Author: meoupc

I'm Mike Osborne. I was a pastor for over 32 years before becoming the Dean of Students and visiting professor at a theological seminary in Orlando, Florida. I've been married to my college sweetheart since 1976. We have four children and eleven grandchildren. I love racquetball, cycling, reading, movies, music, theology, history, grandkids, seeing new places, barbecue, pecan pie...and God's grace best of all.

Ten reminders for pastoral joy

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Seems like every week or so I speak with another discouraged, burned out pastor. If you’re one, here is a list of ten reminders I’ve compiled over the years that help keep me going. Reminding yourself of these things is a way to preach the gospel to yourself. I hope you’ll write them down and keep the list close by.

  1. I minister out of who I am, not who I wish I were or who others want me to be. I’ll be comfortable in my own skin.
  2. I’ll be kind to and patient with myself. I’m just a jar of clay.
  3. The world needs more people like me. It’s not that I’m perfect–far from it! But God has called, gifted, and anointed me to be his man in this place for this season.
  4. I’ll do what only I can do. Otherwise I’ll get involved in things to which God has not called me, that others can and should be doing.
  5. Home is my first church. If I fail anywhere, it won’t be with my family.
  6. It’s not all up to me. I am not the Messiah. I am not ultimately responsible and I am not in control.
  7. Everyone has a story. I’ll remember that next time I’m tempted to get impatient and aggravated at someone.
  8. God is for me. He is, this very moment, in my midst–rejoicing over me with gladness, quieting me by his love, and exulting over me with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
  9. I won’t take myself too seriously. I’ll laugh, play, enjoy people, take my time, and be willing to fail without it devastating me.
  10. God is always at work. No matter what.

Guarding the church from emotionally unhealthy people

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock…. Therefore be alert….” (Acts 20:28-31)

The further I get from pastoral ministry the more clearly I see some things I should have done better. One of those is being more careful about letting certain people control or manipulate me and set the agenda for the church. Instead of being on guard against them, confronting them, and protecting the body from them, I allowed them to cause me anxiety and stress. And worse, in the name of love and compassion, I actually failed to truly love these people and the congregations I was called to serve.

Paul is clear in the above text: You must be on your guard against “fierce wolves.” There are people in the body of Christ who are dangerous, who will hurt others (intentionally or not) and sabotage your ministry. The Bible says there are tares among the wheat. There are evil people in the midst of the church (e.g., Proverbs 5:1ff.). God warns us to “make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). Even Jesus, the most loving Person in the universe, “did not entrust himself to [people], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

Religion attracts imbalanced people. The gospel attracts the mentally ill and the emotionally unhealthy. The church attracts narcissistic and self-centered people. This shouldn’t surprise us because the good news is for broken, messed up people. We want these people to have the means of grace and meet Jesus. Jesus spent much of his time in ministry to these types of people. You and I are imbalanced too! That’s why Paul says to “pay careful attention to yourselves.” When we restore others we must “Keep watch on [ourselves], lest [we] too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). So we are not immune from anything I’m addressing in this post. Nevertheless, we must not shrink from our responsibility to confront evil, maladjusted, off-balance, or otherwise unhealthy people when their bad attitudes, words, and behavior negatively impact the congregation. We must have more concern for the body as a whole than for indulging, protecting, and coddling these individuals.

In a moment I will describe six types of people to be on guard against. But first, four caveats:

  • Caveat #1: The proper names below were not selected because I’m thinking of particular people.
  • Caveat #2: The gender-specific names below aren’t meant to imply that men are more given to a problem than women or that women are more given to a problem than men. The problems I describe belong to both sexes.
  • Caveat #3: I offer these as generalizations only.
  • Caveat #4: All six of these proclivities operate in me all the time.

Herewith are six types of unhealthy people from whom we must guard the church:

1. Legalistic Louise – This person believes that there are certain RIGHT things (right, i.e., as defined by her) people must do in addition to following Christ, in order to be truly spiritual and loved by God.

In this group you will find…

  • homeschoolers, public schoolers, classical educators, and Christian schoolers
  • right wingers and left wingers
  • TR’s and Arminians
  • conspiracy theorists
  • dominion theologians
  • pro-lifers and pro-choices
  • flag wavers and Woke people
  • Trump lovers and Trump haters
  • people with a passion for a particular cause or ministry that everyone must be about

This person’s mantra is “You/We would be on the right track if only you/we did or believed _______.”

Legalistic Louise believes you can’t be a Christian and watch TV-MA shows or R-rated movies, listen to any music other than Z88, or read novels. She wants you to get behind campaigns to support Christian movies and doesn’t understand why you don’t like them. She likes to impose rules about personal devotions, family worship, etc. She likely opposes church debt, progressive outreach ideas, updated hymn tunes, Bible paraphrases, drums in the sanctuary, and creative efforts to contextualize the gospel.

2. Hyperspiritual Harry – This is Louise’s first cousin. For Hyperspiritual Harry, everything is a spiritual battle and it often involves politics.

Harry will approach you and say, “Pastor, you need to call the church to repentance and prayer….” or to some such spiritual campaign.

Harry’s mantra is something like, “We have to get prayer back in public schools.”

These people are unteachable. They can’t hear the other side. They are off balance. They don’t respect the field of psychology. They want an American flag in the sanctuary. They believe Satan is behind every bad thing that happens. Many of them carry a Bible filled with underlining and highlights but they scream at their kids and can’t get along with their spouse and no one on their street likes or respects them. They believe that sickness is probably due to sin. Many Hyperspiritual Harrys believe that God promises health, wealth, and prosperity to those who have sufficient faith.

3. Hasty Hermione – She will tell you, “The church must do this NOW.” Everything is urgent to Hasty Hermione. Everything is an emergency. If we don’t act, things are going to fall apart.

Her mantra is, “The sky is falling, and pastor, you need to do something about it.”

Hermione doesn’t see it, but haste is actually one of the great enemies of the church. The sky is never falling. God is sovereign and is always at work accomplishing his purposes. We need to trust his hand and not rush or make hasty, impulsive decisions. Invariably, people get hurt from impulsivity.

“Wait on the Lord” must be our mantra. That doesn’t imply passivity or inactivity. But it implies that God is bigger than our challenges and is quite adept at managing his world without our help.

4. Bossy Bobby – This person wants to be in control. He resents that you are over him in the Lord and will make your leadership difficult.

Bobby’s mantra is, “Why, if I were you, here’s what I would do. I’d do what we did in my company. Come on, pastor, it’s not rocket science.”

These people are used to being in power. Perhaps they are the CEO of a company, the boss of others. They crave attention and don’t like following. They want their way, and if they don’t get their way they’ll cut back on their giving or withhold it entirely. And though they expect you to give in to their demands, they may not even be members of the church. When a Christian refuses to take membership vows, you know something’s not right.

5. Whiney Wendy – Nothing is ever right or good enough for this person.

Wendy’s mantra is, “I wish things were like they used to be.”

For Whiney Wendy, something’s always deficient about your church. Either…

  • the website is not up to par or it’s too fancy
  • the service is too liturgical or not liturgical enough
  • the sermon has too many stories or not enough stories
  • the staff is too big or too small
  • the Sunday bulletin is too wordy or not expansive enough
  • the greet-one-another time is too long, too short, or non-existent

She will remind you that you didn’t visit so-and-so in the hospital. She will wonder why “no one from the church” (and she means you) called so-and-so when he was ill. She will complain about how unfriendly your church is. But interestingly, no one likes her or thinks she’s very friendly.

Beware: This person will often pit one pastor against another or draw a following to create ill will against you.

6. Cheap Grace Charlie – This person lacks commitment to worship, fellowship, and mission. He’s always talking about our freedom in Christ but when you probe a little you find he doesn’t feel compelled to give or to serve. He may show up for church or he may not. He says he does whatever the Spirit moves him to do.

Charlie’s mantra is, “God loves us unconditionally, just the way we are.” He talks a lot about justification (a precious, precious doctrine) but never talks about sanctification (also a precious, precious doctrine).

When you call the congregation to something like a building campaign or a service project or a higher level of consecration, Charlie will spread dissension by telling his small group that God loves us whether we do such things or not (which is true) and that “law” is Old Testament, not New (which is untrue).

*******

What do all these people have in common? They lack submission. Ultimately they do not love.

Submission problems are love problems.

One of the vows members take in my Presbyterian denomination is to submit to the government and discipline of the church and promise to study its purity and peace. To “study” means to strive after, devote oneself to, cultivate, and apply oneself to.

God calls his people to love the church, to pursue unity and peace, and to submit to their church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

What should you do with people like the ones described above?

  • Build a strong elder board. Let your elders take the heat and share the burden. They are partners in the shepherding business. Don’t expose yourself by tackling difficult people by yourself. Instead, bring elders into discussions with difficult or dangerous people. Don’t put yourself in the crosshairs.
  • Recruit a team of mature, godly women who will fight with and for you. In my ministry I have always tried to bring wise, bold women alongside me as I dealt with difficult people. If you’re in a denomination that ordains women, these women will be key members of your Session, diaconate, or elder board. If your church does not ordain women, you need to deploy a cadre of wise women who love you and love the church enough to help you confront agitators.
  • Carefully organize and monitor the officer nominating and training process. Be extremely watchful about who winds up getting ordained as officers. They need more than theological vetting. They should also be evaluated for mental, emotional, and spiritual health. See Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, for ways to do this.
  • Confront the difficult people. For practical tips on how to do this, see Chapter 8 (“Tell the Truth”) of my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership.
  • If you tend to avoid confrontation, get counseling. Develop skills in peacemaking and conflict management.
  • Even if you’re not good at it, push through your fear. Do the right thing. 1 Timothy 1:20 says that Paul “handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul instructed Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith….”
  • Refer unhealthy people to professionals and urge them to get counseling and/or medical care. Counselors and psychiatrists are trained to treat these people long-term. You have neither the training nor the time to get overly involved with unhealthy people.

Thoughts on Pastoral Leadership during Crisis

I’ve been amazed by the response of churches in and around my community to COVID-19. Pastors quickly devised online strategies for worship, fellowship, service, and mission. Churches are communicating, comforting, and connecting through online sermons, Zoom meetings, and other means.

John Piper once famously said, “Don’t waste your cancer” and he wrote a book about it. It’s important for us who are in Christian ministry to not waste this virus. I don’t mean that flippantly, of course. What I mean is, we need to reflect upon the current crisis as pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders. What is the pandemic teaching us about pastoral leadership? What are we learning that will help us now and the next time a crisis arrives on our doorstep (and it will)?

In my own ministry there have been crises similar to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their negative impact. 9-11 of course comes to mind. I had been a pastor in Orlando, Florida, for just a month when that happened. But other things I’ve experienced include…

  • Hurricanes – it’s Florida after all
  • Suicides – I’ve had to deal with three or four as well as one attempt
  • Untimely deaths – I’m thinking of a father of three boys who was killed while riding his bike and a deacon who had a heart attack & died while I was administering the Lord’s Supper
  • Election seasons – the one ahead of us is going to be a real slugfest
  • Shocking events during the worship service – a man keeled over from a heart attack while I was preaching one time (hopefully not due to my sermon!); you can count on all sorts of unpredictable things happening during worship services, like protests outside the building, mentally ill people causing a disturbance, suspicious people who look like shooters, etc. These things are unsettling.
  • Key staff transitions – when a staff member is fired or decides to leave, it can take months or even years for people to heal
  • National tragedies – assassinations, stock market crashes, natural disasters, etc. all take their toll

Times like these can and should be our finest hour. We in ministry have a unique and solemn opportunity: to speak for God’s people and to God’s people.

Speaking for God’s people means to be the voice of their emotions, confusion, fear, doubt, and worry while communicating a sense of calm. We must expose and express our emotions, thereby giving our people permission to feel and express their emotions. There will be no healing without the acceptance and expression of feelings. Too many of us are out of touch with our own emotions and are uncomfortable crying, being sad, or expressing outrage. We must get in touch with our emotions and let these things out, otherwise there’s no empathy. We must be willing to express strong emotions, to weep, to show righteous anger, to grieve. But at the same time—and this is not easy to do—we must try to maintain a calmness and composure that will help people feel confident in our leadership. We can fall apart privately, but not publicly.

To be the voice of a congregation in times of crisis means to speak in the first person plural in our sermons and communications: “We are sad… We are angry… We are in distress… We are feeling isolated.” When people hear us affirm these things, they know we are one with them and they are able to vent their own feelings to God and to each other.

Speaking to God’s people involves picking up on a central biblical theme and reminding people of what they already know: God knows. God understands. God is in control. God has suffered too. God is with you. God will make things right. While simple concepts, these are the truths that will carry believers through times of trial. I suggest we take a break from our regular sermon series and preach on a Scripture passage that captures one or more of these truths. Keep to the simple gospel story.

However, speaking to God’s people does not mean doing a bunch of talking. It’s important to stop, be quiet, and let people have time and space to process what is happening. It’s tempting in times of crisis to think that our role is to teach principles, to fill up the air space with truth content and not leave people alone. No. Let’s not try to be Jesus. Let’s let Jesus be Jesus. Let’s allow our people to go through pain; don’t protect or distract them from it. It’s in their suffering that they will meet Jesus.

I would suggest, during a season of trial like the one we are currently in, that it’s good and right to slow down the programming of the church, to bring certain things to a stop, and to give people more time with their families, friends, and neighbors. We are not the Messiah. Our people will be OK. Let’s keep our messages basic and simple, and spend our time praying more and talking less.

Also, we should speak to God’s people without using formulaic, scripted, clichéd, easy answers. You may disagree, but the midst of a crisis is not the time to tell someone, “God is good all the time; all the time God is good.” Or, “All things work together for good….” Are these things true? Yes. But are they helpful? I don’t think so. Silence is probably better. We in ministry need to be OK with ambiguity, with not knowing why God does what he does. We need to be quiet and not feel we must justify God, explain God, or get him off the hook. I have found that it’s almost always better to just offer my presence to people who are suffering, either without words or with simple acknowledgments like “I know. God knows. God understands. God cares. I love you. Your church loves you. We will walk with you through this.”

Finally, during a crisis it’s really important to “touch” our people as often as possible. I don’t mean physically (although appropriate physical touch is a powerful way to love). I mean to make personal contact via phone calls, texts, notes, and messages with as many people as possible, as frequently as possible. And not just while the crisis is going on. The crisis will continue to rumble through our churches and ministries for weeks, months, and even years. So we ought to keep a spreadsheet of everyone in the congregation or ministry and figure out ways to reach out to them for a long time. Some individuals will obviously require more “touches” than others. We can recruit others to help with this. Elders and deacons should serve as caregivers along with us and other staff members. As we model caregiving, we will encourage the congregation to care for one another so that our churches become hospitals for the weak and weary, the sick and sore.

 

Sometimes, Less Is More

 

peaceful-scene-jordan-hillI attended a heated meeting of homeowners in my community a few nights ago. It seems that our community golf course is closing and a developer wants to build 304 new homes on it. There are all sorts of problems with this, as was made clear by a couple dozen angry homeowners who spoke at the microphone. I agreed with everything they said. But if I’d had the gumption to approach the mic and speak my mind, this is what I would have said to support my community:

Sometimes, less is more.

Less homebuilding means more green space. More undamaged beauty. More available land for a park and hiking trails. More wildlife. More safety. Better education for kids whose schools are already at capacity. All good things. Really good things.

After the meeting I started thinking that less is sometimes more for the Church, too.

Many church leaders think that more is better. To borrow from Daft Punk, they define success as “bigger, better, faster, stronger.” I know what I’m talking about because I used to think that way. I was a pastor for 33 years before retiring and taking a part-time job in a seminary. For many of those 33 years my goal was to grow my church numerically. Outgrow our facility and build a new sanctuary. Add more staff. Increase the budget. Reach more unchurched people. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but in my case they were means to an end: my validation as a pastor.

I know there are better men than me out there whose hearts aren’t as self-centered and insecure as mine. When they think of growing the church, they really do want to glorify God and help more people find Jesus. But I fear that a lot of pastors are like me, looking for self-validation. A growing church means we’re doing a good job, our sermons are hitting the mark, and God is favoring our ministry. Not necessarily. Churches grow for a lot of reasons, not all of them godly.

It’s a risky move, but what would it look like for a pastor to adopt the philosophy that less is sometimes more? I think it would mean the following:

  • He would spend more relaxed time with people. Getting to know them. Enjoying them. Listening deeply to their challenges, concerns, and questions. Getting to know his neighbors. Inviting people into his home and enjoying food and conversation.
  • He would simply be in less of a hurry. He would slow his step and linger with people instead of checking his watch and looking over their shoulders at others who want his time. He would be available and accessible.
  • He would operate out of a state of rest. He would take a real day off each week. He would not live in a continual state of panic about the next big thing, the next sermon, the next elders meeting, or the budget deficit.
  • He would take time to introduce change. He would give due honor to the practices and rhythms that were established before he showed up on the scene. He would listen to others’ opinions and earn trust and respect before implementing his own ideas.
  • He would be grateful that anyone at all wants to be in his church. He would repent of his restless appetite for more new people to walk through the doors on Sunday morning, as though the people already in the pews don’t matter as much.
  • He would support church planting and, if possible, plant a new church. This is because small, new churches make disciples better than big churches. In small churches people know each other, remember each other’s names, and get involved. In big churches people are more likely to be disconnected, anonymous, lonely, and invisible.
  • He would relish the privilege of knowing–really knowing–his sheep, and shepherding them through all the passages of life from the cradle to the grave.
  • He would not feel guilty or inferior or worthless when, at conferences and pastors’ meetings and on YouTube, pastors of big churches get all the attention and applause. Instead, because he is God’s beloved son he would (as Eric Liddell said about running) feel God’s pleasure just being who he is.
  • He would be a man of prayer. Not just talk about prayer and preach about prayer, but really pray.
  • And he would remember that his first and most important “congregation” is living inside the walls of his home.

The Church has taken too many sips of the Kool-Aid of the American Dream. America rewards the spectacular and despises the ordinary. Jesus, on the other hand, rewarded the cup of cold water offered to a child, the mustard seed of faith, the widow’s two copper coins, the five loaves and two fish. He hung out with marginalized people. Out of all his followers Jesus invested the bulk of his time in just twelve men. Of those twelve, three were his special focus. And just one of them was said to be the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jesus lived by the philosophy that sometimes–maybe most of the time–less is more.

Here’s what I’ve learned: People need pastors. Curators of the soul who have the time, vulnerability, training, and experience to walk with them through life and show them the way. Pastors who aren’t in a hurry and aren’t preoccupied with bodies, bucks, and buildings.

What do you think: Can we reassess the metrics normally used to gauge success in the Church? Can we ministers of the gospel slow down, shepherd our people, and celebrate the “more” that we can have when we try to do less?

Sixteen Restorative Practices for Pastors

come-unto-me-and-i-will-give-you-restHere are sixteen practices that will restore your energy if done consistently. Even if you can start with a few of them, you will be taking better care of yourself. And if you want to be any good for those you lead, you need to be good to yourself. I’ve adapted some of these from J. R. Briggs’ book, entitled simply Fail. It’s a great read.

  1. Secure a mentor, coach or spiritual director. Someone with experience who listens well, cares about you, and can shoot straight with you.
  2. Attend a small group you do not lead.
  3. Visit with a trusted Christian counselor.
  4. Connect regularly with other pastors/Christian leaders who are safe.
  5. Develop friendships with people who see you as a person first and as a pastor/chaplain/missionary second.
  6. Develop a prayer team with whom you can vent and be truly honest.
  7. Stop reading how-to ministry books. Invest your time reading theology, church history, and biographies of faithful Christians. Be sure to read Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen.
  8. Journal—and be raw, blunt, and honest.
  9. Talk with your church leaders about what success and failure look like. Make sure you see success the same way.
  10. Avoid conferences that promote Christian celebrities and events that highlight ministry success but will only bring you under bondage and make you envious and anxious.
  11. Be the first to repent and admit weakness.
  12. Practice Sabbath. Disconnect and be refreshed. Learn to work from rest.
  13. Participate in life-giving activities. “It is more important for leaders to focus on energy management than time management.” Do things that replenish your energy.
  14. Get out of your ZIP Code on a regular basis.
  15. Exercise and eat well. “Clergy today have significantly worse health than the average American.”
  16. Listen to your spouse. He or she is the best source of wise counsel you have.

The medicine ball of shame

shame

 

 

 

 

This morning I did something really stupid. I overturned an entire Yeti tumbler of Diet Coke on our family room carpet. And immediately I heard the voices of my parents…

“Idiot!”

“What’d you do that for?”

“THINK!!”

“You jerk, you should be more careful!”

“Just move–get out of the way, I’ll clean it up myself.”

Yep, those were words I often heard as a kid. And look, I’m not a kid anymore; I’m 65 years old. My parents are dead. But those wounding words echoed in my head this morning as I rushed to get towels and wipe up the mess I’d made.

It was quite a revelation, hearing those voices again. And it made me think: No wonder! No wonder I feel ashamed and incompetent so often. No wonder, when I make a mistake or feel that I underperformed, I beat myself to a pulp. No wonder I feel intimidated by older, powerful people.

My parents did not hit me (well, Dad did once). But they shamed me. A lot. Shame was the sharpest tool in their parenting kit. And to this day I haven’t been able to shake it. I know God loves me. I have friends who love me. I often get affirmation and praise. But shame, like a 100-lb. medicine ball, weighs me down and keeps me from running with joy and abandon.

Here’s what shame feels like:

  • Hating yourself
  • Second-guessing your decisions and opinions
  • Feeling you’re never enough
  • Being skeptical of compliments
  • Apologizing for things that aren’t your fault
  • Taking responsibility for others’ comfort and happiness
  • Refusing to forgive yourself
  • Regretting the past
  • Doubting the love and grace of God

You’ve just read a description of my medicine ball.

Remember my first sentence?– “This morning I did something really stupid.” There’s that voice again. But come on. Is spilling a Diet Coke “really stupid”? It was just an accident. It’s not a big deal. But when I was growing up, spilling things was a big deal. So was not perfectly mowing the lawn, slouching in my chair, having acne, stating my opinion, or talking about sex. During my childhood I learned that such things are not just unfortunate or inadvisable, but shameful. Bad.

Chuck DeGroat, in his book Toughest People to Lovesays that we all drag a long, invisible bag behind us. As we grow up, we put things in that bag that we don’t want the world to see, things that our family, friends, or culture think are unacceptable. I remember the night I disagreed with my mother. I said she was crazy. You would have thought that I had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit. “Michael!” my dad shouted. He shamed me for voicing a counter opinion and (jokingly) calling my own mother crazy. That night something happened. I decided I was bad for thinking for myself. I felt ashamed for daring to disagree with an authority figure. So I pulled out my invisible bag and stuffed my bold dare into it. Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I stuffed a lot of things into that bag. And it really wasn’t until my late 40s or early 50s that I began to reveal parts of my hidden self to other people.

While it hurts to revisit my past like this, it gives me understanding. It helps me understand why I do the things I do and feel the things I feel. And it helps me understand other people too. Because they are carrying around medicine balls of their own. Everybody has wounds no one else sees and hears voices no one else hears. Everybody drags a bag. Shame has dogged us ever since Adam and Eve hid in the Garden of Eden.

To battle shame we have to believe the other Voice. We have to believe the Word that says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (Isaiah 43:1, Romans 8:1, 1 John 3:1).

That’s the Voice of love. Listen to it, over and over again, and let go of the medicine ball of shame.

 

The place I find myself

“Who are you?”

It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”

I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack?

I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”

It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I?

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.

Do I know now?

~~~~~

Stephanie’s question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.

For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.

But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.

And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different.

So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I’ll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members.

So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?

~~~~~

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, “The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us.”

I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.

When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, “I am the loved one.”

That’s who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

~~~~~

So here’s the place I find myself: I’m discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I’ve stopped trying to be somebody. I don’t care that I don’t tweet. I’ve given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I’m trying to heed Jeremiah’s word of warning to his scribe Baruch: “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not….” (Jeremiah 45:5).

After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I’m now trying to enjoy being God’s son.

I’m not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But “I press on,” as Paul says in Philippians 3, to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).

How to Sabbath as a pastor

unnamedI recently retired from pastoral ministry and took on a new challenge as Dean of Students at a theological seminary. Now relieved of the responsibilities of church work, I’ve been reflecting on my thirty-two year pastoral career. One of the things I’ve been stunned to realize is just how much those years were filled with anxiety and frantic ambition instead of “the peace that passes understanding” that we Christians talk about.

Looking back, I wish I had “Sabbathed” better.

I’m using the word “Sabbath” here not in its narrow sense to refer to the Lord’s Day (Sunday), but in its broader connection to the Hebrew word meaning to stop, take a break, and rest. The fact that under the New Covenant we observe the Sabbath on the first day of the week means that all of life, including work and ministry, should flow out of rest. Rest from worry, nervous toil, guilt, shame, and fearful labor has been achieved for us by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and ascension. As God has rested from his labor, so should we (Hebrews 4:10). So being a pastor and living out of a continual sense of rest and peace should not be mutually exclusive concepts.

I’m not saying life as a pastor is easy. Ministry is hard work. It means shepherding stubborn sheep, loving unlovely people, laboring over the scriptures, and praying constantly. Every faithful pastor knows what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 11 when he admits to “toil and hardship, …many a sleepless night,” and “the daily pressure [of] anxiety for all the churches” (vv. 27-28).

But something’s wrong when pastoral activity is driven (and I use that word driven deliberately) by fear of not meeting budget, worry about membership numbers, the expectations of powerful leaders, or anxiety about what folks thought of your last sermon, rather than by love for people and trust in the Holy Spirit. And I mention these examples because I caved to such pressures far too often. To “Sabbath” as a pastor means to shepherd and love and study and preach and counsel and pray as one who knows Jesus has won the battle and is building his church without a lot of help from us.

So back to the question at hand. How might I have Sabbathed better as a pastor? How can you minister out of rest instead of enslavement to your own and others’ expectations?

Here are ten practices that come to mind:

  1. Have a day off every week. Don’t skip it, open your laptop, answer the phone, or squeeze in a quick visit to the hospital. Surely someone in your church or on your staff can cover for you on your day off. If “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), your day off is for you, not your congregation.
  2. Delegate. You’ve heard of a “to do” list”? Create a “not to do” list. Ask others to take those tasks off your plate.
  3. Read books for sheer pleasure. Keep a non-ministry-related book going at all times.
  4. Have a hobby. What is that “thing” you always wanted to do when you got older? For me, it’s learning to scuba dive–and I haven’t done it yet! What’s on your bucket list? Don’t keep putting it off.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not as good as you think you are. And, praise God, you are better than you think you are. But you’re not indispensable.
  6. Say no at least once a day. Meeting every need, responding to every request, replying to every email, and accommodating every suggestion will exasperate and eventually exhaust you. You are not your church’s Savior–Jesus is. You don’t have all the answers–Jesus does. Help your church members turn to Jesus instead of you. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a big favor.
  7. Expect your elders and deacons (or whatever you call them in your church) to do what elders and deacons have been called by God to do. Don’t relieve them from ministry; empower and equip them for ministry.
  8. Take a sabbatical–an extended time of rest, reflection, and fun–at least every seven years. If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, talk to your fellow leaders about the need for one. And do not apologize or feel guilty. Taking a break of at least eight weeks every seven years will make you a better pastor and your church a better church.
  9. Minister out of who you are. Has God wired you to be a prophet, a priest, or a king? Few pastors can be more than one of those types. Determine which one you are, and be that. Be OK with that. God has gifted you and called you for such a time and place as this. Be that prophet, priest, or king with all your heart and soul.
  10. Preach the gospel to yourself every day–more often if possible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

The Accidental Pastor

Harry S. TrumanI just finished an excellent biography of Harry S. Truman entitled The Accidental President, by A. J. Baime (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). I didn’t know that Truman was considered a highly unlikely candidate for Roosevelt’s Vice-President in 1944. Only two percent of Democratic voters favored him. People outside Missouri didn’t know much about Truman, and what they knew did not impress. He had run a haberdashery in Kansas City, but it went bankrupt. He hadn’t earned a college degree. He had applied for a license to practice law but changed his mind. Most of his business ventures had failed. Truman’s mother revealed that he didn’t even want the V-P job. “They pushed him into it,” she said. His partnership with the gambler Tom Pendergast put a cloud over Truman’s career in the U.S. Senate. His enemies long referred to him as “the senator from Pendergast.”

When FDR died suddenly in April, 1945, Truman was thrust into the highest office in the land, an office to which he had never aspired. “No man ever came to the Presidency of the United States under more difficult circumstances than does Harry S. Truman,” said a newspaper columnist at the time.

That’s why A. J. Baime calls Truman “the accidental president.” The whole nation was anxious about their new, unproven leader. Yet he successfully finished out Roosevelt’s term in office and went on to win a come-from-behind victory in the presidential election of 1948. Consider the accomplishments of the Truman presidency: the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and the modern Department of Defense, recognition of the state of Israel, the Berlin Airlift, the formation of the CIA and NATO, and many other things. And of course, Truman’s presidency is noted for the Allied victories that ended the war with Germany and Japan.

Sometimes we in ministry feel like Harry S. Truman. We feel like “accidental pastors.” Not that we haven’t been called and equipped by God to do what we do. Not that our congregations haven’t affirmed our gifts and responded to our leadership. But often we go through seasons when we wonder, “What was I thinking? God, what were You thinking?! I can’t turn this ship around. I’m not sure I belong here. I can’t take all these people to the Promised Land.”

It’s at times like these that we have to remember some of Paul’s words:

What is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30)

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So to myself I say: I am a servant, not a celebrity. I’m a jar of clay. Sure I’m weak, and half the time I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m no accident. I am who I am by God’s design. I am where I am by God’s appointment. So God, have your way in me and be glorified.

Adoption: The Apex of God’s Grace

Do you need good news today?

One of the fruits of the gospel besides justification and sanctification is adoption. TheFather son New Testament says that as soon as a person repents of sin and puts his or her faith in Christ, he or she is adopted into the family of God. It can truly be said that adoption is a higher blessing than even justification and sanctification. Theologian John Murray wrote, “Adoption is the apex of redemptive grace and privilege.” Because of adoption, God is no longer just your Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge. To one who trusts in Jesus, he is your Father.

What is adoption? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it this way: “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.”

Here’s a list of ten practical benefits of adoption (there are more!):

  1. Adoption means God wanted you to be in his family. He chose you to be his child before you were even born (Eph 1.5).
  2. It means God will never let you go. He is protecting you and providing for you all the time, even when you don’t see it. Furthermore, he will be sure to get you home (Jn 10.28-29).
  3. It means you have continual access to God and can call him by the most intimate of terms: “Abba! Father!” (Eph 2.18, Rom 8.15).
  4. It means God has made you brand new. You are a new creation (2 Cor 5.17).
  5. It means God’s attitude toward you is always one of love, even when you fail (Col 2.13-14).
  6. It means that Jesus is your elder brother (Heb 2.11).
  7. It means you will be disciplined in love when you go astray (Heb 12.5-11).
  8. It means you are a member of the household of faith (the church), along with all others who trust in Christ (Eph 2.19).
  9. It means you have a glorious inheritance awaiting you (1 Peter 1.3-5).
  10. It means you have a great incentive to aspire after godliness and share Christ’s love with others (Mt 5.16).

Church leader, think often of your adoption. Let it bring you security, assurance, and joy.

My God is reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child;
I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.