Accidental Pharisees

accidentalphariseesAccidental Pharisees by Larry Osborne has been recommended to me a couple of times recently. Having now read it, I’m wondering if my friends figured that I needed to learn the truth about myself or whether they simply wanted to know what I thought about the book. It has helped me to see more clearly how easily I can fall into pharisaic behaviour. For one thing, it’s easier to see others in the book rather than myself—surely this alone makes me a classic Pharisee! But I can also see my own capacity to make rules where the Bible has none and to measure myself and others by things other than the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This book is sharp, yet gentle. It allows us the gracious assumption that we don’t want to be Pharisees—but it’s easy to accidentally become one.

Accidental Pharisees resonates with a worry that I’ve had for some time–that it’s easier to follow the tribal position than to assess how we think and speak and act in the light of Scripture. I touched on some of these themes when I wrote a post called Get off the Bandwagon. It addresses some of the same issues as Joshua Harris’s excellent little book, Humble Orthodoxy. My worry is that we can major on the minor issues and lose sight of the major issue. And we argue our positions with such a passion that we fail to love the people who take a contrary viewpoint. I’ve seen evidence of this in blog comments and Facebook posts over recent times, with reference to such matters as the Sydney Archbishop election. Sadly, I’ve seen a stronger push for Christians to distance themselves from one another over non-salvation issues, than they have to affirm their unity in salvation.

This is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. Nor that the Scriptures are not the authoritative and clear revelation of God. Doctrinal truth brings life and the Bible leads us to faith in Jesus Christ and equips us fully for every good work. Truth is foundational to life and to unity. But the Scriptures are a message of love, grace, mercy and kindness. If we speak ‘truth’ without love then we are distorting God’s word. If we seek to love without truth, then we will ultimately fail, for only the truth can be truly loving. And so we are called to speak the truth in love and not separate the two (Ephesian 4).

I believe that Accidental Pharisees is a word in season. It addresses all kinds of blind spots. It challenges us against taking the higher moral ground and looking down on others. It warns against the dangers of pride and exclusivity. It unpacks some of the new ways we can introduce legalism. It spotlights the dangers of seeking uniformity rather than rejoicing in our unity in diversity.

There is a tendency among Christians to divide into tribes along non-essential lines. Osborne writes that:

We’ve coined words like radical, crazy, missional, gospel-centred, revolutionary, organic, and a host of other buzzwords to let everyone know that our tribe is far more biblical, committed, and pleasing to the Lord than the deluded masses who fail to match up. (p90)

These labels have their usefulness. They can be used to correct wrong emphases or to call the troops to action. But they become dangerous when used as a shibboleth to divide Christians from one another. We have centuries of tradition in doing this—Baptists separating from Presbyterians; Methodists from Anglicans; Congregationalists from Episcopal churches. There have been good reasons for many of these distinctions and even separations, but the label or the club is not what defines or describes a true believer. That privilege belongs to the gospel of Jesus Christ alone. Of one thing we can be sure—none of these badges will have any relevance in heaven.

Accidental Pharisees also warns against a bullying behaviour that is more keen to separate the sheep from the goats than it is to win back the lost sheep. Some churches and their leaders are very committed to setting a high bar of ‘Christian’ performance and they castigate the under-performing and the luke-warm. This change strategy tends to favour the big stick over the winsome power of the gospel. It can easily become a slippery path to a legalism that has forgotten the gospel all together. We would do well to remember that but for the grace of God go I.

I expect a book like Accidental Pharisees to receive a mixed response in the Christian community. Some will embrace it because they see the Pharisee so clearly in others. Some will reject it because they see it as an excuse for discipline-less Christianity. I recommend we read it with a view to log extraction, so that we can see more clearly to help one another with our various splinters.

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Connect

Connect-SearcyOver recent months I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about how to encourage people in voluntary ministry. How do we excite people about the possibilities? How do we place the right people in the right positions? What motivates people to keep on serving once the initial enthusiasm has dropped off? Should we pay people to do certain jobs? Should we replace the idea of rosters with teams? What is the role of a ‘Serve’ or ‘Ministry’ Coordinator at church? Is it reasonable to expect every person at church to have an identifiable area of service? How do you remove people when they’re not paid, but they’re not really doing the job? Should voluntary ministries have contracts? How do you develop a mindset of multiplying the number of people in ministry? These are some of the questions we’ve been considering.

Connect: How to double your number of volunteers by Nelson Searcy caught my attention. Perhaps it would fill the gaps in my reading about voluntary ministry. Does this book have all the answers? In short—’no’! Is it helpful—’yes’! The strength of this book is its practical advice on mobilising and supporting people in voluntary ministry. Its weakness is that it’s not sufficiently explicitly grounded in the gospel.

Searcy has identified that churches with high levels of volunteers participating in ministry have good quality ministry systems operating. The ministry system is the mechanism or pathway that enables people to get into service and develop in their area of service. He argues that people are keen to get involved, but in some churches they simply don’t know how. It’s not clear what they need to do, who they need to talk with, what’s expected, or pretty much anything else. Good systems enable things to keep happening regularly so that the pastoral staff aren’t always starting from scratch. We don’t always notice when a system is working well because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s not hard to pick when the system is broken or non-existent. If we want to get people volunteering and serving in a range of ministries in the church then we need a strong system that helps mobilise them and sustain them in service.

Connect suggests four steps to creating an effective ministry system:

  1. Clarify your theology of ministry
  2. Create first-serve opportunities
  3. Cultivate a ministry ladder
  4. Celebrate and reproduce servants

Clarifying your theology of ministry

A strong theology of ministry will build ministry in the church, whereas a weak theology of ministry will limit it. It is more important and more powerful to call people to serve out of their response to God, than to the request of the Sunday School superintendent. This isn’t about manipulating people. It’s about giving people the opportunity to express their worship of God and to use the gifts that God has given them. Inviting people to serve is a way of encouraging their growth in Christ rather than a means of finding cheap labour.

Searcy’s church has built its theology of ministry around eight theological foundations. He doesn’t call us to follow them, but to determine our own. Their foundations are:

1) Ministry means to serve
2) Serving is an act of putting the needs of others before our own needs
3) The goal of the ministry system is to help people become more like Jesus
4) You cannot become more like Jesus Christ unless you learn to be a servant
5) Serving opens people’s hearts to God and therefore is part of worship
6) If people aren’t serving, they aren’t truly worshiping and growing in their faith
7) Mobilizing people for ministry is part of discipleship
8) The role of the pastor is to equip people for ministry

Searcy uses serving as a measurement for assessing the health of the church. He uses a 30/50/20 rule. He wants 30% of the church to be sitting on the sidelines, not serving. They are the pre-servers. He wants 50% of the church to be serving at least one hour per week. Perhaps leading a small group, on the music team, serving as a welcomer, etc. And he wants 20% of the church involved in some kind of evangelism or outreach ministry. He says we should feel free to adopt something else for the last 20%. To be honest I found this rule to be somewhat strange and arbitrary. I get the idea of people waiting to get into service, and I get the idea of some people’s ministry being external to the church’s ministry systems, but I think we should be working toward everyone contributing to the building of the body of Christ.

A first step into service

Connect suggests mobilising new servers into first-time service opportunities in two ways. The first way involves increasing the number of new people in existing ministry positions. The second involves recruiting people into new ministry positions.

There are various ways to create serve opportunities in existing areas:

  • Put a time limit on serving. If you don’t provide time limits volunteers will burn out and you fail to create spaces for new volunteers. When leaders take time off it allows new leaders to get involved.
  • Divide existing ministry areas into quarters. Work out how to turn existing ministry positions into four positions. This creates three new spaces for service and creates more teamwork.
  • Create A-B-C teams for each ministry area. Get teams rotating, rather than serving weekly. They can rotate weekly, monthly, quarterly, whatever works. By rotating teams you open spots for people to step into and give people a regular rest. If you don’t think you can fill all these positions, Searcy challenges you to let go of the scarcity mentality. He believes people are out there looking for opportunities to serve.
  • Plan a shadow day. Invite people who are currently serving to bring a friend to shadow them in their ministry for a day. This will give people a taste and many will want to do it again.
  • Put on a ministry/volunteer fair. Make sure the details of every ministry position are clear, and provide a simple sign-up process.
  • Use special events to encourage people to serve. Some people will be nervous about signing up long term, but willing to commit to a special event. This will get them started.
  • Potential volunteers could be sitting on the sidelines out of fear. They’re hesitant to get involved because they don’t know exactly what they’re being asked to commit to. Make it clear.

The power of new beginnings

Getting new people involved in existing ministry positions is only approach. The second way to introduce people into ministry is to create first-serve opportunities by creating new ministry positions in which people can serve.

Firstly, identify needs in the church that aren’t being served. Work out how to address a need that isn’t being met. Consider who will be needed to meet this need. Work out how to present this in a compelling way.

Clarity is critical. What needs to be done? How many people are needed and for how long? If you are not explicitly clear then volunteers will quickly get disillusioned through lack of direction. This will also make it harder to mobilise people the next time round.

Here are two things to do when mobilizing people for a specific need:

  1. Create a one-time opportunity to meet that need. You don’t need to begin by mapping out a whole new ministry.
  2. Personally recruit people to serve. This doesn’t mean an announcement at church, a note on the church bulletin, an email to the church, or even an ad in the positions vacant section of the church website. It is specific and personal.

Once the need is established, the one-time opportunity is worked out, and people are personally recruited to serve, the next step is to cast the vision for continuing the new ministry. Once people have a taste of doing it, and enjoying what they do, and seeing its significance for the Kingdom of God, they are more likely to invest in its continuation.

Once the vision for the ongoing ministry is communicated, you can engage more ongoing  volunteers for a specific length of term.

Searcy wisely suggests getting rid of the word ‘need’. It communicates we are unprepared, disorganised, or that the ministry is an area that people don’t want to serve in. It’s much better to speak of the ‘opportunity’ to serve.

He also addresses the issue of whether to allow people who aren’t Christian to serve in the church. His answer is definitely ‘yes’. He believes that many need to feel that they belong in the community before they come to believe what the community believes. He encourages churches to find or create ways that unbelievers can serve in the church that are okay. This won’t be in leadership, but people could be helping with food, making coffee, greeting people, and so on.

Igniting involvement

Preach about ministry and serving. Keep it on the agenda. Show what the Bible teaches about these areas. Give biblical motivation for involvement. Do this every year and at key times in the year. Before most ministries kick off for the year might be a good time. So might a few weeks prior to recruiting people into new areas for the year to come.

He also suggests attaching serving to membership and to participation in small groups, and holding people accountable. This means only people in small groups are entitled to serve in particular areas. Only church members are entitled to serve in others.

Make it easy for people to get involved. Remove all the stumbling blocks in the way of people wanting to serve. Signing up should be a simple and clear. Too often we make it vague or complicated. Involvement in children’s ministry will require more thorough screening processes and training.

He says to ask ‘How many can we mobilise?’ rather than ‘How few do we need?’. Get rid of the scarcity mentality.

Don’t turn away volunteers. If people have a couple hours to serve, then find something for them to do. The pastor’s job is to mobilise and equip people for service.

Lake and ladders

Rick Warren wrote in The Purpose-Driven Church that “Most churches say ‘discover your spiritual gift and then you’ll know what ministry you are supposed to have.’ Searcy believes the exact opposite—start experimenting with different ministries and then you will discover your gifts! Until you start serving, you won’t know what you’re good at.

Connect describes the idea of a ministry ladder. It helps to organise thinking about volunteers, different positions, and levels of volunteer engagement. When someone starts volunteering—no matter what ministry area—the next step is to help them identify and climb the right ministry ladder.

So with small groups, the lowest rung on the ladder is group member. The next rung involves them taking responsibility within the group. The next rung could involve them becoming a core member or an apprentice leader. Then becoming a leader. Then a mentor of leaders. Then a coach of mentors. Each rung brings more responsibility, more accountability, and more connection to the church. We might not like the idea of ‘climbing’ and ‘promotion’ implicit in the image of the ladder, but it helps people to see a pathway for ministry involvement. Clarity is the key.

We should also make sure people are climbing the right ladder. If they need to switch ladders, then let them. They need to discover how God has gifted them to serve most effectively.

Lessons learned the hard way

  • Clearly define the ladder of a ministry before you let people start climbing.
  • Have some positions on the ladder that people who aren’t Christians can fill.
  • Create a clear position description that defines each rung of the ladder. Expectations must be clearly defined and agreed upon. Agreements prevent disagreements.
  • Hold people accountable for their level.
  • Be wary of people who want to climb the rungs of the ladder but don’t want to meet the requirements.
  • Let people know it’s okay to switch ladders.
  • Don’t let people climb to the higher rungs of more than one ladder. You don’t want them burning out.
  • Challenge people to move to the next level. Yet at some point people will find what they’re best at—allow them to keep doing what they do well.
  • Consider compensating High Capacity Volunteers. Perhaps pay them.
  • Celebrate and reward each step taken.

Calling out the called

Consider how to encourage some people to consider vocational Christian ministry. I recommend reading Michael Bennett’s book—Do you feel called by God?for a more biblical understanding of this area.

Ongoing recruitment and reproduction

Searcy has developed a formula for creating a steady flow of new volunteers at church:

GE + TL + CTR + AM + GN = Constant flow of new volunteers

Every step in the formula matters.

Good Experience (GE)
Making sure your volunteers have a good experience when they serve is important if you want to keep reproducing volunteers.

Timeline (TL)
Define the time of commitment.

Challenge to Reproduce (CTR)
Regularly challenge people to keep growing their ministry area. Get them thinking of building teams and reproducing themselves.

Accountability and Motivation (AM)
Hold people accountable for the job they’ve agreed to do. Keep encouraging them in their service.

Good Network (GN)
Continually refill and build your network by following up on people who indicate an interest in serving. Build a list of potential servers. Take every opportunity to encourage people to serve.

Creating a culture of celebration

Searcy believes we don’t celebrate enough in church and suggests six occasions worth celebrating:

  1. When a volunteer serves for the first time.
  2. When a volunteer reaches a service milestone
  3. When a volunteer moves to the next level
  4. During the weekend service—praise people; pray for them; have someone share how they have grown through serving.
  5. When a volunteer is not expecting it. Surprise!
  6. Anytime!

Conclusion

Where to begin? Clarify your theology of ministry. Get a ministry system clearly worked out and put into place. Begin encouraging people into service. Celebrate from the beginning!

My conclusions

To be honest, I have been a little biased against reading books by Nelson Searcy. I read an ebook previously that seemed to be an infomercial for about 8 different DVD courses. But I’m glad I put that aside and looked at Connect.

I do have a gripe. I’ve believe that any good approach to engaging people in ministry, must begin clearly and explicitly at the cross. People need to recognise that Jesus came to serve us, before they can appreciate what it means to serve him. This must not be assumed, otherwise it will be forgotten. So I recommend reading this book alongside or after John Hindley’s excellent book, Serving without sinking.

Secondly, my appreciation. This book is full of tried and tested practical suggestions for working with people in ministry. My experience has revealed that some people have given up trying to serve in church because they don’t know how to get involved. It is not clear. The leaders have not developed obvious systems for recruiting, equipping, encouraging and sustaining people in service. I’ve heard of people who have given up offering to help because their pastor does nothing to help them engage in service. This is sad news. I recommend we do an audit of our ministry systems. How visible and clear are they? Is one person the bottleneck to involvement? Are expectations spelt out carefully? Are there support structures in place? And you think of your own questions.

I was intrigued by the suggestion of breaking down ministries into different parts to offer more opportunities for involvement. At first read it sounded silly. Surely we should get volunteers taking up responsibilities that aren’t being filled. But it’s grown on me. Teamwork is so helpful in building ministry and sustaining volunteers. Sometimes people burn out because the task is either too big or too lonely. Developing teams can change this.

I certainly wouldn’t adopt everything I read in this book, but I appreciated the way that it got me thinking practically and particularly about engaging people in ministry. This is the pastor’s job description and I recommend we devote particular time and effort to thinking through how we build the church through its many members serving one another.

Margin

marginMargin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives by Richard Swenson is an important book for anyone who is living in the red zone. If hearing the word ‘stress’ makes you stressed; if hearing the word ‘workaholic’ makes you defensive; if you’re worried about burnout; if you’re always on edge; if you’d prefer to hide in a corner than talk with people; if your credit card never gets paid off; if your children’s sporting and social calendar controls your life; if you’re never on top of what needs to get done and everything seems to be getting more and more out of control; if you never have enough time… then you should probably make time to read Margin.

Swenson argues that overload is a modern western epidemic. People are exhausted, hurt, anxious, and fatigued. Our bodies and our relationships are suffering. We can’t keep up with the demands of life. He describes this as losing our margin—the space that exists between ourselves and our limits. Margin is what we desperately need to regain.

The pain of progress, stress, and overload

Progress is normality for twenty first century Westerners. And we work on the assumption that progress is by definition good. We’re often blinded to the negative personal, relational, and environmental consequences of progress. So often progress sabotages margin, leads to increased stress, has unforeseen negative consequences, and overlooks areas of life that we should value more highly.

Most modern progress has been in:

  • the physical environment (wealth, technology, health—the material world)
  • the cognitive environment (knowledge, information, education—the intellectual world)

Most of our pain has been in:

  • the social environment (family, friends, etc)
  • the emotional environment (feelings, attitudes—our psychological world)
  • the spiritual environment (eternal, transcendent, etc)

Human beings have physical, mental, emotional and financial limits. Progress keeps putting us on a collision course with these limits. When we move beyond our limits we move beyond our margin into overload. We need to live with an awareness of our limits. If we live within our limits, then we create margins that help us to function in healthy and sustainable ways.

Change in my lifetime has been exponential, and continues to be so. This leads to unprecedented levels of stress. If we’re overstressed then we have two options: stress reduction and stress management. Stress reduction takes courage. It may require rearranging our lives: changing jobs, living on smaller incomes, learning to say no. Stress management is about learning how to handle our responses to stressors by taking a dose of margin.

Many of us live in the world of overload. Activity overload, change overload, choice overload, commitment overload, debt overload, decision overload, expectation overload, fatigue overload, hurry overload, information overload, media overload, noise overload, people overload, possession overload, technology overload, traffic overload, work overload (using the word ‘overload overload!). We tend to believe ‘one more thing won’t hurt’—until it does. Chronic overloading has a bad impact on our spiritual, emotional and relational lives. We need to learn what our limits are, and to respect them.

Margin

There is an African saying about those from the West. They say: ‘You have watches—we have time!’ They enjoy margin. Life for many is lived at a slower pace. Things are more deliberate. There’s more time for friends and family and neighbours. Progress has taken this kind of margin away from us. 

While agreeing that margin is a good thing, many would say it’s a luxury or unrealistic. Overload is the new normal and it takes too much work to change it. Swenson writes that to be healthy we need margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. Emotionally, we have rarely been so stressed, so alone, exhausted in spirit. Physically, we are over-fed, under-active, and sleep-deprived. Time-wise, we are busy and worn-out. Financially, with live beyond our means in times of extraordinary widespread personal debt.

Margin in emotional energy

Of the four areas we need margin, margin in emotional energy is paramount.

Emotional overload saps our strength, paralyzes our resolve, and maximizes our vulnerability, leaving the door open for even further margin erosion.  (p79)

When we are emotionally resilient, we can deal with much that comes our way. When it’s lacking, it makes everything else more difficult. So if we find our emotional energy has evaporated, how can we get it back? Dr Swenson offers fourteen prescriptions:

  1. Cultivate social supports
    Good friends are good medicine. We should intentionally seek out relationships that refresh, with people who care for and understand us.
  2. Pet a surrogate
    Pets are capable of bonding, are loyal, and often affectionate. Except for cats—just saying!
  3. Reconcile relationships
    Broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit.
    (p87) Reconciliation is powerful and health enhancing.
  4. Serve one another
    If you do regular volunteer work then you will increase your life expectancy, as well as your joy in life.
  5. Rest
    Escape. Relax. Sleep in. Take a nap. Unplug (turn off) the phone. Try setting aside time regularly for quiet and rest.
  6. Laugh
    Apparently people who laugh often heal faster. I’ll have to try it!
  7. Cry
    If you laugh hard enough you will! Crying contributes to emotional restoration.
  8. Create appropriate boundaries
    Learn to say ‘no’.
  9. Envision a better future
    We all must have a purpose bigger than ourselves that we can live for. We must have something we can believe in, something we can give ourselves to. (p91)
  10. Offer thanks
    We all have much to be thankful for. Grumbling drains. Gratitude fills.
  11. Grant grace
    Stop judging people. You’re adding burdens to your back. Lighten both your loads.
  12. Be rich in faith
    The most vital ingredient of resilience is faith. (p93)
  13. Hold fast to hope
    Hope fosters physical and emotional health. Real hope is not naive optimism.
  14. Above all, love
    Receive it and then give it away.

Margin in physical energy

Australia has become the nation of obesity. The book speaks about Americans, but Aussies have a greater problem. We’re overweight, lacking in energy, and addicted to the wrong things. Our bodies only work properly when cared for, fuelled properly, rested regularly, and serviced occasionally. We’re more vulnerable to the effects of stress when our energy reserves are low. The keys to physical margin are sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

Prescriptions for restoring margin in physical energy:

  1. Take personal responsibility
    Changing habits is difficult, but necessary to create margin. Surround yourself with others who will help you to break out of the old patterns of thinking and living.
  2. Value sleep
    Develop healthy sleeping patterns. Don’t push on having less than you know you need and don’t oversleep. Try to develop good routines. Take naps occasionally if you need to. If you eat and exercise better, then you’ll likely sleep better too.
  3. Eat well
    Cut the junk food, eat healthy, and drink plenty of water.
  4. Exercise
    Exercise your heart. Build your muscles. Increase your stamina. Improve your flexibility. Do it regularly, but don’t overdo it.

Margin in Time

We live busy lives. We speak of having no time, losing time, borrowing time, being out of time, and trying to find the time. We’re constantly filling all our time and need to create margins.

With smart phones, laptop computers and wireless internet, some people are always in work time and need to learn how to margin time to rest. In creating a margin of time we must allow time for ourselves, our families, our friendships, and God. Again this means learning to say ‘no’, to make priorities and honour them. Some things need to drop out of our lives—we can just keep adding.

We need to relearn the value of simplicity and contentment instead of continuously desiring the latest and greatest. We should probably turn the television off and find other things to do. Maybe surfing the internet isn’t the best alternative. We should stop living in the frantic and urgent, and devote more to the long-term and important. We should focus less on how much we do and evaluate what is best to do. Let’s stop and reflect, enjoy what we do, and learn from it.

Create buffer zones, plan free time. Ask yourself—do you have time for the unplanned and unexpected? Stop being so busy and plan to make yourself available.

Margin in Finances

Our world is in economic crisis. We can’t keep on living beyond our means and expect things to keep getting better and better. This is true globally, nationally, and personally. Creating financial margin has obvious benefits. Lowering expenses below our incomes decreases stress and pressure. Having margin gives us opportunity to contribute to the needs of others.

Some people are in deep trouble financially. Swenson offers some suggestions for restoring financial margin, and here is my summary:

  1. Don’t allow economics to be your primary measure in life
  2. Be willing to part with the culture in its quest for more and more things
  3. Live within your means
  4. Discipline your desires and redefine your needs
  5. Decrease spending and increase saving
  6. Make a budget
  7. Cut up your credit cards
  8. Limit your mortgage
  9. Resist impulse buying
  10. Depreciate things and appreciate people
  11. Learn to lend and give away your things
  12. Forget fashion
  13. Do without
  14. Remember what you have belongs to God

Increasing my margin

Creating margin is a helpful way of describing how to ‘underload’ our overloaded lives. We need to create margin. Margin for people, margin for ourselves, margin to think and plan, margin to refresh, margin to stay out of debt, and more. My problem is I’ve so often closed that margin.

I remember looking at my timetable one day and realising that I’d booked meetings back to back all day. There was no time to plan before meetings, reflect after meetings, or travel between meetings. As the day went on I’d get further behind and I’d finish the day exhausted. No doubt the latter meetings weren’t as helpful as the earlier ones. So I began slotting in longer times for my meetings to allow time to catch my breath, think over what was coming up, jot notes afterwards, pray about what I was doing, and to allow for travel from one meeting to another.

This afternoon I attended a farewell event for a fellow pastor in Canberra. It was a wonderful tribute to the work of God in and through this man and his family. One thing stood out among the many praises showered on this man—he always has time for people. Ministers are infamous for putting out the vibe of busyness, so it was exciting to hear of a friend who has broken the mould. Would that this be me and many others I know.

Busyness is not cool. It’s not a virtue. It’s not a sign of how important, indispensable or valuable we are. It’s more often an indicator that we haven’t managed to effectively prioritise or manage our time. It probably means we’re dominated by the urgent rather than the important. And it certainly means we need to create margin in our lives.

Life together in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeWe’ve previously seen how the Bible describes pastoral care in growth groups as being under God, leading God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God. Pastoral ministry looks back to the Good Shepherd dying for his sheep and looks forward to the return of the Great Shepherd who will gather his sheep for eternity. These are the trig points that give us bearings for caring for one another. Pastoral care should be shaped by teaching and modelling God’s word of grace, and by prayerfully depending on the power of God’s Spirit to change people’s hearts and minds. These are the priorities of the one true Shepherd, God himself, and they should shape the priorities of our churches and growth groups.

Family relationships

As we seek to live out God’s word of grace in our lives this will profoundly impact how we live with one another as God’s people. We’ve been called into God’s family as his adopted children. We’re now united with brothers and sisters in Christ having the same Spirit who unites us to each other.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:3-6)

When we gather in our growth groups we get to share in a small family gathering. We catch up with each other, hear what our Father has to say, we’re reminded of the awesome work of our Father’s number one Son, and we attend to family business together. We also hear what’s been going on in each other’s lives, seek to encourage and spur each other on, celebrate family joys and share in family worries and sorrows, and we bring our requests and offer thanks to our heavenly Father.

Families exist even when they’re not together. This means our growth groups have opportunity to express our relationships in Christ throughout the week in other ways. Obviously, we see each other at church. This is a natural place to catch up and connect. It’s worth thinking about what you can follow-up from your group meetings at church, and vice versa. It helps to build relationships by connecting with one another over meals, coffees, and doing social things together. If you have space in your calendar, there is great value in catching up with different members of the group on a rotational basis. It’s amazing how much better people know one another simply by spending time chatting over dinner every now and then.

One way of turbo-charging relational connections in your groups is to spend time away as a group. A weekend away at a holiday house will often be worth a year of weekly meetings in getting people comfortable with one another, and deeper into each other’s live. Meals together on a weekly or monthly basis, occasional social nights, prayer and testimony evenings are all ways of strengthening the bonds between the brothers and sisters in your group.

Some families are big on remembering special events. Perhaps you could create a calendar for your group and celebrate each person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, or other significant special occasion. Discover each person’s favourite cake or special ice-cream or whatever as a way of showing you care.

The Apostle Paul provides a model of family-type pastoral care in the way he went about his ministry to others. He taught, dialogued and reasoned from the Scriptures with the people he served. But he also invested his life into them. He used words and life to communicate with integrity the life-changing message of Christ. Take a look at the family language in these words he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians:

7 Just as a nursing mother cares for her childrenso we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.  (1 Thessalonians 2:7-13, 17-20)

Whether you are a leader or a group member, we have the opportunity to invest in each other’s lives. As Paul worked night and day for his ‘growth group’, it won’t hurt us to put ourselves out for each other, to go the extra mile. Let’s seek to put each other’s needs before our own. What can you do that would make a practical difference in the lives of one or two of your brothers and sisters?

Well functioning families spend time doing things together. Dysfunctional families sometimes pass like ships in the night and grow apart in the process. I understand how busy we all are, and it might be that your relational ‘dance card’ already seems very full, but it will make a big difference to others, especially those who are new to your church or group, if you spend time together. Do you share similar interests? Maybe you work in a similar area, department or business. If you are going bike riding, catching a movie, having a night at the pub, inviting friends around for a barbecue, going for a Saturday site-seeing trip, playing touch footy, scrap-booking, joining a gym, hanging out in a cafe after church, heading to a sporting event or concert, or whatever else you’re into, then why not think about inviting others from your group?

Encouragement

If we care deeply for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will want them to share eternity with us. We’ll want them to run the race, to keep trusting in Christ, and to reach the finishing line rejoicing in their Saviour. If you’ve ever run cross-country, long distances, or even marathons, then you will appreciate the importance of support from others. Sometimes it’s the spectators who’ve made the effort to get alongside the track and cheer you along. Sometimes it’s your fellow runners who encourage you. It’s so helpful to have a running buddy who keeps pace with you, urges you up the hills, or sticks with you when you hit the wall. It’s tough trying do it all on your own.

God wants us to be there for each other. As we run the race, we shouldn’t have to do it alone. We’re urged to keep up with one another often. We need each other: the support, the encouragement, the help along the way. The Christian life is tough and there are so many obstacles and difficult times that we need to spur each other on. The writer to the Hebrews is focused on Christians making it all the way to the end, remaining reliant on the grace of God in the gospel, and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. In the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he urges his readers:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)

We are urged to consider how – to think in advance – about how we can keep each other living and growing as followers of Jesus. This begins at home before we gather in our groups and at church. Who will be there tonight? What’s going on in their lives? What was it we prayed for them last week? I must remember to ask them about it. (Hint: it helps to keep your own prayer diary, jot notes, pray during the week, and follow up with people.) I wonder how they are getting along with their boss who’s been giving them a hard time? Have they had an opportunity to share what they believe with their class mates? Speak with them about what you’ve been praying, ask for other things to pray, show a spiritual interest in one another. Time to stop cruising. If the best we do every time we meet is discuss the footy, grumble about work, and engage in small talk, then we are missing out on wonderful opportunities to love one another.

You might notice that some people in your group are struggling. Perhaps some have doubts, others are being tested by their unbelieving families, some are battling the weariness of chronic illness and rarely get to the group. How can you encourage and spur on these brothers and sisters? You could commit this to prayer, make regular personal contact, put your mind to ways that you could be helpful. Each member of the group can do this sort of thing. You don’t have to be the leader to be an encouragement to others. Anyone can and should do it. The love and support of group members shows the family of God functioning well.

Care in a crisis

A crisis in someone’s life is an opportunity for the group to show love to their brother or sister. There is no end to the types of crises that happen to people. Here are a few crises we’ve experienced in our groups…

  • someone losing their job
  • unrealistic workload expectations placing massive strain on health, family, or involvement in church
  • bullying at work
  • a serious illness to a group member or someone in their family
  • child acting out or refusing to go to school
  • injuries in a car accident
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • sleep deprivation following the birth of a child
  • difficulties associated with pregnancy
  • serious doubts over the Christian faith
  • relationship troubles such as a broken engagement or marriage
  • extended family putting pressure to turn from faith in Jesus

There are many more issues and I expect you could continue this list. These sorts of crises test families. They need to rally together, assess their resources, change the way they function, take on new responsibilities, and sometimes seek external support or expertise. It’s very similar for a growth group. A crisis is an opportunity time for the group. They can step up a gear, plan how to collectively offer care, pray together, and offer genuine practical help.

We’ve seen some groups do this very well. One time when my wife was bed-ridden with a difficult pregnancy our group arranged shopping, baby-sitting, cooperated in leading studies and took other initiatives that helped our family. Another group had a member hospitalised following a heart attack and the group helped with visits, practical help, and set up a buddy exercise program and roster. Couples with babies often appreciate the support of meals in the first few weeks. Sometimes people have paired-up to read the Bible, pray, and talk through issues with another person. My experience is that our groups often rise well to a crisis.

However, sometimes the needs of a person are beyond the capacity of the group to cope on their own. They may require more people to be involved due to the magnitude of the problem. They might need greater expertise than they have in their group. A marriage break-up, legal issues, psychiatric illness, or domestic abuse are the types of matters that require the involvement of other qualified people.

We recommend sharing these needs with an appropriate person in the church. Maybe you could raise matters with your growth group mentor or coach, a pastor on the church staff, or a specialist pastoral care team, depending on whom you have in your church. These matters will often need to be referred to people beyond the congregation. At this point the role of the group should be to provide support, love, prayer, and care for the person/s rather than seeing itself as responsible to provide the specialised help needed. They might have further tough times ahead, so your care will be very significant.

Care when it’s chronic

Not all significant needs remain crises. Sometimes the matters are ongoing for weeks, months, or years. There are real and often painful issues that simply don’t go away. Again, growth groups have the opportunity to provide ongoing loving care for these people or families that can make the world of difference. These are some examples of chronic care needs that we have experienced in our groups…

  • ongoing depression or mental illness
  • psychiatric disorders
  • chronic back pain or other physical illness
  • physical or mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome
  • families members who have chronic needs, especially children or ageing parents
  • chronic fatigue, long-term insomnia
  • eating disorders
  • bereavement, especially the loss of a spouse or child
  • prolonged unemployment
  • ongoing legal battles

Once again there are many more expressions of chronic difficulties facing the members of our groups and families. The love and care of growth groups is so valuable. Often these people become irregular, occasional, or non-attending members of our groups. Don’t forget them or give up on them. Stay in touch. You can call, visit, write, help out in practical ways. It can help for the group to coordinate its efforts. Find out what you can pray for them each week, ask in advance and follow it up afterwards. Remember them when the group does things that are different, especially if they weren’t at the group to find out. Make sure they hear about the special social night or weekend away. Let them know the news of the group: who had the baby, who is heading on a short-term mission trip, who’s friend has become a Christian, who won the netball grand final, and so on.

Maybe there are people in the church with ongoing chronic needs whom you could adopt as partners to your group. Ask your pastor or pastoral care team who might appreciate you connecting with them. Again, you can go the extra mile with these people. Maybe they’re shut in through illness and would love visitors, or to be taken out now and again. Perhaps, someone would love you to visit, read the Scriptures, pray and talk with them now and again. We adopt missionaries into our groups, so why not do something similar with those in need who can’t actually make it to groups. You know, there might even be people who’ve been burned by groups in the past, who through your love and kindness find their way back into a growth group where they experience the love of Jesus in practice.

As with those experiencing crises, some of these chronic needs will involve the wider church community or the specialised help of people outside the church. This is important.  As groups and individuals we need to recognise our limitations. Our role is to provide the ongoing relational love and support throughout their journey.

One particular issue to consider, is how these people are affected by holidays and the changes that happen with our groups from year to year. If a group stops meeting or disbands, don’t forget the people you’ve been caring for who haven’t been making it along. Talk together as a group about whether you continue to offer group support during breaks, whether individuals maintain support when a group disbands, or whether you need to discuss this with a pastor or coordinator.

Growth groups, not therapy groups

Our growth groups are primarily about growing followers of Jesus. This has an eternal focus anchored in the present. It is very easily to allow the immediate, obvious, pressing needs of people to overshadow their eternal needs. Jesus understood this pressure and temptation as he was confronted daily by suffering, struggling, needy individuals. He often chose to relieve people’s suffering and to care for them in practical ways. His compassion was unsurpassed.

However, Jesus came on a bigger mission than emptying hospitals. He came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how people could experience healing of their sins for eternity. We see Jesus alignment with these priorities throughout the gospels.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’  (Mark 1:32-38)

Jesus chose to leave the pressing needs of people in one town, firstly to spend time praying, and secondly to go elsewhere to proclaim the eternal message of hope for all who turn to God. He came to seek and to save people who were truly lost. He came to call people into his kingdom. He placed the eternal needs of people over, but not to the exclusion, of their earthly needs. We see this distinction in the incident when some mates bring a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed.

Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, 11 ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

I assume that the forgiveness of this man’s sins were far from the thinking of the four mates. They had seen or heard about Jesus healing serious illnesses and disabilities, so they did all they could to see their friend get a piece of the action. How surprised they must have been when Jesus simply forgave his sins. Yes, Jesus forgave sins and then healed the man, but don’t forget one action lasted for eternity and the other only a few years. Forgiveness is the only gateway to healing that lasts for all time.

It can be easy to be dominated by people’s crisis and chronic concerns. We can even build a culture where needs becomes the way to get each other’s or the leader’s time and attention. This is not healthy. Let’s not lose the ministry of the word and prayer. And let’s invest in building leaders and the capacity of our group to serve and care for one another, as this will result in people’s temporal and eternal needs getting the love and support they need. Let’s keep God’s perspective in our growth groups.

Leading on empty

leading_on_emptyBurnout is a huge issue. It takes a massive toll on individuals, families, organisations and society. Leading experts in stress and burnout have identified church pastors as very high-risk candidates. Most will face these issues in their ministry. Many will face them multiple times. A disturbingly large group have already left their ministries as a result of burnout.

Wayne Cordeiro has written a helpful book on the topic, called Leading on empty: Refilling your tank and renewing your passion. A friend of mine read this book during his stress leave. I’ve since read it a couple of times and passed it on to others facing this issue.

How do you lead when you don’t feel like leading? And how do you sail through the dead waters when the wind has died down and that which was a festival now demands the intentional? When exhilaration turns to perspiration? Like pages torn out of my journal, this book chronicles my collision with burnout and my subsequent journey to a newly defined life.  (p11)

Much of this book details Cordeiro’s experience and what he has found helpful in moving beyond burnout with a renewed passion for ministry. He argues that when the first signs of burnout appear, then it’s time for a break. What are the common signs? Here are a few experienced by Cordeiro:

  • Ministry became more arduous.
  • Daily tasks seemed unending.
  • Decisions—even small ones—seemed to paralyze him.
  • Creativity began to flag and he found it easier to imitate rather than innovate.
  • People he deeply cared about became problems to be avoided.
  • Casting vision no longer stirred his soul.
  • What started as a joy, had become a drain.

His doctor explained what was happening to him physically and emotionally. Cordeiro recounts:

“You have depleted your system. Your serotonin levels are completely exhausted… Serotonin is a chemical like an endorphin. It replenishes during times of rest and then fuels you while you’re working. If, however, you continue to drive yourself without replenishing, your store of serotonin will be depleted. As a substitute your body will be forced to replace serotonin with adrenaline. The problem is that adrenaline is designed for emergency use only.”

“Serotonin can get depleted when you don’t live with a cadence that allows it to be replenished… Depression takes the place of initiative; your indecision and anxiety increases. You begin to feel a greater need for aloneness and isolation.”  (p25-26)

He was told that he needed to replace his serotonin levels. This would need to take place slowly, like trickle charging a battery. He was urged to take off six months to a year, or as long as he could manage. If he didn’t first replenish his system, he was warned to prepare for a crash. He could understand this because his RPMs were above the red line and he was unable to change gears.

Cordeiro needed to learn things the hard way. He was leading a very large, highly ‘successful’ church. His influence was wide and his responsibilities were vast. It wasn’t until he started experiencing anxiety attacks and depression that he woke to the necessity for major change. He was drowning in his feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. His faith and confidence were under attack and he lacked energy and interest in life.

It’s hard to admit to depression when you are a very public leader in ministry. The reality, however, is that it’s widespread and always has been. Such great ones as William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, all struggled under its dark cloud.

Cordeiro advocates developing an early warning system. If we can see it coming then we have the opportunity to avoid much of the wreckage. Symptoms of depression that he identifies include: a sense of hopelessness; frequent tears; difficulty concentrating; decision making comes hard; irritability; insomnia; lowered activity levels; feeling alone; lack of marital attraction; eating disorders; aches and pains. In another place, he rather humorously suggests the following signs of being in the early stages of burnout or depression:

  1. One year in solitary confinement is sounding more and more like a good option.
  2. Spending time with your mother-in-law begins to be more inviting than going to work.
  3. Your ministry leader calls for the third time wondering where you have been. You consider changing your number and possibly moving.
  4. The site of a ministry volunteer sign-up sheet brings on a severe allergic reaction.
  5. You realize you are in this ministry for life, which is funny, because you feel you no longer have one.  (p65)

Having identified the issues the bulk of the book deals with how to move forward. He needed to take time out and he had to sort through issues. There was no point simply having a break and then jumping headlong into the same chaos and intensity.

A major issue was recognising the difference between a concern and a personal responsibilityConcerns are things we should pray about, and then leave them with God. If we treat them as responsibilities we end up trying to carry the world on our shoulders. Responsibilities are the things that only I can accomplish. They cannot be delegated, ignored, or dumped off onto someone else.

He pushes us to identify the top 5% of life. Cordeiro argues that 85% of what we do, anyone can do. These are the things that don’t require any expertise, and many of them can be easily delegated. 10% of what we do, someone with some training should be able to accomplish. But 5% of what I do, only I can do. This is the most important 5% for me. This 5% will determine the effectiveness of the other 95%. Now we could argue the figures, but the overall point stands. We need to work out what our 5% is, and let this get first priority.

Once we’ve identified the key areas in our 5%, they require a daily investment of our time and heart. The condition of these areas will, to a large extent, determine the state of our life. If these areas are compromised, the consequences will create a domino effect. We often fill our days with the 85% because it’s easy. We then dip into the next 10%. But during the season of burnout, even that becomes draining and we have nothing left for the crucial 5%. Sadly this will often mean that our faith, our marriage, our family, and our health are critical areas that get neglected.

Cordeiro encourages us to do as many things as possible that fill our emotional reservoir. Some activities will fill us more than drain us, and others will drain us more than fill us. We need to know the difference. The danger is the busier we get, the less time we have for activities that replenish us. He didn’t play sports because he had deadlines to meet. He didn’t read books because he had sermons to prepare. He was leading on empty, with more drain than fill.

He encourages us to make a list of the things that drained us and the things that fill us. Include at least six items in each category. Have our spouse do the same, and then share them. Help each other by encouraging each other to do what fills our tanks, and do what we can to remove or change things that drain them.

We probably need to restructure our lives. This is needed if we’re to last for the long haul. This includes changing our behaviours, and most likely also our motivations, habits and subconscious patterns. Cordeiro started making these changes, but he was impatient, and crashed badly. Out of this collapse he draws seven lessons:

Lesson One: Do Not Overproduce
He had to learn that he could say “no” or “come back tomorrow.” He didn’t have to be available 24/7. He could take time to recharge. 

Lesson Two: Steward Your Energy
A leader’s greatest asset is not necessarily time. It is energy and this is not unlimited. A person with energy may be able to accomplish more in four hours than one without energy can in four days.

Lesson Three: Rest Well, My Friend
We are most vulnerable to depression from burnout when we are totally fatigued and overtired. One of the very first steps in reversing depression and regaining a sense of resilience is rest. (p122)
Schedule rests in before your calendar fills up. Rest is not an afterthought; it has to be a primary responsibility. It brings a rhythm back to life and a cadence that makes life sustainable. (p125)
Lead out of a place of rest and you will be able to put your heart into everything God asks of you. Without rest you are leading on empty. (p128)

Cordeiro makes a very helpful suggestion about how we view our days. Think of them beginning the night before. This way you begin each day with rest. Your day starts when you go to sleep. Rest begins your new day, not coffee. (p129)

Lesson Four: Exercise Your Way to Recovery
Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. It can help with recovery from depression. Consistency is more important than how much you do or how hard you work each time.

Lesson Five: Eating Your Way to a Good Life
What you eat is related to how you feel. Dietary changes
can bring psychological as well as physiological changes.

Lesson Six: Recharge Daily
Cordeiro recharges every day during his daily devotions. God’s word and prayer fills his inner tank, so he is able to reserve adequate time and energy for his family and his life.

Lesson Seven: Fight For Your Family
Too many have sacrificed marital harmony and family on the altar of success. It’s not worth it. (p140)

Leading on Empty stresses the importance of living intentionally. The key to living intentionally is to imagine your ideal future and write down. Also write down your most important relationships, that need to remain healthy regardless of how you feel or what happens: your relationship with Christ and your spouse and family. Writing things down gives you something to come back to, and helps keep you from basing your life on how you feel in the moment. It also helps you keep focused on hope for the future.

Living an intentional life requires consistent monitoring and assessment. It requires restructuring our days in order to live intentionally. A healthy life cadence will contribute to being a healthy pastor or leader. Cordeiro suggests a rhythm, or life cadence, that he tries to maintain:

Daily
Being at home. He tries to avoid being out three nights in a row, and refuses to be gone four. He also commits to doing some things every day, even if it is a small amount: Devotions, exercise, planning his time, and reading. 

Weekly
He takes a day off every week, and fills it with things that fill his tank.

Seasonal
He takes a monthly
Personal Retreat Day, to get refocused on God’s agenda. This personal retreat day has proven to be very helpful. It’s a day out of the office where he can get the scattered pieces of his life back in order, and spend some prolonged time with God. It won’t happen if you don’t plan for it and schedule it, so write it down on your calendar! He also makes a priority of renewing relationships by such things as keeping birthdays and holidays special, and celebrating often. 

Seasons of Life
After seven years of ministry, he takes a three month sabbatical to get renewed. Taking a sabbatical, or long service leave, provides the opportunity for a complete break, refreshment, renewal and refocus. The best time to organise this is when you start out and agree to a contract.

The first time I read this book, I needed to. It was just prior to our long service leave and I was feeling the strain of many years in ministry, some tense and difficult times, seeking to mediate and navigate some big tensions between others, working long hours, not looking after my physical health, going without sleep, and more. I found it a breath of fresh air. Interestingly, I caught up with a distant colleague shortly afterwards and discovered that he’d also been reading the same book to help him progress past burnout. This book isn’t the final word on the topic, but I believe it makes a very helpful contribution. Ideally, it will be read early in people’s working lives and ministries, and assist them in establishing good priorities and practises. If not, then it’s not too late to pick it up and read now.

Pastoral care in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeHaving been professionally trained as a social worker, I made the assumption for many years that pastoral care was the term for social work in the church. It was about visiting the sick, providing for the poor, counselling the messed up, befriending the lonely, caring for the needy, and helping people with their problems. This was the stuff pastors should do. Preachers preached, but pastors took care of people’s social, relational, physical, emotional (and sometimes spiritual) needs. That’s what I thought and, to be honest, I think most Christians I knew would have agreed with me. The trouble was that I’d never examined the Scriptures on the topic. We need to look at God’s definition of pastoral care, and allow his Word to shape our pastoral priorities.

As we consider the role of growth groups in the life of a church, we’ve identified pastoral care as a priority for groups. But what does this mean? What expectations should we have of the groups and their leaders? What will it look like for a group to take pastoral care seriously? Well, we need to be clear on how the Bible describes pastoral care. Pastoral care in the church and growth groups must be shaped by God’s plans as revealed in the Bible. What is the emphasis of pastoral care in the Bible?

God – the Shepherd

The word pastor comes from Latin word for shepherdPastoral ministry is the ministry of shepherding God’s people. It’s a leadership picture that uses the image of the shepherd to describe the roles and responsibilities of those who lead God’s people. It’s an idea that starts with God himself. God is the Shepherd and he leads his sheep where he wants them to go. Arguably the most famous description of this comes from Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

In this Psalm the Shepherd leads, guides, feeds, comforts and protects his sheep. The Shepherd ensures the eternal security of his sheep.

The image of the shepherd is also applied to Israel’s leaders. They are to lead, guide, feed, comfort and protect the people by teaching and living out the Word of God among them. They fail dismally on this front. Instead of watching over the sheep, they feed on the sheep and destroy them. God holds the leaders accountable for this, and declares that he, himself, will replace these oppressive shepherds. God will act to save his sheep and provide for them.

7  Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  (Ezekiel 34:7-11)

God specifically promised to send one special shepherd. This new shepherd will be the Messiah in the line of David and he will rule over and care for God’s people.

23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

This remains the hope for God’s people throughout the Old Testament, and it’s not until the New Testament that we meet the one promised by God.

The Good Shepherd

Jesus fulfils God’s promises made through Ezekiel. He is the Davidic Messiah, the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep. He will not only gather in the lost sheep of Israel, but also people from all nations and he will unite them together under him. The amazing thing about this Shepherd is that instead of slaughtering the sheep, as Israel’s leaders had been doing, he allows himself to be slaughtered in their place. To mix the metaphors, the shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 

God’s plan in saving and caring for his sheep extends from Jesus to others who will lead under Jesus’ authority. Jesus as shepherd remains the model to follow.

Shepherds/pastors

The book of Acts introduces us to the beginnings of Christian pastoral ministry. As the gospel spreads and churches begin to grow, leaders are put in place to oversee the congregations. The Apostle Paul spent three years pastoring the church in Ephesus, and he uses the image of the shepherd/pastor when encouraging the Ephesian elders to continue his work. The church is precious to God. It’s purchased with his blood. It belongs to him. Pastoral care of God’s own flock is very important. Knowing this, Paul urges the Ephesian elders to teach God’s word of grace, so as to see the church growing into maturity, standing firm against false teaching, and persevering into eternity. This is to be their pastoral care. Paul had devoted himself to this responsibility and he now calls the elders to do likewise.

28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 ‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

With the spread of the gospel and the establishment of churches, people are regularly being equipped and appointed to oversee and care for these congregations. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful in understanding pastoral ministry. In fact, they are often described as the pastoral letters. Paul is looking to the future, raising up leaders, shaping their priorities, emphasising both life and doctrine, character and teaching. He is working to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of the church. It’s worth taking the time to read these three letters very carefully in order to understand pastoral priorities.

The Apostle Peter also encourages pastoral care in the churches. He is concerned about the heart of the pastor/shepherd and calls his fellow elders to allow the gospel to shape their attitude to ministry. They are to be willing, generous, and eager servants as they exercise pastoral ministry among the flock, all the while looking forward to the return of the Chief Shepherd, the true Senior Pastor, Jesus Christ.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Pastoral care

From this brief overview of shepherd/pastor ideas in the Bible we can distil some important ideas.

  1. God is the ultimate shepherd/pastor who promises to lead people into eternity with him.
  2. Jesus is God’s appointed shepherd/pastor who gives his life to bring people into relationship with God.
  3. Shepherd/pastors lead others by gospel-shaped teaching and modelling the application of God’s word of grace in their lives.
  4. Therefore, the goal of pastoral care is: under God, to lead God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God.

I suspect this is probably not the way we would have described pastoral care. It sounds more like a ministry of evangelism, teaching, discipleship and encouragement. And yes, it is. This is what flows from the pastoral heart of God. What God is doing in our world isn’t limited to the next ten, twenty or even seventy or eighty years. God is gathering his people for all eternity. He’s keen to see them secure in his grace in this life, so that they will enjoy his full blessing in the next. As Newton wrote in Amazing Grace: ’twas grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home and when we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun. Pastoral care is a ministry of God’s grace for a few years, focused on people enjoying God’s grace for a zillion years. This is the perspective we must carry.

In growth groups

If growth group leaders are to exercise pastoral care among the members of their groups, and if the people in our groups are to pastorally care for one another, then they will need to look backwards and forwards. Backwards to the saving grace of God in the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. Forwards to the Chief Shepherd returning to usher his people into glory. These are the trig points that give us bearings for our pastoral care.

The leader will be concerned first and foremost that every member of the group has become a member of God’s flock. Is each person in our group a Christian? Are they trusting in God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Are they submitting to Jesus as the one who rules and directs their lives? If someone is not a Christian, then the most caring pastoral thing we can do for them is to help them to understand and respond to the gospel. This will likely mean praying for them, catching up with people one to one, reading and discussing the gospel together. There might be questions and doubts to resolve. If there are a number of people in the group who aren’t Christians, then perhaps the whole group might focus on these matters together.

Leaders, do we know where people are at? Have we taken time to get to know people, to understand what they believe, where they’re coming from, what they’re living for, what they’re trusting in? Maybe it’s time for some quiet conversations. This is the starting point for pastoral care.

The leader will desire to see each member of the group becoming more and more like the Chief Shepherd. Bible study will be central to this, as we seek to nourish and strengthen the members of our group in the grace of God. Not Bible study so as to know about the Bible, or even to know about God. We will examine God’s Word together, so as to get to know God himself. We want people growing together into maturity. This isn’t measured by how many theological books we’ve read or the Bible verses we’ve memorised. It’s not how much we know, but how we respond to what we know. It’s about being gripped by God’s grace and letting it shape our thinking and speech and behaviour. It’s about the wonder of the gospel freeing us to walk in God’s ways by the power of his Spirit. It’s about not being tossed around by false ideas. It means not being lured away from God by the idols of this world. It’s seen in patiently keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the things of eternity. This is what pastoral care is about.

Pastoral care will involve praying. We can’t bring about spiritual change. That’s the work of God’s Spirit. We need God to bring about deep inner transformation, and therefore we pray. We are weak and so we pray for God’s strength. God’s strength to persevere through trials and difficulty. God’s strength to stand firm against temptations. God’s strength to remain faithful in the face of persecution. God’s strength to work through our fears and doubts and struggles and selfishness. God’s strength to run the race to the end. And so we pray.

Pastoral care is gospel-shaped. It’s Bible-nourished. It’s prayer-dependent. This is God’s idea of pastoral care. We are seeking to grow leaders who will care pastorally for the people in their groups and encourage their groups to develop relationships where people care pastorally for one another. Please encourage the members of your group to become pastoral carers.

But I’m sure you are left with a few questions…

So what about things like visiting the sick, counselling, offering hospitality, providing practical helps, supporting couples or parents, caring for the elderly and orphans and widows? Aren’t we called to carry each others burdens? Isn’t this still pastoral care? Shouldn’t we be focusing on these things? Aren’t we expecting our growth groups to provide ‘practical’ care to one another?

This is the topic of another paper: Life together in growth groups.

Going the distance

goingthedistanceGoing the distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry by Peter Brain is an important book for people in pastoral ministry. We should probably read it more than once! I read it years ago, when it was first published. It inspired me to make significant changes to my life and ministry and to encourage others to do the same. I remember inviting Peter to visit Canberra and lead 50 or more local ministers through his. We all found this time very confronting and useful. However, I also need to confess that some things need to be learned over and over. I’ve read this book for a second time over the past couple of days and I’ve kept finding areas where I’ve dropped the ball. Repeated mistakes that I should have dealt with. And fresh ideas to share with others.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that much of the encouragement to self-care, aimed at me as a pastor, is equally relevant to self-care for me as a cancer patient! Keeping fit, getting enough sleep, not feeding the adrenaline-stress cycle, investing in my family and friendships, taking time out, working well and relaxing equally well, spending time in God’s word and prayer, recognising the factors that lead to depression, enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, making holidays count, being willing to say ‘no’ so that my ‘yes’ means more, relying on God’s strength. These things are relevant for all people, not simply for pastors. But the problems come when pastors, like myself, assume that we are larger than life! When we think we can function differently to every one else. When we ignore the warning signs, we will eventually crash.

This book is a helpful road map for guiding us to avoid the pitfalls and dangers and disasters that will come our way, especially (but not exclusively) in pastoral ministry. If our lives are especially busy and draining, and if they revolve around caring for people, then we need to take these warnings seriously. Especially if we think we’re indispensable, or worse still, if we function as though we’re the Messiah, that no one can do without, then we’re in serious danger. Overall, this is a very good road map. It’s worth consulting many times on the journey. It’s worth spending time with others, looking at it together, and planning what steps to take next.

This book draws heavily on the work of one of Peter Brain’s teachers, Dr Arch Hart from Fuller Theological Seminary in the US. Hart has written a number of influential books, including Adrenaline and Stress and Coping with Depression in the Ministry and other Helping Professions. I remember my mother sending me Hart’s book on stress very early in my ministry, but I was too busy to read it! (I’m only semi-joking.) I put it aside, along with so many other helpful resources, because I didn’t have any problems and there were too many pressing things to be done. And there’s the problem! Straight and simple. We too often put off what’s important and replace it with the urgent. Eventually we can’t cope with the urgent or the important and we’ve become casualties of burnout.

Various statistics relating to the burnout of pastors are quoted in this book. It doesn’t matter whose stats we read, they’re always alarmingly high. Too many casualties. Too many avoidable tragedies. I can testify to having felt burnt out a number of times throughout my ministry. On one occasion a few years back, numerous people were asking me to consider a different ministry role, but I couldn’t even consider it because I knew at that time I’d have nothing to offer. It was then that I realised some things badly needed to change, and we took long service leave to recharge and try to sort them out.

Peter argues that the signs of burnout can be either friend or foe. It all depends on what response we make to the signs. If we ignore them, we’re headed for serious trouble. If we see the symptoms, and recognise them for what they are, then there’s real hope ahead. We have the opportunity to realign, take some better paths, and push on. I believe this experience will probably happen many times throughout a pastor’s ministry. Each time we should embrace it early, as an opportunity for change and growth.

If you’re involved in pastoral ministry or a ‘people-focused helping-profession’ of some sort, then I recommend you read and keep referring to this book. If you’ve never read it and you suspect that you may be at risk of crashing, then please get hold of a copy and read it. But also speak with someone you trust about your situation and how you’re feeling. This is a good book to read with some friends or colleagues. You can share what you learn, talk it through practically, relate it to your own situations, and agree to support and pray for each other. It will be worth the encroachment into your busy life. I promise!

Time for some self-care. I’m off to bed. 🙂

A pastor’s pride

Late last night I wept. I lay in my bed and I cried until my pillow was wet. What brought it on? It suddenly hit me how proud I’d become. My heart was full of me. And this blog was a big part of it.

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post. It could be just another example of what brought me to tears. A proud response to my response to pride. But I need to write it. I want to apologise and I want to change. I think my pride had become public, and thus so should my confession.

My dramatic realisation of my own pride hit me hard. It was a bit like hearing that I had a tumour. I was devastated, the tears flowed, and I prayed. The kids were away, Fiona was in another room, and I cried out on my own to God.

I’d just written a post telling pastors to be humble and yet my own heart was hard. I was writing as the preacher, not the practitioner. I was pronouncing who pastors should and shouldn’t be, but it was me that needed to listen. Here was I, doing all my reading, making all my comments, implicitly claiming to be an authority, telling others what to do, and I wasn’t doing it.

Sometime last night God told me. I don’t know how exactly, but he made it very clear to me that my heart was the problem. I’d been getting the message all week, but I wasn’t listening.

On Sunday I joined in the memorial service for my friend Bronwyn. On the front cover of the order of service, were printed these words:

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.  (Psalm 115:1)

I was so convicted as I read and heard these words. These words seemed so true on the lips of Bronwyn, but as I mouthed them they seemed so hollow. In fact, even during the service I found my thoughts and tears and prayers wandering away to my self and my family instead.

There were so many people at that service to thank God for Bronwyn, support the family, and pay tribute to her life. I knew so many of them, and they kept coming up to me saying how good it was to see me looking so well, and how they’d been praying for me, even daily. And my heart swelled up. I’d become the prayer celebrity. Oh, how I hate it how my heart can take what is good and twist it so badly.

On Monday and Tuesday I joined a planning retreat with the staff of our church, and it did my head in. I was struggling with the effects of chemo, but that wasn’t the real problem. It was being in a situation I was so familiar with, but in a role that was totally foreign. I’d been the leader and now I wasn’t. It’s not that I wanted to be. I’m very grateful for Marcus, and for the grace that all the team have shown me. But I realise that my heart is still catching up with my head.

On Wednesday I went to the oncologist. It had been a while and I’d been doing so well. I wanted him to tell me that I was the best patient he’d had, that he’d been wrong about me, and that we could expect the cancer to disappear very soon. I now realise I’d become proud of how I’d been going. I’d had 23 cycles of chemo. Most people don’t have more than 5 or 6. I’d been battling cancer and winning. I could succeed where others had failed! How stupid and how arrogant. The oncologist made it clear that I still have a terminal illness. I’d done nothing, but fill myself with pride.

Thursday and Friday I’d been writing. Telling people what to look for in a pastor, what a pastor should be like. What I should have been doing was listening to the word of God that I was preaching. I should have been looking into the mirror and seeing what I looked like. We’d actually read these verses on our staff retreat only days before:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  (James 1:22-24)

And I’d been doing exactly that! It took the words of two friends to point it out to me. They don’t know it, but they were angels, messengers from God. They were true prophets, for they told me the truth from God. They weren’t so rude as to tell me outright, but their gentle and wise questions helped me to see the truth clearly last night. My heart was proud and it needed to change.

Last night I prayed and I cried, asking God to forgive me and to change me. Thank God, he is gracious and merciful and forgiving. My ongoing prayer is that God will gently work within me to give me humility.

I’ve written and published this because I believe that I owe you, my reader, an apology. Please forgive me my pride.

The pastor’s heart

Some years back we surveyed the members of our church about what they expected from their pastors. It was hard to know what to do with the results. There were almost as many ideas as there were respondents. Some emphasised preaching, whereas others played it down. Some focused on personal visitation, while others sought good administration. Some highlighted the importance of vision and leadership, while others desired warmth and relationship. There was a lot of confusion.

heart-monitor-500Among all the ideas of what a pastor should do, we mustn’t lose sight of who a pastor should be. Who he is on the inside is even more important than what we see on the outside. It’s the heart of the pastor that matters most. What does God desire of a pastor?

Let’s take a look at 1 Peter to be reminded of God’s will for pastors…

Therefore, as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of the Messiah and also a participant in the glory about to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Before we get into the significance of this passage, a quick word of clarification is needed. Three different terms are used to refer to pastors – elder, overseeing, and shepherding. Depending on our church traditions, we have elders (or presbyters) in some churches, pastors in others, and bishops (or overseers) in others. While we may think of them differently, the Apostle Peter doesn’t. Peter writes to them as elders, calling them to do the work of shepherding (or pastoring) and overseeing. It all belongs together.

Pastor to pastor

Peter writes as a pastor to his fellow pastors because he is concerned with the spiritual health of the church. He is concerned that Christians honour God in how they live, that they seek the welfare of those around them, that they point people to what God has done through Jesus. The church is to have a positive influence in the world. God’s people are to be different – in a godly way – and this means the pastors too.

In this day and age where the church and it’s leaders have such an appalling reputation, where scandal after scandal is now being uncovered, where vulnerable people have been abused and mistreated, it’s so important we listen again to what God wants. Let’s get right to the heart of the matter.

God calls pastors to treat the church with great care. We’re not talking about a building or an organisation or an institution. We’re not thinking of St Blogs or a particular denomination. The church pastors are to treat carefully is made up of people who belong to God. People who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ. The church belongs to God. It’ his precious possession. He purchased it with his own blood, through Christ’s sufferings. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his final words to the Ephesian elders…

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.  (Acts 20:28)

The church is God’s flock. It’s not my church, or your church, or our church. It’s the church of God. It belongs to God. The church should matter to us, because it matters so much to God. How we treat the church matters. What we do in church matters. How we lead the church matters. How we relate to people in church matters. Our use or abuse of money, sex, and power matters. There are no excuses for mistreating what’s so precious to God. Our hearts need to be changed so that we see things as God sees them, so that we love people as God loves them.

The Apostle Peter encourages his fellow pastors to have pastors’ hearts, and he describes what this will look like…

1. not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will

The pastor is called to oversee God’s church voluntarily. He’s to do it because he’s willing, not because he must. It shouldn’t be the position, or the job description, or the performance review, or the boss, or the demands of the congregation, that motivates the pastor to serve. It’s not to earn his pay, or to gain a promotion, or to satisfy his own performance standards. The pastor is called to serve freely, willingly, voluntarily, of his own accord, not because he has to, but because wants to. Just as God loves cheerful givers when it comes to our money (2 Corinthians 9:7) so he loves cheerful givers when it comes to pastoral ministry. This is pleasing to our Father in heaven.

But what about when ministry becomes a chore, a drudgery, a ball and chain? What about when the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is our sense of obligation and responsibility? Then it’s time to pray. It’s time to remind ourselves of the gospel. It’s time to dwell again on the grace of God who has given us everything we need to serve him. It’s time to ask God to fill us with his Spirit, so that we rediscover the mindset of Jesus Christ who delighted in serving others. It’s time to draw on the strength of God who delights in working through our weakness and frailty.

2. not for the money but eagerly

The Bible makes it clear that we can’t serve both God and money. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Greed is idolatry and it’s a slippery path to destruction. Many ministries have been ruined because the pastors have been in it for the money. This shouldn’t be.

Peter calls us to banish greed from our hearts. Ministry is not about the money. It’s not about earthly rewards. It’s not about making ourselves comfortable. It’s not about what we can get, but what we can give. If we have the opportunity to pastor God’s church then we should remember what a privilege it is to be entrusted with something so precious to God and give of ourselves eagerly.

It’s so tempting to put our own needs first. Our world tells us to do this all the time. We’re urged to make sure we get all we can and to protect all we’ve got. Looking out for our own interests is simply ‘normal’ behaviour, isn’t it? No. Not for people who have already been given everything from God. Those who belong to Jesus Christ have already received so much. We have every spiritual blessing in Christ. We’ve been adopted into God’s family. He’s our Heavenly Father, who knows all our needs, and promises to watch over us.

The implications of this are profound. Because God has promised to take care of our needs, we don’t need to spend our time worrying about them. We don’t need to protect our own interests. We’re liberated to look to the needs of others. We’re freed to serve God and serve others eagerly.

3. not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock

The Apostle is passing on a lesson that he received directly from Jesus…

42 Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Now Peter passes it on to his fellow pastors. The overseer is to be the servant. Authority is to be exercised with humility. The supreme example of this is Jesus himself. He humbled himself, even to death on a cross. Jesus wasn’t in it for himself. He didn’t stand on his rights. Jesus made no claims to position or prestige, even though he had every right to do so. Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, offers us the ultimate example of what a pastor should be like.

Humility flows from following the example of Jesus, but it doesn’t happen without a profound change of heart. Let’s pray that God will liberate us from our selfishness, our controlling desires, and our quests for recognition. Let’s ask him to remind us daily of his generosity and grace towards us. Let’s dig deep into God’s Word and read again of God’s amazing love for his enemies. Let’s ask God to help us forget ourselves and to focus on serving those around us. Let’s ask God to give us pastors’ hearts.

And remember

…when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

We live, breathe, think, act and speak in the light of eternityPastors, here is your reward. As you live and even suffer for Jesus now, so you will one day share in his glory. This isn’t something we deserve, we don’t earn it, and we can’t demand it. It’s not payment for services rendered. It comes freely from God to the undeserving.

Let our hearts be satisfied in Jesus. Let’s fill our minds with the things of Jesus. Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus. Let’s trust him, serve him, seek to honour him, proclaim him, model our lives upon him, and point others toward him. For this is the pastor’s heart.

Who pastors the pastor?

daveI’ve spent most of my adult working life as a pastor. Some of that time has been in university student ministry, some as an associate pastor in a denominational church, some as an itinerant evangelist, some as the senior pastor of a staff team in an independent church, and most recently I’m back to being an associate pastor again. Most of that time I’ve faced the pressures and concerns that come with the responsibility of pastoring God’s people. I’ve felt that the buck stops with me. I’m the one who has to be there for others. That’s my job.

Much of the time I was probably guilty of going at things too hard. I’d burn the candle at both ends and oscillate between adrenaline and exhaustion. I’d push too hard and get sick on at least an annual basis. There were times when I was probably burnt out. I didn’t want to see people, face decisions, or try anything new. I couldn’t cope with questions or criticism. I felt that I had very little to offer. Sometimes I found myself barely holding on, seemingly going through the motions.

I suspect that my experiences of being a pastor are not that unusual. Researchers tell me that there are as many ex-pastors in Australia as there are pastors. How can we change this? How can we support our pastors? Whose job is it to pastor the pastor?

Different churches have their standard answers to this question. Most denominations would see it falling to designated people and organisations within their denomination. Those with bishops might see it as the bishop’s job. Those with presbyteries might see it as the presbytery’s job. Those with employed chaplains, supervisors, or mentors might see it as the responsibility of these people. There can be great strengths in the relationships and networks offered by denominations. Pastors can rally alongside each other, resources can be deployed for the benefit of supporting pastoral staff, accountability can be built in through committees and structures. However, when it comes to pastoring the pastor, the Bible’s emphasis lies elsewhere. It’s not to be outsourced to the denomination, or the sole domain of a committee or board, but embraced by each church.

Here are a few ideas from a couple of Scripture passages about how churches can be supporting those involved in pastoral leadership…

Honour

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.  (1 Timothy 5:17)

The Apostle Paul has been speaking in this letter about giving honour to a range of different people. Here he addresses the church leaders. They are to be honoured, in fact double honoured. This can mean nothing less than elders within the church being valued, appreciated, supported, and upheld by their congregations. I’m an Aussie, and the Aussie way is to speak against, cut down, and undermine those in positions of authority. It’s a national sport! But, it shouldn’t be this way in our churches. God calls us to do a good job of honouring our leaders.

19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.  (1 Timothy 5:19-20)

There is no place for unsubstantiated criticism of our pastors. Gossip, innuendo, insinuation, smear campaigns, staging coups… are all out of place among God’s people. And yet they keep on happening. The deacons are unhappy with the pastor, so they start counting votes. Small groups grumble about their minister. People leave a church, critical of the leadership, and carry on about it in the new church (where they stay for a while, until they leave and badmouth the next one). Words and accusations can wreak much destruction. Elders of churches are to be held accountable for their words and actions, but they are not to be subject to trial by gossip.

Support

17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’  (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Going back to the ‘double honour’ idea, the following verse makes it clear that the honour also includes support or financial provision. It’s the concept of honorarium, recognising the significance of the elder’s ministry by supporting them to do it. We are not saying that all pastor’s must be paid, but that it is important for churches to show that they value those who lead them. If a church has agreed to support and pay for its pastor, then it should seek to do this thoroughly, not begrudgingly. Only last week, I listened to the sad story of a minister who was ‘starved’ out of his ministry by the church he served. Pastors shouldn’t be in it for the money, but neither should churches. How much more encouraging for a pastor to be respected and well supported by a church who gives them double honour.

Freeing the pastor from financial concerns enables them to go about their work. They can devote themselves to the word of God, to prayer, to equipping the church for ministry, without the need to add another job to pay the bills. My experience of being a pastor is that there is more than enough to fill all my time, without having to pay my own way on top of it. If I had to, then I would, but I’m grateful to our church for providing us the support we’ve needed.

Following

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  (Hebrews 13:7)

Ultimately, we’re called to follow Jesus. This is what it is to be a Christian. But following Jesus also involves us following our leaders, inasmuch as they are following Jesus. Pastors, elders, leaders are called to teach and model putting God’s word into practice. They’re to be examples of trusting in Jesus and progressing in the Christian life. And the congregation is not to forget this. They’re to join with their leaders in living transformed lives.

They say you’re not a leader unless people are following you. If you look over your shoulder, and find no one there, then you’re not leading people, you’re just going for a walk! On the other hand, it’s very encouraging to see people taking the journey with you. People walking the talk, changing their thinking, their words, and their behaviour. This brings great joy and encouragement.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  (Hebrews 13:17)

It’s a big responsibility being a pastor. In the original language these verses describe literally ‘watching out for people’s souls’. The leaders or overseers are given the responsibility of being spiritual lifeguards. So please make their job easier. Swim between the flags! Listen as they teach you the life-saving word of God and take it to heart. The congregation have the capacity to make the pastor’s life misery on the one hand, or joy on the other. What do you think will bring greatest benefit to the pastor and the church?

Prayer

18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.  (Hebrews 13:18-19)

Like the Apostle Paul, the writer to the Hebrews asks people to pray for him. He understands that God alone is able to equip and sustain him, and so he calls others to pray for him. When people asked Charles Spurgeon the secret of his success in ministry, he humbly replied, “My people pray for me.” And he meant it. As I look back on many years as a pastor, I am thankful to God that people have prayed for me. Some people have faithfully, diligently, consistently asked God to be at work in me and through me. The church has made a commitment to uphold it’s leaders in prayer, and I am very grateful.

The writer to the Hebrews finishes his letter with these words…

20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.  (Hebrews 13:20-21)

This prayer points us to the ultimate pastor. Here is the one who truly pastors all pastors. Jesus Christ is the great shepherd (or pastor) of the sheep. And the same God who powerfully raised Jesus from the dead is the one who will equip and sustain pastors for faithful and fruitful ministry. What an awesome promise! What an awesome privilege! Congregations and pastors – let’s keep humbly depending upon God in prayer.

Dysfunctional pastors

Preaching cartoonPastors everywhere are not doing their job. They’re not doing what they’re called to do and it’s hurting our churches. Not only is it restricting the growth and health of our churches, but it runs contrary to God’s word on the matter.

Pastors are doing the work of ministry. They’re preaching, teaching, visiting, caring, counselling, administrating. They’re running Bible studies, prayer meetings, committee meetings. They’re leading church, leading singing, leading prayers, leading worship. They’re following up newcomers, chasing up non-comers, greeting all-comers. They’re organising dinners, lunches, afternoon teas. They’re holding evangelistic courses, missions meetings, aid campaigns. They do the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals, and all the preparations. They’re in the office, typing up news sheets, photocopying bulletins, updating the website, organising the rosters, snowed under with emails.

Our pastors are doing the ministry. They’re busy with ministry. All kinds of ministry. Exhausted from ministry. Never ending ministry. And here’s the real problem…

God doesn’t call pastors to do the ministry.

A dysfunctional church is where the pastor does all the ministry. It’s not what a church should look like. It’s not what God intends for his church. Ministry is not ‘the pastor’s job’. And if it’s not the pastor’s job, then we’ve got to stop employing pastors to do it. We mustn’t hire pastors to do all the ministry. It doesn’t help pastors and it doesn’t help churches.

God’s design is so much better. Take a look at the picture that Paul paints in Ephesians 4:

11 And He (Jesus) personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ…  (Ephesians 4:11-12, my emphasis)

Here’s the job description, for the pastor and for the church. The original language suggests that pastors and teachers should probably be seen as one and the same in this list. What are they to do? Training, equipping, preparing, getting others ready. That’s their job. Not simply doing, but helping others to get doing. The pastor’s job description is to train the saints (the Christians in the church) in the work of ministry. The pastor is to be the trainer, the coach, the mentor. God calls the whole church to be involved in ministry, not simply the pastor. When the pastor does the ministry instead of the church, he breeds a dysfunctional, disobedient, and lazy church. He robs the people of their opportunity to be ministering to one another.

The stupidity of this scenario becomes clear when we transpose the situation to a rugby team. The coach’s job is to prepare the players to play the game. He must focus on training, equipping, coordinating others. If he decided that he wasn’t going to train others, then the team would lose. If he decided that he would play instead of the team… you can see the problem, and too many churches are just like this.

The picture of a healthy church is very different…

From Him (Jesus) the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.  (Ephesians 4:16, my emphasis)

Ministry is for every part of the body. We’re all called to play our part. We need each other. God’s design for a healthy church is that ministry is to be shared by all. It’s not the exclusive domain of the pastor.

How can we get this happening? One fundamental strategy is to get pastors actually doing their job. They need to spend time on what God wants them to be doing… training Christians for ministry to one another. I haven’t done the research, but I have enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often the first thing that gets dropped off the pastor’s list of priorities (if it was ever there at all).

If you are a pastor, let me ask you how much time do you spend training, equipping, preparing, apprenticing, coaching, mentoring others in their ministries? Too often, the honest answer is very little or no time at all. This is so wrong. We need to audit our timetables, calendars, priorities. We’ve got to stop neglecting our responsibilities. We’ve got to stop robbing our churches. We’ve got to stop getting in the way of others doing ministry. What is it that you need to change? And how can you make it happen? If we’re not prepared to invest in training others for ministry, then we should do the honest thing and resign as pastors.

If you’re part of a church looking for a new pastor, be careful what you look for. Don’t hire someone who will do all the ministry in your church. Don’t hire someone who is really good at ministry, but who never spends any time mobilising others. Look for someone who will prepare others. That’s the KPI that really matters. Maybe you could help your existing pastor by offering to get more involved in ministry yourself or asking him to help you get equipped.

Let’s pray for healthy churches and godly pastors. God wants pastors who take seriously their responsibility to help the whole church in building one another. God is seeking churches where everyone is involved in ministry.

Please let us speak

CrossroadsDec2011‘Confessions of a blind pastor’ or ‘A new view from the pew’. These were potential titles for this post. You see, I’ve started to observe church a little differently over the past year or so. Instead of being up front nearly every week, viewing all that happens through my leadership glasses, I’ve gained a clearer perspective on how things look as part of the congregation.

If you’d ask me whether church should be an opportunity to speak, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me whether church should involve interactive and two-way communication, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me if people were getting an opportunity to speak using their own words during church, I’d have said yes. I’d have said yes, because I believed these things should be happening in church. And I’d have said yes, because I got to speak my own words in church just about every week. I was seeing things from my perspective as preacher or service leader, not as a member of the congregation. In fact, I think the answer is commonly no.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks back I went to church and sat down. We started singing and there were three or four songs in a row. During this time someone I didn’t know came in and sat beside me. The songs ran into each other, so I didn’t get an opportunity to speak. The leader then welcomed people and introduced church. We moved from singing, to praying, to having the Bible read, to listening to a sermon, then singing. I’d been consciously waiting for a break in what was happening up front so that I could at least say g’day and introduce myself to the person beside me. There wasn’t one provided and all I could manage was a very quick “Hi, I’m Dave!” while the musicians played an intro to a song. Church came to a finish, the leader wrapped things up, and then invited us to continue our conversations over supper.

That’s when it hit me. “Continue our conversations!?” We hadn’t even begun. We didn’t have a chance. There was no space. And it wasn’t on the run sheet.

The church I go to is independent. We have no traditional liturgy or forms of words. We’re supposed to be, almost by definition, relaxed and informal. And yet that night there was no space even to greet the person sitting next to me. I’d expect that more traditional churches with their formalities and fixed liturgies might be guilty of this, but not us! We’re supposed to be more relational. I’ve come to realise that independent and informal churches need to pay attention to this issue just as much as denominational and more formal churches.

Now there are some counter-arguments, and I’ve used them. People do get to speak up during church. Every time we sing, people are involved using their voices. When someone leads in prayer, we are invited to say amen. More formal liturgies often involve scripted call and response readings, corporate prayers, reciting of creeds together, and sometimes a break where people are instructed to walk around and ‘pass the peace’. This goes something like ‘Peace be with you’ followed by the reply ‘And also with you.’ Isn’t this evidence of people’s involvement in speaking during church?

It’s speaking, yes. But it’s not voluntary speech using our own words. It’s not natural conversation. It’s following a script. Scripted words can have an important place, but they’re not the ideal way to build relationships between people. Sometimes I’ve visited churches that have invited us to pass the peace to one another. A complete stranger comes up to me and says, ‘Peace be with you’. I find myself replying, ‘G’day. I’m Dave. Sorry, what’s your name?’ I crave an opportunity to relate to people, not to perform a ritual set of words.

So why do I think voluntary, natural, two-way personal communication is important in church? There are many reasons. Here’s a few:

  1. The experience of church should be very different to attending a concert, school speech night, watching a movie, or listening to a lecture. It should be the gathering of a community for the purpose of mutual edification. However amazing the sermon, songs, prayers, readings, videos, dramas, or up front interviews may be… they are all communication from the front.
  2. We shouldn’t force newcomers, guests, or visitors to sit among strangers for 75+ minutes before anyone speaks to them. (Unless they choose to.) It will simply make the people in church look extremely unfriendly. If we create space for a friendly ‘hello’ early on, then people will be more comfortable during church, and more likely to stay afterwards.
  3. Talking together during church can help us to engage more with what’s going on. If we are talking, even for a minute or so, on issues related to the sermon, we’re likely to be listening more attentively.
  4. As we hear God’s word it calls for our response. If we want to promote discussion and mutual edification after church, it’s much more likely to happen if we get it going during church.
  5. We should be helping people get to know one another at church. While the potential for this is limited in a large congregation, and we may rely heavily on small groups, we  should look for ways for people to connect during church also.
  6. It’s helpful for people to be able to share what God has been doing in their lives, or issues they are dealing with. Of course, there are limitations on how much we can do this in a large gathering, but we could at least give it some thought.

So how and when can we get this interaction happening? Here are a few suggestions to get us thinking. You may like to add your own.

  1. Encourage friendly conversations in your auditorium or church building before things officially kick off. During this time, look out for people sitting on their own, and make sure they are welcomed.
  2. The service leader, after welcoming people from the front, can allow 3-5 minutes for people to say g’day to those around them. The kids and youth head out to their own programs in our morning congregation. During this time people are encouraged to be friendly and talk together. Our evening congregation doesn’t have this opportunity, so we have to create one.
  3. The leader could also raise an issue for people to talk about for a minute or so. This could lead people into a Bible reading or the sermon. For example, if the passage deals with issues of suffering, we could get people sharing the questions they have about suffering. The leader could then invite a few responses from the congregation.
  4. While we can all add our amen to up front prayers, it is helpful to encourage people to make their own response in prayer. This can happen by allowing a time of silence for people to pray. In some cases we can invite people to pray with those seated around them (so long as no one feels uncomfortable or pressured to speak out loud).
  5. Questions and comments after the sermon are a helpful way to engage the congregation further in thinking and working through their understanding and application of the passage. If there’s no time for this, perhaps we could trim a little off the talk to allow it. I think people are more likely to discuss the message afterwards if they’ve already been doing it in church.
  6. People could be invited to share something of what God has been doing in their lives with the congregation. This is probably best arranged in advance, so as to give people time to think about what they want to say.

On the question of open sharing times during church we need to consider the logistics. In larger congregations like ours with 300+ people. If everyone spoke for 30 seconds with no breaks between, then it would take 2.5 hours just to get through everyone each week! If we gave everyone 5 minutes to speak and only had one person a week, you would get an opportunity to do this once every 6 years. Maybe this is feasible in a house church, but we have to be more selective in a larger congregation. But, if we allowed 3 minutes for each person to share something with the person beside them, then in 6 minutes everyone would have the opportunity to share something every time we met! Food for thought!

Do you feel called by God?

calledI think I need to take more plane trips. They’re a great way to set aside time for reading. Bit expensive though! This book was started on the trip back from Sydney and finished during chemo this morning. The chemo makes it even more expensive! Having now read Michael Bennett’s Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry, I’m eager to share what I’ve discovered. This is a book that mirrors so much of my own experience, addresses so many of the same questions I’ve asked, and comes to the same conclusions. It’s easy to review a book that backs up your own opinions, but I can honestly say that it has also been a long and careful journey for me to be persuaded of these matters and I’ve never once had a conversation about them with Michael Bennett.

We’re told from the outset why Michael wrote this book and what conclusions he makes throughout. The book is spent substantiating these conclusions:

  1. The often-ward and almost universally accepted expression “I feel God is calling me” is totally foreign to the revealed content of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The continued use of this unscriptural pietistic language may be having negative consequences for churches, missionary societies and other Christian organisations in the choosing and training of leaders.
  2. Without denying in any way God’s ability to call people by overt and supernatural signs, it is argued here that this is not usually God’s method today. The motivation to serve the Lord, particularly in what is called full-time ministry, is a human desire to do so, and not a felt call. However, this human desire, which must spring from one’s love for Jesus and the gospel and genuine compassion for people, is not sufficient or valid in itself: it must be rightly motivated and rightly tested. (p6-7)

I suspect by revealing his conclusions at the outset, Michael will lose some readers. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. It’s not what happened to me… or others I know.” And they’ll put the book down. Or because they’ve read this far in my review, they wont even bother buying it! Oops, sorry! Let me say this would be a huge mistake. Please judge these conclusions on the strength of the arguments, not on whether they confirm or run contrary to your current thinking.

This book is very autobiographical and anecdotal. We get to know Michael Bennett, the rugby player, Christian, Bible college student, and author. We journey with him as his questions and struggles are explored and answered. However, this is not a this happened to me and therefore I am the paradigm for everyone else book. Michael seriously engages with the Scriptures to find the answers. We are able to weigh up his arguments on the lines of whether they faithfully expound the teaching of the Bible.

‘Call’ and ‘calling’ are explored in the Old and New Testaments. Michael examines the key people called by God to particular tasks and roles, and how this is specifically described. The observation is made that the word of God comes directly and personally to some people for particular purposes, but that this never resembles a concept of ‘feeling called’ that is commonly described today.

Close attention is given to examining every reference to ‘call’ and its cognates in the Greek New Testament. Only after the serious word studies completed and the contexts explored, are conclusions drawn. Seven different uses of the words are identified in the New Testament and the conclusion is reached, after looking at over 300 verses, that God calls all people in two specific ways:

  • First, we are called to be Christians – to be disciples of Jesus.
  • Second, we are called to be holy – to grow in Christ-likeness. (p60)

Some of the references that speak of a call to holiness are another way of describing the call to be Christian. Christians are the ‘called out’, ‘set apart’, or ‘sanctified ones’. They’re the saints – not those who gain post humous titles for miracles and deeds done – but those who, because of Christ’s work now, belong to God. In 1991, I completed exactly the same comprehensive word studies and came to the same conclusions that this is how the Bible speaks to Christians about the nature of being called by God.

Michael Bennett addressed the potential criticism of simply playing semantics by showing that the implications of using Biblical words and phrases in non-Biblical ways can be dangerous and debilitating. If candidate committees, ministers, theological colleges, and mission organizations are all asking for evidence of a ‘calling’, when the Bible doesn’t make this necessary, then where do people turn? Perhaps they end up deifying their desires to justify their position.

This book contains a very helpful and bold chapter of Hudson Taylor. It’s a pertinent case-study exploring what’s going on for this towering missionary as he speaks of his ‘call’. Taylor is quoted as saying:

I felt that I was entering into a covenant with the Almighty. I felt as though I wished to withdraw my promise but could not. Something seemed to say: “Your prayer is answered”. And from that time on the conviction has never left me that I was called to China. (quoted on p70)

The language of Hudson Taylor is important to observe. He uses expression such as, “I felt”, “Something seemed to say”, and “the conviction”. He doesn’t speak categorically of God’s specific or clear personal command. Michael respectfully seeks to diagnose what’s going on in Taylor’s experiences and the way he describes them. He argues that Taylor uses the normal language of pietism in his day (and for many in the church today) to tie together a number of influences and motivations for mission work. These areas include his family and background, his conversion to Christ as he understands grace, his grasp of the eternal consequences of the gospel, his deep compassion for people, his desire to take action, and his extraordinary suitability for the task.

After discussing some issues of how we should expect to receive guidance from God, Michael Bennett hones in on the question so who should go into ministry? The answer is biblical and profound: every Christian is called to ministry, that is, we are reborn into a new life of serving God. Ministry is not limited to some elite Christians, it’s for all! What then of those we call ‘ministers’, or pastors, or missionaries, or ‘full-time’ ministers? How do you work out if you should make the step from being a minister to being a Minister in some special sense? Again, we are directed to the text of Scripture. Some are set apart as overseers, pastors, or bishops – three overlapping terms to describe persons who lead, teach and equip the body of Christ to each minister to one another. Others are set apart for pioneer mission work or evangelising. How do you know if you should be one of these people?

Michael shows from the Bible the relevance of the same factors he describes for Hudson Taylor. He shows how the human desire to be involved in Christian leadership ministry is a desire for something very worthwhile. This desire should be tested and weighed by others also. We’re taken especially 1 Timothy 3:1-10 to explore the criteria for suitability:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

Do you feel called by God? is a breath of fresh clear air on the topic of guidance into Christian ministry. It’s a book I will recommend to many, but before I do, let me raise a couple of issues and suggestions. I believe a strength and a weakness of this book is that it covers a lot of ground and explores a lot of side streets on the way to its destination. We get to hear about Michael’s journey to faith, his pathway through theological training, high and low church differences, Catholic and Anglican confusions, dip into wider issues of guidance, and much more. This may frustrate the impatient person who simply wants the shortest distance between A and B. However, it makes the book highly suitable for one who is still grappling with many basic fundamentals of Christian life and ministry.

I also think there is a passage of the Bible, that warrants careful exegesis on this topic, that has been overlooked or simply omitted from this book. I’m referring to 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (NIV, my emphasis.)

I’ve spent much time helping people work through what this passage is saying about the nature of God’s call. A superficial reading has led many to speak of God calling people to particular careers, jobs, places, or ministries. This appears to be the meaning of verse 17. However, the verses that follow make it clear that Paul is speaking of the circumstances of life that people are in before and after they become Christians. The ‘call’ on view is the call to be Christian.

This is a book that should be read by many. It should be passed on to people who are exploring these issues for there lives. Last weekend I was asked by a young man at church if he should be heading into ministry. I plan to buy a copy of this book and give it to him and I’ll talk through the issues with him. It’s an excellent resource for people considering MTS (Ministry Training Strategy) apprenticeships, or exploring whether to head to Bible college, formal ministry, or the mission field.

I would make this book compulsory reading for church and denominational leaders who will be making decisions about whether to admit people into training or ministry positions. I’d would love all members of missionary candidates committees to take the time to work through this book. Bishops should read it. Theological and Bible college admissions departments should read it. Those endless committees deciding people’s futures should read this book. It’s such an important issue for many. Perhaps you should read it!

Gospel centered leadership

gcleadershipGospel Centered Leadership by Steve Timmis was a hard book to find – simply because I couldn’t spell centered! Now that’s sorted, and I’ve worked through the book, I’d like to recommend it. If you’ve never read a book on Christian leadership, this is a great place to begin. It’s thoroughly biblical and engages the reader with the arguments and implications of the Bible for leadership. It’s Christ-centred (!) as it describes the principles and distinctives and practicalities of leadership. It’s easy to read, focused and brief, with each chapter raising substantial issues to get your teeth into. It’s a practical workbook offering biblical content, discussion of principles, questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and ideas for action.

Each chapter of this book hooked me in with a brief scenario about leadership issues in church. I could identify with each of them and wanted Timmis to continue the story and reveal what happened! This is an excellent way to start each chapter as it helps us to see its relevance before we read it. We quickly move from these cameo intros to looking at the Scriptures, and then the Scriptures are applied to the relevant leadership matters. The use of the Bible throughout is very good. I’ve grown accustomed to leadership literature using the Bible as a springboard for ideas or a proof text for principles. This book does neither. Instead it grounds our understanding of Christian leadership in a biblical theological framework that centres on Christ. I’ve not read much by Steve Timmis, but as I worked through this book I grew to trust his handling of the Scriptures more and more.

Jesus Christ is demonstrated to be the leader of the church and therefore human leaders are to conform to his servant-hearted, cross-shaped leadership and they’re called to expound God’s word so that people respond to Jesus’ leadership. In the chapter focused upon various leaders from the Old Testament, Timmis challenges the simple ‘copy this leader’ approach of so many Christian leadership books, and instead explores how they point us to Jesus. I found this very refreshing. All human leaders will have their failures. Take these, for example: Noah – drunkard; Abraham – coward; Moses – murderer; David – adulterer; Nehemiah – failure. The Old Testament looks forward to a spectacular fulfilment in Jesus. It is Jesus who shows us what true leadership is to be like. He is the true shepherd of his sheep.

Gospel Centered Leadership explores a number of leadership distinctives. These include character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. A godly character is the chief qualification for Christian leadership. Timmis draws especially on the letters to Timothy and Titus to reveal that how we live is absolutely critical to leadership. There is to be no disjunction between life and teaching.

The bottom line is this: as leaders we are called to  be examples. Being an example is the primary way we lead. We are called to be intentional in how we live so that we can commend our attitude and lifestyle to others.  (p37)

These verses from the New Testament back this up:

In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.  (Titus 2:7-8 emphasis added)

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
(1 Peter 5:1-3 emphasis added)

The explanation of  a leader’s aptitude to teach is most helpful. It cannot simply be an ability to craft or deliver words. Rather it’s more the fundamental ability to bring the truths of God’s word to bear with relevance into people’s lives. (p43) This can happen in a sermon, a Bible study, a seminar, a personal conversation. The medium is not the most important thing. It’s how the content of God’s word is handled that counts most.

Other aptitudes mentioned in the book are: taking responsibility, influencing others, working hard, making a priority of people, and self-awareness. Each of these areas contain the potential for building and for breaking great leadership. They can become virtues or vices. For example, hard work for the gospel can demonstrate credibility, integrity and commitment. But it can also be mere activism, or an excuse for neglecting family and other priorities. Laziness, on the other hand, in not fitting for the Christian leader and it can sometimes be well hidden behind a facade of ineffective busyness.

Wisdom is essential to good leadership and gospel centered leadership will embrace wisdom by keeping God at the centre of all things. The Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This means much more than trembling in the presence of God. It’s the intention to honour God in all that we do. The alternatives can quickly damage good leadership. The fear of men and women, worrying about what people will think of us, peer pressures, seeking to make a name for ourselves, will all compete with God’s agenda for leadership.

Jesus demonstrates ever so clearly that leaders are to be servants. This isn’t a leadership strategy or an aspect of leadership. Rather it’s the very essence of leadership. It’s what the Christian leader is called to do. Forget self-promotion, parading of titles or degrees, the wearing of special clothing that separates us from the people. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, in the light of his impending death upon the cross, he demonstrated the cost of sacrificial servant leadership. But the willingness of the leader to do anything for his people doesn’t mean that he should do everything. God doesn’t expect us to be omnicompetent. Rather, as we teach the word of God so we are called to equip and empower others to lead by serving also.

Servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Leaders are to lead, but they lead in serving the needs of others. The leader sets the direction for people to follow and they do this by teaching the Scriptures with an awareness of the cultural context of the people. The leader sets a direction to develop a new culture in the Christian community, differentiated from the culture at large. This will affect relationships, priorities and expectations. It will be created through prayer, Bible teaching, example and influence. (p88) Leaders will take initiative to lead, and failure to take initiative may be an important indicator of one’s unsuitability for leadership.

The final section of the book deals with putting leadership into practice. Timmis admits that his chapter on decision making might be controversial. He calls for a consensus approach to decision making, claiming that this is the best way to care for all people and their issues. He encourages us to take the time to hear people’s concerns and to take on board their ideas. A consensus approach still requires the leaders to lead. They need to convey their vision and seek to persuade people of where the church should be headed and why. Leadership is about guiding people in God’s way, not getting our own way, and this takes time, patience, and good two-way communication. The principles in this chapter are excellent and I can see them working in in obvious ways in a small church. However, they raise many complicated issues for a large church with multiple staff, congregations, ministry departments and so on. More thought is needed here and such issues are teased out in other places (including some helpful work by Tim Keller on changes to decision making with the growth of a church).

Very helpfully, there is a chapter on what to do when leaders fail. And they will! In a fallen world, many Christian leaders will fall into temptation. We only need to read our New Testaments to see how quickly this can happen. Timmis gives good guidance in such situations encouraging other leaders in the church to not despair, nor simply to echo the woes of others, nor to assassinate the leader. No leader can or should ever replace Jesus. At such times we need to be reminded explicitly that Jesus is our only Saviour and he cares for his flock. Being reminded that this is God’s church frees us from many burdens.

Gospel Centered Leadership is a brief but important book. I’d recommend it to church leaders to read through and discuss together. Do the homework, read the Scriptures, answer the questions, raise your own issues, and work on building a common understanding of Christian leadership in your context and culture. I’ll be recommending this book to our Growth Group leaders, youth leaders, children’s leaders and others. You can, of course, read this on your own to great profit, but I’d recommend grabbing a few others and getting them to read it with you. If you’re a leader this will help you to develop other leaders. And if you’re not it will help you evaluate whether you could or should be seeking to serve others in this way.

The trellis and the vine

Trellis and the VineFor some reason I’ve kept putting off reading The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It might be the familiarity breeds… thing. After all, I did a ministry apprenticeship with Col nearly 30 years ago, and I overlapped with Tony doing the same thing a year behind me. It could be that I thought I’d heard it all before. And I pretty much had! But it’s for this reason, and the passion and commitment of the authors, and the quality of the book, that I’m now keen to recommend it to others. I intend to provide an overview of the material, highlighting what I see as some key issues, share some ideas of how we are seeking to grapple with these things, and make some suggestions.

The two images of the trellis and the vine are used to describe two aspects of Christian ministry.

The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help the vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It might not be much, but at very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  (p8)

The observation of the authors is that so often in our churches the trellis work takes over from the vine work. We get caught up in committees, structures, activities, fund raising, keeping the machinery ticking over, such that we lose site of the reason for the trellises – that is, to support the vine. Drawing on the great commission in Matthew 28, this book argues for vine-growing as disciple-making which should be the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple (p13).

As churches move away from erecting and maintaining structures to growing disciple-making disciples, a radical mind-shift is required. These changes of outlook will include…

      1. Building people rather than running programs
      2. Training people rather than running events
      3. Growing people rather than using them
      4. Training new workers rather than filling gaps
      5. Helping people make progress rather than solving problems
      6. Developing teams rather than focusing all on ordained ministry
      7. Forging ministry partnerships rather than focusing on church polity
      8. Establishing local training rather than relying only on training institutions
      9. Looking at the long term picture rather than being constrained by immediate pressures
      10. Engaging in ministry with people rather than being consumed by management
      11. Prioritising gospel growth over specific church growth

Col and Tony ground their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis in the Scriptures. They examine what God’s plan is for his world, what he has been doing, and what he is doing now after the finished work of Christ. God is saving souls through the Spirit-backed proclamation of the gospel and this has big implications. Our small ambitions need to be laid aside for the cause of Christ and his gospel. God is calling people to be born anew in Christ and to grow into maturity. And this growth happens by the power of God’s Spirit as he applies the word to people’s hearts. It’s evident that this has little to do with structures and organisations and much more to do with prayerful word ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine aims to show that every Christian is called to be a part of this vine work. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, but we are all called to the task of being and making disciples. The beauty of the body of Christ is we can support one another in this work. The common clergy-laity divide is broken down as leaders and congregations begin to work off the same game plan. Modelling and teaching from pastors, elders, teachers, group leaders and others is focused on God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ and calling people to follow him. We read, discuss, and prayerfully apply the Scriptures together at church, in groups, one-on-one, in formal and informal contexts, with the same aim of growing into maturity as followers of Jesus.

I especially appreciated the careful defining of ‘training’ in this book. They contrast our popular understanding of training as a focus on skills development and show from the New Testament that it should be more focused on Christian thinking and living.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.  (1 Timothy 4:7)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Though training is not simply the imparting of information, the faithful passing on of sound teaching is essential.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.  (2 Timothy 2:2)

Training is also modelling a way of life. It is caught as well as taught and we are called to set one another an example. The ultimate example is that of Jesus Christ himself.

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God —  even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1)

Not that trainers will be perfect, but they are called to watch their lives and teaching carefully. They will impact others profoundly as their progress is seen.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

This understanding from the Bible has led the authors to summarise the nature and goal of training by three Cs.

Through personal relationship, prayer, teaching, modelling and practical instruction, we want to see people grow in:

  • conviction – their knowledge of God and understanding of the Bible
  • character – the godly character and life that accords with sound doctrine
  • competency – the ability to prayerfully speak God’s word to others in a variety of ways.  (p78)

Following the lead and language of the Book of Acts, the authors describe training as more concerned with gospel growth than particular church growth. This happens in the lives of people, not structures. It means we should be generous and willing to send off many whom we train for the sake of God’s church elsewhere. It requires us to see people as people, and not just cogs in the wheel for our own projects. As more and more people are trained in godliness and a good understanding of the truth, then we will find churches as they should be – growing in numbers and maturity, with people serving one another, encouraging and setting an example to each other. In other words, a long way from the ‘professional minister with all of his clients approach’, which does little more than stifle gospel growth.

For churches to adopt this radical mindset, it requires pastors and leaders to grasp the essential importance of training. It’s not sufficient to be the preacher, clergyman, CEO, or business manager. Leaders need to encourage their churches to become centres of training where disciple-making disciples are nurtured, equipped, and encouraged. In this way the opportunities for outreach, teaching, modelling, service and care are shared among the body of the church. Churches can grow in health as well as numbers and more and more people are mobilised. We would do well to conduct an honest audit of our congregational programs, structures and and activities and see how we measure up against this picture.

Recruiting co-workers is key to promoting gospel growth, but there are mistakes to be avoided. Here are a few:

  • Don’t compromise on core beliefs and values.
  • Don’t be impressed by enthusiasm over substance.
  • Don’t ignore their track record.
  • Don’t choose people who aren’t good at relating to people.
  • Don’t recruit in desperation.
  • Don’t select unteachable co-workers.
  • Don’t simply choose ‘yes’ people.
  • Don’t just advertise for volunteers.

The best way to recruit co-workers according to convictions, character, and competence is to train them. Keep on the look out for people who might be suitable to share the load with you. Always be thinking about whom you could be training. Consider if there are one, two or more people that you could especially invest in. Make it happen. Share in their lives, work through the Scriptures together, pray with one another, open your heart to them, delight in their progress, be honest and speak the truth in love, as you encourage them to grow as a disciple-making disciple.

A chapter is devoted in this book to the Ministry Training Strategy. This isn’t surprising given that Col was one of the founders of this ministry and Tony was one of the early trainees. They have shaped and refined this ministry over three decades, and commend it as an excellent strategy for preparing new Christian leaders. It’s basically a two-year apprenticeship that gives people real opportunity to grow in gospel ministry, by doing ministry under the supervision and guidance of a suitable trainer. It’s often a precursor to more formal theological training and has the benefit of enabling a good assessment of a person’s suitability for ministry leadership before investing everything in 3 or 4 years at college. A good outcome is a wise and godly decision at the end of the apprenticeship. I’m an advocate for this training experience before formal theological training. I benefitted greatly from receiving it myself and have subsequently led more than 60 apprentices through a similar program.

So what have I learned from this book?

The big thing has been the reminder to see training as part of the DNA of a healthy church. Not simply skills development, but the making of disciple-making disciples in response to the commission of Jesus. As churches grow it is easy to be consumed by organisation, structure, vision setting, strategic planning, and the like. We can lose sight of the people. It’s been a good reminder that God is seeking people with him for eternity, not clever programs!

The Trellis and Vine has also encouraged me to be more purposeful in training workers for ministry throughout our church. Training is not simply for the ‘professionals’. It’s about being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and that’s for all. We need to audit our Sunday meetings, growth groups, children’s and youth ministries, and ask the hard questions. Are we occupied with a gospel work that will make a difference for eternity? Are people genuinely seeking to follow Jesus? Are we making disciples of one another, or are we sitting back assuming it will just happen automatically somehow?

My current pastoral focus is particularly on ministry training and leadership development. I’ve begun to assess how we are travelling with equipping and supporting our growth group leaders. A quick analysis shows there are a number who would really appreciate some training. This book is a helpful resource as I seek to encourage the leaders to make growing disciple-making disciple a priority in their groups.

A couple of suggestions

Given that this book is called The Trellis and the Vine there is very little about trellises. The author’s main point is to get us focused on vine growing and not distracted by erecting and maintaining trellises. However, I would appreciate more on how to create helpful trellises for vine growing. A lack of trellis or the wrong type of trellis can become a serious impediment to vine growth. Disorganised strategies and structures can certainly prevent gospel growth in our churches, but the inverse can also be true. It seems to me that we need to find the right trellis that enables the vine to grow. More could be said on this.

However, and I’m not sure if this point is made explicitly in the book, The Trellis and the Vine is itself a helpful trellis! Here is a strategy with organisational advice to increase the disciple-making outcome in our churches. Chaos is affirmed in the book as an expected outcome when the focus is on vine growing, but sometimes the chaos is an indicator that some trellis work needs to be done to keep the vine growing healthily.

I also had a concern in the section on ‘people worth watching’. The call is to become ‘talent scouts’, looking for people with extraordinary gifts in leadership, communication and management; people with vision, energy, intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit; people who are good with people, and who can understand and articulate ideas persuasively. If these are also godly servants of Christ who long for his kingdom, then why not headhunt them for a life of ‘recognised gospel ministry’? (p140) My concern here is the order and emphasis. It’s too easy look on the surface, see the gifts and talents, and fail to look deeply at the life and character of the person. In a book that has highlighted this issue, it would have been more helpful to illustrate the things that might give evidence of godly character.

A similar concern is the limited mention of ‘love’ as a defining characteristic of the disciple and his or her life and ministry. Interestingly, the first FAQ in the appendix illustrates what makes a great sales person. The answer is love for the product and care for the people. When it comes to the gospel and Jesus and other people, this is so important. I think it’s a point that could have been much stronger and more up front in the book. 1 Corinthians 12-14 would have been an excellent starting point for a chapter on the importance of love in building the church and making disciples. I worry sometimes that our catch-cry of looking for FAT people (faithful, available, teachable) people is not enough. I used to add an S (self-starting or sacrificial), to make FAST people! Maybe we should add an L (loving) to make FLAT people instead!

Overall

This is a very helpful book. I commend it to pastors, ministry leaders, small group leaders and any Christian who is keen to make their life count for eternity.

Leadership and followership

For the past 20 years I’ve been the leader: Director of the FOCUS ministry on campus; Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church; making the decisions; setting the vision; recruiting the staff; leading the team; critiquing, evaluating, shaping and encouraging. It’s been my responsibility.

Now things have changed. I’m entering new territory this year. The Senior Pastor has now become the Associate Pastor! Now I report to Marcus – the same Marcus whom I recruited, mentored and employed. To be honest, I like the idea. It’s exciting to be able to change positions. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this way.

I don’t have the same authority or responsibility that I had in the past. And that’s probably a good thing. I’ll need to be more flexible, less time-constrained, and more careful about what I do and don’t do. Some days I might be highly productive and other days I might be stuck in bed. Things that need to happen every day, week, or month – without fail – probably won’t be the best fit for me. My prayer is that there will be less adrenaline, stress, late nights, and compromised days off in the new regime!

My new job description will take a while to bed down, but we’ve got the big things worked out. I’ll be focusing on ministry training and leadership development across the church, as well as contributing to the preaching program. I’m also planning to write. God-willing, I hope to produce some resources for ministry training, that can be used at Crossroads and more widely. There are also a couple of books I’m keen to have a crack at! But one step at a time!

I’ve begun to work on material and ideas for leadership development. Currently, I’m reading through Malphurs and Mancini’s book, Building Leaders. They remind us that in order to be good leaders, we must first be good followers. In fact, I would say if we can’t follow, then we must not lead. Good leadership is not about getting our own way or the wielding of power over others. It’s about service and giving our lives for the benefit of others.

In response to a power struggle among his followers, Jesus taught these things to them:

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Christian leadership is primarily about influencing people to follow Jesus, and to do this in every area of their lives. Leaders should teach these things, but they also need to model them. This means that leaders must first be followers. It goes with the job description.

The challenge to me as I enter a new form of leadership this year, is to keep working on my ‘followership’. Firstly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, and secondly as a newly positioned member of the pastoral team following the leadership of my Senior Pastor.

Diagnosing James chapter 5

James5Over the past 12 months I’ve been pointed numerous times to a passage in James chapter 5. This is an important and puzzling part of the Bible. It seems to make bold promises and yet, so often, doesn’t seem to deliver upon them. Is this because we’ve misunderstood the text? Is it because we’ve misapplied the text?

This part of the Bible has had me curious for many years. I’m not sure I’ve ever been completely satisfied with any of the commentary explanations. Is it a prescription for healing today? Should we follow the advice to apply oil, call the elders, confess sins and pray for healing? Should we have the faith that the sick person will be healed? Is this a promise of healing to the person who has repented of their sin?

My cancer has given me cause to reflect more seriously on these words of God. Over the years I’ve been called on a few times to pray for a seriously ill Christian and anoint them with oil. Earlier this year some of our pastors and elders prayed over me and anointed me with oil. Does this mean that I should expect to be healed from my cancer? Others have had similar experiences and haven’t been healed. What do we make of this?

A pastor friend took me to this passage while I was still in hospital last year and asked me to consider if there might be any sin that is causing my sickness. The truth is I can think of so many sins! But how would I know what sins might be serious enough to lead to serious sickness. And I trust God that he has accepted payment for all my sin in Christ. And I don’t think there is anything for which I remain unrepentant.

But it’s also the exegesis of this passage that puzzles me. So many commentaries see little or no links in the immediate and wider context, and this bothers me because it seems unlikely that James would drop a new and unrelated exhortation at the end of his letter. I wish to explore the meaning of these verses further and to ask whether it is possible to see a coherent argument from 5:7-20. So here are some of my thoughts for consideration.

The ESV translation of James 5:14-15 is as follows:

14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 

In these verses, one English word ‘sick’ is used to translate two different Greek words: astheneo (5:14) and kamnonta (5:15).

While astheneo in its various forms throughout the gospels seems to always refer to sickness, it is used more widely in the letters of the New Testament to mean weakness. Weakness can include physical sickness, or be caused by physical sickness, but it can also include a broader range of issues, such as the ill-informed conscience, spiritual struggle, and more. Hebrews 4:15 gives a good example of spiritual struggle:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.

The second word translated as sick (5:15) is kamnonta. This word is more easily pinned down. Its only other appearance is in Hebrews 12:3:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

The same word appears in Revelation 2:3 in the Textus Receptus, where it also carries the meaning of weary in a similar context. The word kamnonta is also used in Job 10:1 (LXX) where Job is weary in his soul. This is particularly interesting, given the mention of Job in James 5:11. If kamnonta in James is being used in a similar way to its use in Hebrews 12, then it seems reasonable to adopt the broader translation of astheneo as ‘weak’ in verse 14. On this understanding, we could offer the following translation:

14 Is anyone among you weak? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Of course, there are other issues to be determined in these verses. How is ‘save’ (Gk. sozo in 5:15) being used? The NIV translates this word as ‘make well’, whereas the ESV translates as ‘save’. Does it refer to salvation from illness and death? Or is it speaking of salvation from God’s judgement? James uses this word on four other occasions and each time it refers to spiritual salvation.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.  (1:21)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  (2:14)

There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?  (4:14)

…let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.  (5:20)

Most telling, is the proximity of 5:20, which I would argue is a continuation of the same discussion by James. Thus, James could be saying that the prayer will restore the weak and weary person so that they will be saved from the judgement of God.

The reference to healing (Gk. iaomai in 5:16) could then be understood to be functioning metaphorically, as it does in Isaiah 53:5.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.  (5:16)

That is, the person is healed from their sin. Interestingly, in Hebrews 12:13 this word is used for ‘the healing of drooping hands and weak knees’. This is a picture of restoring the person who has grown weary and faint-hearted (Hebrews 12:3) in their struggle against sin. The same idea could well be on view in James 5.

This interpretation fits well with the context and helps us to see the development of James’ argument. In 5:7-11 James writes about the attitude his brothers and sisters should have toward suffering. They are exhorted to be patient and to persevere. They are to find encouragement in the example of the prophets (Job is noted) and the merciful character of God. This has an eschatological focus in the return of Christ and the final judgment.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patientEstablish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:12 is harder to understand in the flow of James’ argument and is usually explained as an isolated saying. However, it’s possible that James is returning to his warnings about double-mindedness and his encouragement to his brothers and sisters to remain steadfast.

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.  (5:12)

5:13 continues the matter of remaining godward in the face of suffering and trials, by encouraging the suffering person to pray. If the praise is also godward, then he encourages people to speak with God in good and bad circumstances.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.  (5:13)

But what of the weak person, the spiritually weary, the one who may be unable to pray in faith? Let him call the elders to pray so that he may be restored. Indeed, prayer is not limited to the elders. Prayer is something we should offer for one another, especially when they need help in overcoming sin. This whole argument is nicely concluded and summarised in 5:19-20 where we see that the heart of the matter is saving the sinner from his sin that leads to the death of his soul.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

But what of Elijah in the midst of all this?

17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.  (5:17-18)

Again, the reference to Elijah points to the continuity of argument, because the example of the prophets has already been raised in 5:10. Elijah serves as an example of a righteous pray-er. His ministry occurs during the time of drought and he is introduced in these terms in 1 Kings 17:1. For three and a half years the people have to wait, and the cause of the crisis is the sinfulness of the people of God. In particular, it is their double-mindedness as they flirt with other gods and fail to trust God’s covenant promises. This fits well with the introduction to this section of James, where in verse 7 the farmer waits for the rains, which are the coming of the Lord. 1 and 2 Kings reveals that Elijah was a man who prayed, but the prayers recorded are interesting. He prays for a little boy to be saved from death to life – and he was. A powerful prayer for healing, but James does not mention this. So, I understand the connection to be humble faith in God, as we wait patiently for him to bring the rain, or in the case of James – the return of Jesus.

This still leaves the puzzling reference to ‘anointing with oil’. The New Testament only mentions the practice of anointing with oil in relation to healing the sick in Mark 6:13. (There is also the reference to pouring oil and wine on the bandages of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34.) So, it could be that a connection with healing prompts the mention of anointing with oil. This, on my view, could be a symbolic demonstration of God’s spiritual healing of the individual.

This ‘restoration of the weak and weary’ view fits well with the overall message of James. People become weak and weary when they fail to submit humbly to God’s word. Rather than strengthening their hearts (5:8), they become faint-hearted and weary of struggling against sin. They become double-minded, being tempted by the world’s ways rather than patiently trusting in the goodness of God.

James began his letter by calling upon people to remain steadfast under trial. They are to persevere patiently because God has promised a crown of life. James concludes his letter by returning to where he started. His big concern is that people live out their faith and not fall by the way, distracted by the pretence of the world. They are to keep trusting in God, come what may, and if anyone starts to stray, then their brothers and sisters should pray and do all they can to bring them back.

I recognise that this interpretation is not watertight and there have been various arguments against it. Commentators point to the calling of the elders as indicating the incapacity of the sick person to go themselves to the elders. The strong connections with Jesus’ teaching are seen as a pointer to the sickness/healing/saving theme of the gospels being repeated here. Further, the place of anointing with oil in a context other than healing is hard to explain.

I have weighed these arguments (and will continue to do so) and it seems to me that in the context of James’ letter ‘restoring the weary’ is a more likely interpretation than healing the sick. If I am wrong, then it is still likely that James explores a link between the weakness/sickness of individuals and the potential of sin having brought this about. Thus the prayer and concern for the sick person will be concerned with more than their physical healing. It will be concerned with the forgiveness and salvation made possible through Christ.

My recent experience of serious sickness has reminded me of the strong connections that can exist between physical sickness and spiritual struggle. Someone who is very ill and facing their own mortality may experience doubt and a struggle to maintain their faith in Christ. In such circumstances the prayers of the elders and encouragement of God’s people will be particularly important.

In all of this, I continue to pray fervently for others to be healed of their sicknesses and that God will strengthen their faith in him for salvation. I deeply appreciate the thousands of prayers that people have offered for my healing. Please don’t stop! Let’s pray to God, let’s pray for one another, especially for the sick and weary and weak and struggling, that God will raise them up. When things are especially tough, the prayers of our brothers and sisters are so important.

These reflections are a work in progress. I have grappled with this text over a number of years (preceding my illness) and recent events have pushed me to explore their application again. My prayer is that we will read them humbly and faithfully, leading us to trust God in whatever circumstances we are facing. I welcome your thoughts and prayers!

Simple schoolies alternative

Over recent months I’ve been meeting with other parents from church, to pray for our teenagers. The adolescent years can be pretty volatile. Kids are turning into adults. Hormones are kicking in. Once delightful compliant children can morph into something from the Twilight series. Key among these changes are issues of faith. Do I believe what mum and dad believe, and do mum and dad really believe it any way? Have I just been swept along by the expectations of my church or youth group? What is real?

Burrill2As I was talking (and later praying) with another dad from church a few weeks back, I got the idea of offering to take a bunch of graduating year 12 boys/young men away for a couple of days to focus on life after school from God’s perspective. I invited 10 guys in our church and ended up having 6 come away with me, and my son, Luke, and our youth director, Steve, for the weekend. We headed to the coast and set up camp for the weekend. Some time was spent in the surf, playing various games, or just chilling around the campsite. The main game was to open the Bible and to talk together about stuff that mattered – and we did!

Here is a simple summary of what we looked at:

Saturday morning
Getting to the guts of the gospel. I shared my experiences as a teenager of constantly failing God, wondering if I was really a Christian, wondering if it was true, not being able to turn over a new leaf, hoping a change from Canberra to Sydney would change everything, and more. During 1st year uni I came to understand Romans 5:6-11 and this changed everything. God wasn’t waiting for me to make myself good enough for him. He was reaching out to me as a rebel, forgiving all of my sin in Jesus, and having guaranteed my current standing with him as not-guilty, I had nothing to fear from God, and was freed up to serve him with joy.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Saturday afternoon
Beginning with the end in mind. We talked about how the shortness of time clarifies what’s important. If 80 minutes has passed in a game of rugby and your team is 4 points behind, then you hang on to the ball for phase after phase, aiming for that 5 point try. If you have an exam tomorrow, then it makes sense to start studying. If your life is short, then it’s important to know what is worthwhile doing. I shared how my cancer diagnosis has sharpened my focus of what matters in life.

I got all the boys to share their plans for the year ahead and beyond. Some were looking at gap years, others heading to uni or tech, some leaving home, others staying with family. We looked together at Psalm 90 and saw how the eternal God has numbered our days and called us to live for him and find our satisfaction in him. In particular we brainstormed what this verse would look like for each of us in our contexts.

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

We also looked at the typical Aussie dream and how chasing affluence, influence, pleasure and security are the messages we hear every day. Jesus critiques these ideas and shows how the brevity of life and the certainty of death make a mockery of a life spent chasing this stuff.

15 Then he (Jesus) said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21)

This bloke made 3 fatal mistakes. He thought riches would guarantee him security. He thought he had all the time in the world. And ultimately he thought only of himself, leaving God right out of the picture. That night his life was demanded of him. I urged the boys not to fall into the same foolish and fatal mistakes.

Saturday night
Q and A. We built a raging campfire and sat around with the boys asking me questions. We covered a lot of ground with different topics. These included relationships, marriage and sex; life in residential colleges; helping people grapple with issues such as the horrors done in the name of Christianity, or what happens to people who’ve never had a chance to hear about Christianity; what to do when you’re struggling; and more.

Sunday morning
Don’t sell out for a bowl of soup. We looked at how temptations can be so appealing and seem to offer so much, and yet how easy it is to get everything out of perspective. Everyone agreed that we wouldn’t swap an inheritance from our parents for a meal, and yet this is the risk when it comes to inheritance from God. We can be tempted to look at people not following Jesus and think we’d be better off if we were like them. Perhaps it’s their perceived sexual freedom, or their power or wealth, or maybe it’s that our inheritance from God seems so intangible or remote. We checked out these verses from Hebrews:

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:15-16)

We talked together about how being Christian is for the long haul and God wants us to encourage each other to persevere and live our lives for him. These verses show how we can invest in the lives of one another.

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

God doesn’t expect us to be Robinson Crusoe Christians. The boys shared how they thought they could encourage each other. There were some great ideas that focused around being genuine, getting past trivia, and caring about how each is going with God. This was important, given they were heading in different directions, with different challenges ahead.

Finally, we discussed how we would all stuff up and why it was so important to remember the grace of God. Rather than hiding from God when we feel that we don’t measure up, or when we know we are guilty of not living for him, this is the time to draw near and rely on his grace. Jesus knows what we’re going through. He was tempted as we are. He was challenged to give up his inheritance for a ‘bowl of soup’ too. But he drew near to God and trusted him, even to death.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

BurrillI think this was a good weekend. The boys told me so! One shared how it had encouraged him as he struggled with his faith. My prayer is that it will help these guys to remember the gospel, and live it out as they face massive changes in the year ahead.

It wasn’t hard to pull off a weekend like this. It’s a simple schoolies alternative, or add-on. It was fun, relaxed, and at its heart it was a serious time together. Maybe next time we’ll do it for 3 or 4 days. Perhaps you could consider this with year 12s from your church or network. I focused on boys so as to keep things simple, but there would be opportunities with girls too. God-willing, we might try to do both separately next year. If you’d like to know more about how it worked or to talk through possibilities for something similar, please get in touch.

Custom make your own conference

This time last year I was enjoying the Geneva Push In the Chute conference in Melbourne. I gathered with others from all over Australia, young and old, from a range of denominations, to encourage each other in the work of planting new churches. In some ways, I was the middle-aged pinup boy, heading to the Top End to begin all over. It was exhilarating to feel the energy, especially from those who were moving to new places to reach out with the message of Jesus. I had the privilege of teaching on why we need to keep planting new churches, how to build ministry teams, as well as sharing our specific dreams and plans for outreach in the Darwin area.

This year, I’m unable to attend. I’d truly love to be at the conference, listening to Don Carson teach, finding out how some of the new churches are travelling, and generally being encouraged to keep on with the work of ministry. However, health, other commitments, and distance are keeping me away this time round.

Depending on our networks, some of us could spend an awful lot of time at conference after conference. In my case, I get drawn towards church conferences, FIEC conferences, men’s conventions, CMS summer schools, Geneva Push conferences, MTS conferences, AFES conferences, FOCUS camps and conferences, RUPA conferences, Easter conventions, Arrow Alumni conferences, AFES staff and regional directors conferences, speaking at other camps and conferences, and the list could go on!  Sometimes it’s simply too much and not all of them are always that relevant. I understand that I’m there for what I can give as well as what I might get, but there are times when I just crave to focus on some particulars and we just don’t go there.

3stoogesI thought I’d share a do-it-yourself idea that I came up with a couple of years back. I customised my own mini-conference that just involved 3 or 4 people. Our church was going through a few strategic and structural changes and I was keen to gain wisdom from others in thinking through these issues. I made contact with a couple of other senior pastors, whose churches were at a similar size and stage, and we organised to set aside two half days to talk things through together. I took a colleague with me, and we flew to Brisbane to catch up with the other guys.

In order to maximise our time together, I wrote up a couple of pages of topics and issues that I was keen for us to discuss. This helped us to think ahead and to stay on topic in the limited time we had together. Each of us had been reading one or two of the same books that had been shaping our thinking about ministry, and so we were able to interact with these ideas also.

I confess to driving the agenda because there were things that I was keen to nut out. We were able to explore how each of us approached different ministry issues, what our churches were doing in a range of areas, how we planned and organised, and more. Talking together afterwards revealed that each of us had benefited in different ways through our time together.

Some of my peers do a similar thing from time to time, so as to focus on their preaching. They meet together for a couple of days, share ideas for a series of talks, preach and critique each others sermons, discuss their exegesis or illustrations or applications, and show how they’ve integrated the preaching with a series of Bible studies.

The advantage of these do-it-yourself mini conferences is that they are tailor-made. You meet for a clear purpose, you contribute to that purpose, and you get out of it what you put into it. It can be organised around your timetables and calendars. You can do it in-house if you have a large staff team, or you can coordinate with others in other places if you’re more isolated. This strategy will work to connect people in similar types of ministries also. Children’s workers can get together with other children’s workers … so can youth workers, women’s workers, executive pastors, small group coordinators, evangelists, school chaplains, and so on.

If you want to make the most of your time, then I recommend you consider the following:

  • agree on the main purpose of your conference
  • put together an agenda or list of issues to be discussed and allow time for people to prepare in advance
  • consider a book or two, or other resources, that are related to your issues, and get people reading these in advance so as to inform your discussion
  • clear your diaries of other commitments and meet in a comfortable place that is free of distractions
  • pray for each other throughout your time together
  • take notes of ideas and have someone distribute a follow up summary of discussion and ideas
  • contact each other a few weeks after your conference to see how things have progressed.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.  (Proverbs 27:17)

The key to resolving conflict

I’m not much of a fan of conflict – especially when it involves me. I don’t like causing it and I don’t like being on the receiving end of it. Give me peace and harmony any day! But conflict happens. We disagree, we argue, we get defensive, we sulk, we blow up in anger, we grow resentful, we wallow in bitterness. It’s a death cycle for relationships and it’s way too common.

As I look back over my life, I can see the damage caused by conflict with others. Good friendships gone bad. Working relationships broken down. Tensions with relatives. Relationships strained and awkward.

Most of the conflicts were nothing at first. A word here or there. An oversight. Simple misunderstandings. Unmet expectations. Assumptions. Nothing to worry about. It’ll be all right. Things will blow over.

But they don’t blow over. They stay, and they grow, and we feed them. The small problem gets bigger and bigger and, before too long, we have an unresolvable crisis. Judgments have been made. We become entrenched in our position. They in their position. Neither of us will budge. We appoint blame and demand the other change. Apologies are empty, we’ve heard it all before, there’s no hope, the relationship’s over.

Conflict hurts. We know the pain. We live with the scars. Couples, families, homes, workplaces, teams, schools, churches. It doesn’t matter where. Conflict is far too common and we keep failing to overcome it. So what hope is there?

In my experience there is one key to resolving conflict. It’s very simple to understand, but so hard to put into practice. It’s not a technique. It’s not a set of words or exercises. It doesn’t require counselling or courts to make it happen. It needs something much more profound – a change of heart.

The key to resolving conflict is forgiveness.

forgive-bible-quotesThat’s what it takes. So simple, yet so difficult. To forgive means to count the cost, to absorb the hurt, to no longer hold it against them. To forgive means to cancel the debt, to let go of your pride, to release your bitterness. To forgive means to value the other person, to seek the relationship, to work for reconciliation. That simple! That impossible!!

What really stands in the way of resolving conflicts is me! I’d prefer to stand on my rights, to demand an apology, to wallow in my self-pity or pride. I’m the problem and, left to my own resources, I’m a problem I can’t fix!

But… God can. The power to forgive comes from forgiveness received. As I recognise how much God has forgiven me through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, so I become more able to forgive others. God has wiped my slate fully clean. He’s forgiven me all my selfish thoughts, words and actions. He’s washed me cleaner than snow. He’s removed a debt that I could never repay.

I need to be constantly reminded of the magnitude of God’s forgiveness of me. The enormous cost that he paid to remove the conflict between us. God is the ultimate peacemaker. He’s the awesome reconciler. He’s the author of forgiveness. As I begin to appreciate how much I’ve been forgiven, what could be too much for me to forgive others? And God doesn’t leave me to try and become a forgiving person on my own, relying on my own strength and resources. He pours out his Holy Spirit to bring peace into our lives and relationships.

It’s worth remembering this story that Jesus told:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Hopefully, you too are outraged by the response of the servant. He’d been forgiven 10,000 bags of gold and he can’t even bring himself to forgive 100 silver coins. Wow!

Of course, there’s a sting in this tale. If we’ve received forgiveness from God for every selfish thing we’ve ever done, then how can we not forgive others the petty grievances we so willingly cling on to. Perspective please!

God wants us to enjoy peaceful relationships. Firstly, with him, and he calls us to put our trust in Jesus so that we can receive his forgiveness. Secondly, with each other, and he expects us to keep the forgiveness going. Don’t give in to conflict. It’ll destroy relationships and it’ll ultimately destroy your soul. If you need forgiveness, then please seek it. Otherwise, please humble yourself and be willing to offer forgiveness to others.

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