March 14, 2012
Pastors should be more focused on observing the culture than engaging it.
So what is the solution to the captivity of ministry leaders to business models?
I've got a theory: to the extent that the church does not know its Bible, really know the Bible, the more it seeks distraction in terms of participating in other ministries and making junkets to ministry conferences.
We truly neglect the reading of God's Word today. We give it lip service, beginning with pastors. But I have heard too many pastors who obviously know more about Seth Godin's Purple Cow than know about historical-critical interpretation of the Bible.
And I've got a very simple suggestion. Pastors should preach through the book of Galatians and read the epistle in its entirety every day in the process. Encourage your congregation to do the same. Luther called Galatians the Magna Carta of Christianity. If we committed ourselves to that, we probably wouldn't need most of these ministry conferences. Let me add, no church should ever send any pastor to any conference if they have not first read Luther's commentary on Galatians.
How is ministry a different calling than leadership in other areas?
"Ministry" in the church should not be singled out as distinct from other vocations in terms of being ministry. I'll tell you who and what is very helpful here: Os Guinness and his book, The Call. We do a great disservice when we treat those who do not hold positions in the church as somehow not equally called to ministry. We set up a false sense of guilt. Worse, we end up with some of the most unqualified men in the pulpit.
I'm working on a book, in part, about vocation and how Christians should relate to the world. Who has influenced your thinking on that issue?
Again, I find Os Guinness so helpful here. As he puts it, calling means "Do what you are" not "You are what you do." And I've always held as a conviction what I heard James Boice preach during my college days at Penn: Labor where God has placed you. How should one relate to the world? Don't develop grandiose schemes for greatness, just labor where God has placed you. Don't do some rain dance; dig some ditches.
And how should pastors think differently about the culture?
Why, oh why, do they have this need to "engage the culture"? The culture ain't interested back. Now, I think pastors and elders, and deacons, and all church members should seek to understand culture. I teach a course in cultural hermeneutics at Westminster Seminary California. Here’s what I tell my students: Invest the minimal amount of effort for the maximum amount of understanding so that you can know the cultural norms in which your congregants are situated.
Some simple suggestions: Read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and your local newspaper daily; these are wonderful filters for what is happening of significance. Channel surf TV once a week on different nights of the week, with your spouse, so you know what others are watching. Read movie reviews more than you actually watch movies. Movies, while the dominant medium of our time, are an enormous waste of time. Visit the magazine rack once a month; take note of the headline topics, and look especially for premier issues of new publications. Walk the mall. Watch what people wear, and notice what they do. If you look closely, you'll find it quite easy to engage culture simply by calling attention to what you observe. Jesus had this skill of observation. Seek likewise to look, really look, for yourself. I think just noticing what others miss as they walk by, head buried in a screen, goes a long way in this regard.
March 12, 2012
A business expert warns pastors not to emulate marketplace principles.
I first discovered Jim Gilmore when his book, The Experience Economy, was handed to me by a nationally known church consultant in 2002. If I wanted my church to grow, he explained, I had to employ the marketplace strategies in Gilmore's book. Years later I wrote about my encounter with the church consultant in my first book, The Divine Commodity, and how I believed his advice was misguided. I specifically mentioned the danger of applying Gilmore's book to the church. A few months later my phone rang. It was Jim Gilmore calling to thank me. That was the start of our friendship.
Jim's bio will fill you in on his business chops and publishing accolades, but he's best described as a "professional observer." And his skills are highly sought after by companies and universities. When I'm curious about a random topic, an email to Jim will include a reply with five must-read books on the subject. He seems to know something about everything! He's also the only person I know who teaches at a business school, seminary, and architecture program. As I continue my research for my next book, I spoke with Jim about the current state of the church and how Christians should think about engaging the world.
Skye: You spend a lot of time in the gap between the business world and the ministry world. Why do you find this space so important?
Jim Gilmore: Because business is the most corrupting influence on the visible church today. I only became fascinated with this space when I learned of so many pastors reading our book, The Experience Economy. I would normally have been delighted to have readership emerge in any pocket of the population, except the book was not being read to obtain a better understanding of the commercial culture in which congregants live, but in many cases as a primer for "doing church." I found it particularly troubling when our models for staging experiences in the world were being specifically applied to worship practices.
The talk of "multi-sensory worship," the installation of video screens, the use of PowerPoint, having cup-holders in sanctuaries -- and I'm not talking about for the placement of communion cups -- and even more ridiculous applications really took me back. I even read of a pastor who performed a high-wire act, literally--above his congregation. All of this effort to enhance the so-called "worship experience" arose at the same time that I detected a decline in the number of preachers actually faithfully preaching the gospel through sound exposition of the scriptural text.
Why do you think it’s so dangerous to use what's effective in the marketplace in the church?
The church is to stand apart from the marketplace. The church is not a business; she should sell no economic offerings. In an age when more and more of life is being commodified -- we are going beyond just the buying and selling of goods and services and now charging for life experiences and personal transformations -- the church needs to refrain from participating in this activity. Just because experiences and transformations "sounds like what we do,” as one pastor once told me, that is not a reason to abandon the very limited role for the organized church as prescribed in scripture. The church should not number itself among other worldly enterprises, performing roles properly assigned to other institutions. Instead, the church should be the place where individuals are equipped for when they go forth in their daily pursuits.
I am greatly influenced here by Abraham Kuyper's spheres of sovereignty and recent "Two Kingdoms" thinking. We are dual citizens of an eternal and a temporal kingdom, but we should not confuse the two. If in sharing this perspective I turn some of your readers off, well, let me point to someone of a very different theological stripe: Robert Farrar Capon. I love his treatment of the parables of Jesus. Every pastor who truly wants the best for his flock should read his three books on the parables. Capon makes it very clear: the church and pastors are not here to help improve peoples' lives. Leave that for the marketplace and private charity. No, they're here to provoke people into understanding the need to die to self and to be found in Christ. No orchestrated experience can substitute for good old fashioned preaching of the gospel.
We were at a conference together last year, and you got very uncomfortable when a presenter repeatedly said, "The church is in the transformation business." Was he wrong?
The church does not exist to help guide transformations, and this goes for two types of transformations. The church has no role in guiding personal transformations in individuals, which only contributes to turning Christianity into what Christian Smith has described as therapeutic moralistic deism. Neither should the church see itself as guiding collective transformations--ushering in some new worldwide ethos-system, the kind of "parousia" nonsense that Brian McLaren fantasizes about.
The church exists to proclaim the gospel: to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, to exercise proper church discipline. And that's about it. The rest we should do as private individuals and in collective efforts with others outside of church.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview.
February 13, 2012
Conflating ministry and celebrity is bad for our churches and our souls.
As my chiropractor was working me over yesterday, she was asking about the reading I’m doing for a degree I’m working on. After I rattled off the titles and subjects of a number of leadership books, she said, “Wow, what are you going to do when you are finished with school—rule the world?”
“Actually, I’m moving in the opposite direction,” I said.
And I am trying to mean that. Genuinely.
Over the last few years, I’ve thought long and hard about “my platform” as a pastor, a writer, an occasional speaker. And as I’ve done so, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a danger to my soul in pursuing more exposure, more name recognition, more money to be made from thinking, writing, and speaking about ministry issues. Especially while I am still in full-time, paid ministry to a local community.
I want to be clear, though: I have no issue with writers/speakers who sell lots of books, go on speaking tours, and generally promote their works however they can. But there’s something very “off” in the proliferation of pastors who are mixing ministry in and to a local community with “building their brand.” I think a good case can be made that the self-promotion that’s inevitably needed to build a brand in today’s world in incongruous with the servant-leader model of pastoring and the attitude of humility that ought to accompany it.
The Celebrity Pastor certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. But the extent to which some take it today, I think, is. Yes, Spurgeon had his sermons published in the paper weekly. But can anyone really imagine him re-tweeting the fawning praises of his Twitter followers, or John Wesley selling tickets to his latest tour? Can anyone imagine Dwight Moody slapping his name on a couple ghostwritten books a year?
In other words, it seems as though we’ve thrown any reluctance over celebrity for our ministry endeavors out the window, and now many of us are now actively cultivating, pursuing, and—dare I say—grasping at the fame, increased money, and recognition that comes with hitting the big time in today’s ministry world.
And therein lies the danger and the challenge. Both for us personally and for the church as a whole.
When pastors start building their “platform,” growing their influence, and raising their profile, it’s generally talked about in terms of expanding ministry reach, being a good steward of the talents God has given, and, always, increasing “kingdom impact.” And while I have no doubt that many are humbly pursuing a God-given call to speak beyond the bounds of their local church community to a larger audience, I also suspect that for many, the motivations are somewhat more muddied, somewhat less altruistic.
For example, pastors who receive large salaries from their churches to produce sermons and resources for their community and then turn around and package and sell those same sermons and resources for personal profit need to rethink the model under which they are working. That kind of double dipping is not allowed in many other places in the world and probably shouldn’t be allowed in the church.
These last few years have seen a host of pastors and ministry leaders confronted with the challenges of a global audience and a personal brand. Some have done so with integrity, recognizing that their increased fame and recognition had become not only a danger to their own souls, but a hinderance to their church community, and they have wisely chosen to step out of one role so that they might more fully and faithfully pursue another.
Francis Chan is a great example. He took a lot of flack for leaving his mega-church pulpit. His motivation? Wanting “to go somewhere where he is unknown.” It’s a study in contrasts to watch Chan, who feels “led to greater obscurity” try to explain that to one of the more famous of today’s celebrity pastors.
How refreshing is it to hear someone in today’s world talk about pursuing obscurity?
The danger is not only to our own souls, that we would grasp after fame and abandon the quest for humility in our own lives. The danger is also that we would continue to hard-code the celebrity culture into our church communities. That we as a Church would continue to admire men and women not for their servant hearts but for their big audiences. That we see a day when every large and medium-sized “market” in America is served by the franchises of the five or six top video venue pastors . . . and we would like it.
We must begin to separate celebrity from pastoral work. Local church ministry should not be a stepping stone to anything, least of all to fame and fortune. It should not be easier for CNN to get in touch with a pastor than for someone in his own congregation.
For me, I knew I was in danger when the stats on my blog became important to me. I would post something and then check obsessively over the next few days to see how many had read it, linked to it, commented on it. The balance had shifted from “I want to say something about ministry/Jesus/the Gospel” to “I want to be known as someone with something to say.” And when that shift occurs, no matter how much we say the name “Jesus,” what we’re really pointing people to is “me.” Jesus has become the platform on which we stand, not the Savior to which we point.
So, how do you know you are moving into the danger zone here? Is it only big time ministry leaders who are affected by this? Not by a long shot. The truth is, the size or scope of your ministry is irrelevant. In fact, sometimes it’s those of us who have the smallest ministries who actually have the biggest longings.
Some signs you might be in danger:
You look at the speaker roster for a conference and think, Why did he/she get an invite and not me?
You feel jealous of others because of the size or scope of their ministry.
You begin to dream that somehow “hitting it big” (or even hitting it medium) will free you from ministry, or you begin to resent the small, mundane and unnoticed tasks of local church ministry.
You regularly Google yourself (please, no jokes in the comments.)
Your face appears on the front page of your church’s website.
You become a “friend collector” who racks up the Facebook/Twitter followers with the idea that someday, you’ll be able to leverage that when you write that book you’ve been talking about writing forever.
You find yourself thinking more and more about how you can get your name “out there.”
Please don’t think I’m condemning any pastor who has ever written a book or spoken at a conference. This is a very fuzzy area in which much grace needs to be extended. But if we never talk about the danger zone of self-promotion, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and those we are called to serve. If we don’t think hard, on a personal level, about our need to be known by people beyond those we are directly in relationship with and service to, we run the risk of becoming men and women who use the people God has given us to serve as a means to our own self-gratifying and glorifying ends.
More and more, I’m trying to lean hard into the credo of John the Baptist: He must increase, and I must decrease. Maybe others can manage the trick of doing this while simultaneously “building their brand.” If so, God bless them. I just know that I can’t. And I’m betting not many of us can.
February 8, 2012
A conversation about work, mission, and why some Christians throw "crap" parties.
Last year Rob Bell made waves with his book Love Wins which he describes as "a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived." The waves became a tsunami when John Piper tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" and dismissed him as a heretic. Agree or disagree with his point of view, Bell knows how to stir conversation. And there is one thing about Love Wins we cannot dismiss- how we think about the future shapes how we live in the present.
I've had the benefit of interviewing Bell a number of times and have always found him thoughtful, gracious, and genuine in his pursuit of Christ. He was kind enough to talk to me once again--this time about his decision to leave his church, the lost theology of vocation, and how our view of the end of the world impacts the way we think about our work today.
Skye: Apart from ministry, Christians talk very little about "callings." What do you attribute this to?
Rob: The problem goes back to how you read the Bible. A lot of Christians have been taught a story that begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, instead of chapter 1. If your story doesn't begin in the beginning, but begins in chapter 3, then it starts with sin, and so the story becomes about dealing with the sin problem. So Jesus is seen as primarily dealing with our sins. Which is all true, but it isn't the whole story and it can lead people into all kinds of despair when it comes to understanding just why we're here.
The Bible begins in Genesis 1 not with sin but with blessing, not with toil and despair but with life, and creativity, and vibrant participation with God in the ongoing creation of the world--which involves art, and law, and medicine, and education, and parenting, and justice, and learning, and thousands of other pursuits; callings that are holy and sacred in and of themselves. It's all part of flourishing in God's good world, which is our home. Here, on earth, is where the story begins and where it ends, and so our work here, in whatever way we co-create with God, is our vocation.
Secondly, we have to embrace our desires. For many, desire is a bad word, something we're supposed to "give up for God." That kind of thinking can be really destructive because it teaches people to deny their hearts, their true selves. What Jesus does is something far more radical. He insists that we can be transformed in such a way that our desires and God's desires for us become the same thing. Incredible. What do you love to do that brings more and more heaven into God's good world? What is it that makes your soul soar? What is it that you do, that your friends and community affirm, that taps you in to who you are made to be?
Describe how you discerned God's calling to leave Mars Hill to pursue new ideas?
It was a vast array of factors, beginning deep in the heart with the awareness that Jesus was calling, inviting, tugging, doing that thing he does when it's time to take a leap into the unknown.
Can you share more about where your energies are currently focused, and why you believe it is an important calling?
Nope. Haha. It's better to do the work and wait until it's ready to be released into the world. But it involves resurrection, of course, and the new world that's bursting forth right here in the midst of this one.
What/who has influenced your theology of calling and work?
Dallas Willard, and U2, and Steven Pressfield, and Dorothy Sayers. Do what you do with every ounce of energy and passion you have, give it everything you've got, put in the hours and pour out the sweat and blood and don't hold anything back. That's an act of worship, it is holy in itself.
Don't make grand claims about what it is, don't tell people what they're supposed to think about it, it will speak for itself. Let the Spirit do what the Spirit will with it. And most of all, enjoy the work. And while you're at it, relinquish the need to label everything "Christian" or "not Christian." Be a Christian. People can figure the rest out. It's a noun, after all.
Reformation theologians took "vocation," a word previously only applied to the clergy, and applied it to all believers. They promoted the idea that all work was God's work. What can we do to reclaim this belief in our communities?
Stop using the word 'missionary' and stop sending people out to the 'mission field.' Or keep the word, but also commission public school teachers, and dentists, and CPA's, and construction workers, and those people who take your money at the toll booth. We're all disciples, all ground is holy, every interaction and conversation is loaded with divine potential, anytime, anywhere. Ordain everyone, call everyone a minister, invite the whole church to be on staff.
You've obviously gotten a lot of attention for your thoughts about eschatology in the last year. How does one's vision of the future impact their work in the present?
The gospel is an embodied announcement about this world: it is good, and we're home, and the word took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Heaven and earth are, in fact, coming together. We're home. Soil is good, and so is wine, and sex, and music, and muscle, and arranging things, and building things, and getting hungry people the food they need, and jobs that empower people to make better lives for themselves.
What you believe about where the story is headed deeply impacts how you live now and what you believe matters, now. We're not trying to help people evacuate. That's a denial of the gospel truth that Jesus is reclaiming everything.
Amy Sherman, in her recent book Kingdom Calling, argues that popular eschatology has eroded the Christian understanding of vocation. She writes, "If we (mistakenly) believe that at the end, the earth will be completely destroyed and that just our souls will live on forever, it's a bit hard to imaging being passionate for such things as environmental stewardship or cultural reformation.... If it's all going to be burned up, isn't our labor here on earth in vain?" How do you respond to Christians holding this view?
The truth is, people who hold these escapist views usually throw crap parties, because they're essentially waiting for things to end so they can go somewhere else. Jesus shows up at the party, turns water into wine, and then essentially says "Oh we are just getting started..."
If a 20 year old told you she was entering full-time ministry because she wanted to serve God and make a difference in the world, what questions would you have for her? How would you respond?
I would ask her if she's a Christian. If she said "yes," I would say "Too late! You're already in full-time ministry! The real question is: what are you going to do with your God-given passions and energies? Who are you going to help? What are you going to make? Where are you going to serve? Go do that, and release yourself from the need to give it labels.
October 22, 2010
Gabe Lyons' new book explains why the end of Christian America is good news.
If you have not yet encountered Gabe Lyons, let me encourage you to do so because he is a person worth your time. As co-founder of Catalyst, founder of Q (a learning community dedicated to mobilizing Christians for the common good), co-author of the tart and challenging book UnChristian, a dedicated husband and father of three young children and only thirty-five, Lyons has already packed some significant achievements into his young life. Now comes his latest work, The Next Christians, an engaging and exceptionally well-written look at how the newest generation of Christians is making its mark for Christ.
Lyons’ builds his thesis on two foundational concepts. The first is that American society has fundamentally moved away from its theological and moral roots. Historically, our culture was dominated by a Judeo-Christian worldview and ethic but now it’s pluralistic, postmodern and post-christian. Over the last few decades the church has been displaced from a position of cultural prominence and pushed to the periphery. Thus, a new narrative, in many ways antithetical to traditional faith, is shaping significant elements of our society.
Yet, according to Lyons, this situation is not at all hopeless. Ever the optimist, he quickly moves on to articulate his second foundational premise of ‘restoration’. Restoration is both a mind-set and a life-style. A ‘restorer’ envisions the world as God meant it to be and then actively works towards mending its brokenness in the name of Jesus. At heart, restoration is the extension of God’s kingdom by God’s people. It concludes the larger biblical story of God’s good creation that was broken by the fall and initially renewed by Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection. As Lyons argues, ‘Christ’s redemptive work is not the end or even the goal of our stories; redemption is the beginning of our participation in God’s work of restoration in our lives and the world. Understanding that one idea literally changes everything.’ (p. 53)
He uses the rest of the book to show exactly how this happens. In Lyons’ view, the next Christians will not fight or flee from the culture nor will they merely blend in as philanthropic ‘do-gooders’. Instead, building on the innate power of ‘ought’, they will work towards transforming the world into what it should be. Their strategy is one of engagement defined by being provoked into action, serving as creators, following their call, practicing the spiritual disciplines, developing community and living in a counter-cultural fashion.
None of this is really new but what makes it all so refreshing is the author’s gift of weaving a series of real-life stories around each of these concepts. Many are encouraging, a few serve as warnings but most are genuinely stirring tales of how the next Christians leverage life to extend God’s kingdom. One of the best is Lyons’ own story of how he and his wife Rebekah transformed the challenge of having a Downs Syndrome child into the creation of a booklet that shows would-be parents of Downs babies the joys such children can bring. In a culture where 90% of the fetuses pre-diagnosed as Downs are aborted, this is no small contribution to the promotion of life.
Moreover, Lyons sincerely believes that the church is on the cusp of a remarkable transformation, not unlike the era of the Reformation. But to seize the day he offers a concluding word to the wise: the next Christians must emphasize the whole Gospel and stay committed to keeping it first. Our ongoing temptation is to get sidetracked by secondary issues such as theories of cultural engagement, methodologies of outreach, models of doing church and even environmental stewardship. These are not unimportant but they must be subsumed under the larger and more potent agenda of living out the Gospel by the power of the Spirit. As Lyons so astutely notes, ‘where Christians restore, people get saved.’ (p. 193)
This is not only a book worth reading; it’s one worth putting into practice both individually and corporately. Pastors, teachers and other Christian leaders can leverage its ideas and content to encourage, instruct and inspire those they serve. And if enough of us who claim to be the followers of Jesus live out the fullness of the Gospel, Lyons’ prediction of a new Reformation might just happen.
August 6, 2010
What does it say when those at the center of the church are the least healthy?
The New York Times is reporting on new research that shows pastors appear to be struggling with health issues--both physical and psychological--more than other Americans. The article reports:
"Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could."
The article goes on to speculate on causes for the decline in clergy health. A key culprit: lack of boundaries. Pastors have an increasing number of expectations. Not only are they expected to function as CEOs for complex organizations, but also spiritual shepherds, teachers, and care-givers for large numbers of people.
One researcher from Duke University sums it up well: "These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”
If we are to believe these findings, what should be conclude? If ministry is proving to be unhealthy for those closest to the center of the church, what are we communicating to those on the edges? And is this simply another example of already unhealthy people being attracted to the "helping" professions? In other words, are the people most drawn to ministry those with a messiah complex who lack boundaries, who seek to satisfy their ego-needs through saving others? Or are church systems to blame for putting far too much pressure on the paid clergy?
The questions abound. Let the conversation begin.
July 13, 2010
A call for boundaries and the danger of rooting our identity in our ministry.
If there’s one issue that all pastors must wrestle with, beyond how the Gospel applies to their own lives and ministry, it’s the issue of rest and Sabbath.
Wait—scratch that. Those are actually the same issue.
There was a time a few years back when I was working in a support staff role doing media design for a local church. It also happened to be the first year of my marriage, and as far as first-year-of-marriage jobs go, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. I came in the morning, did my work, went home and didn’t think about it again until the next day. The computers I worked on were there at the church office—I couldn’t take work home with me, and I was very, very okay with that. When I was off, I was off.
Fast forward a couple of years and to when we planted a church. Suddenly, that’s all I could think about. Early morning, late night—I was working on the website, writing posts on our forum, answering emails. I was always on.
What was the difference? I was working at a church in both situations. Both were “ministry.” The difference was that one was a job, and the other was my identity.
Many of us view ministry as a calling, and we purposefully push back against the idea that ministry is a job or a profession. Usually that thinking is helpful. But the unintended side-effect has been that the natural boundaries that usually come with a job simply aren’t present, or present enough, in our ministries—often to our own detriment and the detriment of our families.
Like I said, for the last few years of church planting and pastoring, I’ve been “always on,” answering the phone when it rang, working on sermons on my weekends, packing my schedule with ministry meetings and events, and just generally being a pastor all the time. Through it all, I’ve watched with a bit of envy as friends go to work and come home; as they turn it off and enjoy their nights and weekends without always thinking about work.
And as I became more tired, less effective and increasingly frustrated with my decreasing ability to be present when and where I really need to be, I’ve realized that the issue isn’t so much time-management or being more productive (though those help) but rather a shift in thinking and belief.
I need two things.
First, as always, I need more fully to embrace the Gospel at a personal level. My failure at turning off ministry and making true rest a part of my weekly rhythms reveals within me a basic disbelief of the Gospel truth that Jesus is enough and that my identity can and should be rooted in his finished work for me--not the results I get, the church I pastor , how well (or poorly) it’s doing, or whether I think people are approving or disapproving of me based on the amount of access I give them to myself and my time. The only way we pastors will ever find sustainability and longevity in ministry is if we do what we tell other people to do ALL THE TIME: Rest our souls in the finished work of Christ. Stop getting our identity from our job/ministry. Take some time to unplug, unwind and, more importantly, connect with God, our families and our own souls again.
Second, I find the most helpful thing I can do is to regain a sense of where the job pieces of ministry start and stop. My calling is to be a full-time follower of Jesus and to serve Him with the gifts He’s given me without reservation. Right now my profession is serving as a pastor to my community. And whereas I once saw those two things as being virtually identical and overlapping, I can now see that they aren’t.
There are things like kindness and mercy, patience and justice, how I relate to God and others—basically Christlikeness—that I need to pursue hard 24/7. But there are other pieces of what I do that are ministry, but need to fall into the category of 9-5. And I don’t mean just the admin stuff. Writing my sermon on my day off? Answering the phone during dinner? Doing the emergency counseling session? Sure, there will be times when I need to bend a little. But I’m beginning to see that for the sake of my family, I need to re-categorize much of my ministry activity. I need, like those friends of mine with their 9-5 jobs, to be able to say with equal conviction, “Now I’m at work and it’s time to get after it” AND “Now I’m off— I’m going to let that sit until Monday morning when I can give it my full attention. Right now my family needs me.”
Essential to truly resting from our work is being able, in a sense, to put that work on the shelf for a day or two, step away from it, and let go.
Brothers and sisters, (with apologies and all due respect to John Piper) we kinda sorta are professionals. And truly finding rest and Sabbath will depend both on how you look at Jesus AND how you look at your job. Know when you are at work and on the clock and give the communities you serve the full benefit of your attention and efforts. Know when you are not at work, and when you are off, be off. And know most of all where true rest is found.
July 6, 2010
And what difference does it make?
Eugene Peterson laments in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010) that he has been “trying for fifty years now to be a pastor in a culture that doesn’t know the difference between a vocation and a job.” It was a bunch of artists that clued him in on the difference.
Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is “an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated.” Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it “is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly.” This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is “a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation.”
A vocation is not like a job in these respects. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, “to call.” Although the term today can refer to any career or occupation (according to Webster), the word (vocatio, I imagine) was coined to describe the priestly calling to service in the church. So vocation=calling. This is how Peterson is using the word, anyway. And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to “keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description.”
During his seminary education in New York City, Peterson worked with a group of artists. They were dancers and poets and sculptors, and they all worked blue-collar jobs as taxi drivers, waiters, and salesmen—whatever they had to do to pay the rent and put food on the table. Soon enough Peterson realized that “none of them were defined by their jobs—they were artists, whether anyone else saw them as artists, and regardless of whether anyone would ever pay them to be artists.” That is to say, being an artist wasn’t a job for them, but a vocation. Their jobs simply kept them alive so they could pursue their vocations. “Their vocation didn’t come from what anyone thought of them or paid them.”
I found this discussion both liberating and convicting. Looking back over the past decade or so, I wonder if the angst I’ve experienced while trying to figure out what to do with my life has stemmed from confusing these two categories.
In my senior year of high school, I “surrendered to the gospel ministry” (that’s what we called it). I sensed a calling to dedicate my life and career to serving Christ through the local church. I immediately understood that vocation in terms of the jobs that commitment made possible or impossible. Before then, I wanted to teach high school English for a living. After, I knew that a call to ministry meant abandoning that career. At the time, the only ministers I knew were senior pastors, youth ministers, and worship leaders. The job description of pastor seemed the best decision.
In college I waffled. I was pastoring a church and didn’t appreciate the identity foisted upon me when people from church introduced me as “Pastor Brandon.” I still felt the sense of vocation, but didn’t like the job. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out what job would be enable me to live out my vocation.
The trouble is, I’m not sure I could tell you in a sentence what I feel called to. I have several jobs: editor, writer, college instructor, doctoral student (not paid for it, but it sure is work). None of those things are “ministry” in the strictest sense. Yet I feel “called” to ministry still, and there are parts of each of my jobs that satisfy my sense of calling. But it sure would be nice to answer the question, “What do you do?” with a sentence that doesn’t begin, “Well, it’s complicated…”
Jobs pay the bills; vocations may or may not. I suspect bi-vocational pastors, as they’re called, must have a deeper sense of vocation than the rest of us. So many men and women who feel called to the ministry drop out when they can’t find a job at a church that’s big enough to pay their rent and student loans because we tend to think of ministry as the job that will put food on our tables. I admire the men and women who do what they have to for a living so they can do what they are called to do for the kingdom.
May 19, 2010
Grad school establishes ministry patterns that don’t end on graduation day.
Spring weather means graduation is coming, ushering in a season of new beginnings for students finishing high school, college, and graduate school. After three years of seminary, I’m a master of divinity. At least that’s what the diploma will say. Supposedly I’m now prepared to enter full-time pastoral ministry. If anything, I’m increasingly aware of how much I don’t yet know about God, his Word, and shepherding his flock. Maybe that’s a healthy place to be.
That said, seminary has been an invaluable time of study and reflection. God has laid a foundation of learning that will support me through what I hope will be decades of faithful ministry, if he tarries. At the outset of this adventure, I benefited from the advice of wise pastors and seminarians who counseled me in how to make the most of this time of preparation. I heeded their charge to settle in a local church and invest myself in congregational ministry, immediately applying what I learned. I grew attached to a few professors who made time for students and cared sincerely about my spiritual and academic development. And I resisted the temptation to expect that a few hours of class per week over the course of a semester could teach me everything I needed to know about systematic theology, biblical Hebrew, or counseling.
A new book edited by Andrew J. B. Cameron and Brian S. Rosner, The Trials of Theology: Becoming a ‘Proven’ Worker in a Dangerous Business, captures much of this advice. Both Cameron and Rosner teach at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, where John W. Woodhouse is principal. Woodhouse’s contribution to the book, an essay on “The Trials of Theological College,” elaborates on some of the most important lessons I learned in seminary.
Most importantly, I learned that knowledge about God cannot replace love for God. Nevertheless, learning about God through his Word should lead us to exult in who he is and what he has done.
“Knowing God is real, not abstract; personal, not just intellectual; and will be displayed in your character and conduct, not your cleverness,” Woodhouse writes. “That is why I think it is always helpful to link knowing God with loving God: we seek the kind of knowledge here that changes our affections.”
I sometimes wonder whether churches would be encouraged or discouraged if they sat in on a seminary class and observed us students. No doubt God has encouraged me through the students I’ve spent time getting to know as we shared our fears and dreams for pastoral ministry. At the same time, we graduate students have a fondness for flaunting our knowledge in front of classmates and professors. No one’s impressed, but we offenders probably won’t learn that lesson until confronted by a sweet old lady in our first church.
Even so, seminary provides pastors with a learning experience many Christians would love but could never find the time or money to complete. I have learned that seminary graduates have the privilege of plunging the depths of God’s wisdom so we might share nuggets of gold with fellow believers.
“We know God, not by a mystical experience beyond words, but by hearing the Spirit-breathed word of God,” Woodhouse writes. “This Spirit-breathed word of God is meant to be understood. It tells us the truth, and by his Spirit and through his word, God reveals to us himself, his promises and his purposes. …When the Bible says, ‘Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!’ (Rom. 11:33), we are not being discouraged from seeking to understand. Rather, we are being reminded that we can never think of ourselves as having finished our exploration and our growth in understanding. What happens next is quite striking. Once we grasp just a little of the ‘riches’ and ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ of God, all other thinking about everything is affected.”
Sometimes I wonder, though, how long the current residential model can work for seminaries, which are looking for ways to reach bigger audiences with the riches and wisdom of God. The financial pressures to adapt are extreme. It seems that fewer students today can afford to set aside a few years for full-time coursework. So seminaries expand their online offerings, bolster their satellite locations, and make their courses friendly to commuters.
I share in these financial struggles, but I want to advocate for considerate expansion. A master of divinity is no mere means to the end of pastoral employment. Spiritual formation must accompany this program. How can this happen if we neglect relationships with fellow students and professors and fail to set aside time to reflect on the massive volume of material we’re learning? Busyness is the enemy of meaningful thought and deep faith.
Seminary establishes patterns for ministry that don’t end on graduation day. A student who sees only the immediate becomes a pastor who responds only to the pressing. Churches can help seminaries by requesting pastors who are not merely credentialed and trained in practical ministry but also humble and reflective about how Christ rules his church by means of his timeless Word.
April 21, 2010
Moving beyond the "messiah" and "manager" pastoral models.
A friend told me that Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant should be required reading for every pastor who has served for at least five years. That was how long it had been since my ordination. I picked up a copy.
Peterson claims that there are two common types of unhealthy clergy. The first is the messiah. Messiahs seek out wounded, broken people, to make them healthy again. It is a noble task, except for its motivation: messiahs need to feel needed. They consider healed people to be numbers, accumulated to suggest pastoral effectiveness.
Then there are managers, who seek not the unhealthy but the healthy: talented, faithful, and prepared people. Managers plug them in, finding the right places for them to serve in an ever-expanding congregational machine. The bigger the church gets, the better managers feel effective and useful. Once again, people become numbers.
I have both messianic and managerial tendencies. It is too easy for congregants to become statistics, which I can use to inflate my sense of clergy effectiveness.
That realization prompted me to search for a new pastoral identity, one that treated people more personally. I found one at the Louvre.
Rather than being my church’s messiah or your manager, I see myself as its docent- a tour guide in a museum or art gallery. Clergy showcase to the world the architecture and artistry of the Christian faith. We are tour guides, leading people from one gallery to another, shifting their attention from one work of God to the next. At times, we offer language to describe the unutterable: magnificence, awe, anguish. We are wordsmiths for life’s most muted moments.
Sometimes that moment demands explanation, and like a docent we offer information. We love when someone looks at a familiar passage of scripture in a fresh way, or unpacks some mystery of God in their life that transforms. Those are galleries that buzz with energy.
But other rooms we visit demand nothing but silence. We pause, speechless, when confronted by the mysteries of our liturgy: the breaking of bread, the lifting of a cup, the pouring of water. And there are times when our silence emerges from the ache and anguish of souls: the graveside of a loved one, a doctor’s diagnosis, or a future swirling with shadows. Our job in these moments may not be to speak but to stand. To let people know they are not alone in this gallery, and that someone has been there before.
We also know that our tours are temporary. It is a holy privilege to serve as pastor temporarily. Contemporary mobility ensures that our relationship is only for a season, so we cherish this time together.
This leads me to best thing about this metaphor: the docent never steals attention from the artist. I can tell you about some amazing works I’ve seen: the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, the Code of Hammurabi, and The Thinker. But I can’t for the life of me remember the name of a single docent that explained them to me. That’s the way it should be.
Too many churches are served by pastors focused on their own celebrity. Congregations might swell in numbers as they gravitate toward these larger-than-life preachers and their personal charisma. Such a model is blasphemous and unbiblical. Pastoral docents merely point to the Artist, rather than becoming the art itself. We must decrease so that God might increase.
The docent image isn’t perfect. Churches aren’t museums -- mere mausoleums of entities long deceased. People are drawn to churches that are committed movements, not to monuments.
Nevertheless, the idea of serving as docent energizes me and grounds me in my calling. I am neither messiah nor manager, and parishioners are much more than statistics. Together, we journey in awe through the splendor and artistry of the work of God in our lives and throughout the world.
August 20, 2009
Ed Stetzer on lusting over other pastors' churches.
August 12, 2009
Part of being a pastor is just being present.
"Don't just pretend to love others. Really love them … Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep." Romans 12
There was a point in my life when I hated weddings. I'd do anything I could to get out of going. I'd leave early. But now, when I think about all the celebrating I missed …
I think the main problem was that I wasn't married myself—and I hated just about any and every reminder of that fact.
Ditto things like dealing with hard issues in people's lives, confrontation, or even other people's sickness. Nothing in my life had ever exposed me to—much less equipped me for—much of that at all. So, of course, it was good to go into a vocation like ministry where I would deal with all of those things on a regular basis.
While I always hated going to weddings, I've found doing weddings another thing entirely. As I drove home from a wedding the other day, I realized just how much I enjoy this role I get to play in people's lives.
In fact, I think I've always enjoyed doing weddings—well, except maybe that first one. The "pressure to enjoyment" ratio was way out of whack on that one. Good thing it only lasted about 10 minutes. On this last one, I think I finally crossed the 90 percent ratio in terms of pressure to enjoyment. Now it's almost pure pleasure. I know what I'm doing. I feel like I have something to offer. And most of all, I can relax and enjoy my front row seat.
As a pastor, I get to see things that most people don't. I regularly stand two feet from men and women as they pledge their lives and their love to one another, tears streaming down their faces. I stand there at one of the most significant moments of their lives, helping to create it. And I'm literally the only person in the room who can see the faces of the bride and the groom and all their family and friends at once. It's amazing. The supreme pressure I used to feel to mess things up (after all, who wants to be that pastor who calls the bride by the wrong name or accidently skips the vows) has now given way to just feeling honored at being invited so close to something so intimate.
That's how I've come to feel about dealing with some of the harder stuff, too. I still don't relish the hard issues—the confrontations or the hospital visits and the sickness. And I can't imagine anything I'm looking forward to less than the first Evergreen funeral.
But I know that if I fight involvement in those things internally, I will "mess it up." I'll be less present than I need to be. I'll look for easy ways out. I'll do my "job" and move on—and that, frankly, is a very poor way to approach something as sacred as the entre' into the hardest parts of people's lives.
Better to lean in, to feel honored to sit with someone in their sickness, their moment of grief. To feel the weight of being trusted by God to be present at the birth of the piece of someone's character that is forged in grief or confrontation and (hopefully) resolution. To feel privileged to have a front row seat in the marriages, the arguments, and the strife as well as the forgiveness, the growth, and the healing that God works in those situations.
At least at this point in my life, I can't imagine doing anything else. But the challenge is to root this role not in my position as pastor, but rather in my love for others as a Christ follower. And in doing so, I realize the front row has plenty of seats in it. Whether or not you are in "ministry," you can have a front row seat to what God is doing in others people's lives, if you will simply choose to be present. If you will just be the kind of person who grieves with the grieving and celebrates with the joyful, who shows up for other people with alarming regularity, who checks in, hangs out, lifts up.
Sounds like hard work. It is. It's also a big part of what it means to "love one another."
Bob Hyatt is pastor of the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon, and a regular contributor to Out of Ur.
April 16, 2009
Ur participates in the blog tour for The Divine Commodity with an exclusive excerpt.
Today over twenty blogs are participating in a book tour for Skye Jethani's The Divine Commodity. The fact that Jethani is a card-carrying Urthling is why we felt the Ur audience should participate in the blog tour as well. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Divine Commodity where Jethani addresses the assumption that Christ's enormous mission is best accomplished by equally enormous strategies, and how this mindset is rooted in consumer sensibilities. A longer excerpt from the book is also featured in the spring issue of Leadership.
In the coming days we will be announcing a contest in which 50 Urbanites can win a free copy of Jethani's book. Until then, you can click here for a list of the other 23 blogs participating in The Divine Commodity tour today.
The pattern is predictable. A few thousand young church leaders gather at a warm climate resort for two and a half days to have a "life changing ministry experience." They shuffle into the hotel's main ballroom, bags of complementary goodies in hand, where their internal organs are realigned by the worship band's bass-thumping remix of How Great Thou Art. After which the marquee speaker will fire up the audience with a call to "change the world for Christ," "impact a generation with the Gospel," or "spark a revival in the church." Throughout the stump speech, the presenter will wax eloquent about the fate he or she foresees for the new generation of church leaders in the audience. "Your generation will do what mine could not." "You will be the generation to change the world." Convinced of their manifest destiny, the twenty-somethings will head off to breakout sessions where they will learn the skills to impact the world - usually from other twenty-somethings.
I say the pattern is predictable because I've been to a fair number of ministry conferences and I've led my share of breakout sessions, and like most church leaders I've gotten use to hearing the drumbeat of revolution. I call it the Daisy Cutter Doctrine: "Change the world through massive cultural upheaval and high-impact tactics."
Daisy Cutter is the nickname of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the military's arsenal. In our age of laser guided "smart" bombs, the Daisy Cutter isn't dropped to destroy targets anymore but to intimidate the enemy. When impact is more important than precision, there's nothing better than a 15,000 pound daisy cutter for the mission.
Likewise, the Daisy Cutter Doctrine is an approach to mission that values high-impact and visibility above all else. This explains why most presenters at ministry conferences are leaders of big churches. Their ministry's size is valued, and in some cases envied, by those in attendance who have come to learn how they too can ignite their full potential for maximum missional impact.
The shock and awe approach to mission is extremely appealing to people shaped by consumerism. It taps into our consumer-oriented desire for big impact and feeds the assumption that large equals legit. The psychological appeal is never explicit but always present: by making a huge impact you can convince the world of God's legitimacy as well as your own. That is an enticing promise particularly for younger leaders, many of whom have yet to establish their legitimacy and may have latent feelings of inadequacy.
But there is a less incriminating reason why we are attracted to the Daisy Cutter Doctrine - a big mission seems to logically demand a big strategy. Jesus has given his students an enormous task, "go and make disciples of all nations?." It's a mission that matches the scope of his own cosmic agenda.
When Christians with a consumer consciousness try to wrap their imaginations around such a large undertaking, they will automatically think about products or corporations that have impacted the world and emulate the same methodologies. So we ask, how does Coca-Cola impact the world? How does Disney impact the world? How does Starbucks impact the world? And we forget to ask the only question that really matters: How does Jesus impact the world?
We have incorrectly made the scale of our methods conform to the scale of our mission. We have assumed that the magnitude of the ends should be proportional to the magnitude of the means. And in the process we've revealed how captivated our imaginations really are to consumerism. Gregory Boyd points out the error: "We are to transform the world. That's the call. But the way you do it from a kingdom perspective is very different from the way you do it from the world's perspective."
Failure to understand this has scarred the church throughout history. For example, through much of its history the church in Europe employed conventional (worldly) means to advance its spiritual mission. This resulted in the gospel being spread by the sword. We now look back at the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the slaughter of native peoples in the Americas mournfully. Centuries removed from those atrocities we wonder - how could people do such things in the name of Christ? Did they not see how inconsistent those methods were with the ways of Jesus? At the time, of course, they did not.
Today we consider ourselves more enlightened, but are we? We may not use the sword to advance the church's mission anymore, but the sword is no longer the conventional instrument of power and influence. Today the church emulates the methods of corporations and business, and most of us never pause and ask whether such tactics are consistent with the ways of Christ. Like the Crusaders, we seem content to leave such judgments for future generations whose vision will be sharpened by history.
The Daisy Cutter Doctrine has plagued the church for centuries. We've fallen into the conventional thinking that a big mission calls for big tactics. But, as Boyd said, the ways of the world differ from the ways of the kingdom. In the economy of God's kingdom, big does not beget big. It's precisely the opposite. The overwhelming message of Jesus life and teaching is that small begets big. Consider God's plan to redeem creation (big) is achieved through his incarnation as an impoverished baby (small). Jesus feeds thousands on a hillside (big) with just a few fish and loaves (small). Christ seeks to make disciples of all nations (big) and he starts with a handful of fishermen (small). Even David defeated Goliath (big) with a few stones (small).
All of this affirms the counter-intuitive nature of God's kingdom. The wisdom of God will not be grasped by those captivated by conventionality; it requires a far larger imagination. As Paul writes: "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
September 9, 2008
Former suburbanite David Swanson reflects on ministry in the big city.
Pulling up to a busy intersection recently, my wife and I were startled to see a car with its rear windshield shattered. Out of the damaged car leaped a man with a baseball bat, yelling and chasing the two apparent perpetrators. As we slowly drove by, my wife reaching for her phone to call the police, we saw into the back seat where a young girl sat trying to make sense of the chaos that had erupted around her. Arriving at our apartment three blocks away I became aware of an emotion I hadn't felt in a long time: fear.
Three months after moving into Chicago from one of its affluent suburbs, we are still getting our bearings. Is it the Mexican or Polish market that has the better produce? What time is too late for my wife to take a walk by herself? How long will it take to get from the church office to my lunch meeting via the Blue Line? We expected these kinds of questions. Unanticipated, however, was the proper response to shattered windshields and guys with baseball bats. I knew the transition to life and ministry in the city might be tough, but this tangible sense of fear came out of left field.
Our eight years of suburban life and ministry were not without fear, albeit of a different kind. I oftentimes worried about the effect of affluence on our congregation. Anxiety about spiritual formation in a landscape of individualism and crass consumption is enough to keep any pastor awake at night. Conversations with friends and suburban colleagues often centered on pursuing the way of Jesus while being surrounded by the deep-seated values of safety and comfort. You could say my fear was of a spiritual nature: I was anxious about how suburbia affected our souls.
Guys with baseball bats? Never crossed my mind.
Of course it's fair to neither city nor suburb to make such generalizations. Violent acts take place in suburbia just as consumer culture affects many in our new urban congregation. In some ways, my wife and I actually feel safer in our new urban environs. She is more comfortable being home alone at night; the voices of our neighbors provide a friendly soundtrack. I worry less about my numbed soul as the exposed beauty and evil of the city invite increased awareness and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
And yet this newfound fear can't be ignored. A woman in our neighborhood was recently attacked with sulfuric acid. It was less than assuring when her assailants turned out to be a couple of high school girls. Occasionally I'll check an online map for the location of each of Chicago's summer shootings, hoping the latest fatalities weren't in our neighborhood. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe, but after eight years of placid suburban life, shattered windshields, sulfuric acid attacks, and daily fatalities are taking some getting used to.
Fear is not the only new reality resulting from our suburban exodus; faith too has taken on increased significance. Prayer has become a regular response throughout the week - for mercy for the homeless men living under the dank overpass and wisdom for our multi-ethnic small groups as they debrief a sermon on racism and reconciliation. The city, with its in-your-face beauty and pain, has renewed my dependence on the God who holds Chicago together. A sign of my spiritual shallowness perhaps, but my former homogenous and safe suburban life didn't regularly provoke this response of prayer.
What if a healthy dose of fear is important for faith? After all, God often acts in the face of our fear-inducing circumstances. Yet many suburban churches simply blend in, patterning buildings, teaching, and programs on the accepted values of safety and comfort. Likewise, an urban tendency has been to maintain a fortress mentality, protecting congregations from the dangers and temptations of city life. Both responses minimize the fear we experience when we encounter the grief and injustice of a dangerous world. Additionally, when such fearful realities are ignored, people are hindered from experiencing a vigorous faith that must depend on God's presence.
As Christians, surely we are meant neither to blend into our surroundings nor be protected from them. Eugene Peterson writes that following Jesus "is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes." The feet of Jesus carried him and his anxious disciples into some nerve-wracking situations. Field trips in the Samaritan countryside, conversations with scary Gentiles, and parties with prostitutes and tax collectors must have been terrifying to those early Jesus followers. During these encounters, their faith was stretched and strained to the breaking point. Shattered windshields are nothing compared with demon-possessed pigs leaping from cliffs.
Should we purposefully lead people into fear-inducing experiences? Of course! Following the feet of Jesus will often lead us to dangerous places, whether in the city, the suburbs, or elsewhere. Peril is not the goal, but it's a result of pursuing Jesus in our world. Are we calling people to this dangerous way of living? Or has the fear-confronting life been substituted for something safer and more comfortable?
August 12, 2008
There’s danger in rooting our identity in ministry rather than in Christ.
Something's wrong. We pastors are the stewards, the spokespeople, the advocates of a message of hope, life, and peace. And yet so few of us seem to be experiencing these qualities in our own lives. Something's wrong. In a world saturated with fear, insecurity, and stress, we are to show a different way. And yet those at the center of the church are burning out and leaving ministry at a rate of 1,500 per month. If that's what's occurring at the heart of the church, why would anyone on the fringe want to move in closer?
I've just read an article by two Christian counselors about the soul-killing impact of church ministry on leaders. (The statistic above comes from them.) They note that the pressure to grow the church is a significant factor leading to pastoral burn out. And some pastors "admitted they promoted growth models that were incongruent with their values because of a desperate need to validate their pastoral leadership." It seems too many of us have our identities wrapped up in the measurable outcomes of our work rather than in the life-giving love of the Christ we proclaim. Something's wrong.
I spent last week in western Iowa and met many wonderful pastors and church leaders. These men and women don't lead megachurches. They're not in chic urban or suburban communities where new cultural trends are born. In other words, they're not the people you're likely to see on the platform at a ministry conference. More than one church leader approached me during the week holding back tears. Each confessed he was on the verge of mental/spiritual/emotional collapse. The cause sited by all: the pressure to perform.
Some might say these leaders have failed to nurture their souls sufficiently. We usually want to blame leaders for their own burn out, but when I see the pervasiveness of this problem I wonder if there isn't also a systemic factor. Could contemporary church ministry itself be the problem?
When I peruse ministry books, websites, magazines, and attend conferences I'm bombarded with one overwhelming message: great ministry results are the product of great ministry leadership. If a church is growing, if lives are changing, if budgets are burgeoning - it must be because the leader is doing something right. Conversely, if the church is shrinking, if lives are struggling, if budgets are busting - it must be because the leader is inept. As a result, a pastor's success and self-worth is inexorably linked to his/her measurable performance. Stewing in this toxic brew is it any wonder why pastors' souls are shriveling. Something's wrong.
Consider a chapter titled "Bigger is Better" from a popular ministry book. The authors write, "A church should always be bigger than it was. It should be constantly growing." Talk about pressure. The problem is this standard doesn't hold water when applied to Jesus himself. John 6 describes the scene where "many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him." After teaching some weird stuff about drinking his blood and eating his flesh, the crowds who were drawn by Jesus' miracles decided they had had enough. Did Jesus' shrinking ministry mean he was an ineffective leader? Why do we hold ourselves to a standard that Jesus' doesn't apply to himself?
Or consider one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament. In Numbers 20, Moses performs a miracle by drawing water from a rock to nourish the Israelites. By any human measure Moses' ministry was a success. It was God-empowered (he performed a miracle), and it was relevant (the people were thirsty). If Moses lived today, we'd all be reading his ministry book titled, "How to Draw Water from Rocks: Effective Strategies to Refresh Arid Churches." There was just one problem - Moses' effective ministry was rejected by God. Moses had disobeyed the Lord's command by striking the rock rather than speaking to it. For this sin he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land. It turns out God performed a miracle in spite of Moses, not because of him.
Might God be doing the same thing today? Is God allowing some powerful, effective, and relevant ministries to grow in spite of leaders rather than because of them? If Scripture shows that faithful and godly leaders can have shrinking ministries (Jesus in John 6), and sinful leaders can have successful ministries (Moses in Numbers 20), then why do we persist in measuring our success simply on the measurable outcomes of our work?
Brothers and sisters, you are more than the measurable outcomes of your work. I've come back from my time in Iowa with a renewed commitment to help us all understand the mysterious calling we have in Christ. I want to be at least one voice countering the soul-killing noise surrounding church leaders today - noise that tries to convince us to ground our identities in effectiveness rather than faithfulness. Yes, we need to work diligently and serve Christ with our very best - this is our worship to God. But how we define success should look very different in the economy of God's kingdom from the tangible stats the world celebrates.
I hope this is what distinguishes Leadership as a resource for you. Leadership is about skill, but it's also about the soul. Some of us are called to plant, some of us are called to water. At Leadership we want to help pastors become better planters and better irrigators; but in the end, we also want to help you release the outcomes to God who causes the growth. Unlike contemporary business, ministry involves the baffling interplay of the human and the divine, the spiritual and the material. There is a mystery to what we are called to do. Embracing this mystery and releasing the outcomes of our work to God is what we must do if our lives, and not just our ministries, are to be filled with his grace.
August 8, 2008
This year's roster at Willow Creek's Leadership Summit conference includes an impressive lineup of leaders from both the ministry and secular business realms. Pastors John Burke and Efrem Smith, and Bill George (current Harvard Business prof and former CEO of Medtronic Inc.) spoke yesterday, as (of course) did Bill Hybels. Today we heard from Craig Groeschel and Chuck Colson, and later from Brad Anderson, vice-chairman and CEO of Best Buy. But for my money, the two most challenging and inspiring presenters were relative unknowns--two women who lead small but incalculably influential organizations.
The first was Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America. When she was a senior at Princeton, Wendy was confronted with the reality of educational inequity in the United States. That is, she realized that where a person was born largely determines his or her educational prospects, which determines, to a great extent, that person's career prospects. She became aware that 13 million kids in the U.S. live below the poverty level. Only half of them will graduate high school. The other half will perform at an eighth grade education level.
So Wendy founded Teach for America, an organization that scours college campuses for the most promising graduating future leaders. She asks those students to invest two years of their lives in teaching children in under-resourced urban and rural schools.
The second was Catherine Rohr, founder and CEO of Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program. A couple years into a lucrative career in New York City, Catherine was invited to visit a prison in Texas. Her experience there change her; she realized her talents were best spent training these men, many of them gang leaders and drug dealers, whom she calls "natural entrepreneurs," to be positive and legitimate business leaders after their release.
The result was Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a four-month diploma program for inmates nearing the end of their sentence. Participants learn business practices, develop character, network, and create a business plan. The program boasts a 98 percent employment rate and a single-digit recidivism rate (compared to the national average of 50 percent).
Wendy and Catherine were both motivated by the deep conviction that the seemingly insurmountable obstacle they faced could indeed be overcome. And, in Wendy's words, "if it's solvable, we have a moral responsibility to solve it." Not only do they believe these desperate situations can be changed, they both are firmly convinced that people will rise to a challenge. For example, while many people blame the poor performance of poor children on the children's laziness or the family's lack of involvement, Wendy blames the low expectations of educators. "When given opportunities," she explains, "kids excel."
Catherine, too, expects the best of the men she works with. "I treat the men like gentlemen," she says, "and I expect them to act like gentlemen. And in the course of the program, I watch them become gentlemen."
These two women are also convinced that their lives are richer for the sacrifices they've made for their ministries. Catherine put it this way: "I can't imagine what I'd be missing out on if I were not following in obedience." It sounds a little like Jesus' words: whoever would find their life must lose it.
The leadership principles that drive Wendy and Catherine are simple: (1) Believe in what you're doing, (2) Do it.
I was struck, in the midst of such a resource-rich environment, by how much can be done without a budget, a building, or exorbitant overhead by a few faithful people who do what God has called them to do. I hope the 100,000 pastors attending the Summit worldwide will learn what I learned from these two women: Believe in what you're doing. Do it. Trust God for the harvest.
April 10, 2008
Interview with Mark Yaconelli, author of Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry.
Yesterday morning we recapped Mark Yaconelli's talk from the first day of Shift 2008. Thanks to those of you who have left comments on this post, along with the reviews of the sessions with Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. During his session Mark spoke passionately and with a good dose of humor about some of the unglamorous aspects of serving in student ministries. And one point he bemoaned watching the "good youth groups" at summer camp walking around with their Bibles while his students were "lighting marijuana cigarettes and sneaking off to the bushes."
Leading up to this conference the Shift organizers posted a number of podcast interviews with some of the folks who are speaking this week. Yesterday, immediately following his session, we got Mark Yaconelli in the studio to ask some follow-up questions. Take a listen.
Posted by UrL Scaramanga at April 10, 2008
April 9, 2008
Mark Yaconelli makes the case that broken and empty is better.
The second session at Shift began with a plea from Bo Boshers, the Executive Director of Youth Ministries for the Willow Creek Association. He shared that a survey of this conference's attendees showed that 67% of the youth leaders and students are not being mentored. "Folks, we've got to get this one right!" he said. It seems that the need for one-on-one relationships in youth ministry is one of the shifts the conference organizers are concerned with.
Mark Yaconelli, who just finished speaking, pointed out another major shift he believes must happen. Through a wide-ranging talk Mark kept coming back to his theme of emptiness and brokenness. Given the many resources, curriculum, and programs available at the conference, it was almost ironic to hear Mark tell youth pastors, "You don't need anything. You need less. You can come to a conference and get so overwhelmed that you forget you already have everything you need. Your love of your kids and your desire to love God is enough."
UPDATE. Here are some video highlights from this session.
Mark began his session by reading Luke 5:1-11. He pointed out that Jesus' first would-be disciple only had empty boats and their time to offer. Mark contrasted this passage with a fictional story of a youth pastor who decides to put on an event for his youth group on Cinco de Mayo called "Cinco de Jesus." As he humorously described this frantic leader making preparations and inviting students to the event, it was evident from the audience's laughter that they understood this scenario. The guy behind me muttered, "I've been there," when Mark finished his story by saying that only two kids showed up to this spectacular event.
It is the tension between the desire to do big things and the reality of our brokenness that Mark kept returning to. Youth leaders first enter the ministry because they desire to serve as spiritual guides to students. According to Mark, the demands of church ministry quickly can distract from that initial simple calling.
The calling gets switched when you get into a church. The calling was to be a spiritual guide, a spiritual leader. Which feels different than what the church and families are asking us to do. To be a spiritual guide you have to spend time in the Spirit, and when we spend time in the Spirit we realize God is asking us to be broken- to be free of our own plans and agendas.
Has this been the case for you? Does your initial calling into ministry seem different than what you actually spend your time on? Do you agree with Mark that your calling is primarily to be a spiritual guide?
It was clear from this session that Mark does not think a large youth ministry is the same as a successful youth ministry. In fact, ministry that is small and challenging may actually be what God has in mind for a leader.
What if our youth ministry is our spiritual discipline? All our weaknesses are exposed in youth ministry. Thank God for those kids who are bringing out those things that are unhealed in us, the broken things. Without them you might think you didn't need God, that you didn't need to pray.
While I love what Mark is getting at, I wonder how it would "work" in a local church. Let's hear from you. Is it possible to have a youth ministry that regularly allows room for brokenness and emptiness? How grateful are you for the types of weaknesses that are exposed in you because of your ministry? Finally, are you able to take a regular Sabbath break that might allow for an awareness of the brokenness Mark described as essential for ministry?
March 2, 2007
And other ministry lessons from the creator of Veggie Tales.
How can a church leader keep their soul rooted in Christ and still keep pace with their ministry? The next issue of Leadership, due in mailboxes in April, will focus on that question. Phil Vischer may seem like an unlikely person to address the darker corners of a pastors' souls, but his new book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story about God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables (Nelson, 2007), wrestles with questions every church leader should be asking.
In 2000, Phil Vischer was running the largest animation studio between the coasts, had revolutionized Christian family entertainment by selling thirty million Veggie Tales videos, and was named one of the top ten people to watch in worldwide religion. Vischer's vegetable empire, better known as Big Idea Productions, seemed poised to become a Christian Disney.
But by 2003 the dream was over. After a heartbreaking court decision, later overturned on appeal, Big Idea declared bankruptcy and Vischer had to sell the company's assets, including his computer animated characters Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. We spoke with him recently about his life after Big Idea, and how God has transformed his understanding of ministry.
In the book you talk about growing up in evangelicalism. How did that shape your sense of mission when you started Big Idea?
In college I heard a sermon in chapel about knowing God's will. It was given by a former mathematician. He said that if God's will is not clear we should use the test of spiritual expediency. Which of the two choices in front of me will impact more lives? That one is God's will. My evangelical upbringing said more impact is better. It's better to be Bill Bright than Mother Teresa. Better to impact millions at once than one at a time. God has given us limited time and resources and we have to help as many people as possible - not just two or three. Mother Teresa should have franchised a system for feeding the poor on a massive scale. She needed an MBA.
When did that perspective begin to change?
Near the end we were selling a gazillion [Veggie Tales] videos and I was getting four hundred fan letters a day, but one day I was reading my Bible and I came across the verse that lists the fruit of the Spirit. It occurred to me that none of those things were present in my life. It didn't say the fruit of the Spirit is impact, large numbers, or selling lots of videos. I realized something was not right.
I began asking, how am I supposed to live? I thought I had that figured out, but evidently I was completely wrong. So over three months I went through all of Paul's letters and wrote down every directive or instructive statement he made. And when I read all of those statements it became clear that the gospel I had was a sham. It was more the gospel of Benjamin Franklin than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was more about self-improvement, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and going out and changing the world. It was American cultural values masquerading as the words of Christ.
What is your understanding of success now?
Now I understand God has a unique journey for each of us with unique measures of success. Now I ask myself, have I done what God has asked me to do? Am I walking with him daily? Success has very little to do with where I end up. I don't know exactly why, but we seem wired to look for numerical results for affirmation. But success in ministry cannot be about measurable impact.
What advice do you have for church leaders? How can we keep our souls healthy?
I think we all have to start with a good self-assessment. That is what I did when I was sitting in the wreckage of my world-changing ministry reading the fruit of the Spirit and not finding it in my life. We should have peace. We should have joy. And that doesn't mean we should force ourselves to have it, because we can't. It will come from us when we've let go of our life, when we've let go of our ministry, when we've let go of any aspiration for having an impact. When it's just us and God we'll find the joy and the peace. Then, we can get back to work and help other people follow that path.
You can read more of the interview with Phil Vischer in the spring issue of Leadership.
January 23, 2007
For all you women out there, I'm thrilled to announce the launch of Gifted for Leadership. It's a new resource designed specifically for Christian women who are capable, called, and gifted leaders. Unfortunately, many Christian women in leadership feel alone in their calling. They need a place where they can converse about the issues they face, encourage one another, and challenge each other. They want something different from the women's ministry resources and events that discuss issues unique to women. They want tools that visit topics that are not unique to women, but that approach them from a woman's perspective.
That's why we're producing a blog, a free monthly e-mail newsletter (you can sign up at the blog), and - coming soon - a collection of downloadable booklets. These tools will equip, encourage, challenge, and unite women who exercise leadership gifts in church and parachurch ministry, in business, and at home. They'll also build a community of women with leadership gifts who can challenge and support one another and grow together.
Like Out of Ur, "Gifted for Leadership" is a resource of Christianity Today International, produced in partnership with the editors of Leadership journal. I'm very excited to launch this blog and to tell you about our Gifted for Leadership philosophy:
We believe that people who have the spiritual gift of leadership are called to lead, not for their own benefit, but for the sake of nurturing the body of Christ. Women with leadership gifts, as with all gifts, are obligated to use those gifts in the ways and the places God has called them to. We are committed to speaking with these values:
Biblical truth - We always look at leadership issues through a biblical lens.
Reality - We are realistic about the issues, struggles, challenges, opportunities, and joys women leaders face.
Honesty - We are committed to addressing reality with honesty and without apology.
Redemption - We express ourselves without bitterness. When speaking from personal pain, we point to hope and
Healing - even if our healing process is incomplete. This is not a forum for mere arguments or expressions of personal anguish.
Love - We care about women in leadership and want to make personal connections with them.
Equipping - We help women get better, and more confident, in what they do.
Encouragement - We want women to feel good about the gifts God has given them, and we help them see how they can use those gifts. We love and root for the church and its people.
Challenge - We challenge women to use their leadership gifts, pursue spiritual growth, and think deeply.
Unity - We help women rise above the arguments and judgments about where they should lead. Instead, we agree that we are all obligated to use our gifts in the ways God has called us to do so.
If you're committed to these values, please join this conversation. Let's encourage each other to use the gifts God has given us.
November 16, 2006
In a recent issue of Leadership, Sally Morgenthaler shared the story of her husband’s sexual addiction that resulted in a felony conviction and years in prison. Through that painful experience, Morgenthaler came to see how pastoral ministry can actually contribute to the addictive behaviors that destroy many pastors and their families. Here is an excerpt from her article.
Religious culture has a hard time with pastors and pastor's families who have flaws. Thousands of pastors serve congregations that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, expect their leaders to maintain (at least for public viewing) near-perfect marriages, near-perfect families, and near-perfect lives.
Granted, certain kinds of church attendees are attracted to "bad-boy" clergy: those who tell and re-tell their stories of wild living, knowing that they will draw certain kinds of people simply because they have lived life on the edge. When a pastor is vulnerable for the right reasons, not just to entertain the masses, but to humbly demonstrate the power of the gospel, it is a positive step.
But let's not be fooled into thinking that "having a past" gives a pastor permission to be human in the present. More than a few congregations function with this unspoken proviso: "Pastor, we love the fact that you've walked on the wild side. It makes you fun to listen to. You're down-to-earth, we're not afraid to bring our neighbors. But your past is just that: the past." Even former bad boys get stuck living on pedestals at altitudes inhospitable for anyone less than angelic.
And it is not only congregations that build pedestals. Many pastors paint unrealistic pictures of themselves. This kind of leader carefully crafts a leadership icon, rather than presenting his God-given, multi-faceted self. This kind of leader sets himself up for failure. The heat of congregational stress, or simply the wear and tear of the mundane, will wear through the veneer to what is really there.
Image building is a dangerous game. And it's at the core of addictive behavior. Addictive family systems are built on image, from the practice of keeping secrets (the "no-talk" rule), looking good to the community at all costs, to living a double life. If a pastor comes into the ministry with an addictive family background or has otherwise developed addictive tendencies, a congregational system that requires him to uphold an impossible, squeaky-clean image is going to function like a match to gasoline.
Whenever pastors try to hide behind this patina, the chances of latent addictive behavior escalating is extremely high. The more impossibly perfect the pastoral image, the greater the need to engage in taboo behavior.
Getting what they owe me
A large percentage of pastors enter the ministry because they want to give people what God wants them to have. However, there is a dark side: when a pastor gauges this primarily by the admiration and esteem he receives in return. To the congregation, he intimates: "I will overwork to emotional and physical exhaustion; I will deplete myself and my family; I will be everything you expect me to be if you give me the requisite status, appreciation, and financial compensation in return."
This unwritten contract is often the people-pleasing pastor's demise. The reason is simple: no pastor can fulfill all of a congregation's expectations. Congregations by their very nature are filled with sinful, unrealistic, needy people who will take whatever the pastor gives and still keep coming back for more. When these people in positions of power begin doling out helpings of criticism instead of admiration, the unwritten contract is broken. The pastor begins to simmer in a potent marinade of entitlement.
At this juncture any addictive behavior begins to look really good. After everything he's done for his congregation, the people-pleasing pastor gives in to the feeling that he more-than-deserves the little piece of pleasure he's beginning to nurse on the side. Co-dependency has its price, and it isn't cheap. When a pastor gets tired of giving and not getting back, he'll find some way to make up the difference. It is only a matter of when.
Unrealized dreams of success
For over two decades, the entrepreneurial, multi-programmed church has been altering what people expect out of a church, and the concept of the church leader has also changed. Pastors must be visionaries, risk-takers, and innovators, as well as spiritual guides. They are expected to be top-of-the-heap speakers as well, their stage skills honed to the highest cultural standards.
Realistically, very few pastors are cut out for this kind of leadership. The average pastor may be at his best as teacher, coach, or theological guide. He might shine as a catalyst: a convener of collaborative vision and process; a facilitator of deep community. If he tends toward the empathetic and intuitive, he may excel as a nurturer, counselor, wound-dresser, or heart-holder. But he is not megachurch material.
Tragically, some of these so-called misfits will turn to an addiction, an escape out of what they see as a no-win proposition: become someone else, fit the mold, or fail. Instead of pushing back on leadership stereotypes that have long deserved questioning; instead of focusing on their strengths and becoming who God crafted them to be, they cave in.
Addiction, whatever the substance or behavior, then becomes a welcome oblivion, especially to those who have visited that oblivion before.
October 5, 2006
Leadership editor Marshall Shelley is in Atlanta this week for the Catalyst Conference, where almost 10,000 mostly younger leaders of churches are meeting to discuss ministry in today's culture. Here's his second report.
Today was the conference's first full day, and in addition to a solid lineup of speakers (Andy Stanley, Marcus Buckingham, George Barna, John Maxwell, and Gary Haugen), the hit of the day, at least for me since my momma was raised in the hills of eastern Tennessee, was the surprise appearance of comedian Jeff Foxworthy ("If you put your TV that works on top of your TV that doesn't work, you may be a redneck").
Foxworthy had traveled to Kenya this past spring with Andy Stanley and some others to visit various ministries. He had fun with the audience pointing out that his definition of "redneck" is "a glorious absence of sophistication," which applies to many of the key characters in the Bible:
Samson, who grew "the mother of all mullets" and who caught 300 foxes, tied them in pairs with tails tied to a burning torch, and set them loose to burn the fields of their despised neighbors, the Philistines? "Sounds like a redneck."
How about David, who killed somebody with a slingshot, sneaked into a cave to play a trick on somebody who was going to the bathroom in there, and then spied over the fence on a naked neighbor. "That's as redneck as it gets."
Here are some other, less blue-collar, impressions from the day:
Andy Stanley retold the story of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar's madness, and Belshazzar's feast, and had everyone repeat the refrain that's repeated in Daniel 4 and 5: "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes." The main takeaways:
1. Leadership is a stewardship.
2. Leadership is temporary.
3. Leaders are accountable.
4. Therefore, be diligent, fearless, and humble.
This was a refreshing opening message at a conference that some of the people sitting around me had criticized in past years for its undercurrent of "If you do ministry the way Andy and John tell you to, your church will grow like theirs." This clearly acknowledged God's sovereign and unpredictable way of putting unlikely people in leadership.
George Barna preached his message of Revolution, celebrating his impression that "some of the most committed Christ followers aren't finding a meaningful connection to the local church, so they're doing church apart from local congregations." As interviewer Gabe Lyons suggested, Barna came across not as a researcher (even though Barna claims his conclusions are based on research), but as a prophet.
My understanding of the difference between a researcher and a prophet is that a researcher discloses the methodology used for coming to his conclusions. By this definition, Barna must be a prophet.
John Maxwell talked about "natural selection" (my term, not his), that is, the unavoidable inequalities of leadership. People's gifting for leadership isn't all the same. He claimed that anyone can go from a low level to a high level of spirituality because it's a choice people make. (I'll pass on the theology embedded in that.) But not all people have the potential to be strong leaders, because it's a gift and a skill. And if a person is a level 2 as a leader, they can work hard and reach a level 4 or 5, but they'll never become a level 9. Only people who are born as a level 6 or 7 can ever hope to become a level 9.
The implication: if you want to develop strong leaders, don't waste your time with people of low potential. Focus on those who can reach the higher levels. He cited the example of Jesus, who didn't spend equal amounts of time with all people, nor even with all the disciples. He focused on the three, then the twelve, then everyone else.
While this may be true, it's also true that Jesus made sure to spend significant "face time" and "touch time" with the lame, blind, and powerless. IMHO, this is an element often lacking among those who choose to spend their quality time only with those of great leadership potential.
Finally, Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission brought the most moving presentation of the day, describing his work freeing slaves from captivity and forced labor in south Asia and young girls sold into the sex trade in other parts of the world. He pointed out the Bible's cry against injustice, which is not some trivial "getting caught in the 10-items-or-less express line at the store behind someone with 13 items." But injustice is "people with power taking something from people who lack power." His combination of Christian passion, a former prosecuting attorney's eye for evidence, and his legal expertise showed us we don't need to "sink into the paralysis of despair" over the enormity of the problems, but by putting what we can offer into God's hands, injustice can be broken.
He concluded with the story of a young girl, taken from her home and forced to work in a Southeast Asia brothel. After collecting the evidence and working with the right authorities, agents of the International Justice Mission were able to free her and return her to her family. On the wall of the room where she had been so unjustly used, the girl had scratched these verses from Psalm 27:
The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid?
When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.
I don't think I'll ever read those verses in the same way again.
Much to think about today, and much to live out.
September 20, 2006
Last week a study was released by economists called "No Booze? You May Lose." Researches found that people who drink alcohol make more money and may have an advantage in social settings. But does the same hold true for pastors? Author, professor, pastor, and regular contribut-Ur, David Fitch is back to discuss the popular restriction on clergy to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Are such rules helpful, and could they possibly be making us fat?
On August 25th, Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled "Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?" In the piece, she recited Adam Ant's lyrics in the 80's "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking are abusing food as a substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. For support, Falsani quotes a Purdue University study that concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. In fact, the study states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking, and even dancing are prohibited, "overeating has become the accepted vice."
My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be "an adventure in missing the point," to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.
If we prohibit certain behaviors for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the mature character for ministry in the first place? If drunkenness and chemical addiction is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment? By totally prohibiting alcohol and tobacco we are not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has mature character. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco or alcohol to food.
I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. That's not my point. I am someone who's had food and weight problems. And I've had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the "Real" underlying problem.
Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for helping us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the "Real" in ways that surprise us. I might just suggest a Zizekian view of our denominational holiness codes - over eating is the symptom of the Real. The zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture by forbidding alcohol and tobacco, has in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the "hard kernel of the Real" has erupted in the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes reveal the Truth. In Zizek's words, "we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.
In the end, character is about the ordering of one's appetites towards God's purposes in creation through a purified vision of Christ and His glory. If such desires are not ordered, if such desires are not integrated, holiness codes can only cover up the existing problem. The holiness codes then become a case of misrecognition. And as Zizek states, "the Truth arises from misrecognition." Thus we have obesity as an epidemic in our churches.
More and more, the new generations cannot stomach these holiness codes. I have regularly met with outstanding candidates for ministry who raise their eyebrow at my denomination's persistence on its holiness codes for clergy. This is because these codes are not holy. Instead, they trivialize holiness. The real question for us holiness denominations, if we are ever to be taken seriously by the postmodern generations (and our credibility slips everyday we hold onto to these "legalistic and unbiblical" codes of behavior - e.g. there is no Bible verse prohibiting drinking alcohol, quite the contrary), is whether we have the wherewithal to be sanctified in such a way as to be trusted with a drink or a stogie.
The real issue that our denominational leaders should focus on concerning the fitness of clergy is the commitment to a holy life and what that looks like in community. Obviously this refers to issues like drunkenness, addictions that reveal our lack of dependence upon God including tobacco, pornography, gambling, and yes, food! But this should also include how we handle money, how we engage the poor, how we speak to our neighbors, whether we engage in conflict in holy and Christ like ways. We should not resort to legalism! To the postmodern generations, "no alcohol, no tobacco" speaks only of rules, not holiness.
August 28, 2006
David Fitch was recently invited by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to speak on a panel during their new student orientation. Each of the five panel members was to present a response to the question: "Where is the church now and where should it go?" Fitch, who is a pastor, professor, and regular contributor to Out of Ur, shares his response with us in this post.
Where is the church now and where should it go? When I say church here, I speak about the evangelical church, the church where I have been born, become a pastor and an ordained servant of Christ. I believe we as a church in America are in trouble. I believe we've lost our way. I believe we have a.) accommodated ourselves to American culture in such a way that we have become another example of the mistake of protestant liberalism. And in the process, I believe we have b.) lost our calling that is given to all "the saved," that is the calling to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ amidst society and the nations.
In regard to a.) I believe the evangelical church in its attempt to reach those without the gospel has accommodated itself to the languages of individualism, the habits of consumer capitalism, and the organizational forces of American business. We could do this because we have viewed salvation as largely an individualist transaction instead of the participation of God's people in the cosmological salvation of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We could do this because we placed such faith in secular discourses like modern science and business technique (apologetics, business principles of leadership). In the process we have organized church life around the busy lives of Americans living the dreams of capitalism and democracy that leave little time for mission, community and worship. I fear the "church" for evangelicals has in George Hunsberger's words, become "the distributor of religious goods and services." As a result, I fear we evangelicals are becoming less and less noticeable and barely distinguishable as a people from the rest of our society who live as if God does not exist.
In regard to b.) I believe that evangelical church has lost the calling of God upon us to be the church of Jesus Christ in society. We evangelicals don't need the church to live salvation because we have personal salvation augmented by reason, science and immediate experience it seems. In some ways frankly, we can do without the Church. And so, the church in essence is left to be a sideshow to what God is doing for, in and through individuals. We no longer have a need for the church to be the social manifestation of His Lordship where He reigns over the powers of sin, evil and death, the very inbreaking of the kingdom of God, where His mighty works are made manifest and put on display before the world (1 Pet 2:9), where hospitality is such an overpowering ethos that the lost in this world are compelled by this invitation. As it is right now, we lack a way of life that people look at and see and say, "Look what manner of life has been made possible in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ." Our witness has been lost because we don't see "the church" as God's strategy for the salvation of the world.
Where we must go? Let us reclaim the practices of being His Body. I count these as community, hospitality, embodied witness, truthful formative worship, preaching of the Word, justice both internal and then external to His body, spiritual formation as a Body, and the catechesis of our children as a community. The church becomes a culture in order to engage a culture. The church is the social strategy. We cannot know what parts of culture, justice or works of righteousness are faithful in the world, until we have discerned them as His Body from which we engage the world and perhaps make partnerships in the world, all under the Lordship of Christ. In short, let us embody the mission of Christ, in not just what we do or say, but also in who we are.
August 4, 2006
When my wife and I interviewed at my present church she asked what expectations the congregation had of staff spouses. She was told, "We just expect spouses to be church members like everyone else - serving, attending worship, and living uprightly. You know, no smoking pot in the back of the church." That's a pretty low bar, my wife thought, but one she could reach.
Of course, things have not always been so easy for clergy wives. Opinion Journal recently posted an article by Lauren Winner (author of "Girl Meets God" and "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity") about the changing expectations placed on spouses of ministers. Below are a few excerpts. Read Winner's entire article here.
Until fairly recently, hiring a minister or rabbi was a two-for-one deal: Into the bargain, churches and synagogues got A Wife, who would host teas, teach religious-education classes, sing in the choir. All this, of course, without a salary.
But she did get a job title--the diminutive rebbetzin in Jewish communities and the clunkier, and somehow more ominous, minister's wife in Protestant circles?
Second-wave feminism was, for clerical wives, a double-edged sword: No longer were women accorded honor and respect simply because they were married to a minister. And some clergy wives, reading "The Feminine Mystique" along with everyone else, began to rethink all those hours they had devoted to polishing the church silver. A role that had once seemed noble began to seem, well, exploitative?
Why is the wife's contribution to that work somehow defined by her husband? ("I sometimes muse that if I died, my husband would remarry, and someone else would assume my role in his ministry, but that if he died, I would not only lose my husband, I would also lose my position as a colleague in campus ministry," says one of my friends, the wife of a campus minister.)
?The problem with a facile feminist critique of the role of clergy wife is that it misses the real beauty of the collaboration sometimes found in clerical marriages. There is something wonderfully seamless about their lives--their work and their marriage is all of a piece. Husband and wife are profoundly knitted together, and their shared calling offers something of a rebuke to the hyper-individualism that characterizes so many American marriages. Indeed, they may set a nice example for the flock.
February 25, 2006
Developing a multicultural congregation is something many people have talked about but few have done. David Anderson is one of the few. As founder and pastor of Bridgeway Community Church, a multicultural church in Columbia, Maryland, Anderson knows the challenges of ministry. But he encouraged pastors on Friday morning to never settle for less than what God has called us to.
An engaging and colorful storyteller, Anderson spoke about his recent purchase of a 1991 Ford F-150 pickup truck, and the thrill of shifting into all-wheel-drive when he got stuck in a snow filled ditch. After reveling in the masculinity of the moment (Anderson wants a bumper stick that simply declares "TESTOSTERONE"), he shared an important principle: in ministry we get stuck from time to time and we need to shift gears.
Anderson spoke from the story of Terah, the father of Abram, in Genesis 11. Terah set "out of Ur" (we didn't pay Anderson to say that) with his family for the land of Canaan. But along the way he settled in Haran, and never left. He settled short of his goal and died without ever making it to Canaan.
Anderson spoke passionately about our tendency to "get stuck in Haran," to settle short of what God has called us to. Offering many examples, he said one thing that will stay with me: "Some of us have set out for the land of ministry, but we've settled for the land of church activity."
No one denies that ministry is hard. It's understood that we'll need to stop from time to time. But Anderson reminded us that "there's a difference between being stopped and being stuck." Stopping, resting, and rejuvenating are good things, but being stuck is not an option. Rather than settling in Haran, Anderson says, "No matter where you're stuck, when life shifts, change gears and move on. Because shift happens."
How do we shift gears and get unstuck? Well, one way is to escape the trap of victimization. We'll never get moving by blaming everyone else for our condition. Second, Anderson says we need to embrace the "newness of God." We serve a God who loves to do new things, and we'll never experience them if we are stuck on yesterday, fixated on today, and ignoring tomorrow.
Finally, we can't sit around and wait for a clear vision. Abram, picking up the story in Genesis 12, hears God's voice to leave Haran and journey to Canaan, but he isn't given a full vision or understanding of his calling. But Anderson said we shouldn't wait until we've got a full picture. He said, "when the voice is clear even when the vision is not - get ready to go."
Both David Anderson's and Tony Campolo's messages focused on obedience, endurance, and the necessity to take risks. They both inspired me to think once again about my calling. What has Christ called me to? What is my Canaan? And in what ways am I making myself comfortable in Haran?
That may be the greatest blessing of the National Pastors Convention for me. By getting out of my ministry context (a.k.a. "bubble") for a few days, I was able to focus again on the big picture, to put things back into perspective, and return to my church with a renewed focus on what really matters. NPC has been a time to stop, rest, and rejuvenate so that in the months ahead I don't get stuck. Stuck is not an option.
February 23, 2006
I've heard Tony Campolo speak enough to know you're in trouble when he takes off his glasses and squints his eyes so tight they disappear into his skull. At that moment his brain is loading a spiritual bombshell into his mouth and preparing it for delivery. Campolo's bombs found their target on Wednesday night at the National Pastors Convention is San Diego.
He formed his talk around a sociological study (Campolo is a sociologist by training) conducted with people over the age of 95. The survey asked them, if you could do life over again what would you do differently? Most responses fell into three categories:
1. Reflect more
2. Risk more
3. Do more that will live on after I'm gone
While each of his points were powerful, I was especially impacted by Campolo's exhortation that church leaders take up their prophetical calling to be the opinion shapers of the culture - a calling that always involves risk.
Campolo spoke about the Old Testament roles of priest and prophet. The priests cared for the people, comforted them, and blessed them. The prophets, on the other hand, lived in the hills, came down to make everyone angry, and then went back to the hills. They were the troublemakers.
But we pastors have a problem. We are called to be both priests and prophets. That means, says Campolo, that we are called to "comfort the troubled, and trouble the comfortable." Although this appears to be a contradiction, Campolo was insistent that we can and must do both. He says "it's the work of the pastor that legitimates the work of the prophet." By caring and loving our people we win the right to speak the hard truth into their lives.
What is the hard truth we need to be prophetically declaring? Campolo (glasses removed and squinted eyes buried in his skull) rebuked evangelical church leaders for being silent on issues like poverty, education, war, government sponsored torture, and economic injustice.
Referring to John 6 where Jesus alienated thousands of his followers through his challenging teaching, Campolo called us to "risk more;" to not be afraid of alienating people by declaring unpopular truth; to be like Christ who only had twelve followers remain (and that was only because they had no where else to go).
For some time I've been wondering why there are so few prophetic voices in our churches. We have many prophets in evangelical America, many willing to say difficult things into a comfortable culture. But most of these voices are not pastors. We seem to push the prophets out of our pulpits and into academia, the conference circuit, or publishing. Where are the "in the pulpit" pastors who are confronting and shaping the church with their prophetic imaginations?
Campolo says that many passionate young people enter ministry with a prophetic calling, but loose the fire in their belly because they become scared. Fear is clearly a significant reason the pulpit has lost it's influence. But are there other reasons as well? Are we training pastors to be prophets in our seminaries and schools? Or, are we training them to be managers of religious institutions? Do pastors still believe they have the capacity to actually change our world and culture? Or, has the once influential function of the clergy been neutered by secularization?
Yes, I know I am overstating things (this is a blog, ya know). I am aware that there are some prophetic pastors out there, but as Campolo reminded us they are a rare and endangered species.
February 22, 2006
Leadership's editorial team is posting from sunny San Diego this week. We've gathered with 1700 other church leaders for the National Pastors Convention. At the opening session Methodist bishop Will Willimon spoke (with his charming and colorful Southern humor) about our pastoral tendency to control and squelch the Spirit of God.
Building his case from John 3 where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born from above, Willimon found it interesting that the only person Jesus told, "You must be born again" was someone "like him" - a church leader. Nicodemus' responds to Jesus with a question church leaders can relate to, "How?"
"How?" is a question pastors ask a lot.
How do I lead my church? How do I minister effectively? How do I deal with conflict? How do I grow my church? How do I (fill in the blank)? "How" is why we buy books, attend conferences, and go to seminars. Modern evangelical pastors are all about the "how." And we base our credibility as leaders on our ability to tell other people "how." We give them three-point sermons on how to do all sorts of things.
But Jesus irritates us by not sharing our passion for pragmatic answers. Jesus responds to Nicodemus' question, "How can a man be born again," with an unashamedly ambiguous answer. He says, "The wind blows where it wishes ?you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Willimon says that like Nicodemus many pastors have a desire to control, manage, stabilize, and harness God. But we serve a Living God, and this God does not yield to the desires of men. His Spirit goes where he chooses, blowing freely like the wind. This, said Willimon, "is why we nail down our pews." We don't want the Spirit to blow in and disrupt our perfectly managed ministries.
I've seen this controlling tendency in myself, and my church - maybe you have too. We assemble boards, committees, and task forces to manufacture policies by which our ministries function. These policies determine the what, when, and how of ministry. They constrain the Living God and his people to minister within a bureaucratic framework that keeps us comfortably in control. The wind of the Spirit may be blowing outside, but we'd never know it behind church walls sealed shut with policies and procedures.
That is the danger of always building ministry around "how." History is full of Spirit-filled missional movements whose power waned as they become bureaucratic institutions. In the process of bottling the wind they lost it. But has this tendency come to mark a generation of church leaders enamored with the pragmatics of ministry - its procedures, policies, structures, and plans. Have we forgotten that the beauty and power of the Spirit cannot be bottled and stored on a shelf?
The mysterious movement of God's Spirit is what separates spiritual leadership from all other kinds. Some want us to believe that "leadership is leadership" whether in business, government, or church. And we can take principles from one arena and employ them in the others. I don't believe that. Sure, pragmatics are transferable, but the work of the Living God is something altogether mysterious and uncontrollable.
December 6, 2005
Just when I thought commercialism in the church couldn't get any worse I read this from the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Attention, pastors: You have just four weeks remaining to work a lion, a witch or a wardrobe into your next sermon. Walt Disney Pictures is so eager for churches to turn out audiences for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opens Friday, that it's offering a free trip to London - and $1,000 cash - to the winner of its big promotional sermon contest.
It seems Disney isn't content with having Narnia merchandise, posters, and books in the church--the Mouse wants a view from the pulpit too.
The article quoted above by David O'Reilly cites the financial success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as key to Disney's decision to market its film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' book directly to churches. One can hardly fault Disney for making a savvy business decision--Gibson's movie raked in over $600 million worldwide.
Far more disturbing is the lack of outcry from the faithful at a blatant attempt by a secular power to manipulate the preaching ministry of the church. The Southern Baptist Convention voiced public disapproval of Disney's policy concerning homosexual couples back in 1997, but where are the cries for a boycott when the Mouse attempts to shape pastors' sermons with promises of free vacations and cash? Which is a greater threat to the ministry of the Gospel and the integrity of the church?
Isn't this why the framers of the Bill of Rights created the First Amendment--to keep the government from preventing (or manipulating) the free practice of religion? I would hope church leaders would not tolerate the federal government manipulating the pulpit ministry as was the case in Nazi Germany, but is welcoming the intrusion of a multi-national entertainment company any different?
Perhaps the closest thing to Disney's sermo-mercials in recent years has been the sponsoring of a worship concert by Chevrolet in 2002 that involved displaying trucks and SUVs in church foyers. Steve Bets, a marketing manager for the auto maker, explained Chevy's motivation:
"Sponsoring the Come Together and Worship Tour provides Chevrolet and local Chevy dealers an opportunity to reach our target consumers, particularly families....This is a ground-breaking marketing effort for Chevrolet. With Contemporary Christian Music growing exponentially compared to every other genre of music for the past two years, Chevrolet recognizes the marketing potential with this tour."
The obvious question is how far will it go? Where do we, as church leaders entrusted with the ministry of the Gospel, draw the line? When do we become guilty of serving both God and money (or the corporations seeking to make it)? Maybe your next baptism service could be sponsored by Evian? Perhaps Nintendo can take out advertising space in your children's ministry newsletter, or maybe you're content with just having a Mouse on your shoulder while you preach.
October 13, 2005
Ben Folds' song "Rock Star" includes these lyrics:
You need their approval
To tell you you're cool
Hey, but look how you pay for it
Give the people what they want
You've got to give the people what they want
Got to give the people what they want
I'm a pastor and not a rock star (despite the blurring of those roles in recent years). Still, every time I retreat to the bookstore coffee shop to write another sermon I face the subtle temptation to tickle ears, to preach for approval, to be cool, and give the people what they want.
Next Sunday I have the responsibility to preach on one of the most challenging and disturbing texts in the New Testament. Matthew 7:21-23 has nothing to do with how to have a better marriage, discipline your kids, or any other felt-need people want scratched. It is a bold warning about the "many" who will be turned away from God's kingdom.
My struggle in preparing this message has not come from interpreting the text, or wrestling with theology and doctrine. My struggle comes from seminary instructors, church consultants, ministry books, and other pastors who have told me, explicitly and implicitly, to "always preach positive!" Decades of market research have shown that people don't like being told "thou shall not commit adultery," but rather "marriage is a blessing from God." They are put off by God's "commandments" and would rather ponder his "instructions."
It may be popular to keep things positive, but is it right? Are we handicapped in the pulpit by limiting the breadth of scripture's emotions to the uplifting and happy? A famous English sociologist/nanny taught us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But are we in danger of focusing so much on sugar in the American church that we neglect to add the medicine?
In the end I find myself fleeing from the temptation to people-please with the aid of two convictions. First, I am not ultimately accountable to the people I teach, but to the One in whose name I teach. And secondly, God has not only inspired the content of Scripture, but also the form it takes. Matthew 7:21-23 is a sober warning from Jesus about the danger of missing his kingdom. The form of this passage should also direct the manner in which I teach it. After all, I'm a pastor and not a rock star.