What if I Stumble

Standard

The Tuesday right after Easter I wrote a blog post that was half a response to the announcement of a friend’s upcoming job termination and half a struggle with current trends in the church, particularly as it relates to my denomination. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.

My struggle is that there seem to be mobs out there who want to banish from the church those who think differently.  In the post I wondered how I would survive if such a mob ever managed to crucify my career.  In the Spirit of Easter, I claimed the resurrection hope that God would meet me in that painful situation and bring new life out of it.

The post was written with great amounts of passion, apparently a relatable one as that post is still my most successful post to date.

What I am about to write comes from an equal amount of passion, albeit a different kind of passion.  In fact, this post is in many ways an inverse of that last one.

Because as much as I am afraid that a scapegoating mob will crucify my career while I am innocent, I am much more terrified that I will deserve a crucifixion for gross sin or negligence.

Will I fall to the temptation to have an extramarital affair?

Will I stumble into online porn?  (It is unlikely at this point but still possible.)

Will my marriage crumble spectacularly overnight? (Very likely and more likely until we celebrate our 40th anniversary by the odds.)

Will I accidentally lose my temper and strike a parishioner?  (There are days when that temptation is more real than others.)

Will I become lazier and lazier and not do the work to which I am called?  (I might all ready be at that point.)

Or will my epic tumble be less epic?  Will it just be a growing pride and arrogance that refuses to admit when I am wrong and own my bad decisions?  (There are close calls of this nature almost every week.)

I have watched all these things happen to people who were thought to be much more holy than me.  I have seen calm, gentle pastors buckle under the stresses of the job and lash out.  I have seen an otherwise humble pastor suddenly choose the most pitiful and absurd molehill to die on, like paint color in the sanctuary.  And, of course, I have seen my fair share of extramarital affairs and divorces among the clergy.

And I am not guaranteed to avoid any of that.  It is true that I have had an excellent formation and training that at least helps me see temptation when it is coming.  I have wonderful mentors and friends who speak the truth in love.  I regularly practice disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, solitude and exercise that keeps me calm and humble. But none of that makes me immune from the cliff falls from grace.

In fact, most days I think there is a 75% chance that my crucifixion will be a result of my own guilty choices, compared to the 25% that it will just be an angry mob looking for an innocent victim.

On those days I wonder how I will fail.  I wonder what the price for my wife, children and congregation will be.  And I wonder how I will possibly be able to get out of bed the next day if it ever should happen.

And every day I feel like my crucifixion is almost a guarantee.  After all, ministry is truly a dangerous line of work.

But as we approach the Ascension and climb that soon to be empty hilltop with the disciples, I find an incredible amount of hope.  The Ascension is that wonderful day when Jesus not only showed off his super power of flight, but also sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  There he represent us, the church, as both head and priest.

The Apostle Paul uses the word “energeo” in Ephesians 1 to describe the Ascension.  It is the same word we use for “energize.”  The Ascension energized the great power of God, the power that is now fully displayed in us the church, which Paul says is, “the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.”

I think that means that the charged up power of God is at work whether we are faithful or unfaithful.  If ever I should fail, whether in gross immorality or in spiritual weakness, I still trust my head and my priest who sits at the right hand of God our Father.  After all the church is much bigger than my bad choices and though I may cause pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I know a great healer who can forgive, redeem and reconcile the consequences of my bad decisions.

In closing, the old Christian rock band D.C. Talk has a song on their “Jesus Freak” album called, “What if I Stumble,” that struggles with these same issues through these lyrics,

What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?

At the end of the song they claim the love of Christ by saying,

I hear You (God) whispering my name
You say, “My love for You will never change.”

And that whisper is enough to get me out of bed tomorrow.

Advertisements

Pulling the Bitter Weeds: Anger Addictions Pt. 3

Standard

Monday and Tuesday I wrote about anger in the lives of Christians, particularly among clergy.  I mentioned that I have found the temptation towards anger has worked in me much the same way the temptation for sexual immorality seems to work in others.  In fact if I read books like C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” or “Every Man’s Battle” and substitute “sex” for “anger,” I relate a lot more.

Yet nobody seems to be talking about anger or the addictions that can form around our wrath.  More than that we seem to reward anger, with the stipulation that the anger is directed towards that which our anger is directed.

Today I want to begin a conversation towards a solution to the prevalent anger addictions.  As with all my posts, I do not presume to have the final word but just hope to kick off a conversation.

I also do not endeavor to begin a new area where we can be overly suspicious of each other.  One of the worst things that has happened in our struggle against sex addiction is that now every adult male who is younger than 40 is automatically suspected of being a pervert.  I do not want to add to that absurdity by now claiming every adult male over 40 is now angry and bitter.

With that qualification I do think we need to be better at identifying and helping those who are struggling with anger.  Here are a few areas where such intervention might work the best.

1) Pastors Retreats and Conferences:  Over the last few decades retreats and conferences for clergy have become a multi-million dollar market.  As a pastor I get invited once a month to someone’s next great conference.  While these conferences and retreats tend to be ridiculously expensive (which leads to the exclusion of pastors of smaller churches), they are still a valuable venue for discussing vital aspects of ministry.  Therefore I think these conferences should provide space in their plenaries and workshops for talking about anger.

2) The Ordination Process:  I just now counted how many times I was asked about sex during my nine year process of ordination.  I am sure I missed several instances that are buried in my subconscious but I can still count 30 particular instances where a governing board asked me about how I control my “hormones.”  I cannot remember once being asked about anger.  I was asked a few times about how I resolve conflict but never once about anger itself.  Seminary classes, ordination interviews, interviews with D.S.’s and the like are all great places to discuss anger and its harm and it should be a topic of scrutiny in the ordination process.

3) District Superintendent Oversight and Mentors:  When a Pastor is caught in a sexual sin the district is usually the first call, as it well should be.  In those situations the D.S. is meeting with the pastor the very next day, if not by nightfall.  A D.S. should take reports of hostile rage just as seriously.  The goal of the reaction shouldn’t necessarily be immediate removal but the D.S. should intervene quickly and provide the necessary support and remediation so that one outburst does not become a habit or one bitter and angry sermon doesn’t bring down the whole church.

With that said, I do not seek to add more work to our all ready overworked church leaders which is why every pastor should have a mentor.  There should be some form of direct oversight of the clergy from outside the congregation for issues like these.  I have personally benefited from a few mentors as I have battled with the demons of anger, hostility, rage and bitterness.  Those mentors have been invaluable, not just to me but also to my D.S. who doesn’t need me calling him every week.

I want to close this series by giving the same encouragement I was often given about sexual temptation:  If you find the seeds of anger sprouting in your soul, please seek help before the weeds overcome your Spirit and destroy the harvest of righteousness in your local congregation.

Be kind and compassionate and patient, bearing with one another in love.

Flush Away Your Wrath: Anger Addictions Pt. 2

Standard

Yesterday I wrote about the similarities between sexual temptation and anger temptation and noted that both are seemingly prevalent and destructive.

I had a few friends respond to yesterday’s post and they raised some great questions concerning anger.  The first had to do with definitions.  The second had to do with reading Ephesians 4 where Paul seems to take a mild stance towards anger by saying, “In your anger do not sin” but then comes back a few verses later and says, “Get rid of it all together.”  Today I hope to address both of these in turn.

As far as definitions go, I do not assume any passion that is directed toward or against something is “anger.”  Instead I think anger is best understood as relational.  It is hostile passion that is directed towards somebody or a group of somebodies.

In this case being mad that the Chiefs lost their playoff game last winter (and boy was I mad!) does not fall under the category of an anger addiction.  However, seven months later if I am still angry about the game and demanding Andy Reid’s resignation, using various curse words to describe the coaching staff and insisting Alex Smith be traded to a 1A High School football team, then I would need help with my anger problem.

As far as the context of Ephesians and James go, I think Paul and James would agree with that definition.  Anger seems to be understood as directed against somebody and is summarily dismissed for those reasons.

With that said, Ephesians 4 is fascinating.  Yesterday I planned to write about James 4, where I will end today, but a friend brought up Ephesians and I found it to be more formative.

The chapter begins with the wonderful exhortations to no longer be infants but to grow up into Christ who is the head.  This involves no longer being Gentiles whose thinking is futile but instead putting on a new self which consists of righteousness and holiness.

Then Paul digs into the particulars of righteousness.  First, Paul says to put off falsehood.  Next Paul says to not sin in your anger and not to let the sun go down on your anger.  Then Paul moves on quite abruptly with no further qualifiers.  This is quite unfortunate because we have no idea from Paul what letting the sun go down on your anger means or what sinning in anger would look like.  We have to make educated guesses, like the NIV did by translating it, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

If that was all the New Testament said about anger we would be left  with our own assumptions and say things like, “Anger is just fine if you resolve it quickly.”  Or, “I can be angry all I want just as long as I don’t “sin” in it.”  And many have said those things to justify their acts of rage though few have taken any effort to define what “sinning in anger” even means.

But those two verses are not all we have.  In fact, Paul comes back in verse 31 and suddenly makes a sweeping statement to “get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  The Greek for “getting rid of” might translate into modern English as, “throw away” or “flush down the toilet.”

The words cover the gamut of all forms of anger and their expression.  Bitterness is the slow burn anger that festers over time.  Rage is the quick burn anger that blows up in a second.  Brawling is the physical blows caused by anger.  Slander is the verbal blows.  And malice is the manipulative scheming that one who is angry (or bitter) engages in.

With that in mind, I repeat what I said yesterday, “There is no room for anger in the Kingdom of God.”

I think when Paul said, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” he meant the minute you find out you have any bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander throw it away and never take it up again.  Put another way, I don’t think Paul was talking about “going to bed mad” or daily anger but he was talking to the very present day.

In sum it might paraphrase to, “deal with your anger today before it destroys your tomorrows.”  Then, tomorrow (and every day after) live the new life of 4:32 which reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Now if we turn to James’ witness in the first chapter of his epistle we find the same idea at work.  James says in verses 19 and 20, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

With all this said, one of the greatest temptations for me has been anger.  It has been a thought and heart battle to stay gentle and kind and compassionate towards those who disagree with me.  As I have spoken to other pastors, I find many have admitted the same thing and most of us deal with it daily, despite attempting to put it away for good.

More bothersome than that are the clergy (and their spouses) who have given into anger long ago.  They pastor and preach with angry hearts and do severe damage to their congregations and no one seems to notice or care.  So tomorrow I will close this short series by suggesting a few interventions church boards and denominational committees can take to keep their pastors kind and compassionate and help them throw away the anger that manifests itself in all its forms.

You can read part 3 here.

Frustrations of a 30YR Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay At Home/Work Dad

Standard

This is part 2 of a post about being a bivocational pastor in a small rural town.  To catch part one click here.

Right at the end of the Track season a lady in our church had her leg amputated at a hospital 2 hours away.  It would have been a 6 hour round trip to get to her and the family was adamant I be there.  Every fiber in my being wanted to go.  However, I couldn’t find 6 hours of free time.  It killed me.  I felt horrible.  In the end some dear saints from our church made the drive to be with her and all was well.  But this story perfectly sums up the frustrations and challenges of my current life.

Most pastors struggle with feelings of inadequacy but us bi-vocational pastors feel super inadequate.  There are frustrations and limitations all around and jobs left half done.  But as I have sought to be as faithful as possible to my calling, I have found each frustration is also an opportunity.  That is the case in the following 5 areas.

Frustration 1: The absolute absence of an 8-5 workday.  Most pastors didn’t do 8-5 when the professional clergy model was popular but there were days when they could pull it off.  There are never days that I could do it.  Track practice starts at 3 everyday.  Fridays are reserved for Track Meets.  The church regularly schedules events on Saturdays and Sundays are, well, Sundays.  During the afternoons my kids need naps and I badly need them to take those naps so I have to be at home for 2 hours while they sleep.  Weeknights are filled with events at the school, in the community or meetings at the church.  I desperately want an 8-5 workday.  I would love it but it is impossible.

The Opportunity: The absence of a “workday” or “workweek” has forced me to rethink a clergy’s job description.  I think one of the weaknesses of the professional clergy model was that it segmented the vocation of the clergy into work time and off time.  I still guard my Sabbath days and I take vacations but they are not “off the clock” times.  The Sabbath days and vacations are every bit a part of my job description as is preaching on Sunday morning.  I am still every bit as much a pastor when I am home reading a book or while I am coaching Cross Country or attending a city council meeting.

Put more practically, the absence of a “workday” means I spend less time worrying about how many hours I “ministered” and focus more on making every moment count for my calling.  The upside of this is I don’t feel guilty (or I shouldn’t) when I don’t “work” 40 hours in one week.  The downside is that I have to think about how I spend even my free time and I definitely have to constantly be asking myself how I am fulfilling my calling at any given moment.

Frustration 2: Pastoral calling suffers.  I think pastoral calling is important but I can’t find time to do it. especially when I am coaching and definitely now that I have 2 kids.  Carting one kid around is difficult enough but taking 2 is near impossible.  My daughter goes to daycare at least once a week and I try to cram as many homes in as possible during that day but more often than not something else comes up and I have to put that person’s house on the list for next week.

The Opportunity:  I think as creatively as possible when it comes to connecting with people.  I send emails, write cards, make phone calls and attend evening community events that I know church people are going too.  I have had meetings in my living room while the kids were sleeping.  And I keep regular office hours every morning so my kids can play in the next room or on the floor of my office while I meet with people.  And usually when someone is the hospital I can find a way to get there if I work hard enough at it.

Frustration #3:  I have no real social life.  Let’s face it, there are not many social events in a small town for a young person.  Everything closes by 8pm and the nearest movie theater, Starbucks and upscale restaurants are a half hour away.  Also, having a master’s degree makes me different from most people my age in town.  In fact my closest friend is 60 miles away and the next ones after that are 170 miles away.

Opportunity:  I am not sure if there is an opportunity here other than taking advantage of clergy conferences, making the 60 mile drive to see my friend at least once a month (some months he comes here) and using Facebook, Twitter, email etc. to stay in touch with as many friends as possible.  I also invite friends to come visit me in my town but few take me up on that offer.

Frustration #4: Student loans.  You read it right yesterday, I pay $500/mo in student loans.  Yes that is overpaying by a few hundred dollars but that over-payment is so worth it, it is almost necessary.

Opportunity: Live by faith and hope.  The reality is I am lucky to be able to overpay them and though I hate sending that money off, I do it knowing that the debt was worthwhile because without it, I wouldn’t have the life I have.  My education was invaluable and it has helped me more than I ever could have known.  Still, I hate those dumb payments.

Frustration #5: Exhausted Sunday mornings.  I know every pastor deals with those Sundays out of the year where they have zero energy but I have more of them.  They increase during the sports’ seasons where many meets happen on Saturdays.  The next day it is everything I can do to get out of bed, go to church, smile at people and give an energized sermon.

Opportunity: God is never exhausted.  I am incredibly inadequate and very limited.  But the one who called me is not.  Even on the Sundays when I have no energy, God is still fully present.  Even on those Sundays when the congregation is half asleep and I have a pillow under the pulpit for when that last person nods off, God is still fully active in our lives and in the world.  My low energy Sundays remind me of that truth.

Therefore, I would actually count these frustrations as blessings because they remind me that the fate of the world (and the church) do not rest on my shoulders.  Instead, I am called to be as faithful as I can be with the details of my situation.  I seek to use every moment to plant tiny, little Kingdom seeds, resting in the hope that God will make them grow.  And certainly God has and does and will continue too.

Confessions of 30yr Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay at Home/Work Dad

Standard

Over the weekend I ran across a number of articles and blogs about bi-vocational ministry, especially as it relates to a rural, small church and its declining (or non existing) budgets.  Since I am a bi-vocational pastor in a rural, small church that doesn’t have or need a budget, I thought I would weigh in.

The challenges affecting the traditional* job descriptions and salaries of professional clergy are many.  There is the declining church membership and declining percentage of giving per church member (source).  There is also the upcoming (or all ready here) clergy shortage (source).  Then there are greater theological and ethical concerns which my friend Marissa brings to bear here.  Outside the church there is the decline of the middle class and the vast changes in the 21st century work force, which you can read a little about here.  There is also the crisis of higher education (source).  Lastly there is the reemerging factor of the working mother (or put more politically correct, the double income family).

To try to tackle all of these issues in one blog or article would be a weary task and one for which I don’t have time.  However, all these issues and more certainly come to bear in my own biography.  So my goal today and tomorrow is to throw my narrative into the mix and use the hard date of my life to offer clarity, advice, predictions but most of all compassion.

As my unnecessarily clunky title suggests, I am a 30 year old bi-vocational pastor and father.  I pastor a church of about 90 people where only about 45 show up on any given Sunday.  My church is in a rural small town in Eastern Oregon.  It is a fairly impoverished town with 10 percent of teenagers homeless at any given time.  My wife works full time for a university in a town 20 miles away and we can only afford daycare once a week.  Our families live nowhere near us so my 6 month old son and 2 year old daughter accompany me everywhere.  The church lets me live in a rather large parsonage that nevertheless is aged and has many structural problems.  They also throw in a cash salary and a modest spending account.  I receive no benefits because my wife gets them through her job.  In addition to being a pastor I am also paid a fairly decent salary for coaching the local High School’s Cross Country and Track teams.

My wife and I came out of college and seminary okay with just $30,000 in student loans.  We pay $500 a month on them and hope to have them paid off by 2020.

With that basic biographical information in mind, I want to say that I love my life.  I am doing what God called me to do and I am doing it where God called me to do it.  I am doing what I spent 8 years in higher education to do and I have felt nothing but confirmed in my calling since I got here.

There are some great blessings in my current life.  There are also severe limitations and unique challenges that I will tackle tomorrow.  But today I want to count off some of the blessings.

1) My local congregation is incredibly understanding.  I have friends who are pasturing other churches and they are not so lucky.  One congregation told their pastor that if he took another job in order to pay the bills they would reduce his all ready meager salary, which ironically would mean he would have to take a full time job over a part time one and give the church even fewer hours.  My church couldn’t be more different.  They arranged for me to be a coach before I got to town.  They helped my wife find a job.  They have never once complained about me missing ministry work because I have been tied up in family or coaching duties.  They are an incredible blessing.

2) My wife’s job doesn’t just pay the bills but helps her keep her sanity.  My wife grew up in a suburban town and has had a bit of trouble adjusting to such a rural setting.  However, she is one of those wonderful women who is called to be a working mom.  Not only does her job save the church $1000/mo (which is a fifth of the annual budget), but her job gives her friends, a sense of purpose, professional development and that coveted sanity.

3) I love coaching.  Being a coach is an extension of my calling.  In fact, whenever bi-vocational ministry came up in seminary I fretted because I thought I didn’t have another vocation.  So it was quite miraculous when God opened up the opportunity to use my distance running knowledge in town.  When I get to teach teenagers how to train hard, eat right and treat their bodies well, I am not just doing a second job.  I am shepherding them into a better way of life.  Also, the connections with kids and parents in the community have been invaluable and helped me pastor my own church flock a bit better.

4) I would be a pastor for free.  When my church board hired me they guaranteed me I wouldn’t starve to death.  And that was really all I needed.  In fact I didn’t really take the financial package into account.  I was more worried about whether God wanted me here and I figured if God wanted me here the rest would fall into place.  And it has.  God hasn’t let us starve and we have more than we need.

5) The ladies who babysit my kids have become surrogate grandparents.  I can’t say enough about the women who have stepped up to watch our children while I coach and pastor.  The conversations with them and the ability to speak godly peace and truth into their lives would not happen without my kids.  To be sure, they also speak a fair amount of godly peace and truth into my life as well.

So my life is choatic but not overwhelming, challenging but not impossible, difficult but quite enjoyable and I thank God for such a high calling and the means to carry it out.  However, I do think the church needs to rethink the professional clergy model and tomorrow I aim to do just that.  Click on back then!

*Note: I use the word traditional here very loosely.  What we understand to be the traditional salary and description of a professional clergy is only about 50 years old.  In a 2,000 year old tradition that isn't long.