The High Priest opened the curtain and slowly walked into the Holy Place. His hands were still damp from the recent experience in the water basin. He took a deep breath as he walked through the threshold and whispered a quick prayer during the initial steps.
He looked to the left and made note of the candelabra. This priceless piece was hammered out of one piece of pure gold. Until this point, this lampstand has been used for several generations, but one would have poor observation skills not to notice that the stand still looked brand new. He knew that there was deep meaning in all the pieces that were placed in the Temple, but there was something in him that understood that there was a far deeper meaning to this lamp than what he could currently comprehend. Perhaps the full meaning would be revealed in time…
As he shuffled forward, his robe nearly dragged on the ground. He, once again, became aware of the weight of his breastplate. When he looked to his right side, he remembered the 12 tribes of Israel. This was symbolized by the loaves of bread on the table. The High Priest closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. The smell of freshly baked wheat filled his nostrils, and for some reason, as if it was forcibly planted in his mind, stories of the times that God was faithful to His people were recalled.
The path became shorter, and the priest saw the last stand that he had to navigate around. The closer he got, the more the scent of incense gripped him. This small table had great significance, and the placement made it so it was almost an obstruction to the final goal. As the smoke filled the air, he was made acutely aware of his mission and purpose. The incense symbolized the prayers of the people that he was there to represent. One concept that struck him, that he had never thought of before, concerned the placement of this table. It was strategic. When God gave the instructions through Moses to build the original Tabernacle, it seems as if He wanted to make sure that prayer was the closest thing to Him. Perhaps there is more power in this action that we often think.
With a bowl full of blood in his hand, the High Priest approached the final curtain. He opened it to see the Arc of the Covenant. His heart pounded harder and harder. He felt slightly dizzy and had to compose himself. The makeshift room seemed to be illuminated and he felt as if it was significantly hotter. Then, he gave thanks to Yahweh, and began sprinkling the blood on the artifact. The experience seemed short lived as he concentrated on the ritual. He exited.
Weeks later, the High Priest heard rumors of a baby that was born not too far away. This child was born during the empire-wide census in a stable among animals. People spoke of a scandalized mother, who was pregnant before she was married to her husband. After a while, word about this little boy seemed to fade away. Perhaps we may hear more about this story later.
Whether or not I have consciously realized it, I have been on a quest for over a decade to discover the perfect ministry model. In pastoral circles, we use the phrase “ministry model” to categorize a system of programs and ideas that lead the pastor on a trajectory of success in their respective calling.
In ministry, according to what most instructors, consultants, books and mentors tell us is that success in the role of a pastor has more to do with people accumulated under our scope of ministry than anything else. The bigger the church or program grows (in the shortest time possible), the more successful the ministry. In recent years, I have challenged leaders to redefine success as “a consistent and unwavering focus on God’s mission in the world.” So, in essence, I guess you could say that I am challenging our definition of success.
I know what you are thinking. I am a heretic when it comes to ministry preparation. I hear the justification all the time that the interaction of the Holy Spirit in the life of ministry automatically means exponential growth. “Biblically, anything that the Holy Spirit has [his] hand in grows quickly…” is a phrase or inference that is often conveyed. This, however, is actually not always true. When this justification is brought up, the mental image of the massive growth of the New Testament Pentecost event is visualized. The spiritual domino effect of this was mind boggling. In many people’s minds, when the Holy Spirit is unleashed and active, this is what happens. Things go crazy and, as scripture says “people are added to the group daily”. There is not much wrong with this thought process, but it doesn’t give a full look at a larger story. The fact is, when we truly look at scripture as a unified story, we realize that the Holy Spirit has initiated growth on many different levels and in many different ways. At times, we see the Holy Spirit’s transformative power in one on one interactions. Other times, we see power unleashed through the healing of a man or woman. In even more rare occasions, we see massive groups converted in bulk. Whatever the case may be, there is great evidence to suggest that God’s awesome power is not limited by our metrics, and He is creative. Keep in mind, Jesus’ ministry was not one based on rapid expansion but consistent commitment to His purpose on earth.
My heart has been heavy for a long time concerning ministry preparation. I feel like we, as a Christian culture, have adopted a “Henry Ford” model of education and training (assembly line). It seems as if pastors have stepped into a process in which they are given a “cookie cutter” system of practices and expectations to help them be successful in the task of attracting large crowds. In the same way, whether it is purposeful or not, we are being told that there are only certain personality mixes that are eligible for pastoral ministry. I will write about this concept in my next blog post.
I think we need to rethink the way we do ministry. Passing clergy through an assembly line of preparation is simply not Biblical. I also think we need to consider a new model of ministry. There are 3 things I think we need to emphasize in this new thrust (which is not new at all):
- Shepherd shaped development– Too often, we are calling a new minister to seek to be someone God has never called to them be. We think that, in the best case scenario, and if everything goes well, this pastor will become the local community celebrity and gain a massive following (as long as God “blesses” them). Instead, when a leader does not reach that expectation, they become frustrated and even question their ministerial call. What if we put more effort to teach new pastors to become a shepherd? The position of shepherd implies not only a mentality of guiding, but also sending. A shepherd will send the herd forward, and when they need it, come alongside and direct. When a pastor is shepherd, they dedicate themselves to a community, and they spend energy in making sure that each person is cared for, and loved. They develop trust and deeper concern. It is hard and messy. It is not easy. It will frustrate the leader. It is immensely worth the time.
- Pastor as Healer – Sometimes, as Christians, we get a wrong impression about the word “healing”. Perhaps we cringe or our mind drifts to televangelists who misunderstood the gifts of the Spirit. In this context, the word healer and soother could be interchangeable. The idea is that a leader can and should seek to be an influence that provides care, infuses peace, and speaks life into everyone they encounter. Also, the minister should develop a desire to see that other leaders are brought through rejuvenation.
- Minister as a trainer/ mentor – There is nothing more satisfying than to experience someone, that you have poured time and energy into, grow and take ownership of their own area of ministry. This person may have started out as skeptical about the Gospel, but now they are leading others to Jesus! This is energizing! Pastors across the board should be doing this. I know that many leaders would say that their role is to pour into a smaller group so that this small group can pour into the masses. This is absolutely true. This would be a great example of what this concept looks like in a larger ministry setting.
Let me be clear. I have nothing against the larger worship communities and I think that they can be incredible assets to the Kingdom of God. My problem is that we often expect every leader to look the same and we base success off of statistics and sometimes arbitrary metrics. I understand that many are only trying to harness these principles for efficiency…and many are doing this….but let’s not take these ideas and consider every other ministry arbitrary if they are not “falling in line”. Some leaders are gifted and called to lead smaller communities, and they should be encouraged, and equipped to develop passionate disciples in that context.
In my next blog post, I will speak about the personalities that make up a church and the internal wiring of a pastor. I think we are being told, as implied before, that only a certain type of person is a valid candidate for ministry. Spoiler alert: scripture counteracts this idea.
Love you all,
Today, I am going to give you a “behind the scenes” look at the life and thought process of a bivocational pastor. This category of minister is becoming more common, because we are seeing a fundamental change in the landscape of pastoral ministry. The economy is changing in a way so that many churches are not able to pay their pastor a full-time wage so they must seek employment outside of the church to support their family. It is nothing new, of course, because we know that missionaries have been doing this very thing for hundreds of years. Traditionally, we see this type of ministry done in a church with a smaller membership. The reason for this is obvious; a lack of funding. I am a bivocational pastor, and I know many of them. I don’t often hear complaints about living this lifestyle from the clergy themselves. It is necessary and most are happy to do it (albeit tired) if it means being able to give more to the church, and support their family.
Bivocational ministry can be a great blessing to the Kingdom of God. Through this method, pastors can directly interact with people in the workplace that they may not normally get to minister to. Clergy then can be immersed missionaries in all environments, and embed themselves in just about any context. These are positive aspects to this lifestyle.
Are there any negatives to living this way? Well…unfortunately there are downfalls. Pastors get tired, and as much as we can say that they need to be solely sustained by their calling, it does not negate the fact that our physical bodies and emotional capacities wear down over time. Members will sometimes become frustrated with their leader because the church may not be growing by a massive amount. Meanwhile, the minister is giving every ounce of energy they possess to two (or more) vocations and it can feel like running on a never-ending treadmill. While the pastor is at their day job, there may even be a person who needs them laying in a hospital bed, and their family is becoming frustrated because they have not yet had a visit. Often the answer is to demand more and more from the leader instead of stepping up to the plate.
Clergy that choose to live this life accept the fact that they must adapt to the needs of their position. Sometimes they drop the ball, or forget an important detail. There are times they want to say “no” because they just want one free night to themselves. At the same time, love and the desire for the broken to be healed compels them. It animates their dry bones. Changed lives ignite energy.
I have spoken with pastors who become very frustrated, because people have told them that they need to be more focused on the church and that they should quit their job and “trust God more” for finances. I would argue that this pastor should ask that wonderful parishioner to quit their job so they can volunteer at the church full-time, and see what they say. I digress. The fact is, there are many Christians who would never admit it, but by their actions, would consider bivocational ministry a sin. “Sin” of course being that which inconveniences them. What we forget is that every Christian is called to be a minister. Every believer is a missionary in their context.
Now, before I get angry emails and comments, I want to make it very clear, that I am very blessed to have a congregation that understands the costs and rewards of a pastor that is bivocational. I appreciate the fact that I can live this life with their support and encouragement.
Scripture tells us that even the Apostle Paul was a minister who worked a second job. He had an incredible passion for the Gospel. He did what God called Him to do. He looked forward and didn’t dwell in the past.
Is bivocational ministry a sin? Of course not. Let’s stop treating it that way.
Love you all.
The disciples had a simple question for Jesus before He ascended to Heaven. Why didn’t Jesus answer it?
One of the most important lessons I have learned as a pastor is that I must always maintain a teachable spirit. Ministry can be stressful and require a lot of physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental energy so making a vow to humbly learn all one can is vital. I am, by no means, an expert in the area of ministry, but I have realized that there are things I didn’t necessarily learn in seminary. I do believe that my schooling was very valuable and I would recommend it to any pastor I speak with, but there are just so many things that must be learned on the “field” that can’t be taught.
Today, I want to speak about 3 Things All Pastors Should Know.
Sometimes your ideas are not the best ideas– Often when a pastor enters into their ministry calling, they have big and beautiful ideas about the programs, sermons, partnerships, and impact they will have in their church or organization. These types of thoughts get them excited about the endless possibilities. Then, reality sets in and when the minister makes their attempt to change the world, discouragement comes because the people they are leading are not responding in the way they imagined. Sometimes, this makes church leaders frustrated and want to give up. The fact is, this realization does have to be a bad thing. Often times, the best thing that could happen in pastoral ministry is for the anointed leader to come to terms with the fact that they are not the most creative person in the church. Perhaps there are others that, if listened to, and given authority, can set the church up to fulfill the call that God has given them. Now, don’t get me wrong, the pastor is the person who articulates the agenda for the group they are shepherding, but don’t forget that there are others who are blessed with great talent and creativity. They can be a powerful force for ministry too.
Don’t make your ministry a career – My heart breaks when I see pastors moving from church to church in a relatively short amount of time. In a way, I get it. Sometimes one church is not a great fit and we make mistakes discerning where God wants us. The problem comes, though, when a minister is always in search of that next larger church as if it is some sort of “promotion”. When we do this, we start to look at people as a consumer good or inanimate object. We also begin to look at each spiritual interaction as a means to an end for our benefit. Pastor…YOU MUST STOP THIS! The people who are in front of you are hurting and need someone to lead them into their own Promised Land. You could be their Moses (well, technically Joshua but you get my point). Don’t leave your ministry until God calls you to do so. And, no, God’s only way of “calling you” is not through the avenue of more influence, comfort, and a higher salary. Snap out of it.
It’s okay to admit you are wrong – It is often tempting, as a pastor, to believe that the people who we lead in ministry think of us as flawless human beings who can do no wrong. This is obviously false. There are times when the pastor is wrong, and if they are stubborn about admitting this quickly then their influence will be tarnished. People want leaders who are transparent and who understand their pain. If their shepherd won’t admit and embrace their humanity then they become irrelevant. We don’t have all the answers and we can’t fix every problem. We can, however love people through their own mess.
I wish I would have learned a lot of these things earlier in ministry. I think it would make me a better leader today. It’s okay, though, because God is still using me and I am anxious to continue to grow.
Love you all.
My heart broke as I sat across from an elderly woman who began to weep in front of me. I didn’t know her and she didn’t really know me. Her husband displayed little emotion directly next to her…as if he was internally numb. Both of them were sitting in front of me because of their deep love for the church that they attend.
Periodically, I am asked by an organization I am associated with, to enter churches and survey members of the congregations that are having deep division and conflict. I provide them with prompts for them to begin speaking, but really they set most of the agenda as they share what is on their heart. The experience is not only used to collect data and the “pulse” of the people who attend the church, but also serves as a cathartic experience for those who are hurting.
The elderly woman in front of me was sobbing as she spoke about what the church was going through. This church was experiencing division, backbiting, and disorganization. At first, her posture was one of anger and bitterness. She had complaints about surface level issues like music style, carpet color, and men not always wearing a tie. She thought, so many times, about leaving the congregation and seeking one with less issues. Over a period of about 15 minutes, though, her attitude changed as she explained the deep impact this local worship family has had over the span of her long life. She told stories that truly embody what the Church is supposed to look like. Her past highlights include service projects, care for unknown people in the community, laughter, and changed lives. She truly loved this church. She was just so heartbroken to see what it was going through.
At first, I silently judged her (just being honest) based on the fact that her initial complaints were rather trite by my standards. If I would have stopped there, I would have jumped to the incorrect conclusion that these type of attitudes were the things holding the church down. What I realized, is that these complaints were simply a symptom of a larger conflict. The woman in front of me had trouble processing the deep division and simply wanted to experience something that made her comfortable in the moment. I can’t really fault her for that.
As imperfect as we are as Christians, and as many times as we all get it wrong, I can’t help but think that there is something redemptive in this woman’s tears, and a lesson to be learned. As a pastor, it is so easy to look at everything with an intense, theologically driven eye, and use my time to criticize people’s underlying motivations. I can give a class on why we are failing as a Christian culture and how value the wrong things. This all, however does not take the sting out of the genuine pain that this woman was feeling.
More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that, the church does not need more charismatic leaders, insightful Bible studies, church growth tactics, or even upbeat music. We need to mourn more losses together, cry, stay determined, keep an open heart, and most importantly; we need unity.
This woman was crying because the community she loved was struggling. Whether she was a shining example of a perfect Christian or not is neither here nor there. She loved.
So, perhaps you are reading this today thinking, “this lady was putting too much faith in people instead of God”. Or, maybe you are ready to lash out at me in an attack on “institutional religion”. Well, you may be right on some accounts, but I surely won’t fault someone who has seen such transformation in people’s lives, and for better or for worse, connects those events to a body of caring, loving, serving, and mutually-accountable people who desperately want God’s will to be done (on Earth as it is in Heaven).
Love you all.
In my last post, I spoke about the concepts of death and life obstacles. People who are born into life obstacles, whether they are mental or physical, can provide a vast amount of life lessons. Even if they are not particularly mobile, we find that stories after their death provide deep insight to a life lived with vitality and purpose. As discussed in my story about my Uncle Jay, the life he led was one that made no excuses and had deep purpose. He cared about those around him and strived to minister to anyone in need.
As I write this today, we have a family friend who is probably only hours from meeting Jesus face to face. Cancer has taken over and eaten away at every fiber of her being. Last week she gave her life to the Lord and says she is ready for eternal rest. Her smile is contagious and her only concern is the supportive relationships she is leaving behind. I was honored to pray with her and those that surrounded the bed.
If you were to travel 30 minutes south, there is another man struggling to survive in a hospital room after his organs began to shut down due to an advanced infection. I was referred to him by another pastor friend, who heard about him from a couple in his church. This man does not have a pastor or church home. When you look at him, and speak about what the future may hold, there is deep fear in his eyes. I can’t imagine how that must feel because I have ever died nor been close to death.
In both cases, I have had the wonderful privilege of speaking with the individuals about spiritual matters, and what exists the beyond the spiritual horizon. As a pastor, I am there to provide a comforting word in a time of great fear and simply be present with family who are struggling to cope with a future they dare not try to imagine for fear that their thoughts will materialize into reality. They want their loved ones to be okay. In the instances that the relatives have come to terms with the inevitable, they simply want to know their loved ones are at peace, and free of suffering.
It is often interesting to hear the words and questions of a person who formerly had no association with God (as they would admit freely), and are now dealing with their own mortality. I find, in many cases, unbelief did not come because of stubbornness or a lack of evidence, but because of a deep wound inflicted on them by someone in their past who claimed belief. In the last days there is greater awareness and attention focused on divine possibilities. People seem to be finally done pretending they are in control, and are now surrendered to another universe of possible explanations. They are open and ready to hear more.
In these final moments of life, my role as a member of the clergy is not to lead them in a Bible study or help them lead a spiritually productive life…it is to be a tour guide. Men and women who are facing their own mortality want to know what it is like to experience their last breath so that they know what to expect the moment after. They want someone to describe life beyond the curtain. I get to provide insight about the promises God makes to them, and the descriptions His word supplies. From God’s perspective, death is only a change of address.
There is great comfort in knowing that a life can be changed; even in the last moments. The person may not become an active citizen, or reach hundreds of lives, but what I have realized is that they gain one of the most powerful gifts that a human can possess…
Love you all.
Do you ever wonder why people are born with disabilities? If I were to be honest, I have these thoughts and I know many people have similar questions. One may wonder, “If God is good, then why are people born this way?”
I have many theories on things like this, but I imagine 90% of the theories I maintain would be nothing more than religious platitudes that seek only to push the issues aside and “Jesus” them away. In these conversations, it can be unhealthy to give canned “Sunday School” answers that are often spouted by people with the greatest intentions.
I do not really know why people are born with various ailments, malformations, and general physical obstacles, but I do know that so many times, people in these circumstances can bring the most inspirational value to the people around them. For instance, we may ask why Down syndrome exists, but if you have a family member with this genetic makeup, you know that people in this situation often love more deeply and enjoy life on a different level than others. I use these folks as an example because one could argue that many of them often have different hurdles to overcome.
People who are born physically or mentally “different” than your “average” person often do a lot to inspire the world around them. Now, don’t hear me saying (somehow) that I believe that people are born with disabilities, conditions, or ailments for our amusement or selfish gain. No, in fact the story in the Gospel of John comes to mind regarding the man who was born blind. The disciples asked Jesus why this man was born blind (thinking it was because of the sin of him or his parents). Jesus, however gave them a shocking answer. “This man was born blind so that the glory of God would be seen in him”, was the odd response. In this example the man was released from his life obstacle, but this also shows us that anyone’s story can be used for His glory!
My Uncle Jay was very much like this man described in John. Jay was born with cerebral palsy and early on his ability to walk was taken away. Despite this, Jay led a very active life. He worked, engaged socially with the world around him, and even dated from time to time. On top of this, he was a volunteer minister for a long time at his local church. He lived independently until several years ago when he entered into a nursing home.
We, as a family, knew that his life expectancy was much shorter than your average person, but when he finally passed away this year, he was just shy of 57 years old; which is far older than the doctor’s predicted.
Jay never complained about his lack of mobility or grumbled about his situation. He exhibited joy even when we knew he was tired and weary.
Funny story that turned into a lesson: In Jay’s final moments, we stood around his bed battling with the decision to remove him from life support. We gathered as a family and said goodbye as we cried together and shared stories of our life with him. The hospital wanted to give us our necessary privacy, and respectfully drown out any background noise of beeping monitors and nurses socializing so they turned on the radio. The music started playing and we weren’t really paying much attention to the words, but my ears perked up as the radio began to play “another one bites the dust” at the same time my uncle struggled to take his last breath. I brought this to the attention of the rounding doctor and the music was turned off. We had a little laugh about that, and it reminded us that there was going to be joy just on the other side for Jay. We were happy and sad simultaneously.
My Dad decided to choose the music and turned on a Christian station via a radio app on his phone. The song that played was “Eye of the Storm” by Ryan Stevenson. This song became our anthem throughout this hard time in our lives. It was also played at his funeral.
Here are some of the lyrics:
In the eye of the storm
You remain in control
And in the middle of the war
You guard my soul
You alone are the anchor
When my sails are torn
Your love surrounds me
In the eye of the storm
In my next post, I will dive further in the concept of dying. I know this seems morbid, but it can be joyful as well… All I will tell you is, sometimes, we all just need a tour guide…
My belly’s full of food
My heart is full of love
My family is all around me
And even more looking from above
I can’t thank God enough
For everything I possess
I deserve none of it
It is all by grace; I confess
Sure, these material things are great
And the money I earn is fine
But I honestly can’t say
That the any of the credit should be mine
I owe absolutely all I have
To the one who gives grace and hope
When I am standing on the mountain
Or at the end of my rope
I know I do not have much
In comparison to most
But, I can say I am content
Even though I cannot boast
I am truly grateful this year
For all the little things
And I pray that I will continue
To thank The Lord for what He brings.