the curmudgeonly lay servant

LSMinistrieslay-servant-emblemI had a great time this weekend at the Murfreesboro District Lay Servant school at Beersheba. I took a class on leading worship and it was fantastic. I also got to see several people I knew. There was a men’s group from Blakemore UMC using Beersheba at the same time, and so I even bumped into Mountain T.O.P. founder George Bass.

So I had a great experience this weekend. But the whole thing reminded me of some of the reservations I have about some recent changes in the whole lay speaking / lay servant program. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in me venting them, since it’s sort of a water-under-the-bridge situation, but I decided I needed to get them off my chest.

First, a bit of background. “Lay speakers,” in the United Methodist parlance, have been people who are not ordained ministers but who are available to preach, lead worship, etc., for example when a pastor is sick or on vacation. Some lay speakers have even been asked to lead smaller churches for extended periods of time when a pastor was unavailable. They have to rely on an ordained minister to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like, and even to bless the communion elements.

There have traditionally been two different types of lay speakers. After taking a basic course (usually offered over the course of a weekend, or on two consecutive Saturdays), you became a “local church lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at the church where you were a member. After that, you could take an advanced course – any of several that might be offered – and become a “certified lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at any other church as needed.

You had to take an advanced course at least every three years to maintain your certified status – but it didn’t matter which one. Sometimes, I would take a new class after just a year or two, because I wanted to; other times, the three-year deadline would sneak up on me and I’d have to take a new class right away or risk losing my certification. I actually took “Go Preach!”, the most basic advanced preaching class, more than once because it was the only one that was available during a given training event, or what have you. And I gained something new from it each time I took it. I took other classes as well, including one on crafting better sermons, one on leading small group studies, and what have you.

I’ve been a certified lay speaker for a number of years now, and in fact in 2007 I was the first lay speaker ever to deliver a (brief) sermon at the Tennessee Annual Conference. In 2013, I preached about a dozen Sunday morning services – an average of once a month, although in practice a large number of them were during the summer months, due to preachers taking vacations or mission trips.

A couple of different things have taken place over the past couple of years – one denomination-wide, the other specific to our conference. The denomination-wide change was to rename the program from “Lay Speaking Ministries” to “Lay Servant Ministries.” The stated rationale was that there were a lot of different ways to serve the church, and we shouldn’t limit the program to just those who are comfortable standing behind a pulpit.

Here is where I will start to sound like a curmudgeon. The distinction of “Lay Speaking Ministries” was a perfectly legitimate, even obvious, one. Yes, there are many ways to serve a local church – and we should be encouraging every church member to serve in those ways. But I don’t understand what that had to do with lay speaking. To use an absurd analogy, that would be like saying that you shouldn’t have to use a firearm to be in the U.S. Marine Corps, because you can serve your country in other ways than just shooting at people. Yes, it makes a weird kind of sense, but it negates the whole reason you started the Marine Corps in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Conference (which, despite its name, represents primarily Middle Tennessee) has implemented a new training regimen. I believe you become a certified lay servant after you take your first advanced class, but in order to be a certified lay speaker you now have to take one course each from five different topic areas: spiritual gifts, United Methodist heritage, preaching, leading worship and evangelism.

In years past, the Murfreesboro District has held about two training events a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s no guarantee that a particular training event will have all five of the topic areas offered as options; the one I attended this weekend didn’t have all of them covered.

If I understand the rules right (and I may not), and going by the current schedule, it could take a local church lay speaker two and a half years (or more, if the schedule doesn’t work out right) to take all the classes required to become certified.  You could conceivably do it more quickly by picking up some courses in adjoining districts, such as the Columbia or the Nashville district.

I’m also completely confused about to what extent long-timers like me are “grandfathered in” under the new requirements. One person who spoke at this weekend’s training said that we long-timers needed to talk to the district lay speaking director and make special arrangements with her. But when I complained about my confusion online, the district director (whom I know personally) said I was good to go. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to make an effort going forward to pick up the other topic areas, and I’m not sure how I would count one or two of my past courses, or if they’d count at all.

I understand the value of the added material called for by the new program – and, in fact, I look forward to taking a course in the area on United Methodist heritage. (If one had been offered this weekend, I would have signed up for it.) But it seems like a dramatic change from the current system, and I’m not sure it’s been well explained. I wish there were a way some of the material could be delivered by online courses or what have you. I wonder how many local church lay speakers are going to stick with it long enough to meet the new requirements to be certified.

So, to summarize – we’ve changed the name from “Lay Speaking” to “Lay Servant” in order to encourage more people to join, but in order to be an actual lay speaker you now have to meet much more stringent requirements.

Thus ends my curmudgeonly screed.

the wheel, un-reinvented

Well, after lay speaking this morning at Cannon UMC and Mt. Lebanon UMC, I went to look up next Sunday’s passages from the Revised Common Lectionary, so that I could start working on my sermon for Goose Pond UMC in Coffee County.

If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s sort of a schedule for the scriptures to be used in Sunday worship. The Catholic Church has its own lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant version, for those denominations or preachers who believe in such a thing. These would tend to be the same churches that recognize some form of the liturgical calendar – seasons like Lent, Advent and what have you.

Each week, there are four basic scripture passages. There’s at least one Old Testament passage (other than the Psalms), at least one New Testament passage (other than the Gospels), a passage from the Psalms and a passage from the Gospels. Some weeks, there are more than that – especially if there are alternate ways to treat that Sunday within the liturgical calendar.

For example, some churches celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday” and would want a Gospel passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry of Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Those churches would typically recognize the crucifixion during a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. But churches that don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service might choose to observe “Passion Sunday” instead, treating the crucifixion one week so that they can concentrate on the resurrection the next. The lectionary includes passages for each of those two options.

The lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – if 2011 uses the calendar for Year A, and 2012 uses the calendar for Year B, and 2013 uses Year C, then in 2014 you go back to Year A again.

A pastor may pick only one of the week’s lectionary passages and focus on it exclusively. Often, though, there’s some sort of common theme or element, and the really skillful professionals can often weave two, three, or all four of the passages into a single sermon. I’m an amateur, and I usually just preach on one of the four passages.

United Methodism would in general be a church that uses the lectionary, although it’s enough of a big tent that there are pastors, especially at small churches, who don’t use it. There are also special occasions when a pastor might want to ignore that week’s lectionary because of some special occasion or situation which the pastor feels requires a different direction.

Lay speakers, especially if we’re called upon at the last moment, aren’t necessarily expected to go by the lectionary, but I do, whenever possible.

I recall a lay speaking class I took in which the class members had differing opinions about the lectionary. Some didn’t like it, feeling that in every case you should seek God’s inspiration rather than relying on some dusty man-made schedule. Others, and I am among them, find God’s inspiration within the lectionary, which sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones and requires us to look at passages we might ignore otherwise.

Anyway, I want to look at the passages for next Sunday and they looked familiar. I save all of my sermons to a folder on my computer, and it didn’t take me long to find a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Lent three years ago – remember, the lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. I looked at the sermon and remembered it immediately, and I recall being pleased with it. (Boy, that sounds egotistical.) And it incorporated two different lectionary passages — the OT passage and the Gospel passage.

Anyway, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I would update and adapt  that sermon from three years ago and use it next Sunday.

It runs about a page or two longer than my usual sermon; it may need a bit of tightening. I’ll read it aloud some time in the next night or two and see if it really is longer time-wise. Then again, some of my sermons are on the short side so maybe this is just more of an average-length sermon.

Anyway, I won’t have to panic this week about whether or not I’ve written my sermon.

Fan the Flame

I was one of three speakers delivering five-minute messages at tonight’s Murfreesboro District United Methodist Church “Fan The Flame” lay servant event held in Tullahoma. It was a a great evening, and I saw a number of friends, including Taylor and Carol Reynolds, Tom and Nita Wright, and Bob Willems (who, of course, I’d just seen last week at Mountain T.O.P.). I got to speak to the District Superintendent, the Rev. Lenoir Culbertson, and I don’t think I’d actually met her before, even though she’s been in office two  years now. I told her I was Jack Carney’s son and she asked how my father was enjoying his second third retirement. (He came to hear me speak this morning at First UMC Shelbyville.)

The praise band tonight was terrific. Our worship music is great at Shelbyville, and it was especially good this morning, but whenever I’m around a praise band I wish I attended a church that had a contemporary service as an option. (I would probably alternate between the two services.)

In addition to the worship service, there was a hamburger-and-hot-dog meal and a mission fair with various displays.

The plan is to have at least three more “Fan the Flame” gatherings, one about every three months. The crowd wasn’t bad tonight but it could have been a lot better, and I suspect that as more people understand what the event is attendance will improve.

My summer tour

Yesterday, I blogged about a busy week ahead, with lay speaking assignments bookending a week at Mountain T.O.P. But what I didn’t mention is that I have a couple of more lay speaking assignments on the radar beyond that, including one at a church I’ve not spoken at before and where I have several friends.

Here’s the rundown:

June 23, 9:30 a.m.: Mt. Lebanon UMC, near Wheel in southwestern Bedford County

June 23, 11 a.m.: Cannon UMC, Shelbyville

June 30, 10 a.m.: First UMC Shelbyville

July 14, 10 a.m.: First UMC Shelbyville

Sept. 1, 11 a.m.: Morton Memorial UMC, Monteagle

I am excited about Morton Memorial. I’ve never spoken there before, but I’ve been to the facility on numerous occasions. When LEAMIS was based in Marion County, we used to use Morton for board meetings and for mission team training events. Several of my Mountain T.O.P. and LEAMIS friends are affiliated with the church, although at least one of them will be on the Holy Land trip that is taking Rev. Amanda Diamond away from the pulpit that weekend.

It will be an interesting weekend for me, because I’ll probably be up really late the night before covering the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration for the newspaper. But I couldn’t resist the chance to speak at Morton. I understand that Kylene McDonald was responsible for recommending me.

A busy couple of weeks

OK, here’s the schedule.

I started work on a sermon today. This week (which should also be relatively busy at work) I’ve got to finish the sermon and make some final preparations for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM). On Sunday, as a lay speaker, I will load up my car, preach the sermon at Mt. Lebanon UMC at 9:30, then at Cannon UMC at 11, then I will head immediately for Altamont, arriving (with permission) a little late for AIM. I’ll miss orientation but should make it in time for opening worship.

I’ll return from Mountain T.O.P. on Saturday the 29th. On the morning of Sunday the 30th, I’ll preach pretty much the same sermon from the week before at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. Then, that afternoon, I’ll go to First UMC Tullahoma for a big lay servant event, titled “Fan The Flame,” where I’ll be one of several people giving five-minute messages. That one is already written, and has been for several weeks, but I’ll have to tweak it at some point between now and then to tie in better with the two messages that will precede it. 

Fortunately, neither Rev. Doug Dezotell from Mt. Lebanon and Cannon nor Rev. Lloyd Doyle from my home church minds me straying from the Lectionary this once (in fact, it was Rev. Doyle’s idea that I use the same sermon from the week before, since I won’t have any time for sermon-writin’ on the mountain).

Because my AIM trip was such a last-minute, hastily-arranged affair, I still won’t know exactly what I’m doing in Summer Plus until I hear from the staff. Last week, I was trying to upgrade my old second-hand, rarely-used laptop to the latest version of the Linux-based Ubuntu operating system so that I could take it to camp and use it for e-mail and to type up our group project in creative writing class (assuming that I’ll be teaching creative writing, and I don’t know for sure yet). But something about (or coincidental to) the Ubuntu upgrade has wrecked the laptop’s networking capabilities. It won’t recognize its old PCM-CIA wireless card, and it won’t even recognize being plugged in by Ethernet cable. I can still use it for the creative writing project, but I’ll have to check my e-mail by phone for the week.

Andy Burroughs attended the AIM week which ended yesterday, and he’s posted photos and videos, which only make me that much more anxious to get back to the mountain. In some ways, I feel more alive sitting in Friends Cabin (in the lobby or on the back porch) than anywhere else on the planet. It looks strange in Andy’s photos to see Friends Cabin’s Tyvek-wrapped doppelganger sitting right next door.

By the way, AIM is still in need of home repair volunteers. If you can arrange to go away next week on short notice – or if you want the dates of another AIM week later in the summer – click the link above or give me a call.

Common English

When I preach somewhere as a lay speaker, I base my sermons on the Revised Common Lectionary – a rotating three-year schedule, used by several Protestant denominations, of Bible readings. Each week, the Lectionary has a Psalm, a reading from one of the Gospels, another Old Testament reading and another New Testament reading. There may be a common theme to the readings. A good preacher can work several of the readings into the same sermon; amateurs like myself usually pick one of the readings on which to focus.

Some of the small, rural churches where I’m called upon to speak have preachers that don’t use the Lectionary, and even at the churches where it is used the congregation may not be aware of it and certainly wouldn’t be bothered if a guest speaker preached a non-Lectionary sermon. But I find the Lectionary to be good discipline – it keeps me from only preaching on topics I like or in which I am interested.

Normally, when I get ready to write a sermon, I go to Vanderbilt’s online lectionary, download the readings for the Sunday in question, and paste them into a LibreOffice document. Eventually, as the sermon takes shape, I delete the readings to which I won’t be specifically referring.

The Vanderbilt site uses the New Revised Standard Version, which until recently had been the version of choice for a lot of United Methodist publications. Lately, though, I’ve noticed more use of the Common English Bible, which was released last year. This morning, sitting in on a Sunday School class at my father’s new church, I noticed that “Adult Bible Studies,” the ubiquitous Sunday School literature published by the United Methodist Publishing House, has switched to the CEB, and even has an ad for the Bible on its back cover trumpeting the fact.

I had jumped on a free Kindle download of the CEB a while back, and I’m taking a closer look at it now. (The download is still available, but no longer free.) So far, I like what I see.

For those of my readers who aren’t theologically literate, there are scores of different Bible versions available nowadays. They fall into two groups: translations and paraphrases. Translations like the NRSV are done by teams of scholars, and their first priority is accuracy to the best available original texts. (Strangely enough, we now have access to older, and presumably less-corrupted, manuscripts than were known about in the days when King James commissioned a standard English translation of the Bible.) Paraphrases, like Eugene Peterson’s justly-popular “The Message,” are usually the work of one individual. They put an emphasis on readability and contemporary English.

Both translations and paraphrases have their place. A translation is essential for serious study or theological discussion. A good paraphrase, however, makes the scripture come alive in a way that more formal translations usually don’t.

The Common English Bible, while still a translation involving scholars from multiple denominations, has made a special effort to enhance readability, giving it a little of the informality of a paraphrase.

Anyway, I was setting up the lectionary passages today for my sermon next Sunday at Ransom UMC and I decided to replace the NRSV with the passages from CEB, which I looked up, cut and pasted from the official CEB web site. I think this may be my habit going forward.

Vive lapel difference

At the end of the lay speaking class on Sunday, we received certificates and lay speaker pins. The certificates had been mistakenly dated “2010,” instead of “2011,” but the consensus of the group was not to get them reprinted. I did cross out “2010” and write in “2011,” if only to remind myself what year I took the class so that, a few years from now, I’ll know whether or not I am on the clock to take an advanced class in order to remain certified.

DSCI0003-1

In the past, I’d always received a lapel pin like the one at top left – a depiction of the official logo for United Methodist Lay Speaking Ministries. This time around, however, they gave us the smaller and more-minimalist version seen in the foreground. I don’t think this is a case of “old” and “new” designs – I’m guessing both are available at Cokesbury, and have been all along – but simply a case of our new district lay speaking director making a different choice about which kind of pin to buy. Anyway, I like having both kinds of pin. The minimalist version actually looks more like the lapel pins worn by some members of the clergy.

Long day

It’s been a busy week, with the start of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, but today I was on a different track. As a certified United Methodist lay speaker, I have to take an advanced lay speaking course at least every three years. A few months ago, I thought I needed to take one this year – I had actually miscalculated and could have waited until next year. But, no matter – the courses are always worthwhile.

At the training being held this weekend at Fellowship UMC in Murfreesboro, there’s a basic lay speaking course and a choice of two advanced courses. I had already taken one of the advanced courses. You can repeat a course as often as you like, and it often turns out to be a different experience depending on the teacher and the periodically-updated curriculum, but in this case I decided to try the other course, on the topic of public prayer.

I left the apartment early this morning – which is a good thing, because I went to the wrong place. I thought I had a general idea where Fellowship UMC was, but when I plugged the address into Google Maps I decided I had been mistaken. I followed the directions to 2511 Highway 99 and … there was nothing there.

That’s because I was on Highway 99 east of Murfreesboro – Bradyville Pike – not Highway 99 west of Murfreesboro – New Salem Highway.

Because I had given myself plenty of time, I wasn’t actually late. But it felt late, and I barged in flustered and with a bit of a cloud over my head. It dissipated as the morning went on. Linda Powell, a former member of First UMC who now lives in Smyrna, is one of my classmates. the Rev. Miriam Seyler was our instructor today, and she’s excellent, although a funeral which she must officiate means someone else will have to teach the remainder of the class tomorrow.

It was a good day, but a long one. I decided not to go to the Celebration tonight, although I will stay up long enough to post the winners of the stallion classes on the newspaper web site.

Nap time

Today is the first time since March 12 I haven’t had to spend hours at The Fly Arts Center. I have completed two performances this weekend, worked a Saturday shift at the newspaper, and preached this morning. I warned my co-worker and classmate Becky McBee that I might skip this afternoon’s class reunion planning meeting, and in fact I am about to hit the sofa for some badly-needed rest.