Monday, July 14, 2014

Fine Woodworking and the Fragility of Small Churches

Scott was hauling lumber. I spied him from down the street. He wore a lime green collared shirt with the name Jordan Fine Woodworking embroidered on the front. Scott was the newest man in the crew. He told me about the job less than a week ago at our regular pastors' lunch.

Scott is a laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night. He estimated that about a third of the fine bunch of Fine Woodworkers comprised clergy (former and current). Like me, they are (and were) leaders of smaller churches that suffer great strains from losing but a few families.

In smaller churches, the budget can turn blood red with the departure of one or two key "giving units." In smaller churches, ministry programs can burn out when a committed leader moves on. In smaller churches, morale can nosedive with shrinking attendance. In smaller churches, pastors may have to learn new skills (carpentry and coffee making) to keep their families fed and mortgage paid.

I guided my bike toward Scott when I spotted him. I called his name as he slid a ten-foot board into the back of his company van. He stopped, turned, and nodded at me. Sweat covered his brow and stained his shirt. His work day began well before mine. His work responsibilities threatened splinters, a sore back, and calloused hands. And when he came home at night, church business awaited him.

I felt a bit guilty. I made a comment or two and left him to hauling wood. Then I rode on toward the bookstore to start my pastoral work of reading and writing emails. It's not my fault Scott has become laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night; regardless, my pastoral vocation suddenly seemed lite.

But then I remembered what brought Scott to his current situation: Leading small churches is fragile work. The solo pastor is shepherd, teacher, volunteer coordinator, project manager, custodial worker, nursery aid, jack-of-all-trades (and master of none), court jester, marketer, and punching bag. The job description evolves with every business trend and change of season.

Moreover, pastoral ministry cannot claim the satisfaction of a daily progress report or finished product, unlike the construction site. Only Sunday marks our progress--that we held a service, that we preached a sermon--and many Sundays tell us more about the passing of time than the transforming power of life with Jesus.

These thoughts captivated me as I finished my commute to the bookstore. Instead of feeling guilty about Scott's situation, I began to feel jealous for his new job that guaranteed perspiration and productivity. I wanted something more concrete to mark my output for the day than my Inbox. I began to scheme how I might pick up work as a third-shift doughnut maker or early morning landscaper. Bi-vocational dreams began to accelerate my heartbeat.

Then I stepped into the air-conditioned bookstore and the guilt and jealousy melted away. My appreciation for full-time, pastoral ministry--unproductive and precarious as it is--was born again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Authority Issues

"Are you saying I have authority issues?" I asked.

Six other pastors huddled around me in my office. This was our second of several meetings to provide fresh insight and counsel to one another. We agreed to put different pastors on the hot seat for the summer. My seat was heating up. After two hours of discussing my strengths, weaknesses, strategies, and dreams, the diagnosis became clear. My distaste for leadership gurus, vision-casting, and church literature was more than a preference.

When I asked the question, they nodded. And smirked. I had authority issues. Sadly, it is not uncommon for spiritual leaders.

The symptoms include:
  • aversion to best practices, meetings, strategic planning sessions, and accountability
  • inability to ask for help, follow through, or celebrate others' successes
  • constant re-invention of the wheel (and other already tried-and-true inventions or activities)
  • distaste for canned curriculum, catchy sermon titles, and ecclesiastical creeds (alliteration and assonance are acceptable)
  • demand for originality
  • preference for small gatherings where I am the dominate personality
  • various schemes to take over the world
Not all the symptoms applied to me. To date I have made only one attempt at world domination. It failed. (Or has it?) Nevertheless, the conversation with my colleagues left me wondering how much my distrust for authorities and institutions affects my pastoral ministry. (Answer: More than I can imagine.)

Indeed, every leadership book I have forced myself to read stresses the importance of leaders being "under authority." I can flippantly claim to live under the lordship of Jesus. But even Jesus taught to give Caesar his due. And Paul, a bond-servant of Christ, encouraged members of the church to submit to one another in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21).

Our respect for other believers demonstrates our fear of God. We should heed their advice, consider their perspective, and listen to their diagnoses. If I didn't have such glaring authority issues, I would probably do these very things.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Our Kids Prefer Heaven over Hell and Jesus over All

My daughters were asking their mother about Hell last night. They remember the name of Heaven (and Jesus, Heaven's King) so well. Hell is less familiar territory.

We speak of outer darkness, eternal fire, and total separation from God infrequently. We prefer the happier topics of Jesus, resurrection, forgiveness of sins, new creation, and the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, we are probably guilty of preaching a partial gospel focused on restoration to compensate for the partial gospel we heard growing up of judgment, depravity, and penal substitution. But you can't have the good news without the bad. As Fredrick Buechner notes in Telling the Truth, "The Gospel is bad news before its good news."

So my wife relayed the images Jesus and others have provided for Hell: fire where the worm does not die; wrath where sin earns its wages; separation where the soul has no access to God; darkness where no light (or joy or hope) can penetrate. Predictably, my girls found Heaven more inviting.

What pleases me most about my daughters' innocent embrace of Heaven over Hell is their preference for Jesus. We speak with them often about the riches we have when we follow the Son of God. We enter His family; we share in His glory; we experience His grace. Their affection for Jesus may be for His atoning work, His healing power, and His invitation to everlasting life. It could be His divine nature or His human form. It could be a blend of these factors and something more.

Regardless, last night's conversation with their mother underscored an important matter in my daughters' faith. They do not express belief in Jesus because they are afraid of Hell. He is not their escape. He is their reward. So they look forward to His return. And it's helping me long for His restoration of all things, too.

Rev 21:5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

Rev 22:12 “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Rev. 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.