Category: Leadership


I realized today (actually it’s more of an emergent process than that, but today put the words on it) that within the next 10 months or so, I need to make an important decision which, although I can adjust as I go, will in all likelihood substantially bias my work for a good chunk of my life: Am I am big R or little r sociologist of religion?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my hesitancy and unwillingness to make this kind of decision; that’s why I have 4 degrees and am only now starting my PhD program and heading for two more. So what do I mean by big and little R?

A little r sociologist of religion concerns him or herself with the gradual accumulation of knowledge, the successive testing of aspects of theory using whatever data and methods are available to them. Most work in the field is of this sort, and much of it is very high quality and useful. The type of articles and books I review on my companion blog sociofaithful fall into this and can be very valuable both to people interested in the functioning of society and churches and to people with a practical interest in ministry. It is easy to collaborate with others, contribute to the growth of the discipline, and publish frequent and (hopefully) meaningful articles using this approach.

A big R sociologist of Religion, on the other hand, is as much a philosopher as a consumer of data. They are more concerned with the development of theory explaining broader phenomena and working across cultures than with the functioning of a specific cultural manifestation of religion, except insofar as it reflects larger concepts in the theory of religion. If dataheads are the pastors of the sociological academy, theorists are more like systematic theologians, trying to synthesize as much as possible to understand in broad strokes both (current and historical) reality and the sea changes that take place from time to time.

Neither approach disregards the other. Big R sociology without data is just speculation and pontification. Little r sociology without theory is devoid of content and falls closer to journalism (i.e. reporting) than knowledge creation. I love both. I can’t get enough good data to satisfy me, because it is the only way to see what’s really going on. But I can’t help but ask bigger questions than survey data analysis can answer. In the end, I will end up as either a theoretically aware quantitative dude or a statistically knowledgeable theory guy, but the two are still worlds apart.

And even though I am nearly 5 years away from the terminus of my program, the decisions start now, because there is not time to study numbers, ideas, languages, and the history of the discipline all to a level of mastery. If I spend my time studying social thought, I have less time to understand the inner workings of the statistics that are the bread and butter of sociological scholarship today. If I care enough about Japan to refresh and improve my skills in the language, what other opportunities am I missing out on? And while there is much of my life yet, Robert Frost touched reality closely in his famous poem of choosing a path:

[I] Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

Even more than that, I will be adjusting to the habit of producing certain kinds of knowledge whose processes are very different. Certainly at Penn State the natural choice would seem to be the little r; our faculty is among the best in the world at thoughtful, relevant, incremental knowledge production. But who am I? Because I am both, but the two identities are held in tension and not allowing one to grow beyond the other would stymie my ability to participate in ongoing conversations and be useful in creating new ones.

And it goes beyond personal identity to personal vocation and theology. Clearly, I have the ability to produce multiple things. My M.A. thesis is an abstract theological proposal; my undergraduate thesis is evaluative number crunching. But I have to ask, what is the role I have been given in the scheme of God’s unfolding design of creation: a (hopefully masterful) craftsman or an intellectual? In what way am I embodying my Jesus, my God in my world? In the end, the decision returns to the missional question, not in a utilitarian way that seeks to maximize some underlying value that can be quantified and tested against others, but in a contextual way that seeks to answer “What am I doing here now?” I appreciate your shared prayers and I would love to offer mine to yours also. Vocation is one of the deepest, most personal, most meaningful and contextual (and thus frustrating and exhilarating to figure out) aspects of a life of faith. Peace to you in your own call.

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The New Medical tower at Providence Hospital in Everett

Providence Medical Center in Everett (north of Seattle) recently opened an impressive new medical tower, and has been running radio spots touting its impressive emergency room and other services on my favorite news-radio station, KOMO. While I can’t locate the spots online to play for you, the gist is that they spend the first 30 seconds raving about how wonderfully accessible/high-tech/etc the tower is and then… “But without our award-winning staff it’s just a really expensive nifty fancy amazing building” or something to that effect.

While I laud both the effort to offer the highest quality of medical care and the effort to give credit to the caregivers themselves, the ad struck as less than completely true from a sociological perspective. Top specialists and surgeons provide certain skills that are invaluable in the most challenging cases, when diagnosis and treatment can be more challenging than keeping track of the policy violations or wrong decisions in an episode of House. But for the vast majority of patients, it is the culture and sociology of the organization that distinguishes a hospital more than who specifically is doing the treating.

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Jesus Washing Peter's FeetI usually elect to offer my comments on other people’s blogs either at the blog or in Facebook/Twitter streams. In this case, I need to reblog the entire post.

Here’s why: this describes one of my core goals as a sociologist of religion- to be academically responsible and provide useful understand to real practitioners. I could not have said it better except for making it specific to my own field (the author is in HIV research, not religious research).

This is servant leadership, and it is diaconally oriented in its nature- bridging two worlds and providing the “stuff” necessary to assist others without demanding to be recognized at center stage. I meant to write this; now I can just pass it on to you instead. So please, read the whole entry and comment, here or at orgtheory. I think you will find it a worthwhile investment. Thank you, and Peace.

I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on orgtheory.net. I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the chall … Read More

via orgtheory.net

With a title like this, you might think: “Nate’s gone off his rocker. All this rapture talk has turned him into a conspiracy theorist.” Judge for yourself, but I think you will find a compelling case below that we as the church, like the internet, are in danger of over-personalizing our user experience to the extent that we lose sight of both the gospel and the missio dei.

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#3 by Ilya Khoteev

My friend Pastor Dean Grier got me thinking about today’s gospel (Mt. 5:1-12, the beatitudes).

Nearly every Christian (and many who aren’t) is familiar enough with this passage they could make up a likely sounding version from their head with just the prompt “blessed are the…..”

I would be willing to hazard that only a very small portion of those have ever stopped to wonder, however, why Jesus, who is on a roll describing all kinds of unexpectedly blessed people (the meek, the mourning, the poor in spirit, etc.) suddenly switches pronouns for his final beatitude.

It’s easy to see in the English and even clearer in the Greek; “Blessed are those/the…” begins every one of Jesus statements in this section but the last. Here’s my thoughts on one reason why he might have done it. Continue reading

I am amazed at the depth and breadth of ministry discussion that happens among Christian leaders online. A recent discussion was initiated by a friend with the status “How does your church define active membership?”* If you’re in a hurry to see what I mean, click this link to the see the entire transcript of the 64 responses on Google Docs. A little discussion of my thoughts on the opening question and some of the other conundrums follows in the rest of this post.

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Here is a fascinating article (thanks to the Duke Call & Response Blog) on how one organization is changing the way nonprofits think about money. It’s purpose is to provide capital and support to move nonprofits to sustainable growth, and the results are impressive. For example, VolunteerMatch increased the value of volunteer hours they enabled, increased their budget by over 50%, and relied around 70% less on outside funding.

Churches have the same sickness as nonprofits at times: we assume that because we do good things, people should give us money to accomplish them and keep giving us that money. The more we are willing to thoughtfully approach the idea of growing our ministries and our incomes at the same time, the more effective congregations can be at ministry and the more our money can be multiplied in God’s service.

This already happens sometimes. Lutheran World Relief has offered fair trade coffee, tea, food, and crafts for congregations to sell for a number of years. Our congregation started doing this and was able to fund coffee for our fellowship hour entirely, not a small feat for Lutherans, and Seattle area Lutherans no less. At the same time, we enabled the livelihood of people in a variety of countries that produced the crafts and food, and began to better live out our rhetoric by using fair trade ourselves.

The trick is applying this kind of philosophy on a larger scale without prostituting the Church, because the Church’s mission is not able to be so concisely defined in a way that is coexistent with making money. Instead, the church exists to proclaim and love. But, organically self-supporting ministries are, I believe, a serious growth opportunity for our reach. Redeemer in Minneapolis, Minnesota offers apartments for rent specifically to high-risk tenants that other places turn down. They have gotten burned before, but because they have high (yet realistic) expectations of their tenants, they have had a positive impact both on the stability of family situations and on the long-term personal development of their tenants without taking up an undue portion of the budget.

In the same way, Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, WA is a 3-year-old church with 40-60 average attendance but is in the process of purchasing the 200-year-old mansion where we worship. The rest of the mansion houses an intentional Christian community of young adults seeking truth, each of whom pays only $300 a month in rent. But together, that rent will basically pay our mortgage, leaving the rest of the offerings for other ministry, while still offering the powerful ministry of community to those young people.

What are your stories of financially sustainable ministry? And do you have a broader vision of how a congregation might be able to comprehensively integrate their ministry to become more self-sustaining without becoming focused on money or prosperity? Please share in the comments.

The Nonprofit Financial Model Never Worked; Here’s a New Model That Does | Fast Company.

I was a little surprised yesterday when I received a Facebook message titled “Thank You!!!” from a “shirt-string friend”, someone I knew only through her membership in a local Bible literacy initiative I had been webmaster for.

I was more than a little humbled when I opened it and read that because of a paper I posted online, her life had changed and she was now training to become a pastor.

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Random ministry insight of the day: If God blogged, we would be the entries. Period.

Not static pages (like the “About” page), not the theme: we would be the blog and the blog would be us. We are not only God’s hands and feet, but God’s very image and self in creation, and his mission through that self is to bless all of creation.

Wow! The only question is, how do you read?


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Congratulations if you have decided to read this post. Having the words church and politics in the same sentence once is enough to drive most self-respecting people far away.

However, as I reflect on Northwest Washington synod assembly 2010 (an annual gathering of local ELCA Lutheran leaders to determine shared agenda/budget/representation and share about the good work going on), two things need to be said about the two words together.

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