Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nazarene Acres and Theology as Conversation

Last night, I attended a stop on our District Superintendent's Listening Tour. This is very similar to the Listening Tour that I conducted here for our local church last summer. Dr. Spruce is having several meetings around the district to give the pastors on the district a chance to talk to him about what we think is important for our district. Of course, it will not be surprising to any of you on this district that our campgrounds, Nazarene Acres, was the dominant topic of discussion. It has become a well documented fact that Nazarene Acres is unable to operate in the black, financially speaking. Every year a substantial amount of money is being taken out of the district's savings in order to subsidize the campground. This has worked for several years but obviously is not a fiscally responsible practice. If the campground can not be consistently budgeted for then eventually it will deplete the district's savings entirely and will put us in debt. In fact, if it were not for the sale of certain properties elsewhere on the district, we would be pretty close to that point already. Of course, the campground has also been a vitally important point in the spiritual journey of many people on this district. For many, it is where the journey started. As a result, it is difficult to think of selling the campground because of the great impact it has had on them and the potential for impact it could continue to have on others.

As this discussion continued, we were reminded that the campground is not an isolated issue. It is, in fact, only an issue at all because of the way it is bound up with the mission of district as a whole. In other words, we could decide as a district that the campground is so important that we would simply budget for all of its expenses. Of course, anyone who has worked with a budget before knows that budgeting more money for one thing automatically means budgeting less for something else. So the question of the campground is not so much a question of whether the campground is good or bad, obviously it is good. It is a question of stewardship and how we can best spend the money we have in accomplishing the mission of the district; "developing growing, multiplying, holiness churches and pastors". Does owning the campgrounds as oppossed to renting it or some other form of running a campground ministry help us accomplish our mission as a district?

I think it is questions like this one where theology really happens. Often theology is thought of as something found in dense textbooks, technical terms, and abstract ideas that have nothing to do with real life. Or perhaps we think of theology as dogma and doctrine; a list of unquestionable propositions. In fact, we probably do not think of theology as something that "happens" at all; it is more idea than event. However, I think any time the Church sits down and begins to discuss a proper course of action based on who God is and who we are as the Church, then theology is happening, even if it is about things as worldly as money and property. Of course, such discussion, in order to be truly theological, will have to go much deeper than the money and the property. Such a discussion will have to be rooted in who we believe God to be and what we believe he has called us to be, which are not easy questions themselves. It is for that reason that the textbooks and abstract ideas, the dogma and doctrine are important. They allow us to consider how the Church has sought to answer these questions of who God is and who we are throughout the ages of our existence. By studying what those before us have said, by discussing the same questions ourselves, and then facing the concrete problems that lay before us as a church or a district or a denomination, we are joining a conversation that has been going on for centuries.

As a leader, it is always tempting to assume that your ideas are the right ones and that they should be implemented with little or no discussion. I do not believe that most ministers and church leaders develop this kind of attitude because they are arrogant or close-minded (though there is no question that those things come into play occassionally). Instead, I believe it is often born out of passion for the Church and wanting to see it move forward so that we can reach out to our world in meaningful ways. However, if the leaders of the Church take this approach, if we ram our agendas and plans through to fruition, avoiding the conversations that need to take place along the way, then I believe we have failed to be the Church in some way. We will have failed because I believe that process of dialogue, those theological conversations, are often as important (sometimes more important) as the end result of a certain agenda. Of course, engaging in dialogue might mean that our plans will be rejected but I believe that it is a risk we must take if our plans are to be worth anything. We must trust that those with whom we dialogue also have the Church's best interest at heart. We must also trust that God's Holy Spirit is at work in these conversations, leading the Church just as the Spirit did at Nicea, Chalcedon, and throughout history.

We are truly fortunate on this district to have a District Superintendent who believes in the importance of dialogue and conversation. Dr. Spruce has studied the financial reality of the campground carefully and he has proposed some possible courses of action. However, he refuses to simply impose a certain course of action. Instead, he continually listens to the voices around him through things like the Listening Tour. There will also be specifically a Nazarene Acres Tour, in which pastors and lay people can join in the conversation concerning the campground. (The tour stop closest to us will be at Decatur First on May 17th at 1 p.m. for anyone who is interested.) Let it be our prayer that this will be a truly theological dialogue as we wrestle with the role of the campground within the larger mission of the district.

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