Clarification

I hate that I am writing this today. I hate that I feel that I need to.

Here’s the story – I have received a few private messages from friends and colleagues in ministry who have kindly stopped by to read a blog post or two. Their takeaway from some of my posts is that I am unhappy, that I am frustrated with our local church, that I am posting passive aggressive messages to my own congregation. They kindly feel bad for me but wonder if posting some of the things I post is really the way to build the kingdom of God (or a similar phrase that calls me to think of the “higher good.”)

So I’m posting this to be as clear as I can be.

I am posting my Pastoral Ministry Tuesday posts because 35 years of pastoral ministry have filled my heart and head up with experiences that I feel like I need to share. First, because I want to leave a written picture for my kids to be able to look back at and say to their therapists, “see, this is my old man and some of this explains some of him and therefore some of me.” Second, I hope to be a help to people just getting started in pastoral ministry or somewhere far enough along in that journey that they are starting to ask some questions now and they may be able to benefit from my mistakes and observations. Third, I can’t not write. I’ve tried.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone or get back at anyone or complain about anyone. I’m telling stories, sharing reflections, mining my own memories for helpful thoughts and perspectives on life in pastoral ministry.

And I’m really happy with our local church. Are we perfect? I’ll say we’re perfectly imperfect. I love who we are and even more, I love the glimpses of who we are becoming. I’m the weird kind of pastor who doesn’t turn to colleagues in ministry for my closest friendships. My closest friends are in our local church as they were in the local church we were a part of before this. I think that’s how Jesus modeled it. When I have issues here with friends, we bring them up and talk about them, because we’re trying to grow up.

Do we always get it right here? Nope.

Do I always get it right here? Hard nope.

But I’m not going to vent on here about issues in our local church unless those issues are already being discussed or have already been discussed here and they are universal issues that we all face or might face.

Sometimes I refer to the movement of churches of which I am currently a part. I am frustrated with my movement. I have been for almost 7 years now and I’ve communicated my frustrations, in detail, to everyone in the food chain above me to the very end of that line. I’m not saying anything here that I haven’t already communicated to my benevolent overlords.

A few comments from friends or colleagues in ministry indicate that I’m coming across in some of my posts as being very cynical about the Church. In my experience, that is possible. In my experience, it’s also what people tell me when I’m just being honest about what I see when I point out the Emperor has no clothes on. I do try to run things by my wife and/or other close friends, coach or spiritual director if I think what I’m writing on is pushing the cynicism line because I know I can go there. But just as often, it becomes an ad hominem argument with people who don’t want to engage with what I’m writing about…ie. if I’m “cynical,” they don’t have to think about what I’ve written.

I like it when people read what I write. I like it even more when they respond to it, positively or negatively. But I’m writing what I write because I find I can’t not write about it. At least in this season. But I’m feeling very strongly today that I need to step up for my local church and be as clear as possible that I consider myself blessed to be part of our local church and to be in relationship with some of the dearest and best people I have ever known. My life is rich and thriving because of the people with whom I share life together.

I love our local church. I love the beloved community.

Camino Diary, day 8

We left Estella and sadly, we left behind Derrick’s pilgrim credentials. A sign he would have to return another day to finish the Camino. The time was coming up quickly that he would be leaving us and returning home. To stay on our schedule, we used a “fast forward” and took a bus ahead to Los Arcos and then walked an additional 8km to our albergue for the night.

I was on the Camino as part of my sabbatical season from my vocation as the pastor of a local church. I was given two months of time off and had planned for 3 weeks of that to be spent with my wife in some of our favorite places in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. This influenced our walking schedule and some of the choices that were made on the Camino to “fast forward” in order to stay on this predetermined schedule when I would need to fly out of Santiago and onto Dublin to meet my wife.

On the Camino

This was not the reason for today’s fast forward but it was a reality that day by day was causing me to become aware that the walking schedule I had set was not a schedule that we would be able to follow as planned.

The issue today was that accommodations in Los Arcos appeared to be scarce or non-existent and I had taken on the role of sorting out our accommodations. You could always take your chances and there was usually a municipal albergue that would have beds without reservations on a first come/first served basis. But already on the Camino we had learned that my companions and I were not, let’s say…prepared for what many of the municipal albergues offered.

Pilgrims ahead. Pilgrims behind.

Bill and I were both on Vitamin I today and picked up some extra extra strength Ibuprofen at the Farmicia along the way. These were a gift. My feet were killing me and his toes, still black from being smashed, were bad – likely one (at least) was broken. It was still early in the day and the albergue in Torres del Rio had beds – and a pool. I stood in the pool and cooled my feet off. Bill soaked his foot in ice water to reduce the swelling of his toes. And at the pool we discovered Antony, our new friends, was also staying in this same albergue.

Derrick had been feeling badly that he likely wouldn’t see Antony again before he left for home and suddenly, unexpectedly, and very randomly, here he was. Another gift of the Camino.

We sat in the lobby waiting for cleaning to be finished for the day and beds to open. A man and woman walked in, pilgrims, looking for beds and after finding out they had room, the woman asked our innkeeper about getting rid of bed bugs. Our hostess stopped everything else she was doing and focused on the question by asking her own – “Have you been somewhere with bed bugs?” When the pilgrim said she had, just the night before and wanted to know how to kill them, the lady behind the counter came around and ushered them back out of the lobby and onto the patio outside. She gave them large, black garbage bags and told them to put everything – EVERYTHING – into those bags and sit down on nothing.

It became very intense, very quickly. She gave them all the instructions they need to de-bed bug but nothing of there’s could come inside the albergue that night.

In my diary I recorded the following:

“So much about this has reminded me of Bible College. I went with so many expectations, especially about the spiritual aspect of what I was doing and what we were doing together – only to have all those expectations quickly smashed. God does that, the great iconoclast. The Camino has been what it is and the way is full of people who come with as many motivations as there are stars in the sky.”

There were a lot of reasons people were on the Camino. Many were out for an adventure. Many were there for the challenge. Some were on the Camino again because, and I will attest to this, once you’ve walked the Camino it becomes a felt need to be on the Camino again. One peregrino called it, “Topping up.” And some  of the pilgrims were there to connect with people – for dating, friendship or just as “people people” who loved the comradery of the Camino.

It was on our way to Torres del Rio that I developed very strong feelings about bicyclists on the Camino. Simply, why? I don’t object to bicycling as a way to do the Camino but I do object to the way some people ride. The only time I felt in danger walking the traditional Camino path was when bicyclists would go flying by at high speeds and had I slipped into their path or if they had accidentally veered a couple inches towards me, serious harm would have been done to one or both of us. Some on bikes were friendly, bell-ringing and practicing safety. Most, in my experience, were not.

At our albergue for the night I wrote this: “So many languages and people represented here. The value is on finding our similarities and not our differences. We exchange nods and smiles as we limp down the hall of our albergues to the bathroom.” The multi-cultural experience of the albergues was one of the many gifts of the Camino. The instant connection it creates with people you have never met before, whose language you may not speak but who limp like you limp, is beautiful.

Lizards

(Every Tuesday I try to post an observation on pastoral ministry. These are the thoughts and reflections of someone who has been involved in pastoral ministry for about 35 years. I get it wrong a lot which is how I learn to do it better.)

It’s impossible to overestimate the amount of dysfunction in most people’s lives.

I’m not talking about people being “bad,” I’m talking about the struggles that most people have, seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized that make life challenging.

That make life messy.

Someone once said, “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” One of the challenges of pastoral ministry is that reaching an agreement on what “normal” looks like is difficult. Most people, myself included, generally live with the view that they are normal.

Their way is the normal way.

Their feelings are the normal feelings.

Their family system is how normal families handle things.

Their beliefs, world view, politic and faith are all normal.

If you differ on any of the above, you are the one living in dysfunction.

Thomas Oden, who wrote a book on pastoral ministry, said that the particularity of the individual means their issues are unique to them: their suffering, grief and joy.  Therefore, what is helpful to one may be harmful to another and vice versa.  Pastoral care is not a “one size fits all” system but one that must be customized.

Oden riffs a little on what Gregory the Great said about the challenge of pastoral ministry back in the Sixth Century. Here’s a sample of Gregory’s insights: “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely.” And “those who do not speak the words of God with humility must be advised that when they apply medicine to the sick, they must first inspect the poison of their own infection, or else by attempting to heal others, they kill themselves.” He also wrote, “For who does not realise that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body?” and “Hence, too, every teacher, in order to edify all in the one virtue of charity, must touch the hearts of his hearers by using one and the same doctrine, but not by giving to all one and the same exhortation.” In other words, not every “patient” with the same “illness” should be given the same “remedy.”

So the challenge of pastoral ministry and the dysfunction of people’s lives isn’t something new.

But it is hard and it makes the work of pastoral ministry especially difficult if you like things to be black and white.

Or you like your answers simple.

Or if you’d like a scientific approach to this pastoral life.

If you have read the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, you will remember the scene where the Ghost is in a love/hate relationship with the red lizard that perches on the Ghost’s shoulder, whispering in his ear words that torment and soothe. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. An Angel offers to set the man free from the influence of the lizard and the man is torn – desperate to be free, desperate to hold on to the familiar spirit that torments and soothes.

We’ve all got our little red lizards.

All of us.

I’ve never met a person yet who doesn’t have one. I’ve met many who seem to be keeping a nest of them. And some of us – us people – we know the lizard and some of us are under the influence but we won’t recognize the source until we’re the Ghost and the Angel is making us the offer to be set free. Pastors will sometimes find themselves in the very difficult position of noticing a lizard on the shoulder of someone following Jesus and having to walk through the very dangerous minefield of offering to help someone get free.

Let me say one more time, just because I know how lizards work in a moment like this, I know I have my own lizard(s). But at a time like this, a lizard, if you have one, will whisper in your ear, “He thinks YOU have a lizard? Nonsense! He’s infested with them! Shall I point them all out to you? Shall we name them together?” And you will get so busy listing my lizards and soothed by how many more I have than you, that you’ll never be able to keep it in your mind that you have your own.

The nature of relationship in Christ is that we bear with each other’s stuff and out of the safety of our relationships we are able to talk to each other openly about our dysfunctions. We are meant to speak truthfully to each other. But often, as pastors, we discover that people who most need to hear the truth about the lizard on their shoulder are brittle, fragile and easily broken. They are terrified if you start focusing on their lizard. The weight of the truth will crush them even if it can heal them.

So our lizard laden tendency is to strike back. To lash out. To gather a company of others with whom we can diminish the pastor by magnifying the list of things he or she is doing wrong or not doing right. We focus on their shortcomings, the errors they have made, because we all do, and we bring attention to the lizard on their shoulder, because we all have them.

We do.

In pastoral ministry I have found the people most eager to fix me are generally living in the most profound dysfunctions. Of course, when I say, “dysfunction” a picture comes to your mind, perhaps of a life completely out of control. The reality is that most dysfunction is very quiet, subtle and nicely veneered. In the church, however, there are so many dysfunctions that we tend to reward, that it’s a very tough knot to untangle. If pastors are honest, we rely on the dysfunction of certain members in order to get things done, to get our way, to accomplish our agenda.

It’s messy.

And if I’m perfectly honest with you, we’ve created a system to maintain our dysfunction. Which, coincidentally, is a characteristic of dysfunctional systems.

And when we move to reform those dysfunctional systems, we tend to choose members of that dysfunctional system who the current system trusts to become the evaluators of the old and architects of the new system, guaranteeing we perpetuate that which was from the beginning and now ever shall be, world without end, amen and amen.

How do we break the cycle? How do we in the church and in pastoral ministry get free from this way of living?

I will tell you. I will tell you right here and now.

But before I do, please hear me, you will not like my answer.

You already know what to do. But it’s too hard. So when I tell you, you will nod or shake your head or ponder a moment. And then your lizard will get you busy or distracted or soothed or all the above.

But for this second, while it’s not so loud, I will say it because I promised to and then I let you go.

Ready?

Stop lying. Tell everyone the truth.

Ordination as Sacrament

(Welcome to Credo Friday where I continue to build up posts that offer an explanation for the things I do because they spring out of the things that I have come to believe. Today’s post comes out of a PMT post from earlier this week that you can read HERE.)

On Pastoral Ministry Tuesday this week, I wrote about the many motivations for people to go into pastoral ministry. Some healthy and some unhealthy. Previously, on another PMT, I wrote about ordination as I reflected on a friend’s ordination service in Vancouver. For my Credo post this week (that’s what this is) I’d like to expand on what I’ve written in both posts regarding the purpose of and the process of ordination for pastoral ministry.

In the New Testament, we read about a cultural practice of the early church – a signifier – a rite – that was performed when people were being set apart for a specific mission, duty or calling. Since this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I’ll let you Google all the references and just assume you’ve read the Bible enough to be familiar with the idea.

Here’s one reference to serve as an anchor for the idea that laying on of hands was an action that was full of meaning, was practiced by the elders of the church and was often invoked in a commissioning moment.

Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you.” (1 Ti 4)

Some see this as the moment in which authority is conveyed upon an individual by God through the hands of the elders to shepherd the flock of God. Authority conferred by virtue of an office and the establishment of an individual as part of an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

I’m not one of those people.

In fact, I think this view has done a tremendous amount of damage within the Church and the world that no amount of good can offset or even make tolerable.

I believe the purpose of ordination is to create an anchor for the soul for the candidate and to fulfill a function of the beloved community. I believe ordination is the culmination of individual and corporate discernment about a candidate’s vocation for pastoral ministry. I believe the purpose of ordination is to create a fixed point in time where the candidate and the beloved community agree that the story God is telling with the candidate’s life is a story of vocation and in particular, the vocation of guiding, guarding, leading and feeding the flock of God of which they are a part.

I believe this is an essential service of the beloved community because every pastor who ought to be a pastor will one day, someday, and maybe often, doubt they were called to do the very thing they’ve given their life to.

Right after someone they’ve poured their life into ODs on heroin and dies after a year of being clean & sober.

Right after they get that helpful note, email, phone call or visit by the well meaning member of the church who tells them all the things they are doing wrong.

Right after their children tell them they don’t want to go to their church.

Right after the church splits.

Right after they turn to their denomination for help and all they hear back is the sound of crickets.

Right after they receive a bill they can’t possibly hope to repay on their salary.

Ordination, like our baptism, serves as a permanent reminder that we’ve become part of a story. And I believe it is essential that the ordination doesn’t just reflect a choice we made for something to do with our lives but it represents the agreement of our community, the beloved community, who witnesses that our lives have been telling this story, they see our vocation, they affirm that it is there and they commit themselves to the well being of the candidate and the fruit of their story.

I believe the purpose of ordination is to help people discover that pastoral ministry is not their vocation. That this is not the story that God is telling with their lives. That the beloved community is not a door to keep people out or let people in but a channel that assists individuals discern what their calling and vocation is if it’s not pastoral ministry.

I believe this is an essential service because pastors who aren’t pastors have hurt so many people. And they have hurt themselves. And they’ve cast doubt on what God is really like. And they’ve obscured the image of God for people genuinely seeking Jesus. This is essential because the Church, the beloved community is not meant to be spectators but partners in ministry – not as people who serve a pastor’s vision but as the beloved community who discern together the gifts and callings among them and support, encourage and get behind those who demonstrate the character and gifting fitting to their vocation to fulfill a common vision.

We, the Church, have allowed a vocation to become a career opportunity.

We’ve confused business practices with kingdom practices. We’ve called entrepreneurs, “planters” and we’ve obscured the story of pastoral ministry and vocational goals with metrics consistent with industry and commerce and the marketplace but that fall far outside of the story that you and I say we follow. This has happened because we’ve forgotten our story or adopted a version of it or we came to believe we are the people whose story is that we have no story. This has led to churches becoming corporations and pastors CEOs and ministry leaders getting employees to sign non-disclosure agreements.

“Hey, Paul, could you get Barnabas to sign this NDA before he takes off with John Mark? We just need to get out ahead of this thing…before he talks to Luke or someone.”

I believe that ordination is one step closer to recovering our purpose as the beloved community.

One practice.

Not the answer to all of our problems. But I do believe it would help us spot some wolves. It would help us redirect people to their heart’s true vocation. It could help us orient churches and candidates to the real purpose and meaning of pastoral ministry and help establish metrics that sound more like the metaphors of Jesus and Paul and less like the latest and greatest book on management or business.

It should be obvious I’m not talking about the rite of ordination as it is often practiced now. But sometimes still is. This ordination is not a brief service as the result of a successful win at a Bible trivia competition or graduation with a Masters in Theology from the right school or taking over your Daddy’s pulpit. This requires relationship, time, discernment, time, relationship, prayer, hanging out, doing the stuff in front of and with people, transparency and vulnerability, disclosing all your stuff to one and most of your stuff to a trusted few.

Doing life together.

Since this is supposed to be a blog post and not an article or essay, I’ll stop here and call this, part one.

In anticipation of a few responses…

This isn’t practical. No, no it’s not. Welcome to the kingdom of God.

So you could invest yourself in an expensive education and then a group of people you hardly know…Nope. This is a discernment process with people you know well or will come to know very well. People who will be your people for all the rest of your life.

But that’s not practical… (see above).

But what if I KNOW I’m supposed to be in pastoral ministry but I can’t find anyone to share life with who agrees with me after we spent a couple years together? …that’s exactly why this is so important…

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your what-a-bouts and your better ideas. Please comment and help me find a more perfect way.

NEXT WEEK I will go into the PROCESS – or the PRAWCESS — the doing of the thing.

Camino Diary, Day 7

(On Wednesdays I try to post another day from my Camino journey that took place September – October, 2019. It doesn’t always happen. These are crazy days. Today, Bill, Derrick and I are on the road from Puente La Reina to Estella.)

Almost every day on the Camino started in the dark.

Normally we shared sleeping quarters with several people and the goal was to get up as quietly as possible and allow those sleeping in to get their rest. Pilgrims started their day as early as 5 a.m. to make good distance for the day and beat the rush for beds that night. Others started at 6 or 7 and occasionally you met a pilgrim on the “how late can I sleep in before I get kicked out of the Albergue” plan.

When we woke up in Puente La Reina, it was dark and we packed, prepped and headed out for the Camino still in the dark. At the bottom of a stone tread staircase, my friend Bill’s foot slid on the step and slammed into the stone wall.

Hard.

Being a health care professional, Bill immediately knew he had done worse than stubbed his toe.

He tried to inspect it in the dark but ultimately decided to put a sock on it and carry on. Despite the pain.

My first thought was that that was that. Bill would be going home with broken toes and Derrick would be headed back home soon after and I would be on the Camino alone.

Yes, I was thinking mostly of myself.

But I was also concerned about Bill and how he was doing. I was amazed at his tenacity and determination to just keep walking.

On the Camino

We walked up another hill to leave Puente. The day would be a lot of uphills. This early on in our journey I was still excited to be walking a long downhill section. Later, experience would make me wary of downhills because they always were promising us another steep uphill was ahead.

We stopped for second breakfast or first lunch and stumbled on our new friend, Antony. It was a gift on the Camino to keep running into people you were getting to know at just the right time. Bill’s foot was still in pain from the morning, despite the multiple doses of vitamin I.  My feet were aching from blisters and my right knee had started to complain for the first time on our walk across Spain.

And all along the way, the beauty of Spain, the vistas on the Camino, were energizing me, inspiring me and provoking me to wonder and awe.

This was the day we walked on part of the ancient Roman Road. This was always a part of the Camino experience. Every day felt like we were walking in history and on history. Our feet stepped on a path that connected us to a human experience and a human journey that was full of meaning and the mundane. This particular stretch of this ancient road was mostly taken over by blackberry brambles and besides being the Camino path was mostly a footpath between farmer’s fields for the locals.

As we made our way into Estella for the night, we passed a woman, a fellow peregrino, sitting and looking exhausted on a park bench. She was worn out, over heated and I think she would have just slept there on the bench if it was a real option. We gave her a “Buen Camino!” and tried to be encouraging as we walked by – she just looked done. It ended up being much further from that point than I thought it was and when we finally walked into the heart of Estella, I found myself praying she had found the energy to carry on.

There were some days on the Camino where it seemed like someone kept moving your day’s destination just a little further away every time you paused to figure out how much further you had to go.

Not all Albergues are the same.

Our Albergue that night was fantastic and we felt very welcomed and living large as the three of us, Bill, Derrick and myself, got a room to ourselves. At the pilgrim’s meal that night, another happy surprise as we found Gema, the lady who purrs when she sleeps, at our table. As Derrick translated we learned more about her and the many Caminos she had walked.

As we retired for the night, it became clear how to tell who the pilgrims were when we all had our packs off and had cleaned up into fresh clothes. The pilgrims were the ones who were continually limping. That night we rested well, despite aches and pains but 3 of Bill’s toes were black and I worried he wouldn’t be able to continue.

Motivation

Pastoral Ministry Tuesday 4.14.20 (On Tuesdays I try to post something that gives you a little glimpse behind the curtain of pastoral ministry. Hopefully it’s meaningful in some way and does more good than harm.)

There are a lot of reasons that people get into pastoral ministry.

I’m in a couple different Facebook groups for pastors and one meme that I see regularly is some variation on, “We didn’t get into ministry for the money…” and then something clever about our real motives.

Only, some people do get into ministry for the money.

And some people didn’t go into ministry for the money but as their faith diminished over their years as a pastor, they kept the job because it was the only thing they knew how to do to make a living.

I was attending a youth leader’s conference when I heard a professional psychologist break down some of the reasons people go into pastoral ministry:

To become popular.
To be the boss.
To become someone’s personal Jesus.
To prove their importance to someone who isn’t even in the room.

Having done this for a while, there are a few I can add from experience.

They pursued pastoral ministry because their daddy was a pastor and, well, it’s like taking over the family business.

They pursued pastoral ministry because they so admired their pastor/youth pastor they wanted to be like them by going into pastoral ministry.

They were entrepreneurial and saw a potentially lucrative career with very little accountability and very flexible hours.

They loved Jesus and someone told them at a conference that if they loved Jesus that had to become a missionary or a minister. So here they are.
The list goes on and on.

This is one of the reasons why I think a high view of ordination is important for pastoral ministry.

And it’s why I believe the ordination process should be a rigorous one that doesn’t only explore theological convictions but mental health, family systems, emotional quotient and spiritual formation.

And somewhere in there needs to be a straightforward “are you a dick?” examen. Too many people, for various reasons, are dicks (people-users, abusers, jerks, self-centered, self-protective, self-focused) and unfortunately, pastoral ministry can actually reward that behavior when it shouldn’t. Dicks can get things done, and as Americans, we admire, appreciate and highly value the “get-er-doners.” And we’ll ignore the pile of bodies behind them or under the bus, as long as their getting’ it done.

Dear brothers and sisters in ministry – don’t be a dick. It’s not a spiritual gift. It’s not a calling. It’s malpractice.

For my non-pastoral ministry readers, I promise you, all my pastor friends and colleagues who are reading this all know at least one colleague in ministry who is a dick.

At least.

Because motivation matters.

I was a camp director of a senior high week of camp many years ago. Near the end of the week, one of the young women at our camp came to me and my wife to tell us she was uncomfortable about something that was going on. We stepped aside with her and she explained that one of my adult, male, small group leaders was offering his insights to the girls at camp about who was hot or not at our week.

So he and I had a quick meeting. This senior pastor from a local church and little youth pastor Brian had a side bar.
People find themselves in pastoral ministry for all kinds of reasons.

Paul warned the elders at Ephesus, in a very sobering going away speech, that they should be on guard against the wolves who would raise up FROM AMONG THEMSELVES to attack and devour the flock of God of which they were a part. And if you’ve been in church for very long, you’ve met a Wil.E.Coyote or two. Sadly, there are some very predatory characters who have found the church to be a place where they can hide, thrive, even be protected. That’s not all of us, but it’s a lot more of us than any of us are comfortable with.

But to our shame, we often protect the wolves and shame the abused.

The survivors.

And that’s just evil. And we need to repent. All of us. We’re complicit when we are silent.

Eugene Peterson, truly the pastor’s pastor, wrote, “I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours.” (Working the Angles) It’s not always wolves. Often – mostly – it’s just good hearted men and women who had a desire to be a pastor even though they may have been vocationally suited for law, theater, teaching, landscaping, insurance sales, forestry, the culinary arts, or plumbing. And then we fake it til we make it.

Or not.

That’s where a robust ordination process can help us as we sort out or motivation with a safe group of discerning friends and pastors, right from the start. It can save us pain, and it can save us hurting the church – the flock of God of which we’re a part.

Let’s go back to what the Christian psychologist was telling the youth pastor’s at the conference I attended. Many people go into pastoral ministry…

To become popular.
This is the Michael Scott from season 3 of the Office and onward. They are looking for love and acceptance and if they have their own church, people will love them. They’ll listen to them. They will admire them. They will finally have a group of people who HAS to like them.

To be the boss.
This is Dwight Schrute from the Office, seasons 1-3. It’s about power, control, having subordinates, being large and in charge. It finally gives them a feeling of purpose and control they have lacked growing up.

To become someone’s personal Jesus.
This is Pam Beesly from the Office, seasons 1-4 and sometimes later. Walk over her, neglect her, she is her to serve and save. It’s about the need to be needed. Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty great feeling. And some of us are addicted to it.
I know.

To prove their importance to someone who isn’t even in the room.
This is Andy Bernard from the Office, Seasons 3 to pretty much the last episode. A dad or mom for whom they could never measure up so they are finding their identity in accomplishment and recognition. Look at the pastor on the stage! Look at the pastor baptizing people! Look at the people waiting to talk to the pastor after the service! Look at all the people going to THAT pastor’s church… And none of this gets measured by the only one that matters, but a lot of us are using these metrics
Every
Single
Day.

I know it sounds like I’m being down on pastors and people in pastoral ministry and I’m truly sorry for that. My purpose in writing all this is simply to say that we – and by ‘we’ I mean the Vineyard church but it’s applicable to any church – need a robust system of ordination, a sacramental approach, a meaningful liminal approach to someone becoming a pastor of the church and not just sending our “hottest up and comers” to a church planters conference. God have mercy on a Holy Spirit movement that uses “best and brightest” criteria on candidates for pastoral ministry.

I’m really writing this to say, especially in this season of pandemic, go easy on us pastors. We’re all dealing with our own baggage – even if – or especially if – we don’t know it. Pray for us. Speak up when we’ve messed up. Cheers us on when we get it right. Don’t be co-dependent. We’ll get through this together.

Busy

(This is a Pastoral Ministry Tuesday post. It’s a day late. Every week I try to post a “behind the scenes look” at this pastor’s life. It’s an attempt to be more transparent than whiny – i hope I’m finding the balance.)

This is the busiest I’ve ever been in 35 years of pastoral ministry.

And I’m not complaining.

I feel like I’m going madly off in all directions and at the same time I feel like we (my staff and church) are rising to the challenge of this season. This unusual time is forcing us to be more thoughtful and intentional about everything we are doing.  It’s like a giant invitation from God to start from the bare lot and build something sustainable and meaningful that requires us to gather more on purpose and less on routine.

Don’t get me wrong. I love liturgy. I love and thrive on rhythm. Those aren’t the same as doing the same thing you’ve always done because that’s how you’ve always done it. We are being invited to find new ways to share life together and I’m finding it as exciting as I am finding it scary.

Right now I feel like my creative fruit is being squeezed hard and there’s hardly anything left over for blogging. I’m producing, by choice, more written word and video content than ever but experiencing God’s grace in the middle of it all.

But please don’t hear me saying I’ve got this down or I’m doing a great job. I’m reminded every day of cracks people are slipping through and follow up that hasn’t happened and items that have been on my to-do list for so long they are applying for permanent resident status. The learning curve is still pretty steep but I feel like we’re throwing ourselves, I’m throwing myself, into this with all I have and finding God waiting for us in this, ready to lead us into something that looks like thriving.

I’m choosing a posture of desire – I want to thrive in this season. Not over-achieve. I just want to get the most out of this season that I can possibly squeeze. I don’t want to miss a single drop of what God has for me and for our church in this unusual time. I’m not trying to over complicate my life or everyone else’s daily routine – a lot of people are working very hard to keep their heads above water right now. But I know God has good things for us and I don’t want to miss a thing.

I heard someone say last night that our tendency is to look back at our past and get stuck there or to look ahead to our future and get stuck there meanwhile we miss the moment we are in. This is a real temptation for me right now and I’m asking God to deliver me from it. I want to want to stay in this moment and some days that takes every ounce of God’s empowering presence to be able to do that. My internal introvert is already going around the house wearing a “People Need People” t-shirt and my internal extrovert keeps waving at anyone and everyone from the upstairs windows.

I’m ready for this to be over so I can take a vacation.

I’m hungry for this to continue until I feel like God’s pulled everything out of me that he wants to grow in this strange season of too much time in which I can hardly keep up with all there is to do.

O.K. I’ve gotta go, I still have 3 new skills to learn today so we can get our online service ready for Resurrection Sunday…

Peace of Christ to you.

Politics

(This is Credo Friday where I try, each week, to post about the things I believe, the things that form me. Not the things I’ve made up but the things that are making me. Today I’m getting around to politics and lean into the very thing that got Jesus crucified. Prayers and thoughts, please.)

What I believe today about politics is a long way from where I was when I first started following Jesus.

Politics was one of the things I was taught not to bring up, from the pulpit or otherwise, as a preacher/pastor. But since my first year in Bible College, it was clear that there was a right party to vote for and right policies to support and a wrong party and wrong policies. To be part of the “faithful” meant you leaned right, pretty hard right, and Jesus and the Christian faith were “clearly” aligned with one of America’s two major parties.

This was caught, not taught.

But I know in some Christian circles it went well beyond something you could catch. It was a mandatory requirement if you wanted to belong.

Liberal was a bad word in politics and in religion. If you wanted a future in ministry in my little world, you avoided using it in both.

And just to be clear, I caught it. I was adamantly conservative in both my politics and my theology. My world was black and white, truth was crystal clear, the Bible clearly taught everything I believed and nothing was more clear than the way the Scriptures supported my political persuasion.

My politics suited my lifestyle as a practicing pharisee. They fed off of each other.

And then one night in 1990, I was born again, again.

Truthfully, it was all of one night and some of the following morning. But by sunrise, the old was gone and new had come.

And little by little, Jesus started scrambling all my eggs. Eventually he got to my politics and little by little, over time, over Bible study, over times of prayer and contemplation, over encounters with the Holy Spirit, and over times of ministry and conversation with people in real life…my politics shifted.

I’ve definitely become a single issue voter. My politics all revolve now around one solitary issue. It’s a core belief for me. It’s a lens or filter through which every other attachment, opinion, preference and hot take has to pass. When I discovered this aspect of following Jesus it’s not an exaggeration to say it turned everything upside down for me.

The moment I came to believe that Jesus really did come to establish his kingdom here on earth and this life wasn’t just a pass/fail test for getting into heaven, my politics changed.

The kingdom of God is now my single issue. And my single party. My only allegiance because we only get one allegiance, we can’t split it or share it or multiply it.

One.

And I’ve chosen for it to belong to the kingdom of God.

And once I oriented my life around this single issue and this one allegiance, I found every human politic to be unworthy of allegiance. I found that every human party was now critiqued by the presence and practice of the kingdom of God. I can’t swear allegiance to a flag. I can’t vote a straight ticket. I can’t ignore the evil, the wrong, the hurtful and the hateful things done by any party. I can’t make America great again or pretend that it ever was because only the kingdom is great and good.

I have one Savior. I also have one King. I don’t have room for allegiance or alignment with any other politic or political figure.

Jesus has taught me that following him means I can’t compartmentalize my life. I don’t give him a part of me, a part of my time, a part of my relationships, a part of my politic. He’s either Lord of it all or he’s not really Lord of any of it.

Now, listen to me sounding all high and mighty.

Yikes.

I fail at this every day. But this I know, my failure isn’t an excuse to move the bar on what I know following Jesus means.

There is no human politic who will try the economic plan of Jesus. That’s why the kingdom has come.

There is no human politic who will try the non-violent way of Jesus. That’s why the kingdom has come.

There is no human politic that will empty itself of power and embrace weakness and humility. That’s why the kingdom has come.

A constant theme of the Old Testament is a simple message from God – don’t try to be like the other nations and pursue a politic like they have. It will always end badly for you.

Somehow we think that magically changed when Jesus brought the kingdom into our here and now. Instead of seeing Jesus establishing this politic that would forever and always be in opposition to every human political institution created by man, we sought to coopt the kingdom, make it work for our politic, to use the kingdom to further our own kingdoms.

And that’s just messed up.

You can’t be silent about the abuses of a human party you endorse and pretend your allegiance is to Jesus. It just doesn’t do.

Usually about now this conversation turns to words like “practical” and “realistic” and some variation on “the best we can do.”

At my age and stage, I am baffled by people who swear allegiance to king Jesus but then suggest any human politic is more practical, more realistic or better than the kingdom Jesus established.

Which is neither a republic or a democracy.

Caesar was called the Son of God. Our word ‘church’ comes from a term contemporary to the first century believers that referred to an ad hoc group formed of the people for a governmental purpose. Lord and king aren’t just quaint old-fashioned words but carefully chosen words to describe the exact nature of our current relationship with God in Christ and with the World.

Being a follower of Jesus has ALWAYS been a political action.

We are colonists of heaven, establishing a subversive and prophetic way of life meant to demonstrate truth to Power, not suck up to it.

So here is where I stand today. I swear one allegiance and that is to the kingdom of God and my king, Jesus. If I’m living this right, my very existence will be an ongoing critique of the Powers and Principalities by the way I live. If I’m living it right, my very existence will be an ongoing critique of the Powers and Principalities who all, by their very nature, set themselves up in opposition to my king and his kingdom.

I will live and die to be the church of Jesus. That’s my politic.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday, a weekly glimpse behind the curtain of pastoral ministry to share what this pastor’s life is really like. Welcome.

Doctors, teachers and pastors all have to make an investment in continuing education.

This current season of “distancing” has made most of the pastors I know dig deep and pick up some new ways to shepherd the flock of God of which we’re a part.

Sadly, the primary offer I’ve been receiving from outside sources has been help in keeping the money coming in. My primary concern (and I’m not alone in this) has been “how do we enable the saints to gather when we’re all supposed to stay home?” My second concern has been, “how do we continue to make groceries accessible for our most vulnerable connections from our food pantry?” And my third has been, “how can we best encourage our single adults living alone in this season?”

But what my email inbox is packed with are mostly offers to help stabilize or even increase our giving in this season for the right price.

The offer in 2nd place are all the companies who want to help us up our social media game and keep us supplied with content we can push out to our church to keep everyone coming back – or tweeting us out – with a view to the day we inevitably gather together. Again, for the right price.

Suddenly, being able to Instagram, podcast, Twitch, Tweet and Zoom are all valuable skills that we never covered in Bible College.

I think as pastors we should all be collectively working through what being the church is going to look like in these days and what practices can we invest ourselves into that will not only produce good fruit now but set us up to thrive in the future. The impulse is to curse at the darkness or grumble about persecution or blame someone for the trouble we find ourselves in. An alternative approach is the simple but challenging, look to see what the Father’s doing and join him in doing it.

But that path will require both pastors AND congregations being willing to pivot and do things differently. New ways in new days. And rather than piling more expectations on the pastor, we need to be willing to call for a do-over on their whole job description.

The primary temptation will be, I think, to just do things we’ve always done but just do them harder.

To borrow from Tod Bolsinger – we are apt to insist we canoe these mountains because canoes are what we brought to get the job done. But canoes aren’t made for getting over mountains. And there be mountains, my friends.

This is going to be an especially tough season for our church planting pastors. They are about to find out what kind of support system they are really attached to. Will this be a “thoughts and prayers” season or will they find their denominations and networks have their backs in tangible ways? Many of my church planting pastor friends are paying their bills while they plant by working jobs that are the most vulnerable during this time. Uber, restaurants, coffee shops, places where people gather, various positions in the service industry, those being hit hardest by the “stay in place” order.  

Can they make it for a month without a paycheck? And what if this goes for more than a month? What if the place they were working at closes for good because of the shutdown?

A pastor in Florida was arrested today for keeping services going at his “mega-church.” Maybe it was faith, misguided perhaps, that led him to keep the in person gathering going – but maybe it was financial need. Some of us have set aside a month’s worth of money in case something like this ever happened. But a lot of us are living one Sunday to the next. I’ve been there. And a pastor may feel extra pressure now to gather the saints because, quite frankly, the trend is “no show, no income.”

And if you have the kind of overhead some Megas have the budget need is so great that you’d rather been in jail for “persecution” and get the extra funds that might generate than try to make a go on the third of your regular income that will come in during virtual gatherings. I’m not saying this was that particular pastor’s motivation, it’s just a possible explanation for pastors pushing the saints to gather in a season in which gathering in person could be deadly for some.

And please don’t think this is just a greedy senior pastor – we built this city. They are thinking of staff and a physical plant and a ministry and and and… We built this city. It’s our circus. They’re our monkeys.

So, for my pastor friends I only have solidarity to offer you. I have nothing to sell you, no virus proof strategy for these days. All I am trying to do is all the old things, the true things the Jesusy things we all do but in new ways in these new days. I’m relying on younger, smarter and more clever and creative people than me. And I’m falling back on the one thing I can count on – talking to God, looking to see what the Father is doing and joining him wherever I spot him.

And I offer that strategy free of charge to all of you.

Peace of Christ to you.

If you’re a planter and in trouble and I can help you in some way or pray with you – having lived for 10 years week to week to see if the church would make it to the next – I’m here and I’m available to you…no answers, and no cash, just willing to listen and pray and process with you.

If you’re a network or a denomination and you’re not actively arranging support for your planters – you suck.

Sudden Televangelists

On Tuesdays I like to post a short reflection on this pastor’s story I’m in, on this life in pastoral ministry. Thanks for taking the time to read even a single word.

And suddenly we were all televangelists.

These are strange days we’re in. Some pastors are scrambling to learn new skills related to technology and livestreaming services. Other pastors are trying to figure out how to navigate these days and still have a congregation that wants to meet together when this pandemic is over. A few pastors of small churches are excited that the playing field has suddenly been leveled by a tiny little virus and mega-churches and small churches all have the same opportunities to reach people for a moment. And many of us pastors are a little scared that after a month of Sundays in PJs and slippers on and with fresh coffee in hand and feet up, we may not get people back to “church as usual.”

And I don’t think we will. Not all of us anyway.

That freaks me out a little.

But something else freaks me out more.

I’m reading other pastors comments and posts on-line, pastors of smaller churches, pretty chuffed about the numbers their “Facebook Live” posts reportedly reached.

The comment usually goes something like… “I normally reach 35 people on a Sunday but Facebook tells me our online service/my online sermon reached 650 (or 800 or 1200).”

And I get it.

We all want our voice to be heard. We all want our lives to mean something. We are all in this because we feel we have something to say and something to say that is uniquely brought to the world through us.

Through me.

But here’s the thing. You can never judge your impact by the size of your crowd.

Unless the impact you’re going for is on your own ego.

But seriously, we’ve all seen huge crowds follow despots and cult leaders.

We’ve all seen the cult of personality blossom, bloom, fade and burn out in spectacular fashion in pastoral ministry.

But I get it. I’d like to be called out by Preachers in Sneakers.

I’d like to have my picture taken beside my celebrity parishioner.

What pastor doesn’t want to be called to appear live on a national news show to offer the definitive “Christian” answer to a national situation?

But here’s what I’ve learned in almost 35 years of pastoral ministry – it’s almost always the small things that God uses to change the world.

It’s the George Baileys, the Mary Ann Shadd Carys, and the Bilbo Baggins’ that quietly go about influencing lives that make the difference.

In Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf says, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

Dr. King reminded us that, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Which was him riffing on the words of our great emancipator, Jesus, who re-oriented our values with these words, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus, who in the end couldn’t hold a crowd to save his life, but made it possible for the whole world to change despite his public failure to gather followers and generate ‘likes’.

As pastors we need to remember the beauty of what we do is in the small things, the unseen things, the only things that will get ‘rewarded’ in the coming life – the secret things that don’t draw a crowd.

Things like…

faithfulness

truthfulness

long suffering kindness

patient endurance

gentleness

setting captives free

being an agent of transformation one heart at a time.

There’s no place in Scripture where Jesus promises to hand out special prizes based on crowd size or size of influence. Those are ego metrics, not Kingdom metrics.

Don’t get me wrong. I was right there with you this past Sunday when I saw our view numbers going up during the live feed. I was pumped when I saw people sharing our on-line service with friends and my ego was positively thrilled when I saw people who don’t normally attend our service not only watching it but sharing it with others.

It was a rush.

But it wasn’t the good stuff. The real stuff. The important stuff.

A conversation with Jesus on Monday reminded me of the wisdom of Bilbo Baggins, ““It is no bad thing celebrating a simple life.” Because the truth is that the mom who is looking after her two little ones at home during this pandemic is changing the world. The dad working from home, juggling his active 3 year old daughter is making eternal waves. The single person, working from home who is faithfully reaching out to others from their solitary confinement is making a kingdom size impression on lives through their kindness and conversation.

As shepherds I think we always have to guard against creating a notion that the important work of ministry involves crowds of people and thus out of the reach of 99.5% of everyone in the flock of God of which you are a part.

Pastoral ministry is, I think, as it always has been, about doing small things with great love.

And this is still enough to change the world.