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Prophets and Cynics

The Church needs prophets. Prophets are people who look to God as their authority. They don’t have a point to make other than the ones God calls them to. They are willing to be unpopular for the sake of fidelity to God and for the good of the Church–even when she doesn’t appreciate it. They are humble. This doesn’t mean they are hesitant to speak boldly. Their confidence comes from a conviction of the Spirit. Their confidence does not come from individualistic arrogance. They are thoughtful and wise. Their message is sometimes harsh, but it is aimed at conviction and redemption. Ultimately prophets are unswervingly committed to building the Church by calling it to fidelity to God. 

The Church does not need cynics. Cynics are people who look to likes on social media and the favor of others disenfranchised with the Church as their authority. They are willing to sarcastically and consistently put down those they disingenuously call “brother and sister” for the sake of cultural popularity. They are the kind of people who feel good about themselves by trashing others. They speak boldly, but their words are void of wisdom. Their confidence comes by the affirming laughter of others who find refuge in cynicism. Ultimately cynics are hell-bent on tearing the Church apart to prove they are not like “those Christians.”

As we speak, are we more prophet or cynic?

As we listen to others speak, especially online, are we listening to prophets or cynics?

How do I approach the church now?

This post is part of a series with my reflections on the path out of pastoring.

Yesterday I met with a local pastor and he asked me an interesting question.

“How has your time as pastor impacted the ways you function as a member of the church?”

This is something I had thought about before, but I hadn’t ever talked through my answers. I know former pastors who have left the church or struggle to be a part of her now. For me, this hasn’t been the case. But my time as a pastor has significantly influenced the way I act as a part of a new church. Here are some of the things that means for me.

I will be supportive and encouraging. I want our pastors to know they are loved. I want them to know I believe their decisions are thoughtful and intentional. I want to honor the time, energy, and emotional effort they are giving to the life of our church every day. I know they are doing their very best to be faithful pastors of Jesus’ church. Yes, they’re doing so as broken people who won’t always do the right thing, but I’m just as broken and I don’t know what’s right either. I don’t expect them to be perfect. I just love when they are humble and making an honest attempt to serve faithfully.

I’m aware I sometimes struggle with comparison. I put years into both the big picture and the daily life of the church. That much time and energy leads you to some deep convictions about the best ways to do things. So sometimes my thoughts stray to the way I would do things. Which leads me to the next point.

I will go directly to the pastor if I ever have concerns. While I understand why I have thoughts about how I would do things, the reality is that almost every one of those thoughts is just pride. Why do I know any better? As I said above, it’s actually much more likely that the people who know best are the ones spending their entire work week praying, listening, and thinking about how to lead the church. If I ever have a significant concern I will go directly to the pastor. I will not gossip or complain about what’s happening. And until the time there’s any significant concern I’ll keep striving toward maturity that takes every thought captive to Christ, not my preferences.

I don’t presume on the pastor’s time (and that’s not all good). I have asked to get together with a pastor once, and that was to share some of our story and why we wouldn’t be jumping right into the life of the church fully. On Sundays I don’t wait around to say hi to the pastors. If I walk by them and they’re not talking to someone else I’ll give them a quick hug and say hi, but then I move on. I’m still discerning why this is the case, because I appreciated people seeking me out when I was a pastor. So I still have some work to do on the why for this one.

I don’t share my thoughts or opinions unless I’m asked. This relates to the first couple things I wrote, but I just don’t think the pastors need my opinion on things. I had one pastor invite me to come and meet with the church interns and I really enjoyed that. I appreciated the invite, but I wouldn’t have sought it out. I’m still wrestling with the why on this one too. I enjoyed having conversations with people about the church, especially when they were humble about it, but I’ve fully resisted these kinds of conversations so far.

If you or someone you know has walked the path out of pastoring, I’d love to hear how you experience being a part of a church.

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Master of Divinity?

This post is part of a series with my reflections on the path out of pastoring.

I hadn’t assembled a resume for a job other than pastor for ten years, but that’s exactly what I found myself doing. As I worked through the different sections, listing my degrees, work history, and certifications I had the thought, “I’m screwed. I have no experience that will interest anyone and my highest degree is actually called a Master of Divinity.” I’d truly love to know what an employer outside the Christian world would think when they saw that thing on the resume.

I’ve heard something like this echoed by almost every friend I have who has walked the path out of pastoring. “How do I convince someone any of my experience is worthwhile? Is the fact that I’ve worked in religion going to keep me from getting any other job? I have 10, 15, 20 years of experience and my best hope is something entry level.”

I recognize at least two fears that underlie these thoughts in me.

First, I fear not being able to find meaningful work and provide for my family. My experience and degree aren’t even neutral, they are negative in the world of work outside the church. It seems to me that fear is not entirely true, but not entirely unfounded either. For friends who have taken the path out of pastoring and not walked into another Christian non-profit, their opportunities have been primarily entry level or entrepreneurial. And even many of these opportunities have come from some friend or family member who is willing “do them a favor.” This leads to my second fear.

The second fear is that I actually don’t have anything of value to offer outside of working in the church. I had a hard time putting together my resume because it was actually proof that I had lost the only thing I could ever do.

Here’s what I would say to those two fears. The first one is partly true. In my experience, being a pastor and getting degrees in “divinity” is not a positive for employment outside the church or Christian non-profit world. The second one is mostly false. The abilities I have and skills I’ve developed are transferrable to all kinds of roles and industries. However, there is some hard work to be done to actually apply them in another arena. The realization that I need to work hard to add both hard and soft skills for my life of work after pastoring is very tangible right now. So while it’s not true that I have nothing to offer, it is true that there is work in learning how to use my knowledge and experience in another context.

If you or someone you know has walked the path out of pastoring, I’d love to hear what fears you’ve encountered as you’ve found work doing something else.

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What about my calling?

This post is part of a series with my reflections on the path out of pastoring.

Most people I know who became pastors did so out of a sense of calling. That is true for me. During my senior year in college, after a particularly painful breakup, I honestly and fully submitted myself to seeking and obeying God’s will for the first time. Almost immediately it was like a light flipped on–“I’m supposed to be a pastor.” It made sense of my gifts, interests, and difficulty landing on another career path.

So what happens when 19 years later I find myself on the path out of pastoring? What about my calling? This is a deep question I’ve heard from others who are no longer pastors.

The first answer is I don’t know. I could come up with “three reasons the end of your life as a pastor doesn’t mean the end of your calling,” but that wouldn’t honor the difficulty of this question. When you believe you are called to be a pastor but you cannot be a pastor, it creates so much internal strife. All I will offer here are some thoughts and emotions that have been a part of my journey in the nine months since my time as a pastor ended.

My calling was real, even though I didn’t choose for it to end. There’s a sense in which I consented to the end of my time as a pastor. I was in agreement with our leadership team when we voted to close our church. In another sense, I didn’t choose for my time as a pastor to end by moving on to do something else. This was handed to me by the circumstances. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a pastor again. I honestly don’t know right now if my calling to that is over or not. I’m at a point today where I can trust God to show me when I need to know. Whatever the future holds, I believe I became a pastor out of calling and the current circumstances don’t change that.

I know I can still be a “pastor,” but people telling me that isn’t too helpful. Many well-meaning people have told me I can still be a “pastor” without working in that role in a church. To be fair, I’m pretty sure I told numerous former pastors the same thing when I was a pastor. Of course there’s truth in that. The gifts God used in us when we were pastors can still be used in other environments or without the official role, but this minimized the reality of the struggle we face. I wish I had been aware of this when I was a pastor and engaged the real pain and difficulty my friends were facing more fully.

My work has purpose, even if that doesn’t answer my questions about a pastoral calling. For the last five years plus I’ve been involved with a number of organizations and people who have helped me see the rich theology about the deep purpose of work. I have come to truly believe that all work can be a means of loving God and loving neighbor. It can all contribute to the holistic mission of God in the world. (Of course excluding work that is inherently sinful.) This deep belief has honestly helped me to embrace the purpose in the work I’m doing now. It doesn’t answer my questions of what to do with the call I had to be a pastor, but it does help me find real purpose in my work.

My worth is not based on being a pastor. This is something God’s Spirit has done in me. Whether I would have named it or not, I found so much of my value in being a pastor. This led to a season of despair about my life and my future. By God’s grace he has helped me to see the worth I have in him, outside of whatever role he calls me to–past, present, or future. I’m not sure I ever would have experienced this as a pastor, so I’m grateful for what God has done in me.

Sometimes you just don’t know why. Some Christians hold to “there’s a reason for everything.” I tend more toward the theological perspective that bad things really happen but God can bring redemption even out of those. Either way, I think there will be times where things happen and you just won’t ever know why. We have to figure out how to move forward without all our questions answered. That’s an exercise in faith.

If you’ve walked this path or know someone who has, I’d love for you to comment about your experience and how you’re handling it.

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The Path Out of Pastoring

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This is a series of posts with my reflections on the path out of pastoring. Links to the others posts are at the bottom.

Recently I read that our greatest passions are born of our deepest pain. That resonated with me. While I have finally come to the place where I’m able to name some of the very good things that I’m taking with me from the last church where I was a pastor, that season also stands as one of the most painful of my life. This has made me more attuned to and passionate about friends and colleagues who, for various reasons, have walked the path out of pastoring. I’ve wondered about their pain, their experiences, and their ability to find new life in a new life.

My own experience and the conversations I’ve had with people who have walked the path out of pastoring have pushed me to reflect more deeply on the difficulties of this path. I haven’t done a survey or research study on the commonalities of the experiences of those who were pastors, but my conversations have me wondering if there isn’t more in common than different for those of us walking this path.

This next series of posts will be my reflections on my own experiences and the things I have heard from friends who are no longer pastors. If you have walked this path out of pastoring, or know someone who has, I’d love to hear about your experience as well. My hope is that naming these things will help me and others to stumble into the life that is possible when something dear to us has been lost.

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An Honest Question for Christians

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I have an honest question for Christians. If you call yourself one, I’m asking you to consider this question for yourself. I know it will be easiest to begin answering it for a bunch of other people who call themselves Christians, but I don’t want you to do that. For now, only think about yourself. Here’s the question.

Are you more committed to the gospel of Jesus (including its implications for every aspect of life and society) or a political ideology?

Slow down. Really think about it.

Full disclosure, I started thinking about writing this post because of frustrations with views I see of Christians in society, but as I did what I just asked of you and focused on myself I had to admit some things.

  • Some of my views are primarily driven by my disposition toward particular political and economic ideologies. (I’m not sure this is wrong, but it’s important for me to name where they come from and be open to the gospel challenging them.)
  • I am more angered by anti-gospel positions of those with whom I regularly disagree than those with whom I regularly agree. (This is not okay.)
  • I excuse bad behavior from politicians on one side the aisle more than the other.

In short, I let the lines between gospel-vision and political platform get too muddy at times. But I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life–not any political or economic system. I want to recommit myself to aligning my thoughts and desires with him above anyone or anything else. I hope you might too. What would it look like in your life if you did? (I’ll be wrestling with that one too.)

The Privilege and Challenge of Being a Pastor and Friend

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

Every job or role in life has unique privileges and challenges. But until my time as a pastor ended I didn’t take seriously the unique challenges of being one.

Being a person’s pastor and their friend is a beautiful and messy proposition. Perhaps this is more true in small churches, that’s the only kind I’ve ever really pastored. I do know that other pastors I’ve talked to have experienced some tension in the interplay of being pastor and friend. It is an area I didn’t give sufficient weight during my time as a pastor. I took the perspective that I was no different than anyone else and therefore my relationships didn’t need to be any different. (I don’t mean here that a pastor is different in essence, but the role they take on creates different dynamics.)

I’m still struggling to put words to the complexity of what I experienced with this dynamic of pastor and friend. My friendships with people in our church were authentic and honest. My desire and efforts to be their pastor were authentic and honest as well. I loved them. I say that with no hesitation. But the intersection of these two things made relationships more complex than I realized. I subconsciously felt the need to be guarded in ways I wouldn’t have been with a friend. At times I hesitated to speak deeply into people’s lives as a pastor needs to for fear of my friendships. It wasn’t all bad, it was just…tricky.

I had an experience a few months after our church ended that helped me see my struggle with this dynamic more clearly. We had started attending a great local church, and on the second Sunday we were there we saw a number of people from our old church. I felt so deeply troubled by it (even though I loved these people). As I worked to understand what I had felt, something unexpected came to the surface. I didn’t know how to go from being their pastor and friend to just friend. Total transparency–I felt some jealousy that someone else was now their pastor. I had taken on the role of care and shepherding so deeply and I didn’t realize it would be like ripping out a part of me to give it up.

Unfortunately this has led to awkwardness with people I love and care about. I just haven’t known how to make this transition. My awareness of the dynamic is helping me to unravel that a bit, but I’m still not always sure what it looks like.

To some extent I don’t think you can understand this unless you’ve experienced it. That is true of many things in life, it’s not unique to pastors. I just know there is a weight to the dance of being someone’s friend and pastor. It is a privilege, but not a light one.

So I take with me a new appreciation for the dance a pastor must navigate as both shepherd and friend. It gives me more grace and respect for those I see doing it so well. It reminds me to pray for them so they will have the wisdom to continue navigating it well.

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The Importance of the Weekly Gathering

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

The tired joke is that pastors work one hour a week. The real criticism that reflects the joke is that pastors spend all their time preparing for one hour a week.

Two things about that criticism.

  1. It’s patently false.
  2. Even if it were true I’ve become okay with it.

I grew up thinking of the weekly gathering on Sunday as an obligation. In my early life as a pastor I railed against it as a selfish activity that kept us from the mission of God. At my last church I came to see it as an essential aspect of living a life with Jesus as a part of His Church. In fact, as I dropped my cynicism and entered the weekly gathering with openness, it became like air to me.

Some of my conversion to passionately believing in the importance of the weekly gathering came through the hours our Worship Pastor and I devoted to shaping the gathering to have a meaningful, consistent liturgy and fostering the movement of people toward the unpredictable Spirit. (Yes, we devoted many hours to this and it was worth every second.)

My conversion to believing in the weekly gathering also came from what I experienced with people on Sundays. There are so many things I could share here, but I’ll tell one that will be with me forever. A couple years before our church ended we began praying the Lord’s prayer together every week. We did this to identify with the historical church, which has incorporated this prayer into weekly worship since the beginning. We also did it because we wanted an every week training in aligning our prayers and desires with Jesus’. The family that sat directly behind us had a wonderful, spunky daughter who was three years old. After a few weeks of praying the prayer she began to join in. A few weeks later she was praying it loudly and confidently. It became one of the things I looked forward to most. It made me smile and want to cry (or sometimes actually cry) at the same time. It was discipleship. It was community. It was beautiful.

One of the primary criticisms of the weekly worship gathering is that it is just performance. Maybe at times it is, but our church showed me that it absolutely doesn’t have to be. It is possible to craft a liturgy that honors the voice of the whole church. If we drop our cynicism the Spirit meets us in the words, music, and practices. If we look around and open our ears we hear the voices of our brothers and sisters in faith and it is a profound reminder that we are not alone.

I will never forget worshipping with that church. It is a “stone of remembrance” for me. The presence and power of God was so thick among us at times that it serves as something to hold onto in times of doubt and struggle.

So I take the experience of gathering weekly with our church with me. It grieves me that I won’t have it again. I’m profoundly thankful to have been a part of it for a season. It has converted me to an unwavering belief that getting out the door on a Sunday morning is always worth it.

 

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We’re All the Church–Kids Included

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

As I’ve reflected on our time with our last church, this is the thing I grieve the loss of most. Admittedly, this is probably more because I’m a dad than anything else, but so be it.

We were diligent about incorporating kids and youth into the life of the church. We did have programming for them because the reality is a five year old is going to struggle to get anything out of a sermon. But any activity that separated kids from the rest of the church was only done with careful consideration. Separating kids and youth from adults in any way was not the default.

We had elementary students who did our Scripture readings. Middle schools students ran our powerpoint for worship gatherings. (Don’t underestimate stuff like this. My son did this when he entered sixth grade and he took such pride in it. He understood his place in helping others to worship and learn. It made him feel like a legitimate part of the body.) One of our middle school students began playing drums for songs where he was able. Our kids and students helped us plan, decorate, and serve.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free, [eleven or fifty-five year olds]—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

I understand there are legitimate reasons for separating kids and youth from adults in the church. I also think it is done far too much. I saw the beauty and goodness of treating the kids and youth as “full members” of the body. It’s something I will take with me and work for in any way I’m able.

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The Love of the Church

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

The dominant narrative today is that the church is detrimental to society. At times this is true. That wasn’t my experience with our last church. Conversely, it was in this church where I experienced the beauty of the love and care that can exist among a group of people. Let me share a couple stories to illustrate.

In fourth grade my daughter developed a verbal tic. It was very noticeable–distracting for people around her and embarrassing for her. One week during our worship gathering it was especially intense and uncontrollable. For her sake and the sake of others in the room my wife walked out into the foyer with her. That evening, after the worship gathering had ended, one of the strong and caring women of our church walked up to my wife and said, “Don’t take her out. We love her. We can handle it.” The tears come retelling this story years later.

About four years ago my wife had an injury called costrochondritis–the tearing of the tissue between the ribs. It is incredibly painful and debilitating. For a long time she couldn’t open a water bottle or drive a car. Most people heal in a matter of weeks, but for a variety of reasons it took my wife almost six months before she could perform the tasks necessary to get through the day.  I know it’s common for people to come to the aid of the sick and hurting, but it is also common for that care to wane as an injury or illness lingers on. During the six months my wife was incapacitated, people from our church came to clean our house once a week. We had meals delivered to us at least three days a week every week. People drove my wife to appointments so I could continue with work and other obligations. Women from our church came and just sat with my wife–crying, praying, and talking. It was six solid months of holistic, loving, sacrificial care.

There are many other stories I could tell that stem from the struggles and tragedies of others who were a part of our church, but those are not mine to tell. I do know there are many who would affirm with me that they experienced a significant fulfillment of Jesus’ command in John 13.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

So the first thing I’m taking with me from my time with our church is a deep experience of love put into action among the people of the church. Because of our experience with our church I know it is possible.

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