Author: meoupc

I'm Mike Osborne. I am Associate Pastor of a large Presbyterian church 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, gardening, theology, history, grandkids, seeing new places, barbecue, pecan pie...and God's grace best of all.

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.

What we can learn from Jonathan Edwards

According to biographer George Marsden, “he was the most acute early American Jonathan_Edwardsphilosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.”[1] Others have noted his importance as a preacher, writer, and leading voice in the Great Awakening. But above everything else, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) strove to be a pastor.

Edwards was only twenty-three when he became the assistant pastor of First Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, a Congregational church led by his maternal grandfather, the venerable Solomon Stoddard. Just two years later Stoddard died, leaving Edwards to shepherd the church alone. He would remain pastor of First Church until July 1, 1750. They were years of both revival and adversity. Epidemics of the late 1740s killed over a tenth of Northampton’s population. Edwards lost his own beloved daughter Jerusha, age seventeen, in 1748. Despite the brilliant success of his preaching, powerful people in the church maligned him as harsh and narrow-minded. His stubborn opposition to the Halfway Covenant caused his dismissal from the church. Edwards went on to serve as missionary, teacher, and pastor for a small group of Indians and whites in Stockbridge, wrote his most famous theological treatises, and briefly served as president of the College of New Jersey. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died of complications from a smallpox inoculation.

Considering all that he had to endure, what kept Edwards the pastor going? It certainly was not the numerical growth of the church or the admiration of people. During the Great Awakening Edwards did not even publish a report on the number of conversions that occurred through his ministry. Rather than relying on outward signs of success, Edwards sought to cultivate—through prayer, Bible study, and meditation— dependence upon God alone.

He was ruthless when it came to daily communion with God. “Throughout the day, his goal was to remain constantly with a sense of living in the presence of God….”[2] Edwards believed that his labors as a minister would be no better than his own fellowship with Christ. He spent most of every weekday absorbing the Bible, pondering its truths, making notations in his notebooks, and praying. From his days as a young intern in New York City, “a new master-interest possessed him: it was to enjoy the Word of God.”[3] Because of the abundance of time Edwards spent in the Bible, he “saturated almost every sermon, from text to doctrine to application, with scripture.”[4] Edwards wanted to know God personally and deeply, so that in turn he might live with all his might to the glory of God. Consequently, he experienced a level of intimacy with God that few in our fast-paced, pragmatic world understand. He describes this intimacy in his “Personal Narrative”: “The sense I had of divine things would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul I know not how to express.”[5]

Edwards maintained a number of disciplines throughout his life that fueled his ministerial passions. He cherished his wife Sarah and helped her rear eleven faithful children. He had a high view of the Lord’s Day and kept it holy. He maintained close ties with colleagues in ministry, both in the colonies and across the ocean, not only to work with them for revival but to find encouragement through their friendship. He took extended rides on horseback and chopped wood to refresh his spirit and body. He spent time observing nature. He often contemplated heaven and the rewards that lay ahead for the faithful.

But above all, it was Edwards’ sense of the greatness of God and his conviction that the gospel would one day fill the earth that empowered him to be true to his calling. He was optimistic that, despite the troubles at hand, the Great Commission would eventually be completed. In 1747 Edwards wrote:

That the Spirit of God has been of late so wonderfully striving with such multitudes…is what I should take encouragement from that God was about to do something more glorious, and would, before he finishes, bring things to a greater ripeness, and not finally suffer this work of his to be frustrated and rendered abortive by Satan’s crafty management. And may we not hope that these unusual commotions are the forerunners of something exceeding glorious approaching, as the wind, earthquake, and fire at Mount Sinai, were forerunners of that voice wherein God was in a more eminent manner?[6]

What can contemporary church leaders learn from Jonathan Edwards the pastor? Modern paradigms of ministry are very different from the one Edwards inherited from his father, his grandfather, and the Puritans before them. Today’s pastors find themselves spread thinner than ever. They feel the weight of expectation to be successful fundraisers, motivators, communicators, long-range planners, marriage counselors, civic leaders, church planters, Bible scholars, vision casters, and—while they are at it—inspiring preachers and tender shepherds. Meanwhile they are expected to maintain the model devotional life, marriage, and family. How could looking back to Jonathan Edwards profit the twenty-first century American minister?

Chiefly, Edwards reminds pastors that their charge is first and foremost to preach the Word of God, with particular emphasis on the eternal realities of heaven and hell and the radical nature of discipleship. To care for the sheep, shepherds must feed them the Word. As a prerequisite, they must have a rich and full inner life. Edwards still speaks through his sermons and other writings because he was saturated with the Bible. He spent so much time studying and meditating upon scripture that he was thoroughly affected by its truth, enraptured with the love of God, and able to apply the Word with passion and vigor to his congregation.

If we must fault Edwards, it is for matters of style, not substance. Edwards might have remained longer in Northampton had he been gentler, more outgoing, and less impatient. But what offended the Northamptonites much more than Edwards’ bluntness and social awkwardness was his commitment “to enlighten them concerning the state of their souls; to open and apply the rules of God’s Word to them, in order to their searching their own hearts, and discerning their state.”[7] Too often do we hear today of ministers falling into sexual sin, compromising their ethical standards, plagiarizing the work of others, and watering down the gospel in order to enhance their appeal. We do not read of such things in biographies of Jonathan Edwards. Rather, Edwards remained faithful to the end. By persevering with integrity he loved his people. The well-known words of another famous minister, Robert Murray McCheyne, are relevant in this connection: “What my people need most is my personal holiness.” Edwards certainly gave his people what they needed most, even if they did not want it at the time.

The contemporary pastor needs to shut his ears to some of the modern definitions of success and concentrate on the simple, time-honored pastoral tasks: enriching his own soul on scripture and prayer; preaching to the mind, heart, and will of his parishioners; and knowing and being known by the sheep under his care. Obviously he will be stretched this way and that by the demands of ministry in a sin-ravaged culture that has wandered far from God. But the example of Jonathan Edwards should remind him to return to the study, the pulpit, the bedside, and the prayer closet to shepherd God’s flock. And if he does those things faithfully he is a success, whatever the results may be.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 1.

[2] Marsden 133.

[3] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003) 41.

[4] Richard A. Bailey, “Driven by Passion: Jonathan Edwards and the Art of Preaching,” in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, ed. by D. G. Hart, Sean M. Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 67.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” quoted by Sereno E. Dwight, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979) I.xiii.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, in The Works of JE, II.294-95.

[7] Edwards, “A Farewell Sermon,” in The Works of JE, I.cci.

Tyler’s story

Tyler (not his real name), while a student in seminary, was hired as pulpit supply in June of 2013 by the elders of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. The church had been without a pastor for several years and membership steadily declined from its peak of about 500 to just thirty-two, mostly women. The average age of SSPC’s congregants was seventy. Tyler had some training in church revitalization, so the elders encouraged him to develop a renewal plan Depressed womanin addition to preaching each Sunday and visiting church members.

As Tyler’s preaching ministry developed he spent more and more time with the people of Shelby Street Church. He says that it didn’t take long before the congregation fell in love with him. “Many considered me their son or grandson. They invited my wife and me for lunch or dinner in their homes.”

Tyler grew curious about why so many people had left the church. He figured there had to be more to it than the lack of a pastor. He met with members and asked lots of questions. Soon a pattern emerged. While many of the people he spoke to wanted to see the church grow and were willing to make changes, they saw the elders as resistant to change–one elder in particular. His name was Bob.

Bob, age 85, was a founding member of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. Besides serving on the Session, Bob was also the church historian. Many church members said, “This is Bob’s church.” Everyone knew he was the man in charge, regardless of who bore the title of pastor. At the same time, Bob was extremely generous with his financial gifts to the church. He gave more than anyone else. He once told Tyler, “What matters most to me is that my name be inscribed in stone for all the good things I’ve done for this church.”

Not surprisingly, members of the church had a problem with Bob’s leadership style. He controlled the Session and often took matters into his own hands without the vote of other elders. People knew that “you don’t argue with Bob.” It had been this way for decades. Bob often vetoed new ideas that would have improved the music on Sunday and ministries to children and outsiders. A large Presbyterian church in town even offered to hire a bilingual pastor to help the church reach the area’s growing Hispanic population. But Bob opposed the idea. His temperament rubbed people the wrong way. He was rash, abrasive, and opinionated. Anyone who tried to confront Bob fought a losing battle. Gradually, thanks to Bob (and the Session’s unwillingness to deal with him), the tone of the church became harsh and unloving toward the very people they were supposed to be reaching.

At first, Tyler tried to stay positive about the future of SSPC. “I thought I could sway the rest of the elders to vote as a bloc against Bob for radical change. But they didn’t want to rock the boat.” Tyler could see that the elders were spiritually and theologically immature. Many of them didn’t know the gospel or believe their own statement of faith. One elder told Tyler he never read the Bible and doubted its inspiration.

Finally, Tyler knew he needed to confront Bob or the church would die. He recruited a few people to pray. He even told the other elders of the church what he was planning to do, and asked them to pray. Tyler and Bob met for breakfast. Tyler shared what he’d gathered from observation and his interviews with church members. He said, “Bob, a lot of things have contributed to the decline of Shelby Street Church, but one thing sticks out above everything else: YOU. I love you and respect you as someone who has done a lot for this church. But as I’ve listened to people, two themes have emerged. You have a dominating leadership style, and you have flaunted your giving to the church in order to justify your control. People have left Shelby Street Presbyterian Church over these things. You need to take this seriously.”

Bob was in no mood to take Tyler seriously. “If it weren’t for me,” he said, “nothing would get done at our church. You are right, young man. I do feel entitled to control our church. You add up all the pluses and minuses, and you’ll see the pluses outweigh the minuses. No one in all my 85 years has ever confronted me like this. This is the end of the conversation.”

Tyler didn’t stop. “Bob, this is just the beginning of the conversation. You are the reason this church is declining. If you keep avoiding the issue we’ll need to take it to the next level of Matthew 18.”

“If you do that,” said Bob, “I will show up at church and make a scene and plead my case in front of the whole church. Just you wait. This conversation is over. I’ve never in all my life been so offended. Think of all I’ve done for this church.”

And with that Bob got up and left.

Bob resigned from the Session immediately. The Session responded by calling an emergency meeting. At that meeting the elders turned against Tyler. “What were you thinking?” they asked him. “We never wanted Bob off the Session.”

The elders now defended Bob as a man with a heart of gold. “You’re a young man. What you did was wrong. Bob is an older man and you shouldn’t have talked to him that way.” One elder said to Tyler, “Growing up is a bitch, isn’t it?” Tyler left the meeting in tears. Following the meeting the elders drove over to Bob’s house and reassured him of their love. They asked him to come back on the Session.

In the ensuing weeks, Tyler got the cold shoulder from the elders and their wives. Tyler tried to call Bob to talk things over. Bob’s wife answered the phone. She berated Tyler: “My husband has done so much for this church. You’re not even a good preacher. How dare you. You’re a prideful, arrogant man and you’re going to learn your lesson. We’ll try to forgive you but you better be thankful you still have a job here.” She didn’t let Tyler speak to Bob. The Session said to leave Bob alone. “What’s done is done,” they said.

The elders voted to release Tyler from his contract early. On the Sunday he preached his final sermon, many of the elders didn’t speak to him. By contrast, church members were sad to see Tyler go. One lady even dressed in black on Tyler’s last Sunday. She told him, “I know this is a hard day for you. You have blessed me so much. I’ve grown so much under your teaching.” Other church members spoke in similar terms to him, with tears in their eyes.

Tyler says he is still grieving, months after his dismissal. He is not the same person he was prior to taking the job at Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. He feels like he’s acting like “Mr. Teflon.” A friend told him, “I feel like you still have your armor on.” For some time Tyler didn’t sleep well at night. He would rebuke elders in his sleep.

But Tyler is learning the nature of forgiveness. He’s also learning the truth expressed in words from John Piper: “Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses, then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life you have.”

Why I quit Twitter

1 Timothy 4:16a says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (ESV). IMG_0106Another translation renders it, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (NIV).

Like most of you reading this post, Timothy was a church leader. So Paul’s admonition applies especially to pastors and others who lead and teach God’s people. We have to pay particular attention to what’s going on internally: our motivations, fears, idols, secret sins, stress points, and such.

So one of the things I’ve struggled with internally for a long time is Twitter. For me, Twitter does little but create stress. It stirs up feelings of competition, jealousy, and judgment. Perhaps you love Twitter and find it to be a means of sharing and pondering ideas that inspire and stimulate. Perhaps when you read the clever insights of others you think kind thoughts and become a better person. No doubt, there are many people who can tweet with joy and integrity.

But as for me…when I’m on Twitter I think things like, “Everybody knows that!” “What makes him think he’s so great?” “Why didn’t I say that?” “I’m such a loser.” “I wish I had as many followers as that person.” And on and on.

I know. The problem is not Twitter or those who post on Twitter. The problem is me. I’m insecure and weak. The “old me” that wants to control the real me is still very strong and stubborn. Like Paul says in Romans 7, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Twitter teases out that “old me,” awakens the sleeping giant of sin in my heart, and seduces me with promises of glory and fame that cannot satisfy.

So goodbye, Twitter. I need to keep a close watch on my heart, and you are not good for me. Maybe when I become a holier, more loving person I’ll come back to you.

But don’t hold your breath.

Asleep at Sea

(The following post is by Scott Castleman, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs. Scott is not only a pastor who loves the Lord and leads his congregation well; he is my son-in-law. Follow his blog, Soul Bacon.)

There is a picture of Rembrandt’s painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” that I keep on my desk. The seas are chaotic and violent. The bow is thrust upward as the stern dips. The disciples in the bow are clinging to lines and mast and sails. There is a disciple straining in futility at the rudder. One disciple in red is leaning over the port stern gunnel in the throws of seasickness. Another disciple is simply holding on for dear life. And there is one shaking Jesus awake. Rembrandt has painted the moment before Jesus has said a word. He imagined Jesus in that odd instant when a person is no longer sleeping but they are not fully awake.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of GalileeI love that moment in this painting. It looks like chaos. If a person did not know the biblical account but they looked at Rembrandt’s imagination of it they might wonder the end of it all. The painting itself begs the question, “Did they make it?” The only reason I can bear the unresolved tension in this painting is that I know the end of the story. I know the next frame. Jesus rebukes the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And he rebukes the storm in order that his disciples might hear his rebuke of them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they marvel and they wonder at what they just saw, asking among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The wind and the waves knew better the voice of their Sovereign than did his disciples. Would that we, like wind and waves, quit our furies and tantrums at the simple word of “Peace! Be still.” But we do not respond as well as tempests and we are not as obedient as the sea. Rather, we rattle the Lord awake with our urgent prayers prayed not with faith but with desperate doubts and sincere uncertainty about whether everything will actually be okay.

That is why I keep this painting on my desk–because at some point between the storms in my life I forget what I learned the last time. I ask myself in the fresh peace of God’s provision, “Who then is this?” I keep this painting on my desk as reminder on nights like tonight that the sovereign God of all things is with me.

Christ the Lord is in the middle of every single circumstance in every single moment. If we could see him we would see that he does not share our anxiety. He doesn’t share our uncertainty about how things will turn out. He does not live in the tension of our worst-case scenario. Our raging sea doesn’t stir him. Who can sleep in the midst of a violent storm that boils a little boat on Galilee in the middle of the night as twelve grown men shout and pull and push and puke? The one who sleeps in that moment is one who knows that the storm is just a storm. He’s not worried about not getting to where he is leading them to go. The one asleep is the one who knows that the wind and the waves are subject to him and not the other way around. The one who sleeps is the one who would silence the storm not in order to save those who were in it, but rather so they could hear him better as he rebuked their fear and their lack of faith.

As your storm rages…

Consider how it is that He can rest

And gently lay your head upon His breast.

O to sleep when others toil and shout,

To find peace while those are tossed about.

Who then is this that wind and sea obey

And calls fearful night to faithful day?

Him whose voice made darkness bright

And brings men from shadows into light.

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.