identity

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.

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.

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.