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.

You’ve got a friend?

two-men-talkingAccording to some researchers, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends.[1] A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors. 

Are you surprised by this? I’m not. I’ve lost count of the number of ministers who have told me they are lonely. They have many acquaintances and colleagues—but friends? Not so much. Most of our social interactions are about what we call “ministry.” When we are with people we are in charge and on the clock. They are looking to us for leadership, direction, or support, not friendship. When we meet with someone it’s usually because we are helping solve a problem, telling someone what to do, collaborating on an event, or explaining Christian truth, not enjoying one another.

Besides, pastors are like all human beings: we fear intimacy. We will find excuses not to pursue community. And studying the Bible, coming up with a constant stream of creative sermons and talks, and maintaining a quality devotional life require many hours of isolation. While most adults can put a cap on the number of people in their social circle, pastors must be friendly all the time to everybody.

Furthermore, choosing people with whom to build a friendship is always a risky venture, but especially for pastors. Church members can be jealous when they perceive they are not in their pastor’s inner circle. This was an issue at a church I once served as associate pastor. Several congregants confided in me that they felt second-class because they weren’t in the senior pastor’s cadre of favorite people. Pastors occupy dual roles with those they call friends. They are both “over” them as their spiritual leader and “beside” them as their friend—a difficult tension to maintain. “No matter how hard a leader wishes to be a regular person, it is just not possible,” writes Dan Allender.[2]

I admit that pursuing friendship with people in the church is fraught with risk and uncertainty. But I will argue that it’s worth the gamble. We who lead the church need the church. Paul David Tripp writes, “[I]f Christ is the head of his body, then everything else is just body, including the pastor, and therefore the pastor needs what the body has been designed to deliver.”[3] And let me add that those of us who are married need a friend who is not our spouse. A key element in my recovery from ministry burnout was having a handful of male friends with whom to walk through the fire. They were members of my church. My wife and I were in a small group consisting of six other people. That small group was our lifeline.

In my current pastorate I have two friends in the church with whom I meet regularly for confession, affirmation, and encouragement. I get together at least monthly with a pastor in a nearby community; he and I have been friends since our seminary days when we lived in neighboring apartments. I also have a good friend who lives 100 miles away. We text or email each other almost every day for encouragement and accountability. My wife and I belong to a small group where I can take off the pastor mask and experience true community. I play racquetball with a couple of church friends several times a week.

I say all that just to encourage you: It’s possible to be a pastor and have friends. But it requires intentionality, time, and money. The cost of not having friends is far greater.

I worry about pastors who choose not to pursue friendship. Allender says, “A leader with no close friends is a leader who is prone to swing between hiding and manipulating.”[4] Without a friend one must find unhealthy ways of coping with the pain of living. Sinful habits and toxic attitudes grow in the soil of isolation.

How about you. What’s been your experience of friendship in ministry?

 

[1]. Wilson, Michael T. and Brad Hoffman, Preventing Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007, p. 31, quoted in J. R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014, p. 47.

[2]. Allender, Dan B. Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2006, p. 109.

[3]. Tripp, Paul David. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 88.

[4]. Allender, 114.

The unbusy pastor

The title of this post is taken from the book, The ContemplatCalmive Pastor, by Eugene Peterson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). This is one book I find I must reread at least once a year. Peterson says things that my heart responds to with an eager, “Yes! Yes!”, but that my ego and my schedule stubbornly resist.

For example, Peterson says that the word busy, when applied to pastors,

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.

He goes on to say,

…if I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

But isn’t being busy what our culture rewards? Aren’t hard workers busy? And if I’m not busy, won’t my parishioners have proof that pastors work just one day a week and are paid too highly?

Eugene Peterson is trying to get us to redefine the work of a pastor. Our “proper work,” he says, is the cure of souls. That work, according to him, has been replaced by “running the church.”

I so agree. Over the years, my vision for pastoral ministry has moved from “trying to get my church to grow” to “helping people experience the gospel.” There’s a big difference between those two things. The former vision demands that I be super busy. I must pack my daily schedule with tasks and meetings and appointments: can’t waste a moment. I must always preach a better sermon this Sunday than I did last Sunday. I must master the art of motivational speaking and be highly relevant to every segment of my congregation. And tragically, my marriage and family must take a back seat to the higher goal of pastoral success.

A vision for helping people experience the gospel, on the other hand, demands very different things:

  • I must slow down, observing and processing the people and events taking place around me.
  • I must commune deeply with God, listening carefully to his Word and speaking honestly and often to him in prayer.
  • I must allow the gospel to surgically explore and heal my own heart.
  • I must really listen to and care about people, not just use them to prop up my own ego and make me successful.
  • I must be available for whatever inconveniences broken people may bring my way.
  • I must maintain a vital awareness of my own limitations, and depend upon others in the body of Christ to advance the gospel in the world.

One last quote from Peterson:

I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.

As I said earlier, it’s so easy to say “Amen!” to all this and then get caught up in the whirlwind of pastoral duty. But maybe we can remind each other to slow down, to be more patient and more prayerful, to focus more on the cure of souls
than the “business” of running the church.

What do you think?

Sin bubbles

Here’s an object lesson for kids that may help them understand “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25).

Title: “Sin Bubbles”

Scripture text: Hebrews 11:24-26

Materials you need: Bubbles

Opening question: “Does sin make you happy?”Bubbles

Message: Sin may make you happy for just a few seconds. It might feel good to get away with a lie, or to hit your little brother because he did something mean to you, or to dump your dinner plate on the floor because you don’t like broccoli.

But after a while, does sin make you happy? (No!) How does sin make you feel later on? (It makes me feel bad, guilty, and sad.)

The Bible says that sin’s pleasures are fleeting. Do you know what fleeting means? It means short-lived. I brought along some bubbles. Let me blow a few bubbles. Look! It’s fun to blow bubbles, isn’t it? It’s fun to pop them too. But then they’re gone, aren’t they? And then all the fun comes to an end.

That’s like sin. Sin’s pleasures last just a few seconds, then you have to sin again and again and again to feel the same way. That’s not how God wants us to live. He loves us and wants us to be happy because he loves us. His kind of happiness lasts forever.

Jesus came to live a perfect life. He never sinned. He only did what made God happy, and he was always happy in the love of his Father. When we sin, we should trust in his death on the cross and ask God to help us obey. Then we will find true joy.

James’ story

frustratedPastor James (not his real name) had been at Christ Church for over twenty-four years. You’d think by then his church would be immune to controversy. But when James started introducing changes to boost the church’s outreach, an unseen fault line under Christ Church burst wide open. “We tried to change the culture of the church and it couldn’t be done,” James told me. “It created inherent tension in the body.” Overnight, it seemed, Christ Church took on the air of an intense presidential debate, and James was the political football. The rift unfortunately coincided with the resignations of all five of James’s elders. One elder was having marital problems. Another felt he was too old to continue serving. Another resigned to take care of her ailing husband. A fourth elder was diagnosed with bipolar disease and needed hospitalization. The fifth could not abide the changes James was making. So when things were at their most desperate, James had only one person on the governing board besides himself: his assistant pastor.

An influential family in the church agreed with James that the church needed to turn its focus outward. For too long, they said, Christ Church had ignored the needs of the community. But when they saw a church fight looming, they wanted no part of it; they’d been through that before in another church. So they told James they were leaving. Problem was, that family contributed nearly a third of Christ Church’s offerings. So now, James had not only a congregation in turmoil, but little money. The budget had to be slashed; the assistant pastor had to go.

The tension took its toll on James, emotionally and physically. He caught a cold that he could not shake. His teenage daughter said, “Dad, you’re under stress!” James knew it but didn’t know what to do about it. He managed to recruit three new elders from the congregation. They agreed with James theologically but not philosophically. Every board meeting pitted James on one side against the three elders on the other.

“You’re taking Christ Church in the wrong direction,” they told him.

“You’re not listening to the gospel,” he replied. It was a stalemate.

Finally James told his elders what he’d been thinking for months. “We’re not a team. It’s not good for any of us, and it’s not good for the church. Either you need to step down or I need to. If we stay together things are only going to get worse.” The elders took offense, as though James was accusing them of fomenting division.

“We’re not going anywhere,” they told him. So the following Sunday, James announced his resignation.

Three months later, despite their promise to stay, the three elders also left. Absent leadership and with declining membership, Christ Church fell apart and was dissolved by its denomination.