Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Pastoral leadership”

How Walmart Ruined Church, by Ryan Mahoney

I asked my close friend, Ryan Mahoney, if I could post a recent article he wrote on thegoodenoughpastor. Ryan is on the pastoral staff at First Covenant Church in Spokane, WA. He interned with our church last summer, and is a recent grad of North Park Seminary. He is simply an awesome young man. And brilliant. Check out his blog at

Here are his thoughts on franchising the church:

As the phone conversation ended I was left with an unsettling feeling in my stomach. I had just been in a conversation with a person from a local mega church about possibly helping out with a function at another church. It was during this conversation that I realized we had completely different ideas about church. For them, putting money in the plate for special causes and signing up to help at the church’s annual camp was enough.

As I pointed out that only a handful of people with a miniscule time commitment could make a big difference in a local neighborhood, they again pointed to the work they were doing at their church.

 It was as if the mega church had become a cure all. Simply attending and supporting would fill a person’s quota for doing good work, and anything outside of that church or their ministries was of no concern.

 What is shocking to me is that large churches are planting campuses and expanding bringing in more and more money and people, meanwhile little struggling churches in rough neighborhoods doing incredible work cannot pay to keep the lights on, and the mega churches and their people are oblivious to the world around them.


I have changed names dates and places…to protect the guilty.

 These are the facts:

 I currently work at a church that is one third homeless. We have about 80 people on a Sunday. Every month we lose a few thousand dollars (which means it costs more to have one fulltime pastor, an intern, and a part time office worker that actually works in exchange for studio space rental). There is a ministry at our church that feeds 150 or so homeless people every Sunday that is funded entirely by outside funding (i.e. private donors outside the church).

 We are “revitalizing.” This means that our church was on its last leg for a long time, but we’re hopeful that it can be turned around. We actually believe that a community of people that deeply believe that Jesus is Lord should make a difference in one of the poorest neighborhoods in my town. We actually believe that meeting together regularly to worship and read scripture and serve the poor, drug addicted, child molesters, sex offenders, and homeless in our midst is actually a good thing.

These are more facts:

 Just across town from our church is another struggling church. This church is also “revitalizing” (see above). At this church the urban gentrification has forced poor families to move into the neighborhood. As this cultural shift has happened a number of issues have emerged in the neighborhood. On several occasions the pastor of this church has had to pick up burned squares of tin foil left behind by meth and crack users that use on church property.

This church has chosen to reach out to their neighbors. They now serve a meal for anyone in their neighborhood. They have reached out to and have regular contact with drug users and dealers.

This summer this church is putting on a vacation bible school. Since they have even fewer people than our church and about as much money (read: none) they will be using VBS material from a few years ago that has been through a few churches before it came to them. Last year they did not have much time to plan or promote their VBS and they had 60 neighborhood kids. This year they are expecting at least a hundred, but because they are a small church they are worried they will not have enough people to handle the number of kids that will come.

 The questions these kids face on a daily basis are: will there be food to eat? Which route to school or the park will take me past the fewest drug houses? THESE ARE KIDS!!!

Now, the obvious question: how has Walmart ruined church?

Not far from both of the aforementioned churches are several mega churches. These churches have thousands of people and millions (that’s right millions of dollars) and more staff than they know what to do with.

These churches have no presence amongst the poor. One is located within spitting distance of a prison and has no prison ministry. These churches often brag about the large amounts of funds they are able to collect for various causes.

Are these churches members our cities homeless coalition? No.

Do any of the homeless people our church serves know who they are? No.

How many other church campuses* have these churches planted? Several.

It is at this point that I think it is prudent to point out that the church I work has to rely on outside funding to pay the bills. Some of that outside funding comes from a gentlemen who sells alcoholic drink mixes to bars and some strip clubs. An alcohol supplier that sells to strip blubs has heard about the work a church in another state are doing and are compelled to give what little money they have (we iron out the wrinkles) to help poor and impoverished people they may never meet.

These two churches have received little or no help or aid from any of the so-called mega churches listed above.

This raises the obvious questions: how exactly has Walmart ruined church?

Walmart has one thing going for it, much like McDonalds: brand loyalty. There is comfort in the name. Americans in other countries feel safe and get excited about eating McDonalds after days or weeks of eating “foreign” food. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that, I would argue, both Walmart and McDonalds are the lowest denominator of American culture.

This cultural dependence on mega corporations have made their way toAmerica’s favorite knock off producer: the church. They have come to fruition in the form of the “mega church.”

It is a large faceless organization that provides a product (worship) at a consistent (even if it is consistently awful) quality for a reasonable rate (often little or no commitment). It is the perfect commodification of the sacred and the profound.

The most beautiful, mysterious, life and world transforming truths have been reduced to a drug that mega churches can offer once a week. You go. You know no one, you don’t have to commit, you don’t have to change or be challenged. You get what you came for, maybe put a dollar or two in the plate (y’know just reasonable compensation for a mediocre show), and you are out.

AND when your particular church is deemed “successful” enough, (you know what time it is) it’s time to franchise. Never mind getting serious about the good work going on all around you. It’s time to spread the brand name and make merchandise: t-shirts, bags, books, pamphlets, VBS material. It is also time to upgrade: better sound system, better screens, hipper clothes for pastors, more cushioning for seats.

It’s a total world take over.

What is so fascinating about this phenomenon is that it makes life worse for everyone.

The illusion becomes that God blesses through people and money. Since God blesses in this way mega churches are the most blessed. Which means that it is entirely ok that churches…like the ones listed above…cannot keep the lights on.

The illusion goes further, because if God is only at the mega church, then God is not anywhere else. Church attenders interpret this fallacy as a license not to look around to see the needs of people outside the church or one of its ministries.

It’s inoculation.

Jesus, that’s the guy that started this whole church thing, started a revolution and ascended to the throne of the Universe with 12 people and no money. He healed and taught in small towns in an occupied territory in theRoman Empire.

Mega churches inoculate people into thinking that they are powerless outside the mega church and the money they give to it.

The final illusion is that the mega church is what everyone should be striving for.

At the VBS mentioned above it would take 30 people to change the lives of 100 at risk kids. 30 people (I’ve crunched the numbers) that’s 1/6 of 1% of the mega church’s regular attendance.


At a local bar I sat down to get my customary PBR (that’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, I only drink the best!) and I ended up in conversation with a construction worker that attends another large young church.

As he talked about his church he said, a bit uncomfortably, “like, we do all this work in Haiti, which is awesome and I’m totally for that, but our church is in Felony Flats (a nickname for the neighborhood in Spokane right by the prison with a high crime rate), and we don’t even do anything with the prison or the poor folks in our neighborhood…(sips beer)…and I just don’t think that’s right…”

What would happen if we all began to be as honest with the voice inside of us as this construction worker?

What would happen if the inoculation wore off? What would happen if people woke up and saw that there’s plenty of work for them? What if mega churches saw discipleship as being a blessing right where they are with the churches already in existence? What would happen if we saw worship not as a product but a mysterious beautiful way of encountering God?

I believe it can happen. I believe that the Jesus movement will not be stopped no matter how hard people try.

Jesus is Lord.

The Tomb is Empty.

Is there a way to find enough confidence in the gospel announcement that we can lay aside insecurity, jealousy, and the imperial patterns of this world and worked together instead of against each other?

Would it be possible to find 30 people to work at a lowly VBS?

*A church campus is different from a church. It is a “satellite” location where a sermon and presumably worship are broadcast from a main location to another location. The assumption is that if the product (insert celebrity pastor and or musician) is the main draw and no other human being on earth could possibly be a substitute, and it would be a good use of God’s money to build buildings and fancy projection and broadcast equipment to spread the personality cult…I mean church.

I just want to be clear on this point: hundreds, if not thousands of people will gather at a particular time and a particular place to watch a video…not a live human being…talk for 30-40 minutes. This to me is the equivalent of showing a home movie to 10,000 people, or watching a bootlegged movie filmed with a cam-corder.

What is this “Good Enough Pastor” schtick?

The concept, “Good Enough Pastor,” incorporates several ideas and applications. I adapted the phrase from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott was an influential figure in the development of object relations theory.

In psychodynamic theory, focus is placed on the role of mothers in the developing psyche of a child. Object relations theory looks at this relationship between mother and child, and the developmental need for the child and mother to differentiate from each other.

One of the difficulties that occurs in this process is when a mother over-identifies with the child and assume too much responsibility for the child’s welfare. A couple of problems can result. One, the pressure of perfectionism. The mother believes that the child’s well-being and her own sense of self demands that she be a perfect mother. The belief that one must be perfect is fraught will all sorts of conflicting tensions and destructive assumptions. Two, the mother can take on too much responsibility and over-function on behalf of the child. The mother is not able to allow her child to go through normal struggles, pain and failure necessary for autonomy and growth. In her effort to protect and help, she actually ends up stunting growth and creating that which she fears most–anger, resentment and rejection from her child.

Winnicott’s concept captures the tension of good mothering. She strives to provide adequate nurture and care, at the same time refrains from over-functioning. She is dependable, responsive, protective, supportive and helpful. Yet she doesn’t do everything for the child and doesn’t shield the child from all challenges and pain.

Further, the mother is released from the unrealistic demands of perfectionism. She is free to embrace her own humanity. She no longer has to be perfect, but can relax with being “good enough.” Ironically, her effectiveness as a mother increases as she lets go of her striving for perfection.

The implications and applications for pastors are many. I believe they are also liberating. Too often pastors labor under the unforgiving pressure to be perfect. Ministry tends to attract perfectionists. Churches and denominations overtly and covertly demand perfection. For all our rhetoric about grace, our church system is often more performance-driven and shame-based than we like to admit.

Pastors often over-function with their congregations. They assume more responsibility for their flock than is reasonable and healthy. This can be self-driven, and congregations often demand it. It’s a lethal combination. Pastor and congregation both suffer in the end.

So my question: “What would happen if we could relax and shift our focus and goal to be the ‘good enough’ pastor? What does the good enough pastor look like? How would this change the way we do ministry? How would this change the pastor-congregation relationship?”

A Leadership Paradox

I’ve been contemplating a return to vocational ministry over the last year. I can’t get away from the reality that my heart has a pastoral bent. I’m not clear yet what shape that may take–senior, lead or solo pastor, or a staff position providing pastoral care–but I’m concluding it’s how I’m wired. I would like to give my remaining productive days to this calling.

I’ve discovered a couple of things in my search. One, there appears to be an age prejudice running through the church world. I get the impression that many hiring boards assume that if  you are over 35 or 40, you are out of touch, out of energy, and of no real use to their pursuits in building successful church organizations.

I find this prejudice confusing. As a nearly 53-year-old, seasoned and experienced leader, I believe I have more to offer now than I ever have.

Second, I’ve recently been focusing my Scripture study and meditation on Ephesians. In it, Paul lays out an incredibly deep and complex theological basis for the Christian experience in the first three chapters. In 4:1, he launches into his application. He expounds on what authentic Christian living looks like.

What’s the first quality he highlights? Humility and gentleness.


Those attributes are seldom, if ever, spoken of in the Christian formation culture I’ve been a part of. When they are, they tend to be minimized at best, sometimes scorned as weakness. Yet Paul places them first, as if they are primary character traits foundational to living the life he envisions for Christ followers.

I’ve been working on merging these two discoveries. What would it be like if we could somehow make humility and gentleness be the primary criteria in choosing our church leaders?

What if instead of asking prospective pastoral staff to list their accomplishments and detail their doctrinal positions, hiring committees first and foremost insisted that candidates be humble and gentle?

What would churches look like if their pastors were known more for their humility and gentleness than their oratory skills and charismatic leadership and their success in accomplishing goals?

I find that I’m much more equipped to appreciate and embrace humility and gentleness in my 50’s, than I was in my 30’s and 40’s. I suspect that this is generally true for most of us. Age and experience certainly are an advantage in developing these qualities. It’s not a guarantee, but certainly possible. But I fear that there’s a good chunk of American church culture willing to dismiss much needed mature leadership because of age prejudice.

Confirmation Bias: How it Impacts What I Think I Know

Recently I was listening to a lecture on how we make decisions. The speaker identified several decision-making traps that take us down the road of poor decision making that can prove to be catastrophic.

One trap in particular piqued my curiosity. It’s a cognitive process known as “confirmation bias.” This refers to our “tendency to gather and rely on information that confirms our existing views and to avoid or downplay information that disconfirms our preexisting hypothesis” (Michael Roberto, Bryant University).

It causes us to gather or remember information selectively. Furthermore, we interpret the information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true. Researchers note that this effect is particularly strong for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs.

Confirmation bias has been cited as a contributing factor to a variety of issues ranging from beliefs and laws concerning the death penalty and the events leading to the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. People, including law makers and supposedly unbiased scientists, look at data through a skewed lense. They filter the evidence to confirm what they assume is correct and disregard information that would conflict with their opinions.

Research indicates that we take it even further. We interpret data, information and arguments to fit what we want to be true, regardless of objective observations to the contrary. It was found that NASA officials wanted to believe the Columbia was in safe operating order to the point they disregarded data that pointed to real danger.

It seems to me that confirmation bias is well entrenched in the church and theology worlds as well. Note how we continually buy books that we are certain will confirm what we already believe. We keep going to hear speakers who affirm what we assume to be true.

We can pretty well predict what these authors and speakers are going to say ahead of time. We like it this way. It creates emotional and psychological safety nets for us.

This isn’t all bad, I’m sure. I know I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone. But it does raise questions for me in how we do church leadership, Bible interpretation and theology. If the experts are right in saying confirmation bias is particularly strong  for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs, it’s safe to assume it runs wild in the Christian community. 

Take how we manage church conflict. Left unchecked confirmation bias will distort the “facts” that are presented by both sides. We can quickly react and make decisions out of that distortion, all the while convinced we are “right.” Afterall, we have the “facts” right in front of us.

The more we can slow the process down and become aware of our own biases, emotionally held positions, and our need to self-protect, the more objective we can be.  The more open we are to genuinely consider the other side, the less we will be governed by confirmation bias. A good adage is to strive to be calm, nonreactive and self-aware in those moments.

We also need to hold the tendency of confirmation bias in one hand while we interpret our Bibles, evaluate our doctrine and define our theology with the other. Honesty about our own propensity to allow confirmaiton bias to define our beliefs will go a long way.

I notice a couple of tendencies in this area. One, when we discuss theology, doctrine and Bible interpretation, we tend to lean toward monologue rather than dialogue. In monologue (where I do the talking and I talk at rather than with) I control the direction of conversation. I dictate the ideas and content. It’s my way of ensuring that what I already believe will be reinforced and protectecd.

Dialogue is more difficult. In dialogue, I quiet down and let you share your perspective and define your position. I stay open and consider the validity of your views. I weigh them and give them respectful, careful consideration. Dialogue is risky because I choose to allow you to influence me. I may conclude that my emotionally held beliefs aren’t as accurate as I thought (and wished) they were.

How many Christian conversations are more two people (or two factions, two churches, two theological traditions) trying to “out-monologue” each other rather than true dialogue? How does that cost us in terms of valuing each other, valuing relationships, and actually learning and growing?

A second tendency is that we become rigid in our theology, doctrine and Biblical interpretation. We approach the Scripture with our theology and exegesis already established. We force our meaning upon the text and make it agree with us.

Bradley Jursak speakes to this: “Dare we let Scripture say what it says without reinterpreting what ‘it really means’ into the margins of our Study Bibles?” 

We all make our own canon in some manner. We hold to our predisposed interpretations over what the text may actually say. Again, the more honest and self-aware we are of our propensity to do this, the better we can manage it.

As I close, I can’t help but wonder: 1) How my confirmation bias has influenced what I just wrote? and, 2) How is your confirmation bias influencing how you’re reading this blog?

Lessons from a Tragic Leader

The other day, a pastor of a Florida “mega-church” was found dead in his hotel room in New York. Investigators found a packet of white powder inside his pocket. While toxicology reports won’t be in for a while, the signs point to the unfortunate possibility that his death was drug-related.

The pastor was in his early 40’s. While I don’t consider myself old, I do consider early 40’s young. Especially to be dying. Tragic.

I regret to say that there would have been a time in my life I would have judged this pastor. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond appearance of drug use and the other issues he’d been involved in. I would have been quick to use the word hypocrisy. Compassion  would have been in short supply.

This situation elicited a much different response. I found myself experiencing two primary emotions. The first was sadness. What a tragedy for a young man’s life to be cut short for any reason, much less under this cloud of suspicion. He leaves behind children, family, and a host of grieving church members. Regardless of whatever vices he wrestled with, he was no doubt a talented, gifted and creative leader.

The second was understanding. Part of me understands, at some small level perhaps, how a man in his position could end up like this. Pastoral leadership is a demanding and often lonely world. Amplify this by the mega-church status his congregation earned. He no doubt was forced to be a celebrity, a superstar, a hero. Throw in the financial pressures such mega-status involves, the favors and entitlements that accompany affluence, the temptations and perks that follow along being surrounded by folks who mix friendship with chicanery—well you have a pretty lethal mix. My hunch is that he could ill-afford to be human. It makes sense how this guy ended up where he did.

Every pastor can relate to this world to some degree. Even in a small church (perhaps especially in a small church?) the demands can be unrealistic and suffocating. Many a pastor have fantasized about driving away and calculating how far they can get before anyone knows they’re gone. I remember occasions when I secretly envied guys who had heart attacks. At least they had a legitimate reason to quit and be free from the demands.

Congregations often demand a Messiah. While giving lip-service to Jesus the suffering servant, many aren’t any more interested in that kind of Messiah than first century Judaism was. Congregations expect a super-hero–someone with all the right answers, correct political views, unfaltering faith, powerful and charismatic leadership, infallible doctrine, and untouched by sin or personality faults. They lust for three B’s of church growth that measure success: Buildings, Bucks and Bottoms in the pews. They clamor for lots of all three.

What’s a pastor to do? Many of us fall in line. We are seduced by the fantasy that we can be the one who can foot the bill. We busy ourselves concocting the formulas and methods that promise to deliver, and then we sell our soul trying to deliver the goods. Our greed and pride eagerly embraces the idol of success. We want to be the very type of Messiah Jesus had no interest in being.

The result is often some form of being found dead, all alone, with a pocket full of white powder. Such a value system is toxic. It kills relationships, personal integrity, ministry, joy, strength, perspective, and sometimes, literally, people.

It leads to isolation. We don’t believe we can trust anyone with our real selves–our struggles, weaknesses, failures, doubts. We can’t afford to associate with the lowly, to get our hands dirty with humanity. Often times people quit wanting to be around us because we’re moody, arrogant, edgy, and insecure.

The white powder speaks of our secret life. Living in such a system forces us to drive our sin, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness underground. We bury our stuff. But it’s still there; it doesn’t go away. We end up living two lives–the public life of super-Christian hero, and our private world of sin, habits and vices. We work hard to keep them separate. We go to great lengths to hide our private life. We’re careful to only act out when we’re out of town. We keep the evidence safely locked in our closet. But in the end, one way or the other, our container of white powder is exposed. It won’t stay hidden forever.

How much wiser and better we would be to pursue the good enough pastor model. This concept strives to create a different system, one where it’s the norm to embrace our humanity and resist the seductive pull toward perfectionism. Such a system allows us to lead as whole beings, a glorious mix of strengths, gifts, successes, failures, struggles and weakness. It embraces grace, which doggedly believes that we are accepted and loved as we are–that we are good enough.


Optimal Level of Tension

Once in a counseling session with a couple, I listened as the wife described her sense of responsibility to care for their child. She and her husband had established what is known as a “child-focused parenting” style. She believed she was responsible to be there for their son at all times. She strove to protect him from all harm, felt compelled to keep him happy, felt guilty when she wasn’t spending her off-work hours with him, and seldom went on dates with her husband because “she should be with our son.” The husband, on his part, echoed much the same sentiment.

Problem was, she could never quite pull off being the perfect mom. She was stressed, discouraged, and quite worried about the future well-being of her son–her concerned stemming on her perceived failure.

I suggested that instead of striving to be a “perfect mom” that she give herself permission to be a “good-enough” mom. My comment nearly triggered a panic attack. “My heart rate just accelerated, and I can hardly breathe when you say that,” she stammered. Nothing like creating a real crisis in the counseling office!

“I can’t settle for ‘good-enough.’ It feels like I’m giving myself permission to slack-off.  I can’t tolerate anything less than perfection.”

I’ve found that when I suggest the concept of the “good-enough pastor” many pastors have a similar reaction. They hear me as lowering the bar of what’s acceptable in terms of effort and suggesting a flippant, careless and lackluster approach to ministry. Thankfully there are more options than either perfectionism and poor effort.

The ‘good-enough’ concept attempts to strike the optimal level of tension between the two extremes. It aims to provide adequate and effective levels of care, attentiveness, responsiveness, and service without tipping the scale to the over-functioning extreme where we are the “d0-all and be-all” for our parishioners.

It recognizes the wisdom of allowing our parishioners to “work out their own salvation,” by allowing them to be responsible for their own actions and decisions. It also trusts both the Holy Spirit and the person to work through difficulties and discomfort without our assuming complete responsibility to shield, soothe and problem solve for them.

As we establish optimal levels of tension we provide appropriate levels of pastoral care without becoming co-dependent. We build capacity in our people as they learn to self-manage and practice appropriate self-care.

As a result, we’ll do a much better job of accomplishing our primary calling: to manage ourselves and focusing on our responsibilities (as opposed to managing others and assuming responsibility for them). We’ll do a much more effective job in modeling a life of faith and surrender in relation to Jesus.

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