May 1, 2010
Telling the Truth
Pastors must be the unhappiest collection of people I’ve ever met. At least that is the feeling I came away with from a recent gathering of dedicated servants. Pastors from all over the country poured into a sun soaked California location to find encouragement and rest from their hectic schedules—taking time to reconnect with old friends, make new connections or just recline by the pool. And when pastors get together, away from their parishioners, they can actually tell the truth about their feelings toward ministry. We are overworked, underpaid, overfed and underappreciated—each of us struggling to balance our low self-esteem and our messiah complex. Most of us hold to the idea that being a pastor is not a job, it’s a calling—and all to often, a call to suffer. This calling defines us and can quickly dominate our lives and subvert all other responsibilities.
It really isn’t all that bad, is it? Pastoral burnout is on the rise (but experts have been telling us that for forty years), and infidelity and sexual addiction are no longer rare occurrences. The average tenure for a pastor is about eighteen months (depending on the denomination), and now those pastors who have survived burnout and parishioner abuse struggle to “compete” with the latest multisite McChurch now residing in the junior high gymnasium.
These are but a few tidbits I picked up at the latest gathering of my brothers and sisters proclaiming the good news, but this isn’t what scares me most. A few weeks ago I was talking with some of our youth about colleges and possible career choices, and I asked if any of the students were contemplating a call to ministry. (There’s that word call again.) No one answered. They just stared at me as if I had asked them to give up the password to their Facebook account. Not only were none of the students considering ministry, but they were also outraged that I had the audacity to even suggest it. When I asked them why, each of them gave me the same answers about the low pay, high stress, low prestige of ministry. In my fairly affluent community, low pay ranked as the first reason (which is a topic for another day).
These students did not attend a ministerial gathering and hear pastors being honest about church life. They had absorbed this attitude from my preaching, teaching and interaction. I won’t take full credit for their feelings—there are other members of the staff to blame too. I would wager that your students feel the same (or at least have similar leanings).
I absolutely understand the need to have opportunities to vent about our frustrations—my wife understands that need too. But we must also celebrate the joy that comes from serving our Lord and his church—from holding a newborn to celebrating the resurrection at a dear friend’s funeral. We must remember the smiles we bring when we visit those shut-ins who rarely see anyone or when holding our friend’s hand while she awaits the results of a biopsy. We have the best job in the world; we get paid to help make our friends’ lives better. We get paid to love people.
I often complain about my job, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I hope the kids in my youth group read this. (I hope yours do too.)
“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).
February 1, 2010
Blame it on Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, blame it on The Rifleman, Rin Tin Tin or Annie Oakley. Whatever the cause, I am a big fan of Louis L’Amour westerns. He was a great story teller who painted vivid pictures of the prairie, desert and mountains. In his books, he makes the people and the events of the Old West come alive.
You know what else I really appreciate about his stories? Time and again, the hero of his tale has a mentor. I recently finished re-reading one of L’Amour’s books where the main character is orphaned at a young age. While he shows enough spunk to stay alive in spite of many adverse circumstances, he needs someone to show him how to make the transition between boyhood and manhood. So L’Amour gives him a “Life Coach” as he does for so many of his other characters in other books. He obviously believed that success in life was taught, not caught.
As pastors and Christ followers we believe that too. We know we never outgrow the need for mentors. In every stage of life mentors are vital. Children, young adults, parents, married couples—individuals in literally every stage of life benefit from having a guide along the way. As I have been focusing on this important aspect of ministry the last few months, I have been asking myself the question, How are we ministers and the church doing?
In order to create an atmosphere in our churches that welcomes and embraces the idea of coaching and mentoring one another, we as pastors must model it first. We cannot expect our parishioners to embrace what we do not model. Pastor, do you have a life coach? Do you have a ministry mentor? Are you committed to being that for someone else? It has to start with us.
I am very encouraged to see seminaries requiring mentors for their students. Many denominations have fellowships and provide regular opportunities for their ministers to give each other mutual support and encouragement. Now let me offer a challenge to go one step further. Pastor, ask God to help you find someone that you trust and can be specifically committed to. Ask God to give you a mentor. This person will be someone you regularly meet with and are accountable to both professionally and personally.
As you pray for a person to coach you, remember there are many following behind you who could benefit from your experience. Ask God to also show you who you can help as others have helped you. Back in my college days, the Navigators called it “pouring your life into someone else.” I have always loved the picture that it evokes and the passion it inspires to help someone else along the way.
As I shape my own ministry to more closely fit my gifting and calling to be an encourager and mentor, I am discovering that it is much harder for women pastors to find a life and ministry coach of like heart. Perhaps there are other women out there who are longing for a mentor relationship and can’t find one. Can we share ideas of how to connect with other women ministers around the country?
Mentoring is not a new idea, and it is not our idea, it is God’s. It has always been his plan for those further down the road of life to guide—to be a “Pardner” to—those just starting out. Let’s all rethink and reevaluate the shape of our lives, and make sure there is room in it for mentors, and for mentoring. Our lives will then provide the model for those we minister to in our churches.
September 1, 2009
Lives that Pour Out Into the Streets
In February I had the privilege of traveling to Vietnam with five members from my church. Our church had hosted Vinh, a seminary intern from Vietnam, for over two years, and his presence in our congregation changed us. We are seeking to be faithful as a multicultural, multigenerational congregation in southern California, the frontline of our rapidly changing national community. Vinh’s presence in our congregation gave us the opportunity to grow in openness to those who are very different. His life poured into our streets. And we decided to see the church that fostered the faith of this remarkable young man.
Visiting three different cities and one very rural community in Vietnam helped me understand why Vinh had such an impact on our church. In Vietnam there is little separation between public life and personal life. Especially in the north and central part of Vietnam, where there is much less Western influence, the people conduct life out in the open. The small shops that line most of the streets are places of business, but here shop owners also sit with their families and their neighbors while they eat their meals and drink afternoon tea. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between paying customers and family members. And when you walk the street, it’s not uncommon to be invited to sit for a while.
The same is true of many of the Vietnamese homes, many of which have large doors or gates that open wide to the street and neighbors. The street or sidewalk is a part of the home. While I was having dinner with the Ha family one evening, several times neighbors stopped at this wide open door to talk. We could hear the neighbors all around doing the same thing—living their lives open to others.
I was struck by how dramatically this contrasts with the American obsession with privacy. We have weatherized our porches and air-conditioned our homes so that the windows and doors are almost always closed, and our blinds or drapes are often pulled. If we do venture out, it is into the privacy of our back yards. We are intentionally not open to the streets and our neighbors. One sociologist says that Americans have lost a sense of public space. In our search for privacy we have retreated, and we now fail to value publicly shared lives—lives that pour out into the streets.
Vietnam was a vivid picture for me of the task that lies ahead for my church. We must find a way to pour our lives out into the streets. Our church services and activities should be much more open to passersby. And more of our activities should be done on the streets and in the neighborhood. After all, according to the Scripture, “The Word became flesh and moved right into the neighborhood” (Jn 7:17, The Message). We need to do the same.
Unlocking the church doors and ministering outside of the church building and on the streets is challenging. Neighborhood children playing on our church’s lawn and basketball court are great, but we have only just begun. I hope in the not-too-distant future people all around our city will witness the lives of our church members pouring out into the streets.
August 1, 2009
The Mouth of the Lord
One foggy morning, when my parents were visiting my family, we decided to go out for breakfast. We found a nice large booth so six of us could sit together. My thirteen-year-old son, who was with us, loves to go out to eat, but as much as he loves to eat at a restaurant, he loves to meet new people. You see Jesse has Down Syndrome, and for some reason he loves to go up to strangers (the stranger the better) to introduce himself and shake hands.
Since it was still early on a foggy morning, I thought we would be safe in the largely empty Perkins Restaurant. Just in case, I sat with my arm around Jesse for most of the breakfast. We had a great conversation spiced by maple syrup and hot coffee.
As we ate, a couple of gentlemen sat down in the booth across from us. These well-dressed businessmen took out their Palm Pilots and notepads and conversed about figures and budgets. I could tell that Jesse wanted to greet them, so I tightened my grip around his shoulder. But when we got up to put our coats on, he escaped my grasp and went immediately to the larger of the two men. He greeted him and shook his hand. The surprised man was very cordial and greeted Jesse back, and even gave him his name. Jesse seized on the man’s greeting and then went in for a hug, which did not upset the man at all. He seemed to enjoy the break in his meeting and the affection of a young boy.
But Jesse was not finished with him or his unconventional greeting. Sensing a real openness in the gentleman, Jesse went for it all. He got the man in a headlock and gave him a noogy (vigorously rubbing the man’s hair with his knuckles). I quickly tried to intervene, but I was too late. All I could do was try to tear Jesse away from the man’s head and begin to apologize for my son’s behavior.
I got Jesse away and put my hands on both sides of his face, looked him right in the eyes and told him that this man did not deserve to have a noogy given to him. But then to my astonishment, the man immediately responded that indeed he did deserve a noogy this morning. He said that when he left the house that morning he did not treat his wife very kindly and actually deserved more than a noogy. He then went on to say, “Sometimes God speaks to us loudly through a burning bush, and at others times though a young child.”
Well, I was speechless and simply thanked the man for being so understanding. He in turn thanked me for my son and the clear message he brought to him from the Lord.
The Lord also brought me a clear message that morning. He can speak through whomever he wishes. I had to repent of wanting to cuff God’s messenger (Jesse) upside the head.
Maybe we need to quit pretending to know whom God will use to be his voice and allow him to surprise us as he speaks through some unlikely people.
January 1, 2009
Ministry or Management
Is the church primarily a community of believers striving to worship God, glorify Christ and love one another? Or is it primarily an organization that needs management? Few would argue for the second definition. Yet what would a neutral person who sat in on one of our leadership meetings (e.g., deacon board, church council, vestry, coetus or session) observe: ministry or management? This is the challenge of my new call—to help our church’s session (ruling elders) be a community of believers striving to minister in Christ’s name.
The Principal’s Office
To that end I sent out a note to all the elders expressing my desire to meet with each one individually in order to get to know them and be better partners in ministry. I heard through the grapevine that many were a bit disconcerted. They felt as if they were being called to the “principal’s office.” I reassured them it wouldn’t be painful: I don’t bite, and they weren’t in trouble. I just wanted to get to know them better.
With each elder I stated my belief that the session is a microcosm of the church. The spiritual condition of the church will reflect the spiritual condition of the session. In order for us to be spiritual leaders we must know each other; we must know our strengths and weaknesses; we must know where we excel and where we struggle; we must be able to look one another in the eye and ask, “How are you doing spiritually?” Shocking that it has to be asked—but we church leaders must be able to talk about Christ!
In order to effectively conduct the business of the church we must effectively live as Christ calls us to live—to glorify God and to love one another. Certainly the financial and administrative business of the church is important, but all too often it becomes the main thing or even the only thing. So our church committees are filled with competent bankers, lawyers, managers, educators and, occasionally, carpenters and homemakers, but we know nothing about their spiritual “competence.”
In my experience, church leadership meetings are packed with business details while underlying spiritual pain and struggle and triumph go unattended:
Does anyone know the spiritual condition of these people? Does anyone care?
The character of a church will reflect its spiritual leadership, for ill or for good. As we conduct the necessary business of the organization, let’s not forget to be about the real business of church—worshiping God, glorifying Christ and loving one another in word and deed.
October 1, 2008
Last November I found myself in the emergency room with my husband. He had been having nose bleeds on and off for a week. But this nose bleed was definitely “on!” There were two other people waiting for attention in the emergency room. Both were elderly and looked in much worse condition than my husband, who is fairly trim and fit and barely over fifty. A superficial look would have concluded that my husband could wait. I pressed the triage nurse a bit, indicating the escalation of his condition. She took his blood pressure. The reading was so high that she assumed it was wrong. She took it two more times. These readings confirmed it was 220 over 190 and his pulse was 120. That triage nurse went into emergency action. Drew was a heart attack or stroke waiting to happen! Understanding the degrees of his critical condition, she directed all of her energy and resources to the most immediately critical patient.
I have come to realize this is what I do. Being a pastor is like being an emergency-room triage nurse. In the emergency room, a triage nurse must quickly assess all those medical conditions presented at any given time and direct energy and resources toward those persons presenting the most critical care needs. There are several parallels that help me manage my time and my heart, both of which are easily overtaxed.
First, there are always more patients to care for than I can address at any given time. The ministry of the church is ever-growing and expanding. I am one person. I must work very hard to direct energy and resources at the most critical need determined through careful observation, prayer and godly counsel.
Second, I cannot help everyone. It takes a whole hospital to care for the needs of all the sick and dying. The triage nurse simply mobilizes the right people and resources to best do the job. Alone, I will not be able to care for the spiritual needs of all whom God brings to my church. I must equip, train and encourage those who can.
Third, some folks will not come for care—and will die. Even worse, some will come, and because the medical staff are people and not gods, there will be losses. I am human. I must constantly reiterate the confession of John in the third chapter of his Gospel account—“I am not the Christ.” In Christ’s name and by his Spirit I will be able to do far more than I could ever imagine, but I can’t do everything.
Finally, I can’t serve twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I must get time off. And this does not jeopardize my care capacity; it ensures it will be sharper and more effective. I must get rest and care for myself in order to come to the emergency room ready to give the best care possible. If the emergency room nurse has an infection, he or she only jeopardizes the health of those being served. Pastors are no different. If we try to do ministry when we are not well (emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually), we risk jeopardizing the spiritual health of others.
God has called us to spiritual triage. By the power and presence of the Spirit of God, let’s give the best care we can to those in the greatest need. And let’s inspire and equip the people of God to be partners in ministry.