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.

Read my interview about “Surviving Ministry”

(Recently my publisher interviewed me about my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. Here’s what I had to say.)

What motivated you to write Surviving Ministry?

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 two 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 “hurricane” years.

So you compare church conflict to a hurricane. How did you happen to land on the hurricane metaphor?

I live in Florida where hurricanes are always on people’s minds, at least from June through November. But I have personal reasons for being fascinated with Hurricane Katrina. My father grew up in New Orleans and one of my daughters lives on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Her husband is a pastor. They accepted a call to a church in Gulfport shortly after Katrina blew through in 2005. The church had been practically destroyed, literally and figuratively, by the hurricane. When turmoil strikes a church it often comes with devastating and unexpected power, leaving piles of hurt and animosity that may or may not ever be resolved. That sounds like a hurricane to me.

What would you say are the top three lessons your hurricane experience taught you?

It’s hard to pick just three, but I would say to a pastor: (1) know yourself really
well and be comfortable in your own skin; (2) spend most of your time in the early years of ministry in a church earning the trust of your congregation; and (3) base your identity on who you are as a beloved child of God, not on your popularity or success. If I may borrow from Proverbs 31:30, success is deceptive and popularity is fleeting. Several chapters in Surviving Ministry elaborate on these principles.

In your experience, how do pastors themselves often create or contribute to ministry storms?

I can speak from both experience and observation. Pastors often act like Lone Rangers. We think we can do it all. So we wear ourselves out and alienate a number of people whose support we need when things go south. We forget that our job is not to do the ministry ourselves but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Another way we contribute to our own burnout is failing to invest in friendship. Pastors are some of the loneliest people in America. I devote full chapters to these two topics: teamwork and friends. Another thing we pastors are prone to do is talk, lecture, or scold when we should be listening. When I look back on my five-year hurricane experience, if I’d been a better listener I’m sure some of my difficulties would have been averted.

In your book you share openly about your own church leadership crises. Do you include stories from other pastors?

Yes. While doing my research I interviewed a number of pastors in the U.S. and Canada who either were in a period of severe ministry trial or had recently emerged from one. In seven of the sixteen chapters of Surviving Ministry you will read their stories. I felt it was important to write about real pastors and real problems. To protect their identities I changed their names and the names of their locales.

Was there a common thread that ran through all their stories?

Their situations were quite different. But if there was a common thread, it was the simple fact that church ministry is difficult. I think many of us pastors believe leading a church should not be hard. We think, if we just love people, preach biblical sermons, and pray, our churches will grow and people will love us. But this is a seriously deficient view of both the pastorate and human sin. In chapters one and two of Surviving Ministry I address the problem of pastoral idealism. The fact is, we are broken people working with broken people. Pastors need to expect hurricanes. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so devastated by them.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

Ministers of the gospel are obviously my target audience, especially those who are suffering, considering jumping ship, feeling like a failure, and needing some practical guidance. But I suggest that every pastor read this book. We are most exposed to a ministry hurricane when we think we are invincible. Many churches are just one bad decision away from turmoil. Plus, you never know when a “well-intentioned dragon” will cause trouble in your congregation. I also think this book should be required reading for seminary students. Elders, deacons, and other church leaders would be doing their pastors a favor by reading this book and encouraging them to heed its advice.

What’s your last word to a pastor out there whose church is being blown apart by conflict?

Don’t give up hope. God is proud of you. Believe the gospel. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5, ESV).

Read an excerpt of “Surviving Ministry”

My book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, was recently publishePrintd and is available in both paperback and Kindle. Get it directly from the publisher for 20% off the retail price, or from Amazon, CBD, etc.

To get a feel for the book, click on this link:
Surviving Ministry Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

“Surviving Ministry” now a book

PrintMy book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, is now available. Published by Wipf & Stock, my book will help pastors, missionaries, church officers, and other leaders get through seasons of conflict with hope. Seminary students and others considering church leadership will also find it an honest, practical, and biblically-based guide to preparing for difficulty and emerging from it as a better leader.

You can order direct from the publisher at 20% off the retail price. It’s also available from Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle book.

 

Identity

For a long time, I got my sense of identity from having a successful ministry. Sunday morning attendance figures, compliments (“Great sermon, pastor!”), a calendar filled with appointments, money streaming in, baptisms… these were the metrics by which I judged my effectiveness and the blessing of God.

Then I failed.

And along with bodies in the pews and bucks in the offering plate, my joy in ministry plummeted. I had built my sense of identity on the unsteady sand of success rather than the unchanging love of God.

Do you know who you are? The Apostle John’s answer is: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

Maybe you need to hear these words from Henri Nouwen as much as I do, every day:

During our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: “Who are we?” Although we may seldom pose that question in a formal way, we live it very concretely in our day-to-day decisions. The three answers that we generally live–not necessarily give–are: “We are what we do, we are what others say about us, and we are what we have,” or in other words: “We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power.” It is important to realize the fragility of life that depends on success, popularity, and power. Its fragility stems from the fact that all three of these are external factors over which we have only limited control… Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity–an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: “You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.”…Our true identity is that we are God’s children, the beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.[1]

[1] Nouwen, Henri. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1994, 188-189.