rest

Sometimes, Less Is More

 

peaceful-scene-jordan-hillI attended a heated meeting of homeowners in my community a few nights ago. It seems that our community golf course is closing and a developer wants to build 304 new homes on it. There are all sorts of problems with this, as was made clear by a couple dozen angry homeowners who spoke at the microphone. I agreed with everything they said. But if I’d had the gumption to approach the mic and speak my mind, this is what I would have said to support my community:

Sometimes, less is more.

Less homebuilding means more green space. More undamaged beauty. More available land for a park and hiking trails. More wildlife. More safety. Better education for kids whose schools are already at capacity. All good things. Really good things.

After the meeting I started thinking that less is sometimes more for the Church, too.

Many church leaders think that more is better. To borrow from Daft Punk, they define success as “bigger, better, faster, stronger.” I know what I’m talking about because I used to think that way. I was a pastor for 33 years before retiring and taking a part-time job in a seminary. For many of those 33 years my goal was to grow my church numerically. Outgrow our facility and build a new sanctuary. Add more staff. Increase the budget. Reach more unchurched people. Those aren’t bad things, of course, but in my case they were means to an end: my validation as a pastor.

I know there are better men than me out there whose hearts aren’t as self-centered and insecure as mine. When they think of growing the church, they really do want to glorify God and help more people find Jesus. But I fear that a lot of pastors are like me, looking for self-validation. A growing church means we’re doing a good job, our sermons are hitting the mark, and God is favoring our ministry. Not necessarily. Churches grow for a lot of reasons, not all of them godly.

It’s a risky move, but what would it look like for a pastor to adopt the philosophy that less is sometimes more? I think it would mean the following:

  • He would spend more relaxed time with people. Getting to know them. Enjoying them. Listening deeply to their challenges, concerns, and questions. Getting to know his neighbors. Inviting people into his home and enjoying food and conversation.
  • He would simply be in less of a hurry. He would slow his step and linger with people instead of checking his watch and looking over their shoulders at others who want his time. He would be available and accessible.
  • He would operate out of a state of rest. He would take a real day off each week. He would not live in a continual state of panic about the next big thing, the next sermon, the next elders meeting, or the budget deficit.
  • He would take time to introduce change. He would give due honor to the practices and rhythms that were established before he showed up on the scene. He would listen to others’ opinions and earn trust and respect before implementing his own ideas.
  • He would be grateful that anyone at all wants to be in his church. He would repent of his restless appetite for more new people to walk through the doors on Sunday morning, as though the people already in the pews don’t matter as much.
  • He would support church planting and, if possible, plant a new church. This is because small, new churches make disciples better than big churches. In small churches people know each other, remember each other’s names, and get involved. In big churches people are more likely to be disconnected, anonymous, lonely, and invisible.
  • He would relish the privilege of knowing–really knowing–his sheep, and shepherding them through all the passages of life from the cradle to the grave.
  • He would not feel guilty or inferior or worthless when, at conferences and pastors’ meetings and on YouTube, pastors of big churches get all the attention and applause. Instead, because he is God’s beloved son he would (as Eric Liddell said about running) feel God’s pleasure just being who he is.
  • He would be a man of prayer. Not just talk about prayer and preach about prayer, but really pray.
  • And he would remember that his first and most important “congregation” is living inside the walls of his home.

The Church has taken too many sips of the Kool-Aid of the American Dream. America rewards the spectacular and despises the ordinary. Jesus, on the other hand, rewarded the cup of cold water offered to a child, the mustard seed of faith, the widow’s two copper coins, the five loaves and two fish. He hung out with marginalized people. Out of all his followers Jesus invested the bulk of his time in just twelve men. Of those twelve, three were his special focus. And just one of them was said to be the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Jesus lived by the philosophy that sometimes–maybe most of the time–less is more.

Here’s what I’ve learned: People need pastors. Curators of the soul who have the time, vulnerability, training, and experience to walk with them through life and show them the way. Pastors who aren’t in a hurry and aren’t preoccupied with bodies, bucks, and buildings.

What do you think: Can we reassess the metrics normally used to gauge success in the Church? Can we ministers of the gospel slow down, shepherd our people, and celebrate the “more” that we can have when we try to do less?

Sixteen Restorative Practices for Pastors

come-unto-me-and-i-will-give-you-restHere are sixteen practices that will restore your energy if done consistently. Even if you can start with a few of them, you will be taking better care of yourself. And if you want to be any good for those you lead, you need to be good to yourself. I’ve adapted some of these from J. R. Briggs’ book, entitled simply Fail. It’s a great read.

  1. Secure a mentor, coach or spiritual director. Someone with experience who listens well, cares about you, and can shoot straight with you.
  2. Attend a small group you do not lead.
  3. Visit with a trusted Christian counselor.
  4. Connect regularly with other pastors/Christian leaders who are safe.
  5. Develop friendships with people who see you as a person first and as a pastor/chaplain/missionary second.
  6. Develop a prayer team with whom you can vent and be truly honest.
  7. Stop reading how-to ministry books. Invest your time reading theology, church history, and biographies of faithful Christians. Be sure to read Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen.
  8. Journal—and be raw, blunt, and honest.
  9. Talk with your church leaders about what success and failure look like. Make sure you see success the same way.
  10. Avoid conferences that promote Christian celebrities and events that highlight ministry success but will only bring you under bondage and make you envious and anxious.
  11. Be the first to repent and admit weakness.
  12. Practice Sabbath. Disconnect and be refreshed. Learn to work from rest.
  13. Participate in life-giving activities. “It is more important for leaders to focus on energy management than time management.” Do things that replenish your energy.
  14. Get out of your ZIP Code on a regular basis.
  15. Exercise and eat well. “Clergy today have significantly worse health than the average American.”
  16. Listen to your spouse. He or she is the best source of wise counsel you have.

How to Sabbath as a pastor

unnamedI recently retired from pastoral ministry and took on a new challenge as Dean of Students at a theological seminary. Now relieved of the responsibilities of church work, I’ve been reflecting on my thirty-two year pastoral career. One of the things I’ve been stunned to realize is just how much those years were filled with anxiety and frantic ambition instead of “the peace that passes understanding” that we Christians talk about.

Looking back, I wish I had “Sabbathed” better.

I’m using the word “Sabbath” here not in its narrow sense to refer to the Lord’s Day (Sunday), but in its broader connection to the Hebrew word meaning to stop, take a break, and rest. The fact that under the New Covenant we observe the Sabbath on the first day of the week means that all of life, including work and ministry, should flow out of rest. Rest from worry, nervous toil, guilt, shame, and fearful labor has been achieved for us by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and ascension. As God has rested from his labor, so should we (Hebrews 4:10). So being a pastor and living out of a continual sense of rest and peace should not be mutually exclusive concepts.

I’m not saying life as a pastor is easy. Ministry is hard work. It means shepherding stubborn sheep, loving unlovely people, laboring over the scriptures, and praying constantly. Every faithful pastor knows what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 11 when he admits to “toil and hardship, …many a sleepless night,” and “the daily pressure [of] anxiety for all the churches” (vv. 27-28).

But something’s wrong when pastoral activity is driven (and I use that word driven deliberately) by fear of not meeting budget, worry about membership numbers, the expectations of powerful leaders, or anxiety about what folks thought of your last sermon, rather than by love for people and trust in the Holy Spirit. And I mention these examples because I caved to such pressures far too often. To “Sabbath” as a pastor means to shepherd and love and study and preach and counsel and pray as one who knows Jesus has won the battle and is building his church without a lot of help from us.

So back to the question at hand. How might I have Sabbathed better as a pastor? How can you minister out of rest instead of enslavement to your own and others’ expectations?

Here are ten practices that come to mind:

  1. Have a day off every week. Don’t skip it, open your laptop, answer the phone, or squeeze in a quick visit to the hospital. Surely someone in your church or on your staff can cover for you on your day off. If “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), your day off is for you, not your congregation.
  2. Delegate. You’ve heard of a “to do” list”? Create a “not to do” list. Ask others to take those tasks off your plate.
  3. Read books for sheer pleasure. Keep a non-ministry-related book going at all times.
  4. Have a hobby. What is that “thing” you always wanted to do when you got older? For me, it’s learning to scuba dive–and I haven’t done it yet! What’s on your bucket list? Don’t keep putting it off.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not as good as you think you are. And, praise God, you are better than you think you are. But you’re not indispensable.
  6. Say no at least once a day. Meeting every need, responding to every request, replying to every email, and accommodating every suggestion will exasperate and eventually exhaust you. You are not your church’s Savior–Jesus is. You don’t have all the answers–Jesus does. Help your church members turn to Jesus instead of you. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a big favor.
  7. Expect your elders and deacons (or whatever you call them in your church) to do what elders and deacons have been called by God to do. Don’t relieve them from ministry; empower and equip them for ministry.
  8. Take a sabbatical–an extended time of rest, reflection, and fun–at least every seven years. If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, talk to your fellow leaders about the need for one. And do not apologize or feel guilty. Taking a break of at least eight weeks every seven years will make you a better pastor and your church a better church.
  9. Minister out of who you are. Has God wired you to be a prophet, a priest, or a king? Few pastors can be more than one of those types. Determine which one you are, and be that. Be OK with that. God has gifted you and called you for such a time and place as this. Be that prophet, priest, or king with all your heart and soul.
  10. Preach the gospel to yourself every day–more often if possible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).