The Weight of Ministry Life

The emotional challenges of ministry life are real! Few vocations rival the emotional and spiritual weight that those in ministry carry- the result of being on the front lines in the brokenness of our world.

These challenges can be intense and constant. Much like those in emergency response roles (the “first responders”), the grief that clergy encounter in crisis situations can be crushing to the most optimistic spirit. In the daily and weekly work of caring for souls, the pain, griefs and disappointments run like dripping water over the heart and soul. Over time, a deep spiritual and emotional erosion can occur.

The challenges can also arrive in the form of our own internal dialog. We battle with our own wounds, with tendencies to make ministry “all about us” and with the subtle belief that we are limitless in our capacity to live out this calling.

Regardless of how we experience them, these encounters take their toll. We often feel depleted and, on the edge, wondering why we don’t have the reserves to keep up with even the ordinary rhythms of life.

The founder of PIR Ministries, Dr. Chuck Wickman, wrote about those in ministry who weren’t burned out but “bummed out” – weary, worried, having lost a sense of the meaningfulness of the work they were called to do.

Caring for souls is the primary role that clergy fill – a role that brings them face to face with people in the middle of the mess of life. While the option exists to take a simply clinical approach to these people and problems, most pastors and ministry leaders are wired to invest in people and their growth. We will enter their journey and walk with them in their brokenness. Even the apostle Paul experienced the weight of ministry in this way. “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?” – 2 Corinthians 11:28-29.

Many of us have seen that the anger, fear and pain that people feel in their lives ends up on our front door instead of where it needs to go. As David Rohrer commented in his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, Often, we are the target of the business people actually need to do with God. It passes through us on its way to him. Both good and bad.

What is a minister to do? How do I handle the grief, the inconsistencies, the challenges to my leadership, the tensions with staff and family, my own fear of not measuring up or getting enough done, the worries over the sustainability of a church or a ministry? How do I deal with the undertow of swimming in the ocean of heartache and pain that is part and parcel of ministry life?

Far too many of us are willing to take the route of ignoring or burying the effect these can have on us; choosing to accept them as “just part of the job.” Unfortunately, the pressure mounts, and we end up in a place where we are not living a life that is our own – a place dominated by the needs of others while our own are minimized. Spiritual, emotional and physical fatigue is the first sign we are not processing these emotional challenges well. Medicating with behaviors that are self and soul destructive is the final stage – signaling that we have lost our sense of who we really are.

We need to think differently about the emotional impact of ministry on our lives if we are going to serve with a whole heart.

I am convinced that there are some foundational truths we need to regularly revisit – truths that can prevent us from being swallowed up by the “inconsolable things” (Zack Eswine) we face in ministry life. Let me suggest two that are helping me offload the weight of ministry life that tends to accumulate in my soul.

Processing with others.
The importance of trusted others who can help us process these deep emotional challenges is vital – whether counselors, mentors, peers or friends. These are our “advocates” – those who will advocate on our behalf before God in prayer, as well as advocate the grace of God to us in the bleak hours of our soul. As I look back on my own years of pastoral ministry, it makes me sad to remember that I had so very few friends – not by their choice, but mine. This did not serve me well. I am grateful that this is no longer the case.

Embrace both my humanity and the Gospel.
It is far too easy in a ministry role to forget that we are human beings and not human doings. We have bodies that need rest, exercise, and intimacy. We have hearts and souls that need stewarding as much as the ministry tasks on our list. Being human means I must embrace the fact that I have limits; and that my role is not to fix people or the world. Learning to daily immerse myself in the Gospel reminds me that He is the Savior and I have been invited to partner with Him in His work of restoration. The Gospel also allows me to remember who I am – that my identity is not in what I do but in being made in God’s image, lavishly loved by Christ and called to a daily journey with Him.

Leaning into these two truths make it possible for me to take the weight – the griefs and cares – of ministry life to their true resting place. They belong in God’s hands.

We are living out the most important calling in the world. As ministers and pastors, we are the “first responders” to the chaos, pain and spiritual brokenness that people experience. Sharing in their grief – and experiencing our own – requires that we have a solid foundation in who and what we really are. Without that, the weight of ministry life will slowly consume our passion for the calling God has given us.

The Grounded Pastor – Patterns for a Healthy Pastoral Life, Part 3

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – 1 Timothy 4:15

 One of the highest compliments I hear being given to a pastor or ministry leader is that they are “well grounded” in their teaching. It implies that they have committed themselves to the study of Scripture and the formation of good theology. Very important! However, rarely (if ever) have I heard a pastor’s life acknowledged as well grounded. This is very curious to me, especially considering how careful the Apostle Paul is to highlight the importance of being grounded in life as well as teaching in his letter to pastor Timothy.

It seems that Paul refuses to let Timothy compartmentalize his faith. Life and doctrine are joined at the hip in pastoral leadership. In the same way that good theology must inform our teaching, there are foundational theological issues that need to inform the live our lives as ministers.

When a candidate for ordination steps forward, I wonder if asking questions like,

“What will your life in ministry actually look like?” “How will you create a framework for ministry life that is grounded in the biblical and theological truths of WHO and WHAT you really are?”

These are probably good questions for any ministry leader, no matter what stage they’re at.

Like many who deeply desire to serve God in a vocational ministry role, I forgot that God was more interested in WHO I was than WHAT I did for Him. The result was a major crash and burn that did violence to relationships that I cherished, the church I served and to my own soul. The framework on which I hung my ministry life was far from what I now see shining through the Scriptures. My work as a part of PIR Ministries now brings me into contact, every day, with pastors who also seem to lack this vital framework – busy, overwhelmed and living on adrenalin, they attempt to exceed the limits of what their actual life in Christ can sustain.

“Your wife and your body don’t lie” – A pastor who suffered severe burnout.

This goes beyond the practical do’s and don’ts of preventing burnout. As Gretchen Ziegenhals recently said,

“… how can we think differently about the work itself and what we can physically manage? It is not simply about having that little    plastic gizmo on our desks — the “NO” button — that says “No!” in three different ways when we push it. Or repeating to ourselves, “I’m not on that committee” when we try to control too much.” (Alban Institute)

We need to think deeply and differently about our work and our role.

May I invite you to consider with me a framework for ministry that will ground us in a healthy way of life? One that may provide for the flourishing of our own souls and, in turn, the souls of those we shepherd? This framework consists of understanding:

 You are Human – Do I live conscious of being a created being – a HUMAN being; “crowned with glory and honor” but limited, broken, redeemed and Christ-dependent every day? If we will let it, the present sense of our humanity roots us in this truth – there is a God, and I am not Him! This simple realization can transform us from human doings – with an unrealistic belief in our unlimited capacity – into people who live and work in a very human way. We will daily bump up against the sinful defaults of our hearts, our inability to fix things and people and the limits of our own bodies. And that will be OK.

“I am a real person who occupies an office.” – David Rohrer

 You are a Disciple – Prior to any call to serve there is the call to follow. The call to follow Jesus, to know and love Him above all else, grounds us in the Gospel. Sometimes we minister types can forget that the Gospel we preach is the Gospel for US as well.  A recent survey found that 70% of pastors only spent time studying the Word when they are preparing their sermons. The daily, intentional personal relationship with Jesus is where we are leading people. We probably should get there first! Jesus has always been after our heart, not our performance.

You are a Pastor/Minister/Shepherd – This vocational piece is what most pastors and ministers focus on exclusively once we experience a “call” to ministry. But ministry is more than the sermons we preach, the service we give, or the leading we do. We are called to give voice to God’s work in our own life -the whole of it. The Apostle Paul admonished the Philippians to follow not only his words but the things they had seen in him. Vocation is the voice of my life – human, disciple, servant.

“As pastors, we must be in God for the world, not in the world for God.”

 Do you see how we often flip these – maybe even ignore one or two? It is vital to see how they build on one another and need to be in order. I like to think of this as the Ordo pastorium – the order of being a pastor – that forms a framework for a grounded and healthier ministry life.

The Answer for Isolation & Loneliness in Ministry Life

Proverbs 4:23 – “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (ESV)

                               “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts.” MSG

1 Timothy 4:16 – “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (ESV)

“Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.” MSG

Good soul care for pastors includes both appropriate self-awareness – watching over our hearts, and good rhythms – watching over the patterns of our lives that reflect our true values. Healthy hearts and healthy souls mean healthy lives and ministry.

I have deliberately chosen the word “rhythm” rather than discipline because of the organic nature that the word represents. In music, rhythm is “an ordered alternation of contrasting elements.” Good rhythms in ministry allow us to account for the realities we all face, and keep us from a rigid approach to our discipleship that can far too often create shame rather than joy and freedom.  Rhythms reflect the ebb and flow of life under grace.

In order to address the issues of isolation and loneliness in ministry, we must consider the rhythm between solitude and community.

SOLITUDE AND COMMUNITY

I can be alone in a group. I jokingly refer to my “people quotient.” I am energized by being alone. But when being alone becomes isolation – both externally and internally –  we are in the danger zone. My own story is a clear example of how self-isolation can lead to disaster and an exit from ministry. Reasons and rationalizations abound to keep us from pursuing authentic relationships; creating the opportunity for discouragement and sin to grow.

Many of us in ministry are dangerously isolated – perhaps not because of a lack of proximity to others, but because we lack the commitment to those significant, authentic relationships. This is the loneliness and isolation of many pastors and spouses.

We need the rhythm of both solitude and community to combat isolation and loneliness.

Solitude

Solitude is different from isolation. It is an intentional “coming apart” as Jesus advised, in order to hear God. Jesus planned times of intentional aloneness with the Father. (Mt 14:23, Mk 1:35)

Solitude is that time and place where we find, as John Ortberg has said, that ” …your existence is larger than your job at church.”

Being alone with God in solitude is a Place and Time to remember who I am and to confront the real issues of my heart. One of the clearest examples of this in my own life occurred when I was on a personal retreat at a local Jesuit retreat center. Walking through the “stations of the cross” in the outside gardens, I came to the one where Jesus asked the Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment of solitude, God was able to speak into my own feelings of abandonment carried with me from when I was a child – feelings that affected a good deal of how I treated others. In the cry of Jesus, I knew that He understood my pain. Without the time alone, I never would have experienced God’s healing touch in my heart.

Solitude can be a time when we fast from things, people, and all the outer props of our lives; including technology. (R. Foster)

But we must be careful here. We do not live only in those internal moments. There is a reason Jesus created the Church, the physical expression of His Body here on earth. As pastors, we live much of our lives between our ears. The contrasting element to solitude is community – the other element necessary for overcoming isolation and loneliness. Being alone needs to prepare us to be with others.

Community

Pastors and pastor families need genuine community. We may preach it to our congregations. But we can avoid it for ourselves. Ministry happens in community and we need it for our souls to be healthy.

Jesus desired that Peter, James and John share with Him in His times of glory (on the mountain) and in His deep sorrow (in the Garden)

Paul longed for the company of his companions while in prison.

Community is a word that is very popular right now. With it has come a greater willingness of some pastors to be more open about their own challenges from the pulpit. While I am grateful for that, the deeper issue is: are there those who really know us? Do we avoid real and authentic relationships for ourselves out of fear or pride?

Are there people we can be unfettered with? Are there those who can advocate God’s presence and grace to us?

Pastors need others to remind them who they really are – because we can forget that we are human beings first, disciples second and ministers third. All of us need people who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel for US!

I am used to being a lone ranger. But understanding that I need others in my life caused me to create an Advisory Team when I returned to ministry life. This small group of men know me, and I can be transparent with them. One of the greatest joy’s in my life is that, where once I had none, now I have friends.

Where is that place, and who are the people with whom you can be fully known without secrets? Who can you sit with and confess, “Here is what I am most ashamed of…” and experience grace, forgiveness and healing! I believe that James 5:16 is the most avoided passage of Scripture I know. Yet the work of confession – of bringing our faults and sins into the light – is vital for the health of our souls. Personal confession is good. But real healing takes place in that community activity of speaking and hearing in the presence of others. Being authentic at this level will allow us to be authentic in other relationships both inside and outside of our congregations.

It is important that we nurture this kind of community with our spouses. They are a “help” fit for you (Gen. 2:18). They are on this journey with you. Then you must find those folks – within and outside your congregation that can be your friends. Before you leave today, I challenge you to reach out and find one other person to begin with.

In the rhythm of Solitude and Community, we can find a lasting answer to the problems of isolation and loneliness in ministry.

For more information on pastoral renewal and restoration, please visit our website at http://www.pirministries.org, or contact us at info@pirministries.org.

Another Reason Pastors don’t ask for help – Fear!

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” –  C.S. Lewis

It’s been a long week since my last posting. (I think I have to give up on putting myself in a “time” box.) Before we take a look at the next reason why pastors are reluctant to ask for help, it might be good to ask “When IS a pastor in need of help?”

A pastor, or any ministry leader, is likely to need help when

  • They are leading on empty. (compassion fatigue has set in)
  •  The fit isn’t right between who they are, their strengths, and the role they are in.
  •  They are struggling with unresolved issues – patterns of behavior that could put them “at risk”.
  •  A conflict among staff or in the congregation is beyond them to resolve.
  •  They are isolated, and without significant friendships.
  •  Their own expectations exceed their grasp.
  •  Their family is in turmoil – over ministry boundaries and schedule, or just life.
  •  Self-care is lacking – there is no time for their own souls.
  • Their strengths do not cover all the bases.
  •  They feel they are not doing anything significant.
  • Depression has overwhelmed them.

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One of the big reasons that keeps pastors from asking for help when these situations arise is fear!

 

I have been doing a lot of thinking about this; since this reason and I are good friends. If you are a Bloom County fan, then you will recall the “Snorkelwacker.” This is the monster in Binkley’s “closet of anxiety”, and is the representative of all his fears. I am convinced that each of us have a closet of anxiety where all our fears live and breed. It would be nice if they just remained there. But as Binkley learns, they will often reach out of the closet and “grab you” – unbidden and unwanted.

This is a partial list of the fears that may be familiar to some of us. (Names withheld to protect the author) When the closet door opens, these can keep us from asking for help.

What if they don’t need me?

What if someone does it better than me?

I might lose my job.

I will be a disappointment to others and myself and the shame will be too much.

It will all fall apart.

What will people think?

I might be found out that I struggle with the same issues that others do…and I should be above it.

I will look inadequate and weak.

Others will question my faith…even while I question my own.

Fear causes us to do things that keep the help we need distant from us – to cover and spin and control. From the time of our first parents we have been hiding from God and each other. There are pastors I have spent time with whose fear of the loss of prestige and significance they envision will happen cannot be overcome. They are paralyzed, and so unable to humbly ask for help.

Now, not all fears are unreasonable. Some are very good and very healthy. Even in the Garden, I doubt that Adam and Eve were doing un-netted trapeze work or experimenting with sharp objects. What is most troubling is that today, in the Church, it may not be unreasonable to fear that there will be those who will pounce on any sign of weakness, default to maintaining appearances rather than extending grace, and generally make it difficult to ask for help. At this point we may have to work through the risk/reward equation. Is the risk of suffering at the hands of my fears, whether reasonable or not, greater than the reward of authenticity?

I think there is a simple way to start cleaning out the closet of our anxieties that may allow us the joy of asking (and receiving!) the help we need.

Own them! Denying our fears uses up a lot of energy that could be saved for the real challenges of ministry life. Self-awareness is our friend. Naming our fears, and acknowledging that they are a part of us, is another step toward integrity.

Speak them to another! In the light of day, many of our fears tend to assume their proper proportions – or disappear completely. I think James 5:13-19 covers the struggles we have with fears as well. One of the biggest lies we are led to believe is the if people really knew us, they wouldn’t like us; and would probably run away. It just isn’t true! God knows; and He doesn’t. Others can know; and they won’t. Friends will extend grace and understanding. Not all church members are out to get us. They can be amazingly kind if we help them understand what it can mean to be a human being who is also a ministry leader.

Trust God with the outcomes! When Joshua took over the leadership of God’s people, I am certain there was a whole lot of fear happening in his heart. I know this because of how many times God tells him to have courage. But God wasn’t asking Joshua to face his fears on his own and simply “man up.” God’s final word to Joshua is a true word for those of us who battle great fears that can keep us from asking for the help we need.

 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

A Good Word on Pastoral Health from Ken Sande

In light of my current series on “5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help…and what can happen if you do!” these observations by Ken Sande, founder of Peacmakers and RW 360, are quite appropriate.

Do You Know a Bruised Reed?

Bruised ReedIt takes a great deal of humility, wisdom and courage for a popular pastor to admit that he is a “bruised reed” in desperate need of physical rest, spiritual renewal and relational retooling.

Do You Know a Bruised Reed?

 

 

I Can Manage on My Own… Part 2 of “5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help – and what can happen if you do!”

In my last blog, I began to explore what I think are the top five reasons pastors (and probably quite a few of the rest of us) don’t ask for help. I know that in my own life, I am constantly amazed at how often these tendencies crop up. The daily challenge is to lean into a different way of living, one where the surprises come from what happens when I DO ask for help.

My spiritual director (who’s in addition to my therapist!) said that “ask and you will receive” is a marker of spiritual maturity. I’ve never really considered asking for help as a strength or sign of maturity. In fact, I think our culture promotes the opposite.” – April Diaz

Number 1: Help requires others… but self-sufficiency is our motto.

No matter how many times we may publiclyimages (1) declare the Scriptural truth of our neediness and dependence, we believe that we are more than enough for what we face. We can manage all by ourselves. This management approach dominates in our culture, and pastors are not immune. I know I battle with my inner cowboy – the rough and ready, independent character, self-sufficient in every way. It shows up in simple things, like projects around the house (I have a long list of my own making!), where it never occurs to me to ask others to help. And it extends to the deep and lasting spiritual battles I fight. Regardless of the situation, my inner monologue is, “I can manage it, my thinking is the best, my strength of will can see me through!”

Only humans, this side of the fall, have the audacity to attempt self-sufficiency. Everything in nature is interdependent.

 I watch the barley my son-in-law is growing in our backyard and it shouts this truth. The seed cannot go it alone. Sun, water, soil and the watchful tending of another all play a part. But we are taught early and long that the only one we can really depend on is ourselves. This runs strong in us. I have watched the elderly struggle with being dependent, or interdependent, on others even when it is clear that they cannot care for themselves.

For pastors, this tendency is often reinforced by the expectations that come with the role – both internal and external. Internally, our training, skills and personal need to succeed can lead us to believe that we are sufficient for anything the job can throw at us, if we just manage it better. In our actions, we quite simply say to Jesus, “I’ve got this!” Sometimes the disappointment of having others not follow through can reinforce the feeling that it is just better to go it alone. Externally, pastors are expected to be the one with all the answers to life’s deepest questions. They obviously have their act together; their degree says so… and the illusion of self-sufficiency grows stronger.

We don’t ask for help because asking for help will shatter the illusion and will require that we invite others into our lives and ministries.

“So when you have forgotten who you are, when you assign to yourself more maturity than you actually have, and when you think you are more capable than you really are, you leave yourself little reason to seek the ongoing help of your Savior” – Paul Tripp from Dangerous Calling

What if we were less “…so self-assured,” as the song goes?

In an interview published by the Alban Institute, Eugene Peterson reflected on his own efforts to avoid the trap of self-sufficiency. In seeking to develop a culture of mutuality in life and ministry, he made this bold statement to his congregation:

“Help me. I have needs. I can’t function well without help from you. We’re in this together, we’re doing the same thing, we’re worshiping together, we’re living the Christian life together. You’ve asked me to do certain things to help you do it—to lead you in worship on Sunday, to visit you when you’re sick, to help administer the church. But I need help in all of this.”

If all we have is ourselves, it robs us of intimacy and closes the door on getting the help we desperately need. I find that, in always encouraging others, pastors rarely share their own needs. They challenge their congregations to build community, yet are often sorely lacking in the communal aspect of their own journey.

But if we can step away from our do-it-yourself tendencies for a moment we might find:

  • That we have peace instead of anxiety. Keeping all the plates spinning, being the sole fixer for people’s lives takes a lot of energy; and usually leaves me grouchy and far from the peace that Jesus offered. Taking the risk and asking for help has a mysterious way of renewing my spirit – I don’t have to do it all by myself.
  • That we remember who we really are (because we can forget). Pastors need to find their place among the rest of the human race. We need others who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel FOR US! There is a grace that can only flow to us through others – a grace that reminds us that we still need a Savior, as well as the rest of His Body.
  •  That we are healed. James 5:16 is a powerful antidote to the poison of our self-sufficiency, yet we rarely apply it. When we confess our faults to each other and allow ourselves to be prayed for regarding our true needs, we are admitting that we cannot manage on our own – we need help. It does a lot to ruin our sense of being capable for all things. And the healing that comes may be the healing from our own deep independence.

What happens when you do ask for help? You find yourself actually living in the “community” that we all talk about, program for, and so desperately need.

Next week: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” – Andre Gide

5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help…(and what can happen when you do!)

desert bench1

 

 

I hate asking for help. I think most people find it difficult, especially when it comes to the kinds of challenges that are more personal or relational.

A number of years ago, a famous rock and roll star wrote a song during a time in his life that he self-described as his “fat Elvis period.” In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, the artist said this is one of his favorite records, because, “I meant it – it’s real.” He added, “The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then. It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.” Here are the lyrics of the song he was referring to, which highlight a remarkable moment of humility:

 

Help, I need somebody

Help, not just anybody

Help, you know I need someone, help

 

When I was younger so much younger than today

I never needed anybody’s help in any way

But now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured

Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

 

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down

And I do appreciate you being ’round

Help me get my feet back on the ground

Won’t you please, please help me

 

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

My independence seems to vanish in the haze

But every now and then I feel so insecure

I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

 

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down

And I do appreciate you being ’round

Help me get my feet back on the ground

Won’t you please, please help me

 

The artist? John Lennon, of the Beatles. Interestingly, Paul McCartney helped Lennon write the song, but didn’t realize it was an actual call for help until years later.

Truth be told, I hate asking for help.

I have struggled with asking for help most of my life. From simple geographical directions to the deeper, more persistent emotional and spiritual needs of my heart, asking for help doesn’t come easy. It might be a “guy” thing, but I am suspicious that my reluctance to ask for help runs significantly deeper. And I know for a fact that most pastors and ministry leaders resist asking for help until they hit the wall – the wall of a spouse who has had enough of untamed boundaries, or a board that sees patterns of behavior that create unrest, or the wall of physical and emotional fatigue.

Why don’t we ask for help?

I want to explore with you what I think are the top five reasons pastors (and maybe some of the rest of us) don’t ask for help. My hope is that by naming them we can take a bit of the sting out of the stigma of being in need of help. Perhaps, we can identify some strategies that might make it easier for us to let our guard down – to risk asking – and move on from never needing “anybody’s help in any way.”

 

 

A Loose Grip

“Today, I can write about helping pastors, or I can actually help them.”

This was the statement I made to my wife sitting out on our patio the other morning. As we talked over coffee, I was facing choices about my agenda for the day. There were a couple of situations that had come up recently requiring hands on involvement in the ministry of helping pastors. But I had planned on doing some long overdue writing for my blog, a task that has eluded me over the last couple of months. What has kept me from writing? Because I have been actually working at helping pastors – preparing seminars, having lunch, talking on the phone, walking with people in crisis, setting up Pastor in Residence programs.

And so, there on a bright summer morning, real life battled with my expectations.

to do listI have faced this often in my life; and it continues to be a struggle. I am deeply committed to people, but I can also be deeply obsessed with accomplishing my agenda. The horns of my dilemma – tasks vs. people! When I have opted for the former, it has been easy to shut others out and not be present in the moment. I can get grumpy when my plan gets interrupted. Clearly, there are tasks that are important to tackle – things do need to get “done.” But it has been my inability to loosen my grip on the day – on my agenda – that has made many days miserable and unfruitful in a more lasting way.

When I was pastoring, I remember not always being at my best for people. My mind was on what I was NOT doing, what I could be doing other than actually listening, caring, helping. Go figure!

It has taken awhile, but I am learning to step back from the emotions that hijack my ability to see the bigger picture – emotions like frustration, annoyance and anxiety. It is not a pretty picture sometimes. And I definitely need help – from my wife and others – to challenge my default mode. An actual willingness to listen to their input has often resulted in a better grasp of what I am feeling and what the real priorities need to be.

I am in process. And the sense I have is that I am moving in the right direction. God’s agenda is always more deeply satisfying. The paradigm of “people over projects” is mostly true. (I am still not fully convinced!). However, I am convinced that our treasures in heaven are not completed “to do” lists.

reins According to my resident equestrian expert, having a “death grip” on the reins of a horse typically doesn’t result in the best ride. It is counter-intuitive, but light contact and a deeper seat in the saddle create the kind of connection that makes for an effective ride. I sometimes find it difficult to release my death grip on how I think a day should go. When I do, my connection to real life is actually much better .

So now, it is becoming easier to step back, to loosen my grip. When God completely turns my day upside down, I find there is a new grace that frees me to be present in the moment and adjust my agenda to His.

I think it is a good choice.

What about you?

A Good, Hard Look at Ourselves – for pastors, ex-pastors and other Church leaders.

crackOver the course of the last week, I had the privilege of speaking to two vastly different groups about the urgent need in the church for restorative grace for pastors. The first was a gathering of seminary students in St. Louis, at Covenant Seminary. The second group was mostly made up of seasoned pastors from around Southeast Michigan. In both cases, as we talked about the present challenges of ministry life and as I shared my own journey under God’s restoring grace, a common theme emerged. In the midst of the questions and comments it became apparent to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we view ourselves and in the way we understand our roles in life and ministry.

Most of us see ourselves solely as reflections of our calling – our “work” role – and that self-image defines how we relate to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, doing so can lead to many of the difficulties pastors and church leaders face today: the pastoral persona, the need for approval and validation from those we work for, etc. However, based on these recent conversations, I’d like to suggest an alternative, though it might be a complete paradigm shift for both the pastor and those he shepherds.

It’s become clearer to me that the place to begin, is the beginning.

kneeling at crossWe need to see ourselves first as human beings, created in the image of God, who are in need of the gospel every single day. This fundamental reality is inescapable. Pastors are not suddenly exempt because of their calling. Even as pastors, we are as limited, needy and flawed as everyone else – and the object of God’s great love and grace as well. By recalibrating our thinking here, we can avoid a host of troubles in our lives and ministries. Without the sense of ourselves as human, we tend to live separate from the one thing God has put in place to help us all grow back into the fullness of His image: the community of the Church.

Next comes the importance of understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our own discipleship precedes anything else we might do “for” Him. I have often said to my fellow servants that God is far more interested in YOU than anything you might do for Him. This translates into reordering our personal priorities and schedules to make room for the care of our own souls first, and the honest working out of our own obedience to His first call on our lives, “Come, follow me!” A critical point shared with the group of seminary students, and confirmed by research done among pastors, was that if the basic disciplines of the spiritual life are not already in place while in seminary, those disciplines will not be present when a newly ordained pastor enters full-time ministry. When Jesus restored Peter, he not only re-commissioned him to teach and feed His sheep, but also set that clearly in the context of Peter’s own need to follow Jesus (John 21).

focusWhen we see ourselves first as human beings in need of grace, and then as disciples of Jesus Christ, our vocational calling can begin to take its proper shape. Pastoral or ministry leadership in the Body of Christ has to grow out of the realities of both our humanity and our discipleship; the sequence is of critical importance. If we reverse the order, or ignore one or the other, the dangers of pride, isolation, need for control, and living a double life are far too tempting. It is humbling to actually live out the understanding that we are human beings that need to experience repentance, confession and forgiveness just like everyone else. It can be difficult to prioritize our lives around our fellowship with Jesus and not around ministry tasks. But, then again, faith is sometimes unsettling.

I am becoming convinced that taking a good, hard look at myself and reorienting the way I see my life is the first step to healthy ministry. It may be the key to living and serving from the heart, rather than simply from our heads. I appreciate this warning to us all from Paul Tripp,

 “…a pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his knowledge, experience, and skill. It is always shaped by the true condition of his heart.”

Dangerous Calling

How do you see yourself today?

 

The Thankful Pastor – Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life Pt. 2

Years ago, when I was pastoring, I asked one of the ladies at our church to create a banner around the Latin term “Sursum Corda.” She did a fabulous job, visually depicting the concept of what the term literally means: “Up with Your Heart!” Hanging for all to see at the front of the church, that banner was a weekly reminder to look up, to spiritually take our hearts by the chin and look into the face of a gracious loving God who has provided “everything we need for life and godliness” in Christ.

sursum corda 2

Living under that banner has been a big struggle for me, both in ministry and in life. I spent a lot of time laboring under the shadow of the emotional environment with which I grew up; expectations were never achievable and little time was devoted to truly being thankful. Family members’ constant reminders to send “thank you notes” made that gracious act into an obligation, and not a true expression of my heart.

Entering ministry, I found pastoral work to be a field of land mines that regularly blew any idea of thankfulness or gratitude to smithereens. People were always coming up short, things didn’t happen fast enough or the way I believed they should. It was far too easy to be affected by the spirit of our age, which – like it or not – sees people as products, with efficiency as the master of the system. Certainly, there are tasks that could use a good dose of efficiency. But people are not projects! They will never be subject to efficiency. The more we try to fit them into that mold, the more angry we become – and less thankful. Unfortunately, in this mode, even God can come up short in our eyes. We unconsciously believe He promised things He never did, or didn’t show up when we thought He should – as if somehow He owes us.

We have become production managers when we should be shepherds.

shepherdI am constantly being drawn back to this fundamental idea of pastoral work, that we are indeed shepherds. It flies in the face of our “chronos” (clock) driven culture, and functions in the world of “kairos” (event) time. Sheep, we realize, are not something that function any better or quicker if ‘managed.’ Sheep will indeed produce fleece, in time! If the sheep are healthy, they will naturally repopulate the flock. The shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep, to seek out green pastures for them to feed on and fresh water for them to quench their thirst. The shepherd is called to be faithful to the owner – since that’s whose sheep they are!

Similarly, pastors must also regularly take their places as one of the sheep, finding nourishment for their own souls and health for their own hearts. This is how we become the kind of shepherds that are gracious and wise; without that time for our own hearts to find their proper posture before God, we will be driven instead by anger, impatience, control, and a sense of entitlement. The inner voices that correspond to our own emotional neediness will demand the drug of approval from others – and that is dangerous.

With these images never far from my mind, I am learning to be grateful, to be a thankful person. The results are becoming apparent and the benefits obvious. I smile a lot now! I am finding that my schedule is more flexible around people and, most certainly, God. People even like to be around me – most times. There are still things to get done, and I have my strategy for ministry, but it is daily put on God’s desk for editing and amendment. And each day is a fresh page to be turned.

So, if I were going to try to describe the “thankful pastor,” I would offer a few things that might be helpful. The thankful pastor is:

First and foremost, daily rooted in the understanding and joy of his own redemption;

  • Attentive to his own call to follow Jesus before he worries about others;
  • Aware that life and ministry are gifts from God – undeserved, but lavishly given;
  • Understanding that the people he leads and the church he serves are not his, nor is he serving at their call;
  • A peacemaker in his own heart between the voices of efficiency and the voice of the Spirit of grace;
  • On a daily adventure with God, having been invited into the wonder of spiritual work;
  • Growing in flexibility, faith, and the ability to take joy in the moment.

gratitudeThankfulness and gratitude are the barometer of our heart, a choice regarding how we see the world we live in, the person we are and the calling we have received. If we can begin with the truth of the gospel every day – for our own lives – we will be the healthy pastor people hope for. Sursum Corda is an invitation to pick the eyes of our hearts up from the ground and look full in His wonderful face. And THAT is a privilege we cannot take for granted!

I recently heard a great piece of advice for pastors who are beginning ministry in a new church: when you begin your new role, find anything and everything you can commend and be genuinely thankful for among the people you have come to pastor. I think that is a great way to start! It helps us to recognize that God was there before us, and softens our hearts so that we are less prone to see only those things that are wrong or frustrating.

In his book, Pastors at Risk, Chuck Wickman makes this simple statement that is so true: “Count your blessings. Gratitude is a healer.”

Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk) expresses his own journey toward thankfulness:

“There is discouragement in my world, but if I am honest, most of it is smaller than I make it. I am the one who amplifies it most of the time. As I’ve learned to listen more and more to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I’m learning that Jesus was very dependable when he taught us that the Kingdom of God is upon is. Right here, right now, close by. I choose to not see it because I am lobbying for that most destructive of emotions: self-pity. Jesus is reminding me that there is sufficiency in the love he extends, and the love he places around us. That love comes in thousands of different ways in a day. The problem is that I don’t expect it, don’t listen or look for it, don’t live in expectation that his gracious love will meet me throughout the day.”

Paul has a lot to say about thankfulness in the book of Colossians, but I have always been drawn particularly to Colossians 2:7. The progression in this passage is noteworthy: rooted in Christ, renewed in the truth of the gospel, which creates a geyser of thankfulness. It reminds us that there is too much wonder in the world to be grumpy. The Gospel is too strong to allow us to remain disappointed.

How have you grown in thankfulness?

sursum corda