Bread & Circuses

The recent implosion of James MacDonald’s ministry is a sobering reminder of how easily beguiled the church is by a pretty voice. Not only is the unfolding debacle painful to watch, it also ought to send a chill of fear down the spine of pastors and church leaders. MacDonald was no heretic. He was and is a biblical conservative. His failure, if the reports are true, was one of leadership character. I am not saying this as a mitigating factor. The pastoral epistles are clear that character and leadership style are as important in determining whether someone is fit to lead as doctrine.

My point is that the church is easily swayed by those who are compelling speakers. This is not a new problem. Paul complained about it in the Corinthian letters. Church history’s hall of shame includes many notable pulpit masters who made a name for themselves as speakers while engaging in behavior unbecoming to their office. What is surprising is not that these leaders sinned but that the church found it so easy to overlook their behavior.

We often plead grace in our attempt to excuse ourselves. Our preachers and leaders are sinners like us. They are “wounded healers.” We are sometimes reluctant to apply the biblical standards of leadership too rigorously to them out of fear that we will condemn ourselves in the process. But more often than not this kind of talk is just a smokescreen that obscures the real root of the church’s failure which is due to something far shallower. Simply put, we like a good speaker. If that requirement is met, we often don’t care about much else, as long as their weaknesses are not so public that they force us to take note of them.

The simplest explanation for such a one-sided evaluation on our part is that we have to listen to these people week after week. We would much prefer to listen without feeling that the experience is torture. But I do not think that this simple explanation is adequate. The opposite is more often the case. Many congregations tolerate preaching that is mediocre or even less because they are being cared for by a genuine shepherd.

I believe two other factors have caused the church to elevate speaking ability over spiritual leadership and even moral character. One is the church’s marketplace orientation. The other is the congregation’s growing tolerance for a distance between the church’s pastors and its members. These two are related. Churches tolerate good speakers who are weak pastors because they rely on the pastor’s speaking ability to market the church to non-attenders. This is especially true of churches that have grown large and where the pastor has become the brand. They  are “too big to fail.” There is too much at stake. The fortunes of too many people are tied to one personality to jeopardize it all by holding these leaders accountable. More than one fallen leader has sought protection from the consequences of their failure by threatening to bring the temple down on the heads of those who sought to expose them.

The popularity of the megachurch model, even though only a small minority of congregations can actually achieve it, has changed the way church members relate to their pastors. It has also changed the way Bible colleges and seminaries train for ministry (or don’t). We are being pressured to train performers and administrators instead of pastors. Those who attend megachurches do not expect to be pastored. They do not expect to relate to the preaching pastor at close range. They do not expect the pastor to invite them over to dinner or to show up at the hospital and pray for them when they are sick. They do not expect him to come to their home and ask about their spiritual well-being. They do not know what kind of office hours the pastor keeps if the pastor keeps any at all. They do not know what the pastor’s salary is, because it is masked in the budget, lumped together with all the other staff salaries. Indeed, the typical church attender has been trained to think that the pastor’s salary is none of their business. As a result, all the average worshipper knows about the preaching pastor is what they hear when the church gathers for worship. The resulting distance makes it impossible for the congregation to hold the pastor accountable for much of anything.

These cultural shifts are having a profound effect on the way churches think about pastoral ministry. The pastor is no longer a shepherd or even a preacher. The emphasis in today’s branded culture is on personality and performance. The difference is immediately felt when one hears them preach. One of my colleagues recently contrasted this new model with the pastors and Bible conference preachers of a generation ago. “Those old preachers were mostly men in grey suits, unimpressive in appearance but powerful expositors of the word,” she said. They were not interested in their image. They did not focus on style.

I do not think that she meant that they had no style. They certainly did, but theirs was the kind of style reflected in Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks didn’t mean that the preacher should try to be a personality. “The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen” Brooks declared. “It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”

There is more to what Brooks describes in these words than what is popularly called “transparency.” Brooks did not merely mean that biblical truth is expressed through the container of the preacher’s personality. Rather he meant that the preacher is someone who has been shaped by the truth. In the language that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:15, the preacher is someone who makes every effort to present themselves to God as an approved worker in the word, not only handling it rightly in terms of its interpretation but reflecting its truths.

These days instead of “studying to show ourselves approved” it is our preaching that has become studied. By that, I mean that our overemphasis on personality and style has made our preaching self-conscious. It is affected. From dress to tone to the way we stroll about the stage, we seem to be as interested in crafting an image as we are in communicating a message. The congregation is complicit in this. Like the ancient Romans, the average church member no longer sees it as their responsibility to weigh carefully not only what is said, but the one who says it. They have traded this duty for bread and circuses. What the preacher is off the stage does not matter so much as long he holds our attention while on it.

James MacDonald is not the first nor is he the worst preacher to be accused of incongruity between life and message. I am not saying this in his defense. But I do think that he is too easy a target for us. It is easy to pile on after the fact and demand an accounting.  But he was not the only culpable party. In this image-driven age, when the church prefers circuses over bread, why are we so surprised?

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.

Shepherding the Suffering

visittothehospitalWhen I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.

In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.

In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.

Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”

Are You “The One?”

During a faculty workshop on leadership yesterday, it occurred to me that churches and Christian organizations are drawn to messianic models of leadership. Our prayers and search processes seek to reveal “the one” who will lead us into the organizational land of promise. Occasionally the search uncovers an individual who ushers in a “golden age” which lasts only as long as that leader’s tenure and is usually un-repeatable.

More often it results in disappointment. The search for a messianic leader proves unfruitful and the organization settles for an “ordinary” person who must lead in the face of unrealistically high expectations and the inevitable criticism that comes when their leadership falls short of the ideal. This cycle of search and disappointment is mirrored by leaders who share the same kind of idealism in their expectations of those who are led. The gypsy church member who wanders from church to church in a futile hunt for the ideal pastor has its parallel in the restless pastor who moves from congregation to congregation searching for “teachable” elders or a “responsive” flock.

The most revealing moment in the workshop for me came when the presenter cited Patrick Lencioni’s observation that functional teams succeed because they “acknowledge the imperfections of their humanity.”  This is not the natural tendency of idealistic cultures. Because we expect so much of our leaders, we are more prone to criticize their imperfections than to acknowledge them.

No wonder we are so often disappointed. If Lencioni is right, the first step to successful leadership does not lie in finding the perfect leader but in accepting our collective imperfections as a leadership team. Lencioni’s observation assumes that leadership is a community rather than an individual discipline. It is a messy practice marked by imperfect choices, occasional chaos and constructive conflict.

Working for God: Part II

When Scripture declares that those who “direct the affairs of the church well” are worthy of “double” honor (1 Timothy 5:17), it implies a standard of recompense which is correlated with performance. Paul’s reasoning seems to be something like this: All those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” The “good ones” deserve double honor. Those who labor in preaching and teaching especially deserve this reward (the Greek term could be translated “most of all”).

 Such language not only implies a comparison of effort between those engaged in the same ministry context, it implies that the nature of the work and the degree of effort should be taken into account when the church considers how to reward its servants in a monetary way. All who labor deserve a “wage” or reward. Some are more deserving than others. In view of this, an equitable return for one’s labor does not mean that everyone who labors should get the same amount but that the return should be equal to the effort. Those who work harder deserve more.

 The fact that those Paul has in view are engaged in what might be described as “kingdom work” is significant. How should the perspective of grace affect one’s approach to evaluation and reward in the workplace? Two of Jesus’ parables may shed light on this question. The parable of the workers in the vineyard and the parable of the talents both have employment and evaluation as a backdrop. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard God is portrayed as one who generously rewards those who labor (Matthew 20:1–16). Certainly the parable is intended as a warning against the kind of bargaining spirit which approaches the labor of the kingdom with a hireling’s mentality. It describes a shocking grace by which those who have invested less labor (because they came to the field later) receive the same reward as those who have had to endure the heat of the entire day. To suggest that employers ought to pay every employee the same wage goes beyond the scope of this parable. Yet it would not be too much to say that a grace informed ethic in the workplace would be an ethic that has generosity and kindness as its dominant features.

 The theme of expectation is further emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). Here Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his property to four stewards before setting out on a journey. Upon returning from his trip, the man calls his servants to “settle accounts” with them. In Luke’s version the man is described as a “king” and those who are entrusted with talents as “servants.” Such details provide another reminder that these parables were not meant to provide detailed guidance to employers in how to handle their employees. The parable of the talents, like the parable of the laborers, is a parable of the “kingdom.” Yet it is just here that the parable provides important insight for “Christian work.” Evaluation and reward are consistent with kingdom values. When Christ returns He will assess the performance of those who have served Him. This evaluation of what has been done will be based on a standard of expectation. The master tells the “wicked, lazy servant” what he should have done.

All legitimate labor deserves its own reward. The worker deserves his wages. But the one for whom we labor is also owed something. God expects us to do our work well. We are not merely laborers. We are artisans and craftsmen for the Kingdom.

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #10: Feeling Inadquate

Anyone who has seriously considered all the challenges a pastor must face cannot help feeling inadequate. The task is immense. The stakes are high and the things which are most important to us in our ministry are usually things over which we have little or no control. Like the apostle Paul we ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).

 The answer to this question is that we are equal to the task. Not because of the strength of our personality, our native intelligence or even because of our spirituality. Instead, “our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). Despite this biblical assurance, feelings of inadequacy do not magically disappear once we enter the ministry. They may even increase the longer we serve, as we discover just how dependent upon God we are for success. Nevertheless, God has promised to make us “competent ministers of the new covenant.”  

 This demands an important caveat. The competence that the Bible promises is mission specific. It is a competence related to the gospel. Contrary to popular dogma, you cannot do “anything you set your mind to.” In the body of Christ the eye is not meant to function like the hand. God supplies ability to each according to their gifts and calling. John Newton warns, “If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #7: Social and Intellectual Isolation

Gordon Jump as the Maytag repairman
Image via Wikipedia

 

An old commercial portrayed the Maytag repair man as the loneliest person in town. But the loneliest person in the church may be the pastor. Pastoral ministry is inherently relational. How, then, do we explain the feeling of isolation that sometimes afflicts pastors? To what can we attribute it? 

Pastoral isolation often manifests itself in two areas: intellectual and social. Fifty years ago the pastor’s intellectual isolation was a result of education. The pastor was one of the most educated persons in the community. This is rarely the case today. 

While it is true that the pastor’s theological and professional interests will not be shared by everyone in the congregation, there are many who would be interested in what he is reading and thinking. They simply need a context for entering the discussion. It is a good practice to share with others on your leadership team the articles, books and links which have stimulated your thinking. The Internet not only provides many new opportunities beyond the local ministerial meeting for pastors to interact with others who share similar intellectual interests, but creates a kind of “virtual watering hole” for community wide dissemination of ideas and discussion within the church. 

Social isolation occurs when the pastor has difficulty relating to others outside his professional role. At times this may be because the congregation cannot see beyond the title of “pastor.” But the congregation is not the only one at fault here. It is tempting to hide behind the title. An earlier generation of pastors was even taught to cultivate a kind of professional aloofness with church members out of fear that congregational friendships would make members jealous of each another. Though well meant, this was bad advice. Loneliness is not the only consequence of pastoral isolation. A socially isolated pastor is a vulnerable pastor. The pastoral pedestal can remove us from the healthy and loving scrutiny of those who ought to be hold us accountable. Strange as it may seem, social isolation can actually weaken the boundaries that protect both the pastor and the congregation in counseling relationships. 

Others may call us “pastor” or “preacher” but we are more (and sometimes less) than our title. Life behind a mask, even a noble mask, is suffocating. 

Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #6: Feeling Underutilized

William Carey
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William Carey’s famous maxim was: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Yet some of us suffer from a nagging fear that we are underutilized in our current field of service. Our preaching ability merits a larger audience or our leadership gifts would bear more fruit if we served a congregation that was more responsive to vision. How can we achieve great things when we aren’t allowed to exercise our gifts to their fullest ability? 

 It is possible, of course, that we have overestimated our abilities. I know that I am better at some things than I am at others. But I also know that I think I am better at some things than is really the case. This is a conviction based upon common observation rather than self observation. Hardly any of us is really self aware. Overestimating one’s abilities is a common fault. One that is more easily seen in others than it is in ourselves. The kind of denial that causes us to think too highly of our abilities is usually immune to self-scrutiny. 

 But it is also very possible that we genuinely possess gifts and abilities which are greater than our current opportunities. A pastor who serves a small congregation may preach better than another whose ministry attracts a larger number. An associate pastor may have better leadership gifts than the senior pastor. The race does not go to the swift or the battle to the strong. The world is full of people whose talents go unrecognized. 

God who assigns us our field also determines the scope of our influence. Carey offers good advice, as long as we grant that God’s definition of “great” may not be the same as ours.