3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

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Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

Why Ministry is About Slavery and Why That is Not That Bad a Thing

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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)

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Introduction

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A few months ago I was meeting with my new District Superintendent, talking about church planting, missional movements and ministry in the 21st century in general.

As our hearts and minds met on the drastic need for the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, to become more innovative he repeated to me what he had heard from someone else who had heard it from someone else who had read it in a book somewhere,

“The church is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner world.”

For those of you younger types (like me) who might be tempted to think Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were names for obscure characters in that Mad Max movie that came out this summer, let me explain the reference.  There is this old, actually ancient, Warner Bros. cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings.  It just had two characters.  One was a hungry coyote, cleverly named “Wile E.”  The other was a rather simple but crazy fast bird named the “Road Runner.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Sets tail on fire instead of rocket.

Every episode involved the coyote coming up with some elaborate, cleverly detailed scheme to catch the Road Runner.  And every episode the Road Runner, without so much as a plan or a strategy, just ran right through the scheme.  The humor in the show almost always centered around each plan’s fatal flaw.  Even though the plan was brilliant and well thought through and cleverly executed, there was always one chink in its armor, one thing Wile E. did wrong, one humorous oversight that let the road runner slip away.  In well over half the episodes, the flaw wasn’t a flaw.  It was just the world not working like it is supposed to.

For example, there is the now classic scene where the coyote paints a mural of a tunnel on a cliff side, hoping the Road Runner will smash into the cliff.  Instead, the Road Runner runs right through the mural into an actual tunnel.  The lesson is simple: The world doesn’t work like the coyote wants it too.

Its sad how the church is remembered for our foolishness, not for how well we can execute a potluck that only feeds “us.”

And we are the coyote.  Our programs, or to put it more religiously, our “ministries,” are elaborate.  They are schemed up by outreach committees in 3 hour long meetings.  They are emailed to pastors with subjects that read, “the brilliant plan that will save our church.”  While we pass the offering plates on Sunday morning, a passionate and dedicated layperson explains them to the congregations.  We claim it worked out just great for that mega church in Seattle or that mushrooming church down the street.  Our congregants get all excited and we all jump on board.

But they all have one fatal flaw and that flaw makes all the time, money and energy we just spent worthless.  Most of the time that flaw is we just failed to understand the world we are living in.

Fatal Flaw #2: We don’t know when to stop.

When that flaw manifests itself and our brilliant feat of outreach falls flat on its face, we at least have a number of cliches we use to comfort ourselves.

We say things like:

“Well God doesn’t care about results.  God just cares about faithfulness.”

“That’s just the way the world is.  God has hardened their hearts so that nothing we say will get through.”

“Well at least we tried.  Church of the Baptist Jesus down the street isn’t even trying.”

“We planted a ton of seeds. Go us!”

Some of that may be true and I am all about comfort in the midst of epic failure.  After all, comfort is what gives us the means to get up and try again.

But what if our problem isn’t that we aren’t dedicated enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.  What if our problem is that we just don’t take the time and energy to understand the world we are living in.

Over the next week I want to write a bit about what I perceive are “Wile E. Coyote” ministries being run by many churches.  My hope in this is not to be overly mean or critical but to think deeply about how we spend our time, money and energy in the hopes that we will become better stewards of our callings.

Even more than that, I hope that our mourned failures would turn into seasons of rejoicing as we truly reach the world for Christ.

Until the next post, here are some great articles elaborating on this concept:

http://pres-outlook.org/2000/10/wile-e-coyote-or-the-roadrunner/

http://time.com/3735089/wile-e-coyote-road-runner/

http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/march/3031813.html

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/04/desire-and-causality-in-road-runner.html

A Pastor’s Running Baggage

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This morning I awoke at my in law’s house in Western Washington.  I only find myself here once or twice a year and usually feel somewhat claustrophobic.  I was born and raised between the big skies and wide open spaces of southern Idaho.  Here the low hanging clouds and giant, lumbering trees create an unsettling eeriness.  At least it unsettles me.  My wife, who grew up here, calls it “comforting.”

Be that as it may, I generally look forward to running a few miles whenever I am here.  To the west of my in law’s house lies acres and acres of narrow roads that wind through dense forests.  When I was here in November I ran out on a narrow road without a shoulder.  The forest to each side is beautiful.  However, this road has a disturbing amount of traffic and no room for pedestrians.  The gorgeous forests were ideal.  The 40 mile per hour cars trying not to hit me were less than.

Apparently I remembered the beauty and forgot the traffic because this morning I ran out that way again.

As I carefully dodged the cars, most of which were ambivalent to my well being, I found myself imagining what might happen if one of these cars did kill me.

What would happen to my church?  How would my wife handle it?  Would my kids be okay without a dad?  What friends would come to the funeral?  These are eery thoughts, perfect for such an eery place as the Pacific Northwest.

But more than family and friends, I also wondered about secret emotions and feeling I might take with me to my grave.  After all, within these 150 pounds of loosely jointed muscles and bones I have a startling amount of baggage.

Which is unfortunate, given that us runners are a minimalist bunch.  Now I know there is an entire industry of runner related gadgets that you can carry on your miles.  However their cell phone arm straps, runner friendly head phones, heart rate monitors, calorie trackers, absorbent head bands, mp3 players and the billions of marketing that sells them are all superfluous.  The best way to tell a runner from a jogger is to look for these needless accessories.

I am purist and have been since college.  When I leave home I wear running shoes, socks, a watch and the shortest pair of shorts this pastor can get away with wearing.  More than that, I wait until my stomach is empty, not being one who can run comfortably with anything sloshing around in there.

Yet when I head out to the roads and trails I find a surprising amount of baggage weighing me down.  Yesterday I met with two of my dearest friends in Portland.  As has been the case with every good friend I have made since junior high I am desperate to retain their friendship.  I spent a few minutes this morning going over everything I said and did wrong yesterday while with them and worried that they might not like me as much after.

More than that, I am a pastor of a church that seems fairly stable and yet I worry about how precarious the situation is.  Whenever I run I try to assess each congregants discipleship status.  Are they making gains?  Are they giving the enemy ground?  Are they willing to hear me ask them the tough questions and read the tough scriptures to them or do they need something the Apostle Paul would compare to “milk?”  Is my relationship with my associate strong enough, good enough?  What congregants can I build trusting friendships with and what ones are waiting in the weeds to destroy me?

In fact, the problem with evangelical pews is that the more you sit in them the more arrogant you become, thinking you are right about everything.  How do I fight that trend and teach and model a humility through which the other virtues will grow?  And how do I do that knowing that the problem with evangelical pulpits are that the more you stand behind them the more sure of yourself you become?  How do I fight that tendency within myself and model the needed humility?

Then there is the macro vision.  How do I work and live into my calling to make disciples who make disciples and plant churches who plant churches?  What conversations do I need to have?  What partnerships do I need to foster?  What steps do I need to take this next week to work towards the mission?

Then there is that church I left.  We met yesterday with a member of that church.  They do not yet have a pastor and are struggling to find and afford one.  There have been several blows to their congregational life since I left.  A divorce, a death, a few severe illnesses, financial instability and of course, leadership changes.  When I left that church in February, I foretold that I was going to break a lot of hearts, starting with my own.  And my heart is still aching and breaking for them and for me.

I also think of friends.  I spent last weekend with a friend who has pastored what we call a “buzzsaw” church.  He went into it whole.  He came out in pieces.  It was my deep honor to share his pain last weekend and yet it was a taxing time.  We cried together, raged together and even laughed at the absurd world.  I still mourn from him.

Then there is another friend, I have known and respected since high school.  He won all the awards in high school and is now becoming somewhat of a national celebrity for a shoe he invented.  I admire and respect him and yet feel like in the race to save the world, I am far behind him and losing ground daily.  How do I possibly catch up?  Should I even try?  Can my small daily sacrifices even compare to his amazing ability to make roses out of dog poop?

Needless to say in this 150 pound body striding effortlessly through the forests of Washington, is a surprising amount of stress, grief, frustration and fear.  No wonder I didn’t even bother with a shirt.  The extra weight would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

I would take all this to my grave if one of these haphazard drivers ends my life.  In fact, if that had happened, all you would have is a half written sermon for next Sunday and last week’s blog post about Monday Morning’s Repentance.  Hardly a legacy, but a legacy I am not sure I want to leave anyway.

As I dodge three or four more cars, an asphalt sidewalk suddenly appears in front of me.  It starts at the road and then weaves away through some trees, curving in and out.  When I see it I seem to hear a different voice in the back of my head, a comforting and familiar presence that says, “Follow the path and I will keep you safe.”

A minute or two later I stop to catch my breath.  As sweat forms and pours off me I offer up prayers for my church, my denomination, my last church, my friends and for myself.

For the one who called me is faithful.  .  .