Money

One myth about pastors is that they’re always preaching about money.

The funny thing is Jesus and the prophets talked a lot about money.

And for those firmly embedded in a consumer culture, every T.V. commercial break is really a 30 second conversation about money. But while our culture chatters on and on about money, sales, savings, retirement and financial advisors, it seems the one place we hope to escape the conversation about money is at church.

I’ve been employed by a few churches over the course of my story. For most of the first 20 years of ministry, my annual salary was published so the church would all know exactly how much I make. It seems normal to me now and because its never been ‘personal’ for me, I’m happy to tell anyone who wants to know exactly how much money I make every year.

The story in the system we used to be a part of was that the prayer of the congregation was, “Lord, you keep ‘em humble and we’ll keep ‘em poor.”

It never bothered me that everyone knew my salary until one day I realized that for some people it was communicating a hierarchy based on economic standing. Some people who made a lot more money than me felt that if I was willing to work for so little, I must not be worth much.

And they treated me like I wasn’t worth much.

There has always been an effort to make sure I didn’t know who gave what at church. I’ve been around long enough to have heard people argue for the pastor knowing who gives what and for people to argue just as passionately that the pastor shouldn’t know. The “shouldn’t know” argument, however, usually runs like this, “The pastor will treat people differently if he knows who gives what…” Which reveals our cultural norm to value people for what they have over what they do or who they are.

Here’s my confession – I am inclined to treat people differently.
I am inclined to give more attention to and support to and more of my time to people who are investing their lives into the lives of others for Jesus’ sake than I am anyone else in the church.

Giving money honestly doesn’t impress me much unless you’re a widow down to your last two mites. Some of the richest people I know are also some of the most generous people I know. Some of the poorest people I know are also some of the most generous people I know. Money, or the lack thereof, didn’t make them generous. They are generous, it’s who they are, and their bank account does not define them.

But I’m not unaware of the world we live in. Preachers have gotten rich off of the church. Filthy rich. And they’ve preferred the rich and those they perceived as powerful and they manipulated the system to increase their own wealth and left followers disheartened and impoverished. We’ve made church into a perpetual money grab for conmen, phony faith-healers and predatory pastors. I get that my colleagues and I have earned this sorry reputation.

I also know that money occupies and pre-occupies more of us than would like to admit it.

Money is not the root of all evil. And being poor is not in and of itself a virtue. Being rich does not indicate anything about your relationship with God nor does being poor. Hard work is not what separates the rich from the poor. A friend who believed that God wanted his children to be wealthy used to give me a hard time when I objected to his theology, “You don’t think God wants you to be poor do you?”

And here’s the profound answer I’ve come to… “Maybe.”

God’s plans and purpose for me, his TELOS for me, is to become like Jesus. And he will help me get rich or help me get poor, or help me land somewhere in between if any of those states will help me be more like Jesus. As a pastor in a consumer world, part of the challenge is helping people have healthy conversations about money without our self-interest getting in the way. Another part of the challenge is that if ever there was spiritual warfare it will manifest with force when we talk to the church about money.
One of the lessons from the Camino is, “You need less than you think you do.” That is a countercultural message, it’s “dancing in the dragon’s jaws,” it’s an open invitation to trouble but it’s a conversation we need to have. For pastors, it can seem very self-serving to preach about money because of the wolves. Nevertheless, if ever there was a time to challenge Mammon, these are the days.

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out… This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.”
—cited in Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero by Vincent Harding

Diversity

On Friday, I’m sharing my Credo, the current details of the story of my beliefs, the values and ideas that make me what I am.

I’m not where I started and I assume this isn’t where I’ll end up either but for now, these are the elements of me.

My intent isn’t to sway anyone to my credo. The reason I’m writing about this on Fridays is mostly so my kids will have something they can look back on that will explain me to them. To provide an answer to some of their ‘whys.’ Along the way it might be helpful for other people who know me and are wondering why I am the way and I am and why I do things the way I do them.

I believe living a diverse life is an essential element of a life of faith in Jesus.

The gravitational pull I always felt was towards homogeneity. Like gathering with like.

I was most comfortable with people who think like me, feel like me, believe like me and act like me. With people who watch Doctor Who like me. With people who look like me. The M and F on registration forms was all the diversity I needed – and I wasn’t even comfortable around Fs. And while they terrified me, I felt drawn to make space for them in my world.

I grew up white, middle-class and male and those words would be a fair description of what my world was all about when I first went to University.

I didn’t realize it but I was occupying a tiny, insular world. It would be like believing your whole life that pistachio was the only flavor that ice cream came in and then suddenly discovering chocolate. Or strawberry. Or vanilla-chocolate with caramel swirls. Or discovering that all the above exist and they redefine what you’ve always thought about ice cream and how you experience it.

If I was writing a creed for the modern church it would have to include: I believe in the essential nature and experience of diversity as the body of Christ. I can’t be who I am created to be until you are who you are created to be.

And in some part, that makes me responsible for your flourishing and giving you respect for your unique expression of the Imago Dei.

Doing my Masters at St. Stephen University, I discovered I was on a journey, more than academic, the very first day of our module. Part of our pre-reading included a book that we were to read and come prepared to discuss whether the author had a mental illness or profound relationship with God. The ensuing conversation and the range of opinions and diversity of reflections led me to reconsider my own narrow view. Reading that book on my own, I never would have come to the more robust relationship with it that I finally came to through our class conversations and the diversity of perspectives I found there. Ultimately that book became my most referenced book besides the Bible.

And if you’re wondering about our conclusion: yes and yes.

Nearly a year ago now we had friends over for an evening of conversation and adult beverages. As we talked, the conversation turned to the things we believe and to our common Christian experience. I told my new friends that I felt more orthodox at this point in my life than I ever was before, a generous orthodoxy. While my new male friend seemed to be tracking with me I could tell by her face that my new female friend had a problem. When I asked her what was up, she shared a profound insight. The short version that won’t do justice to how she articulated the issue: a bunch of men decided what was orthodox and that makes her suspicious of it.

The lack of diversity in the establishment of orthodoxy should make us suspicious. If my life didn’t include gender diversity and an egalitarian orientation (bookmark that for another credo Friday), I would have never received this obvious but important insight. It’s led to a whole new perspective as I learn and grow and become more like Jesus. If I only allowed for same gendered teachers and authors, I would not be who I am, I would not have experienced the rich spiritual formation that has shaped me.

We moved back to the U.S. a little over 7 years ago. I pastor a church in the South. Not the Deep South but deep enough. It seemed obvious to me that we needed to talk about the sin of Racism and the call on our church to be a reconciling community. As I looked over my bookshelves and thought about my theological education I noticed both were dominated by whiteness. I didn’t have a single book on my shelves by a person of color other than the Bible. Other than seminars and conferences where I’ve chosen who I was going to listen to, I’ve never had a professor or teach who was a person of color.

So I started looking for books by black, Hispanic and Asian theologians. I watch Youtube videos of lectures by theologians and scholars and pastors of color.

Here in our church I decided to talk about white privilege. The pushback was…

Immediate – a few people got up and left while I was talking. Some never came back to our church.
Delayed – a leader told me later that the only problem we had with Racism in our church was that I kept bringing it up. They eventually left our church.
Brewing – a man came to me weeks later to tell me that white privilege was a myth. He was white and he grew up poor, picked on and struggling for every good thing in his life. I tried to explain that “privilege” didn’t mean you were trouble free it just meant that while you might have started with $0 in your bank account, all your friends of color at our church started out with a mortgage size debt they’ve had to deal with their whole lives. He was able to rise above poverty, our friends can’t stop being black. His family eventually left our church.

Jesus talked about our tendency to love people who love us and do good to people who do good to us. Both, he said, are common. The uncommon thing is to love the people who don’t love you, do good to people who don’t do good to you. At the heart of this is a call to diversify our lives. To step out of the bubbles we built for ourselves and enter the world, inhabit the world of the other, develop your empathy through encounter and discover it’s not us vs. them, it’s only ever been us.

The beauty of the Church is seen in doing life together with a group of people who aren’t just like you. Economically, socially, emotionally, politically, gendered, sexually oriented, racially, culturally diverse. A rich life is one that embraces diversity and wants to make mosaics and not melting pots where all of our crayons blend into one glorious shade of grey. One of the things that proves the truth of our Story is not only our capacity for a flourishing life of diversity but our tendency, our orientation to, our felt need for sharing life with people who are not just like us.

If everyone in my life was just like me or even mostly like me, I could never know Jesus the way I know Jesus today because my life has taken some small steps into the much bigger world of diversity.

At the end of this month, 26 people from our church are going on a Sankofa journey. 13 white, 13 people of color. We will visit historic sites connected to the Civil Rights Movement here in the South. We will have pre-read two books. We will watch documentaries. We will have conversation together. We will be with each other all day every day for a few days. It will be many things but most certainly one of them will be a significant act of spiritual formation. Most, if not all, of our participants will come home different from how they left – especially me.

I believe a diverse life is a flourishing life, a kingdom life, a Jesus shaped life.

What are the relationships you nurture with people who aren’t just like you? What author or theologians of color do you recommend? Who is your favorite black, Hispanic, Asian, Queer, other gendered from you, theologian (not named Augustine)? What music do you listen to that comes from outside of your culture and/or ethnicity? What experience of diversity has shaped you?

Life on the Road to Santiago

Tom Cochrane sang, “Life’s like a road that you travel on…” a potent metaphor. Life as a journey is a deep well that’s been drawn from by many. Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” Tolkien taught us that the road goes ever on and on. Road trips are part of our American mythology. Frost’s “Road not Taken” inspires some of us and haunts others but resonates with all of us.

On September 1, 2019, I stepped into the metaphor by stepping onto the Camino de Santiago. With a couple friends, I traveled from my home in Raleigh, NC to St. Jean Pied de Port in France. From there we walked the Camino Frances, a very old pilgrim’s route that crosses Spain, west to east and arrives at Santiago de Compostela.

It doesn’t end there. But you do arrive there.

I find that it’s also important to emphasize what a sign along the early part of the Camino told us…“You have always been on the Camino.” We didn’t start our Camino in St. Jean but we did turn west into Spain from there and joined hundreds of other pilgrims and hikers and tourists on the way to Santiago.

Walking the Camino is being immersed in a giant metaphor, an ongoing exploration of the meta-message of life. The road is about 780 Kilometers long and we walked 666km of it on foot. (Read into that number what you will.)

The Camino de Santiago is a very old Christian pilgrimage route. Books have been written, documentaries and dramas have been made. It’s more than just a hike. It is an invitation to let go, to ruminate and reflect, to have an adventure, to meet new people and make new friends. On the Camino de Santiago, I listened to the voice of God, saw spectacular displays of nature’s beauty and found a rhythm of life that nurtured peace and rest.

The Camino is not a story about a destination, it’s the story of a journey and all you discover along the way.

Over the next few weeks I’d like to share Camino Wednesdays with you where I’ll share a daily excerpt (with some commentary) from my walking journal, a picture to say a thousand words concisely, to share some of my experiences with you from the pilgrimage I walked with friends and now invite you to join as you read these entries.

Next week we begin our walk in St. Jean Pied de Port. Buen Camino.

Arriving in St. Jean, Sept. 3, 2019

Job Description

During the education that was supposed to prepare me for ministry, one of the most valuable things I learned was to always ask for the job description when I was interviewing for a pastoral position. When you’re being hired to be a pastor you might think you know what that means, or at least have a general idea of the expectations for that role. You would be wrong.

I once saw a cartoon about a new pastor being shown around the church office. In one corner was a file cabinet with a sign that read, “Hidden Agenda.” The caption was the board member speaking to the new pastor, “When you’ve been here for 3 years we’ll give you the key for this.”

The agenda isn’t always hidden but the expectations can be genuinely challenging to suss out.

Even with a job description.

One of the suggestions I’ve made to people new to pastoring a church who are engaging in the search process: ask the church to tell you their story. Where have they come from? How did they start? How has the church developed? Where do they see themselves going? What has their relationship to the pastor(s) been like? When have they felt really well pastored? When have they felt disappointed with their pastor(s)? Ask for stories.

Our stories tend to reveal what our job descriptions are cleverly written enough to disguise.

My other suggestion is that the pastor engaged in the search then considers their own story, their journey of pastoral formation, what being a pastor means to them and sort out whether their story is complimentary to or in conflict with the story of the church looking to hire them.

But never assume you know what a church means when they say, “We’re looking to hire a new pastor.” Or what someone means when they say, “I’d like to be a pastor.”
There’s a meme out there, maybe you’ve seen it, about a pastor and it includes 4 dramatically different pictures with these captions: what my friends think I do, what my church thinks I do, what I think I do and what my mom thinks I do. Meant for laughs, it illustrates how strikingly dissimilar our ideas about “what a pastor does” can be.

A friend was hired by a small church in Kansas and would give a monthly report to his board about his activities in ministry from the previous month. The board was mostly happy with him but after 3 months they let him know they were deeply disappointed with the number of calls he was making on people in the small hospital in their town.

He was slacking.

Their previous pastor had recorded at least 80 hospital visits every month. My friend pointed out that their church barely had 80 people and only one or two of the elderly members were in the hospital regularly. They couldn’t tell him how their previous pastor had done it, just that he had and they expected him to earn his pay.

The next day my friend visited the hospital and asked the staff about his predecessor. Everyone there knew who his predecessor was and they told him that once a week he would come by the small hospital, get on their PA system and say a prayer for everyone in the hospital, patients, doctors, nurses and staff. After his prayer he would ask for the exact number of people inside the building who could have heard his prayer. It turned out that was the number he recorded as his weekly hospital visitations.

The thing is, sometimes the people who hire pastors don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do.

We have come to depend on “unreliable narrators” to tell us what a pastor ought to be doing. The person who preceded us may have used half their paycheck to buy church supplies and that precedent establishes a norm that becomes an expectation.

I was a youth pastor in another life. It never occurred to me when I was being interviewed to ask why the church office area had a shower built into the office bathroom. A year in, I finally asked. A previous and beloved youth pastor, whose shadow I was living in – despite being the replacement for his replacement – had asked it be installed because some days he worked at the office late into the night, went to sleep on his office couch, and then woke up, showered and started his day in the office all over again in order to get ‘er done.

Yes, he was married.

If I had asked about it and heard that story during the interview process I probably would have given serious thought (I was young so yes, just ‘probably’) to whether my story was a match to theirs. But if my wife had heard that story…

The reality was that in that church I would never measure up because I would never be the guy who worked all night at the office, showered and started over again the next morning.

The only way most people know what a pastor ought to do is the story they have been in, written by what the pastors they have known have done or by the culture of the expectation of the board of the church of which they have been a part or from TV and movies. And it’s hard, as the pastor, to live up to expectations you might never imagine. Expectations that in no way fit the story you know.

Part of the complication of all this is…well, let me just tell you that I collect books about pastoring. I have bookcases full of books about church leadership and what a pastor’s job is really supposed to be. The definitive descriptions.

And they don’t agree with each other.

None of them. Other than the those written by the same author.

It’s probably true that in every vocation there are a number of perspectives on how that vocation is best carried out. Whether it’s a teacher, a doctor, a plumber or a pastor, there plenty of opinions.

In most of those cases you have a single boss or manager or maybe a board or HR department, but pastors of small churches have 60 or 80 individuals who have their own hot take on what and how a pastor should be fulfilling their vocation. Mega-church pastors get to multiply that by hundreds or thousands and then include the internet trolls who offer their critique from a distance.

And imagine going to church and for every church you visit there’s some disagreement on exactly what the pastor is there for. Imagine a vocation so subjective that academics and practitioners have not been able to agree on a common definition for about 1600 years.

You might wonder, “Surely they agree on the broad strokes, even if they vary in the minutiae?” It would be nice, wouldn’t it? People out of the same school might, people from a small denomination or a small geographical slice of a denomination might. But mostly no. Not really. I can share a reading list. I can post some blog links.

It’s no wonder then, when pastors today are trying to sort out whether or not they’re living it right, they turn to the modern metrics, they turn to our culture and we lean our ladders against the same walls as everyone else in the hope of getting some validation for the choices we’ve made. “How many people are coming? A lot? I must be doing it right.” “Only a small number? I must be doing something wrong – we all know healthy things grow…and cancer. Cancer grows too. At an alarming rate actually.

Anyway, what was I talking about…?”

When I planted a church, I had the opportunity to write my own job description. Which sounds pretty great. And it was. But over 11 years of life in a new church what I discovered was that every Christian who joined our church came with a job description for “pastor” already written in their hearts. John Ortberg once shared that “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” That pretty well sums up my experience with Christians and pastoral ministry.

What’s your story? That’s what I would encourage everyone to figure out.

Here are questions for everyone thinking about what comes next…
What kind of story are you in?
Is it a pastoral formation story?
Is it an entrepreneurial story?
Is it a CEO story?
Is it an administrator story?
A counselor story?
A camp counselor story?
Is it a king of Israel story?
Are you in a solo story? A duet? An ensemble or a symphony story?

What has your story been working into you? What has it been working out of you? What kind of vocation has it been leading you towards? Does your story play nicely with the story of the church you’re considering pastoring?

Give me some tips on what practices have helped you figure out what kind of story you are in.

Created and Still Evolving

My Credo Friday thought for this week is about the evolution of my creation belief.

This one is tricky because it involves several other elements of my credo, the things I say I believe. And some parts of my credo shape my attitude towards the other elements. To tell you about how creation falls in my credo means avoiding the temptation to say too much or too little about other aspects of my credo – I need to stay out of the weeds.

If you’re reading this one and keeping have “yea, but…” moments, hang in there for future posts that will hopefully tie up the obvious loose ends.

My earliest Christian influence from the Church was a Baptist Sunday school program. Somewhere before my memory started being recorded on my permanent hard drive, I was hearing flannel graph stories about God creating the World in 6 days and resting on the 7th. I absorbed the story of Creation and the Fall almost out of the air – I honestly can’t remember a time when I did not know this story. But we did stop going to church.

In my public education and through TV programs I started to learn about a competing narrative called, the Theory of Evolution. My love for the genre of science fiction started posing problems for my naïve and unsubstantiated belief in a magic god who took 6 days to create everything that I experience and call, Creation.

At University, studying to be an anthropologist, I took a deep dive into evolution both in terms of the origins of life and the development of culture…from a professor who let us know he was a man of faith and who saw no conflict between his faith in Jesus/God/the Trinity and the evolution of the species. Deep down my inner Baptist boy started burning his flannelgraph.

Then I made a decision to follow Jesus that was based on a reading of the 4 gospels and the person of Jesus I encountered there. And I went off to Bible college to become a missionary.

And at Bible College I learned terms like inerrancy and infallibility and I took a class called, Creation Science and another called, Old Testament History, that taught Genesis 1 the way an American History professor might teach about the Plymouth colony, Plymouth rock and the Mayflower. I learned all the scientific problems with the Theory of Evolution (it’s a theory, not a fact, get it? They’re tipping their hand right in the name…) and how I had a simple choice – believe the 6 day Creation account in Genesis 1 as the definitive story of origins or call the Bible a lie, not be able to believe any part of it then and eventually wind up in Hell (yes, we capitalized it like it was a place you could drive to…).

So I did what any sensible, good, mid-western boy would do – I ignored all the science facts I’d ever been taught and embraced the only true story about the origin of man in Genesis 1 (…which we preferred over the account in Genesis 2 because it was a little more fuzzy that 1.)

Eventually, my Creation beliefs evolved. How did that happen? I kept studying the Bible. I kept asking questions. I kept seeking. And most of all, I kept studying the Bible.

So here’s where I am today. My Creation credo.

I believe that God is the origin of all that is, and particularly the origin of life.

I believe that the exact process of Creation cannot be determined by the biblical text that was not setting out to give a scientific explanation for life but rather a storied explanation for our existence. I believe that “why” is always a superior question to “how.”

The biblical story of Creation is intended to tell us WHY we are here and was never intended to describe the exact process of creation. And while I still have a lot of questions about the Evolution model, I do not see it as incompatible with the Bible story other than regarding the question of causation…WHY are we here?

I believe the story of Creation clearly tells us that as humans we are not here to be consumers but custodians, cultivators. Our role here is not to reap as much as we can from Creation but rather to nurture Creation and develop the long term health of Creation because ultimately, we’re all going to be on this planet for the rest of ever.

I believe that the Creation story is a temple story and the story tells us that mankind serves in the garden as the icons of God. Men and women are created equal, commissioned as equals and related to by God as equals with one another. You should never take the life of an icon of God.

I believe that human beings, especially those who follow Jesus, are still charged with Creation care and having a healthy relationship with the created world around us. Because of this, I believe Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to conserve, to recycle, to reduce usage and to preserve our natural resources.

Respect for Creation is a Christian act of worship. Our relationship to Creation says more about our relationship to God than does our intellectual acceptance of the story that God took 6 days to create this world.

Every day I walked on the Camino de Santiago was a day I heard Creation singing to me, calling to me, inspiring me, soothing me, feeding me. Creation is not a disposable commodity we will trade in or trade up, it is our primary gift from God.

Here We Go Again…

It’s a new year and a new decade and it’s hard not to think about new things at a time like this.

My experience with church, since I became part of a Pentecostal – charismatic – radical middle church, has been an almost obsessive devotion to “behold, I’m doing a new thing.” And while the stream I swim in might be a little obsessive about it, a visit to the local Christian bookstore (if you can still find one) will confirm that we’re all at least a little hot for the “new thing.”

I don’t think of myself as someone who is stuck in the past or who thinks that if the KJV was good enough for Jesus and Paul it’s good enough for me. But I am a man of a certain age. I’ve seen things. I’ve not only been around the block but I’ve been out on the bypass and made it all the way around the city a time or two.

The other day I was talking to a pastor who is planting a new church. He was excited to tell me about this new, exciting approach to small groups. He felt really good about it and he thought this new approach could get more people involved and growing as followers of Jesus.

I tried not to say anything. I tried to just be positive and affirming. But eventually I mentioned that we’d done the “new thing” 30 years ago. We called it something different than what it was being called in this new iteration but for me it was a “been there, done that” moment – which tends to make younger people who are excited about the new thing think I’m old, boring, cynical or just too out of touch to understand how amazing this “new” thing is.

A friend of mine tells me that I suffer from disintegrated anticipation.

He warns me that I could become cynical but what is more likely is that I suffer from disintegrated anticipation because I’ve been a pastor for over 3 decades now (that seems a less painful way to say 30 years) and in that time I’ve accumulated a lot in the “been there, done that” pile. These are things, movements, methods and ‘new things’ that have promised to be the thing that finally cracks the code, finally brings revival, finally fills the church, finally brings heaven down, finally renews us for the end times, finally makes sense out of making disciples of Jesus.

In my little slice of time in the pastor world I’ve experienced, read about, tried, attended, and or been caught up in or a part of…

The Restoration Movemented.
Serendipitied.
Thieved in the Night – Late Great Planet Earthed – I wish we’d all been ready.
KJV to NIV (o the wars we had!)
Bondage Breaking and getting Delivered.
Pews to chairs – (you kids have no idea how we’ve bled for you to have your own chair.)
Contemporary Worship (o the wars we had!)
Marching for Jesus.
Spiritual Gift inventoried…why does no one score high on helps but everyone scores high on prophesy and leadership?
Spiritual Warfare.
Liturgical/Worship Dance.
Small groups – kindle groups – G# groups – Cell groups – Life groups (not an exhaustive list just exhausting).
Inner Healing.
Spiritual Mapping.
Taking Our Cities for God – Intercessors became a special group in the church.
Wimberized in The Vineyard.
Propheted by KC and the funky bunch.
House Churched.
Alpha-ed.
Renewaled – TACFd – Roaring, falling, shaking – o my!
24/7 Prayered.
Watchmened for the Nations.
Hillsonged.
APESTiled.
IHOPed – no pancakes but lots of prophecies, prayer and worship.
Restoration of the Apostles-ed. Betheled.
Missionalized.
Church Systemitized.
Enneagramed. and ARC’ed

I’m not saying any of those are bad things (some were) or that nothing good came out of the above (but not much in some cases).

The devotees of each of these things promised with great certainty that THIS new thing will be the LAST new thing and THE thing that sparks the great end-times revival…or at least this thing is the super important thing the church has missed but thank God you’re alive right now so YOU can get it.

On my shelf I have…in no particular order…
Sticky Church
Simple Church
Slow Church Messy Church
Spirit led Church
The Equipping Church
The High Impact Church
The Comeback Church
The Living Church

A pastor could pick up the newest read and take his church in another direction so often that it would be hard to keep track for the average church goers if they were messy, spirit led, living, slow or still sticky.

I’ve bought cassette tape sets, CD sets and now MP3 recordings that will tell me all the secrets about this church thing that will make me the greatest pastor, teacher, church planter, evangelist, dream interpreter, ever.

I was with a small group of pastors and our national director who was leading us through material that was helping us develop a new approach to leadership in the church. (I would have called it an old way or the original way but ‘new’ always sells better…except new Coke, that was wretched.) One of the other pastors in our group, quite a bit older than me, was vulnerable, transparent and honest when he said, “I learned leadership from Wimber, this is how I’ve always done it and I’m too old to change now.” I was encouraged and excited by the material we were discussing – hopeful even – but I could still understand how he felt.

I’m being told it’s time to upgrade my smartphone. My answer is always the same. “Do you know how long it’s taken me to figure out how to use THIS phone?” I’m nursing my current laptop as it keeps threatening to enter hospice primarily because I do not want to learn another new computer.

New is starting to wear me out.

But I still love the new things God is teaching me, doing in me and calling me to do. I’m still growing and changing and going on adventures my little 20 something self would have been too afraid to go on.

I’m not stuck but I’m not impressed by new anymore.

I’ve had so much new attached to too many promises with so much energy and excitement that only lasted long enough to be replaced by the next new (which wasn’t very long). As a pastor, I get weekly emails and snail mail that all promises me a new thing that will revolutionize our church, guarantee our growth, increase our offerings, conversions, close the deal with return attenders, and improve my preaching.

When you’ve been at this pastoring gig for 30+ years, you also discover church world is full of phonies, fakes and charlatans. I’ve heard guys with obvious colds preaching about how Jesus has kept them free from sickness for decades. I’ve heard a guy publicly push a narrative that he raised someone from the dead while the man who was supposedly raised and his family members have tried to clarify the story by saying, “no he didn’t.” I’ve seen celebrity pastors make wild claims that make no reasonable sense but still gather crowds based on their claims and promises that were as empty as their claims. I’ve had to come in behind some of these celebrity Christian preachers and clean up the human carnage they have left behind as deafness returned, marriages still fell apart despite that ‘word from the Lord’, prodigals never came home, the cancer wasn’t gone when the doctor re-checked and the prophet ran away with the piano player.

What if our life together as the church is supposed to look more like a family and less like a business venture? What if we’ve been leaning our ladders on the wrong wall? What if instead of siblings, we’ve been producing customers? What if there are no short cuts? What if there are no secrets? What if every really big church got there by chance or it was God who gave the increase and not the method they’re selling you? What if we aren’t supposed to become celebrities? What if this whole thing is really about the same thing it started out as: a long obedience in the same direction?

I’d like to talk with you some more about this but I’ve got a conference I need to get ready for…leave a comment for me about the new things that you remember that were going to change church world for good. Or if you’re selling a new thing, tell us all about it in the comments.

We Are Not Saved by Certainty

On Credo Fridays I try to create a post that will give some clarity and definition to what I believe, the beliefs that make me what I am.

When I think of a Credo, I think of a statement of faith. So today I want to tell you what faith looks like in my credo. It’s taken me most of my life to get to where I am now about faith and to be honest, every day I find myself working out what living by faith really means for me.

I started out as a Christian with a basic equivalency of “the things I mentally agree with or acknowledge, ie. believe” = “faith.”

After many years of trying to follow Jesus, that grew into something like “the beliefs and the actions that spring from those beliefs” = “faith.”

In both of the above descriptions there was still an idea or key concept of certainty that “faith” still held for me. I KNOW these things are true, therefore…

After several more years and a whole lot of suffering (it’s all relative), I found myself at an entirely new place…a new definition or practice of faith. It went something like, “the connection between God and me that goes beyond the rational, certainty and all the things I don’t understand” = “faith.”

Push pause for a second.

Can you imagine how hard it is to preach from the cloud of unknowing? Can you empathize with the me that I was ‘becoming’ – which seems so much less certain than ‘being’? Rather than being a caterpillar who became a butterfly through the magic of belief, I found myself still in the midst of a metamorphosis. In the American church we thrive on certainty. We bank on certainty. We want guarantees. We want certain quid pro quos. We depend on a God who is reliable…a God who never lets us down.

But here I was with a child born with a significant birth defect. I was loving godly people who died of horrible cancers. I saw people in conferences healed of a sore knee while my good friends were dying from prostate cancer, addiction, heart trouble…and I walked through the valley of the shadow and all my certainty was evaporating because God kept letting me down.

Unless, of course, God can NEVER let me down because whatever God does is what ought to happen in which case it’s one of the emptiest things in the English language to say – “God never lets me down” because whatever he does or doesn’t do is exactly what he was planning to do or not do anyway and what I really want in any given situation doesn’t factor in to him letting me down or not.

Blah.

And that’s a much tougher lyric to work into the phrasing.

And when folks come to hear you preach on a Sunday in North America, they’re still looking for certain blessed assurances and when you suggest that random stuff happens but God is still good…they often move down the road to a preacher who works out a lot and can guarantee outcomes for them.

I was on staff at a church once, long ago, where the senior pastor voiced his certainty to me that Bono of U2 could not possibly be a Christian because he sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” And my internal response was, “dang, what does that make me?”

Unpause.

After more suffering and a whole lot of reading of people I discovered outside the certainty camp – and can I just tell you, it’s a HUGE crowd out here, way bigger and older than the camp itself – I came to the place I’m in today.

“Faith,” for me, means my pledge of allegiance. It’s a daily choice of where I will put my allegiance and how I live because of who I pledge my allegiance to. I will choose to put my trust in God, even when the circumstances tempt me not to. Even in my desolation, I will trust him.

I have no certainty to offer. I only have a relationship with Jesus through a pledge of allegiance that I have found for almost 40 years to be enough to carry me through the hardest of times and lead me into the most beautiful of places. But God is a free agent and my allegiance does not control him or guarantee me any benefits as a member.

And it turns out you only get one of these allegiance things. One to pledge and only one. I can’t pledge it to God and to anyone or anything else. My allegiance can’t be partitioned. It can’t be shared. It has no tolerance for rivals. I used to sing along with Keith Green, “I pledge my head to heaven for the gospel…” now I try to live it every day.

Faith is the allegiance I have pledged to God alone.
I hold it imperfectly but determinedly. Allegiance has room for doubt, certainty is an illusion.
I try to live my allegiance out in all my choices, in all my thoughts and in all my actions and reactions.
Even when my allegiance falters, he still maintains his allegiance to me.
My allegiance can not be percentaged, I can swear no part of it to any ideology, I can owe no part of it to any man.
My allegiance is not more powerful than God and does not bind him to fulfill any of my wishes, even when I pray them.
Any human or human institution(s) that contend for my allegiance are to be questioned, distrusted and ultimately avoided if they insist.
My allegiance is to a person, not a position, not a religion and not a denomination.
Allegiance is not easy but it is simple and you cannot please God without it.

If you’d like to read more about where I am now about faith, check out the book Salvation by Allegiance Alone by Matthew Bates. He agrees with me, so he must be right. 😉

Things They Did Not Tell Me

Each week I am posting on Tuesdays about a different aspect of a pastor’s life. It’s pretty easy – or so it seems to my German DNA – for this to sound whiny. I imagine this was how Paul came across to the Corinthians. They valued strength and stoicism and Paul offered vulnerability and open emotion. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, towards the end, we have a Paulish list of the troubles he experienced trying to be a pastor to the church (2 Co 11:16-29). He ends his list of troubles with these intriguing lines…

“Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?”

Eugene Peterson, the quintessential pastor, puts Paul’s words this way in the Message, “And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.”

There’s no way to get around that saying “Yes” to pastoral ministry, means saying “Yes” to a life of troubles and feels. Sometimes people get called, ‘pastor’ but don’t have this experience – in the same way that sometimes people get called, ‘chef’ but all they do is reheat prepackaged dishes in the microwave.

One aspect of the kind of troubles being a pastor involves means you will say, “Yes” to an acquaintance with death, dying and trauma that very few will share. You will not only be present as people take their last breathe, you will have had meals with them, arguments with them, prayed with them, celebrated with them, cried with them and been asked to tell them why this is happening to them before their last breathe. And often you will continue the journey of loss and grief with their families and loved ones after their passing.

Doctors and nurses will probably witness more but they will rarely have a personal relationship with many of the people they will see die. The closest vocation I can think of that will share a similar experience will be social workers in a hospice setting.

I’m not sure what a ‘normal’ human experience would be in regard to the number of deaths, funerals and traumatic experiences a person would expect to go through, but pastoral ministry exposes you to more.

Years ago, I officiated a funeral at a funeral home I had never been to before. The funeral director approached me afterwards and complimented me on the service I had led for the family. “Would you mind being on call for people who come in but have no one to officiate their funeral service?” he asked. That’s how I became a substitute funeral pastor.

I have a friend who pastors a rural congregation that includes many people beyond retirement age, some in nursing homes, whose families have been a part of that church for generations. He has averaged one funeral service per week for several years because of the generations that are part of his local church.

Part of pastoral ministry is a willingness to share the deepest pain some people will ever experience. And then do it again the following week with someone else. And then walk through the journey of grief with those families even as you begin that passage with another family.

I buried a friend who couldn’t get the monkey off his back and finally passed away from complications resulting from an overdose. I buried another friend who had “routine” surgery and was going out on a day pass when I visited her in the hospital – 3 days later she died from complications from the surgery. I buried a friend who played guitar with my worship team on Sunday morning and died from a massive heart attack and was buried before the next Sunday. I buried a close friend who shared Christmas with our family and suffered a stroke days later and passed away as my wife and I stood around her hospital bed with all her adult children.

I’ve buried teenagers.

I’ve buried babies.

For all of these funeral services and graveside services, visits to ICU and sitting in hospital waiting rooms, the pain of loss doesn’t get easier. I’ve never found a satisfying answer for the family member – husband, daughter, grandchild – who stops me and asks, “Why her? Why this?” To a degree, being engaged in pastoral ministry means you will willingly experience loss after loss, trauma after trauma, grief after grief.

After a few decades of this you begin to develop a mental encyclopedia of probable outcomes for every possible diagnosis…because you’ve been there. And then you have to develop a face that doesn’t give everything you have known away when someone tells you what the doctor said. Not everyone who is a pastor has a high capacity (or even, it seems a low capacity) for empathy. But for those who feel with others, brace yourself.

But also know this…there is no space more holy than the space you’ll occupy beside a person passing from this life to the next. No moments will carry more weight than the moments you sit beside a person ascending into the life that’s coming. These are beautiful and terrible moments, painful and grace-filled moments. Times for tears and wonder, seeing the worst and best in people. But if you do it right, you cannot pass through any of these moments without them leaving a mark on your soul.

And I would want you to know that the collective weight of these moments, as beautiful as they may be, can leave you feeling broken and hollow and traumatized and wide awake in the small hours of the night.

Rest before you get tired.
Have relationships you make time for that will comfort you and help you get through the troubles.
Avoid emotional denial the way you avoid eating rat poison.
Make as much room in your life for healing as will be made by the hurting.
Follow Paul in being honest with the people you pastor about the pain that pastoring creates in your heart.
Practice lament and thanksgiving, there’s plenty of room for both in a pastor’s story.

Before I could get this post uploaded today I received a call that a beautiful woman from our congregation passed away this morning. I am confident she is in the presence of Peace and yet the burden of losing her for now remains. Lament with me until Death is ended, this too is pastoral ministry.

Truth

It’s Credo Friday. Here’s another bit at the core of what I believe.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber invokes the Latin phrase, “Mundus vult decipi” that means “the world wants to be deceived.”

In the 2000s, fictional TV doctor Gregory House’s catchphrase was, “Everybody lies.”

Marketers, media pundits and psychologists discuss the phenomena of confirmation bias – my tendency is to hear (not just listen to but only consciously register) information that agrees with my beliefs and the conclusions to which I have already come.

I believe the world’s fatal flaw is our inclination to be deceived, to deceive others and to deceive ourselves. As the great Italian philosopher Billy Joel has said, “…if you look for truthfulness You might just as well be blind It always seems to be so hard to give…” We hide the truth and the truth is hidden from us.

Saintly curmudgeon, Stanley Hauerwas, in an address to graduates gave them this advice, ““Do not lie.”

He went on to say:

You have to be thinking: “Is that it?” Is that all he has to say? I have to sit here and listen to someone who tells me what I already know?” I am sure you think you do not need me, in my profession as a moralist or even in the role as a graduation speaker, to tell you never to lie. You may not remember when or where you learned not to lie but long before this day you knew that though in some circumstances you may have to say what is less than true, in general lying should be avoided.
Yet the general agreement that lying should be avoided masks our confusions about what constitutes a lie. Lying may be rightly understood as intentionally saying what we know to be false in order to deceive, but it turns out we often are unsure we know what is true. Thus the Austrian-British philosopher, Wittgenstein, remark in Culture and Value that “the truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it, not by someone who still lives in untruthfulness, & does no more than reach out towards it from within untruthfulness.”

In my almost 4 decades as a follower of Jesus and 3 decades as a pastor of one sort or another, I can’t think of anything I could tell another Christian about living out their pledge of allegiance to Jesus that is more important, more effective and more helpful to doing life together than, “Do not lie.” And, as Hauerwas points out, it seems simple and obvious and like one of the basics that all followers of Jesus learn to do right from the start – but we don’t do it.

And we suffer because of it. And the world suffers. All of our relationships suffer. At the end of the day, your own sense of self suffers because of our unwillingness to give up lies.

We’re big on big truths, truths that make us feel right and we lean into about the ‘wrongness’ of others. But the essential things are always the little and small things, the simple elements that make up real life. All of our big truths only have authority when they can rest comfortably on top of all the little things about which we’ve been honest.

I saw a movie years ago, The Invention of Lying, where the genius of Ricky Gervais fails this once by confusing telling the truth with being mean. The movie suggests that a little bit of lying makes the world a better place because it saves us from going around all the time telling people they’re fat, dumb and ugly. Saying everything that passes through your mind is not the same thing as “do not lie.” Saying things that you feel or believe are true in a cruel, mean or careless way is not the same thing as “do not lie.” “Shooting from the hip” and “calling it like I see it” is not the same thing as “do not lie.”

I say this because some of us, like Ricky, see “do not lie” as license to hurt others or an invitation to live in a world where all of our insecurities will be exposed and used as fodder for someone else’s cruelty. People who use “do not lie” in that way are bullies, plain and simple. Jesus was never, is never and will never be a bully. So we shouldn’t be either.

In Recovery we have one of those bumper sticker sayings, those clichés that we hear so casually that we sometimes miss the importance of it, “we’re only as sick as our secrets.” From the Fall story to our fictious lives on social media where our tendency is to compare our best moments and carefully crop our reality, our desire is still to cover things up. We cover things over, deny, and pretend the Emperor has clothes on and that I can see them – and all this does – this practice of lying, is break down community, hinder my relationship with God and distort my vision of others and myself.

So I encourage myself all the time with “do not lie.” And I tell myself and others, “Question everything.” God is never afraid of the truth. Healthy leaders welcome questions. People who want to grow emotionally, spiritually and relationally will practice not lying. We all grow best in soil that is rich in the truth.

The Anti-Baskin

One of the most important things I’ve ever heard was from my friend, Dr. Charles Montgomery Jr. Dr. Montgomery was addressing a full house at an international conference when he offered this simple truth: “If you want a diverse church, you have to have a diverse life.” The truth inside this statement is worthy of a doctoral dissertation. For people engaging in pastoral formation and working in pastoral ministry, it’s one of the most important elements of this pastor’s life.

Baskin offers us 31 flavors. At least.

That’s not an accident.

When I first started this pastor’s life, we were taught the principle of homogeneity. If we wanted to build a church (ie. get a lot of people in our local franchise) get people from the same basic demographic. Vanilla likes vanilla and doesn’t feel comfortable around all the other flavors. Grow fast and grow big by keeping it vanilla. If other flavors want to join, bonus, but they’ll be joining vanilla and we won’t be mixing flavors.

And the simple truth is that this principle is pretty common to life. Our tendency is to be with people who are like us. We’re attracted to people like us. We enjoy people like us. We relax around people like us. We feel very comfortable about people like us.

Homogeneity is the Anti-Baskin. His number is 666.

I don’t doubt the principle. I’ve seen it work over and over. But I won’t work it. It’s the wrong ladder against the wrong wall. It’s the road that looks great but can’t get me where I want to go. Where I need to go.

I need diversity in my life. I need a church full of people who I would not ordinarily hang out with and who would not ordinarily hang out with me. I need the whole Baskin experience, all 31 flavors. Why have one color of the rainbow when you could have the whole rainbow?

I need friends who aren’t like me so I can see the things I don’t even know I’ve been missing. I need friends who don’t like the things I like so I can seriously consider why I like the things I do. I need people with life experiences that are different from mine so that my view of life can expand to take in more than my narrow slice provides me. I need friends who laugh at things I don’t, who read books I’ve never heard of, come from places I’ve never been and eat things no one I knew before knows how to cook.

In pastoral formation I believe that anyone who wants to be pastor needs to invest time in life among people whose cultures are very different from their own. Develop relationships with people who don’t vote the way you vote, who don’t dance or do dance – whichever is different from you. Live in places, don’t just visit, with customs you don’t understand, politics that aren’t what you’re used to and worship reminds you that you’re not in Kansas any more.

Myopia, near-sightedness, has plagued my life. Never more than when I’ve focused my life on the little circle I’ve drawn around me and mine. One of the most important things I can think of for pastors to do today, after developing the diversity of their own lives, is to create the space and the opportunities where the people they pastor can taste all that Baskin has created and to expand their own understanding of what ‘normal’ is and to learn how what people are really like rather than the caricatures our prejudices and media monsters want us to believe in.

I work at surrounding myself with friends who aren’t like me. I look for experiences and opportunities that are outside what has been my ‘normal.’ I open my life up to include people I’d never find myself with naturally. And the church is the perfect place for that to happen. It’s where God intended for this to happen. And God uses all of the flavors in my life to make me a better me and make me look a lot more like Jesus than I do if I stay in my little vanilla world.