stress

Tyler’s story

Tyler (not his real name), while a student in seminary, was hired as pulpit supply in June of 2013 by the elders of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. The church had been without a pastor for several years and membership steadily declined from its peak of about 500 to just thirty-two, mostly women. The average age of SSPC’s congregants was seventy. Tyler had some training in church revitalization, so the elders encouraged him to develop a renewal plan Depressed womanin addition to preaching each Sunday and visiting church members.

As Tyler’s preaching ministry developed he spent more and more time with the people of Shelby Street Church. He says that it didn’t take long before the congregation fell in love with him. “Many considered me their son or grandson. They invited my wife and me for lunch or dinner in their homes.”

Tyler grew curious about why so many people had left the church. He figured there had to be more to it than the lack of a pastor. He met with members and asked lots of questions. Soon a pattern emerged. While many of the people he spoke to wanted to see the church grow and were willing to make changes, they saw the elders as resistant to change–one elder in particular. His name was Bob.

Bob, age 85, was a founding member of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. Besides serving on the Session, Bob was also the church historian. Many church members said, “This is Bob’s church.” Everyone knew he was the man in charge, regardless of who bore the title of pastor. At the same time, Bob was extremely generous with his financial gifts to the church. He gave more than anyone else. He once told Tyler, “What matters most to me is that my name be inscribed in stone for all the good things I’ve done for this church.”

Not surprisingly, members of the church had a problem with Bob’s leadership style. He controlled the Session and often took matters into his own hands without the vote of other elders. People knew that “you don’t argue with Bob.” It had been this way for decades. Bob often vetoed new ideas that would have improved the music on Sunday and ministries to children and outsiders. A large Presbyterian church in town even offered to hire a bilingual pastor to help the church reach the area’s growing Hispanic population. But Bob opposed the idea. His temperament rubbed people the wrong way. He was rash, abrasive, and opinionated. Anyone who tried to confront Bob fought a losing battle. Gradually, thanks to Bob (and the Session’s unwillingness to deal with him), the tone of the church became harsh and unloving toward the very people they were supposed to be reaching.

At first, Tyler tried to stay positive about the future of SSPC. “I thought I could sway the rest of the elders to vote as a bloc against Bob for radical change. But they didn’t want to rock the boat.” Tyler could see that the elders were spiritually and theologically immature. Many of them didn’t know the gospel or believe their own statement of faith. One elder told Tyler he never read the Bible and doubted its inspiration.

Finally, Tyler knew he needed to confront Bob or the church would die. He recruited a few people to pray. He even told the other elders of the church what he was planning to do, and asked them to pray. Tyler and Bob met for breakfast. Tyler shared what he’d gathered from observation and his interviews with church members. He said, “Bob, a lot of things have contributed to the decline of Shelby Street Church, but one thing sticks out above everything else: YOU. I love you and respect you as someone who has done a lot for this church. But as I’ve listened to people, two themes have emerged. You have a dominating leadership style, and you have flaunted your giving to the church in order to justify your control. People have left Shelby Street Presbyterian Church over these things. You need to take this seriously.”

Bob was in no mood to take Tyler seriously. “If it weren’t for me,” he said, “nothing would get done at our church. You are right, young man. I do feel entitled to control our church. You add up all the pluses and minuses, and you’ll see the pluses outweigh the minuses. No one in all my 85 years has ever confronted me like this. This is the end of the conversation.”

Tyler didn’t stop. “Bob, this is just the beginning of the conversation. You are the reason this church is declining. If you keep avoiding the issue we’ll need to take it to the next level of Matthew 18.”

“If you do that,” said Bob, “I will show up at church and make a scene and plead my case in front of the whole church. Just you wait. This conversation is over. I’ve never in all my life been so offended. Think of all I’ve done for this church.”

And with that Bob got up and left.

Bob resigned from the Session immediately. The Session responded by calling an emergency meeting. At that meeting the elders turned against Tyler. “What were you thinking?” they asked him. “We never wanted Bob off the Session.”

The elders now defended Bob as a man with a heart of gold. “You’re a young man. What you did was wrong. Bob is an older man and you shouldn’t have talked to him that way.” One elder said to Tyler, “Growing up is a bitch, isn’t it?” Tyler left the meeting in tears. Following the meeting the elders drove over to Bob’s house and reassured him of their love. They asked him to come back on the Session.

In the ensuing weeks, Tyler got the cold shoulder from the elders and their wives. Tyler tried to call Bob to talk things over. Bob’s wife answered the phone. She berated Tyler: “My husband has done so much for this church. You’re not even a good preacher. How dare you. You’re a prideful, arrogant man and you’re going to learn your lesson. We’ll try to forgive you but you better be thankful you still have a job here.” She didn’t let Tyler speak to Bob. The Session said to leave Bob alone. “What’s done is done,” they said.

The elders voted to release Tyler from his contract early. On the Sunday he preached his final sermon, many of the elders didn’t speak to him. By contrast, church members were sad to see Tyler go. One lady even dressed in black on Tyler’s last Sunday. She told him, “I know this is a hard day for you. You have blessed me so much. I’ve grown so much under your teaching.” Other church members spoke in similar terms to him, with tears in their eyes.

Tyler says he is still grieving, months after his dismissal. He is not the same person he was prior to taking the job at Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. He feels like he’s acting like “Mr. Teflon.” A friend told him, “I feel like you still have your armor on.” For some time Tyler didn’t sleep well at night. He would rebuke elders in his sleep.

But Tyler is learning the nature of forgiveness. He’s also learning the truth expressed in words from John Piper: “Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses, then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life you have.”

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.

Asleep at Sea

(The following post is by Scott Castleman, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs. Scott is not only a pastor who loves the Lord and leads his congregation well; he is my son-in-law. Follow his blog, Soul Bacon.)

There is a picture of Rembrandt’s painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” that I keep on my desk. The seas are chaotic and violent. The bow is thrust upward as the stern dips. The disciples in the bow are clinging to lines and mast and sails. There is a disciple straining in futility at the rudder. One disciple in red is leaning over the port stern gunnel in the throws of seasickness. Another disciple is simply holding on for dear life. And there is one shaking Jesus awake. Rembrandt has painted the moment before Jesus has said a word. He imagined Jesus in that odd instant when a person is no longer sleeping but they are not fully awake.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of GalileeI love that moment in this painting. It looks like chaos. If a person did not know the biblical account but they looked at Rembrandt’s imagination of it they might wonder the end of it all. The painting itself begs the question, “Did they make it?” The only reason I can bear the unresolved tension in this painting is that I know the end of the story. I know the next frame. Jesus rebukes the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And he rebukes the storm in order that his disciples might hear his rebuke of them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they marvel and they wonder at what they just saw, asking among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The wind and the waves knew better the voice of their Sovereign than did his disciples. Would that we, like wind and waves, quit our furies and tantrums at the simple word of “Peace! Be still.” But we do not respond as well as tempests and we are not as obedient as the sea. Rather, we rattle the Lord awake with our urgent prayers prayed not with faith but with desperate doubts and sincere uncertainty about whether everything will actually be okay.

That is why I keep this painting on my desk–because at some point between the storms in my life I forget what I learned the last time. I ask myself in the fresh peace of God’s provision, “Who then is this?” I keep this painting on my desk as reminder on nights like tonight that the sovereign God of all things is with me.

Christ the Lord is in the middle of every single circumstance in every single moment. If we could see him we would see that he does not share our anxiety. He doesn’t share our uncertainty about how things will turn out. He does not live in the tension of our worst-case scenario. Our raging sea doesn’t stir him. Who can sleep in the midst of a violent storm that boils a little boat on Galilee in the middle of the night as twelve grown men shout and pull and push and puke? The one who sleeps in that moment is one who knows that the storm is just a storm. He’s not worried about not getting to where he is leading them to go. The one asleep is the one who knows that the wind and the waves are subject to him and not the other way around. The one who sleeps is the one who would silence the storm not in order to save those who were in it, but rather so they could hear him better as he rebuked their fear and their lack of faith.

As your storm rages…

Consider how it is that He can rest

And gently lay your head upon His breast.

O to sleep when others toil and shout,

To find peace while those are tossed about.

Who then is this that wind and sea obey

And calls fearful night to faithful day?

Him whose voice made darkness bright

And brings men from shadows into light.

Ministry is not efficient

A tragedy has unfolded in my neighborhood.

Some months ago, the county in which I live contracted with a new residential garbage collection service. They got every homeowner these enormous, new trash cans–one for recyclables and another for household garbage. The new cans are on wheels and they’re very nice. We load ourtrash-truck2 cans with trash and, once a week, we roll them down to the street to be picked up by the garbage service. All the guy in the driver’s seat has to do is operate a mechanical arm that reaches out, grabs the trash can, lifts it high in the air, turns it upside down, and whoosh–out spills the trash into the truck. The mechanical arm then lowers the can, places it back where it was on the street, and lickety split, off the truck goes to the next set of garbage cans.

It’s all very efficient and clean and wonderful.

The only thing is, something very precious has been lost in the process.

You see, before the county went with this fancy new garbage service, trash was collected the old fashioned way. A big, loud truck with a driver and a couple guys hanging off the back would lumber down the street, one house at a time. I often watched. It was laborious, thankless work. Sometimes trash was not in cans, and it would take the men a while to pick up the various bottles, boxes, and bags strewn by the road. Sometimes they would pause to talk to a homeowner on his driveway. They were not in a hurry.

There’s this family about five doors down from me. They have two little preschool-age girls. They knew that every Tuesday and Friday was trash pick-up day. So at about 9:00 a.m., when I would be heading out the door, I saw those two little girls standing with their mom at the end of their driveway. Waiting. Waiting for the garbage men. And it was the sweetest sight. When the truck drove up they would wave at the man behind the wheel. Then the two big guys on the back would hop off, walk over to the children, and say a few kind words. Sometimes the little girls would hand them an empty milk carton or cereal box. The men would pick up the cans, empty the garbage, pull the lever, and head off to the next house. The girls would giggle with glee and run back into the house with their mom.

A little encounter that took a couple of minutes but made lifelong memories for those little girls. I know, because I did the same thing when I was a kid.

But alas, no more. Garbage collection in my neighborhood has entered the 21st century. Those two little girls need to stay inside and get ready for school. It’s time they grew up. The mechanical arm doesn’t talk to little girls. The man behind the wheel sits behind a glass and pushes buttons. Nobody stands on the back of the truck.

It’s efficient, and clean, and wonderful. And sad.

So what’s this got to do with pastoral ministry? Everything. People want us pastors to get with it, to enter the 21st century and be more efficient and productive. They say there’s nothing worse than a lazy pastor who spends all his time reading and studying and praying and visiting and talking to people. Even our own hearts will often lie to us and say, “C’mon preacher, you’re moving too slowly. This church is too small! There’s got to be an easier way to do your job. You’re spending too much time on your sermons. You care too much about people’s aches and pains and sorrows. Get out there and build the church!”

The thing is, if I’ve learned anything as a pastor, ministry is mainly about relationships. People need to know, trust, and love you. You need to know your church members, love them, listen to them, and spend unhurried time with them. To borrow from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Contemplative Pastor, it’s actually the busy pastor who is the lazy one. Peterson writes,

…the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

God help us not to be busy pastors. Because ministry is not efficient. It’s “a long obedience in the same direction,” to again quote Eugene Peterson. Ministry is slow, arduous, laborious–just like garbage collection in the old days. But the result is depth, meaning, connection, roots, fruit, perpetuity, permanence. I’m convinced that’s what people long for in this too-busy world of ours.

Don’t let the world, the flesh, and the devil tell you to hurry up and work harder, faster, smarter. Go for depth. Sure, we need to redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph 5:16). But being a pastor is not efficient, and should not be.