head frightens me, but the condition I share with you consoles me. I am a bishop set over you, but a Christian in company with you. The first is the name of the office I have undertaken, the second of grace; the first of danger, the second of salvation. So it is as if we are tossed about by a storm in the raging sea of that office, but as we remember who has redeemed us by his blood, it is as if we enter the safety of a harbor in the stillness of that thought. Though this office is hard work for us personally, the common benefit provides us with rest.

So if the fact that I have been redeemed with you delights me more than the fact that I have been set over you, then, as our Lord commands, I shall be more tirelessly your servant, for fear of being ungrateful for the redemption which made me worthy to be your fellow-servant.

–Ed. John E. Rotelle, “We Are Your Servants” Augustine’s Homilies on Ministry, (Villanova: Augustine Press, 1986), 155 pp. (HT: Harold Senkbeil, Doxology)

Miners

Last Saturday night I had the opportunity to attend a UTEP Miners men’s basketball game for the first time. I got tickets from a member of the congregation, and so Andrew and I went and watched the Miners defeat Rice University 66-43.

Three years ago, just days after making the decision to come to El Paso, Sara and I sat down to watch a movie that had come in the mail from Blockbuster (like Netflix). Neither of us had heard of the movie before, only knowing that it was about college basketball. We were surprised to see “Texas Western College – El Paso TX” on the opening screen. The movie was “Glory Road” about the 1966 NCAA championship basketball team.

Miner basketball (and other sports) is a fairly big deal in El Paso. It’s a pretty large city—nearly 700,000—but has no big league professional sports teams. If I needed a reason to take in more UTEP Athletics, I think I found it—of all places—on my bookshelf.

Many of you know that I have lots of books. I have dozens of books on my shelves that I have never read. I have a shelf that is just translations of the Bible, several shelves of grammars and lexicons and dictionaries. Of course, Luther’s Works takes up a few shelves and then there are my Luther biographies. I had read most of them, but for years I have had one volume that I never read, but always thought it sounded interesting. I don’t even remember where I got it. It is a book on Luther’s life, in German. Half of the book’s cover is torn off, and hand-written on the binding is “Luthers Leben—Mathesius.”

Until this past week, I didn’t realize that this Mathesius is the Johann Mathesius who was the pastor in Joachimstal. Joachimstal is the Bohemian town which was the subject of the book “Singing the Gospel” by Christopher Boyd Brown, which I read this fall. This is quite an interesting and enlightening book about Lutheran hymnody, especially in the home, and how the singing of hymns among Lutherans kept the Reformation alive.

“Luthers Leben” appears to be a series of sermons which Mathesius preached on the life of Luther—which is interesting, considering that Mathesius was just twenty years younger than Luther. I presume that much of it is drawn from content which he heard Luther speak at the dinner table in Wittenberg (Mathesius is one of those who recorded what we know as Luther’s “Table Talk”) On the opening pages there is a drawing of Luther, followed by this drawing of Mathesius. It’s a similar image to the one in Brown’s book. But do you notice what Mathesius has in his hand? In his right hand he has a book—that makes sense. But in his left hand? A miner’s pick.

Joachimstal was a mining town. “The silver recovered by the Joachimstal miners was minted into the standard silver coin of sixteenth-century Germany, the Joachimstaler or simply Thaler, whose name lives on in the modern dollar” (Brown, p. 26). Because so much of the town was involved in mining, the people sang songs and even hymns that referred to mining. Pastors like Mathesius referred to mining in their sermons. And Mathesius may have even had a personal interest in the mining as a mineralogist. But certainly he never had to carry a pick and work in the mines. So why is he pictured with it?

I suspect that it simply identifies him with the people he served. I’ve remarked before about how much of a privilege it is to serve people in such a way that I am allowed into their lives at its most critical moments. As a servant of Christ, the pastor carries the business and affairs of the people he’s called to serve on his own heart. And when he serves among them, with time he begins to understand more and more the cares and concerns of his flock—even if he never actually steps foot into the mines.

So as I do this work—which is essentially no different than Mathesius’ work in the 1500’s—I figure if that pastor can be called a Miner, so can I.

2011 Goals

The beginning of a new year is a typical time for people to make resolutions and set goals for the upcoming year. For me, it’s probably not so much that it’s the end of the year, but in the weeks following Christmas I find myself actually having a minute or two to think about things. This year I was thinking specifically about how I can better use my time in the new year. So, I’ve set a few goals that I would like to take on this year. Some are ongoing things, and things I’ve been trying to do some time. So, here are the things I’m thinking about today:

  1. Spend more time in sermon preparation. It’s probably easy to make this happen in the month following the Christmas season. During the month of December I prepared 10 sermons. I only preached 15 times my whole vicar year. Obviously, when the services are as frequent as they are in December, the amount of available time for study and preparation declines. But I really need to carve out more time in the new year to dedicate to preparation. That may mean that some other things don’t get done, but it should be time well spent.
  2. Learn Spanish. I’ve been telling myself I need to do this for years—since even before we moved to El Paso. But I’ve been here for almost three years and it just strikes me as ridiculous to not make this a priority. I know it will be process that will take longer than just one year, but I need to get serious about it.
  3. Post to the blog once a week. In 2010, I published 27 posts to the blog. I don’t think I can commit to posting every day, as some are aiming for, but I if I could post once a week, I would double the number of posts. It seems to be attainable. Only time will tell if it’s a worthy use of my time.
  4. Limit Email and Facebook. I know that these can be time-wasters, especially when I have it available on my phone at all times. My goal is to limit the number of times I check both email and facebook to just a couple times per day. Facebook should be easier than email, since I get lots of email. But if I limit myself, I know that I need to deal with my email when I’m in email mode, and not be watching emails stream in all day long. Occasionally someone will try to reach me by email and need an immediate response, but most often it can wait at least a few hours. I’m hoping that this will not only save me the time I waste by checking it and reviewing all the messages that I haven’t done anything about yet. But I hope that it will also allow me to focus my attention on other things which need my attention. Say, like goal #1.

What I’ve been up to

I’ve been pretty silent here lately, so I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on what has been keeping me busy.

Lent and Easter
Yes, this is perhaps the busiest time of the year. People will make comments to me about how busy I must be, with all the extra services. And this year we even added a service on Good Friday—five unique services from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. But I’m never exactly sure how to respond. Yes, I’m busy. And it is a struggle to get ready for all the services, especially when they come so quickly, and especially when other issues inevitably come up during holy week. But I really don’t want anyone to think that I would rather be doing anything else.

For all of the busy-ness and the craziness, there is simply no time of year I love more than holy week, and especially the feast of the resurrection. It can be such a temptation to get through Good Friday, and sort of coast through Easter. But, no. The festival service on Easter is the most important of all, the highest festival in the entire year. This year I preached on the historic epistle for Easter Sunday, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. What a joy to keep the festival, and for it all to culminate in the feast that is the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the feast already enjoyed by the saints in heaven.

Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong his love—to save us.
See, his blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. Hallelujah!

So let us keep the Festival
to which the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Lord of all,
The sun that warms and lights us.
Now his grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts.
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah! (CW 161, st. 3,4)

School Planning & Accreditation
We are busy planning and preparing for the next school, and even beyond. In January we began the process of a school self-study for accreditation. But we’re also gearing up for next year by getting all of our enrollment materials in place. This week we’re distributing fliers throughout the area. We’ve already delivered 2,000 to surrounding homes, and we’ll be getting more out as soon as they’re printed. El Paso is a growing city, with lots of young military families. Accreditation is an important part of serving these families, partly because Ft. Bliss requires school to be accredited in order to be recommended on post, and also because military families move so often that we want to make sure our students records easily transfer to the schools nationwide, even worldwide, where our students end up.

Home
I’m trying my hand at desert gardening this summer. The kids and I have planted tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and melons. We’ll see how things grow here. We definitely have plenty of sun. It should be a fun little experiment. and if we get some food out of it, great.

Last month Sara’s sister Liz arrived in El Paso. She is an Army nurse and will be stationed at William Beaumont Army Medical Center for the next two years. She will be staying with us until she finds a place of her own. We’re not really in any hurry for that to happen, however; it’s nice to have her here. And it will be a real blessing to have family within a few miles instead of a few hundred miles (or thousand).

It’s baseball season again, and I’ve again been enjoying the MLB AtBat app on my phone. As much as I wish I could be in Minnesota to actually see outdoor Major League Baseball in Minnesota this summer, being able to listen to the games on my phone is better than nothing.

Reading
I’m still trying to make my way through my “to read” stack of books. However, I just can’t resist adding more books to the pile. If you want to, you can watch what I’m reading on the web site GoodReads.

I’m looking forward to reading through the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord again this summer. I try to do that every other year. I’ll write more on that in the next couple weeks.

Coming Up
Right now I’m especially gearing up for our Ascension service. I’ve always had a service on Ascension wherever I’ve been, even though they’re not always well attended. This year we’ve invited our area congregations to join us and with our combined efforts hope to have a service fitting for this high festival. It seems that every year I appreciate the significance of Jesus’ ascension even more.

Next week I’ll be heading to Flagstaff Arizona for pastor’s conference. In a few week, we’ll have confirmation here. And just after that school will be out for another year. Wow, it’s gone by fast.

A CMS Wish List

I have written previously about the tools that a pastor uses as he carries out his ministry. From high-tech to low-tech, these tools assist the pastor in his work of caring for the flock. Church Membership Software is one such tool. This is software that stores a congregation’s records, including membership data, attendance, and sometimes its finance and other information. In some cases, these functions can be carried out in other ways. In the past, churches primarily used a big book called a church register. This book had lined pages for the congregation’s baptisms, confirmations, weddings, etc. Even today, smaller congregations could simply keep these records on paper, in a word processing document or a simple spreadsheet. Financial data can be managed in a stand-alone system like Quickbooks. But very often churches desire a single software solution to manage all its data. Those types of software packages are called Church Membership Software (CMS).

The CMS with which I am most familiar is called Shepherd’s Staff. It is developed by Concordia Technology Solutions, a division of Concordia Publishing House. Incidentally, I think the name Shepherd’s Staff describes the purpose of this type of software, a tool in the hand of those who have been called to shepherd the flock of God.

My opinion is that Shepherd’s Staff, and other packages like it, do their job well. They are, in general, mature products with deep feature sets. But I’m wishing for something more. For a couple years already, I have been looking for something better. There are two main reasons. #1: Microsoft Windows. I’ve been a Mac user for almost 13 years. I have never personally owned a Windows machine, and I have never really been interested in one. I have never had much trouble finding applications for the Mac—except for church software. Shepherd’s Staff is Windows only. Right now I have VMware fusion on my Macbook Pro which runs Windows XP. But the only reason I have that is for Shepherd’s Staff—and I cringe every time I have to open it. If there were a better alternative, I would quickly delete Widows from my machine.

But I’m not really looking for a Mac version of Shepherd’s Staff or another CMS. That leads me to reason #2: The internet. The web is filled with Web 2.o applications for everything from social networking (like Facebook, etc), photo sharing (Flickr, etc), even banking (Mint.com, etc). It just blows my mind how much of your life you can organize, publish, and discover, not to mention how much time you can waste if you’re not careful—all with a modern web browser and an internet connection. Some people even predict that in the future all software will be web-based. Right now, there are just some things that work better as regular client software, mostly because of the limitations of web browsers (for example, web-based word processors or presentation software do not compare to regular local software). But for database-type applications, the web is a fine tool.

My wish is for a good CMS on the web. There are a few products out there. I have links to them at the end of the post. Some are good, others are not, still others are too expensive. But the advantages of this type of thing are huge. Since it’s web-based, it would be platform independent. It wouldn’t matter what kind of computer you’re using. It would also be hardware independent. Sometimes church office computers aren’t the newest machines in the world. Web-based software eliminates the need for the users to update the software on their machines. That means that your version will always be up-to-date (I’m currently using a version of Shepherd’s Staff from 2004). It would also provide built-in back-up and the data is not stored at the church. I know of more than one church which was broken into and had the church office computer stolen, complete with the electronic church records. I can also imagine other disasters which would have the same results.

The other advantage to web-based software is that it is accessible from anywhere. That means that church volunteers or staff can access the system from home, church, or wherever. I can just imagine a financial secretary entering contribution records at home, or a volunteer taking home the attendance cards or friendship registers and entering Sunday’s attendance. As a pastor, I would love quick access to membership information no matter where I am.

But while there are a few of these kinds of tools out there, I haven’t yet found what I’m looking for. Basically I’m looking for the feature set of your typical CMS, especially Shepherd’s Staff. Here is a list of a few of my more desirable features. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments section.

  • Mobile Access – Ideally this would be an iPhone app. But at the very least, a mobile web version to do things like view and edit contact information for my members and prospects. I would like to be able to view their info, click on a phone number to call or click on their address to get directions. After a visit, I would like to be able to log my visit notes within the person’s record. I would also like to be able to take attendance for classes from the mobile version.
  • Lutheran terminology I have tried several options out there, but it seems that many of them are built for megachurches that have different needs. Lutherans (and probably other sacramental/liturgical churches) have their own terminology and critical information. Baptism and confirmation dates are important. Membership types are unique. That’s one of the reasons I really have always appreciated Shepherd’s Staff.
  • Tags I would like to see the ability to create groups by using a tagging feature. Most software allows you to create groups of members based on certain criteria. But I would like to be able to create those kind of “smart groups” based on tags that I have created. For example, we typically have three “types” of members: baptized, communicants, and voting members. But a typical drop-down menu doesn’t work for that, because our communicant members are also baptized members, and our voting members are all three. I would like to be able to simply assign tags to people. This kind of organization is used all over the web, including sites like Flickr and even blogs like this.
  • Permanent Records One of the biggest dangers of using computer software to keep track of church records is that when the technology changes or the software upgrades, current data formats may become obsolete. The things that churches need to record are often permanent records, especially the official pastoral and church acts, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. This is important in small churches and large churches. In large churches because there is lots of data and people can get lost. In a small church this is important even if the church is small enough for the pastor to remember all the details about his members. But when that pastor takes a call or retires, the new pastor will have to rely heavily on those records. I’m convinced that churches still need to be able to keep a hard copy of all of this kind of data. So even web software needs to be able to export reports that can serve as these kind of archived records. I would recommend keeping this hard copy record in a fire-proof safe at church or off-site (but make sure someone knows where it is).
  • Attachments I want to be able to attach documents to personal or household records. I’m specifically thinking of scanned documents like baptismal certificates, transfer letters, marriage licenses, etc. That way our records can be stored off-site and are easily associated with a member’s other information. If there was an iPhone version, perhaps these attachments could be viewed from the phone.

Here is the list of web-based church membership software services. I know there are others, many of which are higher-priced. Leave a comment if you can recommend another.