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Why Conflict Is Good For Us

As a teenager, I always loved a good fight. I got a huge adrenaline rush from hashing out Very Important Issues with peers and elders alike. More importantly, I believed that having honest, open, and sometimes brutal discussion was the way to find the truth. My preference for direct speech was near-absolute, even when it alienated and hurt others. I could not understand why most people were not eager to have these kinds of conversations, why they shied away from open conflict in the pursuit of truth. Fact was, I judged most people pretty harshly for their lukewarmth and refusal to face interpersonal conflict.

I have grown a lot in the last decade. I’ve learned that my penchant for directness can be off-putting, even terrifying for a lot people. I’ve reflected on the ways that my personal intensity can damage relationships, and I’ve toned it down. As surprising as it may seem to many people who haven’t known me that long, the Micah you have come to know and love is a truly mellow creature compared to ten or fifteen years ago. I’ve come a long way in developing that filter between thinking something and saying something. I’ve gotten a lot more gentle.

And – surprise, surprise! – I have a lot more friends now. Turns out, people are more likely to want to spend time with you when you’re not constantly calling them out on their failings and inconsistencies. It also turns out that my need to speak truth to power all the time had at least as much to do with my own brokenness as it did with anyone or anything I happened to be critiquing at the time.

In my late twenties, I chilled out a little bit; I stepped back and took it easier on others – and myself. Taking the log out of my own eye has been good for my soul. I’m a much less furious, judgmental person than I used to be. With God’s help, I hope to be healed and humbled even more.

Years in the Quaker community have taught me many ways to communicate indirectly, rather than my natural style of full-frontal truth-telling. I have learned that, quite often, it is appropriate for me to take a step back and moderate myself so that I do not frighten people with my personal intensity.

Often, this less-direct way of communicating has worked out very well. I resolved many disputes without leaving anyone feeling attacked or judged. Yet, there were times that I over-corrected; I sometimes even found myself veering into passive aggression. At other times, in order to avoid stepping on others’ toes, I failed to engage in healthy leadership that would benefit the community. As hard as it was to believe, given my adolescent disposition, I was becoming increasingly conflict-avoidant!

Why? I had a lot of reasons. To begin with, my experiences in several Quaker communities had taught me that being too assertive was dangerous, and that I could get more done through passive influence than direct argument. The Quakers I was hanging around with put a great value on being nice and conforming to a general image of harmony. I had to learn how to make change without directly, openly challenging the status quo.

Perhaps a better reason for avoiding conflict has been that as I have grown to love other people more, I am more sensitive to the fact that conflict can be painful. Why upset my friends if I don’t have to? Even worse, conflict has the potential to severely disrupt our relationships. When conflict and disagreement make the atmosphere of our community uncomfortable, it is very common for people to simply leave rather than face that discomfort. I have been a part of many small, fragile groups, and I haven’t wanted to unleash a dispute that would destroy the whole community!

Despite all of the risks involved, though, I am increasingly convinced that healthy conflict is an essential ingredient to growing, vibrant relationships. Without open discussion, disagreement and ruffled feathers, it is very difficult for us to be broken open and made tender to how God is calling us to live together. As immature as I was, I think that my teenage self was basically right about at least one thing: Conflict is a matter of truth, and when we refuse to engage openly in honest disagreement, we risk losing the ability to face reality together.

This is my challenge going forward, and I offer it as a challenge for all of us who desire to live in loving communities that are rooted in the truth: How can I embrace those times when I find myself at odds with others, welcoming conflict as an opportunity to speak the truth in love and listen deeply to where the Holy Spirit is leading us together? What would it look like to release my own need for control and safety so that Christ-in-me can come to live and reign in our midst? How can I invite Jesus to take risks through me, in spite of me, engaging the difficult conversations with the healing and uniting power of God?

Unleashing Our Spiritual Gifts – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #54

Dear friends,

This past month has been very full! I’ve visited friends in Philadelphia, and family and friends in Kansas, on top of my usual work routine. I have also felt called into an increasingly intense schedule of visitation with individuals and families here in the DC area. I have often been tired lately, but I feel great joy in the work, and I have a sense that I am generally on the right track.

Early in May, we got a visit from Hoot Williams, a fellow minister who is helping to organize a new community of disciples in Philadelphia, as a part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I was very glad that Hoot was able to get a first hand look at what we are up to here in DC, and his visit encouraged me to think more about when I might get the chance to visit friends of Jesus in Philadelphia again.

I got my chance later in the month, when I was able to attend an evening worship event held by the emerging group in Philadelphia. I was deeply impressed by the faith and dedication of those who helped to organize the event, and I felt that we in DC had plenty to learn from their efforts. I was particularly pleased with the way that friends there seem to be gathering local leadership that is responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The group in Philadelphia looks somewhat different from Capitol Hill Friends, which I see as an indicator of good health! Different soils are suited to different kinds of growth, and it is a mark of faithfulness when we respond to the possibilities of the soil where we are planted.

Here in DC, things are proceeding along steadily. We are nearing the end of our third six-week cycle, which has been focused on the Gospel of Luke. In particular, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ counter-cultural Jubilee message, which challenges our ordinary relationship with money, status and power. Instead of seeking to be the greatest, the richest, the strongest, we are invited into a life of humble service – even laying down our lives for others! Rather than looking up to those who are considered most successful in our society – presidents, CEOs and billionaires – we are instead directed to focus our attention on the ravens and the lilies, who depend on God for all their needs.

We at Capitol Hill Friends are very much like a wild flower, growing in the diverse field of the Washington metro area. All around us are the weeds of greed, lust for power, distractions and workaholism; nevertheless, as we sink our roots deeper into this good earth, and lift our faces higher towards the sun, Christ is giving us the light we need to grow. We are learning how to develop as his disciples as we keep our focus on him and the blessings he wants to pour out on our city.

This spring, I have been focusing my attention on nurturing relationships, with a particular eye for unlocking the spiritual gifts of each individual. There sure are some magnificent gifts in this group that has begun to gather on Capitol Hill. We have teachers and prayer warriors, evangelists and healers, administrators and prophets. God has poured out the Spirit abundantly on this little band!

Increasingly, I am coming to understand that my role is something like a hybrid between a pastor and a community organizer. Like a pastor, I feel a sense of responsibility for the spiritual health and well-being of this fellowship. I try to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks, and to nurture an environment where everyone can have access to genuine community centered in a living engagement with the risen Jesus.

There is definitely a pastoral aspect to my ministry, but I feel even more affinity with the role of community organizer. I sense that my primary mission is not to be the one leader who does everything; instead, I feel called to play midwife to an expanding team of leaders, all of us operating in our spiritual gifts. I want to see the teachers begin to teach; pastors to nurture; evangelists to spread the word; prophets to unveil the truth; and apostles to break new ground for the gospel! When I look at my brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Friends, I see people whom God has given a startling array of gifts. I see a community of disciples whom Jesus is inviting into lives of deeper faithfulness, joy and peace.

How can I facilitate the unleashing of these gifts? How can I help to start a chain reaction of disciples who in turn make disciples? Despite spending years in seminary and attending Quaker gatherings of all kinds, I have to confess that the dynamics of leadership and discipleship are still a bit of a mystery to me. What does it take to empower others to step into their spiritual gifts, using them to build up the body of Christ and bless the world?
I know one thing for sure: I don’t have what it takes to do this on my own. The more I observe the gifts that God has poured out on others in our community, the more I realize how limited my own abilities are. There are some things that I’m really good at and passionate about; but most things, I’m not. In my experience, there has been nothing like planting a church to teach me that I am not self-sufficient. I can’t do much of anything alone. If I am unwilling to rely on my friends, I’ll fall flat on my face!

I am grateful to be able to lean on you, my spiritual family, as I seek to be faithful in the work that Christ has given me. Your prayers and support are indispensable! For the coming month, here are a few ways you could focus your prayers:

  • On June 15th, Capitol Hill Friends will be gathering for a day-long retreat to do discernment around our sense of mission and vision. We hope that this retreat will clarify our focus and set our general direction for some time to come. Please pray that God bless our time together, granting us a clear sense of direction and shared purpose together as we look for ways to be his hands and feet in the world.
  • Pray that God would raise up new leaders, according to each one’s particular gifts.
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit open the way for multiplication of new groups meeting in different parts of the city, so that we can grow in numbers and depth, and become more accessible to seekers across the metro area.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales

Leaders: Can We Grow Our Own?

As a new Quaker, whenever I had a question about my faith, more experienced Friends at my Meeting would recommend a book or pamphlet I should read. I was inspired by stories about the profound awakenings and prophetic ministry of my spiritual ancestors, and over time I came to trust my sense of spiritual intuition, developing an increasingly deep relationship with God. I grew a lot just by waiting in the silence and listening for the inward voice of the Spirit.

Yet at the same time, I felt something was missing. There was this yearning that could not be filled by pamphlets, nor even the weekly training of silent worship. What could answer this aching need to lead a life of faithfulness like the ones I read about? What did I have to do to live in the light, life and power that I saw glimmers of in worship?

For many years, I sought this something more outside of my local community. I traveled to an international Quaker gathering and visited a wide variety of Yearly Meetings and Quaker conferences. I even organized some of them. Not to mention that I spent several years away from my Meeting, studying at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

I benefited immensely from these experiences. The opportunity to attend seminary, in particular, was a transformational undertaking. With each Friends gathering I attended, I felt that I was rediscovering and integrating a bit more of the living tradition of Quakerism that is scattered across our communities in North America. In many ways, the only way to get the kind of training I needed was to leave my local community.

I know that there must be many folks who became Quakers and developed into fully-grown leaders without needing to spend much time away from their local church. Nevertheless, it is my observation that many of the outstanding Quaker ministers today have felt it necessary to spend a huge amount of time moving around in seminary-like environments – whether literally at a seminary, in programs like School of the Spirit, or at gatherings, consultations and conferences. For most of us – my 20-something self included – the local church environment is experienced as being inadequate for preparing and equipping new leaders for the work that God is calling them to.

This is new. For most of our history, Friends have trained up our leaders within the local church. It was generally only once a minister was already well-prepared that she was encouraged to venture beyond her home Meeting. In contrast to those Christian communities that called seminary-trained pastors from beyond the local congregation, Friends have traditionally expected that the gifts a community needed would arise within that community. Our leaders have been home-grown, raised up from the grassroots.

Today, this may not be realistic for many of our congregations. The Quaker community faces immense cultural and demographic challenges, and many local groups may no longer have the internal resources to cultivate their own leaders. In my personal case, I do believe that going to seminary and traveling widely among Friends was probably the best way for me to get the education I needed to learn what our tradition is really about. I am thankful that these resources were available for me.

But should my path be the norm? Should our most passionate, inspired new leaders feel like the only way for them to grow is to leave the local community? Might there be a way that our local communities could provide a path for leadership development, spiritual gift assessment, and discernment around how Jesus is calling us to become living members of his body, right where we are? What if sending one of our leaders to seminary was seen as a culmination of a process of local development? What if our seminarians were expected to come back prepared to equip others with the education they received?

Could our local fellowships become places where the gifts that God plants find water and encouragement to grow?


Pastor? Community Organizer!

As long as I have been a Christian, I have been skeptical of the pastoral system. Though I am not critical of pastors themselves, I do have a fair amount of discomfort with the idea that one person should be singled out as “the minister,” with the rest of the church relegated to support roles. You could say that I am especially committed to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, the responsibility that each one of us has for living as disciples of Jesus.

Though there are certainly dangers in the single-pastor model, I have also observed that when leadership is everyone’s job, it often becomes no one’s job. In my experience, a lack of explicitly recognized leadership can be a mask for hidden and informal structures that, when dysfunctional, cannot be questioned. It is extremely difficult to critique faulty leadership in a community that does not admit to having leaders! I have been part of communities where the refusal or inability to recognize and empower Spirit-led leadership has resulted in conflict, dysfunction and stagnation.

In spite of the risks that I see in the traditional pastoral model, I cannot deny the advantages of designating particular individuals as leaders within the community. At the same time, the single-pastor pattern of many churches just does not seem to work very well in our present situation, if it ever did. The work of the church is simply too great a burden for any one person to carry.

I am increasingly convinced that we need a way forward that is trapped neither in the informal power structures that can suffocate and stagnate our communities, nor in a pastoral system in which all responsibility and decision-making is vested in one person. What might an alternative model look like?

What if we expanded the idea of what it means to be a pastor? In your typical Christian community, it is often expected that perhaps one person out of 100 will be a pastor. What would happen if we expected that number to be more like one in 10?

This is the basic idea of the cell church model that Capitol Hill Friends is experimenting with. Each small group has a leader who functions as a pastor for the 6-12 people in that group, working alongside an apprentice leader and another person designated as the group’s host. The small group leader’s main jobs are to care for the members of the group, encourage each person to develop their spiritual gifts, and to provide mentoring and training to an apprentice leader, who is preparing to become a leader of her own small group.

Operating under this sort of cell church model, a church of 100 people should have 10 pastors, 10 pastors in training, and 10 people who take responsibility for coordinating logistics. Of course, you may ask, what about the other 70 people? Are they just spectators?

No way! Consider the power of having 30% of our community consistently focusing their attention on identifying, encouraging and releasing the spiritual gifts of each individual under their care. With this encouragement, we can expect to see the development of a variety of gifts – evangelism, prayer, practical helps, administration, teaching, music and prophetic (justice-oriented) ministry, among others. In this model, the role of the leaders, apprentice leaders and hosts is primarily to equip the whole community to operate in their gifts, each one carrying out a particular function as God directs.

In effect, the small group leaders take on the role of community organizers. Their job is to help the whole congregation to discover how to work all by itself under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Rather than expecting a single pastor to take all the initiative, the leaders of each small group encourage every individual to find her place in the body. In this way, small group leaders help to create an environment where truly congregation-led leadership can happen.

What has been your own experience? Has your community operated more in a single-leader model, an informal leadership style, or perhaps in some other model? Have you noticed what gives some communities healthier leadership dynamics than others? What patterns do you see? How would you like to see our communities handle leadership going forward?

Pope Francis: A Social Justice Pope?

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that we are observing a pivotal moment in church history. Benedict has self-consciously acted as a transitional pope, living to see his own successor. And for the last few weeks I and millions of others have wondered: Where does this transition lead?
That is still an open question, but the answer began to take shape yesterday when the assembled cardinals emerged to announce,habemus papam. The newest pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

The new pontiff is a groundbreaking figure. He is the first pope from the New World, and the first in a millennium to be born outside of Europe. He is also the first man from the Jesuit order to be elected to the papacy. Finally, he is one of the few popes in recent centuries to take a totally new name:Francis.

This name captures my attention the most. Bergoglio is a deeply conservative leader, doctrinally speaking. He has stood resolutely against any liberalization of abortion laws in his native Argentina, and he has spoken out against gay relationships. As a cardinal appointed by Pope John Paul II, none of this is very surprising. Neither John Paul nor Benedict were in the habit of appointing progressive cardinals.

What is intriguing is that Bergoglio has a reputation for being concerned with social justice. The journalistic coverage so far has told a story of a cardinal who has forgone many of the privileges associated with his rank in the church hierarchy. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly chose a modest apartment rather than the palatial quarters to which he was entitled. It is said that he cooks for himself, though it is normal for a man of his station to have a private chef. Rather than taking a chauffeured car, it is said that he regularly rides public transport.

And he has chosen the name Francis, naming himself after a man who embraced total poverty, living in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and outcast; a man who sought a fraternal relationship with all of creation and, it is said, bore the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion in his own body. This is a startlingly radical name for a pope!

At this stage, it is hard to know what, precisely this name might signal. Does Bergoglio aspire to lead his church into an imitation of Francis’ radical poverty and submission to Christ’s suffering? Is the new pope as concerned with communion and care for the creation as Francis of Assisi? Could Pope Francis be a pivotal figure in the history of the Church, helping to guide the Church to an understanding of our faith that is more deeply rooted in dedication to social and environmental justice?

The very fact that Bergoglio is doctrinally conservative could make him the right man to lead this transition. In this deeply divided age, liberals are not expected to care about personal morality and conservatives are not expected to concern themselves with social justice and environmental stewardship. But what if this pope has the courage and faith to embrace both concerns at once? What a powerful leader he might be!

As Pope Francis ascends to the papacy, I dare to hope for a man who will unite many of the warring tendencies within the Roman Catholic Church. I pray for a man who can, with humility, tenderness and love, uphold the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life, the obscenity of war and the importance of personal holiness. At the same time, I dare to dream that this pope might also use all of the power and influence at his disposal to make the Church a prophetic voice in an age of global empire, standing firm against the powers of economic injustice, militarism and environmental destruction.

So much remains to be seen, and I am aware that in a year’s time I may look back at this blog post and grimace. But for the time being, it feels right to nurture hope. I will pray for this new pope, that he will live up to his namesake and bear the marks of Christ’s suffering poor in his body. And I will pray that we will have the courage to join him in bearing that burden.

Settling Down and Growing – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #51

Dear friends in Truth,

The daylight hours are getting longer, and I am beginning to feel hopeful that spring is on its way. Though the days are still mostly very cold, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation as the earth begins to wake up. This pairs nicely with the joy and hopefulness that I feel in the rhythms of my own life and in our community here in the DC area. As the weeks pass and the days grow steadily brighter, my experience of work, ministry and life in community are all deepening and becoming more vibrant.

New life is already blooming at Capitol Hill Friends. This Sunday, we gathered for the 5th session of our 6-week small group series. We have averaged about 14 participants at our meetings, out of 17 individuals who have been regularly involved. Pretty good for a small group that envisions itself as being a community of 6-12!

The spiritual depth and sincere seeking we have experienced together has been life-giving. We are learning how to pray together and read the Bible in ways that speak directly to our lives as residents of one of the world’s most powerful and high-pressure cities. We are learning to laugh together, to let down our guard and really see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As one who is sometimes overly serious, this ability to laugh and be silly together has been very powerful for me.

Serving as small group leader for this first six-week series has been a rich experience. I have grown so much through working with my apprentice each week to prepare for the meeting, and my prayer life has deepened as I have become more intentional about lifting up each person in our community. With each week that passes, I feel more knit into the new community that is forming here, and I am heartened to see signs that others are feeling similarly drawn into this new life.

More than ever, I am feeling called to stability and rootedness in place. In previous years, I traveled extensively and got involved in events and communities around the country, and even beyond. Though in recent years I have felt a growing longing to settle down and focus in my home region, I have continually felt called elsewhere – whether to activities in the Ohio Yearly Meeting community, other ministerial travels or visits to family and friends in Ohio and Kansas. Whether I liked it or not, for many years I felt compelled to be away from home much of the time.

This year feels different. In the last two months, I have only left the DC area a couple of times, and both of these trips were to visit friends in Virginia. No grand mission, just nurturing relationships.

As I look ahead, I feel called to stay put. There are places I would like to go and people I long to see. There is so much important work to be done out in the wider world. But now, more than ever, I am feeling like a shepherd, or a gardener, tending this little flock, this little garden. I need to be here, with my people. I need to get to know my city better, to care for my friends, to make myself ever more available to my neighbors in a city where busyness is a status symbol and a spacious life is almost unheard of.

Ironically, as I seek to promote this spaciousness in the life of my community, I am probably busier than I have ever been. There is so much to be done, and I am increasingly aware of the limits of my energy. But this, too, I see as part of God’s revelation to me. Christ is teaching me to recognize those things that are most essential, and he is calling me to release everything else. I must let go of anything that is not central to God’s purpose for me, no matter how worthy and beneficial it may seem. It is so easy to drown in good things.

The call is becoming increasingly clear and simple: Care for the community, nurture and equip new leaders, pray for my brothers and sisters, seek justice and the well-being of my city. It is not complicated at all, but I have never felt so challenged.

Thank you for your prayers for me and for the work we are engaged in here in DC. All of the love and prayer that you are directing towards us is having a big impact. In the month ahead, please pray that our community here will continue to be built up – in numbers, in spiritual depth, and in healthy community that empowers us to be God’s people in the midst of Empire.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah Bales

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: What Does It Mean?

I could not quite believe my eyes this morning when a New York Times alert flashed across my phone: “Pope Benedict Resigns.” This is probably the biggest single news item in the worldwide Christian Church in my lifetime. The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion of my brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic community is doing something that has no real precedent. While it is true that there was a pope who resigned back in 1415, that resignation came amidst one of the greatest scandals in Church history, with three different popes vying for control!

This resignation is clearly different. Though Benedict has certainly been a controversial pope, presiding over an increasingly firm turn to the theological right, he has not been personally embroiled in scandal to the same degree. Certainly nothing that would indicate that he should resign from an office that until now has essentially been considered unresignable.
And yet, here we are. Benedict has announced his retirement from the papacy on the basis of his advanced age and his own personal judgment that he is no longer able to fulfill the role of spiritual fatherto the Roman Catholic community. Declaring his retirement date as 28 February, 2013, Benedict is giving a little more than two weeks notice. Assemble the cardinals: It is time to select a new pope!

I am sure that there will be a great variety of reactions to Benedict’s resignation. Some – especially among the Roman Catholic community’s progressive wing – will cheer. Some will be appalled, and many others will be confused. I understand all of these reactions, but I have a different one. I feel awed and grateful.

In this unexpected act, I feel like I am catching a glimpse – perhaps for the first time – into the real character of this pope. This is a spiritual leader who has the humility to set aside his official authority and admit that he no longer has the strength or the divine calling to serve as the apostolic guardian of more than a billion souls. That takes some guts!

I cannot see into Benedict’s heart, and I am in no position to judge him. Nevertheless, I must say that I am deeply impressed by this act. It inspires me to be more willing to reevaluate my own spiritual gifts and sense of divine calling. Benedict’s resignation reminds me that I must be open to laying aside even the most importantwork that I do in order to be faithful to the One who calls me. By laying down the splendor, power and authority of the papacy, Benedict challenges me to follow his example, releasing my own privileges and reputation in order to become a more faithful, loving servant to the whole body of Christ.

In this one decision, Benedict reveals himself to be truly apostolic. As he lays down all his worldly crowns and honors at the feet of Jesus, he can say with integrity, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.“-

For another Quaker’s reaction to Benedict’s announcement, check out Dan Randazzo’s blog, A Closeted Radical.