what’s on the menu?

I’m sure all of us have had this experience.  Maybe a friend invites you to a restaurant that serves food you’re completely unfamiliar with.  Maybe it’s a Thai restaurant or a Turkish one.  You’re carefully examining the menu, reading the names of dishes you know nothing about.  Some menus are more helpful than others.  Some do a better job of listing the ingredients.  Still, food is more than its ingredients.  How is it prepared?  Who is preparing it?

1-menuAs we’re considering the MIF (Ministry Information Form), in particular the Leadership Competencies section we see a big list of terminology.  [FYI, the MIF is a Presbyterian ministry search form!]  No doubt many of them mean different things to different people.  For example, the term “Hopeful” has a lot of nuances to me.  But I need to look at the description, to read the ingredients to know what’s on the menu.  We need to know what the terms mean to the people who drew up the document, the ones who created the menu.

After all, we don’t want an allergic reaction.  We don’t want a bad taste in our mouth!

Under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” there are six qualities listed.  Under “Communication” there are five.  “Organizational Leadership” has by far the most—fifteen.  And “Interpersonal Engagement” is given seven qualities.

We have four scripture readings, and I want to use each of them to address a certain competency.  I’ll say right up front that none of these perfectly match the qualities that are listed.  No doubt, other scriptures and stories from the Bible might be better suited, but these readings, in one way or another, seemed to me to capture a particular feeling of the item in question.

The four categories I chose wouldn’t necessarily be my top priorities, but there was something about them that jumped out at me—something about them that spoke to me.  As I thought and meditated on them, a light turned on.  And so, I want to share with you this little light of mine!

In that first section, “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter,” I selected two for comment: “Hopeful” and “Lifelong Learner.”  First, there’s “Hopeful.”

Two of the descriptions really caught my eye: “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future” and “helps followers to see a way through chaos and complexity.”  As I just said, none of the scripture readings or the characters within them perfectly illustrate these ideas, but there is a certain connection.

Consider the story of Caleb in Numbers 13.

At this point in time, the Israelites, having fled Egypt in the exodus, are drawing closer to the land of Canaan.  For them, this is the promised land.  The Lord tells Moses to send out spies to do some reconnaissance.  Check out the place; see what’s going on.  See how fertile the land is.  Come back with some fruit, if you find any.

So off they go.  Upon their return, they speak in glowing terms about what they found.  It’s almost heaven on earth; it’s flowing with milk and honey.  However…

With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, the scouts have some serious reservations.  “It’s true; the land is wonderful.  We weren’t kidding.  But you didn’t see the people who live there.  I tell you, they’re giants!  Compared to them, we’re grasshoppers.  We’re bugs!

“You know, where we are isn’t so bad.  How about we leave well enough alone.  We’re not too excited about having our butts kicked!”

Hearing that, the spirit of the people sinks.  Their hopes have been dashed.  The grumbling begins.


This is where Caleb speaks up.  The scripture says that “Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it’” (v. 30).  Caleb speaks hope, and as the MIF says, he “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future.”  He presents a vision for the people “to see a way through chaos and complexity.”

He does what he can.  He lets them know “we are well able to overcome.”  The Bible just gives us that one line.  No doubt, he lays out some possibilities.  He tries to answer their questions and allay their fears.  Still, at the end of the day, it’s their choice.  He can’t force them to choose.

And it’s the same way with us.  The quality of being hopeful is the ability to present possibilities, to cut through the fog of fear and resignation.  Being hopeful in the midst of chaos means not losing one’s own head, as difficult as that might be.  It means trusting and learning from the one who gives all of us hope.

The other competency I want to address under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” is “Lifelong Learner.”

My example is from Matthew 15, Jesus in the story of the Canaanite woman.  What I’m about to suggest might rub you the wrong way.  You might think I’ve gone off the deep end.

It seems to me that a key part of the incarnation, God’s appearing in the flesh in the form of the human being Jesus, means that, like any other human, Jesus has to learn.  He has to learn about the world around him.  I don’t think there’s any real controversy about that.  But Jesus is a product of his culture, first century Judaism.  His patterns of thinking are a result of that.

Our scripture comes right after Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for insisting on unjust traditions, especially about things that defile.  He learns what aspects of his culture’s heritage, its traditions, are worthy of accepting and what is to be rejected.  It’s not something that’s learned all at once.  It takes time.

In our story, Jesus and his disciples are on the outskirts of Jewish territory.  The woman who asks healing for her daughter is a foreigner.  Notice what verse 23 says.  “But he did not answer her at all.”  She continues to plead with him.  He responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24).  Unmoved, she doesn’t relent.

Finally, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).  We need to understand that the Jews in Jesus’ culture have a very negative view of foreigners.  (Clearly, they aren’t the only ones who have felt that way!)  One of the names they call them are “dogs.”  That is not a compliment!


Jesus has breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry all his life.  I think it’s safe to say we in America have breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry.  As I said, examination of one’s own culture isn’t something that happens overnight.  It does take time.  I think it’s entirely likely that this is a lesson, a realization, which fits in that category.

As such, this is a lesson which Jesus learns.  We believe that Jesus was sinless. Misunderstanding is not the same thing as sin.  The need to be enlightened is not the same thing as sin.  It becomes sin when we refuse to learn.  It is sin when we cling to unjust ways.

I believe this woman serves to bring Jesus a new level of awareness.  Look at how the passage ends.  “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’  Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.’  And her daughter was healed instantly” (vv. 27-28).  I think that’s awesome.

Using the phrase from our MIF, Jesus is one of those “individuals who use every experience in life as a potential tool for growth.”  Jesus could ignore the woman and hold on to the foolishness his culture has taught him.  However, he sees that there is a better path, a sacred path, a holy path.  It’s a path in which we see God in everyone.

Another aspect of being a “Lifelong Learner” describes “those who build on strengths and seek assistance to improve weaknesses.”  Again, as a human being, Jesus builds on strengths and seeks help on weaknesses.  The woman provides the help Jesus needs.

Being perfect is not the same thing as being flawless.  Being perfect is being perfected.  It is being completed.  Jesus is the model of being a completed human.

The third competency I want to address is in the section, “Organizational Leadership,” and it is “Willingness to Engage Conflict.”  That sounds like a daunting one!  I think we can see in Acts 6 a good example of willingness to engage conflict, to address it head on.

Early on, as the number of disciples is increasing, the “Hellenists” (the Greek-speaking) have a complaint against the “Hebrews” (the Aramaic-speaking).  It appears that their widows are being shortchanged in the distribution of food.  This problem seems to have been a long time coming.  The relationship between the Greek speakers and the Aramaic speakers has been getting increasingly tense.

F. F. Bruce comments on this. “The tension came to a head (as tension often does) in what might appear to be a trifling matter.” But there’s more going on beneath the surface.  “The Hellenistic widows were said to be at a disadvantage in comparison with the ‘Hebrew’ widows, perhaps because the distribution of charity was in the hands of the ‘Hebrews.’”[1]  How convenient!

Word of the dispute comes to the apostles, and what do they do?  They decide to pretend that it doesn’t exist and wait for it to blow over.  Well, not exactly.  Verse 2 says “the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples.”  (They had a special congregational meeting.  Those things always run smoothly.)

They concluded, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”  That phrase “to wait on tables,” means “to keep accounts.”  So those are tables of numbers, checklists.  They aren’t tables in which somebody takes your order from those menus I talked about earlier!

As a result, the apostles have the people select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (v. 3).

All of the descriptions of “Willingness to Engage Conflict” on the MIF seem to be present in the story: steps up to conflicts, seeing them as opportunities; reads situations quickly; good at focused listening; and can identify common ground and elicit cooperation from others in crafting mutual solutions.

So, session members [a Presbyterian board of elders], we can look to Acts 6 the next time a conflict is looming!

Now, the final quality I want to look at is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important of all.  Under “Interpersonal Engagement” is “Self Differentiation.”  Again, there are plenty of ways to go with this, but 1 Corinthians 13 seems to really sum it up.

This is the chapter on love which St. Paul fits into his discussion of spiritual gifts.  This is real love, not the “warm and fuzzy stuff.”  When we know who we are, and we don’t need others to constantly validate us, then this is the love we have.  It is, to use a description from our document, an “emotionally mature” love.  Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (v. 11).

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen devised a concept of differentiation based on the biology of cells.  “When a cell becomes something specific, such as a heart cell or a muscle cell, it is said to be differentiated.  In contrast, a cell that remains nonspecific—a stem cell—is an immature cell.  Differentiation, therefore, refers to maturity.”[2]

The more we are self differentiated, the more we become ourselves.  We can “own” ourselves and our decisions.  The more we are self differentiated, the greater impulse control we exercise.  To revisit Paul, love “bears all things.”  Love “endures all things” (v. 7).  We become able to command our emotions, not to be commandeered by them.  Like Caleb, we become more hopeful, more able to see beyond the chaos and speak peace.  Love “hopes all things.”

Self differentiation means just that.  We differentiate ourselves from others.  We demonstrate “strong and appropriate personal boundaries.”  We don’t become enmeshed with others.  We have “a healthy appreciation of self, without being egotistical.”  “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way” (vv. 4-5).

Our sense of self-worth does not come from others.  The love from others, as sincere and strong as it may be, eventually does not fill the emptiness in our souls.  That explains why love can so easily turn into hate.  We put unrealistic expectations on each other.

Carolyn Pyfrom, “Now We See Through a Glass Darkly”

To sum up, this list that we go through is intended to draw a picture in what we want from a pastoral leader.  And well it should.  But pastors are also broken human beings, working to be perfect, to be perfected, to be completed.  The model for all of us is Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus is the model of hopefulness, of continuing to learn, of willing to meet conflict in courageous and loving ways, of differentiating oneself and knowing who we are.

When all is said and done, it’s a question of whose we are.  Despite whatever trials we endure, we are in the hands of God.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (v. 12).


 [1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954 (reprint 1987), 128.

[2] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, Chapter 9, section 2, paragraph 1.