Ministry for the long haul

img_0065 “I’ve had enough, Lord.”

That cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 is familiar to many people in ministry.

Why was Elijah so distraught? Hadn’t he just witnessed astonishing displays of God’s power at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-46)? Sure. But if you’re a church leader, you’ve felt Elijah’s dejection. You know how often a big Sunday becomes a blue Monday.

Conventional wisdom says at least 1,500 pastors hang it up every month. I doubt the situation is that dire. Still, many ministers of the gospel are blue not just on occasional Mondays but constantly. They feel underpaid and overstretched, discouraged if not depressed. They say they no longer hear the music of God’s love. They’ve had their fill of crises, conflicts, and complaints. Their bodies may be in the pulpit, but their hearts no longer beat with gospel enthusiasm.

There have been times in my thirty years as a pastor when, like Elijah, I’ve wanted to walk away from ministry and try my hand at something else. But by the grace of God, I’m still in. I love preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and shepherding God’s people. And while many things have contributed to my survival, three key decisions have kept me going.

First, I have decided to expect difficulty. To be a pastor is to be called by Jesus into confict. I was naïve about this in the beginning. But I’ve come to agree with the evangelist Alan Redpath: “If you’re a Christian pastor, you’re always in a crisis—either in the middle of one, coming out of one, or going into one.” Pastors are in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, not to mention very broken people. And we ourselves are broken—fragile jars of clay, says Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Jonathan Edwards expected difficulty. In his farewell sermon in Northampton he said, “It often comes to pass in this evil world, that great differences and controversies arise between ministers and the people under their pastoral care.” Indeed. Many of you reading this post know exactly what Edwards was talking about.

Second, I have decided that I am me and not someone else. That may sound elementary, but it’s critical for ministry leaders to feel comfortable in their own skin, and (dare I say it?) to like themselves. As a mentor told me years ago, we minister out of who we are, not out of who we wish we were.

Shortly before his death in 1732, Thomas Boston wrote a little book titled, The Crook in the Lot: Or, the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. In that book Boston argued that everything—even our weaknesses, struggles, and failures— everything happens at God’s command and by God’s design.

Armed with faith in God’s sovereignty, we can relax and enjoy ministry. We can focus on our strengths and freely admit our faults. We can accept our limitations and say with the psalmist, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). And we don’t have to compare ourselves—to anyone! That’s good news in a culture that celebrates the big, grand, and slick and denigrates the small, ordinary, and faithful.

Third, I have decided that I need people. I can’t do ministry alone. I need helpers and I need friends.

No matter how loudly we may protest, most of us in ministry have a messianic complex. We believe we are God’s gift to the church. After all, we have the seminary degree, the right theology, the gifts and the experience. With Jesus’ help and people’s cooperation, we’ll grow the church!

The truth is, pastors are some of the loneliest folks around. According to research, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends. A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors. Like everyone else, people in ministry fear intimacy. We find excuses not to pursue community. And unless we’re careful, ministry tasks only contribute to our isolation.

I am your classic introvert. Nevertheless, I am intentional about being in the company of men and women who know me, love me, hold me accountable, help me laugh, and keep me sane. My wife and I belong to a small group. I meet every Wednesday with five men who know my sins and failings. I have lunch once a month with a pastor whom I’ve known since our seminary days. I have friends—not just the Facebook kind—with whom I regularly socialize and speak freely. And when it comes to ministry, I don’t try to do everything. My job is to equip and develop others, not keep ministry to myself. Wasn’t self-imposed isolation one of Elijah’s problems? “I am the only one left,” he said (1 Kings 19:10, 14). God broke the news to Elijah that 7,000 faithful Israelites had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

These three decisions have helped me see that ministry survival, while challenging, is not impossible. God has given us his Son, his Spirit, his Word, his promises, and his people to sustain our faith and fuel our joy. Take advantage of these means of grace and, God willing, you’ll be in ministry for the long haul.

Ministry is not efficient

A tragedy has unfolded in my neighborhood.

Some months ago, the county in which I live contracted with a new residential garbage collection service. They got every homeowner these enormous, new trash cans–one for recyclables and another for household garbage. The new cans are on wheels and they’re very nice. We load ourtrash-truck2 cans with trash and, once a week, we roll them down to the street to be picked up by the garbage service. All the guy in the driver’s seat has to do is operate a mechanical arm that reaches out, grabs the trash can, lifts it high in the air, turns it upside down, and whoosh–out spills the trash into the truck. The mechanical arm then lowers the can, places it back where it was on the street, and lickety split, off the truck goes to the next set of garbage cans.

It’s all very efficient and clean and wonderful.

The only thing is, something very precious has been lost in the process.

You see, before the county went with this fancy new garbage service, trash was collected the old fashioned way. A big, loud truck with a driver and a couple guys hanging off the back would lumber down the street, one house at a time. I often watched. It was laborious, thankless work. Sometimes trash was not in cans, and it would take the men a while to pick up the various bottles, boxes, and bags strewn by the road. Sometimes they would pause to talk to a homeowner on his driveway. They were not in a hurry.

There’s this family about five doors down from me. They have two little preschool-age girls. They knew that every Tuesday and Friday was trash pick-up day. So at about 9:00 a.m., when I would be heading out the door, I saw those two little girls standing with their mom at the end of their driveway. Waiting. Waiting for the garbage men. And it was the sweetest sight. When the truck drove up they would wave at the man behind the wheel. Then the two big guys on the back would hop off, walk over to the children, and say a few kind words. Sometimes the little girls would hand them an empty milk carton or cereal box. The men would pick up the cans, empty the garbage, pull the lever, and head off to the next house. The girls would giggle with glee and run back into the house with their mom.

A little encounter that took a couple of minutes but made lifelong memories for those little girls. I know, because I did the same thing when I was a kid.

But alas, no more. Garbage collection in my neighborhood has entered the 21st century. Those two little girls need to stay inside and get ready for school. It’s time they grew up. The mechanical arm doesn’t talk to little girls. The man behind the wheel sits behind a glass and pushes buttons. Nobody stands on the back of the truck.

It’s efficient, and clean, and wonderful. And sad.

So what’s this got to do with pastoral ministry? Everything. People want us pastors to get with it, to enter the 21st century and be more efficient and productive. They say there’s nothing worse than a lazy pastor who spends all his time reading and studying and praying and visiting and talking to people. Even our own hearts will often lie to us and say, “C’mon preacher, you’re moving too slowly. This church is too small! There’s got to be an easier way to do your job. You’re spending too much time on your sermons. You care too much about people’s aches and pains and sorrows. Get out there and build the church!”

The thing is, if I’ve learned anything as a pastor, ministry is mainly about relationships. People need to know, trust, and love you. You need to know your church members, love them, listen to them, and spend unhurried time with them. To borrow from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Contemplative Pastor, it’s actually the busy pastor who is the lazy one. Peterson writes,

…the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

God help us not to be busy pastors. Because ministry is not efficient. It’s “a long obedience in the same direction,” to again quote Eugene Peterson. Ministry is slow, arduous, laborious–just like garbage collection in the old days. But the result is depth, meaning, connection, roots, fruit, perpetuity, permanence. I’m convinced that’s what people long for in this too-busy world of ours.

Don’t let the world, the flesh, and the devil tell you to hurry up and work harder, faster, smarter. Go for depth. Sure, we need to redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph 5:16). But being a pastor is not efficient, and should not be.

Who am I and why did I write a book about ministry survival?

I’ve written a book for pastors, missionaries, and other people in Christian ministry. It’s called Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. But let’s be real. You don’t know me from Adam. You’ve never heard of me. Why would you pick up this book? Print

Maybe the following interview by Christianbook.com will help you get to know me and why I wrote Surviving Ministry:

Tell us a little about yourself. I have been a pastor since 1986, serving Presbyterian (PCA) churches in Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida. I’m an avid racquetball player, cyclist, guitar player, and fan of classic rock and historical fiction. My wife and I have been married since 1976. We have four children and eleven grandchildren. I maintain a website for church leaders called Surviving Ministry, as well as a blog called The Greener Grass.

What was your motivation behind this project? After being a pastor for twelve relatively tranquil years, I accepted a call that turned out to be extremely challenging. I was not a good fit for the culture of either the church or the community. Moreover, I was unprepared for the trials I would face. The church had been badly hurt by its previous pastors. During my time there we went through crisis after crisis. Some of them were my fault; others were not. After five years I was done. I thought my days as a pastor might be over. But by God’s grace, I found a position in another church and recovered my zest for ministry. This book is a record of lessons I learned during and since those five stormy years.

What do you hope folks will gain from this project? Even the best pastors and healthiest churches can go through storms of adversity. This book will help pastors and other ministry leaders look for the signs of an impending church storm, limit its damage, learn its lessons, and live with gospel optimism for the future. In addition, it will give them a layer of protection from ministry fatigue and failure so they may move forward in their calling with hope.

How were you personally impacted by working on this project? Writing this book was therapeutic. It helped me better understand my own story and how it shapes the way I do ministry both positively and negatively. I connected with many other pastors who shared their experiences with me. I came to a clearer understanding of factors that lead to organizational conflict and how to recover from it.

Who are your influences, sources of inspiration or favorite authors? Over the years I’ve been impacted by the writings and lives of several figures in church history, particularly Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, John Murray, etc.; and more recently by J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, John Piper, Tim Keller, and many others.

Anything else you’d like readers to know: Failure can be not only the means of identifying heart idols but of finding a new, more gospel-centered way to live and minister to others.

To purchase the book, here’s one place you can go: https://www.christianbook.com/surviving-ministry-weather-storms-church-leadership/michael-osborne/9781498280280/pd/280283

Or, if you prefer Amazon: http://ow.ly/N66K305DJkw

 

 

Here’s My “Key Life Pastor Chat” with Steve Brown

Recently I visited the Orlando studios of the Key Life Radio Network to be interviewed 2016-09-21-12-41-36by author and seminary professor Steve Brown. He wanted to feature me on his October 2016 “Pastor Chat” regarding my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. We were joined by fellow pastors and friends Randy Greenwald and Kevin Labby.

Steve asked me some probing questions about pastoral burnout, church conflict, and my own recovery from a difficult pastorate. If you’re going through a hard time in ministry, I hope this interview will (a) prove to you that you’re not alone, (b) give you some pointers, and (c) furnish you with hope and maybe even some laughter for the journey ahead.

Click here to listen to the interview. Click here to buy my book.

Do what you do best

sullyMy wife and I just watched the movie Sully. It tells the story of airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who on January 15, 2009, saved all 155 passengers and crew on board his disabled Airbus A320 by landing it on the Hudson River.

The moral of the movie was that sometimes, in order to survive, you have to do something radical.

I am no hero like Sully Sullenberger, and no movies will ever be made about the following story. But in 2013 I did something that some people would consider radical. I decided, after five years as senior pastor of my church, to trade roles with my able associate pastor, a man almost half my age. It was a move that was about seven months in the making, requiring the support of my elders and staff, numerous meetings, tons of communication, and the approval of 4/5 of the congregation.

It was a change not without risks. I’ve heard of only a couple cases where this kind of pastor switch worked. There were no guarantees my church would go for it or that it would prove satisfactory to me and my younger colleague. Many people have asked me why I did it. Some have credited me with humility. But as God knows quite well, humble is not one of my attributes. No, I was motivated by a simple desire–to do what I do best.

And doing what you do best is an important key to surviving ministry.

My journey began when I gave serious thought to the fact that I was not the young man I used to be. I would soon be sixty years old. So I took some time to ask myself some probing questions:

  • What’s my “sweet spot”? 
  • When am I at my best? 
  • Where can I make my most significant contribution in my last “third” of life?
  • How can I simplify my life in order to be at my peak for the Lord?
  • What should I focus on now?
  • How can I maximize my value to my church and the kingdom of God? 

I read the books Halftime by Bob Buford and From Success to Significance by Lloyd Reeb. These books gave me more questions to consider. I filled out the Strengths Finder and took the Birkman Method assessment. I reviewed my Myers-Briggs profile. And of course I prayed and talked with people whose counsel I value. I sensed that God was encouraging me to make adjustments in my life so as to finish well. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but it dawned on me that I didn’t have tons of time left. I didn’t want to wait another five or ten years to figure out what “finishing well” looks like. I needed to be proactive.

My self-study led me to several conclusions. Among them were the following:

  1. I’m a relational person. I enjoy working directly with people and helping them grow. The spotlight and the boardroom are not very appealing to me.
  2. The ministry role that brings me the greatest satisfaction and, I think, the greatest blessing to others is that of shepherd. Shepherding includes teaching and preaching, but also spending unhurried time with people, counseling, visiting, practicing hospitality, ministering to the grieving, leading small groups, working with children, leading task teams, training leaders, and the like. 
  3. Less energizing are the tasks associated with top-level, organizational leadership: i.e., leading on the “macro” level, motivating, analyzing problems, coming up with new and visionary plans, managing staff, leading the elder board, etc. Those are things I’ve done for nearly thirty years. I was ready for something different. 

I didn’t know what to do next until I attended a seminar at my denomination’s annual meeting. It was a seminar for older lead pastors. The speaker encouraged us to explore alternatives to retiring or switching churches. He said something like this: “If your people trust you, and if you have an associate pastor who respects you and whom you love, you ought to think about making a ‘lateral move’ instead of simply leaving. You ought to hand the baton off to that younger colleague, and stay in your church in a new role.” 

That was the kind of direction I was looking for. I spoke with my associate pastor and he was immediately captured by the idea. I spoke with my elders and they voiced support as well. Then it became a matter of figuring out how best to present the concept to my congregation.

I wrote a letter to the church and read it aloud at a congregational meeting. I told the people about my self-discoveries and the idea of “trading places” with my associate pastor. Many members expressed support. But as expected, others had questions and reservations. We formed an Advisory Team to lead the transition process, always aware that, in my church’s polity, the decision to change pastoral calls rests with the congregation. We created ways of getting people’s input and had several meetings. Finally, the congregation voted in favor of the pastoral transition. My younger colleague took the helm as lead pastor of my church, and I became an associate pastor specializing in discipleship and shepherding.

That was over three years ago. It’s working splendidly. I’m excited about my role. I am doing what I do best and ministering in areas that I love most. My younger colleague–now my boss!–would say the same.

But there is more.

My ministry shift was prompted not only by my desire for a productive final third of life, but by another, broader motivation. I hope older readers will weigh this paragraph well. We older ministry leaders have an obligation to help younger leaders reach their full potential. That’s what some church leaders did for me thirty years ago. It is vital (not to mention biblical) that we who are older pass the baton to those who are younger. (See this excellent article by David Mathis.) Not only that–the church must embrace change if we are going to stay ahead of the game and be culturally relevant to new generations of men and women. You may have seen the statistics. Vast numbers of young people are leaving the church during their college years, and many never come back. Thirty percent of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation. The US church is aging. In many places it is dying. Today, of about 350,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining. According to the Pew Research Center, the median age of members of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is 59. Seventy-one percent of our membership are above the age of 50. It is time for creative risk and new ventures if we are going to reverse these trends.

“Always reforming” needs to be more than just a slogan. As churches make necessary adjustments in order to be contextually relevant–while never compromising the gospel or watering down the Word–the kingdom advances. My ministry shift was not an effort to work less. Frankly I am working as hard or harder than ever! Nor was it a response to stress or disappointment or ministry burn-out. It was, I believe, a way of letting God surprise my church and me with all sorts of new and unexpected gifts of grace. I’m also hoping that what my colleague and I did will serve as a model for other church leaders to follow.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” If change was going to happen at my church, I knew it needed to start with me.

A pastor’s wife’s story

The following story was posted on August 3, 2016, on the website ThomRainer.com.

Please allow me to share my feelings about the last many yearlovedepart_couplesad_sadlove_badrelations of being a pastor’s wife. I tried on many occasions to talk to my husband about it (loneliness, neglect, wanting at least one evening a week together, lack of dating, etc.). We’ve gone to
marriage seminars, talked to mentor ministry couples, and, still, things don’t change.

He never schedules time for investing in our marriage and works all week in the office and then up all night on Saturdays getting his sermon ready. He leaves early Sunday mornings for preparations for the service and, by the time he gets home in the afternoon, he’s exhausted and definitely doesn’t feel like doing anything active or fun with the kids and me. He just wants to veg out on the couch.

When I try to talk about my feelings, I’m “complaining” and not “following the call for my life.” I’m so tired of the cycle of neglect, loneliness, rejection, and hurt that I hate going to church, don’t read my Bible anymore, and have to fight thoughts of divorce every single day. The church definitely feels like his mistress. I’m so hopeless and feel that I’m trapped. The one place I should be able to turn to, the church, is what is killing me on the inside.

If anyone has a recommendation for a fair and reasonable counselor…who is used to working discreetly with people in my and my husband’s position, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m down to my last resort before bailing.

The Greatest

A certain well-known mega-church pastor is quoted as saying that his church “is the greatest church in the world.”

I can’t imagine saying that.

I love my church and all, but it’s not the greatest church in the world. It’s pretty messed up, actually. We make mistakes, we don’t love the Lord as much as we should, we don’t love one another or people in our community as much as we should. I can imagine lots of greater churches than mine.

One of my church’s biggest problems is right here: I’m one of its pastors. I have a long way to go. I don’t have it all together, and neither do my fellow pastors. Elders, deacons, small group leaders, etc.: we’re all “weak and wounded, sick and sore,” as hymnwriter Joseph Hart said.

Look, if we’re going to ‘survive ministry,’ one of the things we pastors need to stop doing is evaluating ourselves, our churches, and each other by things like buildings, attendance, money, programs, music, geographical location, and such. The arrogance! My goodness, churches aren’t competing against each other! We’re competing against the idols of the day, all the things that capture people’s hearts and draw them away from the living God.

Every church where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is practiced is a dearly-loved, blood-bought manifestation of the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Statements like “my church is the greatest church in the world” only serve to discourage faithful ministers of the gospel and stoke the pride of people whose trust is in the wrong place.

OK, so maybe this pastor was simply trying to rally the troops or encourage his congregation. Still, it repulses me. If he’d said, “The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest church in the world,” I could get behind that. But neither a pastor nor his congregation can sustain the pressure of being “the greatest church in the world.” One of these days, the truth will seep out. Someone will fall. Then what?

Perhaps then that pastor will announce, “Jesus is the greatest Savior in the world.”

Speaking to the Senselessness

I woke up this morning to more horrible news of injustice in America. Five Dallas police officers were murdered and six more wounded by a sniper who reportedly was upset about recent killiDepressed womanngs of African Americans by white policemen. 

Sadness, anger, and worry for our nation are growing in my soul day by day. I got physically ill watching a video of one of the killings that have been posted online. I live in Orlando, Florida, where on June 12 of this year the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history took place. Fifty people (including the murderer) died and 53 were injured in a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. That same weekend, a singer-songwriter was shot to death while signing autographs at an Orlando concert venue. A few days later a child was killed by an alligator at one of the Disney parks. Our city has been shaken to the core.

What’s a pastor supposed to do when overcome by the senseless violence of the world? He should speak to and for his congregation. But what should he say? Here is what I wrote in our weekly e-newsletter that went out today:

I am reading the book of Amos in my daily Bible time. The prophet Amos warned sinful Israel that because they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted”…because they “oppress the poor [and] crush the needy”…because they “trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end”…in short, because they “have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray,”…therefore God would punish Israel with destruction by foreign enemies and exile. God cares too much for human beings—made just “a little lower than angels” (Psa 8:5)—to sit by and allow his image to be defaced and violence to prevail.

The hatred and oppression that characterized Israel in Amos’ day seemingly rule the streets of our cities today. From Orlando to Istanbul to Baghdad to Bangladesh to Baton Rouge to St. Paul and now to Dallas, the sin of Cain is uglier and more pervasive than ever. There are things we don’t know about the killings this week in Minnesota and Louisiana. Still, think of the families that will never be the same, the cities that will be inflamed with racial strife, and the attitudes that will harden into self-righteous hostility toward people who are “not like me.”

On top of these things is all the acrimony related to the upcoming election, the floods in West Virginia, the drama surrounding Brexit, the curse of human trafficking, and the continuing assault upon human rights in general.

I wanted to affirm how much all this hurts and sucks and infuriates and depresses us. We feel the prayer of the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

Church, let us continue to pray and love and lament and forgive and heal and repent and listen and make disciples. Despite the growing secularism around us, people are open and searching. Let us love our neighbors, hear their pain, and fear the Lord. Let us pray for our law enforcement community. In our congregation are at least one police officer, a firefighter, and several nurses, physician assistants, counselors, and EMT personnel. Thank them for their service and hold them up before the Lord.

And let us hope! In the final chapter of Amos, God promises that a day of restoration is coming. Even Edom—the nation descended from Esau and the constant antagonist of Israel—would receive God’s mercy. God says through Amos, “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). The coming of Jesus Christ into this dark world was the initial fulfillment of that promise. Every day, as we get closer and closer to the end of time, God is at work repairing the breaches that sin has caused. The Bible promises that God will win the battle with evil. The reign of God is growing, despite appearances. So hang onto that hope and don’t let go.

Pastor Mike

On Failure

imageI’ve been reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, America’s thirtieth president, written by Amity Shlaes. I didn’t know Coolidge experienced so many setbacks in his life. Shlaes writes,

[until] his death in 1933, Calvin Coolidge did confront challenges. The acres he inherited were so poor that the men in the Midwest laughed when they recalled it, more rock and hill than dirt. When Coolidge reached high school age his family sent him to school in Ludlow, twelve miles from Plymouth, and often he walked. Death visited Coolidge constantly; he lost his mother, probably to tuberculosis, the winter he was twelve; the ground was so frozen she could not be interred for weeks. Several years later, Coolidge’s companion and only sibling, Abigail, died suddenly and of mysterious causes. Young Coolidge himself was always so sickly that both his father and he worried that he might never complete his education. He was deeply shy and found it agonizing to meet even the adults who entered his parents’ front rooms. Adulthood brought more trials. Indeed, to an improbable extent, the chapters of Coolidge’s life after childhood are chapters of near failure upon near failure. Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921. As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders. Surveying the travails of the thirtieth president, some writers have suggested that those personal defeats are the essence of the Coolidge story. They err. Coolidge’s is not a story of “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.” For at every stage, Coolidge did push forward, and so triumph. Coolidge himself identified perseverance as the key to that triumph. “If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot see any way in which I would have ever made progress.”

What are the lessons we pastors can learn from stories of failure like Coolidge’s? I can think of at least five:

  1. The most successful people don’t ordinarily get there without a long record of mistakes, losses, and failed attempts. You’ve heard those famous words of the inventor Thomas Edison? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The absence of failure is evidence that one is not really trying hard to succeed.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. Nothing’s worse than a church leader who thinks s/he is invincible and unbreakable. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
  3. When we blow it, our church members see that we are human. The distance between pastor and people is often bridged by our failures. Especially when they hear us being honest about our mistakes and running to Jesus for forgiveness.
  4. Failure strips from us those stubborn tendencies of the flesh to look for contentment in this world instead of the next, to yearn for the praise of men rather than the praise of God, and to rely on our record instead of Christ’s.
  5. Failure helps us learn to reach out for the help of others instead of trying to do everything ourselves. We often fail because we’re trying to do something we’re neither gifted for nor called to do. Maybe we should have asked for help long ago.

What lessons have you learned from stories of failure–your own or that of others?

 

Wise words from Dallas Willard

9780310275961r1Pastor John Ortberg in his book, Soul Keeping, recalls a conversation he had with the late Dallas Willard. He asked Dallas what he (John) should do to help his church grow. That’s every pastor’s question, right? “What must I do to succeed, to be an agent of spiritual transformation in my congregation?”

Dallas’ reply is worth writing down and putting in a place where you’ll see it every day. He said to John Ortberg,

The main thing you will give your congregation…is the person you become. If your soul is unhealthy, you can’t help anybody. You don’t send a doctor with pneumonia to care for patients with immune disorders. You, and nobody else, are responsible for the well-being of your own soul. You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.

What a strange reply! Imagine that… More than any other human factor, the spiritual health of our churches depends on our own spiritual well-being.

This is at once a comforting and a deeply humbling truth. Comforting because it releases us from the idolatry of success. But humbling because it means we must do the hard business of soul care and daily repentance if we hope to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

May we do so.