Over the last year I have gone through a very uncomfortable and vexing process of losing my religion and finding it again.
I hope it goes without saying that “my religion” isn’t the Church of the Nazarene and her doctrines, polity and preferred ethic. I did not lose or even really question any of those in the last year. I also hope it goes without saying that “my religion” is not a set of doctrines or creeds or religious structures.
My religion is humble love a love that submits to all, (see Ephesians 5:21 and also 1 Corinthians 13 and also 1st John and also the entire Bible). Not surprisingly, this sinful world has still not come to grips with humble, submissive love. In fact, there many who still crucify those who dare preach it and I have been crucified more times than I can count.
This world is also filled with a variety of self help leadership books and “self made” leaders. As I dealt with my crucifixions, I read those books and talked to some of those leaders. They all give the same basic and well meaning pep talk.
“You are the leader. You have the title. You have God given authority! So just tell them your vision and force them to follow it no matter the cost!”
The problem with the pep talk is that isn’t biblical. It flies in the face of the humble, sacrificial love prescribed to us in Scripture and modeled to us by Christ.
There are also practicality problems that stem from a total lack of respect for positional authority in the 21st century. Titles are liabilities, not assets. If you have one you are immediately suspect. The Church of the Nazarene is even worse. In our polity , I am the only person who is actually paid money to be at church. The church board cannot fire me outright but they can vote to change the locks of the church so I can’t get in and they have no legal binding to continue to pay me to be their pastor. They can vote to reduce my paycheck to zero and throw my family out of the parsonage. Furthermore, the members of my board are more liked and respected than me and have more relational authority simply because they have been around longer and don’t have pesky authoritarian titles like, “preacher” or “senior pastor.”
Still, the pep talkers sounded wise enough and what they advised was being reinforced in well marketed leadership books that are given to me for free. So I gave in. I cast my vision and tried to force people to follow it, not backing down from the brutal fights that ensued. Things got bad, really bad. There were four hour long conversations that went nowhere and ended with all parties offended. There were accusations and gossip. There were long sleepless nights, not so much caused by the conflict but by the reality that I had just taken everything I believed in and flushed it down the toilet for a model of leadership that is not biblical and does not work in the 21st century.
Don’t listen to the pep talkers or even read the books. If you are in ministry, you are a slave.
But that is a great thing because that is exactly what Jesus became.
Paul spells it out poetically in Philippians 2. “Though Jesus was in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be added, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
A chapter later Paul infers that because of Jesus’ slavery, he is also a slave.
The role of ministry, dating clear back to Jesus, is not about having authoritarian titles and using them to cast vision and force people to follow them. It is about slavery.
To be a pastor means absolutely no freedom except the freedom of knowing the suffering of Christ through enslaving myself to the following:
First I am a slave to God. This means that even if I did have the luxury of positional authority (and some pastors still do) I absolutely cannot use it without violating the ethics of the Bible. To “lord it over” others is contrary to the heart of God.
I am a slave to my family. This is one of the most frustrating and debilitating, but also one of the most life giving. I am certain that I would be 30 times more effective in ministry if I were single. I do not say that lightly. I really believe it. Over the last month I have tried to be pastorally present to no less than 6 people or groups of people. These were people who were going through very tough situations, situations that needed attentiveness. In every case my children were screaming in the background or running up to me begging me to fulfill their latest desire. I constantly have to cancel important things because my kids can’t thrive in those settings and we can’t afford child care or baby sitters. I am not complaining though because there is this horrible day not too far on the horizon when my children will move across state lines and forget to call me on my birthday. When that happens I at least want to know that I cancelled important things to play with them at the park and that their relationship with God is strong enough to see them through the situations life will throw at them.
Finally, I am a slave to my congregation. As I detailed above they have all the power. I am a slave to their political and theological views, having to be constantly worried about offending them. I am also a slave to their calendars. If they don’t want to show up or don’t have time to show up to very important meetings, they will not come. I am a slave to their expectations for a pastor. I am contractually and morally obligated to analyze how I am measuring up to them.
All this means that when they schedule an event right over the top of my birthday, an event I believe will provide long term benefits for my congregation, I humbly submitted myself to it, knowing I wouldn’t get any birthday present, birthday cake or even anybody singing “Happy Birthday” to me but also knowing that the church would benefit from it.. What did happen was an angry congregant stormed into the church first thing on my birthday, in the middle of the event, and told me, “I thought God would kill you for what you said in your sermon a couple Sundays ago.”
I was frustrated about that for a couple days. How could a pastor have their birthday on a Sunday and not have it acknowledged, not have the church make a cake or give cards and presents and have a leader chew him out over one stray line from a sermon, all while several people looked on and not one came to my defense? In the moment I apologized and changed the subject, defusing the situation.
Then I spent time in prayer and self reflection and remembered that God didn’t call me into this gig to invent new ways of “lording it over” or find new means of being offended, but to be sacrificial and humble.
God has used situations like that to slowly restore my religion. I have recommitted myself to letting God work humble love in me and reject the constant calls to “lord it over.” In so doing I have re-found the freedom I once had, the freedom that the Apostle Paul calls, “participation in his sufferings,” so that we might obtain “the resurrection from the dead.”
The Psalms sing it better, “those who sow with tears with reap with joy.” (Ps. 126:5)