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.

Q&A ON “IF I HAVE GAY CHILDREN” Part 1 Where Gayness Comes From

Last weekend a twenty-something college friend sent a link to a blog by a pastor in the Raleigh, North Carolina area titled IF I HAVE GAY CHILDREN: Four Promises From a Christian Pastor, by John Pavlovitz. My friend asked: I am really wrestling over this. I was just wondering what your thoughts were on the content of this pastor’s words? As the Pavlovitz blog seems to be going viral, (I’ve already seen it lauded on facebook), I thought it would be helpful to share part of my reply with you. Mr. Pavlovitz has made the same mistake about human nature, specifically where so-called “gayness” comes from, that most of the culture is making. The two most significant statements in the post are quoted here.

“I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal.”

“If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are… They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be…”

Mr. Pavlovitz has adopted the widely promoted yet unprovable theory that the attractions and behaviors associated with homosexuality are hard-wired into the personality from birth. That makes God responsible for a person’s sexual orientation. Thus they can claim: “It’s not my fault. I’m just being what God made me to be.” That theory not only confuses the dignity of being made in the image of God with Darwinian predestination, but also fails to comprehend the complexity of human personality development and just how mold-able we humans really are. Our personalities, including our attractions and affections toward one or the other sex, are highly complex and can develop along a number of lines. Anyone can be homosexual, or heterosexual, given the right conditions and choices. In the Biblical world-view, there is no such thing as gay or straight. There are male and female, created for each other in the image of God. This is what Jesus taught (see Matthew 19:4-6). Men and women behave in ways that either reflect or reject the Designer’s intent. Either way, they are still men and women designed for each other in the image of God with the ability to choose who and what they will become. “Gayness,” “Straightness,” and all other such definitions of human relations are artificial, post-modern philosophical constructs, imposed upon us by the homosexual movement in the last four decades. They remove us from the pinnacle of creation as creatures with the God-like ability to choose, and reduce us to nothing more than victims of our biology, slaves of our impulses. In other words, homosexuality (“gay,” “questioning” and “transgender” issues) is a developmental disorder generated by the combination of a number of factors including but not limited to: personality type; parental role modeling and behavior within the home of origin; childhood stresses and trauma; peer pressure and peer reference groups; early sexual exposure, experimentation (either in person or vicariously through pornography) and often abuse; parental guidance and disciplinary practices along with cultural acceptance or “normalization,” (Mr. Pavlovitz is now participating in that in the lives of his children and readers) and of course the spiritual dimension. Take all of that – and all of it must be taken into account – mix it together with our sin nature (see Romans 7:7-25) and the successful media onslaught of the last four decades and the potential for gender role and sexual identity confusion is pretty high. What grieves me is that very few people, including pastors, are offering confused young people a well-reasoned and believable alternative approach to the feelings and experiences with which they are struggling. That is what I’ve attempted to do in my previous post titled, I’M NOT GAY and you probably aren’t either. Mr. Pavlovitz also commented on how he, as a Christian pastor, would react to his children if they decided they were gay. I’ll respond to that part of his comments next week.