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Posts Tagged ‘limitations’


Last week I brought up the envy and discontentment that we can feel in church life because our church is as “x, y or z” as another church. We can kick against the goads and ignore the call of God who has placed us in His Body according to His wisdom and goodness. Many churches try to be something they are not instead of the church God has made them to be. Many pastors do the same thing.

But there is another danger, the dark opposite of envy and discontentmet: complacency. This is the notion that since I can’t be like that other pastor, I don’t really have to try. Since our church can’t be like that other church we don’t have to strive to be better.

Envy can drive obsession to be something you can’t be. Complacency drifts into being slack and ineffectual.

And so the tensions of church life, and pastoral ministry begin to arise. They can be seen in these ways.

Complacency <==> Faithfulness <==> Covetousnes

Ineffectual/lazy <==> Utilizing Gifts & Abilities <==> Over-taxing people

Status quo <==> Always improving <==> Over-reaching

Leaders need to honestly assess who they are as pastors, elders and congregations. There must be discussions and analysis of gifts, abilities and resources within a congregation, and the best way to use them to the glory of God.

Let’s look at music as an example. Each congregation has its own musical resources that are intended to shape their music ministry. Each church, therefore, has different limitations. When I first entered pastoral ministry the congregation had the self-proclaimed “piano lady” who was the wife of an elder. That was about it. When she was on vacation they used one of those digital hymnal boxes to lead singing. I dusted off my guitar, faced my inhibitions about playing in front of people, invested time most weeks practicing and played along on songs I could play. It was a small church and my mistakes weren’t the end of the world to most of the people.

We played hymns and a few Scripture songs. We had a few snow birds, and one used to play organ for her church. She played for a few Sundays when our beloved piano lady was out of town. It didn’t go well. It would have been okay except for a man who was very vocal about his displeasure and she never tried again.

The “old days” of Cornerstone except the pianist is “missing”.

Eventually God brought another musician into the congregation. She had are greater abilities than the piano lady and we were able to significantly expand the range of music we sang as a congregation. For a period of time there was a third keyboardist who could spell the other two and we all loved her rendition of Amazing Grace. We identified a few people who sang well and had them lead the singing. For a small church, we had a very good music ministry. It was one that grew as God provided new resources, but sought to live within its limitations. The piano lady couldn’t do syncopated music. If she was the only keyboardist that day we didn’t do any.

One temptation would have been to be complacent. We could have refused to improve our ministry as God provided. We could have ignored the provision of new musicians. We could have refused to expand our musical options (adding songs and new styles). We also could have thought we were supposed to have a music ministry like the big church down the street and gotten bitter because our musicians weren’t semi-professional (or go bankrupt paying musicians).

The same thing has happened at my new congregation. We had some very good piano players and a very good guitarist. We have 2 people who can play bass, and one who plays the penny whistle. We had a violinist. I am the least skilled musician among us. The congregation sings well. We didn’t stick with the status quo. We’ve expanded our music. We bought a piano to replace the keyboard and made it the focal instrument. A new member added a beat box to the mix. One of the young women practiced to improve her skills and has gone from playing hymns alone to playing with other instruments. We’ve asked one of our strongest voices to help lead the singing, particularly important for new songs.

It hasn’t all been positive. We have one instrumentalist dealing with the realities of aging. Our violinist moved away. All of these things shift our gifts and abilities, expanding and contracting our musical boundaries as a congregation. Our music can and should be getting better rather than becoming stale through complacency.

That is how all ministries of a church should be. How are our resources changing? Are we able to do more or do we have to start thinking about doing less? How can we do what we do better?

This is the process of becoming the best church, to the glory of God, that we can be. That doesn’t mean trying to become like someone else, but growing more into who God has made us in His providential wisdom. That can be painful as we let of old ways and learn new ways. But we need to avoid the traps of both covetousness and complacency. This is difficult since we are prone to self-deception (each of us can mask either as ‘being faithful’). One way is to keep our focus on Christ and His principles instead of exalting our preferences. We can’t be all things to all men all at the same time. We are called to be the church God has made us to our particular community at this particular time.

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A while ago one of the admissions guys from our denominational seminary was in town and stopped by. We talked for awhile. A short time later a book arrived in the mail. It was The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. As a result I read it while on study leave.

I am reminded of the story of Elisha hounding Elijah because he knew it was time for Elijah to “go home”. He asked for a double portion (the firstborn son’s inheritance). As I read this book I got the impression that he is the new Eugene Peterson. This is about the man in ministry and how he goes about ministry. It is not ivory tower theory, but born of the intersection of theology and life.

I am also reminded of the great men in Scripture who thought they would be great on their own terms, and then God humbled them and they became more useful. Zack is not the hero of this story, and neither are we. This is an honest book about the hard lessons he learned.

This is not a “perfect book”, and that is perfectly fine. There is plenty here to encourage, humble and re-direct. He breaks the book into 4 sections: Calling, Temptations, Reshaping the Inner Life and Reshaping the Work. There is an element of who the reader is that impacts how any book is perceived. For me the lag was in the 3rd section. In some ways though I suspect he could make a cottage industry of this with the Imperfect Husband, the Imperfect Father ….. precisely because this material does apply to all of these callings.

“My pastoral desires had become tainted, and I did not realize it. A lot of us don’t. We and our congregations suffer for it.”

The main part I took away from the first section on calling is the intersection of God’s calling and our past. Our history is important because we don’t just shake it off. It comes with us into our calling, and makes our fulfilling that calling more difficult. Our history shapes who we are (grace does too), often in ways we cannot or do not perceive. The more we ignore our history, the more it will impact how we do ministry.

The temptations pastors face, and are sometimes thrust upon them as demands, are important. In this section he has something of a mantra: “You and I were never meant to repent for not ___________. You and I are meant to repent because we tried to be.” His issue is our attempt to be like God, not in terms of His communicable attributes but in terms of His incommunicable attributes. We want to be everywhere (and at the right time), able to fix everything, knowing everything and that everything can happen NOW. Here he quotes Eugene Peterson:

“I think the besetting sin of pastors, maybe especially evangelical pastors, is impatience.”

luke-face-dark-side-caveThese temptations are part of the context of fulfilling our calling. We cannot avoid these temptations, but must face them much like Luke Skywalker has to face the temptations of the dark side. Except this doesn’t happen in a cave, but in the course of ministry.

“When Jesus begins to rescue us from trying to fix it all, know it all, be everywhere for all as fast and as famously as possible, we find ourselves in a hard spot.”

The 3rd section sounds like it has been greatly influenced by The Contemplative Pastor. He encourages speaking less and listening more (James 1:19). There will be a time to speak, but first we must listen. This is made even more difficult in the social media/sound bite world we live in. He offers three thoughts for other pastors for us to ponder in our “detox”.

  1. The boundaries of your calling reveal God’s pastoral care for you. He knows our limitations and capacities, precisely because He gave them to you. He doesn’t expect you to go beyond those limitations. Respect them.
  2. In trying so hard not to miss out, you actually create the thing you fear. Too many pastors are so busy going to conferences that they miss out on their actual calling. I’m not called to go to conferences, but to shepherd people.
  3. Smaller is always better than larger unless, and only if, God extrudes us. I’ve only been a small church pastor. I see some larger church pastors struggling to actually shepherd. They are teachers (and there are times I wish I was primarily a teaching/preaching “pastor”). God does put some people in these larger contexts, but we have to resist the selfish ambition that claws for them, always looking for the next, better & bigger position instead of shepherding the people where you are.

“When the three-fold omni-temptation to be like God takes hold of us with speed, we gradually turn to the Bible as a tool kit to make our programs work or our sermons applaudable rather than as the words of our Beloved meant to help anyone anywhere find the way home.”

The last two chapters, Local Knowledge and Leadership, are among the high points of the book. Ministry does not happen in a vacuum, but in a real place which is different from other real places. So he talks about how to grow in knowledge of your place (made more difficult with the internet which helps us know about every other place). Leadership takes a slower pace, more intentional and contemplative, including training. I’ve done some of this in training- the idea of shadowing and attending meetings to see how the guy fits in and approaches things. I can do more.

So, the bottom line is that I highly recommend this book to pastors and elders. The pastor cannot change the local culture and expectations alone. He needs the help of those in leadership with him. As they embrace the things Zack talks about, the healthier their leadership and churches will become.

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"Fix your eyes upon Jesus..."

The length of worship services has been an issue for as long as the church as existed.  Paul preached so long at one evening gathering that a guy fell asleep and dropped out the window.  Most of us are used to people falling asleep on us.

Some shared an article from our cousins over the pond about the length of worship services.  The basic point of a bishop was that more people will come more regularly if the service is shorter.  At one point the Anglican service was about 50 minutes.  Knowing they celebrate the Table each Sunday, I find this hard to believe.

But the Bishop of Lichfield thinks that servies have become too long and too complicated.  As a result, non-regular church goers are increasingly confused and unwilling to show up.  One survey indicates that Anglican clergy are preaching for as long as 42 minutes and services have crept up to 90 minutes.  But it isn’t just the sermon that is longer.  They are singing and praying longer (perish the thought- discipline these hacks!).

(more…)

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