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The Trials and Temptations of Pastoral Ministry

What are the biggest challenges of pastoral ministry? That can’t be an easy question to answer. Too much depends on who you are, what kind of weaknesses (and strengths!) you possess, and where you’re ministering. Nonetheless, seasoned pastors can tell us a lot about what they’ve seen and where we need to be careful.

So, check out Art Azurdia‘s comments on the Trials and Temptations of gospel ministry. It’s a clear and concise presentation of 11 key temptations that many (every?) pastor faces at some point. I know that in my ministry, depression (especially after a particularly difficult night of ministry), frustration, and doubt have often been constant companions.

Can I worship with you, please?

Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.

But, she made a lot of noise.

You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.

And, Audrey was always happy at church.

Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?

Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.

No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.

She could worship, but not with us.

.

Orderliness vs. Openness

As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.

After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?

But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.

Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?

 

The Open Gospel

Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.

But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.

I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.

 

Distracting God

My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.

But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?

I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.

Loudly.

Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what each does best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them. But the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

Do pastors really need to know the “background” of the Bible?

In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.

http://vimeo.com/24636177

I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.

Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.

But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.

When Parents Ask the Wrong Questions

“I can’t believe she disappointed us like this. She’s only fifteen! What was she thinking? What are we going to do now?”

I may not be the most intuitive person around, but even I could tell that he was angry—body tense, jaw clenched, voice shaking. But, it was a special kind of anger, the kind driven by love and fear, lashing out from a frustrated desire to protect. The anger of a parent.

 

Barely pausing for breath, he continued to vent, “How am I supposed to explain this to her mother? This is going to be my fault. I just know it!”

I was at a loss. Four years at a Bible college hadn’t prepared me to face the wrath of a frustrated father. But I still should have seen the next one coming.

“Where have you been through all this? Why didn’t you see this coming? What do we pay you for?”

Why do they always blame the youth pastor?

Parents have a lot to worry about: drugs, sex, crime, grades, attitudes, bad influences, music, movies…on and on the list goes. Is there a harder job on the planet? So, I understand the fear that nestles in the back of every parent’s mind. And, when fears are realized, they quickly turn into anger. I get that. I don’t like it when the anger turns in my direction, but I still understand.

After many years in youth ministry, I think I’ve talked with parents about every one of these issues. We’ve spent hours agonizing and strategizing over how to help their kids navigate these hazards and sail successfully into a hard-earned adulthood.

In all these years, I’ve heard a lot of question. But, even more important than the questions I have heard are the ones that I haven’t. In all my time in youth ministry, I never once had a parent say, “I’m concerned that my child doesn’t really understand the Gospel. Can you help make sure she really understands the power of God’s love and grace?” And, I’ve never had a concerned mother or father come up to me wanting to know “Do you think my son/daughter is really growing in his love for God?”

Not once.

I faced countless questions about who they were dating, what they were doing with their bodies, and how they were performing in school, but no questions about the Gospel or their heart for God.

None.

If you’re a parent, that should scare you.

The enraged father I mentioned above was upset because his daughter had gotten a tattoo. A tattoo. He’d never approached me to talk about his daughter’s spiritual well-being. Apparently that wasn’t worth an office visit. But a tattoo? That’s something else entirely.

The Gospel should change the way that we approach our families, our children. We don’t need to ignore the important issues that I mentioned above, but they shouldn’t be our only, or even our primary, concern. Instead, we should be ultimately concerned about whether we are doing everything that we can to make sure that our children understand the Gospel.

What gets your attention? Do you spend as much time talking about the story of God’s faithfulness as you do on math? Are you as concerned about your child’s heart for God as their newly discovered love for the opposite sex?

Does the Gospel matter at home?

Age-based Ministries Are Destroying the Church?

You are destroying the church. At least, you are if your church has age-based programs like Sunday school classes youth ministries. This is according to a new video put out by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. The video is well-done, provocative, and worth watching. But, even though I’m sympathetic to some of its arguments, the video itself is quite flawed.

As soon as I saw the video, I passed it along to Ron Marrs, who directs the youth ministry program at Western Seminary. And, I asked him to offer his thoughts.You can watch the video below for free until September. So, check it out and then see Ron’s comments below.

http://www.vimeo.com/26098320

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

What I Agree with in the Movie

  1. Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
  2. Many parents have abandoned their discipleship responsibilities.
  3. Churches need to help parents disciple their children.
  4. The Bible is the absolute authority for our Christian practice.

Having said that, here are a variety of things that concern  me about the movie.

Problem #1: It Uses Some Flawed Arguments

1. I give you statistics to convince you how we are failing to raise our youth to follow Christ.

The most prevalent statistic is a bogus statistic that appeared in a report by the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life in June 2002: “88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return.”  I tracked down the source of this statement and found it to be the result of a meeting of youth pastors sitting around speculating on a percentage of students who are in church after being involved in church youth ministries.

This “88 percent” quote has been used for nine years to fuel much of this discussion!  I have been pushing back for about 5 years, writing to speakers and authors on this and other statistics being used in the debate.

Check out my article “Stop Abusing Stats” for more on this use of statistics and my response to the issues.

2. I blame a program or philosophy of ministry in the church for the crisis.

In this case, the “straw man” youth ministry is attacked as the culprit.  This youth ministry is all about fun and games.  This youth ministry takes students to worldly sounding Christian rock concerts.  Youth pastors don’t teach the young earth perspective on creation, therefore the Bible is undermined as the absolute source of truth.

In fact, there are numerous youth ministries and church families of which I am aware that produce strong Christ-followers.

3. I tell you that my philosophy, seminar, conference, book will “save the day.”

Research is seldom cited that attempt to explain the causes of the rejection of the faith although research is being done in this area.  There is no connection between quality research and solving the “crisis.”

The solution to the crisis is following my philosophy of ministry.  Mine is biblical and yours is not

Problem #2: The Movie’s Arguments Don’t Support Its Conclusion

Here are (not nearly all) of the movie’s main arguments:

    1. Youth ministry is not found in the Bible.
    2. Youth ministry flows out of ungodly, evolutionary educational philosophy adopted by the church.
    3. To continue youth ministry it is to corrupt the church.
    4. There is no age segregation in the church gatherings of the New Testament.
    5. Fathers are to disciple their children. This is the only pattern justified by a reading of Scripture.

Therefore, age-segregated groupings in church goes against Scripture. Youth groups must cease.

There are so many logical fallacies and anecdotal evidence used to make these arguments that it is difficult to know where to start.  So, I’ll offer just some quick thoughts. If you need more convincing, let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll write some further posts.

  1. Isn’t it true that when a person comes to Christ that they are to be equipped by the entire Body of Christ as articulated in Ephesians 4:1-16?  Parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  The church is responsible to disciple the parents in such a way that they are able and motivated to obey this command.
  2. Who will reach the millions of teenagers who are not in Christian homes?  Much of the discussion surrounding youth ministry in the church centers on taking care of our church family kids.  This is critical.  But who will move into the lives of the unsaved youth?  They tried to address this issue but the recommendation was not compelling to me.
  3. Church leadership and parents will be wise to truly collaborate in the nurturing of children in the church and reaching students outside the church family to see youth respond to the Gospel in faith and grow in their faith.  I am concerned that products like this do not enhance problem-solving and strategic planning in the church.

What do you think? Does the video have a point? Are age-based ministries harming the church? Or, do you think that there’s a role for them in a healthy church?

(You may also be interested in Tim Challies interesting review of the movie.)

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It's an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

It’s Your Fault: How you might be creating your own “people problems”

“Sometimes you are the problem.” That’s how are a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education begins its look at interpersonal conflict: It’s Your Fault. We’d like to blame someone else, and we usually do. But, the simple truth is that sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

As the author points out, we live in a context where “blame shifting” is an art form.

Of course it’s hard to resist blaming someone else. Admitting that a personal or personnel dispute is your fault is difficult—and near impossible for some people.

We live in a world where it is standard political discourse to lay 100 percent of the blame for any crisis or problem on the opposing party. Or, as a recent popular psychology book put it: “Mistakes were made, but not by me.”

But, the author goes on to point out that there is real virtue in recognizing that you are often part of the problem. When the problem is entirely on their side, you’re stuck. You can’t do much to change others. But, if you’re contributing to the problem, you have an opportunity. You just have to get out of your own way.

So, the author goes on to identify five things you might be doing to create your own “people problems.” Given the source of the article, it should come as no surprise that it focuses on academic conflict: the tensions and complications that arise between faculty, students, and (shockingly) administration. But, the ideas really apply anywhere conflict can arise between people (i.e. everywhere).

You’ll have to read the whole article for good comments on each of these. But, here are the five things you might be doing to contribute to the problem.

  1. You have not paid your dues but act like you have.

  2. You are overly suspicious.

  3. You are acting selfish.

  4. You complain too much.

  5. You are a jerk.

Personally, I love the last one. Sometimes recognizing that you are a jerk is an important first step toward getting along better with others.

And, the author concludes with:

Admitting to ourselves that we are—at least in part—to blame for a difficulty we face is hard, but it is necessary for getting on with life and careers. It is also a sign that you have developed two key components of the tenure-worthy: maturity and responsibility.

Amen.

It’s a good article and is well worth a few minutes of your time.

How to train preachers

Here’s an interesting video on how to train future pastors and leaders. Bryan Chapell, Mike Bulmore, and David Helm all share their thoughts on how to train future pastors in the church. It doesn’t sound like any of them reject the idea that schools/seminaries have a role to play as well, but there focus is on what this looks like in the context of the local congregation. They end up getting into an interesting discussion of modeling vs. instructing in the training process.

http://vimeo.com/24052087

One thing I found interesting was that although they mentioned the importance of experience/practice in the training process, they didn’t discuss how difficult it can be for beginning preachers to find preaching opportunities. With the demise of Sunday evening services and mid-week services at most churches, seminary students often find it very difficult to get real preaching practice – especially since many churches don’t want to hand the pulpit to beginning preachers on Sunday morning (or whenever the main service is). So, they either need to preach in a classroom, which is a really artificial environment in which to learn how to preach, or they have to manufacture a preaching outlet: : small groups, friends, family, whatever. This just isn’t a great way to train future preachers.

I’d love to see more churches developing a training mentality for future preachers. Seminaries can help students develop some of the skills necessary for good preaching, but they can’t complete the process. Some things you just can’t learn in the classroom.

How do you pass the baton in ministry?

One of the sad realities in church life is that pastoral transitions rarely go well. And, it seems like the longer a pastor has served a church, the more likely it is that the transition to the next pastor will be a complete disaster. Passing the baton is hard.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because my church’s senior pastor has been in that position for over 20 years. He has definitely put his “stamp” on the church. And, although he’s not that old yet, you know that a transition has to happen sooner or later. The only question is whether the church will transition well. And, the odds are not in our favor.

So, I was keenly interested in this video of three seasoned Christian leaders discussing the challenging of pastoral succession. Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper all offer some thoughts on how they’re preparing for the future. And, probably the most interesting insight, is that none of them are entirely sure how to go about doing this. Piper and Keller in particular are upfront about the fact that they’re aware this is an issue, but they’re just not sure what the right answer is – or even if there is one. As Piper said, quoting from his own sermon,

When God-centered leaders don’t know what to do because it’s not in the bible, they know what to do about not knowing what to do because that is in the Bible. Namely, pray

Here’s the video. If you have some time to watch it. I’d be curious to hear what you think. And, if you’ve ever been part of a church that went through a pastoral transition, how did it go? Did you learn anything from the experience?

http://vimeo.com/24634442

Is there a statue of limitations on the “exception clause” for divorce?

Is it ever okay to divorce someone? If so, when? If not, why not? Those are interesting questions. I remember discussing them in various ethics and ministry classes. We’d sit around and talk about the relative merits of the various views, exegete the “exception” clause(s) in the Bible, and wrestle with difficult situations like spousal abuse and long-term neglect. Those were some fun discussions.

Discussing the same questions in your living room with someone whose marriage is falling apart, that’s something else entirely.

I’ve recently run across some questions about divorce that were new to me, though I’m sure they’re not unique, and I’m having a difficult time deciding on the appropriate response. So, I thought I’d throw the situation out there and see what you all think about it. Take a look at the following scenario and let me know how you would respond. (Obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to put the details of another person’s struggle on a public blog. So, I’ve changed the names and conflated some of the details with other scenarios I’ve encountered over the years.)

The Scenario

  1. Jack and Jill have been married for quite a while and they have three children under the age of thirteen. Early on, Jack developed a problem with pornography and has struggled with sexual addiction for many years. He’d gotten caught a few times over the years. And, each time he’d sincerely promise that he’d stop, but quickly lapse into the same destructive patterns.
  2. Three years ago, his problems with pornography culminated in a brief affair. He hit bottom at this point, finally recognized his need for God’s grace to deliver him from this addiction, and began the healing process. The last three years have been transformative and he is now a completely different person. God’s grace is good.
  3. Realizing that healing requires honesty, Jack told Jill about the affair shortly after it happened and in the following months revealed to her the full depths of his sexual addiction. That was, of course, quite painful for both of them. But, although Jill was hurt and angry, she decided to stay. For the last three years, he has been in counseling regularly, and she’s seen a counselor occasionally. But they did not pursue counseling together, thinking that they needed to work on their individual issues first.
  4. A short time ago, Jill asked for a divorce. Jack has not had any relapses. Nonetheless, Jill has come to the conclusion that she’ll never really be able to get past all that has happened and truly love Jack as a husband again. Jack wants the marriage to work and has tried to get Jill to agree to talking with a pastor or counselor to work more actively on their marriage. But, since the affair, Jill has not shown any desire to seek help in restoring the marriage, and she is now firm in her decision to leave.

The Questions

How would you handle this situation? Suppose that Jill is your friend and she’s come to you for advice. How would you have counseled her three years ago? If she’d asked for a divorce then, would you have supported that decision? If not, why not? And, How would you counsel her now? Is it any different from what you’d have said three years ago? Does it make any difference that he’s such a changed person now? If you think that the Bible allows divorce when infidelity is involved (i.e. the famous “exception clause” in Mt. 19:9), how long does the exception last? Is there a statue of limitations on the exception clause? Or, could a divorce five or even ten years later be justified on the basis of this exception?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It's an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

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