Being a small town pastor, I found this post encouraging . . .
Monday, December 14, 2020
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
December 3, 2020
It was the senior pastor owning up to an affair with the wife of the worship pastor, and then the worship pastor and the wife of the senior pastor deciding that they would simply join in and the four have an “open” marriage with each other sexually – and then attempting to get other couples in the church to join them – that pushed me over the edge.
Whether it’s long-term, senior leaders having decades of moral misconduct revealed in the end, or younger leaders leading a lifestyle as sexually trendy as their hair and clothes, there is a growing crisis in character surfacing within Christian leadership.
Hear my heart—I am painfully aware of the sin that plagues my own walk with Christ. I have to drink as deeply from the well of grace as anyone. But I am sensing something different afoot. Namely, the calculated pursuit of a shadow life that betrays the most foundational dynamics of Christian morality, flowing from some warped view of entitlement fueled by cheap grace.
So, whatever happened to character?
I have my ideas.
One is that an increasing number of young leaders are entering into self-created positions of leadership, largely through church planting, before they have been adequately discipled, mentored vocationally, or have time to mature in terms of character. When I planted Mecklenburg Community Church, I was 30 years old, had both an M.Div. and Ph.D., and had served in various forms of ministry leadership for a decade, including parachurch college ministry, church youth ministry and a seminary pastorate. Countless men and women had poured into me and worked at shaving off rough spots, and exposing areas of my inner world that needed developing.
Today, church planting networks will facilitate church plants from people barely out of college, with little or no experience, and often fresh from their initial embrace of Jesus; meaning they have simply not had enough time to significantly grow in matters of spiritual maturity or character.
But I’m afraid of a second reason that transcends age and experience, brought to mind from the first of several interactions I had with the late British pastor and leader John Stott. I was invited to a breakfast meeting while a student in seminary. Stott had been touring various American seminaries, and someone asked him for his observations about what he had been observing amid schools developing the next generation of leaders.
He did not suggest anything about witnessing a diminishing state of orthodoxy, a lack of biblical preaching, or lowering standards of academic excellence. Instead, he said two things that still stand out to me to this day: First, he said he wanted to tell everyone to “cheer up.” Seminaries all seemed so serious, so gloomy, so joyless.
Coming from a Brit that was, um… well… ouch.
But then he said that there seemed to be a real lack of spiritual formation; that the seminaries did not seem to be doing much to help people know how to grow spiritually or to care for their lives spiritually.
This is an important point. Most people think that those who go to seminary will have an experience akin to a three-year monastic mountaintop experience that will forever put them over the spiritual finish line.
It’s become an academic degree, increasingly catering to the academy itself, that often leaves students more spiritually dry at the end than when they began.
And that, I believe, is the true issue at hand: spiritual formation. Whether young or old, ministry preparation seems more intent on vocational skill than deepened relationship with the One for whom we are wanting to employ vocational skill. We value charisma over character, hipness over holiness and success over spirituality.
What makes it worse is that ministry leadership is often hazardous to the soul. I wrote about this in my book What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (still one of my favorite books I have ever written). When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.
Then another dynamic comes into play. You are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you are the fourth member of the Trinity. In truth, those who follow you have no idea whether you have spent any time alone with God in reflection and prayer over the last six weeks; they do not know what you are viewing online; they do not know whether you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity.
They just afford you a high level of spirituality.
Here’s where it gets really toxic: you can begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press. Soon the estimation of others about your spiritual life becomes your own.
This is why most train wrecks in ministry are not as sudden and “out of the blue” as they seem. Most leaders who end up in a moral ditch had been veering off the road for some time. Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or took its toll.
So what can be done?
If one were to advance a spiritual growth track for leadership, I would be sure to include what I consider to be the most important character trait for anyone in Christian leadership after the most basic, foundational set of moral understandings. And that trait is a servant’s heart. It is what marked Jesus and should mark those who follow in His name.
Just consider these words of Ruth Harms Calkins, first brought to my attention by Chuck Swindoll in his classic book, Improving Your Serve.
You know, Lord, how I serve You
With great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
At a women’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
A fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder
If You pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
Of a bent and wrinkled old woman
Day after day
Month after month
In a room where nobody saw
And nobody knew.
The answer to that question?
It depends on your character.
Oh, for a generation of leaders who would pick up the basin and towel in exchange for platform and notoriety.
James Emery White
Monday, December 7, 2020
Helpful article for young pastors. . . .
“So are you the youth pastor or the college pastor?”
Whenever I meet someone new and they learn I’m a pastor, this is the question I get asked the most. The question makes sense! I serve in a church with three language congregations—English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese—and in a cultural context where age tends to be valued highly. As a thirty-something young man, I don’t fit the typical senior pastor profile. Then again, the story of how I became a senior pastor wasn’t very typical, either.
In the summer 2015, I was finishing seminary in Kentucky when our former pastor in California called us. He’d been serving as the senior pastor for over 20 years and was thinking about the future. His proposal: come back and serve at the church, and he would slowly transition the senior pastor position to me. My wife and I were very humbled by the proposal, and after much prayer and counsel, we decided to say yes.
We initially planned for a 3–5 year transition, but the Lord had other plans. In 2017, our senior pastor received an amazing opportunity to serve overseas that more or less required him to leave immediately. As a result, with fifteen whole months of pastoral experience, the church called me to replace him as the English congregational pastor. They called me to be the senior pastor a year later.
God has been incredibly gracious throughout this transition. I won’t pretend that I have all the answers or that my ministry has been mistake-free. Nevertheless, in the hope that the grace I’ve received would benefit others, I offer a few of the lessons I have learned through this transition.
1. To the Incoming Pastor: Own Your Incompetence
A friend of mine gave me this counsel when I first entered pastoral ministry. As pastors, we rightly recognize the sacred duty we’ve been entrusted with (1 Tim 3:1–7). Nevertheless, the weight of that responsibility can tempt us to fake it until we make it, to pretend like we have it all together. In a Chinese cultural context, the temptation to hide weakness and save face can be especially strong.
As I stepped into the senior pastor role, I wanted to prove that the trust the church gave to me wasn’t in vain. But the truth is that no one—including me!—is competent in himself to steward the mysteries of Christ (2 Cor 2:10). More than this, it’s the risen Christ, not any pastor, who is the cornerstone of the church (Eph 2:20). By remembering this, I’m set free from the pressure to perform and may instead freely admit that I’m inexperienced, flawed, and weak. I’m free to ask for help, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor 12:9).
Pastor, if you find yourself in a position like mine, remember: own your incompetence, and point the church to Christ.
2. To the Transitioning Church: Offer Real Opportunities
Churches are sometimes reluctant to give too much responsibility to new pastors. In an immigrant context, youth and inexperience are often seen as liabilities. Many immigrant churches, therefore, prefer to bring in an older, more seasoned pastor to shepherd the flock. However, if shepherds are expected to progress in their ministry (1 Tim 4:15), they must start somewhere. I can think of nothing better for an inexperienced pastor’s growth in ministry than a church who comes alongside him in love and support.
Even before I became senior pastor, I had real opportunities to shepherd (1 Pet 5:2). I preached from the Sunday pulpit, I met with members, and I taught in various settings. Along the way, the church encouraged me and my family, and graciously endured my rookie mistakes and missteps. In doing this, our church taught me that they didn’t ultimately trust in my abilities or experience, but in Christ (2 Cor 4:7).
So church, if you find yourself in a position like ours, remember: offer real opportunities, and continue to point the church to Christ.
3. To the Outgoing Pastor: Open Your Hands
The idea of turning over the sacred responsibility of shepherding a local church to a young, inexperienced pastor can seem unthinkable, especially in an immigrant context. As a result, an outgoing senior pastor may be tempted to cling tightly to his position and resist helping another pastor take his place. He may subtly communicate to the church that he doesn’t quite trust the new pastor, resulting in the new pastor facing an uphill battle from the start.
Thankfully, I never felt any of this from our senior pastor. I could write multiple articles expressing my gratitude and admiration for him. With respect to this transition, it’s his mentorship and affirmation that stand out. He met with me every week and helped me grow as a pastor. He invited me to ask questions, and even to disagree with him. He encouraged me, and always sought to build me up in the eyes of the church. When he left, he turned everything over and kept nothing for himself. He modelled for me the truth: the church isn’t about any pastor, but about Christ (Eph 3:21).
Pastor, if you find yourself in a position where you can share of yourself to empower another pastor, remember: open your hands, and point the church to Christ.
Transitions aren’t easy, and your cultural context may present your church with unique challenges. Yet transitions also remind us that the church fundamentally belongs to Christ. He alone is her Savior. He gave himself up in love for her (Eph 5:25). A pastor, therefore, is but an instrument of grace used by Christ to shepherd his flock toward himself.
That’s why we ought to remember our leaders, those who spoke the Word of God to us. That’s why we ought to consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Yet in all this, when leaders transition as they one day must, we must also remember: Jesus Christ is the same—yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:7–8).