Paying for School

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

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