Hope Behind the Headlines

Starting up the blog again in this new year has been a bit of a challenge. As we all know, life can get in the way of our best laid plans. Anyway, I wanted to begin the new year on a positive note. I hope this little installment gives you hope!

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I really miss Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” I used to listen to it daily on the radio, and loved the backstory he would slowly unravel. Behind what we all thought we knew were the details that surprised us. I often found myself wanting to dig deeper into those stories after listening to his broadcasts.

“…we evangelicals now talk about brothers and sisters and our own stories with an eye roll or quick dismissal. We have come to believe that the experiences of exclusion and infighting that dominate the American religious landscape are the norm, rather than the exception, in our faith. Evangelicals have long been painted with a broad brush: moralistic, right-wing, uneducated, and unable to appreciate the earth or beauty, fearful and not a little bit strange. That picture is not accurate or full;” – Laura Turner (Christianity Today, 12/2013)

Laura Turner’s quote above suggests that there is a “Rest of the Story” to the condition of the evangelical church in America – that the ugly truth is not the whole truth.

newspaper I read the headlines, and I meet with pastors who share heartbreaking stories of being wounded by the church. I hear about the “clergy-killer” churches, and the clergy who, being human, add to the mess. All of this exists. It’s real. But it’s not all there is.

Just as real are the stories of deep grace, mercy and courage among churches today. There are believers who are writing the rest of the story. Behind the headlines, churches are becoming “Refuge Churches,” places of healing for wounded pastors and their families. I am working with 7 of these courageous congregations right now. They are the ones who, when a hard working pastor of a small congregation desperately needed a vacation for his family, pitched in generously and made that happen. These are the churches that understand that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ, broken human beings on the same journey of grace and are willing to open their hearts and lives to them.

Recently, I met with a pastor who has been repeatedly run over. At this stage, he is pretty convinced that there are no loving, gracious Christians or churches. All is bad and lost. Unfortunately, the statistics about pastoral exits would be in his favor. I was so grateful that I could fill in the rest of the story for him and assure him that there is hope! It exists as surely as the shortcomings and failures we constantly hear about. The opportunity to point him in the direction of one of those gracious, loving churches of refuge was another line in the rest of his story.

return of prodigal 1There is no question that we have our work cut out for us, and that the stories being told most loudly about the Church are the ones that paint a less-than-flattering picture. But for each headline that makes us shake our heads and groan, we need to hear the “Rest of the Story!” Thought it may never make the 11 o’clock news, in small but real ways, quietly and deliberately, there is evidence that there are disciples of Jesus in this world (John 13:35). Behind the scenes, His grace is writing new headlines.

The Daily Grind

clean upAs pastors, laboring among broken people (and being broken ourselves!) there’s a lot of mess.

Sometimes it feels like all you do is clean up the mess: “Clean-up on aisle 10!” So much work and effort, and it is most often unnoticed and unrewarding.

I recently concluded teaching a class called “When God Hands You the Impossible.” It was a study of the book of Nehemiah, and we were trying to learn from Nehemiah’s example as we face our own impossible tasks. During a session a few weeks ago, one of the class members brought up a detail that I had completely overlooked in our study. He pointed out that those who were rebuilding the wall had to spend time and energy hauling the debris away, cleaning up the rubble; and at the end of the day, tidying up the work site. Huh…hadn’t thought about that! (Being an electrician, and spending a lot of years on construction sites, it seemed pretty obvious to him!)

It’s one of those little details in Scripture that can end up speaking volumes into our lives.

I was immediately reminded of the times when, trying to supplement my income with part-time work, I took on the task of cleaning up worksites for my Dad – who was involved in commercial construction, installing acoustical ceilings in new office buildings. There were a lot of hours spent picking up the junk left behind the installers. It was dusty, dirty work. But somebody had to do it!

Somebody has to clean up the mess.
It matters.
It’s inglorious.
It’s sweaty, hard work.

This got me to thinking about how much of life is actually the daily grind – simple, direct, repetitive and ordinary tasks without which it would be impossible to build the good things we envision. Cleaning up the messiness around us is dull and often thankless work – certainly not what we signed up for in ministry. It is made even more difficult when the cultural noise around us literally shouts that life is all about the exciting, the evident, the big results.

I must have missed the conferences that were titled “I Want to Pastor an Ordinary Small Church with Consistent Clean-Up Required.”

wall rebuildThe need for cleanup was not the only thing that emerged from our discussion of this lost detail in the story of how the Israelites rebuilt their city. We discovered that one of the keys to the success of rebuilding the wall was the “next to each other” principle. As each person worked on their section of the mess, they had the opportunity to look over and see that everyone else was doing similar work. Side by side, they could shout encouragement, laugh together and share tips over a coffee break. And, it allowed them to be ready to defend each other.

They had each other’s back, sharing the load if necessary – jumping in rather than sniping or criticizing each other’s work. The main point was the main point: rebuild the wall.

Their hearts were all in, at least in part because they were all in together.

The sense and experience of isolation kills! The daily grind of cleaning up the mess can grind a heart to dust without the knowledge that it matters. It’s important. It is an experience shared by everyone else. And that someone takes note.

One other neat idea that jumped out at me from looking more closely at the experience of rebuilding the wall occurred to me as a question: “Why all the names?”

Why bother with mentioning all the people who were showing up every day for 50 days, hauling broken stones away, dressing the usable ones and then repairing one broken section after another?

It mattered. They mattered, and the record of their names is God’s “Thank you!”

thank you 2The writer to Hebrews encourages us with these words, “God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” (Hebrews 6:10)

So when you are mopping up yet another spilled cup of hurt feelings or repairing yet another hole of misunderstanding, or just setting another table of weekly worship, remember that there were plenty of “in between” days in Jesus’ earthly ministry; it’s quite likely that Jesus learned to clean his room and sweep the stable. If you find yourself in the midst of working on the wall, remember that we are working alongside you – with Him – to build His church, His kingdom. Take heart in that you are not alone, and that God remembers His people!

Do You Know Where Your Pastor Is?

looking for“Do you know where your pastor is?” I am not asking about where he is physically; that would be weird. (Besides, if he has a smartphone the GPS will handle that.) What I am asking is, do you know the emotional and spiritual state of the one who shepherds the flock you are a part of? In a report published in 2007, Dr. Richard Krejcir of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development stated that, based on their survey of over 1,000 pastors

  • 90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued, and worn out on a weekly and even daily basis
  • 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

It is an unfortunate fact that many of our most significant relationships suffer from a common malady – the tendency to take things for granted. Pastors, and their families, can go months and even years without having someone go beyond the “That was a nice sermon, pastor” at the end of the service.

thumbs upI am not always a fan of mandated holidays.(We all generally suspect that there is a conspiracy between the card, candy and flower companies!) But I think Pastor Appreciation Month is an exception worth making. Because of the ministry I am now in, and remembering back to the years I was a pastor, I can vouch for the need to express some well-deserved appreciation for those whom God has called to lead us.

There are a lot of forms that this can take – and a little creativity can take it to a new level. However you chose to do it, let your pastor and his family know how much you appreciate them; not only the work they do but also for who they are: human beings, fellow believers and friends.

If you are a pastor reading this, I am sure there are those in your life who have pastored you. When was the last time you told them how much their lives have meant to you?

It has been a slow process, but I am learning (and re-learning) just how big a return on investment gratitude can bring. It builds bridges and mends fences. It flies in the face of our self-centeredness and a culture of  “me.” And it affirms the eternal value God has placed on each of our lives. That includes those that labor everyday on our behalf, praying, teaching and leading us into the places of growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Do you know where your pastor is? Take the time to find out, and make it a better place today!

Tell them “Thanks!”thank you

 

October is Pastor Appreciation Month

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