church ministry

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.

 

Do what you do best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is more.

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

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

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

A pastor’s wife’s story

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest

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

I can’t imagine saying that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking to the Senselessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Mike

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