Life After Death by Meeting

I have spent a significant portion of my thirty-four years in ministry attending meetings. Sometimes I was in charge of the meeting. At other times, I was a reluctant participant, required to attend by the nature of my work. These experiences prompted me to try and understand the way groups and organizations work. Over the years I have come to few conclusions.

Those who lead the meeting rarely look at it through the same lens as those who attend. I learned this very early in my pastoral ministry.  When I led the church’s board meetings, I focused on the agenda, which often reflected my interests. I wanted the meeting to start quickly and lead to action. In other words, I wanted the board to see things my way and adopt my proposals. They had a very different focus. They usually spent the first thirty minutes or so making small talk, catching up, and talking about work or family. They were not in the same hurry as me. My goals were not nearly as important to them as they were to me. This difference in perspective results in a sort of nearsightedness on the part of those who lead the meeting. Leaders are so focused on their agenda that they often cannot read the people around them. Sometimes they do not want to.

Our interaction with people in meetings is one-sided. One of the things that surprised me most about my experience in meetings was how little others knew about me. Likewise, I found that I tended to relate to people in terms of their role and in some cases their caricature. You might think it would be otherwise. For decades I have spent hours with the same people in meetings. After all this time, I have concluded that they don’t know me at all. I don’t know them either. I know the persona that they project in the meeting, which may be very different from the actual person I pass in the hall. While this is understandable, it is also damaging. Our lack of common knowledge often leads to depersonalization. Bad behavior towards one another in the corporate world, is often justified by saying, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” The same rule holds in Christian organizations as well. Our work suffers when we lose sight of the personal nature of our interactions with one another. These one-sided relationships cause us to see others as negative stereotypes. One is the buffoon, another is the fool. There is the ranter, the suck-up and the tyrant. Depersonalization creates an environment where incivility and bullying flourish.

Meetings are inherently messy. The Gospel of John says that the whole world could not contain all the books that could be written about the things that Jesus did. Something similar might be said about books intended to make meetings go better. Leaders look for ways to make meetings run more smoothly the way the Knights of the Round Table sought after the Holy Grail. Both objectives are pretty much the same. They are beautiful but unattainable ideals. Good meetings, that is to say healthy meetings, are almost always messy. How can they not be when there are competing perspectives and agendas present? The search for an elegant process easily degenerates into patterns of behavior the squash disagreement and stifle creativity. The best thinking is born of serious disagreement that is worked out by people who have learned how to suspend their disbelief long enough to consider other alternatives. In the Christian realm, the quest for smooth meetings also fosters a climate of false civility. This consists of a forced peace which has a low tolerance for disagreement. Because we are unable to disagree well, we are unable to understand one another’s differences. Disagreement is not division. Messy does not have to be mean.

Meetings are necessary. Most of us feel about meetings the way some people do about their in-laws. We would avoid them if we could. But since we can’t, we will endure them as quickly as possible. Meetings get no respect. Books are written about them with titles like Death by Meeting, Meetings Suck, and Bad Meetings Happen to Good People. There is a way to lead without the messy collective deliberation that is inherent in all meetings. It is called tyranny, and it is never good. Churches and organizations are living systems made up of networked individuals. It is the human dimension of these bodies that makes them so messy. Meetings force us to face one another as a community and confront our differences. Most of the time the process is slow, painful, and ambiguous in its result. The messy work of disagreement, deliberation, and movement toward an awkward consensus is essential to the health of every one of these institutions. It is especially important to the church, which is a body of interconnected members. The rule of the church is not “Be sure you get your way.” It is “Have concern for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

In the last thirty-four years, I have only served on one committee which I feel approached this ideal. It was chaired by the associate dean of faculty Billie Sue Thompson (who is now with the Lord) and led a diverse and creative group of colleagues responsible for my school’s first-year experience program. We were a mixture of different personalities from a variety of departments. Some of us were outgoing others reserved.  Some were contemplative, while others were activistic. We occasionally got on one another’s nerves.

One of the first things that Billie Sue did was ask us to map ourselves as a group, to help us understand our collective personality. I learned some remarkable things. I discovered that the things that frustrated me most about my peers were usually the things that added value to our little community. The source of my irritation was their gift. In order to benefit from those gifts, I had first to learn to appreciate them. Before I could appreciate them, I had to know them. Most important of all, I realized that if this was true of them, it must also be true of me.

This understanding did not magically transform all of my meetings. Aggravation was not replaced by a warm huggy glow. My enemies did not magically become my friends. Those who had annoyed me continued to annoy me. But the change of perspective I learned from Billie Sue did help me to see them differently. The same change enabled me to see myself differently too. I learned to value them. In the process, I discovered that I had value too.

Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.

Direction

The other day a woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Not wanting to be rude, I did my best to guide her and then went on my way. But after walking two blocks, I could tell I’d given her bad advice. I realized too late that she was trying to find the intersection of two streets that run parallel to each other. I’d pointed her in a direction that would never lead her to her desired destination because her desired location didn’t exist. For some reason, it never occurred to me to check the map on my phone.

I’ve found that this is often the case when people give directions. Those who tell you what direction to take mean well. Some even know where you’re trying to go. But often their guidance is less than helpful. Sometimes, as in my case the other day, the fault lies with the one providing guidance. They think they know the landscape better than they really do. At other times the problem is with the one who receives the directions. Maybe they don’t understand them. Or perhaps they don’t trust them. Sometimes they just decide to go another way.

When I was a pastor I found that the majority of people who came to me seeking direction in their lives were really looking for permission. They already knew what they were going to do. They just wanted a spiritual authority to tell them it was o.k. If I was unable to do so, they went in search of another counselor. Sometimes they just ignored my advice and did it anyway.

There were also times when I gave bad advice or at least inadequate counsel. I thought I knew the landscape. I tried to provide direction. But sometime later I realized that what I said was too simplistic. This usually happened when I found myself in the same situation and my advice came back to haunt me. What seemed clear and straightforward before now looked like unfamiliar territory.

I suppose at this point I should compare the Bible to the GPS system on your phone. Just take it out and ask it where you’re supposed to be and you’ll never go wrong. But it never seems quite that easy. At least, not when it comes to the finer points of guidance. The big things are simple. At least, they are easy to know. They aren’t always so easy to do. All the big things we are supposed to do (or not do) are pretty much boiled down to ten things. Jesus narrowed them down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But honestly, it’s the street by street navigation that gives us trouble. Many times when we are trying to make decisions, we are looking for an intersection when the choices before us lie on parallel tracks. The decision is not binary. It’s not a matter of either or. When faced with a choice between option A and option B, we could choose either and still remain within the boundaries Jesus sets for us. Neither one violates our love for God or our obligation to love others. Yet we would still like to have a sense of God in our decision.

There are some who say that in such cases God doesn’t have a preference. If both your options fall within the broad boundaries God has set for your life, choose the one that pleases you most. It seems like sound advice, as long as your options remain binary and you have a clear preference. But what if you have more than two options? What if you like them all? What if every one of them is something you hate? What if you don’t have a strong feeling about any of them?

There have been times when I wished God would just come out tell me the way He wanted me to go and relieve me of the responsibility of making any decision. An angel visitation might be nice or maybe a cloudy pillar by day and one of fire by night. It seems like a good idea until I realize how often that kind of direct guidance from God didn’t really seem to help God’s people stay on the right path in the Old Testament.

Knowing the direction we should take is no guarantee that it will be the direction we want to take. It is also no guarantee that we will actually choose to walk the path marked out for us. We might just bolt like the prophet Jonah and run in the opposite direction.

Lately, friends have been questioning me about a major decision I’ve made. “How do you know God wants you to do that?” they ask. I can only offer them negative proof. “He hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise,” I say. Does God really want me to do this? How would I know? Dreams and visions? God doesn’t work that way in my life. There is no chapter and verse to cover the choice I’m making. I am left with preference and even then there are times when I feel ambivalent. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what thou wilt.” He didn’t mean that we should always do what we want. But what we want is often a good place to start. Augustine’s point was that whatever path we do take must fall between the two poles of two great commandments Jesus emphasizes. No matter whether we do what we like or like what we do, everything that we do must be shaped by God’s definition of love.

Sometimes what we must do pleases us. Sometimes the things we would prefer to do fall outside the bounds of God’s plan for your lives. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but must make a decision anyway. God does not always shine a light on the path before we walk it. But He does always travel it with us.

Divine direction is no small thing. It is pretty important. But there is more to guidance than navigation. God’s guidance operates by faith. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” Proverbs 3:5 tells us.

This implies that the path is not always clear and our ways are not always straight. We rely upon God to handle the course corrections. Then we trust Him for the trajectory those changes introduce into our lives. They don’t always make sense to us. Or to others. But God is really the only one who sees the entire landscape of our lives. He knows where we should be and how to get us there. He knows how to nudge us in the right direction when we drift off course.

When my children were small, we sometimes took long family trips in the car. We didn’t have GPS in those days. Every so often my kids asked the question that every child asks at some point during a family trip: “Are we there yet?” “No,” my wife Jane would always answer. “But we’re closer than we were before.”

Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Stuff Christians Hate

The other day I was thinking about the stuff Christians hate. In particular, I was thinking about the people Christians like to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say, the people that Christians like to dislike. Or maybe, the people that Christians like to deplore. I was reviewing an article for a conservative publication which included a quote from a noted theologian whose views have sparked controversy in the past. I wondered if I should mention it to the editor. There was nothing wrong with the quote. But you know how these things go. Sometimes the mere mention of a name is enough to spark outrage among Christians. It’s not what is said that prompts the reaction. It’s the person who said it. We often don’t even understand the nature of the controversy. We just know that someone told us that the author said something somewhere else that was bad.

Concerns about what people have said or written are reasonable, especially when it comes to the faith. It’s not so surprising that we don’t understand finer details of such matters. Most of us rely upon the opinion of others to help discern good teaching from bad. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says that it is the duty of the church’s leaders to warn God’s people about false doctrine. Even theologians depend upon other theologians for their opinions.

I’ve noticed that our tastes in these matters also tend to be cyclical. That was the question I wrestled with when it came to the quote. We hated this guy five years ago. But do we still hate him today? Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say that he made us uncomfortable. We didn’t doubt that he was a Christian. As far as I know, his Christian walk is exemplary.  But people in my theological tribe disagreed with his position, some of them strongly. But after a while, something changes. We feel differently. Maybe we decide this issue that separated us wasn’t that important after all. Perhaps we are tired of controversy and decide to overlook it. Or more likely, some new person or issue captures our attention and pushes our discomfort with the other guy to the margins.

If we wait long enough our old enemy might even become a new favorite. It’s like furniture. The ugly furniture my parents used to decorate our house in the 1950s is now hip. Theology is like that too. Some of the people we used to decry are now merely thought to have been misunderstood. When I was in seminary, my conservative teachers considered Karl Barth to be a liberal. Today he is insightful.

This doesn’t just happen with people. When I started to follow Jesus, I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I liked smoking. Well, all except for the cancer part. But in general, I like the smell and the way I felt when I smoked. I thought it made me look intellectual. Then an older believer I respected told me that serious Christians don’t smoke cigarettes, so I quit. It wasn’t easy for me. It took me a while. It took the grace of God.

These days, such a warning would be considered legalistic. Christians don’t hate smoking anymore. Indeed, I know some Christian leaders who are proud of the fact that they smoke. Of course, it has to be the right kind of smoke. Cigarettes are still considered gauche among conservatives, but not cigars and pipes. They are a common accessory with a certain brand of pastor. He is usually Reformed, young, and bearded. The nagging issue of cancer is still there. But we won’t think about that today. We can think about that tomorrow when the doctor calls with our test results.

The same leaders who don’t hate smoking don’t hate drinking anymore either. They have cast aside the old misgivings some Christians used to have about the consumption of alcohol. They consider abstinence to be an outdated vestige of the sort of legalism that once claimed: “real Christians don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Jesus drank, they point out. He changed water into wine. Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim. 5:23). Not only does this new order of Christian leader like to drink, but they like to post selfies of themselves drinking on social media. This practice seems to be a kind of manifesto, a testimony to Christian liberty.

However, just like smoking, to be truly acceptable, it must be the right kind of drinking. It has to be craft beer or at least wine. One can hardly imagine Jesus tipping a can of Bud. In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I am not a neutral observer on this issue. Both my parents were addicted to alcohol. I also recognize that, although the Bible does condemn drunkenness, it doesn’t condemn the consumption of wine outright. I understand that not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But I also know that ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol that is sold. Maybe alcohol isn’t as hip as we thought.

The list of things we used to hate is growing, but that doesn’t mean we hate fewer things, it just means we have exchanged the items on the old list for new things. There is still plenty of stuff for Christians to hate. For example, we hate to sit down while singing in church. We hate to go to church on Sunday night. We hate to go to church on Sunday. Some of us hate to go to church, period. We hate one another’s politics. We hate the music in church if it’s not ours. Sometimes we even hate each other.

It’s a challenge to hate the right things. We often fail to get it right. Some of us don’t want to hate anything. Others hate everything. We seem to have a penchant foolish alliances, like Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. I sometimes wonder if the prophet would say to us what he said to him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?” In the end, our real problem it isn’t about what we hate at all. It’s about what we love.

Do Dogs go to Heaven?

Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.

Why Do Churches Put Up with Narcissistic Leaders?

Another high profile pastor has been accused of abusive leadership. The story is so familiar to us by now that it has become monotonous. We are sorry, but we are not surprised. Or maybe we are not sorry. The debacle holds a macabre fascination for us. Like watching a horrific accident while it is in progress, we can’t look away. The fall of a great leader appeals to our egalitarian sensibilities. We like to see the mighty cut down. Americans love to hate their leaders. The story of abusive leaders has become so familiar by now that we ought to ask a question. Why do churches tolerate such pastors? Churches stick with abusive leaders for the same reasons people remain in other abusive relationships.

We are Attracted to Them

No church that is looking for a pastor says to itself, “Hey, I know! Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” Churches give a lot of thought to the characteristics they want to see in their pastor, and most of them are good. Nobody who decides to attend a church is thinking, “Where can I find an abusive pastor today?” The church is drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive to us. Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things for the church. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Those who see through the hype recognize it as pretentiousness. But for churches who are hoping for a messianic leader, narcissistic style can be very appealing. These churches are willing to tolerate the abuse in the hope that the pastor will lead them into the Promised Land of ministry success.

They Reward Us

Any co-dependent relationship is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. We enable narcissistic behavior because we get something from the leader. Sometimes the reward is small. It may only be that we are addicted to the adrenaline of crisis that comes with this style of leadership. Or maybe we like the pastor’s preaching. Churches tolerate narcissistic leadership behavior because they fear that no one else will be able to produce the same results. Churches with narcissistic leaders are often so identified with the pastor that his departure will have a negative effect on attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it is to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. Churches enable narcissistic leaders by developing social systems that reinforce their abuse.  Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with other leaders who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. Because narcissistic leadership comes with perks and special treatment, the inner circle often gets rewarded along with the leader. The result is a co-dependent loop which blinds those who should be responsible for holding the narcissist accountable.

We are Afraid of Them

Narcissistic leaders are bullies. They develop organizational cultures which are marked by fear and punishment. Church members who question their agenda or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 & 11, those who criticize the pastor are sometimes warned not to “raise their hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.” Narcissists use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture of fear which silences objections and penalizes objectors. There is always a cost to those who challenge a narcissistic leader.

What You Can Do About It

What can you do, if you believe your church has a culture of narcissistic leadership? First, pray for divine intervention. This sounds overly simplistic, but it is the most important strategy for dealing with a narcissistic pastor. Narcissistic leaders are extremely difficult to correct. They do not see themselves as narcissists. They do not understand why others criticize their motives and actions. They explain away criticism by attributing it to Satanic attack. Churches with deeply entrenched narcissistic leaders need to ask God to bring the true nature of its dysfunctional leadership to light.  In most cases, things get worse before they get better.

Second, refuse to cooperate with the co-dependent dynamics of the church’s narcissistic culture. You have no control over the narcissist. You cannot force a narcissistic leader to see himself as a narcissist. But you can introduce an element of disequilibrium into the culture by not participating in the game. Dysfunctional cultures are a kind of dance. Everybody has to keep in step. When you refuse to follow the dysfunctional rules you create a dynamic that makes change possible. The foundational rule in a dysfunctional culture is the code of silence. We break that rule by speaking the truth in love. But recognize that there is a cost to this.

Finally, look for a healthier church. This is extremely hard, especially if you have invested your life in the church. Your friends and your ministry are there. Nobody likes to start over. Sometimes the best thing to do in a church system which tolerates narcissistic leadership is to leave. If the pastor is deeply entrenched and surrounded by a team that protects him, you should look to your own spiritual wellbeing. Nobody likes to leave a church. But sometimes it’s the wisest and safest thing to do.

Narcissism appears to be a deceptively tame sin. We tend to think of narcissists as buffoons that everyone can see through. In reality, narcissistic leaders are profoundly damaging to the church.  They are bullies and spiritual abusers who demand that that church serve them. They are the kind of shepherds the Lord condemns in Ezek. 34:2-3: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Chris Fabry about narcissistic leadership.

Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.

Writing and Rejection

I was going through some things the other day and came across what we used to call a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It’s something we writers used to include when we sent out our manuscripts in the days before email. First, you sent a query letter outlining your article (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply in the envelope you had enclosed. Sometimes they wanted to see your piece. More often they did not.

If the editor was interested, you sent the manuscript, in a larger envelope (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply. If the news was good, the reply would come on their own stationery and in one of their own envelopes. If it wasn’t, you got your own envelope back along with the manuscript. I don’t know what they did with the stamps. Most of the time the news was bad.

I had forgotten how long the process took. I haven’t forgotten how bad the rejection felt. It was like asking someone out on a date and being turned down. Or perhaps more accurately, it was like proposing and hearing your intended say no. Curtly. Without any real explanation. Except for that expression on her face which seemed to say, “As if!”

The experience of rejection was soul crushing. I felt embarrassed every time. I wondered if I was foolish to think that I could be published. Determined to never put myself in such a vulnerable position again, I vowed to give up writing. My resolve usually lasted for a few months. Sometimes for a whole year. Then at some point, an idea would come to me. Well, maybe this time. . . .

The envelope I found the other day was postmarked, open, and empty. It would have brought a rejection. I don’t know where I sent it or what kind of manuscript it contained. But I am sure that I sent it with great expectation, certain that the editor would want to publish my words.

I suppose there are other professions whose practitioners experience just as much rejection as writers. Movie stars, professional athletes, and people who run for president (or get elected) come to mind. But I’ve never wanted to be any of those. Not really. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Keeping it Real

Of all the holidays, I have always found the celebration of the New Year to have the least appeal. Maybe this is because of its proximity to Christmas. The New Year’s holiday seems drab to me. It does not offer much. Oh, there is always a football game or two. There are chips and dip on the coffee table. Millennials get to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and wonder who Dick Clark is. Then, of course, there is that smattering of automatic weapon fire at midnight. But none of this is particularly unusual. The truth is, we pretty much have it all year round, including the weaponry.

Some people look forward to the New Year because they see in it a new beginning. The New Year is a blank page upon which they can write anything they wish. For some reason, it always speaks to me of the end of things. That is especially true this year because it marks my last year as a faculty member at the college where I teach. I will be retiring at the end of the school year.

When I asked one of my retired friends what the experience was like he said, “It’s like death. It just goes on and on.” I don’t believe he meant it to sound as depressing as it did. What he was really saying was that retirement is like a permanent vacation. At least, I hope that’s what he was saying. But to tell you the truth, I’m also finding it hard to talk to people about my impending retirement in a way that doesn’t sound depressing to them. If I mention it, they respond with a note of dismay. “You can’t retire,” they tell me, employing the same tone of voice people use for those who have just been diagnosed with a serious illness. “Everybody’s got an expiration date,” I say.

Some people (my children and my wife) have told me that this is a morbid reply. I thought it was realistic. Over the years I’ve found that many people confuse realism with morbidity. “You’re just a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of guy,” one of my optimistic friends said to me not long ago. “No,” I replied patiently, “I am just a realist.”

I must admit that realists see the world differently from optimists. A realist watching Adam fall into sin in the Garden of Eden says, “Oh crap, we’re all dead now.” An optimist says, “At least we can have apple pie while we wait.”
Optimists are chronically enthusiastic. It is one of the things that makes them so irritating. “Dial it down” I want to say. “Don’t you know that there is a galaxy heading in our direction that will crash into the Milky Way and send the earth flying into interstellar space?”

They think I am being allegorical. No, I am not. I am being literal. It’s what realists do. They keep it real. There is a galaxy headed our way that will smash into the Milky Way and destroy the earth. We’ve only got about eight billion years left. I know that this is true because I read it on the Internet today.

The Bible says that when King Hezekiah got sick to the point of death, the prophet Isaiah came to visit him. “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Despite the source, Hezekiah refused to accept such a pessimistic prognosis. He turned his face to the wall and prayed. “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” God sent the prophet back to Hezekiah to say that the king could have fifteen more years. To an optimist, that would be good news. A realist would start counting them down.

Sometime after this the king of Babylon sent emissaries to Hezekiah. He had recovered by then and was happy to show them around the palace. He showed them everything. His bank account. His IRA. The monster truck in his garage. He showed them all his stuff. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t show them.

“Who were those guys?” Isaiah the prophet wanted to know after Hezekiah had walked them to the door. “Just some guys from Babylon” Hezekiah said. “What did you show them?” the prophet asked. “Everything!” the king said cheerily.

“You know what the Lord told me?” Isaiah said. “The time is going to come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

“That’s great!” Hezekiah said. “It means that there will be peace for the rest of my life!”

That’s optimism for you.