STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

FLABBY-BRAINED BELIEVERS?

The bathroom scales hounded me back to my Nordic Trak last week with the words: “You are a middle-aged blob who eats too much and exercises too little!”

OK, it didn’t actually say that because it can’t talk. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it read either (I am vain that way). Let it suffice that I sweated through my first thirty-minutes in about a month on the twentieth-century torture tool and I’m headed back there today.

I wonder, however, if there was a scale for the Christian mind that could talk, what it would be saying to the people of God? I’m afraid it would report that many of us have flabby brains.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, but far too many of us read nothing at all.

If you’re ready to get your mind back in action here’s a list of recommended reading that will equip you to think Christianly about life.

Suffering

SUFFERING AND THE HEART OF GOD: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Diane Langberg, PhD. Langberg, who has worked with Rwandan genocide victims, is a globally recognized expert on trauma, particularly that special evil suffered by sexual abuse victims. She is theologically solid, clinically expert, and personally compassionate. I’ve heard her speak and read her previous book, On the Threshold of Hope. I guarantee that if you do not already know a sexual abuse victim, you will and you will want to know how to help. Her books will help.

Marriage

SAVING YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry, by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. The Parrotts are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. I’ve been offering per-marital counseling since 1995 and I’ve yet to find a better resource.

RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Healing for Troubled Marriages, by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jim Talley. Talley’s work became my go-to for counseling couples in crisis many years ago and remains so today. It is simple, clear, and concise. Read it five years into your first marriage and you probably won’t have a second. Find him at drtalley.com.

Giving Wisely

TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and how to reverse it), by Robert D. Lupton. Bob, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, moved his young family into inner-city Atlanta in the late seventies and stayed. He “has developed two mixed-income subdivisions, organized a multiracial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families,”[1] and is a friend of our family. He is also an excellent writer and teacher of the ideas he promotes. The book is an easy and useful read.

Biblical Worldview Thinking

HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE, is the late Chuck Colson’s and Nancy Pearcy’s magnum opus on biblical worldview thinking. If you have no exposure to the genre and five hundred pages doesn’t frighten you, begin here. It is compelling and easy to follow.

THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson with Harold Fickett, is much shorter and more about answers to the questions we all have, like: Why am I here; how can I find significance? But all of Colson’s works are infused with the worldview rubric and this one will challenge you to choose carefully.

Culture War

CULTURE MAKING: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, makes an excellent case that it is not enough to condemn culture, nor to stand aloof and critique it or naively copy it, still less to unconsciously consume it. If Christians want to return to the cultural influence that helped build Western Civilization, we have to create better culture. CULTURE MAKING is the best book yet on how to do that.

ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a man who, like Albert Mohler, is an energetic, entertaining, and articulate defender of the faith. ONWARD is a quick, compelling read that roots our cultural engagement squarely in the Gospel and never strays from it.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have time to read serious books.” If so remember World Magazine and World Radio, both of which will keep you up-to-date with the latest biblical worldview thinking in a highly portable format. Go to getworldnow.com for a free three month trial. The daily worldview update, Breakpoint, with John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas is also excellent.

Brains, like bodies, get flabby without exercise. What would our imaginary mental scales say about yours? Time to get to work!

[1] From the book cover.

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

REAL HEAD SCRATCHERS

Things that make us scratch our heads:

Christians line up by the thousands to vote for an arrogant, rude, reckless, serial adulterer. Huh?

Once staunchly-biblical denominations line up to support blatantly anti-biblical forms of marriage. Wha?

Liberals of all stripes line up to support the right of Islamists to impose Sharia law in European democracies and American Universities. Really?

What’s up with that? How did we arrive at this state of confusion? The answer, in one word, is tolerance. Tolerance is the virtue most exalted in the last thirty years of Western Civilization. The thoughtless embrace of it has led us to this point.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “How can you say that? Tolerance is a good thing.” And I agree with you. But the late John R.W. Stott, in his book Contemporary Christian, outlined three kinds of tolerance. Christians ought to support the first two to the hilt and oppose the last kind to the last man.

Legal Tolerance
You and I should be committed to everyone’s right to think or say or preach anything he believes. It is the basic ‘freedom of religion’ that this country was founded upon. If someone wants to say that the rapture will happen next week he should have the freedom to do that. If someone wants to say that gender-dysphoric people should have the right to use the restroom of their choice, he or she should have the freedom to say that. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should run up our credit cards because Jesus is coming back on Friday, or that we should allow biologically male teens to use the girl’s restroom at the high school with our daughters. The freedom to believe and say something does not imply the obligation of everyone else to agree with us.

Social Tolerance
You and I should be equally careful to protect social tolerance. Social tolerance means respect for all people, regardless of the views they may hold.

I think gambling is a bad idea. I can argue against its legalization and preach against its corruptive power. I am not at liberty however to label every person who gambles as a supporter of the Mafia. Social tolerance means I try to understand the values and convictions of others without passing judgment on them.

Christians believe that all humans are made in the image of God and that He wants us to live together in harmony. “As much as it lies with you, be at peace with everyone,” said the Apostle Paul to the Romans. That’s social tolerance.

Intellectual Tolerance
Intellectual tolerance is something we should beware of and oppose. Intellectual tolerance means that we’re supposed to accept every idea and philosophy and doctrine uncritically as equal in value and virtue with every other idea.

Stott said it this way, “To cultivate a mind so broad that it can accommodate every opinion, however false or evil, without ever detecting anything to reject, is not a virtue; it is the vice of the feebleminded and amoral. It ends up in an unprincipled confusion of truth with error and goodness with evil.”

It leads to Evangelicals supporting an ungodly, unprincipled opportunist; to pastors and parishioners supporting same-sex marriage; to intellectual liberals supporting a political ideology dressed up as religion that oppresses minorities, abuses women, sponsors terrorism, and murders gays.

That confusion of truth with error and goodness with evil is why so many of us are scratching our heads. Intellectual tolerance is a subtle but powerful cultural current and it is easy to go with the flow. We who stake our lives on biblical truth are swimming upstream against it. But swim we must, trusting God that as we do truth will prevail.