Social work and me


social work monthShe was only nineteen, apparently old enough to experience homelessness, single motherhood, domestic violence and the judicial system. As she sat quietly in my cubicle, I tried to obtain some basic information, the colors of her designer handbag echoing louder than any voice in that cold, sterile building. My task: Help her find a job before her welfare benefits expired.

He was alert and oriented, standing at the sun-baked bus stop, blue eyes squinting through a shaggy, white beard. A Vietnam veteran with a history of traumatic brain injury and chronic homelessness, he answered my questions in a polite, friendly tone. My task: Help him find housing before his next visit to an emergency room.

Ah, social work, the profession of champions.

It’s been about two years since I “left” the field to pursue a calling in pastoral ministry, but social work has never really left me. My career changed not because I disliked social work, as much as it brought me to new places. If anything, I hope to bring it wherever I go. So in honor of National Social Work Month, here’s a brief word about the impact social work has left on me.

In short, social workers get it.

Forgive my bias, but I think social workers understand the real world better than most folks. They know the good, bad and ugly of how society operates. They deal with systems that chew people up and spit them out. They have an astute grasp of the powerful influences we don’t get to choose: our family history, culture, privilege, opportunity, discrimination, and access to resources, just to name a few. Ask any social worker, and they will tell you about the underlying causes of poverty, addiction, delinquency, violence, racism, homelessness and inequality. They are society’s unheralded custodians, cleaning up social messes made by others.

You would think all this would make social workers a cynical bunch, but they’re actually some of the most positive human beings I’ve ever worked with. They don’t just chatter about what’s wrong with the world, but demonstrate what can be done about it, step by daily step. Social workers ask the right questions, listening for untold stories. They link people with resources, advocating for our most vulnerable citizens. In the face of relentless bureaucracy, paperwork, politicking, program changes and budget cuts, social workers will stop at nothing to make a human connection, bringing hope and dignity to those our society has given up on.

Without social workers, we would see more people wandering the streets with untreated mental health issues, more children victimized in abusive homes, and more veterans committing suicide. There would be more people utilizing costly inpatient medical services instead of appropriate community-based care options. Without social workers, a greater burden would fall upon our schools, police, hospitals, prisons, employers and churches to pick up the pieces when someone’s life falls apart. By simply doing what they love to do, social workers help the rest of us flourish.

At its best, social work is about making connections and building bridges, not unlike the task of a pastor. It’s not about having a bleeding heart as much as dirty hands working to make a difference. It’s about entering deeply enough into someone’s life to understand their perspective and guide them forward, beginning at noisy bus stops and in frigid cubicles. 

So go ahead, thank a social worker today.


Book review: Creating a Missional Culture


Creating a Missional CultureWho has time to read every new book with the word “missional” in its title?

Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of how this buzzword gets used, whether to baptize PR strategies aimed at boosting Christianity’s poll numbers or to unveil ecclesiological secrets promising to revolutionize the face of ministry as we know it. Protests of market-driven megachurches and program-driven pragmatism may still have their place—complete with nifty charts contrasting specific straw man A with nebulous ideal B—but many of these critiques spend more energy deconstructing dystopias than supplying a sustainable way forward.

In other words, I don’t buy into all things declared “missional.”

But this book is a gem.

With its unique blend of realism, optimism, practical how-to and theological why-to, JR Woodward’s Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) integrates the very best of recent contributions on mission and culture into a compelling vision of the local church equipped for the world’s sake. This is not another how-to-replicate-my-results-in-your-church book. Nor is it another predictably peevish protest of church caricatures. On the contrary, JR (who follows me on Twitter so I can call him JR, right?) has served up a delectable feast of multi-layered insights gleaned from his years as a church planter and ministry practitioner.

In Part 1, JR defines key terms and details the power of culture dynamics, both in society at large and within the local church. Synthesizing influential thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Jamie Smith, Tim Keller and Andy Crouch, JR describes six elements of the “cultural web” (language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, ethics) as well as five kinds of environments needed for the creation of missional culture (learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, thriving). Citing Suzanne Morse, he introduces the concept of “polycentric leadership,” first as an outworking of Ephesians 4, then as an alternative to both centralized and flat leadership structures.

Part 2 looks at how shifts in media, philosophy, science and religion provoke a shift toward polycentric leadership. JR contends these shifts have “highlighted the vulnerabilities of a hierarchical leadership structure” and therefore, “shared leadership engenders greater trust in those who are cynical to truth and power.” (p. 76) Asserting that structures are theological statements, he proposes that “the church ought to be led by a Spirit-gifted polycentric team of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who model and equip their fellow priests in the communal way of life patterned after our triune God.” (p.92) JR further submits that polycentric leadership can be good for one’s emotional health, enhancing the pursuit of wholeness and interdependence in community.

Part 3 forms the book’s core, providing a detailed look at each of the five-fold equippers, rooted in an understanding of Jesus himself as the ultimate culture creator who was concurrently the archetypical apostle (dream awakener), prophet (heart revealer), evangelist (story teller), pastor (soul healer) and teacher (light giver). Employing a mix of ministry anecdotes and vivid examples, JR’s chapter-length portrayals of each role are where the book shines brightest. The chapters on five-fold ministry close with reflection questions to help readers discern which equipper they are. While reading these winsome depictions blending freshness and familiarity, I often found myself thinking, “I’ve never thought about it that way, but it totally makes sense.”

In Part 4, the book concludes with practical implications for embodying a missional culture in one’s particular context. Recalling the cultural web’s six elements introduced in Part 1, JR suggests ways to apply core practices and liturgies to the rhythms of a neighborhood church. Using Jamie Smith’s notion of “thick, bodily practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires,” (p. 188) JR advises specific practices corresponding to each of the five equippers, such as solitude for prophets and confession for pastors. The final chapters offer further specifics on possible strategies for multiplying disciples, commissioning equippers and implementing polycentric leadership.

Tightly written with thoughtful eloquence, this is not just another book with a trendy title. Creating a Missional Culture is a gold mine for anyone desiring to see Christians flourish in their giftings. If you are new to the missional conversation (or skeptical of its veracity), here is an outstanding primer on the local church’s role in God’s redemptive purposes. If you are steeped in the latest church-planting lingo, this book will spur imaginative reflection on the possibilities of polycentric leadership. Thanks to its accessible, yet expansive theological vision loaded with practical wisdom, I suspect this will become an essential text for ministry practitioners of diverse backgrounds, especially those with an affinity for Newbigin’s thought.

[Also: A free online five-fold equipper assessment can be found at JR’s website.]

2012 in Stringerland


fireworksAs I write this, our boys sleep peacefully undisturbed (so far) by the sound of neighborhood fireworks heralding 2013’s arrival. Much has happened in Stringerland in the past 365 days since last New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the question is not, what has changed? but what hasn’t?

For starters, there is a new person in our family. On November 23 we welcomed Andre Wing Yee Stringer, whose middle name means “eternal virtue.” Andre’s cuddly 22-inch presence makes him an unrivaled celebrity whose birth eclipses all other family news for the year. But plenty of transitions were underway even before Andre made his grand entrance.

2012 saw a new school for our kindergartener Theo, a new job for Rebecca, a new job for myself and a new church family for all of us. After 7 years in social services with intermittent roles in bi-vocational ministry, I began my first full-time pastoral ministry position in September. We shifted gears from an older, mainline congregation in a high church tradition to a larger evangelical congregation full of families and children. I went from a federal job in social (but still spiritual) work to a local church position in spiritual (but still social) work. My paychecks no longer come from your taxes; they now come from your tithes!

2012 was also a year of new discoveries and learning experiences for me personally. I visited 7 churches in 9 days, attended a lecture by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and completed 4 seminary courses in through Fuller online (Pentateuch, Christian Ethics, OT Writings, Systematic Theology). I also discovered something they call tweeting in June and haven’t looked back. After much deliberation and apprehension, I took the plunge on my first ever smartphone—and love it!

Other wonderful things I discovered in 2012 included the joy of swimming beneath Waimea Falls, the taste of souvlaki, the voice of Paula Fuga, the songwriting of Marty Haugen, the theological mind of Wolfhart Pannenberg, the practice of Election Day Communion, the Ecclesia Leadership podcast, and some show called The Wire. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that my favorite baseball team won the World Series.

If 2010 was a year of searing loss and 2011 was dominated by grief, 2012 was a year of fresh beginnings. It’s not that we’ve finished grieving or that new experiences necessarily equal better ones. But it does mean we’re still growing, still trying, still kicking. Maybe all my dreams didn’t die with Vincent.

Maybe God’s hope has surrounded us all along.

On turning 30


Welcome to the new site! Glad you found it.

Having internally debated a switch over to WordPress for quite some time now, I figured my 30th birthday would be an auspicious occasion to finally take the plunge. So here I am, blogging on mon anniversaire.

It’s always a jolt when your odometer clicks over into a new decade. Far more than just another candle on the (cup)cake, there’s a behemothic difference between 29 and 30. Gargantuan. Jumbo. Now halfway to 60, I’m closer to 40 and further from 20 with each passing day. Resistance is futile so I might as well just say it: I’ll never again be in my twenties. Kleenex please.

Not that I’m opposed to settling down, assuming I had a career/job/education worth settling on. Coming off a season of church ministry burnout when I began grad school in social work over 2 years ago, I seriously thought I had found my calling. After all, social workers advocate for vulnerable populations (check), help a diverse array of people overcome obstacles (check), work for the common good (check) and represent a growing occupational field (check). Turns out I wasn’t too far off, except that I underestimated my passion for theology, preaching and the good old-fashioned challenge of tending sheep. It was enough to lure me out of my comfortable, but passionless government cubicle and back into bi-vocational ministry (again).

And that’s when the cancer struck our littlest boy.

Tumors, chemo, feeding tubes, morphine and the whole bit. Rebecca has faithfully documented the ensuing medical, emotional and spiritual roller coaster far better than I ever could, but suffice it to say that my once-sophisticated flurry of balancing grad school, vocational discernment and seminary plans has given way to the most visceral of human basics: fighting to preserve your child’s life. Like good evangelicals, we’ve prayed our eyes out and leaned on the church. Vincent’s on every prayer list I can think of and the outpouring of support has helped us stay afloat. We even flew him up to Bethel Church last month to soak in more healing prayer than you could shake a stick at.

Things aren’t looking too good these days, but we’re still ready for a miracle. For those who are wondering, I’ve stopped questioning God on this as if it was primarily a test of my beliefs. My theology is actually in much better shape than my kid. Abandoning Jesus, the suffering servant who died for his enemies, always creates far more problems than it ever solves. However things turn out, I’m sure the Holy Trinity will still be around. As will the church universal and the timeless words of Scripture. Even my beloved bookshelf laden with theological tomes will still echo (some) wisdom.

No, I’m not concerned about losing my faith, I’m just deathly afraid of losing my son. He just got here 17 months ago. And I want to see him turn 30 someday.

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