Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Pastoral leadership”

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.”


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

Leading with temptations

In preparing for a message on the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4), I came across Phil Yancey’s observation in The Jesus I Never Knew. Yancey notes that Jesus was alone during his stay in the wilderness. There were no eyewitnesses.

So how did Matthew (and Luke) gain access to the recorded conversation between Jesus and Satan?

Apparently Jesus disclosed the experience to his disciples.

This is a remarkable display of transparency on Jesus’ part. Here is the God-man, Lord of the universe, talking about  his most intimate, vulnerable struggles with his followers.

Who among us are comfortable to talk about our temptation with others even in the most general terms. When was the last time you heard anything remotely similar at a church service?

“Please pray for me. I am really being tempted with strong physical appetites, to show off my special rank in God’s kingdom, and the lust for power and control over the whole world.”

I for one can’t remember such a confession. I’m sure I’ve never heard a pastor or church leader make such disclosures.

For Jesus to admit he was tempted in these areas demonstrates extraordinary courage and unconventional leadership. He apparently was comfortable enough in his own skin and in his relationship with his Father to humbly and honestly and freely talk of his unique battles for his soul.

This opens up all kinds of possible conversations.

Specifically, what are the lessons and considerations concerning leadership?

  • What do we do as leaders and pastors with our temptations?
  • How open should we be in discussing them?
  • With whom?
  • What are the potential consequences and outcomes of such transparency?
  • What are the consequences and outcomes of never discussing our temptations?

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.

Miscellaneous thoughts

Have a few miscellaneous thoughts floating around. Here goes:
1. I’ve been pondering the fact that the Bible was written to communities of believers. The original recipients of the Scripture heard it as a community, interpreted it as a community, and made application as a community. Yet I’m a product of a culture that elevates the individual and personal. I typically read the Bible alone, attempting to find the meaning for me, and figuring out how I’m going to apply it.  I don’t know that this is all bad, but I do question my approach. I mean, if the Bible were written for a community, what am I missing when I read and process it as an individual? I’ve wondered how I can shift to a more communal approach to the reading and understanding of Scripture.  In that musing, it dawned on me that maybe a good (and obvious) start is to read it in and with a community. We don’t do this very much. We evangelicals might be most guilty of this. For all our talk of reverence of the Bible, esteeming it as the “Word of God,” many (most?) of our churches spend very little time actually reading the Bible as part of our church services. Our liturgy seldom includes public reading and responding to Bible passages. What reference that is given is usually relegated to a verse or two sprinkled throughout the pastor’s sermon. Even then, Scripture is used to support what the pastor is saying, more so than the pastor reflecting on what the Bible is saying. The Bible is dissected into fragments and phrases, leaving it very vulnerable to forced meaning. It seems to me that to truly respect and honor the Scripture as God’s Word, we need to read whole passages and let the message come to us, allowing it to shape and form us. This seems to be preferred over the popular approach of us speaking and forcing the Bible (and only chosen portions at that) to support what we already want to say.

2. I’ve set in a couple of meetings recently where church leaders expressed their frustration over the commitment and involvement level of the congregation. Most of the frustration revolves around tying to get people to volunteer for the positions of lay ministry needed to carry on the structure of the church. Church people are as affected by consumerism as the rest of our population. Plus they stretch themselves to the limit with work demands and involving their kids in as many extracurricular activities (mostly sports) as they can. It’s the American way. The result is that folks don’t value putting energy into old paradigms of church structures. I came out of these meetings feeling depressed and discouraged. This brings to mind Jesus’ teaching about trying to put new wine into old wine skins. I came away doubting if we’ll ever be able to effectively motivate people to fill these positions. I have a hunch we church leaders and the congregations will be perpetually frustrated if we keep trying to do so. Perhaps we need to find new structures that are culturally relevant. I’m not sure what that looks like, and I wish I were smart enough to figure it out.

3. I conducted a workshop for pastors and church leaders this past week on conflict resolution. A wonderful group gathered to discuss this important topic. The shared wisdom was truly enriching. Here is a synopsis of my workshop and a few pictures to go along with. If you’re interested in me presenting it to your church, leadership team or group, let me know.


Conflict is inevitable in church life, whether in the congregation, among the leadership, or both. Many tips and techniques have been developed to help us resolve conflict effectively. However, in the heat of the conflict when emotions are elevated, tips and techniques seem to go out the window. We barely remember what they are, much less how to follow them. This seminar focuses on a more fundamental and useful arena in conflict resolution—effective self-management of emotionality. Only when we maintain a calm, non-reactive and well-defined posture during conflict, can we provide real leadership during times of conflict. The presentation includes interactive learning activities as well as lecture.

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.

Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Here is an article of mine on marriage and ministry that was recently published in the Gateway District (Foursquare) newsletter.

Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Marital Stress

Marriage and ministry—the numbers aren’t exactly encouraging.

  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse and that ministry has a negative effect on their marriage.
  • 33% say that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • More than half of ministers’ wives say the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

These statistics, gleaned from research by The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Maranatha Life, speak to the challenges of the pastor’s marriage.

While lay people may be surprised by the numbers, I doubt those of us involved in ministry are. While the church is idealized as being the body of Christ, congregational life can be toxic for the pastor’s marriage.

Maintaining an effective marital relationship is difficult enough. Adding the stressors of pastoral work can make it overwhelming.

When seeking solutions to the troublesome combination of ministry and marriage, we often misplace the focus of our energies. We tend to blame our church, difficult congregants, or the nature of the ministry profession. Misdirection can sound like:

  • “If only church members would stop encroaching on our family time, our spouse would quit nagging us about our priorities, and we would quit arguing.”
  • “Ministry demands make it so we never get to “clock-off.” If we could just get a different job, then we could actually have a vacation like normal couples do.”
  • “If that council member would just stop criticizing our every decision, we would cease being a grouch at home.”

While these factors contribute to our problems, blaming them won’t help.  Blaming only guarantees we will stay stuck in the problem.

When seeking to improve the ministry-marriage interplay we need to embrace the reciprocal nature of relationships. The other party continues to treat us the way they do because we cooperate with them. We often respond to them in such a way that elicits more of the same treatment—the kind we say we don’t like.

For example, we complain that a council member is a controlling bully. Yet we continue to acquiesce to their demands in an effort to avoid their anger. Our response becomes just as much part of the problem as their behavior.

To bring about change, we must focus on our part of the problem. The only leverage of change we have is to take personal responsibility and begin acting and responding differently.

Early in our pastorate, we had a high-maintenance couple who lived crisis-to-crisis. Whenever a predicament arose they would call us, expecting us to drop everything and come to their rescue.

We worked hard to live up to their expectations. We were constantly at their house mediating their latest conflict. We nearly always left them better than we found them. We were their heroes.

Over time their demands began to wear on us. Our private conversations revolved around them. Their stuff became our stuff. It began to affect our own marital interactions.

Slowly we began to realize this couple was not our problem. Our problem was us. We weren’t strong enough to say “no” to their demands. Our identity and sense of self hinged on being their rescuers.

Once we addressed our contribution to this pattern, we began to respond to them more appropriately. We learned to set boundaries and to not cave to their expectations. The ministry became less invasive to our marriage, and our marital happiness increased.

To effectively improve our marriages in the midst of ministry pressures, we will benefit from asking ourselves new kinds of questions:

  • Why does this situation impact our marriage negatively while others don’t?
  • What underlying insecurities, anxieties and unresolved problems does this situation stir up in our personal lives and in our marriage relationship?
  • Does this parishioner or church situation remind either one of us of family of origin issues that are painfully familiar?
  • How have we taught our church people to treat us when they are in this situation? How have we cooperated with them in this interaction pattern?
  • Do we know other ministry couples who have faced similar church problems and yet they seem to thrive in their marriage? What are they doing that we can learn from?

Such a shift toward self-management is an important first step in creating desired change.

Jeff King

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