Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

My Worst Mistake As a Minister

All ministers make mistakes and I want to tell you about what I believe is the biggest mistake I have made as a minister. When I say “mistake,” I mean the sort of things we do because we didn’t know any better which are done out of naïvety as well as a lack of experience and wisdom. In other words, I’m not talking about sin per se, although my biggest mistake did come with a lot of hubris and pride. So it does involve some sins of the heart and that is why I’m so thankful for the grace of God that forgives sin and lets one learn from the mistakes of the past.

Churches and Ministers

So let’s talk about churches and ministers. Churches call upon a minister to serve with them as a pastor (that’s the typical function whether or not the minister is referred to as a “pastor”). Besides preaching and teaching, the church anticipates growing and engaging in ministry among their community and beyond because they have a minister.

Ministers know this, as I certainly did and still do. I’ve read plenty of books on all things ministry and church growth. In 2007 when I graduated from seminary with my Master of Divinity, the word missional was just beginning to appear on the horizon. The emerging church, which now seems more like just a new approach to the church growth movement, was all the rages. I had read books like The Purpose Driven ChurchBuilding A Contagious Church, and Church For The Unchurched along with many other books, articles, and even blogs. The books all detailed the strategies of some of the biggest growing churches in America.

What I came away with was the idea that I had to have the vision for where the church needs to go, how the church can grow evangelistically and engage in ministry among its community. After all, I’m the minister with the theological education who has read the literature on church ministry (note the hubris and pride!). It didn’t dawn on me, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered at the time, that most of these “high-profile” churches were planted by their current pastor, who had a blank slate to cast a vision and that the church I was called to serve was an existing congregation with an existing culture.

And so here is my biggest mistake: I came to serve in a church with my vision of how the church should be and where it should go.

That was a mistake and a big one. When a minister serves a church that has already existed for a number of years, that church already has a culture. More importantly, God has already been at work in that church. Regardless of whatever problems the church has (as many churches do), God has been at work among those Christians forming them and gifting them for participation in his mission. Failure to see this and respect this has disaster written all over it.

A Change in Leadership

What has changed for me as a minister? I still believe the minister should have a vision for what God is calling churches to become. However, ministers need to hold that vision with humility and openness because they certainly are not the only ones in a church that God has imparted a vision for the church upon. So instead of coming in to serve by casting a very top-down vision and expecting the church to jump on board with that, the minister needs to come in first listening and learning.

As a leader, not the leader but a leader, the minister needs to hold out a vision of Jesus. That is, the minister needs to share with the church how Jesus expects his followers to join him in participating in the mission of God. This is done through preaching and teaching in both formal and informal settings, such as during the Sunday worship gathering or while sipping some great Brazilian or Ugandan brew at a local coffee house. But… Just as the minister holds this vision of Jesus before the church, the minister must also be listening and learning from the church to know where God has led them thus far and how God has gifted them for ministry. Then, and only then, is the minister able to help the church begin discerning where God is trying to lead them for the future. Once the church, together with the minister and other leaders (e.g., shepherds), have spent time discerning how God has gifted them and where seems to be leading them, then the church can begin assess and implementing whatever changes seem necessary.

For example, one of the challenges many churches face is that they are saddled with too many programs that have become more of a tiresome burden. So in order to move forward in following Jesus, a church may need to let go of something in order to do something. It’s like the first disciples who had to let go of their fishing nets in order to follow Jesus and become the fishers of people Jesus was preparing them to be (cf. Matt 4:20). A church, through discernment, may sense that God is leading them to engage in acts of mercy by using their building to be one of several neighborhood churches who feed the homeless one night per week. So maybe instead of participating in a weekly traditional small-group meeting every week, the small-groups take turns once a month serving meals to the homeless instead of just gathering for some Bible-study. But the church will only know this as the minister, along with other leaders, and the church are discerning together how God has gifted them and where God is leading them.

My Last Thought

The top-down approach may work but in my experience, it causes more problems than it solves. More importantly, the top-down approach is borrowed from the world of corporate America rather than from Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to be servants like him and if a minister wants the church to learn how to follow Jesus more deeply and passionately, it begins with the minister exemplifying the servant-leader approach of Jesus to the church.

Ministry and Envy

Everyone wants to be appreciated for the good they do and at some level, everyone needs to feel appreciated. That includes pastors too. Although the ultimate reward for all Christian service comes from God, its hard for anyone to keep giving their best when their best seems to go unnoticed or is continuously met with criticism.

However, in ministry the need for appreciation can also develop into an unhealthy envy. The need for appreciation morphs into the need for recognition.  This is a problem that most pastors, including myself, have struggled with from time to time.

Yesterday Rich Little wrote a blog piece titled 5 Difficult Questions Pastors Must Ask and the first question was “Do I feel competitive with my peers?” Yes, I have at times. I’m sure other ministers have and do as well. This especially seems to be the case when our pees are recognized and we’re not… or at least not the way we think we should be recognized.

You see the problem. It’s the problem of envy, a sin of the heart that is often coupled with a lot of pride and sense of entitlement.

Saul, the King of Israel, struggled with envy too. After David had won the battle against the Philistines we are told in 1 Samuel 18:7 that women throughout different towns were singing “Saul has struck down his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” Then in the very next verse we read that this “made Saul very angry.” And if you read the rest of the story, Saul attempts to kill David several times.

Attempted murder. That’s the result of Saul’s envious heart. It might be easy to ignore this as a warning since most of us would never even contemplate committing murder. However, when our hearts are consumed with envy, we become dissatisfied and frustrated with the ministry God has called us to because we want what our peers have. Maybe that frustration gets taken out on the family at home, whether that means becoming a workaholic who neglects our family because we’re trying to chase something we think we don’t have or just turning our anger into physical and emotional abuse. Or maybe that sense of entitlement turns into other unethical practices, such as buying one’s way onto the New York Times Bestsellers book list, to provide for ourselves what we think we don’t have. Or maybe we take our dissatisfaction out on the church we serve, berating them with “bold preaching” for not being the church that our envious imagination says we should be pastoring.

The best antidote for envy is prayer! Pray with thanksgiving for the way God has gifted us for ministry and with thanksgiving for the ministry God has called us to, whether that is with a large church or small church… a church in the city or a church in the country. Pray also for the people we serve in ministry. Doing so keeps the focus where it belongs, on God and others rather than ourselves.

And if you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, then send your pastor a card telling them how much you appreciate their ministry. Believe me, such words of encouragement are precious and your pastor will appreciate it more than you realize.

Ministry Leadership: Saying “No!” to the Visitor

If you’re like me and you have children that you are raising or you have already raised children, then you know what it is to vet their friends. You size them up… who are they, who are their parents, what are they like, how do they behave, and so on. You want to make sure your children are not hanging around people who will harm them.

Last year, my wife and I had to make a decision to not allow our son to play with one of the neighborhood children and we told this other child that he wasn’t allowed to play with our son anymore. Why? Because this child was a bully who kept hitting our son. I am sure you would have made the same decision. Why? Because as parents, we’re not going to allow someone to come around our children when they are harmful to our children. We strive to protect our children from harm and sometimes that involves taking very specific and decisive actions.

Our decision to not allow our son to play with the neighborhood boy was not about that boy, it was about our son and his welfare. Yet, sometimes in the church when it comes time for leaders to act for the welfare of the church, there is a hesitancy to do so.

For example, since most churches are small (less than a hundred members), most churches are very interested in retaining anyone who begins visiting their church. But let’s say that in getting to know such visitor, you learn that this person holds some very different views on different issues and is showing him/herself to be very divisive with those views. What should you say or do?

Last year with the Columbia Church of Christ such a visitor started coming to our Sunday morning Bible class and worship gathering. He made it very clear that he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices, our understanding of God’s grace, with our way of worshiping, and with some of my preaching (surprise, surprise!). He also demonstrated that he wanted to try debating these issues during our Bible class, sort of hijacking the time for his own purpose. So after he was reminded a couple of times that this is not the place for such discussions, as they only cause division, I went to him and explained that this is who are church is and if he is not comfortable with that then there are other churches for him to visit.

I don’t have any regrets about doing so. Not only was he causing disruption among our church, there was also one couple who were new in the faith that I was trying to protect… just like a parent protecting their child.

Part of serving as a leader in the church is protecting the church from those who may cause harm. In an ideal situation, the church will have elders shepherding the church so that this responsibility does not fall to the minister(s) only. Regardless, someone must take very specific and decisive action. Parents don’t really want to tell a neighborhood child that they cannot play with their child anymore. Likewise, Church leaders don’t really want to tell a visitor that they are should look elsewhere. Yet sometimes serving as a leader requires stepping up in a difficult way and saying “No!” to the visitor for the sake of the church.

Ministry: Cultivating Gospel People

Here is an interesting thought to ponder for ministry. In the introduction of his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf writes, “…theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive” (p. 21). For Volf, social arrangements are the way that societies organize and function politically and the social agents are the people who shape the political function and organization of society.

As a minister, I immediately thought of how this idea would work in churches. It’s easy for ministers, or pastors, to focus on the church as an organization and how the church should function. We focus on what sort of ministries should the church engage in, what sort of structure is necessary so that the church can fulfill its vision, and what sort of changes are necessary for the church to thrive. That isn’t wrong either, so long as we keep it in perspective. But it is also possible that we can become so focused on the church as an organization that we lose sight of the organic aspect of the church, which is the people. When this happens, we end up cultivating (or attempt) a church that functions with a particular structure in a certain way and then expect the people to fit into that organization. The only problem is that the people may not so easily fit into that organization because we have not taken the time to cultivate the sort of character that wants to belong in that church we have cultivated or are trying to cultivate.

What if the thrust of ministry was focused fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context?

In this aspect, the focus is on the organic side of the church. The focus is on people, not programs. This doesn’t mean that we should completely ignore the organization aspect (which is impossible to do), especially since in applying Volf’s statement our focus on shaping the lives of Christians includes shaping the cultural environment that will allow the people to thrive as Christians. By way of example, in focusing on the people the shift goes from creating a new ministry to care for the poor to cultivating the sort of character in people that loves the homeless the way God does. Or by way of another example, the shift goes from focusing on what changes must happen in the worship gathering to improve the worship experience to cultivating the sort of character in people that desires to passionately worship God in spirit and truth.

It seems that once we have cultivated the sort of character in the people of the church so that they are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their own context, then the organizational changes will organically begin happening. The people will begin forming new ministries or changing existing ministries so that they are able to embody the gospel as they now envision it. This is where the need for giving attention to structure and function is necessary but it only is because of what has happened organically within the church, particularly within the lives of the people who make up the church.

As I thought about this, I also had the thought of what happens if the way the people begin envisioning how they embody the gospel differs from how we, the minister, have in mind. This is where humility is needed. Because such a thought is really about control, which is something that I think most ministers wrestle with. We’re the ones with the seminary education, we’re the ones usually attending the conferences where we here the next latest great ideas, we’re the ones probably reading the latests books on all things missional, worship, etc… So we know what is best, or at least we think we do. Yet at the end of the day we must, with humility, admit that we are simply called to plant seed and cultivate it. It is up to God to bring the increase of that seed, including what that plant will look like in full bloom. So I ask one final question…

Can we let God be in control of deciding what the embodiment of the gospel will look like in our churches by focusing on fostering the kind of Christians who are capable of envisioning how to embody the gospel within their particular context rather than focusing on what the embodiment of the gospel should look like?

Church Leadership: Posture and Presence

Years ago I worked as a machinist for Aero Metals, which was a small but growing manufacturing corporation in La Porte, Indiana. The company was locally owned and even though I worked the grave-yard shift from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM, I met the owner on several occasions when he came in early in the morning. He would stop by to ask how everything was going, if I had any concerns, and other questions like that.

At the time I didn’t have any idea of what this guy was doing. I just figured that he was making sure every person was doing their job since he was the owner and the person who ultimately was writing the paychecks. Twenty years later and with a lot of ministry experience, I have a different perspective.

From the Office to the Floor

You might recall watching the show Undercover Boss which runs on CBS television. The show is about a boss, usually the CEO of a very large and lucrative corporation who puts on a disguise and then does the job among those doing the manual labor. He or She, the head honcho becomes one of the store clerks, the delivery person, the food server, the warehouse personnel, etc…

As the boss does this, he or she engages in real conversation with the employees about the job and about their life. In doing so, these CEOs become aware of the struggles and challenges their employees face, both on the job and in their own personal lives. With awareness, each CEO is able to intelligently act in a way that positively affects their employees personal lives while also affecting positive change for the operation of their business.

By going out on the ground floor, listening and learning to the employees, the boss is able to serve the employees in a way that is win-win for all involved.

Christ-Like Church Leadership

My friend and fellow minister Fred Liggen* defines leadership as listening, learning, and loving. It is essentially what the undercover bosses are doing (just substitute the word “serve” for “love”). But more importantly, it is the sort of leadership we see from Jesus.

Jesus is among the people, in the fields and at the table with them. He meets people where they’re at and engages in conversation with them their. He is listening, learning, and loving them and therefore he is able to lead them. And according to Luke 22:24-27, we can see how Jesus expected that those who would lead in his kingdom would imitate his model of leadership… A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Thanks to Jesus, my friend Fred, and a few others, I am convinced more than ever that this is what leadership in the church is. Ministers (Pastors) are not CEOs of their church, neither are the elders/shepherds. They both are called to be servants. Their capacity to lead is in the ability to come out of the office or out of the elders room at the building a gather with the members of the church in their homes, in the hospital room or waiting area, at a park, on the golf-course or in the fishing boat, at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, and even at the pub.

It is in these places where the listening, learning, and loving occurs and that is how servants of God can lead. It is about posture and presence among the people and with the people. This is where leadership happens. This is where church leaders are able to acting a way that blesses the individual lives of the church they serve as well as the church as a whole. It works for the Undercover Boss and it will certainly work for the minister or shepherd of the church who comes clothed in nothing but the love and humility of Jesus Christ.

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* I have had a sense of this leadership since following around my friend Ricardo Maia, who is a minister in his homeland of Brazil, as this was Ricardo’s way of leading as a minister. However, it is my friend Fred Liggen, who serves as the minister of the Williamsburg Christian Church, is the first person I know to use the phrase “Listening, Learning, and Loving = Leadership.” Both men are courageous ministers following Jesus as servants in the kingdom of God.

The Conversation Churches Must Engage

As the circumstances of our surrounding culture and community change, so do the issues that face every local church. Often the issues, be it poverty, sexuality, religious pluralism, etc…, remain general enough that a church can ignore them if they wise. But at some point a church will have a visitor come from that new Section 8 housing down the street, having many needs and lives in that new Section 8 housing around the corner. Or that church will learn that the local Muslims are planning to build a Mosque across the street from where the church meets. Or someone in that church will come out of the closet, telling others that they are gay. Suddenly what remained as general issue  become very particular issues that impact the local church in such a way that whatever the response is, it will reshape the identity of the church.

This is called a kairos-moment in the life of the church. The word “kairos” comes from the Greek language and literally means time but not in the chronological sense like the time of day. It refers to an event that is happening among the church which is an opportunity for the church. Regardless of the circumstances of such a kairos-moment, it is an opportunity from God to listen and then walk on mission with God in such a way that the church is transformed. Or, depending on how the church responds, it is an opportunity from God that the church ignores, rejects, etc… which leads to a loss of mission. This is where churches begin to decline, anxiously seeking to go back in time and repeat the past because they fool themselves into believing trying a hundred different versions of the same thing over and over will somehow reap different results.

Responding To A Kairos-Moment

As I said, such kairos-moments are an opportunity for the church. Yet because the particular circumstances of these kairos-moments are difficult issues that raise theological questions and awaken sensitive political triggers, it is tempting and easy for churches just to avoid the issues. Or what happens is that people in the church simply react with a defensive (and highly emotive) response. When this happens, various platitudes, that have more in common with the American left and right than they do with the gospel, are underscored with biblical proof-texts and used as weapons to win the fight. Yet, neither avoiding the issue nor taking a defensive posture will help. By avoiding these kairos-moments, churches are unable to hear God’s voice and by taking a defensive posture, churches are unable to see where God is working.

The first response to such kairos-moments is spiritual-discernment. Such discernment is a conversation that leads to a thoughtful and contextualized response so that the church may continue living on mission with God as faithful followers of Jesus who are animated by the Spirit. It is a conversation that the leaders of the church must have with each other but it is also a conversation that the leaders must have with the rest of the church as well − and the conversation between the leaders and the rest of the church must shape the conversation that the leaders continue having amongst themselves. Failure to have either conversation will again simply result in a lost opportunity, likely rendering the local church as futile among the surrounding culture and community.

Engaging In Spiritual Discernent

I want to suggest two criterions for engaging in spiritual-discernment regarding any particular kairos-moment that I believe will help churches step forward on mission with God These are not the only criterions that could be discussed but they are two that I believe matter immensely.

PROCEED BY GRACE WITH FAITH. The spiritual-discernment necessary here is a process that takes the church into a wilderness so to speak. Sometimes it can feel like walking on ice in the dark… to find the shore, everyone must continue forward but with each step there is a bit of uncertainty as to whether the ice is going to break. It’s easy to become frustrated.

Show each other grace, allow each other to think openly and even say things that may not sound so wise at the moment. And don’t worry about making some mistakes along the way. The journey into the wilderness will come with some mistakes but have faith. Just as God preserved Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness, so will God preserve his people today. What the promise-land looks like will be as surprising as it was for Israel but God will lead the church there. So proceed forward but do so by the grace of God for each other with an abiding faith in God.

ENGAGE SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, & CULTURE TOGETHER. The particular issues that churches face today may share many similarities with the circumstances that other churches find themselves in. Yet they are not exactly the same either, so churches cannot simply juxtapose scripture or Christian tradition down upon any issue and say that what was done before is the church should do now. This locks the church into merely trying to repeat the past rather than living as a present embodiment of the gospel.

The conversation of spiritual-discernment involves bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other. By doing this, churches will discern what their theological praxis (how the church embodies the gospel) must involve for the present circumstances. Formulaically, the conversation of spiritual discernment is: Scripture (S) + Tradition (T) + Culture (C)= Theological Practice (ThP).

S + T + C = ThP

By bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other, the conversation is asking “What does the gospel look like in this?” and “How does the church enact the gospel Jesus lived in this?” The only thing left is for the church to faithfully follow Jesus where the Spirit leads, acting upon what God reveals.

One Final Thought

There is obviously much more to say about bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other that can be said in one blog post. So I hope to say more in the coming months. Nevertheless, this is the sort of conversation that the church had at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), has had at different moments throughout history, and must keep having. Yet it’s also a conversation for every local church because that is where the circumstances of culture are encountered in the particular. With that in mind, such conversations must always take place from a posture of listening, that is bathed in prayer and unequivocally faithful to Jesus, who is the Lord, and therefore a faithful embodiment of the gospel Jesus lived and proclaimed.

The Mission of God and Church Growth

Among churches that have recently experienced decline there is an expected anxiousness about the loss of members and the future of the church.* This anxiousness often causes a shift in focus from the mission of God to growth, resulting in churches attempting nearly every new faddish idea that comes along in hopes of reversing the decline. These attempts are fear driven, rather than faith, attempts at self-preservation that only destabilize the health of the church further as every new attempt doesn’t work like it is at that other growing church. All the while, it didn’t work because it didn’t organically emerge from the discernment of where and how God is leading the church. In order for the church to pursue the mission of God, which will bear fruit, this cycle of anxious response must be let go of.

Churches seeking renewal must learn to act in faith, rather than anxious fear. That comes about through discernment of God’s missional calling. As God is sought through prayer, through scripture, and through the community of believers, churches begin to hear where the Spirit is leading them, what that looks like, and what must change about them in order to follow Jesus on mission with God. Then these churches must obey and act upon that leading of the Spirit. When this happens the church changes because the believers who make up that church change as they are being spiritually transformed for renewal in God’s mission. This will impact every aspect of the churches life, from how it worships, to how it fellowships with one another, to how it ministers among it’s community — especially the broken, hurting, and suffering — and to its children whom the church is called to raise as faithful followers of Jesus.

These are churches where faith in Jesus Christ is living and active, as opposed to churches whose only faith is the nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” These are the churches where increase comes because that mustard seed faith is growing spiritually into a gigantic tree. These are the kind of churches, I believe, that God wants to place those who are seeking him among because these are the kind of churches that will nurture the new emerging faith of these seekers with grace and truth, making disciples of Jesus.

So when it comes to numerical growth, it will happen but not by focusing on church growth which is our way of trying to bring about the increase ourselves. Numerical growth will happen when the church trusts in God and learns to live on mission with God through renewal as it discerns the will of God. Along this journey, there will be strategic decisions and actions to make but what those decisions are will be revealed through discernment. In the mean time, keep the focus on God and his mission and growth will come as God gives the increase.

And this − the opportunity to help a church walk on mission with God − is what excites me about serving as a minister of the gospel!

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* This short essay was originally written for a church I am discerning with about serving as a minister with. I have slightly modified what I wrote into this present post.