Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Inadequate Appeal to Listen to our Brothers & Sisters

Sunday morning I talked about generosity. I won’t preach the whole sermon to you but the big idea was this: the people of God are called to live extravagantly generous lives. 

I suggested there were many ways in which we have opportunity to express that generosity.

I talked briefly about listening.

And then we all went home and watched Sunday afternoon football and we saw athletes, coaches and even owners express themselves by taking a knee or standing arm in arm or staying in the tunnel to their locker room during the National Anthem.

I should have preached longer about listening.

By Sunday afternoon “the Facebook” was blowing up with comments, criticism, accusations, judgments, hurt, applause, condemnation and sympathy. By Monday afternoon we needed Nigel Tufnel’s amp because the noise went way past 10. By Tuesday afternoon the conversation shifted so far away from the original intent of the new patron saint of kneeling that we weren’t talking with each other only at each other, past each other and about each other.

I was amazed to see friends who have questioned some of my posts to “the Facebook” jumping in to the fray. Friends who have complained to me about another friend’s “inflammatory posts” were updating and commenting like it gave them a chance to win the lottery every time they hit “post.” Families divided, friends calling names, brothers and sisters in Jesus questioning each other’s faith. There was a great deal of generosity going on but it was not the generosity I had in mind on Sunday morning. And my suggestion that we listen generously, well, we seem to be in a listening desert.

It’s all reminded me of a phone call I overheard between my Dad and a customer service agent. I overheard both ends of the conversation because Dad hits speaker phone and then holds it up to his ear and talks like you would on a normal call.  So I’m listening to Dad and this very nice lady at MediaWorld Inc talking about his cable bill.  It was messed up during their move from the home I grew up in to their new home in a community for 50+ who have no kids living with them. Anyway, the service agent was explaining things to my Dad and using the language from the script in front of her. She was polite and very helpful. But she was using terminology different from my Dad even though they were talking about the same thing. Both were speaking English and Dad could hear her but he couldn’t understand what she was saying and so he got a little agitated thinking he wasn’t being heard. But listening in, as a third party, I could tell she did understand and was fixing the very problem he was calling about but she couldn’t shift over to “dadspeak,” she just heard an older man getting very angry with her for doing exactly what he was asking her to do.

I’m not the great translator, I’m not going to even try to untangle or ‘splain how badly we aren’t hearing each other. Frankly, I don’t understand our “failure to communicate” other than to say that the story I’m in involved an enemy who is masterful at confusing conversations and provoking misunderstandings that drive men to war.

There was a lot of symbolism going on during the football games on Sunday. Symbols are so challenging because they can be charged with such meaning for some and not as much or just differently for others. Symbolic actions, from flowers stuck in the barrels of rifles to raising a fist on the Olympic platform to sitting at a lunch counter can also be misunderstood.

When I graduated from Bible College in 1980something, I had a beard. The problem was that beards were banned at my school. They had just started allowing men, with some amount of concern, to grow moustaches (as long as they didn’t grow below the corners of the mouth). Another student who was graduating with me saw me and my contrabeard and ran off to find the Dean of Students who he dragged in to the waiting area and stood in front of me, pointing at my face. It wasn’t a beard-phobia that was the issue (well, maybe for my fellow graduate, I’ll never understand him) but for the school I attended it, the beard, was a symbol of the radical, rebellious, free-love hippie liberal theology days. First a beard, then textual criticism, then atheism.  I went to one of those schools where professors, back in the day, referred to seminary as cemetery because students lost their faith there.

As Freud might say, sometimes a beard is just a beard – but sometimes a beard is a potent symbol of anarchy to an older administration or a symbolic act of a young graduate trying to say, “your rule about beards is wrong and it’s time to change.”

I’m not comparing my beard protest to those who took a knee on Sunday to protest the systemic racism that appears to have led (and continues to lead) to the untimely deaths of unarmed Black American men. I’m not saying that my beard protest occupies the same moral ground as those who knelt to say that all American’s are not being treated fairly, equally or with the same rights afforded to their White American counterparts.

What I am trying to say is we need to listen. We need to make space for the other and embrace them, not exclude them. We need to hear each other’s voices, each other’s pain, each other’s fear and each other’s heart. We need to listen to a generation for whom flag and country have come to mean something that they do not mean to another generation. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters who feel unsafe and unequal – so tired of the deaths and so tired of being stopped and detained just because they were born Black – that they would risk our rebuke and retribution in order to take a stand on the only platform they have by kneeling when they’ve always stood before.

We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak and even slower to become angry.

We need to be generous in our listening. In our mercy. In our forgiveness.

We all need to understand that our symbols don’t all mean the same thing to everyone. We all need to take into account that some symbols are more potent than other symbols and be mindful that we may not be sending the message we think we are sending and risk losing the very people who would rush to stand against systemic evil with us. We need to embrace those who stand up by kneeling when their own President calls them “sons of bitches” because they are not, they are our brothers.

To my friends who feel offended and hurt and disrespected by the taking a knee, I apologize. I hear you. It hurts to feel like people don’t appreciate you or the sacrifices you and others have made. It hurts to feel judged and misunderstood and it hurts to feel that same disrespect for a country that you love. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for the feelings of disrespect you’ve been made to feel. I’m sorry for the way this moment in time has made you feel unloved. Will you please forgive all of us who take a knee?

To my friends who feel betrayed by a country that claims justice and liberty for all, I apologize. To my brothers and sisters, black and brown, treated as guilty until proven innocent, I apologize. I hear you. I see the pain we have systemically and personally inflicted on you that provokes you, like generations before you, to be moved to peaceful protests that we have interpreted as aggression. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for the feelings of disrespect from a country that you love. I’m sorry for the way you are continually being made to feel less than, unsafe, unwelcome, and hated just because of the color of your skin. It ought not be this way. I’m sorry for the way this moment in time, and the many decades that have come before it, have made you feel unloved. Will you please forgive all of us who stand? Will you even forgive those of us who criticize you for taking a knee?

I have no answers, no remedies, no $3 solution. I only know that mercy triumphs over judgment, so that’s the path I choose to take. I only know that I am my brother’s keeper, all of them. I only know that listening and choosing love creates a better life than condemning and choosing offense.

And I suppose I offer this reflection as an opportunity for everyone to agree you dislike me and what I have to say so we can all get a respite, even for a second, from hating each other.

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me, my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear, the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”
Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me– the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, the cry of the anguished.
Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself. Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside — in the deepest part of me.
Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence.
Teach me, Lord, to listen.  Amen.
by John Veltri, S.J.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pastors and Disintegrated Anticipation

A couple weeks ago, disintegrated anticipation was the topic of a podcastconversation my wife and I had with each other. It’s an idea that I’ve thought a lot about since a friend first introduced the idea to me. The implications of disintegrated anticipation are experienced every day in pastoral ministry. The cause and the effect can both weigh heavily on pastors and those who aren’t as willing to run on the hamster wheel as others are.

The big idea is simply this, as pastors who have been at this for over a decade or two, we have lived through the appearance of a long series of “new things that God was doing.” Each of these new things often came with a promise, implied or explicit, that this would solve all our problems. Our church would grow, pagans would come pouring into the Church, money would cometh, and our church would grow.  Did I mention our church would grow?  That’s the anticipation part.

The disintegrated part is that after a while, with some amazing highs, these “new things” would become “old things” and the ultimate payoff would never arrive or the original expectations would be reframed or retold to lower the bar closer to what actually happened.  About that same time a new “new thing” would be ramping up and we would be too busy getting on the bus to spend time reflecting on the fact that the last bus didn’t get us to the advertised destination.  So, over time, anticipation starts to disintegrate as we jump on the “next bus” for the next “new thing.”

Think of it like this – you go on a 1 mile hike to a peak that promises amazing, never before seen vistas. After a mile, the guide tells you it’s actually just one more mile. Then, after the next mile you’re told they’re sure it’s just one more mile. And so on and so on and so on.  You might be really into hiking but as some point you start to find your excitement about the peak and the vistas start to wane. Add to that disintegrating anticipation other people on the hike who join along the way and are super excited about the upcoming peak and vistas and who say some unkind things about your obviously lack of faith and “religious spirit” because you’re just not buying into the promised peak ahead the way you would if you were really full of the Spirit.

Oh, and then add to that a small group of people on the same hike who, upon reaching the next 1 mile marker, insist that they ARE on the peak and they CAN see the vistas and if you can’t, well, you’ve obviously got a “religious spirit”, “spirit of cynicism” or some other dysfunction that is keeping you and others from receiving the joy and glory of the peak and vista.

Are you feeling it?

So let me spell out here, as clearly as I can, some of the peaks and vistas that my wife and I can recall over the last 30 years of ministry.  I’m not sharing these to say they are bad or good or neutral. This is simply meant as a record of all the peaks that were a whole lot sexier than “a long obedience in the same direction.”  Some of these I quite like. Some I think are rubbish. Some are just funny footnotes. Some were really hurtful.  But none of them have (in my experience) achieved the implied or explicit peaks that I remember in the buzz that surrounded them at their outset.


In no particular order…
Evangelism Explosion.
Shepherding Movement.
“Christian…” as a subset: our own bookstores, colleges, radio stations, music, news, breath mints.
Focus on the Family.
PTL Club.
Mission Statements.
Contemporary Worship.
March for Jesus.
24/7 Boiler Room Prayer.
Healing Rooms.
Small Groups: Kin, Study, Fellowship, Home, Life, Koinonia, Affinity, etc.
Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Young Life
Revival Meetings.
Willow Creek Sensitivity.
Steps to Freedom.
Signs & Wonders.
Promise Keepers.
Cell Church.
Dream Interpretation at Psychic Fairs.
Inner Healing.
Purpose Driven.
Blood Moons.
Toronto Blessing/Renewal.
Brownsville Revival.
Restoration of the Apostles and Prophets
Lakeland Revival.
Watchmen for the Nations.
Left Behind.
Spiritual Mapping.
Acts 29.
Church Growth Movement.
Natural Church Development.
Treasure Hunting.
Global Awakening.
Sticky Church.
Messy Church.
Simple Church.
Missional Church.
Schools of Ministry & Internships – where the best and brightest of our youth are sent off to other larger churches/programs for a year to two years (often never coming home again) to be discipled, grow and do ministry (because God knows they couldn't grow in their home church).
Christian Celebrities as “spokespeople” for the Church.

This is not an exhaustive list.

The reason I think this matters for pastors is that we’re often called to take a lead role in these things, even leading the hike to the next peak, and frankly, the disintegrated anticipation wears us down mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  Or, and this is a very real reaction, we have to insist on the unproveable: we’ve actually achieved all we set out to achieve. And I would suggest that the cognitive dissonance created by that reaction ultimately hollows us out and leaves us trapped playing pretend and losing our faith. A long obedience in the same direction is a tough sell in an instant society, especially tough when the church down the street is promising all the peaks with none of the valleys.

It’s a challenge for a pastor who has been pastoring for a couple decades is getting excited about the next “new thing God is doing” or the next program that is rolled out for us from our denomination, publishing house or big church or big Christian personality. It’s a challenge to have someone in the church come in to tell you about this cool program/move of God they are all about and want you to be all about too, without regard to or in spite of what’s already going on in your local church. It’s a challenge having someone in your church tell you they are switching to another church because God’s doing a “new thing” there and you’re part of the “old thing” God used to be doing.

It’s challenging as a pastor when people want to focus on the “success story” behind something when you’ve been around enough to be aware of the bodies that have been thrown under the bus to make that “success” happen.

It’s challenging as a pastor because we’re offered books and stories at conferences and gatherings that tempt us to plagiarize and plunder someone else’s story and try to make it our own so that we can get to the same peaks and same vistas as the author and speaker have reached. We’re invited to cut n paste from other sources with the empty promise that we can have their ending without ever having had their beginning or middle.  The truest thing a senior pastor of a very large church told me once, when I asked about the secret behind their growth from 35 to thousands was, (as he leaned in close to say quietly) “we were in the right place at the right time.”

Pastoring is challenging because we often find ourselves being asked to make a sort of “Sophie’s Choice.” Will we invest ourselves in the church as it is or will we invest ourselves in the church as we think it ought to be? Bonhoeffer warns us against this wishdream but here in North America we live in a culture that develops our sense of self-worth out of our conviction that we are winning: best job, best spouse, best kids, best house, best church. If one of these is off we’re likely to jettison one or all the rest to plug in a replacement so we can maintain or recover that winning feeling.

Pastors face many challenges but I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges for pastors in North America is the pressure of disintegrated anticipation. Pastors in evangelical, non-liturgical churches, especially those that lean towards charismatic and Pentecostal flavors, will feel this most acutely. I have a deep appreciation for those pastors that are willing to face the giants in the land with their little stones and sticks, who get laughed at by those who know better and who continue to put their trust in faithfulness over props and illusions.  I’m praying for you and the story you are in and that you will find that a long obedience in the same direction satisfies your hearts greatest hunger.

Have you ever felt disintegrated anticipation? What made your list? How do you stay off the hamster wheel? What gives you the juice you need for the long obedience in the same direction? Have you ever tried to cut n paste someone else's story to make it your own on the way to "pastoral success"?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Trouble With Pastors

There’s an amazing passage in 2 Corinthians, chapter 11. I've mentioned it before.

Paul is defending himself and his ministry with and to the Corinthians. 

The apostle Paul. 

Let that sink in for a few minutes. 

Seriously, take a few minutes to reflect on Paul, church planter, apostle, pastoral voice, epistle writer, theologian, disciple maker, missionary - you know his c.v. – justifying his existence and his vocation, to that dysfunctional fellowship in Corinth.

As it reads in our New Testament, Paul is writing the church at Corinth, and he is once again responding to their criticism of him.  They’ve previously criticized his preaching, his overall leadership and they have resisted his efforts to give them pastoral direction. It’s easy to see in 1&2 Corinthians that the church wasn’t fond of Paul or how Paul did things. In chapter 11, Paul seems to finally snap emotionally and just vomits out a frustrated rant, listing what he’s been through in his vocation…

To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? NRSV

It’s not insignificant that Paul comes to the end of his rant and says, “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” Paul highlights what most people in pastoral vocation already know, being a pastor is a pressurized, anxiety producing work. Paul puts this daily pressure right up there with being stoned, whipped, beaten and living in danger from enemies and circumstances.  A study from Duke reported that the rate of anxiety/depression among clergy was twice the national average.

Right here is usually where someone interjects that if these clergy were really following Jesus they wouldn’t have problems with anxiety or depression.  Four words: Tell it to Paul. Actually don’t, that’s exactly what the Corinthians Christians were doing and it didn’t help. They called Paul, “weak.” And his “weakness,” they felt, disqualified him from leadership or at least made him a lesser leader than some of the cooler people they knew.

Don’t get me wrong, there are pastors who suck hard. Paul tells the elders at Ephesus to be on guard for these sorts, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” Paul doesn’t warn against men and women who can’t break the 100 or 200 or 300 barrier, he warns against wolves that will come to lead people off after themselves. (Thankfully we don’t see these personality cults in our day but apparently it was a problem back then.) There are some “bad hombres” who bite the sheep, chew them up, fleece them and take them for a ride to the abattoir.

But most pastors I’ve met are hardworking, sacrificial, loving, Jesus focused, Kingdom minded, authentic women and men who follow Jesus and get anxious about the well-being of the church they pastor. And just like Paul, they get grief.  Check out this verse from Hebrews 13, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.”  I know we like to get hung up on “obey” and “submit” but for right now can we just take a few minutes and meditate on the phrase, “Let them do this with joy and not with sighing…”?  Ever heard a pastor sigh? I have.  

In July, I attended a National Leaders gathering and on the first night the host pastor had a “word” that there would be pastors attending who were “at the end of their rope.” Can I just tell you that the prophetic discernment on a word like that is a little like saying, “I sense someone here is breathing.” Or “The Lord’s just told me that some of you in this room were born at one time.” In a room of 500 pastors and spouses, I can guarantee you that there will be people who will identify with “some who are at the end of their rope.” But it wasn’t 5 or even 50 who responded. My guess would be a couple hundred responded and walked to the front to receive prayer from their brothers and sisters gathered around them.

I’m telling you this because I believe there are a lot of ‘sighing’ pastors out there. Some amazing men and women who, among all the crap they have to wade through in the world every day, also come home with sheep bites from other sheep, every night. This isn’t my rant about my local church and my local experience, though I am among all the other pastors who “sigh.” This is about the story we are in and how common and ‘normal’ it is for people in pastoral ministry to add their vocation to the list of ways in which they sometimes or daily suffer. And when we’re talking to and about pastors, and when pastors are talking with or about other pastors, we acknowledge that pastoring is not easy.

I love pastors. I admire them. I think they are extraordinary people who daily face pressures, keep secrets, deny themselves, prefer others and carry burdens…and yes, I know you do to. Acknowledging the unique troubles pastors face is not a negation of your very own trials and tribulations. I just think sometimes we don’t acknowledge the troubles of pastors unless they are troubling us or the pastor – like the unseen sound person – has made us turn around and look because something has gone horribly wrong.

So, let me just say to all my pastor friends out there, vocational, bi-vocational, unpaid, titled, untitled – I thank God for you every day. Your hard work matters. What you give, week in and week out, noticed and largely unnoticed, praised, ignored and critiqued, is a beautiful gift to God, a ministry to Jesus and an expression of the Holy Spirit. Please keep doing what Love does, no matter what. Gather, share stories, pray for each other, find safe people to share your weakness with and let others share their weakness with you.

There's bound to come some trouble to your life / But that ain't nothing to be afraid of 
There's bound to come some trouble to your life / But that ain't no reason to fear 
I know there's bound to come some trouble to your life 
But reach out to Jesus, hold on tight / He's been there before and He knows what it's like 
You'll find He's there  - Rich Mullins

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Pastor's Story

A Pastor's Story is my new weekly podcast that’s about the men and women who pastor churches all over north America.

Each week I will interview at least one pastor to learn about the story they are in and to celebrate who they are, the work they do and the journey that has brought them to this moment in time.

We’ll be talking with re-tired pastors, new pastors, experienced pastors and pastors who are trying to figure out what their role is all about. 

Here’s the perspective we’ll be coming from each week: we love pastors, we admire the incredibly difficult work they do and we are grateful for their journey and their commitment to following Jesus.

But here’s where reality will also break in. Being a pastor can be mean a story full of pain – emotional, psychological, social and spiritual pain – even some physical pain. And, as Eugene Peterson has said, it’s one of the easiest professions to fake and we’ll acknowledge along the way that there are some fakers out there and they have made being a pastor even harder than it already is.

This will be a personal look at the men and women behind the “clergy curtain” to discover the amazing hearts and minds that are engaged 24/7, 365 days a year in pastoring churches across North America.  These won’t be “celebrity pastors,” these will be the everyday men and women who serve in over half the churches in the U.S. and Canada. We’re having real conversations with the men and women who are engaged with God in shepherding and shaping the church as it is into the church as it’s becoming – conversations few people have with people most people think they already know.

So grab some coffee, put on the cruise control, turn up the volume and join us as we share a pastor’s story…

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Pastors Don't Just Happen (or "How Did This Happen to Me?" a Pastor's story)

Every superhero has an origin story. As a kid those were my favorite comics to collect. As I grew up I kept reading comics but as my reading material expanded into novels, history and even into things like theology and philosophy, I have always been intrigued by “the hero’s journey.” Over the years, I’ve also gotten to know a lot of pastors. A lot. I’ve come to discover that many of their lives have followed “the hero’s journey” and that these men and women, somewhere in the midst of their journey, have had to become pastors the same way that Frodo had to go to bear the ring to Mordor or Joe Banks had to jump into the Volcano.

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson reveals not only did he have a lack of
interest in being a pastor, but it was a lack that seminary – if anything – reinforced:  “And pastor as a vocation for me seemed like being put in charge of one of those old-fashioned elevators, spending all day with people in their ups and downs but with no view.” Peterson wanted to learn, to teach and to write. His relationship with Jan, his future wife, was transformational. “Those years of graduate study could have marked the beginning of a slow withdrawal from a relational life into a world of books.  She rescued me from that.”

Looking back on the story of his early relationship with Jan, Peterson observes, “What I didn’t know was that when we did marry, something had already been going on in me at some deep level, as yet undetected, that would soon disqualify me from the life of learning that I anticipated.” Unbeknownst to him, maybe even against his will, Peterson was becoming a pastor, shaped by his story and by Jan’s story as their stories converged into one narrative: “In not quite three years, she was what she had always hoped to be – a pastor’s wife.”

Formation by story had been happening for a long time before Peterson recognized where that formation would eventually lead him.

I’m incredibly interested in the story of every pastor that I meet.  I want to collect origin stories from pastors the way I used to collect Spider-man, Batman and Green Lantern stories.

Have you ever engaged your sacred imagination to try to picture how your pastor came to be who, what and where she is right now? Have you ever wondered what events have shaped her, some knowing, some unknowingly, to choose the life she is living as a pastor?

No doubt there are some shady origin stories.

At a conference for youth pastors that I attended years ago, a psychologist spoke, the author of a book on “Why Teenagers Act the Way They Do.” But he turned the tables on us and instead of talking about teens and the way they behave and the whys behind them, he explored by we became youth pastors. He talked about the origin story of the youth pastor who had few friends in high school and he became a youth pastor so teens, the popular ones and otherwise, would have to be his friend. Later I came to call this the “Michael Scott.” As he went on to describe other origin stories the auditorium had more and more empty seats. Heroes don’t always care to share their true identities.

But the truth is that there are men and women who have become pastors, in the past and in the present, who were dragged kicking and screaming, or at least reluctantly, to the pulpit. There are men and women who are as surprised as anyone else on earth to find themselves, pastors. There are beautiful, amazing, wise, sacrificial, patient, long-suffering, generous, faithful women and men called “pastor” who wonder every Sunday morning around 8 a.m., “How did this happen to me?”

I want to invest the second half of my life in collecting the origin stories of these heroes. I want to encourage them and be encouraged by them. I want to honor those people who have honored God with a life well-lived pastoring congregations that have been well-loved by listening to and sharing their stories.

Listen, if you’re a pastor, know this – there are no ordinary men and women who engage in this vocation – Paul the apostle was under the impression you have been given as a gift by God to the church. Being a gift, hand-picked and hand-crafted by God is something extra-ordinary.  Some of you feel like that Christmas sweater that got stuck in the back of the closet, some of you feel like you’ve been re-gifted so many times that you don’t know where you’d call home and some of you feel like every church that’s unwrapped you has thought you were a piƱata. But you are a gift that God has given and that’s never for nothing. You are changing the world by living your story and sharing who you are and loving the people God has dropped you into the midst of.

If you’re a pastor and wouldn’t mind sharing your origin story with me sometime, I’d love to hear it. I think you’re amazing.

I'm going to be launching a podcast soon where I'll be exploring my admiration for pastors and their stories more in depth.  If you've got a question you've always wanted to ask a pastor, leave it in the comments and I'll pass it along.  Stay tuned.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Pastors (and other endangered species)

Among Paul’s list of the ways he had suffered on behalf of the church he drops this little line, “my daily concern for all the churches…”

The vocation of a pastor, when practiced by someone actually committed to that vocation, is a weighty thing.

Often, people remark about the appearance of a man who has been the President of the United States and how he has visibly aged, more noticeably than others his age, over the span of his time in office. I’ve seen the same kind of “road wear” on men and women who serve as pastors and I’ve seen it accumulate in far less time than it takes to become evident on those politicians.

I realize there are some “bad hombres” out there who have managed to get a gig or are serial gigging as pastors. Clear back in the book of Acts, Paul warns about “wolves” that will appear from among the leadership of a local church, dress up like sheep and turn the church into a mutton buffet. It’s not a recent development.  I have a friend who invests a lot of time gathering, illustrating and telling the stories of these carnivores to a receptive, appreciative audience of people who have themselves been cooked, carved and served up by some of these lupine in lamb’s drag.

But I love pastors.

I’m not oblivious to the wolves, I’m just in awe of the men and women who willingly choose to serve the flock of God of which they are a part. I’m in awe of their devotion to a vocation that is a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year vocation. As highlighted in Paul’s list of sufferings, even when they’re not right beside someone from the church, they’re still caring the church inside their hearts and heads.

These men and women don’t set the thermostat for themselves, they constantly juggle the needs, desires and expectations of a community of people, all at various stages of faith and spiritual, emotional and personal maturity. These men and women have been at the deathbed of more people than is normal. They have grieved and mourned with more families of saints and ornery buggers, seeking to comfort both, (sometimes at the same time) than is normal. They make every vow that they invite yet another couple to make sound as fresh and as hopeful as they did the first couple they married; despite the countless couples with whom they’ve suffered through divorce.

These men and women, most of whom serve in churches with fewer than 200 people in attendance, have often graduated with a degree that cost them more than they will be able to earn enough to repay on the salaries they will make.

They listen to horrific confessions and confer forgiveness and grace to  fallen saints without a hint of judgment or condemnation.

Their children live under microscopes and have to deal with spoken and unspoken pressures unique to them.

Pastors are often accused of things they would never dream of and they dream of things this life will never afford them. They anguish over decisions and work hard for things that will ultimately benefit others and not themselves. And regularly they get to entertain the wisdom of the “arm chair pastors” in their churches who tell them how it could, should, ought and would be if someone else was doing the pastoring.

These brave souls regularly get in trouble with those who want a human master to tell them what to do. Instead these pastors choose the harder but better work of walking beside people to help them make their own choices and their own decisions and take their own steps to grow up to be more like Jesus.

Week after week these pastors come up with one or two or three new messages to share with the church. Can you imagine being a pastor of a church of 75 people, counting everyone including the unborn, and preaching a new message every week to a YouTube and TEDtalk generation?

Imagine having people who compare you, generally unkindly, to the TEDtalk their friend just sent them a link to or the megachurch pastor they watched on the 'net. Usually they don't consider that mega-pastor has a team of writers working for him or that it was still his third service they broadcast because it always goes much better than the first two and by that time he hardly had to look at his notes at all. And they can always edit in a joke from the second service if it got more laughs.

Imagine having to answer more than once the query of a well-meaning church goer, “Why can’t your talks be as engaging as a TEDtalk?” Imagine having to answer them with a kind tone in your voice after having been out the night before at the hospital beside a family whose oldest teenage daughter tried to OD herself into eternity.  Imagine having someone critique the energy you brought (or lack thereof) to the morning service and responding to them gently while you are still thinking about the couple you sat with the night before and tried to help them navigate the meltdown of their marriage and guide them into a healthy conversation.

Imagine the restraint it takes not to suggest they call Brene Brown the next time they are in crisis so you have time to polish up your talk.

Proverbs says that if you find a good wife you’ve managed to do something extraordinary.  Can I suggest that it’s also true that if you’ve found yourself a good pastor – someone who cares more about your soul than you do, who listens to you, who seeks your best and wants to see you discover and fulfill your vocation, who wants to help you grow up and not stay a perpetual baby in Christ – that you’ve found yourself something miraculous.

I love pastors for who they are, for what they do and for all the crap they put up with to do it.  Shepherds get dirty, there’s no way around that. True shepherds don’t grind on about the smell, the mess, the poo, they just embrace the vocation and get on with it. To those men and women pastoring day in and day out, I say, thank you. You are a gift from God to all of us, whether we ever meet or not, you have made the world a brighter and tastier and more creative space for being in it. Thank you for the gift of life you bring, however perfectly imperfect that you do it. You are a gift, a treasure, a little wind of heaven into the souls of the men and women, boys and girls that you pastor.

I have a pastor friend who was senior pastor of a very large church in a very large city. One Sunday morning, between one of their three morning services, while my friend was running down a hallway from visiting with people in the lobby as they left and re-entering the sanctuary for worship, he was stopped in the hall by a woman he recognized as an occasional attender at their church. "I'm so glad I caught you," she said, "my mother and I were wondering if you could do something about the volume of the music and get  someone to turn it down?" I know my friend well enough to know a million appropriate responses ran through his mind but what he chose to do was answer firmly but kindly this inappropriately timed request. Now imagine this happening to every pastor, every Sunday times infinity.

Cheers to you, pastors. I admire each one of you.

I'm going to be launching a podcast soon where I'll be exploring my admiration for pastors and their stories more in depth.  If you've got a question you've always wanted to ask a pastor, leave it in the comments and I'll pass it along.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 9, 2017


One of the primary gifts of the story is that of identity.  Knowing our story confers upon us that sense of identity that is critical to both formation and purpose.

The story-less life produces a vacuum that demands filling and by God or by another source it will be filled. Typically, in the absence of the internal pressure created by a storied life, we will adopt the dominant narrative of the world immediately around us. This is more unconscious than conscious though we will become actively committed to the promotion and preservation of the narrative we assume.

Even when that narrative is “they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” (Hauerwas)

In 1984 a book by Thomas Oden was published called, Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition. In this brief but important book, Oden voices his concern about the shift in pastoral care from the Classic tradition, wholesale, to a modern psycho-therapeutic version. Oden laments the lack of familiarity with our story, illustrated by the neglect in the system of formation for pastors for reading and familiarity with the Classic work on pastoral care by Gregory the Great. In place of our story, Oden demonstrates, we adopted the dominant story of the day that focused on the works of Jung, Freud and other psycho-therapies, to provide pastoral care to help people sort out their issues.

Oden wrote, “So pastoral theology has become in many cases little more than a thoughtless mimic of the most current psychological trends.  Often these trends, as psychologist Paul Vitz has astutely shown, have been bad psychology to begin with.” (Oden, p33)

In 2011, Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, as published.  Among the many insights about the storied-life or the importance of the narrative, The Pastor, illustrates over and over again our tendency to assume the dominant narrative of our times when we’ve become disconnected from our story.  This is not a problem exclusive to pastors, this is a human problem. But when those who are charged with the care of souls have become disconnected from our story, what hope can souls have to do anything but the same? When pastors have lost the plot, how do those we shepherd not become “twice the child of hell” we ourselves have become?

In The Pastor, Peterson tells the story of a young pastor who had been part of their “Company of Pastors” that were seeking to recover the plot of our narrative that education and church experience has driven out of them or perhaps had simply failed to transmit to them. A young pastor who had been part of the group for seven years was moving on to “multiply his effectiveness.” Peterson tells about the lunch they shared before this young pastor, Phillip, left.

The more he talked that day over our plate of breadsticks and bowls of vichyssoise, I realized that he had, despite the Company of Pastors, absorbed a concept of pastor that had far more to do with American values – competitive, impersonal, functional – than with what I had articulated as the consensus of our Company in Five Smooth Stones. That bothered me. It didn’t bother me that he was changing congregations – there are many valid, urgent, and, yes, biblical reasons to change congregations.  But Phillip’s reasons seemed to be fueled by something more like adrenaline and ego and size. (Peterson, p156)

In Oden’s experience, our story-less experience found us taking on the dominant narrative of pop-psychology as pastoral care. In Peterson’s experience, this same lack of conviction or coherence about the story we are in, led us to adopt the story that good pastoral care is about growing bigger churches.  Peterson writes, “…the momentum of what was being termed church growth was gathering.  All of us in the Company agreed that it was misnamed.  It was more like church cancer – growth that was a deadly illness, the explosion of runaway cells that attack the health and equilibrium of the body.” (Peterson, p158) The work of the Company, to reinforce the nature of the story we find ourselves in, for one another, gave them a perspective on the dominant narrative of church growth, that many will not share.  Knowing what story you are does that.

It often moves you to the fringe. It makes you a threat to the dominant narrative. And the keepers of the dominant narrative will first try to get you back and then failing that, they will mock you and if you persist, will exile or eliminate you.

It happens for to men and women at work who live in a way consistent with their story but contrary to the dominant narrative. When your story is love and the dominant narrative is fear or resentment, love becomes the violence that threatens the system. And you will be stopped. The workplace can be hostile unless you adopt the dominant narrative.

It happens to pastors who invite people to live a story that is different from the dominant narrative that they have adopted when they did not know the story they were in. We have in our minds a story about what a pastor is, does and should be and should do. When our pastors don’t conform to that story, we do not question our story, we question the pastor – their knowledge, their character, their aptitude and their proficiency.

It happens to millennials when they won’t dance to the same tune we love.

A friend who trains people in a particular field related some training day stories to me. One of those stories was about the amount of work my friend has to do to bridge the understanding gap between older members of the workforce with the newer. The younger members worked their shift but when their shift was scheduled to be over, they went home. The older members were living a story that saw this as a lack of commitment, a poor work ethic, an unwillingness to be team players. The younger members story was that they worked to live, they didn’t live to work and they would not give up family time or play time to conform to the story their older counterparts were living. Both had the same job description, both were doing the job they were asked to do but both were living in stories that made them critical of the other. And both felt an internal pressure for the other to adopt their story as the common narrative.

In the U.S. right now we’re experiencing an incredible clash of narratives. I am both fascinated and appalled by what I see. It’s the classic experience of the bigger brother grabbing the little brother’s arm (sorry, Brad, I did you wrong) and using it to smack his little brother in the face while he keeps repeating, “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself…” You will accept my dominant narrative even while you know that it is not the story we are in.

This is the ongoing challenge for us all. What story are we in? What makes us believe that is our story? What Company are we a part of that supports or challenges (or does both) the story we think we are in? How have you determined the narrative by which you are living your life, making your choices, evaluating reality?  Will you accept the dominant narrative or will you speak and live prophetically, declaring a different story through which others will find hope? Can you clearly articulate for others the story in which you find yourself?