Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Ministry”

Celebrating the rest of the story

Last Sunday I spoke on Jesus choosing Levi to be one of his disciples.

Prior to his encounter with Jesus, Levi is identified as “Levi, the tax collector.” More than an occupation, the addendum defines Levi. It’s a moral statement.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ era are dishonest, cheats and traitors. Levi is a real low-down, dirty rotten scoundrel.

Levi goes to work in the morning with one name, Levi the Tax Collector. He leaves work with a brand new name, Levi the Chosen. Levi the Follower of Jesus. Levi the Forgiven.

However, as is often the case in the New Testament, we don’t know the rest of the story.

What was Levi like the next day? Or the day after that?

Did Levi ever struggle with lying or cheating after Jesus chose him? Did the self-serving nature that drove him to collect taxes for the Romans ever surface in his interactions with the other disciples? Did he ever come across as unlikable?

My hunch is that the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Changing Levi’s name was just the beginning of his transformation.

I’ve long observed that the church world focuses on event-centered ministry. We celebrate the dramatic conversion, perhaps starting way back with the Apostle Paul. We count the numbers and use them to validate ministries. The bigger the numbers, the more successful we are.

This puts much pressure on pastors. By and large, misplaced pressure.

Pastoral ministry isn’t nearly so much about an event as it is a process. The real work of pastoring is walking with the Levi’s as they unlearn their old-name patterns and learn to live with their new names.

It’s a long process.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

It’s often messy.

It can be discouraging.

But each step of growth, each milestone of transformation, is a miracle to celebrate.

A fraudulent vocation

I recently attended a pastors retreat where the speaker stated, “Ours is a fraudulent vocation.”

That was eye-popping statement. If the speaker didn’t have my attention before, he certainly had me now.

He went on to explain that our fraudulent vocation is rooted in the fact that vocational ministry is always in crisis. We constantly feel the friction of lack of resources, not enough dependable leaders, and people who struggle with their commitments.

Going deeper, our vocational crisis stems from our faith being based on crises. This is true in a general sense. Christ came to save sinners. That’s crisis enough.

But a deeper level, we pastors know our personal faith is a faith of crises. We know our own sin (hopefully we are honest about that). We know our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. We know our inadequacies when it comes to leadership.

I spent substantial portions of my first pastorate fearing people would eventually figure out I was a fraud–that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I wasn’t trying to deceive people by covering up some heinous sin. Rather I was keenly aware I didn’t know how to fix the problems and challenges presented to me in pastoral ministry.

  • I had no magical answers that would take away the pain of a couple’s deteriorating marriage.
  • I didn’t have any  proven formulas to give parents dealing with rebellious kids.
  • As much as I prayed, I never found effective strategies to reach un-churched people in our community, most of whom had zero interest in our catchy vision statement or ministry slogan.
  • While counseling and encouraging parishioners to live victorious Christian lives, I found I struggled with a lot of the same temptations and challenges as they. I experienced relapses  my thought-life, struggled with basing my sense of worth by my bank account, and had teenage children who bucked my authority and slept through church.

The reality of the fraudulent vocation still nips at my heels. My anxiety surrounding my inadequacy spikes at times.

I am learning to accept that this is the norm, both of ministry vocation and the Christian life in general. Author Jamie Blaine observes, “What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes. We’re all struggling and faking it somewhere along the way, praying no one finds out how messed up we truly are.”

Furthermore, this is a tenet of New Testament faith. Jesus was clear that he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. Paul wasn’t shy in acknowledging that he was chief among sinners. It’s in our weakness that God’s grace and power are at their strongest.

I wonder how much I believe this.

I catch myself measuring my value, worth and meritocracy on how well I behave–how good of a job I do in getting my act together. I grade my pastoral legitimacy on how creatively hip my messages are and how seamless my organizational skills appear.

I find myself resisting my need to rely on grace. While Paul’s words, “I will boast about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” inspire me, as does Henri Nouwen’s phrase “wounded healer,” actually being weak and wounded chafes my ego.

Perhaps that’s the real fraud of how we do our Christian life in general, and ministry in particular.

When nothing is happening

I love the movie, Boyhood. It chronicles the life of Mason as he grows from early childhood to entering college.

The movie was filmed over a 12-year span, with all the same actors. We literally watch each character grow and age as the story unfolds on the screen.

Truly a brilliant production.

It’s a movie where nothing happens, yet everything happens.

The film serves as a metaphor of pastoral ministry.

Most of the models of ministry I was exposed to in my formative years were event-oriented. Sunday worship services were the main event, a production.

The expectation (translated “pressure”) focused on producing measurable and quantifiable results. The more immediate and dramatic, the better. How many attended, how many were saved, how many came to the altar, how high on the excitement scale did we reach.

All that and do it again next week. Only better.

My Bible college paraded those who succeeded in this model. They spoke in our chapel services. Their churches, which apparently never had a boring service, were our models. We applauded their glowing reports of conversions and miracles. We were groomed to covet and compete for their success.

The message, both overt and covert, was clear–if you weren’t producing results, you were missing God and not filled with the Spirit. The real message: you were a failure.

It didn’t take long in ministry to face the angst that such models create.

Unlike the success models, hardly anyone responded to altar calls. People stared blankly during worship. Some yawned and dozed during the sermon.

It rocked my confidence and made me question my calling. Could I make the cut? I had my fair share of critics asking the same.

Over time, my ministry paradigm began to shift. As I continued to pastor the congregation, I noticed people (me included) gradually begin to reflect the work of Christ in their lives.

I’ve learned that pastoral ministry is much more a process than a production. It’s the day-in-day-out presence with people as they walk their journey of life and faith.

Most of it is rather mundane.

But it’s in the consistent work of ministry–praying, worshiping, preaching/teaching, sharing the sacraments, counseling and guiding, being present in times of celebration and grief, developing friendship–that spiritual formation takes shape. The Holy Spirit is faithful to develop enduring disciples.

Like Boyhood, pastoral ministry often feels like nothing is happening, yet everything is happening.

Eugene Peterson reminds us what one of his mentors taught him, “A lot is going on when you don’t think anything is going on.”


Stepping back in

After a 7 year hiatus, I’ve stepped back into the role of senior pastor. My wife and I planted a church in 1988, and I pastored it for 20 years. Like all church plants and pastoral tenures, we experienced ups and downs, setbacks and celebrations.

We weathered the strains of that work, and with much prayer and thought I stepped out of that pastorate to pursue other ministry expressions.

The next several years witnessed unfulfilled dreams, failures and a general crisis of faith. I tasted plenty of confusion, shame, self-doubt and God-doubt.

But I also experienced loads of grace.

Interesting how the two often coincide.

Over the last year-and-a-half, a growing conviction began developing in my heart of hearts. I’m wired for pastoral work. I’ve always known it, but for a variety of reasons struggled to own it.

With a host of self-doubts still whispering in the far corners of my soul, I decided to lean into faith and own my calling. Graciously, I was extended the call to pastor the church my family has been involved in throughout my journey of the last seven years.

Yesterday was my first day back in the saddle of preaching/teaching on a regular basis.

On the way to church, my wife asked me how I was doing.

“I’m nervous.”

“Why?” she asked.

I paused, then decided to name my anxiety.

“I hope they like me.”

I’m sure that, somewhere, behind that anxiety is the anxiety of having the audacity to trust the grace of God.

I’m determined to do so.

I’m stepping back in.

The “both/and” of ministry

I had the privilege this week to present to a group of leaders of a campus ministry. The room was full of up-and-coming talented leaders in their 20’s and 30’s. There were a few of us in our 40’s and 50’s.

The room was full of amazing stories of people who’ve been radically changed by Jesus and who are passionate about using their talents to reach others. I was humbled.

My assignment was to speak about how we manage our “self” in ministry. I covered a variety of issues, ranging from what makes a “self” and how our sense of self impacts others. I explored the importance of learning to recognize and work with the “stuff” of our lives that often surfaces and complicates how our “self” interacts with other “selves” when doing this thing called “ministry.”

I invited these leaders to consider the areas of their lives that might hamstring their ministries. I wasn’t speaking about obvious sin.

My experience teaches me that what most often snags us are those events in life that give us negative, false messages that become our definitions of self. Family of origin patterns, trauma, disappointments and failures carry with them messages that determine what we believe to be true about us. We then live and minister out of those assumptions.

Baxter Kruger calls these beliefs the “I am nots.” They include:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’m not worthy.
  • I’m not adequate.
  • I’m not loved.
  • I’m not loveable.
  • I’m not safe or secure.

These beliefs penetrate and season all aspects of life. Our task is to acknowledge their presence and recognize how they influence the way we relate to others. Failing to do so creates problematic and self-defeating patterns in our ministry.

Unhealed wounds tend to wound others.

While inviting Jesus to work in these areas brings change and hope, I pointed out that some of these beliefs can stick around and challenge us throughout our lifetime. Some of the 20-somethings found this a bit disturbing.

Doesn’t Jesus deliver us from all these self-limiting issues?

Won’t their continued presence keep us from being able to minister effectively?

Paul’s experience indicates that the answer to both questions is “no.”

Like so many areas of life, it’s not an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and.”

Here’s what Paul says about doing ministry with our weaknesses:

“Even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God . . . to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)


Self-management and leadership

In the 30-plus years I’ve been involved in ministry, I’ve heard a lot about what makes a good leader. Vision, passion, enthusiasm, speaking and organizational skills are standard fare in the discussion.

More and more, however, attention is being focused on emotional intelligence. Abundant research indicates that EI determines leadership effectiveness and success more than intellectual and technical skills.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to regulate emotionality in stressful situations and maintain interpersonal relationships. Daniel Goleman identifies four competencies of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skill.

It seems self-management is particularly important for ministry leaders.

Self-management encompasses more skills than I can cover in this blog. It’s the ability to regulate and control one’s emotions effectively.

Goleman states, “Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, frees us from being prisoners of our feelings. People engaged in such a conversation feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

It’s importance is emphasized in the adage, “The primary task of a leader is to manage him/herself, over managing others.”

Self-management is particularly crucial in times of upset, whether in times of heightened stress and anxiety, sadness or anger. Effective leaders have the capacity to calm themselves in such occasions, a process known as self-soothing.

Self-soothing allows the leader to maintain a calm, non-anxious, non-reactive and well-defined position in the heat of the moment. This empowers them to respond rather than react, to address the situation with their best and clearest thinking.

Effectively calming oneself in challenging circumstances is a developmental task introduced early in life. It’s why we introduce pacifiers to babies. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that adults, including ministry leaders, have mastered it.

The importance of self-management becomes obvious when:

  • The church board resolutely opposes and resists the pastor’s proposed ministry plans.
  • Group members become critical of the leader. The more viscous and unfair the criticism, the more need for self-management.
  • A crisis explodes on the scene–a fire destroys the facility, a death of a prominent member, a leader has a moral fall.

As the leader focuses on managing her/himself and practices self-soothing, it lowers the collective level of anxiety. Trust, security and respect prevail. As the leader practices self-management, others will have the space to follow suit.

Jason Mraz sings about self-management in his song, Details in the Fabric:

Calm down
Deep breaths
And get yourself dressed instead
Of running around
And pulling on your threads
And breaking yourself up

If it’s a broken part, replace it
If it’s a broken arm, then brace it
If it’s a broken heart, then face it

And hold your own
Know your name
And go your own way
Hold your own
Know your name
And go your own way

Earthen vessels

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

So writes Paul as he describes the apparent contradictions that he discovered in ministry. He was weak, afflicted, perplexed, struck down, and acutely identified with the dying of Jesus (see the following verses). Life wasn’t go so well.

Yet, the message he preached was having an amazing impact on his hearers. Astounding blessings and breakthroughs were taking place in their lives–all while he wrestled with pain, setbacks and discouragement.

Such is the paradox of ministry.

I had a taste of that this past Sunday. I had the privilege to minister the word in the church I serve as a pastoral caregiver.

I certainly didn’t feel on my A-game. The days leading into Sunday were marked by confusion about my sense of calling and belonging in this thing called church. My doubts seemed locked onto the goal of convincing me I was making no impact and had no future.

Unlike Paul, I was perplexed AND despairing (see v. 8).

My assigned topic was the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4). I was tempted to see it as a waste of the congregation’s time. I held little expectation as I stepped in front of them.

But God seemed to show up.

After the service, several caught me on the way out and reported that the message was quite helpful. It offered them a fresh and useful perspective on Jesus’ temptations.

That was nice. I appreciated the kind feedback.

But later that evening I received this text from our senior pastor:

“A guy from church met with me tonight. He’d been trying to do church and get past his past on his own. The more he contemplated the message this morning the more he realized how his past wounds and failures were ‘kicking his ***’ as he put it. Tonight we prayed that God would forgive his past and show him how to forgive those who have hurt him. And to give him eternal life.”

I was blown away. I blinked back tears as I read the text to my wife.

I don’t understand the ways of God.

More assorted thoughts

This is a continuation of some of the ideas presented at the School of Theology my wife and I attended.

  • The bottom is the first place that many find a place to stand.
  • Nothing can separate us from the love of God. We imagine that there are things and circumstances and sin that separate us from the love of God. But those are just imaginations. They aren’t true.
  • When you see the Father, Son and Spirit interact with each other in deep love, you are seeing the deepest essence of who God is. There is no hidden agenda or attribute of God lurking behind the surface or in the shadows.
  • The three exegetical rules that govern many of us in the ministry are: 1) Job security, 2) Peer recognition, and 3) Homeostasis.
  • If we really know the character of the Father, then we will run to Him with open arms and beg him, “Please judge me to the core.” The fire is for us, not against us.
  • We often look for leaders who are good at being on the platform, while Jesus asks us to be at the table.
  • If you don’t trust God, you have to trust systems.
  • Are you smoking the brand you’re selling?
  • I don’t care if those “outside” the faith hate us. I care that they know we love them.
  • When we are suffering we find creativity. Creative suffering happens when we look for God in the midst of suffering. This is our push-back.
  • We need to move beyond inquisition to inquisitiveness.
  • On the road to Emmaus, the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus and know he was the Messiah until Jesus broke bread with them. This speaks to the importance of an apologetics of relationship.

It was truly a rich week.

Perspective on being “good enough”

Hal Runkel, in his excellent resource on parenting Scream Free Parenting, shares the following perspective:

“The most important thing she’d learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”   -Jill Churchill, O Magazine, May 2003

“Every now and again we talk with people who say something along these lines, ‘I get what you’re advocating. I just don’t think I can do it all the time.’ To which I say, welcome to the club. No one can. That’s not what ScreamFree Parenting is all about. If we get caught in the trap of thinking that we have to be perfect in order to be ScreamFree, then we’re missing the whole point.

“The point is to work consciously on growing yourself up, and that’s a process, not a product. Simply put, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. By beating yourself up for not being “perfectly ScreamFree”, you are limiting yourself and what you are capable of. Remember, doing something in the right direction is always better than giving up and doing nothing. Give yourself a break and know that just reading this tip today is “something” and in some small way, both your kids and you will benefit.”

What Hal says about ScreamFree, can be said of pastoring. It’s not about doing it perfectly.

Those who pressure themselves to be perfect tend to be hard to work with, are often angry at their church for not cooperating, beat themselves (and their parishioners) up, and are prone to allow discouragement overwhelm them.

They typically don’t finish well.

Rather than perfection, a much more effective and healthy goal is, as Runkel states, “to work on growing yourself up.” We can be content with being in the process.

What Churchill says about parents can be said of pastors. There is no way to be a perfect pastor. There are a million ways to be a good one.

The relevance of irrelevance

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a conflict resolution training to a group of leaders involved in planting a new church. It was thrilling to hear their vision and feel their passion.

It took me back to my own church planting endeavor in 1988. Idealism ran high, genuineness deep. Our fledgling group was determined to create a church that powerfully impacted our community and beyond.

A few days after doing my workshop for these church-planters, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes:

“In hospitals, where many utter their first cry as well as their last words, ministers are often more tolerated than required. In prisons, where the human desire for liberation and freedom is most painfully felt, a chaplain feels like a guilty bystander whose words hardly move the wardens. In the cities, where children play between buildings and old people die isolated and forgotten, the protests of priests are hardly taken seriously and their demands hang in the air like rhetorical questions. Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors for those who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words change their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”

I should have read Nouwen before starting a church.

But I wouldn’t have believed him back then.

I wouldn’t have understood what he was saying, either.

Looking back over the 20 years I served as pastor of the church I helped plant, I recognize Nouwen’s genius. Many times I tasted the seemingly irrelevance of the message of the Gospel and my church’s ministry.

Paul wasn’t kidding when he said the Gospel is foolishness and ministers are tossed to the scrap heap.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Many of us who pastor (at least it was the case for me) are looking for something to give us significance. We fantasize about having the kind of numbers we read of in Acts. It’s not that we actually care that much for people, but because we believe such results validate who we are and what we do.

None of us want to be irrelevant. We want to be hip. Cutting edge.

As I ponder Nouwen, I think this might be why many of us start new churches. We perceive existing churches to be out of touch, failing to make an impact, irrelevant. For sure, many have lost the pulse of culture.

But I wonder if we aren’t motivated to start new churches as a way to distance ourselves from the embarrassment of being overlooked by society. Our sense of self is too fragile to be included in that number.

A cool, hipster church that preaches the “real Gospel” is just what the doctor orders.

I was pretty convinced we were such a church when we got started in the late 80’s. We were “doing it right.” Once pagan, unchurched folks heard about us, they’d be knocking our door down.

The bubble began bursting within the first year of our existence. I ran into one such unchurched pagan in our neighborhood convenience store. I happened to know he was struggling in his marriage  (his wife had told me she wasn’t happy with how things were going).

I smugly invited him to our next service, assuming he’d eagerly respond. He would soon realize my incredibly generous offer to fix him.

Instead, he matter-of-factly stated loud enough for everyone in the store to hear, “No. I’m not interested in your church. Why would I want to go there?”

Being irrelevant, unimportant and overlooked is the lot of pastoral ministry. But that’s okay. It’s by our Master’s design.

It’s in the foolishness, pain, suffering, rejection, irrelevance, and loneliness that Jesus shows up. Salvation and healing come incognito. Redemption and restoration manifest through our nothingness.

It’s the way of Jesus.

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