pastors

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.

 

The place I find myself

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.

Do I know now?

~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~~~

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

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

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

The Accidental Pastor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

On Failure

imageI’ve been reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, America’s thirtieth president, written by Amity Shlaes. I didn’t know Coolidge experienced so many setbacks in his life. Shlaes writes,

[until] his death in 1933, Calvin Coolidge did confront challenges. The acres he inherited were so poor that the men in the Midwest laughed when they recalled it, more rock and hill than dirt. When Coolidge reached high school age his family sent him to school in Ludlow, twelve miles from Plymouth, and often he walked. Death visited Coolidge constantly; he lost his mother, probably to tuberculosis, the winter he was twelve; the ground was so frozen she could not be interred for weeks. Several years later, Coolidge’s companion and only sibling, Abigail, died suddenly and of mysterious causes. Young Coolidge himself was always so sickly that both his father and he worried that he might never complete his education. He was deeply shy and found it agonizing to meet even the adults who entered his parents’ front rooms. Adulthood brought more trials. Indeed, to an improbable extent, the chapters of Coolidge’s life after childhood are chapters of near failure upon near failure. Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921. As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders. Surveying the travails of the thirtieth president, some writers have suggested that those personal defeats are the essence of the Coolidge story. They err. Coolidge’s is not a story of “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.” For at every stage, Coolidge did push forward, and so triumph. Coolidge himself identified perseverance as the key to that triumph. “If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot see any way in which I would have ever made progress.”

What are the lessons we pastors can learn from stories of failure like Coolidge’s? I can think of at least five:

  1. The most successful people don’t ordinarily get there without a long record of mistakes, losses, and failed attempts. You’ve heard those famous words of the inventor Thomas Edison? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The absence of failure is evidence that one is not really trying hard to succeed.
  2. Failure keeps us humble. Nothing’s worse than a church leader who thinks s/he is invincible and unbreakable. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
  3. When we blow it, our church members see that we are human. The distance between pastor and people is often bridged by our failures. Especially when they hear us being honest about our mistakes and running to Jesus for forgiveness.
  4. Failure strips from us those stubborn tendencies of the flesh to look for contentment in this world instead of the next, to yearn for the praise of men rather than the praise of God, and to rely on our record instead of Christ’s.
  5. Failure helps us learn to reach out for the help of others instead of trying to do everything ourselves. We often fail because we’re trying to do something we’re neither gifted for nor called to do. Maybe we should have asked for help long ago.

What lessons have you learned from stories of failure–your own or that of others?