Let’s Pause For A Concern About Concerns

CONCERNI am a verbal processor. I know that sounds like I’m saying I’m a computer, but I glean a lot by throwing ideas out and working through the feedback they generate. I like to present ideas as questions, often holding back my own personal opinion until I’ve had a chance to look at it from several different angles after gathering some feedback.

This is fine in and of itself, but but it can sometimes lead to some confusion and misperception. Lately, I have been “thinking out loud” about a number of ministry-related issues, from my resignation, to the call to ministry, my own personal experience, and whether or not the current model of American church actually hinders some otherwise qualified men from the ministry.

Taken as a whole, I realize that it might seem like I am having some struggles, doubts or jaded feelings. In fact, last night I received an e-mail from someone I respect very much expressing concern that it seems like I am wrestling with some pretty dark thoughts towards the church in a pretty public forum. I appreciated this e-mail because I sometimes don’t stop and consider how my verbal processing approach might mean that it sounds like I’m just unloading a bunch of complaints. Nothing could be further from the truth (at least in intent) so if I have come across as negative or biting, please forgive me and please don’t hesitate to point it out.

So, with that being said, I want to take a moment and just throw a few things out there for consideration:

  • The views expressed here are entirely my own. I do not speak here for the people/leaders of Church of the Cross. I hope that’s a given but let’s state it clearly anyways. This is my personal website containing personal views and opinions. I love my Church of the Cross family dearly but as with any family, there are often very different perspectives. We find beauty when we find ways to express those opinions in exchange for thoughtful dialogue and we all grow in the process. But your crazy uncle does not speak for you. And, on this website, I do not speak for Church of the Cross.  When I have written something that does speak for the Church of the Cross family, it has appeared on the Church of the Cross website.
  • Church of the Cross is healthy and has not been the impetus for the questions and concerns raised so far. Please do not read into my ramblings that I am frustrated with Church of the Cross in any way. Due to God’s leading through life’s circumstances, it is just time for me to step aside. I am not upset. In fact, I believe that CotC is an extremely healthy church and I don’t just say that because I planted it. My family and I plan on staying. They are family and most of my philosophizing is not about them, our structure, our leadership, etc. My comments from life in the American church as a whole and from relationships. In fact, just so you know, yesterday’s piece questioning whether the American model of church is geared more towards certain personalities was prompted by the experience of several friends rather than my own experience. If the piece had a heavy tone it was because I hurt for these friends.
  • I can only speak from my experience. I realize that many people have had terrific experiences with the mainstream American church. God uses all kinds of churches for His glory and our good. Voicing concerns about mainstream practices is not the same thing as discounted your experience or the people behind it. But God often uses broken things and through years of personal experience in various churches and church culture, I have come to believe that we need to start talking openly about what may be broken. If your experience has led you to different conclusions, let’s compare them and learn together. Part of the reason I put stuff in the public sphere is because I need to hear from people with different experiences.
  • Humble dialogue is necessary for the church to grow. That will certainly mean that we must own “our” collective shortcomings  and strive to correct them. But that means that we must openly discuss whether the typical American church succeeds at making, maturing and multiplying disciples. If so, great, let’s just perfect the status quo. But if not, then we’ve got some BIG discussions to have. That means that concerns will be raised but egos should not. We should believe the best of all and our speech, even when raising concerns, should convey a heart of unity. Concerns and corrections must be filtered through love. That is a difficult task, and one that I often fail at.
  • I too often speak from cynicism rather than optimism. Please forgive me.

I hope this helps set a healthy tone for open dialogue about real concerns. I am wrestling with some pretty big questions about the way we, the “American church as a whole” do things. I could certainly be asking the wrong questions and coming to wrong conclusions so that’s where I’d love for you to chime in. Let’s help each other grow.

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (01)? Why Many Good Men Are Discouraged From Ministry

abandoned-church-1382330-mThe decision to resign from ministry has not been an easy or quick one. It has led me down more than several rabbit-holes in my thinking. I have written about some of those things so far: I have thought a lot about “the” call to ministry as well as my own call to vocational ministry and I plan to write about more soon.

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “ministry” and the way we (I speak as a native North American raised in the “American/Evangelical Church” because that is my context) practice church.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of guys who have been discouraged from “the ministry” for all the wrong reasons. They meet the characteristics laid out in Titus and 1 Timothy 3, including the key “ability to teach”. They genuinely care for people, they invest in others, they know the Bible, can explain and apply it well. They have healthy relationships , good finances, blah, blah, blah. You get the picture, these are good, qualified guys. But then, why, you ask, do they feel discouraged from the ministry?! Good question. I’m glad you asked. They simply don’t fit the mold, especially if we’re considering church planting in addition to eldering.

The American Church has created a fairly peculiar model for doing church. Not only is it peculiar, I wonder how much it has directly led to many otherwise qualified men from serving.

From what I can tell, the New Testament model of “church planting” seems to have primarily been something like this: God’s people lived as a blessing to those around them. As they were faithful in the task of “making, maturing and multiplying disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20) in a particular geographical area, the need for structure arose. The “practical” ministries of the local church were handled by the deacons and the public vision/instruction/shepherding/equipping was handled by the elders.

It seems to me that the American model puts the cart before the horse when we think of pastoring and church planting. We plant churches by beginning with the structure and then recruiting people to it. When we think of church planters, we tend to think of very entrepreneurial people because, in the American context, “planting a church” also means starting a legally recognized business. You have to incorporate, navigate tax codes, you have to present a clear vision to people of what will make your church different, and in most cases, you have to raise money. Lots and lots of money. And all the while, you need to motivate others to join in the creating of this new institution.

Of course this mindset marinates ministry beyond church planting. The model pastors are often those with a very particular skill set; someone who can excite a crowd and get stuff done (using a “tri=perspectival” model, we’re talking Kingly Prophet). There’s troops to rally and new series to build excitement for and vision to cast. And there’s pre-natal classes and nursery ministry and toddler ministry and kids programs and pre-teens programs and Jr. High ministry and High School ministry and college ministry and young adults/and/ormarrieds ministry and new parents ministry and mid-life crisis ministry and retiree ministry and “golden years” ministry. Not to mention Teen Bible Study, Men’s Bible Study, Women’s Bible Study. Men’s Breakfast and Women’s Tea. The Father/Daughter dance and Father/Son fishing trip. And youth camp. And family camp. And VBS. And backyard bible clubs. And budget meetings. And committee meetings. And children’s worker’s meetings. And youth worker’s meetings. And deacon’s meetings. And elders meetings.

American pastors/church planters are expected to be inspiring public speakers, effective strategists, and motivational managers. In other words, the American model of church planting and ministry is geared towards certain personality/leadership styles more than others. And otherwise qualified men who might not be a good office manager or a strong fundraiser or even the most charismatic public speaker are discouraged because they see the guys who have those traits as somehow more spiritual. When spirituality often is not the issue.

Our current model of church almost necessitates that we consider certain extra-biblical characteristics as much as we consider the biblical ones. We highlight the church planters who can initially recruit the most people or raise the most money. While God seems to delight in using those the world would least expect, American Evangelicalism seems to delight in pretty predictable leaders. Until the American church lets go of our fixation with performance and our correlation between pastors and executives, we will continue to teach many qualified men that there is more to “successful ministry” than the Bible tells us. Until we honor those who can make, mature and multiply disciples more than we value those who draw a crowd, we will continue to see many qualified men left to believe they don’t measure up.

As long as we view Sunday worship as a performance, we will idealize performing pastors. As long as we view the local church as a business, we will value those men searching for “CEO Leadership Lessons From Jesus”. As long as we allow church to be an institution, we will value pastors who could just as easily manage a business. While some of these traits may not be inherently bad, I’m pretty sure that we often find ourselves holding pastors up to standards the Bible doesn’t. And I’m pretty sure a lot of qualified men have been discouraged from ministry for the wrong reasons.

Aside from another wholesale reformation of the American Church, or perhaps the increased persecution of the American church, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of answers on the table. While Scripture certainly permits pastors to make a living from the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14, etc.), it seems to me that once we develop an institutional budget, we have also changed the role of the pastor. Perhaps it’s time to break free of the way we’ve always done it? Perhaps it’s time we unleashed the Gospel from the shackles of institutionalism. Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon.

A Lightning Bolt It Was Not (My “Call To Ministry”)

high-voltage-1089875-mA lightning bolt it was not. There was no Luther shock from the sky charging me instantaneously in to ministry. I have known guys like that; successful or not, living in some other world, business, IT, entertainment, what have you. And one day, God suddenly and quite often unexpectedly “calls them to ministry”. They drop everything like it’s hot and like Abraham, follow obediently to only God knows where.

But neither was it an ever-present undercurrent; something that had always been there. I’ve known those guys too. The ones who always knew that they wanted to be a pastor. They started preaching when they were nine and became a deacon at ten, hit the preaching circuit at eleven and there was really never any other road for them to travel. Friends and family alike affirm that they could never imagine anything else. In fact, I have a friend who, at age four, lined up his teddy bears to preach sermons to them. This was not me. In fact, if you told many of the people from my youth that I had become a pastor they would likely tell you to shut the front door in disbelief. 

And neither did I go kicking and screaming into ministry. It was never as though God twisted my arm behind my back until I gave in. It was a natural progression as my path simply seemed to lay itself  down smoothly step by step. It was an evolution more than it was a revolution.

18 or so years ago, I found myself teaching the adult Sunday Morning Bible Study for the church we were a part of (I taught an 18-week redemptive historical study of John 1 among other things). In many ways, I felt inadequate for the task (then again, it could have been the material I chose), so I enrolled in a distance-learning seminary program. Except for the fact that the assignments didn’t have due dates, it was a great idea. So, except for the fact that I didn’t do my assignments, it was a great idea. It just wasn’t the right idea for me.

During this time, I was working at a Christian treatment center for women and adolescent girls battling eating disorders. Our company had some lay-offs after 9/11 and I remember asking myself what would happen if I did lose my job. Would I simply open the Want Ads and find something else to pay the bills? It was a great job and I loved my co-workers, but I wasn’t passionate about it. It was just a good way to pay the bills. Though I didn’t audibly hear God’s voice, I knew, as clearly as you can, that God was telling me He wanted me to “make, mature and multiply disciples.”

So I told my wife Kristi that I thought we should move somewhere and take seminary seriously. At the time you could not do a full seminary degree in Phoenix. Without missing a beat, she asked: “OK, where are we moving?” “Well, crap in a basket,” I thought. I had no idea where we were going.  After requesting information from 20 or so seminaries, we ended up in Louisville, KY where I attended Southern Seminary.

I went to seminary with absolutely no-way, no-how, never-ever intention of being a pastor. In fact, when professors would make comments like, “When you’re pastoring and . . . “, I would internally snicker. I was sure I had the angle on this. I would get my MDiv, transfer to another seminary and get my PhD. Then I would be a book-writing, ETS paper-presenting professor. I would have all the cool parts of teaching theology and none of the crap of dealing with people’s lives. But God often picks the unlikely ones to be His ambassadors. That way, there’s no explanation for success other than God’s faithfulness.

Around half-way through my MDiv, two things happened fairly simultaneously. First, I took a J-Term class on “The Doctrine Of The Church” with Mark Dever. Though there was nothing I hadn’t heard before, I had honestly never been challenged to put it all together in a way that forced me to consider the role of the Church in God’s plan of redemption. As a church member, I had rarely been challenged to see my role in God’s story as anything more than attending a weekly performance. I began to develop a conviction for seeing God’s people develop real community.

Around the same time, my Grandpa passed away. Being the token seminary student, the family asked if we would fly back and do the memorial. Never having done a memorial before, not knowing what I was doing and nervous as all get-out, I stumbled my way through the memorial and graveside services. Afterwards, my Dad said something to me that has stuck to this day. He said “You could affect more lives from the pulpit than in the classroom.”

The only way I can describe what happened next is to say that God simply broke my heart for the Church. I wanted to make, mature and multiply disciples. I wanted to serve God’s people and teach them to serve one another. I wanted to help people understand and apply the Bible better. I wanted to see people love Jesus and live more like Him.

On the way back to Kentucky, I told Kristi that I thought God was “calling me to be a pastor.” After few bars of the “I didn’t sign up to be a pastor’s wife blues”, she affirmed that God did indeed seem to be leading us that way. God had not only seemed to call me but also equip me with a particular skill set that lends itself to public teaching and interaction. After prayer, we found ourselves serving in a church in rural KY. But that’s a story for another day.

I tell you this rambling tale because I worry that, because we have professionalized the ministry, we tend to idealize the role of pastor. Many people have come to believe that “ministry” is somehow out of reach. But my story demonstrates that anyone can find themselves on an unexpected journey.The “call to ministry” certainly looks different for different people. But the point is that pastors are normal people who, somewhere along the way, felt prompted to give their lives in the service of others. No matter how they got there, lightning bolt, kicking and screaming, life-long desire or unexpected turns, they have had a long journey and they need to hear from you more often than when you’re upset about something.