Monday, September 16, 2019

When Your Identity is Wrapped Up into Your Ministry

This issue can often make or break someone in ministry, from Ed Stetzer . . . 

My identity has too often been tied to the successes or failures of the ministries that I lead—and too frequently in unhealthy ways.
It’s easy to find yourself counting heads at church on a Sunday or eyeing up the funds that were raised on any given week, wishing that more was accomplished. I remember times when I mistakenly thought, If I can just get over 200 people this week, then I’ll finally be at peace. Evaluating our leadership capacities can take some ugly turns when done numerically based on factors that are, quite frankly, completely outside of our control.
I’m a highly driven person; quite honestly, it’s that drivenness that has in part helped me be a successful church planter and revitalizer for many years. What’s unhealthy is not the ambition itself, but the ways I let longings for success overtake my heart and mind. Ambitious people become demoralized not when we dream big, set goals, or vision cast but when the realization of these things we fantasize about become essential to our happiness and well-being.
At issue here are some fundamental questions that Christians everywhere—not just in the church—have to answer: What does it look like for followers of Christ to live and work with a healthy sense of ambition? Furthermore, how should we approach failure in light of that?
God wants YOU
Let me start by saying this: It is possible to be ambitious and driven while also being an enthusiastic Christ-follower at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.
God has given each of us gifts. Some of us are gifted with patient spirits, others of us can’t help but forge ahead. Some of us are good at managing large staffs of people, others of us are content to follow others and take direction.
Regardless of how these inclinations and abilities manifest themselves in everyday life, if you glean nothing else from this article, hear this: whoever you are, whatever you do, God wants to use you. Yes, you. He wants to show you how to use your you-ness the way he always intended and teach you to leverage your skills and abilities for the building of his kingdom.
Don’t worry about what you’ve been given; think instead about the giver himself and meditate on all the good works that he has prepared in advance for you to do.
His goals, not ours
As I’ve said before, it can be easy for my ambition to get the better of me; I’m wired to want to beat numbers, do better, and track improvements over a period of time.
Often, I think it’s easy for pastors to start thinking numerically about their congregations. We create measures for success that, quite honestly, are not representative of God’s own measures of success for our ministries.
More often than not, the most dangerous part about all this comes when we try to compare our success to that of other pastors and ministry leaders in our communities. When we do this, not only are we trying to ‘beat’ our own numbers, but their numbers as well. This kind of thinking is a slippery slope down the wrong road—it’s most definitely an example of ambition gone bad.
God has called us to live in unity as the body of Christ. Focusing on ways to one-up each other’s ministries is not how we’ve been instructed to go about that.
How do we fix this? Well, I think it starts by looking at our ministries the way that Paul did. We see throughout Acts and Paul’s letters to churches that his ambition is centered around not what he wants to accomplish, but what God has called him to do. In Acts 16, Paul tries to preach in the province of Asia and the Holy Spirit actually prevents him from doing so.
Reading passages like this, it’s clear who is in control of Paul’s ministry: hint, it’s not Paul. Those of us who preach, teach, or lead in the church truly delude ourselves if we think that we are somehow solely responsible for the present, past, or future successes of our ministries.
Our posture should be one of surrender to God who holds all the cards—and parishioners we serve—in his hands. Any ambition we have should start and end with the knowledge of his sovereignty over all the things we so tightly cling to.
At the end of the day, it’s not about our goals, it’s about his. It’s not about what kind of success we imagine, but what he has willed for us to accomplish.
It’s not about our name being made great, but about him being brought gloryAmbition channeled for the glory of God is the only form Christ-followers can ever really strive for and still stand on solid ground.
So, what about failure?
In ministry, there are always ups and downs. In churches particularly, bad Sundays sometimes happen—attendance is low and sermons don’t turn out exactly as we’d originally hoped. This isn’t something to stew over for days or blame yourself about; it’s something to surrender to God.
Self-reflection and occasional critique are important, don’t get me wrong. What’s not helpful is when we allow an obsession with perfection and dreams of worldly success to prevent us from appreciating the ways that God really is at work in our midst.
The truth is that we don’t see the big picture. We serve a God who is sovereign over all things. It’s only through his strength and provision that we are able to accomplish anything of eternal significance in this life.
As the Psalmist reminds us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps.127:1).
Pastors and ministry leaders: trust that he who began a good work in you and in your organizations will bring it to completion in his good timing.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Preachers, Show Them in the Bible

John Piper has been helpful to me in so many ways over the last twenty-plus years in my thinking, my affections for Jesus, and in my ministry. . .

Expository exultation involves rigorous attention to the very words of the biblical text as a means of radically penetrating into the reality the text aims to communicate.
I am pleading against a widespread kind of preaching that is Bible-based but not Bible-saturated. I am pleading against the reading of a text followed by preaching that makes its points — sometimes very good points actually found in the text — without showing people the very words and phrases from which the points are taken. I am pleading against preaching that fails to help people see how the text actually takes us to the reality that is all-important.
What are the underlying reasons for this conviction that a preacher should show the people from the very words of the text how they can see for themselves the reality he is heralding? I will discuss only two here.

1. Only the Word of God Has Authority

First, the authority of preaching lies in the manifest correspondence between what the preacher is trying to communicate with his words and what the biblical authors are trying to communicate through the inspired words of Scripture. The key word here is manifest. The correspondence between the points of the sermon and the meaning of the words of Scripture should show.
“The words of God are the best means of displaying the glory of God.”
A preacher who does not care if his people believe what he says about the greatest matters in the world is a charlatan. He is playing language games in one of the most sacred places in the world. I assume most preachers who believe that the Bible is the word of God are not charlatans. That is, they take very seriously the calling to say things that people should believe. They want to be believed. They expect their people to believe what they say.

My First Sermon at Bethlehem

The basis for this astonishing expectation is the divine inspiration and complete truthfulness of Scripture. The Christian preacher aims to speak the word of God. He wants to be believed because he is saying what God wants said. In the first sermon I preached as pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, at age thirty-four, I said,
The source of my authority in this pulpit is not . . . my wisdom; nor is it a private revelation granted to me beyond the revelation of Scripture. My words have authority only insofar as they are the repetition, unfolding, and proper application of the words of Scripture. I have authority only when I stand under authority. . . . My deep conviction about preaching is that a pastor must show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible. If it cannot be shown, it has no special authority.
My heart aches for the pastor who increases his own burden by trying to come up with ideas to preach to his people. As for me, I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does. And of that word, I hope and pray that I never tire of speaking. The life of the church depends on it.

Tell Us What God Has to Say

In that sermon, I quoted W.A. Criswell (1909–2002), who pastored First Baptist Dallas for forty years. I said then, and I believe today, that his words are an admonition to pastors that I think is right on the money, and I take it as a great challenge:
When a man goes to church, he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries, he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this, “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.” (Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True)
This means that if the preaching is to claim authority to be believed, it needs to correspond to what the Scripture teaches. But here’s the catch: The desire of the Christian preacher is not that the resting place of the people’s confidence shift from the Scripture to the preacher. He wants them to believe what he says. He wants to have authority in that sense. But he wants the authority to remain in the Scripture itself, not in him and his words.
“My heart aches for the pastor who increases his own burden by trying to come up with ideas to preach to his people.”
This implies, therefore, that the message must not only correspond to the meaning of Scripture but also show that it does. The authority of preaching lies in the manifest correspondence between what the preacher is trying to communicate with his words and what the biblical authors are trying to communicate through the inspired words of Scripture. If this were not so, then on what basis would the people believe that the meaning of the sermon is the same as the meaning of the Bible? They may discover on their own that it is, without any help from the preacher. But why would the preacher want to make it hard for the people to see the correspondence?

Three Reasons Preachers Often Fail

It seems to me that a failure to show the people that the meaning of the sermon is there in the wording of Scripture is probably owing to incompetence, laziness, or presumption. Presumption that his words have enough authority on their own. Laziness because it is hard work not only to see what the text means but also to construct compelling explanations that show that the biblical text actually has this meaning. Incompetence because the preacher simply lacks the ability to show how the meaning of the message actually corresponds to the meaning of Scripture. These are traits that a preacher should not have.
The tragedy that happens over time in a church where the preacher does not give rigorous attention to the words of Scripture to help the people penetrate into the reality it communicates is that the word of God ceases to exercise its power, and the people lose their interest in the Scriptures.
When this happens, everything in the church shifts away from a joyful orientation on the Scriptures. The people cease to be a Bible-guided people. Without the saturation of Scripture, they become increasingly vulnerable to the winds of false teaching, and more subtly, the conditioning of unbelieving society. Their expectations become worldly, and they pressure the leadership of the church to make more and more concessions to what pleases unspiritual people. The preacher may wonder what the problem is, but he does not have to look far. He has not valued the word of God highly enough to make its glorious realities the content of his message while showing the people from the very words of the text how they can see these realities for themselves — and be thrilled.
That is the first reason for the conviction that the preacher should show his people from the very words of the text how they can see for themselves the reality he is heralding. It maintains the authority of Scripture as the manifest foundation for all that is preached.

2. Only the Word of God Awakens Life

The second reason that a preacher should show the people from the very words of the text how they can see for themselves the reality he is heralding is that preaching aims to awaken and strengthen faith in Christ, which the Scriptures themselves are designed to do with greater effectiveness than any message of man that mutes their words and meaning.
The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the gospel and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest treasure in the universe. I say this because, among other reasons, it is implied in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” There is a spiritual light that shines through the gospel, and it is the light of the glory of Christ.
“As for me, I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does.”
Satan keeps unbelievers from seeing this glory. That is why they can’t believe. This is the light and the glory of Christ that a person must see in order to believe and be saved. It is seen with the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18), when the Holy Spirit lifts the veil from our minds (2 Corinthians 3:16). The utterly decisive question preachers must answer is this: How will I preach so as to become an instrument of this miracle? How will I preach so as to awaken faith through a sight of the glory of Christ?

Nothing More Compelling

My answer is that God has given the church a divinely inspired book, which is the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life. This divine portrait of Christ is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith. The words of God are the best means of displaying the glory of God.
Therefore, preaching that we hope God will use to create saving faith will not assume that there is a more compelling portrait of the glory of Christ that a preacher can create while sidelining or muting the portrait of Scripture in the words of Scripture. Instead, the aim of the preacher will be to rivet people’s attention on the words of Scripture and through them to reveal the reality of the glory of all that God is for us in Jesus.
Scripture is the divine word where the glory shines. Our aim is to focus people’s attention on that word in such a way that they see for themselves the glory. And believe.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Community 101: Finding vs. Building

If you find that it is difficult to find community, a helfpul post by James Emory White . . .
One of the great myths of relational life is that community is something found. In this fairy tale, community is simply out there – somewhere – waiting to be discovered like Prince Charming finding Cinderella. All you have to do is find the right person, join the right group, get the right job, or become involved with the right church. It’s kind of an “Over the Rainbow” thing; it’s not here, so it must be “over” there.
This is why so many people go from relationship to relationship, city to city, job to job, church to church, looking for the community that they think is just around the corner if they can only find the right people and the right place. The idea is that real community exists somewhere, and we simply must tap into it. It’s not something you have to work at; in fact, if you have to work at it, then you know it’s not real community.
This mindset runs rampant in our day. If you have to work at community in a marriage, you must not be right for each other. If you have to work on community where you are employed, you’ve got a bad boss, bad co-workers or a bad structure. If you have to work at community in a neighborhood, you just picked the wrong subdivision. If you have to work on things with people in a church, well, there are obviously just problems with the church, or its leadership, or yep, its “community.”
I cannot stress enough how soundly unrealistic, much less unbiblical, this is. Community is not something you find; it is something you build. What you long for isn’t about finding the right mate, the right job, the right neighborhood, the right church—it’s about making your marriage, your workplace, your neighborhood and your church the community God intended. Community is not something discovered, it is something forged. I don’t mean to suggest that any and all relationships are designed for, say, marriage. Or that there aren’t dysfunctional communities you should flee from. My point is that all relationships of worth are products of labor.
This is why the Bible talks about people needing to form and make communities, not just come together as a community, or to “experience” community. 
It’s why principles are given – at length – for how to work through conflict. 
It’s why communication skills are detailed and issues like anger are meant to be dealt with. 
It’s why the dynamics of successfully living with someone in the context of a marriage, or family, is explored in depth. As the author of Hebrews put it so plainly: “So don’t sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet... run for it! Work at getting along with each other...” (Hebrews 12:12-14, Msg).
But that raises a problem. You probably don’t know how to work in such a way as to create community. 
Don’t worry; you’re not alone.
Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris once wrote how several monks told her that one of the biggest problems monasteries face is people who come to them “having no sense of what it means to live communally.” They have been “schooled in individualism” and often had families that were so disjointed that even sitting down and having a meal together was a rarity. As a result, “they find it extremely difficult to adjust” to life in community.
Monks called into monastic life feeling unprepared for relational life? 
Welcome to our world. We spend years in school to prepare for a career without having to take a single class on getting along with a coworker. 
We spend months planning a wedding, meeting with caterers and photographers and wedding directors, and never once have to explore what’s involved in communicating with our spouse.
We go through prenatal classes, decorate the nursery, and set up the college fund, and never even think about how we’re going to interact with our kids when they’re teenagers.
Add in our flaming depravity and things really get sketchy. Running alongside our longing for community is a deep current of anti-community behavior. We are filled with anger and envy, pride and competition. We do not naturally extend grace or forgiveness. We seldom take the high road, and we usually assume the worst of others. 
What is missing from most of our visions is a picture of community. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. One of our family traditions is putting together a jigsaw puzzle on New Year’s Eve. We lay out the pieces on our kitchen table and invite anyone and everyone to put it together. Of course, the picture on the box is always front and center. Why? Without a sense of what we’re trying to produce, we’re just putting pieces together in random, haphazard ways, hoping something good comes out in the end.
So what is the picture on the community box?
The Bible calls it shalom.
More on that in the next post.
James Emery White

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Spurgeon on Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane

"May we not conceive that as in a garden Adam’s self-indulgence ruined us, so in another garden the agonies of the second Adam should restore us. Gethsemane supplies the medicine for the ills which followed upon the forbidden fruit of Eden. No flowers which bloomed upon the banks of the four-fold river were ever so precious to our race as the bitter herbs which grew hard by the black and sullen stream of Kedron." Charles Spurgeon 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church: The Pastor Edition

Excellent article from TGC.  As a pastor who loves the church, I have built enough trust with our elders that they know I will discuss with them and help them with my transition if and when I leave.

In my last post on leaving well when you’re a member of a church several respondents pointed out that pastors often leave churches in very poor way. Sadly, they’re correct. We’ve all heard the horror stories about pastors who announce their departure after the morning service and U-Haul arrives first thing Monday morning. Or, we’re familiar with the all-too-painful accounts of pastors who apparently take a scorched earth approach to leaving, destroying everything they touch before they leave. We can add to that those pastors who leave by splitting the church. The pain abounds.
It’s hard on everyone when a pastor leaves–usually. Sometimes congregations are happy to see a man go and seem to do everything they can to ensure it happens. The story is told of the irate pastor who stood before the unhappy congregation and announced in no uncertain terms that he was leaving. Today would be his last Sunday at that church with those people. Then the congregation spontaneously and in union broke out in song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
We don’t want to be that guy or that church. So, in response to those concerns, I want to offer five things pastors should do before they leave their local churches. The aim would be much the same as the goal of members who leave: to leave in as healthy and Christ-honoring a way possible.
1. Talk with Your Fellow Leaders When You Begin to Think Seriously about Leaving
Most of the problems begin right here. Far too many pastors either lack sufficient trust with their leaders or fear man to such an extent that they don’t talk about their interest in leaving until it’s a done deal. That’s devastating for a church’s leadership and for the church as a whole. Showing up with a decision to leave without having allowed the leadership to speak into your life is tantamount to serving divorce papers to a totally unsuspecting spouse.
So, if a pastor wishes to be faithful to his charge and humbly submissive to others in leadership with him, he should share his desires with the leadership well before he has made a decision to leave. This is tricky and requires some thoughtfulness with regard to timing. The pastor shouldn’t “think out loud” about a possibility he’s not seriously considering, otherwise he’ll make his fellow leaders uncertain when he doesn’t need to. Better to not share comments about leaving when you’re frustrated or when you’re having the occasional bout of “what ifs.” Instead, at the point that you think leaving could be a serious possibility, then talk with your fellow leaders about the possibility. Perhaps meet with them individually first so that their initial reactions, often emotional and sad, aren’t first offered in a group meeting of the elders. Prepare them for the group conversation by allowing them to process individually. Give them a general heads up on your thinking and take any initial questions or reactions they may have.
2. Be Genuinely Open to Counsel and Correction
I tend to stay away from the sometimes mystical and authoritative language of “call.” Far too many pastors have led congregations in unhealthy directions or abandoned a pastorate because they “felt called” to do so. Sometimes people use the language of “call” or “calling” as a way to circumvent any hard thinking and testing of motives. We speak as if a “call” ends all debates because the decision was really in God’s realm and will. When, truthfully, God extends and affirms calls through His people and leaders in prayer together (Acts 131 Tim. 4:14).
Rather than making a highly subjective and privatized decision in the pseudo-spiritual language of “calling,” pastors should actively seek the counsel and correction of others. Don’t just take advice; go after it. They should be willing to hear hard things about their hearts and motives. They should be willing to accept the challenge of those who think they should stay, especially their fellow leaders who most likely know them best. They should be willing to lay out their potential plans–as far as they know them–so that their fellow leaders can shepherd them through their thinking. This would be a good time to receive counsel and correction about how they’re leading their families, since wives and children will undoubtedly be affected. These talks should take place over months of meetings, not a meeting or two. The meetings should involve significant prayer rather than fleshly reactions.
Then heed or take the counsel and correction. Don’t dismiss it. Receive it. Make yourself accountable to the leaders by stating your agreements where you can and by explaining why you won’t or can’t take counsel where you can’t. Not everyone will agree about everything in situations like this. But where there’s disagreement and the pastor wishes to take a direction the other leaders advise against, he should humbly explain his reasons and hear again the elders’ admonishment or affirmation. Here’s the place and time to be ruthless with your motives and desires.
3. Resolve Any Conflicts Before Leaving the Church
According to a couple of surveys I’ve seen, the number one reason pastors leave churches is conflict. They feel embattled about a direction they wish to take. They are constant recipients of criticisms. Sometimes their wife and children bear the brunt of unloving and un-Christian attacks in the body of Christ. And a great many pastors feel they have no friend in the congregation with whom they can talk about these things. Most pastors feel overworked, under-appreciated and put down by some of the people they serve. Conflict abounds.
But before a pastor leaves, he should allow plenty of time to mend relationships and settle conflicts in as biblical a manner as possible. In fact, as much as it’s possible, he should plan the timing of his leaving in accord with his being able to restore peace in the ministry. The same things that are required of members who leave are required of pastors. Obey our Lord’s instructions in Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15. Go and be reconciled to the best of your ability.
If pastors obey the Lord in this before moving on then everybody wins. Lord willing, pastors win their brothers and sisters over and relationships are mended. You may find you don’t have to leave at all and experience renewed joy in the church family you’ve already invested years of life with. Even if you still need or want to leave, you’ll experience freedom from guilt because you’ve “made every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The church you leave behind will, by God’s grace, be in better repair for their next pastor. Don’t make the next guy do your work in healing the sheep. Position the next guy to begin smoothly, or at least make his own conflicts and mistakes. And your new church family will be able to receive you without the baggage associated with the previous church.
One person in the comments section of the last post suggested churches should contact a candidate’s previous church to see if they left in good standing. I think that’s a wonderful idea and am surprised at how many do not check references or complete background checks before calling a pastor. Many have simply inherited unresolved problems from previous pastorates because men have not left well and have not dealt with their relational demons before moving on.
4. Plan Your Transition and Succession with the Elders
Don’t just pack up your books and disappear into the night. As much as you’re able think with your fellow leaders about how to address the condition of the various souls in your care, the state of the various ministries and major needs in the transition. The church may feel like it’s stopped with the announcement of your departure and you may feel tempted to disengage, but keep your head in the game. Life continues apace and that means people continue to need shepherding, decisions continue to come before the leaders, and time remains (or should be taken) to get things in order for transition.
Hopefully you’ve been grooming a potential successor as part of your ministry in the church. Hopefully you’ve been sharing the leadership so that others have “stepped up” long before any prospect of your leaving was on the table. And perhaps you have a successor in mind. Talk that through with the leaders. Give them your honest assessment of a prospective replacement. Resist the urge to simply speak in glowing terms about the next guy because you want everyone to feel good after your difficult announcement. The truth lovingly spoken will make them free. And if there is no successor on the horizon, help the leaders think through their recruitment strategy. Give them counsel from your unique perspective on what they did well when recruiting you and what they could improve. Let them benefit from your watching this process unfold with many of your friends and associates. Lead through the transition.
5. Express Your Appreciation to the Church and Say “Goodbye” to Friends and Saints
Sometimes pastors fall into the trap of thinking they’ve done the church a favor by being their pastor for some season. We can fall into thinking we’ve made all the sacrifices, borne all the difficulties, and exercised all the patience. But, truthfully, the church has put up with us, patiently prayed through our shortcomings and failures, and sacrificed to partner with us in the gospel. It’s been our privilege to shepherd the people of God–no matter how difficult we found the shepherding or how rowdy the sheep. We were not called to pastoral ministry in order to enjoy a life of ease. We were called to get in the pen and smell like sheep. And we should be happy and grateful for the opportunity to be Christ’s under-shepherds!
Which  means we should be able to step back and express sincere and profound gratitude for God’s people. Paul could do it with Corinth, surely we can do it with out congregations. Before we leave we should make every day an expression of appreciation and thanksgiving. We should do it publicly and privately, in groups at planned functions and in chance encounters in the hallways or grocery stores. We should do this as an act of love and with the hopes that the people would be reminded of God’s grace at work among them and strengthened for the transition ahead.
Pastors should spend adequate time saying “goodbye” to friends. They should make sure their wives and their children have opportunity to do the same. From the time of your public announcement to the actual date of departure, give yourself plenty of time to have dinners, coffees, small group meetings and the like to make the rounds and relay personal appreciation with people. Weep together. Rejoice together. Pray together. Be together so that being apart might be softened in time to come.
Well, there’s much more that could be said. A thousand details need to be attended and without question lots of sticky issues addressed. But in broad strokes, here are some thoughts that I hope churches and pastors find helpful in the sometimes painful process of losing a shepherd.