During the testimony portion of a worship service at Central Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, “Karen” walked to the front and confessed for the first time that years earlier she had killed a woman while driving drunk, had served five years in prison, and had then begun drinking again. “I was a menace to society,” she said. When she finished, she waited anxiously for the congregation’s response. Immediately some moved forward to embrace her; then the service continued and Karen joined other volunteers in serving communion.
For 16 years I have lived under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Corrections. I know firsthand what behaviors are being bred within prisons. I entered the system when I was 18 years old. I spent five years learning from seasoned veterans how to be a better criminal.
In one of those neglected corners of scripture that must scare those brave enough to think about it, Jesus promises an unpleasant future for those who would not visit him in prison: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
The absence of community surrounds us in a daily way—in our neighborhoods, our work lives and the anguish of our own souls. The scarcity of community wreaks havoc below the surface of outwardly busy lives. From the ethos of economic life to the chatter of talk radio, our society is busy promoting the appetites and fantasies of the individual more than it encourages investment in the larger aspirations of a community.
When I speak in churches across the country, I often hear “former pastor” stories, or stories about struggles that involve a former pastor. What is this “former pastor problem”? Simply put, it refers to pastors who hang around after they are no longer employed by a congregation—and meddle.
I went to look for “Main’s Folly” the other day. It’s at the back of the church property, down the old road to the back and left at the Chinaberry grove where I used to preach every Easter. Go past the rock altar and head toward the ring of stones where we cooked hot dogs back in the old days.
When award-winning documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond set out to make The Congregation, they may have imagined they were taking a respite from the hot topics of their previous films—wartime Bosnia, New York police, and homosexuality in America.
As I travel around the country visiting and consulting with congregations and clergy, I find that many are caught in vicious cycles. The vicious cycles seem more common than the virtuous ones. They are easily recognized by a chilly climate of anxiety, which these days seems to be more common than the common cold.